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On the Summer of 1980, Dressed to Kill, and Epiphany

by John Fried

In August 1980 my father took me to see a movie I probably shouldn't have seen. There was sex in showers and sex in taxi cabs. Angie Dickinson was slashed to death in an elevator. And Michael Caine dressed up as a nurse.
      I was eleven years old.
      The movie was Brian DePalma's Dressed to Kill.
      Movie going was our weekend ritual that summer. My parents had rented a house on Long Island. It was a tiny Colonial, just a few miles from the beach. My dad took the train out on the weekends, when the work week was done; my mom, a school teacher on summer vacation, and I lived there from the end of June to the end of August, biking to the beach in the morning and then home in the afternoon, the only stop to pick up local grown corn and whatever the fishermen were selling on the cheap at a stand. At night during the week, we put together 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles and watched dramatic heat-induced lightning storms streak across the sky while Ricky Lee Jones and Billy Joel and James Taylor played on the radio. We didn't own a television.
      My dad came out on weekends, and we went to the movies. It was his time to relax, his moment of peace, he often said. Going to the movies often meant just going and seeing whatever was showing. Back then, there wasn't the selection of films to choose from as there is now. There were no multiplexes. This kind of cinematic Russian roulette brought me in contact with many films I loved and remember still, such as Heaven Can Wait and Grease and Breaking Away, but there were others, still blazed in my memory, depressing talky dramas, such as Interiors and An Unmarried Woman, in which people with wildly-permed hair and bell-bottom pants sat on giant pillows, discussing their feelings. For me, movie going became the stressful, dark side of Forrest Gump's box of chocolates analogy: Every trip to the movies involved a chance to bite into something gooey, fruity, and potentially sleep-inducing.
      The movie theater itself was owned by some local guy who lived in Florida year-round and let teenage kids with summer jobs have the run of the place in the summer. This inevitably meant the film strip would break midway, or a popcorn fire in the lobby would force everyone out of the theater. They didn't diligently enforce the rating system, which meant I strolled into R-rated films without a problem, particularly with my dad at my side.
      My mom stayed at home the night we saw Dressed to Kill. I don't remember why. Maybe there was a puzzle she wanted to finish. Or maybe she wanted to sit by the window, as she often did, watching the storm pass as she drank a glass of wine. Maybe she wanted to be alone. She often seemed happier during the week, when my father wasn't there. Or maybe she just wanted to give my father and me some time together.
      To borrow a line from Tobias Wolff, it's important to note here what I do not remember from that night at the movies: I do not remember seeing the name of the film on the billboard, although I can imagine it, those block-black letters hanging dutifully against a fluorescent white background. I do not remember the Saturday night crowd in the movie, which must have been there because it was Saturday, particularly a rainy Saturday, although I'm not sure if it was raining. I do not remember buying Snowcaps, my favorite movie candy at that time, until one two-box night sent me running to the bathroom halfway through The Black Stallion. I do not remember my dad turning to me, as he always did, to ask before we went into the movie, "Do you have to go now, or do you want to wait until after?" Nor do I remember if I went.
      I remember parts of the movie in tiny mouth-gaping flashes. (Spoilers ahead, as they say in the film review business.) The opening dream sequence of Angie Dickinson taking a shower—naked!--until some man comes up behind her—naked too!!—and covers her mouth, as if to strangle her. The main character's dorky son, riding around the city streets of New York, on a moped. (What kid wouldn't want a moped?) The slasher scene, parts of it shown through the distorted safety mirror in the corner of the elevator. Michael Caine, dressed in a nurse's uniform, standing outside the heroine's shower, waiting to attack. His sterile white nurse's shoes transformed into the essence of everything evil.
      The movie is a blur now, not a narrative, not anything that resembles a story. I couldn't tell you how the plot’s resolved, or if the killer is ever caught.
      I do remember one thing that happened right at the beginning of the movie: I remember turning to my father, probably to ask him why the killer in the shower was naked (he didn't have to be naked to kill her, right?) and noticing a look of concern on his face that I had seen before, but only now understand: He thought I probably shouldn't be watching this film, but he didn't have the strength to say it or do anything about it.
      He probably should have marched us both out of the theater right then. But then again, it was 1980, still practically the seventies, and there wasn't much I hadn't been exposed to. We stayed for the whole film. I haven't watched it since.
      But when I'm revising my stories or talking to my students about theirs, it's often that night, that film, that comes back to me. Maybe I recognize it as my own private epiphany, a flash of awareness about my dad. In stories I often I look for that moment of insight, that so-called "ah ha moment." Sometimes it's loud, a streak of lightning across the night that ties a story together. And sometimes, it's quiet, a telling expression that reveals everything you need to know about a character. Whatever it was that night—the film's blend of sex and violence, my father's expression, the darkness of the theater—I’ve never been able to shake it.
      And I've never looked at nurses the same way.

John Fried's writing and editing career began proofreading RoundUp pesticide labels for a chemical and pharmaceutical encyclopedia. He now teaches creative writing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he is an assistant professor in the English Department. He received his MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. His short story "Birthday Season" recently won the 2007 fiction contest for Columbia University's literary journal, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.

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