What smell is to some people, music is to me. It triggers my memory like nothing else, especially when I listen to it in my car.
Gerry Rafferty’s hit song “Baker Street” made me aware of this a few weeks ago, when I was stuck in rush hour traffic. I recalled a Wednesday evening in April of 1980. I was a child. My family and I were driving on Route 110. “Baker Street” grooved from the radio of my father’s gold-green Pinto station wagon. Raphael Ravenscroft’s saxophone’s riff glistened in Orion’s belt in the otherwise cloudy Long Island sky.
There used to be a drive-in movie theatre that could be seen from Route 110. It was called The Farmingdale Drive-In: it had only one screen, but was always alight with images during the spring and summer months of my childhood.
This night’s images were especially thrilling, because I saw two familiar faces dominating the screen: Cornelius and Zira from the Planet of the Apes, the POTA film franchise. I felt my eyes bulge out of their sockets.
“Mom! Dad! Look! There’s Cornelius! And Zira,” I shouted. “I really wanna see that movie! Can we go see it? Pleasepleaseplease?”
Planet of the Apes is an important film in my family’s history. My mother claimed that it was the first film she and my father saw as a married couple; my father claimed that my big sister Nicole was conceived the morning after they saw it. Nicole claimed that our parents didn’t know what they were talking about. She still does.
Nicole introduced me to the original film, having watched it with me on TV a few years earlier. We spent many Saturday afternoons looking and listening to her Talking View Master reels of the 1970’s TV show version of POTA, and I actually slept with my action figures of Cornelius and Zira instead of Teddy Bears, which always made my father shake his head and my mother grin.
Nicole and I stared at the drive-in screen, and our parents conferred quickly.
“Ok, Joefish,” our father said. “Let’s go see what Cornelius and Zira are up to.”
My jaw hit the plastic car mat. It was unlike our parents to act with spontaneity when it came to hanging out with Nicole and me. They planned family outings with painstaking attention to detail. We usually went out to dinner and saw a movie together on Saturday night. That we did these things on a Wednesday, on a school night for Nicole and me and on a work night for my parents, made our impromptu trip to the drive-in all the more curious.
Maybe our parents’ decision had something to do with the copious amounts of sangria they consumed during dinner. Or perhaps they didn’t want to hear me carrying on about Cornelius and Zira more than they already had. I couldn’t be sure of why our parents were amenable to my request, but there our father was, pulling the Pinto into the drive-in.
We got our speaker and found a spot in the theatre lot, where I read the screen: Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which my father referred to as simply, Beneath.
“Wow,” I shouted. “Another Planet of The Apes movie! Cool!”
“That’s right,” my father said. “This one picks up where the original left off. Your mother and I saw Beneath years ago, just before you popped out of her uterus. Right, Marie?”
He reached in a bag of Wise potato chips and stuffed a handful of them in his mouth. My mother rolled her eyes.
“Sure Joe,” she said. “Take human bites.”
My eyes widened as Beneath started. I was intrigued to see that it opened with scenes from POTA, including its famous ending, where the characters Taylor and his companion, the mute Nova, discover the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. This makes Taylor realize that he has returned to Earth and that apes have evolved from humans. He then falls to his knees in the sand, shouting, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Nova looks at him quizzically, not knowing what she’s looking at, or why Taylor is as devastated as Liberty Island.
I, too, was confused. There was a character I had not seen before, an astronaut named Brent, who was portrayed by James Franciscus. Brent looked like a shorter version of Taylor, and while his burying his captain made him come across as a noble person, I was thrilled when Nova showed up on horseback, albeit without Taylor. Brent spotted her, and proceeded to interrogate her.
I remember sympathizing with Nova, especially when Brent grabbed the dog tags dangling from Taylor’s neck as he demanded to know where she got them. I cried when I saw the pained expression in her eyes. My mother’s face often looked the same way when she was on the phone with her mother, my Nonna Ida.
I stopped crying once Brent stopped talking. Nova’s thoughts of Taylor resonated in piano chords as she and Brent strode towards Ape City. The sun was a watchful eye over their trail of hoofprints in the red, grainy ground.
Noises flew out of my mouth as fast as Brent’s spacecraft had traveled through time and space. I oohed and aahed as the search for Taylor took Brent and Nova to the remains of a subway station. I pointed at the screen when Brent saw “Queensboro Plaza” tiled into the station wall; when a humming sound led them to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where a fountain filled itself with fresh drinking water; when Brent made a cup with his hands and drank from that water. I remember going home and trying it for myself in my family’s bathroom sink.
I also got a kick out of General Ursus’ hat and his New York accent. Cornelius and Zira were as eloquent and clever as ever. Dr. Zaius did his best to keep the faith. I marveled at the mutants, who wore rubber masks and had a religious ceremony where they sang hymns of thanks and praise of an atomic bomb and the almighty fallout. Sunday mass at my church was never quite like this.
The rest of Beneath held my attention, but the ending floored me. Of all of its twists and turns, the one that kicked me in the gut was when Nova yelled, “Taylor!” and was shot and killed by a gorilla soldier. She died just as she discovered her voice.
Nicole held my hand. The shock and sadness I felt from Nova’s death was exacerbated by the sight of Taylor’s blood-stained hands, which activated both the atomic bomb and a wellspring of tears that I never knew I had.
Then I was confused by the somber voice over which informed the rest of the audience that, “a green and insignificant planet” was “now dead.” I wondered who was speaking, given that the world had been destroyed. I wondered if this was supposed to be the voice of God, so I crossed myself.
“I can’t believe that Nova, Zira, and Cornelius were killed off,” I said to Nicole. “What a lousy ending.”
My mother told me that Beneath was “only a movie.” My father lit a new smoke. Nicole reminded me that I had my action figures of Cornelius and Zira.
“Don’t worry, Joseph,” she said. “You can make up your own stories about them. You can use the dolls you have.”
“Action figures, Cola,” my father said to Nicole. “I’ll play with you Joefish. I’ll be Captain Kirk. He can lend Zira his phaser. Fuck Klingons.”
“God damn it, Joe,” my mother said. “Language!”
“I’m sorry. Forget Klingons. They’re jerkwaters. Long live William Shatner.”
I felt comforted, and started considering the creative possibilities with my dolls/action figures. The thought of Zira teaming up with my Lieutenant Uhura and Princess Leia action figures in an attempt to save Captain Kirk, Iron Man, Yoda, and Cornelius from the evil clutches of The Joker, Green Goblin, and Boba Fett, lifted my spirits. None of them spoke like the human doll Cornelius found in a cave in POTA, but the fate of the world hung in the balance, and I had a say in how the situation might be remedied.
An office building stands where the drive-in screen used to be. Nicole and I drove past it last summer. I thought about the people behind its shiny windows, working to earn their paychecks, heating and eating their lunch in break rooms, checking their phones, making and confirming plans for the night or weekend. I also wondered if the invisible people were as exhausted as my parents were when they came home from work. I wondered how much longer the building would be there.
I drink water with my hands from time to time. When I do so, it conjures images of Brent, which in turn makes me think of Nova, Cornelius, and Zira. I hear Ursus speak. I laugh. I hear Nova speak. I sigh. I see Nicole and our parents, sitting in the Pinto station wagon in all of its green-gold glory, our faces bathed in the gleam of the drive-in screen. I hear “Baker Street” crackling on the radio. Gerry Rafferty sings. Raphael Ravenscroft’s saxophone’s riff crunches in lake effect snow underneath my tires as I take my final turn home.
Joey Nicoletti’s most recent book is Thundersnow, which was just released by Grandma Moses Press. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in many magazines and anthologies. A graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program, he teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College.