The first time he watched one of his own movies in such circumstances, he was in Marion, Ohio. The theater there had five auditoriums, each of which seated no more than seventy-five people, and about half of those seats were empty.
When the film was over, he shuffled out blinking with the other guests, and no one recognized him even though they had just spent two hours watching him on the screen, and he decided to believe it was because he wore a mask in the movie most of the time. A mask and a bodysuit of armor which was primarily computer-generated. In the lobby, a stranger stopped him and held out a piece of paper, which he assumed was meant for him to sign.
Quickly, he patted the pockets of his coat, said, "Well, I don't have a pen."
"You don't need a pen," said the stranger. "It's not a petition or anything. Just a flyer."
He took it and thanked the stranger and left the theater with it. In the parking lot, he opened his black Buick Grand National, which was a set piece, really—a fake with a body made to look like the 1987 model that audiences saw him drive in his first movie. He stood there behind the open driver's door and looked down at the flyer, holding it taut with both hands. It read:
Republic Cinema Christian Church
Sunday Worship @ 9:30 a.m.
Come and gather proudly – Lift your Hands to the LORD!
Shout for JOY!
Free coffee in the lobby
Service in Room #3
Pastor Dan & Congregants welcome you.
He stood for a long time in the wind and the exhaust-scented emptying parking lot until he got too cold and drove away.
After that, he started going to see his movie in theaters all across the American Midwest, usually stopping once per day to walk quietly into a small-town movie theater and sit for two hours with the other guests and watch his movie. His agent tried to call six times in sixteen days, and he wasn't sure if that was too many or too few.
He wore sunglasses and a brimmed hat when he bought the tickets, and no one recognized him, and he sat by himself. In theaters with assigned seats, he picked the row with the fewest number of people. He never talked to anyone, and he never bought concessions; however, sometimes he paused at the candy dispenser on his way to the ticket clerk as though he'd just had a thought. He would stuff his hands in the pockets of his coat, which always had a few quarters, and push one into the slot. If the candy dispenser had M&Ms, he chose those. If not, he went with Runts.
In Wayne, Nebraska, he ran into a problem. Actually, two. The first theater he found was closed, or it had moved locations. He stopped the Buick in the littered parking lot and got out and walked to the door and tried the handle. He knew it would be locked because the lot was empty and the lights were off, but he tried the handle anyway. Luckily, there was a flyer stuck to the door with directions to the Majestic Cinema, and it was closer to town.
When he arrived, that one was closed too, but a sign on the door said it would open at six o'clock in the evening. He looked at his watch. It was 4:45.
To wait, he walked into a diner, which was playing Bruce Springsteen songs, and for a moment, he felt as if he had fallen into a time warp and that he was being dragged inextricably backward in time, and there was nothing he could do but grope blindly around in the past. But then he looked at the theater across the main street, and he realized he couldn't be in a time warp where everything was moving backward. If that were the case, the movie theater would be open; the lights would be on.
His agent called a seventh time when next he was standing in a theater lobby—in another town in Nebraska—waiting for the same movie to start. He was killing time watching a brother and a sister play an arcade game in which the superhero he played on the big screen was also the main character of the game. The character even looked a little like him. His goatee. His smile. The game's designers had somehow conspired to accurately capture his smile in pixels. He could see that the two kids were bored. When they reached a checkpoint that demanded more of their money, they walked away in disgust.
"Henry," his agent shouted into his ear. "I've been calling and calling. Where the hell are you?"
"I'm in Nebraska," said Henry.
"What in God's name—you know what, I won't ask. Actually—scratch that—I will: what in God's name are you doing in Nebraska?"
Henry smiled. His agent—Godwin was the man's name—sounded like he was reading lines from a script. But Henry had been in the movie business long enough that whenever anyone talked they sounded to him like they were reading lines from a script.
He said, “In Nebraska, I'm watching a movie,” and ended the call.
He drove north to South Dakota because his other option was Kansas, and Kansas depressed him. There was a town in South Dakota called Pierre which had streets that looked too wide and made everything seem flat and distant. The theater in Pierre had only three screens, and Immortal Union: The Final Apocalypse—which was the name of the movie he had most recently starred in—was showing in two of them.
The girl he bought his ticket from told him he looked a little like Henry Barth, who was the actor he was going to see in the movie, and he told her no, he didn't. This time, the showing was mostly empty, but it was a later time slot, and he didn't mind. He put his feet up on the chair in front of him and took his coat off and put it on the seat next to him and settled his hands in his lap. He had the ability to keep his hands still for very long periods of time, which sometimes unnerved people who knew him. He could sit through an entire movie without moving his hands.
As he watched the action and the plot twists and the character development take place, he silently mouthed his own lines and also some of the lines of the other actors. He watched himself play the part of the most popular character of the century. It was he, Henry Barth, who had made the hero so popular. Even more popular than the comic books had.
He thought he looked distracted on the screen. In most of his scenes, he thought he looked like something other than the fate of the world was on his mind.
When the culmination of the movie finally arrived—at the moment when he fought The Peerless One, who was the major villain of the entire trillion-dollar series—Henry stood up and left the theater.
He left the theater quickly, looking back over his shoulder occasionally as though someone were following him. He made sure to avoid eye contact with the girl who said he looked similar to himself, and he left the tiny theater and went out into the street.
It was November and very cold, and many of the shops he passed were empty or closing for the night. People walked with bowed heads to their cars and slipped inside of them and drove away in them both too quickly and too slowly as if they were hopelessly fleeing crime scenes in which lots of fingerprints had been left.
He saw people emptying out of a church on the corner after an evening service, and he realized that it must be Sunday. It was probably time for him to drive back to his home in California, but he didn't want to. He watched the people leaving the service and stood thinking, trying to retrace his stops, trying to remember why he had left and what it all meant and where he had watched his movie—each place he had watched it and what made him stop there.
He wished he could have watched some of his first films in these same theaters. His first films, earlier in the superhero series that became his career, when he was young and spry and all those other things that he felt he was back then. The theaters would have been packed, full of laughter and gasps and couples holding hands and, finally, cheering.
But they only showed the latest movies, and the latest movies felt also like the oldest movies at the same time, the most tired movies, movies that seemed distracted somehow as if they'd rather be doing something other than playing for a half-hearted audience, and that was why people didn't want to watch them.
"Maybe it's the churches," he said out loud in the night. "Maybe the churches are to blame." The theaters and the churches were linked, he decided there and then. When one was poorly attended, the other boomed with prayerful cheers. But people were tired of the theaters and were slinking back to older forms of faith.
He shook his head, smiled his Henry Barth smile. "No," he told himself. "That's not true. That can't be true." The churches were just as tired and as poorly attended as the theaters. Churches were so tired and poorly attended that they met in theaters, which seemed to Henry like an acceptance of fate.
He drove from place to place and went to see Immortal Union: The Final Apocalypse at each town he stopped at, but now he always left before the end, just before the culmination. There was something cathartic about this act of sacrilege: walking out on the movie's climax. A new kind of tension.
It wasn't because he was too squeamish or existentially frightened to watch his character die in the end. That was what happened, and everyone who knew the series knew it had to end like that, but that wasn't why he walked out.
Rather, he walked about because he needed to pee. Or because he had to smoke. Or because he had to take a call, and then, once he was outside, decide not to answer it. Or because he would rather have wandered around this or that town with his hands deep in his pockets and watch his breath fog his vision. One way or another, Henry wanted to walk out not because of the movie, but because of something apart from the movie. Because he always found himself wanting to be somewhere else at that exact point each time he watched it, but he didn't know where, exactly.
Sometimes he would circle back to the theater when he judged the movie to be ending. He would open his Buick, the set piece that he drove around in, and he would climb inside and sit and watch the people exiting the theater. And he would watch their faces for some sign.