Chester, the Filmmaker

March 26, 2022

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn't interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they'd segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday.

¤


The best thing about growing up in the Avenues in a hermetically sealed black world is that we could be true to ourselves even if that meant being truly out to lunch. Chester was way out to lunch. He knew he wanted to direct movies and nothing would stop him.

Besides being an amazing tap dancer and contortionist, Chester was also a martial artist, but his one true passion was to direct movies and, not being independently wealthy, he used the materials at hand — he used us. Chester treated us like we were real actors getting paid real money and he was sure was going to get every ounce of use out of us. We didn’t mind. It’s as though we wanted to do dangerous things for free because we wanted to make him happy, this tall skinny sixteen-year-old with his Super 8 camera. I didn’t think I’d make the cut to be in his film; it never happened before. But this time it would be different. I’d go to his house to hang out and with the other pootbutts and read comic books until his mom told us to go home. I showed up at his two-story house that smelled of mildew and knocked at the door, hoping Chester would let me in and read his stash of Avengers and Spiderman comics, but this time the house had more neighborhood boys than usual.

“It’s you!” Chester said with his unusual enthusiasm. His face looked tired, but it wasn’t even noon. Before I could even ask to see his comic books, he pointed up to the narrow staircase that led to the 2nd floor.

“I’m making a movie and you gonna help,” he said.

That sounded very cool to me. I never thought about being in a movie and I had no idea of what he wanted me to do, and before I could ask, other boys started showing up, some I knew, some I didn’t.

 “You’re going to be eaten by maggots,” Chester said to me.

“Maggots?”

“Yeah, Ronnie’s mama said he couldn’t do it, so you’re going to be the mad scientist.”

“What do I have to do?”

“You gonna be the victim. Ronnie is going to put man-eating maggots on you and you just lie there while they eat you.”

“I don’t really know what a maggot is, but I don’t think I’d like them.”

I could tell from his expression that Chester thought I was pootbutt loser.

“They’re not real maggots — I tried to get some maggots but it’s too hard. It’s just rice.”

“Rice? How I’m gonna get eaten by rice?”

“Don’t worry about it. All you got to do is look scared when Boo throws you down the stairs and the maggots eat you.”

I got worried then because Boo was always trying to be hard and act all gangster because he was always getting his butt whipped at home. He even had tiger stripes on his legs where his mama beat him.

“We got to get this done before my mama come home. She don’t like too many people in the house,” Chester said.

That’s when there was another knock at the door and there was Boo and some other boys I didn’t know.

“We don’t have too much time to mess around before my mama come’s home. First scene we gonna shoot is the maggots.”

Chester handed a big jar of rice to another boy I didn’t know, and he started talking like I never heard him before. He was really doing that director thing.

“When Boo chokes out Jervey, the maggots will start to eat him and to make that look good you’re going to cover him with rice, and we’ll make the rice move so I’ll look like it’s eating you.”

I was getting nervous. Then Chester handed me a lab coats mad scientist wear. I always wanted one of those lab coats. We went up to the dingy second floor where it smelled even more musty. Boo came up the stairs and Chester told us what he wanted us to do.

“Boo, you’re gonna say to Jervey you turned against me and my maggots. Then you push him down the stairs and the maggots will get him.”

I stepped away thinking maybe I didn’t want to get thrown down the stairs and then I noticed Chester was filming with the eight-millimeter and Boo laughed and shoved me and I rolled down the short flight of stairs. I was on my back checking myself to see if I broke anything, but I was good.

Then before I could get up, Chester started spreading the rice all over me and filming it. I didn’t mind much until he covered my face. Then the bottles of ketchup appeared, and bright lights turned on and Chester painstakingly moved the rice while another kid filmed me being covered in rice and then my face and hands in ketchup. It took forever and my face started to sting. Chester wanted to reshoot the whole thing, but his mama came home from work and saw all the boys in the house and all the rice and ketchup on the floor and got the broom and we didn’t know if she was going to sweep or beat us, so we ran out of the house. I decided then and there I’d never be in another one of Chester’s movies until the next one where I was stabbed to death and the one after that where I got punched by a werewolf.

¤


Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.