Edward Hopper painted “New York Movie” in 1939; three-quarters of a century later, Pegasus picked it for the cover of In Sunlight or in Shadow. Joe Lansdale doesn’t specify the town in which “The Projectionist” takes place. It could be set almost anywhere, and could take place at almost any time.


by Joe R. Lansdale

There’s some that think I got it easy on the job, but they don’t know there’s more to it than plugging in the projector. You got to be there at the right time to change reels, and you got to have it set so it’s seamless, so none of the movie gets stuttered, you know. You don’t do that right, well, you can cause a reel to flap and there goes the movie right at the good part, or it can get hung up and the bulb will burn it. Then everyone down there starts yelling, and that’s not good for business, and it’s not good for you, the boss hears about it, and with the racket they make when the picture flubs, he hears all right.

I ain’t had that kind of thing happen to me much, two or three times on the flapping, once I got a burn on a film, but it was messed up when we got it. Was packed in wrong and got a twist in it I couldn’t see when I pulled it out. That wasn’t my fault. Even the boss could see that.

Still, you got to watch it.

It ain’t the same kind of hard work as digging a ditch, which I’ve done, on account of I didn’t finish high school. Lacked a little over a year, but I had to drop out on account of some things. Not a lot of opportunities out there if you don’t have that diploma.

Anyways, thought I’d go back someday, take a test, get the diploma, but I didn’t. Early on, though, I’d take my little bit of earnings and go to the picture show. There was old man, Bert, working up there, and I knew him a because he knew my dad, though not in a real close way. I’d go up there and visit with him. He’d let me in free and I could see the movies from the projection booth. Bert was a really fine guy. He had done some good things for me. I think of him as my guardian angel. He gave me my career.

While I was there, when I’d seen the double feature and it was time for it to start over, he’d show me how the projection was done. So when Bert decided he was going to hang it up, live on his social security, I got the job. I was twenty-five. I been at it for five years since then.

One nice thing is I get to watch movies for free, though some of them, once was enough. If I ever have to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers again, I may cry myself into a stupor. I don’t like those singing movies much.

Even if you wasn’t looking at the picture, you had to hear the words from them over and over, and if the picture was kept over a week, you could pretty much say all the stuff said in the movie like you was a walking record. I tried some of the good lines the guys said to the girls in movies, the pick up lines, but none of them worked for me.

I ain’t handsome, but I’m not scary looking either, but the thing is, I’m not easy with women. I just ain’t. I never learned that. My father was quite the ladies man. Had black, curly hair and sharp features and bright blue eyes. Built up good from a lot physical work. He made the women swoon. Once he got the one he wanted, he’d grow tired of her, same as he did with my mother, and he was ready to move on. Yeah, he had the knack for getting them in bed and taking a few dollars from them. He was everything they wanted. Until he wasn’t.

He always said, “Thing about women, there’s one comes of age every day and there‘s some that ain’t of age, but they’ll do. All you got to do is flatter them. They eat that shit up. Next thing you know, you got what you really want, and there‘s new mountains to conquer.”

Dad was that kind of fellow.

Bert always said, “Guy like that who can talk a woman out of her panties pretty easy, gets to thinking that’s what it’s all about. That there’s nothing else to it. It ought not be like that. Me and Missy, we been married fifty years, and when it got so neither one of us was particularly in a hurry to see the other without drawers, we still wanted to see each other at the breakfast table.”

That was Bert’s advice on women in a nutshell.

Well, there was another thing. He always said, “Don’t sit around trying to figure what she’s thinking, cause you can’t. And when it comes right down to it, she don’t know what you’re thinking. Just be there for one another.”

Thing was though, I never had anyone to be there for. I think it’s how I carry myself. Bert always said, “Stand up, Cartwright. Quit stooping. You ain’t no hunchback. Make eye contact, for Christ‘s sake.”

I don’t know why I do that, stoop, I mean, but I do. Maybe it’s because I’m tall, six-six, and thin as a blade of grass. It’s a thing I been trying to watch, but sometimes I feel like I got the weight of memories on my shoulders.

The other night Mr. Lowenstein hired a new usherette. She is something. He has her wear red. Always red. The inside of the theater has a lot of red. Backs of the seats are made out of some kind of red cloth. Some of the seats have gotten kind of greasy over time, young boys with their hair oil pressed into them. The curtains that pull in front of the stage, they’re red. I love it when they’re pulled, and then they open them so I can play the picture. I like watching them open. It gets to me, excites me in a funny way. I told Bert that once, thinking maybe he’d laugh at me, but he said, “Me too, kid.”

They have clowns and jugglers and dog acts and shitty magicians and such on Saturday mornings before the cartoons. They do stuff up there on the stage and the kids go wild, yelling and throwing popcorn and candy.

Now and again, a dog decides to take a dump on the stage, or one of the clowns falls off his bike and does a gainer into the front row, or maybe a juggler misses a toss and hits himself in the head. Kids like that even better. I think people are kind of strange when you get right down to it, cause everything that’s funny mostly has to do with being embarrassed or hurt, don’t you think?


Pick up In Sunlight or in Shadow to read the rest of “The Projectionist,” along with 16 other Hopper-inspired stories. For more of Joe Lansdale’s work, two current choices are Paradise Sky and Honky Tonk Samurai. A new Hap-and-Leonard novel, Coco Butternut, is available for pre-order.