Keeping myself accountable – I wish I could say I spent Memorial day weekend cooped up in front of the laptop – but the pull of perfect weather was too strong. But I did write enough to feel satisfied, and eager to continue…
“Sit anywhere you’d like. Don should be ready in a few minutes. I’ll start up the film.”
The 50-seat theater looked like it hadn’t been used in years. When Lydia sat down her seat gave off a cloud of dust, and the floor was littered with leaves blown in from the gift shop. Above her head, Red Tyson was preparing the film reel that had been the trademark of Magic Carpet Dates since its inception 40 years ago.
Don Tyson had, like her father, built his fortune in dates. He also had a gift for marketing that men like Bill Keats lacked. After a few years of success that matched his competitors but did not exceed them, he enlisted a young and inexperienced film crew from Riverside, with the dual goals of revealing the secrets of date farming to the public and convincing them that dates belonged in the produce aisle alongside pricey starfruit and persimmon. The film had run almost daily since the completed reel was placed in Don’s hands, and whenever a warm body occupied a seat. A hand-painted poster (refreshed yearly) read: DATES: A STORY OF PASSION AND PROGRESS. Before it even started, Lydia had begun reciting its opening lines, “California. A land of rich soil and big dreams…”
The film began with Don’s signature logo starting small then slowly zooming in – an illustrated date named Frond in board shorts and a greasy pompadour aboard a gently rippling carpet. Upon its inception, Don had hoped to capitalize on as many trends as he could, though his isolation made him fail to realize that surf culture and rockabilly were long passé. In the next 15 minutes and 27 seconds, a man with the matter-of-fact but upbeat tone of a Disney documentary narrator wove an tale about a plan in the early 20th century to boost California’s economy through exotic crops [stock photograph of men in suits around a table, in deep discussion]. Entrepreneurs scoured the globe for crops that grew well in California [stock footage of airplane taking off], and found that the dates of Africa and the Middle East were a perfect fit for the state’s dry inland deserts [beautiful woman in a sari taking a seductive bite of a date].
As the narrator continued, a stout man wearing a safari hat and large, out-of-fashion sunglasses walked through lines of date palms, stiffly surveying them every few seconds, then continuing his awkward gait. This was Don Tyson himself, admiring that season’s yield. The film showed farm workers flooding the fields (a task done weekly), and climbing long ladders to reach the treetops. Lydia leaned in as the scandalous portion of the film commenced – the mating of date palms. Soft, seductive horns began to play as the narrator breathlessly described female date buds being cut open to receive male date pollen. The music crescendoed as the camera captured a close-up of the female date, pollinated and passive. This is what made the film a notorious tourist attraction – date rape. The remaining 4 minutes were a long draw of a cigarette, as the dates are grown, harvested, and sold to the world [Frond flies around the globe aboard his carpet].
Lydia sighed and smiled as the lights came up and the empty screen flickered. She had seen this film countless times as a child, when she and the other farmer’s children were let off the bus in front of Magic Carpet. Most of the tour buses came on weekends, so on weekday afternoons the theater sat dark and freezing cold from round-the-clock air conditioning. When she was in grade school the theater had been used for endless games of hide and go seek. As the children grew, it became a convenient make-out spot or a quiet place to study. Then Don’s son Ben became territorial when he started dating Lara Fuentes, and kicked everyone else out during his senior year. Lydia presumed that the theater had been cared for less and less since she used to tuck herself under its seats and later, unbutton the top of her blouse for Cameron Dremmel. Don had made years of poor investments that had drained his oasis, and while he considered the film to be his finest achievement, the upkeep of the theater had suffered.