This story is by T.A. Stevens and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As a boy in the 1950s, I was often one of the moviegoers at the Chief Theater in Greeley, a small college and agricultural town. An armada of homes and businesses floated on numbered streets and avenues sailing on the central plains of Colorado — like boats adrift, miles from the shore of the Rocky Mountains. Movies were among the few choices of entertainment. Through popcorn-butter-smeared lenses, I watched Clint Eastwood replace Roy Rogers, Marilyn Monroe replace Debbie Reynolds. Films transported me into the action. Fantasy and facts melted together like two colors of wax, creating a trick candle I couldn’t blow out.
Irrigated cornfields stretched to the eastern horizon and raised the humidity to Gulf-Coast levels, making my sheets stick to me in the second-floor bedroom of my family’s Victorian-era home. More than thirty miles west to the mountains, but only a few blocks to the movie theater, where the COOL INSIDE sign beckoned — each blue letter wearing a white mantle of frost. Air conditioning was the only excuse I needed to spend a dollar.
Years later, Ken Fielding, an elementary and high school friend, had a job as an usher in the old theater. At sixteen, he’d replaced his brother, who died in Vietnam. Six foot four and gangly with a hook nose and a lazy eye that didn’t follow the other, Ken spent all his free time at basketball practice or work. He was taking tickets at The Haunting of Hill House movie soon after his family got the killed in action notice. I shuffled forward with the line of fans, not sure what to say. “Sorry, Ken,” was all I could manage.
After a moment or two, he replied with a ragged, “That’s life.”
He wasn’t working the day a few friends and I modified the birth dates on our driver’s licenses to get into a matinée restricted to age eighteen and over. Blow Up featured a brief clip of a nude actress, a sure way to sell seats to teenage boys.
The following evening, a Mounds candy bar rattled from the high school gymnasium lobby’s vending machine. The wrapper crinkled in my hand as I entered the basketball court. From the bleachers came a huffing, alternating with rhythmic footfalls, as Ken ran the gym stairs after a late practice. He descended, sweating and gasping, as he paused at the drinking fountain to flood his face with water. A pat on his back made him jump as if he’d been shot. “We missed you at Blow-Up.”
“Yeah, I heard. Not even nudity will get me back in that theater. I’d sooner die.”
“What do ya mean?”
“I quit, couldn’t take it.” He sucked in a deep breath and another drink, then used a towel wrapped around his neck to wipe moisture from his face. “The damned place is haunted.”
We walked through the humid evening air into a streetlight-lit parking lot. The glare flickered as insects bounced off the bulbs. He opened the door of his car, grabbed a half-full bottle of warm Pepsi, and poured in a small plastic sack of salted, shelled peanuts. The musty car reeked of mohair and old rubber. The odor drifted into the late summer air with the escaping heat.
“The owner’s looking for someone to replace me.”
Thinking Ken was just stressed out from his loss; I called the theater. A woman said I could start right away. She wanted the stage area painted flat black.
The next evening, after the movie, I was stirring a freshly opened gallon of Benjamin Moore Paint. Someone was watching. Hard to say why, but I felt like an uninvited guest in a stranger’s house. Setting my brush down, I turned and raised my right hand in a salute to block the overhead lights. Perhaps the projectionist had come in late to work on the film projector. But at the top row of the balcony, the first seat left of the aisle, a white blouse reflected light onto a woman’s ashen face. Placing the lid back on the can, I wiped my hands on an old tee-shirt I used as a rag. “Hey, who’s up there?”
The echo of my voice startled me. No response, no movement, only an unblinking mannequin-like stare. A bewitching young lady, her hair either short or done up in a bun, revealed high cheekbones and a smooth pale complexion.
Two staircases led to the upper lobby, one from each side of the theater. Dense, red velvet curtains hung at the doorways to the seating area on the second floor. Thick crimson carpet with a golden fan pattern still held the essence of popcorn, cigarette smoke, crushed Junior Mints, and spilled soda pops. I pushed through the curtain in the doorway, hoping she’d simply fallen asleep. The beam of my flashlight scanned the seats. Each sat silent and vacant as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. When I rechecked the lobby, I found nothing — no one. I returned to the balcony, not willing to concede Ken’s story might be getting to me. The seat she’d occupied was in the down position. As I raised it, musky perfume brought bile to my throat.
I’d lose my job if I didn’t do some painting, so I went back to work. When I dipped my brush into the can, I couldn’t help shooting a reluctant glance up at the balcony. A woman stood in the light of the exit lamp, motionless as death, the green glow illuminating her face. Slowly she faded like celluloid film melting from the heat of a projector bulb.
No — my imagination, or maybe the paint fumes were getting me high. I continued with even strokes, trying to cover walls stained with old memories. But my hands shook, and anxiety clung to me like a scared child.
The familiar creaking sound of a seat lowering brought me down the ladder, gripping a paintbrush handle in my teeth. Not daring to look from twenty feet up, I’d fall if I saw what I feared. My usher’s flashlight cut a swath through the darkness as I directed the light toward the balcony. Last row, the first seat left of the aisle was once again occupied. “We’re closed, ma’am.” No response. “Can you hear me? The movie’s over.” Still nothing. Dashing through the theater before my courage faltered, I took three steps at a time up the stairs. Hesitating at the entrance to the balcony, I drew a deep breath and threw back the curtain. Only the dim glow from the stair lights greeted me. The seat the lady had occupied minutes before rested in the down position once more. All others remained upright, springs forcing them to attention. I lowered myself into her seat to prove macho courage or confirm delusion. The power of suggestion must have been messing with my mind. But the musky perfume lingered. Something warm and wet made me lift my hand from the armrest. In the faint light, a dark liquid ran down my arm. My sneakers slipped on the slimy floor as I jumped up.
I rushed into the restroom adjacent to the upper lobby, my black Converse All-Stars leaving a crimson trail on the white octagonal tiles. As I rinsed my hands and arms, blood turned pink as it mixed with water and swirled down the drain. The mirror above the sink reflected a pale skinny kid trying to grow sideburns. But a slight breath — or perhaps a subtle motion — stopped my heart. The face and torso of a woman floated over my right shoulder. I froze just long enough to doubt my eyes.
“Shit!” My voice echoed off the tiled floors and metal toilet stalls. I reeled in terror, grabbing a towel dispenser for support — no woman, only red velour wallpaper, peeling at the seams. I rubbed my hands on my tee-shirt. The tiles were spotless — my bloody footprints, gone.
Not bothering to turn off the house lights or clean my brush, I hurried out the door into the steamy night air. A parking meter supported me as I attempted to talk myself out of puking. Sweat from my armpits rolled down my side. Shaking violently, I struggled to unlock my ’55 Chevy business coupe. It cranked several times. “Dammit, start you piece of junk!” My head rested on the steering wheel as Hush-Hush Sweet Charlotte crackled from the radio. The face of the woman appeared in my rearview mirror, then dissolved as the engine whined and came to life. My car jolted as I slammed the transmission into reverse. Backing from the lot, I sped into the street; a curly mist drifted from the exhaust pipe, appearing red in my taillights as I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was following. I’d sooner die than go back.
The next day I called to quit, asking for the manager, the lady who hired me. A man, the owner, said, “Who are you? There’s no female manager.”