The reel spun futilely. The end of the film flapped repeatedly against the empty film gate. Below, a steady beam of light shone out onto the screen, featuring nothing more than dust particles flashing by, and through the keyhole from the theater seats in the grand old auditorium, came the grumbling sounds of patrons.
“Roll the film, damn it!” one cried out.
“Come’on for God’s sake, start the movie!” yelled another.
But the old man did not awake. He lay still, breathing heavily, his head resting on his arm which lay on the table. In his mind was a vision of Greta Garbo in full Mata Hari headdress, dancing seductively before a mesmerized crowd. His ears were full of the sultry sounds of middle-eastern music and he could see smoke rising from the incense burners in the nightclub’s elegant showroom. Dancing like a drunken elation in his head, Garbo approached the multi-armed deity, a statue of Shiva, and her hips began moving feverishly and the coin-laden scarf around her waist chattered with great intensity. The audience, consisting of bartenders, politicians, tourists, and military attachés, went silent with anticipation. Then she came right up against the statue, took her top off, and pressed her body into it. For a moment it was as though she was going to make love to it. Everyone was breathless. Then the room darkened and a cloaked woman dashed by, covering Garbo from view.
“She’s not a spy,” the old man mumbled. “She is not the great enemy of France like everyone thinks! She is not!”
A loud bang awoke him. And when he lifted his head he saw the projection booth door slammed opened against the front wall. Through it came René, the theater manager, rushing past him like a madman.
“You imbecile!” he yelled.
René bolted for the second projector and clicked the ‘switch over’ button. Instantly the film began to roll and angled beams of light shone once again through the keyhole, bringing back to life the oscillating images of characters and the sound of their dialogue.
“Bravo!” somebody yelled from theater seats.
René came back to the first machine, turned it off, and pressed his palm against the lamp canister, but it was so hot he had to withdraw his hand quickly.
“Where is your brain?” he cried. He pushed at the old man’s chest; his eyes were burning. “What is it with you?”
In truth, the old man knew, he had taken too many naps, too often at the wrong times, and with greater frequency in the past weeks. It was a problem he could not cure.
“If you cannot do the job,” René cried. “I will find someone who can.”
The old man only looked up at René with sorry, puppy-dog eyes.
René looked around. The projection booth was in a typical state of disarray. There were film canisters lying on the floor, some with their lids off, candy wrappers shattered about, and a half-eaten sandwich dried and crusty from the day before, lying on the table. The trashcan near the door was full and overflowing.
“You can’t leave this place like this,” he said. “You can’t leave these cans lying around.” He gathered them up, put their lids back on, and stacked them in a neat pile against the wall. “You have to clean this place up! It’s part of your job! It’s your last chance. If you want to sleep, go home and sleep!”
The old man wisely remained silent.
After a few more minutes of huffing, René stood silently with his hands on his hips. He glanced up at the big wall clock. “It is the last showing. Can you handle it?”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t forget to cap the film canisters!”
“And the lamps! Remember to shut off the lamps!”
He was referring to the time the old man had forgotten to shut off a projection lamp and burnt out an expensive bulb.
“And lock up properly.”
René took another glance around the projection booth. “Only three more months!” he said, shaking his head.
When he turned to exit, the old man mumbled something, inaudible.
“What?” René asked.
René hesitated at the door, but then left, closing it securely behind him.
Spencer Tracy would have never stood for that, the old man thought. Not for a second. He wouldn’t have.
When the film finished, the audience slowly cleared the auditorium and departed out the front lobby doors. The old man watched them through the key hole until the last patron was gone. Then he canned the two film reels and set the canisters on top of the neat pile René had stacked against the wall. He tidied up the projection booth, swept it clean with a broom, hiding the small pile of trash in a corner, and he made sure the lamps were off. Then he exited, locking the projection booth door twice around with the key before descending the narrow staircase to the foyer. He swept up the popcorn and garbage scattered throughout the theater auditorium, dumped a garbage pail into the dumpster out back, and fixed the large theater curtain so no screen was showing. Finally he returned to the lobby, opened a wall panel and pulled down the switch that doused the large marquee light out front.
A lonely walk down a lonely street brought the old man to his dreary, one-room apartment. There were no windows inside; only a bed, a little table, a sink, a small closet, and a separate closet for the toilet. It was a place to lay his head and close his eyes, and he could imagine himself in another world; a cinematic world of swashbuckling swordsmen and adventurous sea captains, but in truth, it offered little in the way of sustenance or comfort.
He lay down on his shaggy old mattress to the sound of squeaky springs, and unable to sleep, he stared up at the dark, opaque ceiling.
“You are the beauty,” he said, speaking aloud to Garbo.
Not everyone could to communicate with movie stars of the past. It was some kind of cosmic, telepathic thing that only he possessed, and he prided himself on this ability.
“I understand every word you speak,” he said. “I understand every move of your dance. It is you, yes? It is you who will save the world from itself? And not for country, but for love itself. Am I correct in my thinking? Of course I am.”
He pictured her clearly, as if she was standing there in the room beside him; her image as vivid and beautiful as she had ever been on the silver screen.
“If you want, I’ll help you. I’ll be your secret accomplice, your attaché fidèle. I know where to go, how to end it. I have seen how it ends, and we will end it differently. Together we will overcome the French military and German spies. Okay?”
He waited for her reply, but there was none. It didn’t always work, he knew. But this night, he was really hoping for some two-way dialogue.
Then he thought of René’s words and became even more depressed.
‘Only three more months!’
As horrific as it sounded, it was true. The era of film projection at the Arlington was coming to end. When he first heard the news, he didn’t believe it or accept it. It was not possible, he thought. How could an art form requiring such skill and finesse be replaced by a computerized robot? But it was going to happen. He had even read about it in the papers. A new, digitized projector was to be delivered in the coming months and his skills of threading film and swapping reels was to become obsolete. As the silent era gave way to sound, the film era would go down to light; the light of new technology.
He looked over to his small table. There was the bottle of gin waiting for him. He could see it in the darkness. For over five years now had been there. It had been that long since he’d been away from the stuff. And if he returned to the sharp-tasting liquid now, he knew he would return to it for good – until the end. It was the great morphine, he thought. It was the anesthesia for life’s tragedies; the sweetest of all escapes. And it was not unusual. All the stars had one in one form or another. For Ray Milland it was whiskey on his long Lost Weekend. For Richard Burton it was vodka and soda water, which he liked as much in life as he did in his on-screen rants with Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And as for Sinatra, well, of course, he preferred a well-mixed cocktail with the merest hint of dry vermouth, although heroin was his fix in The Man with the Golden Arm.
But it was gin that Spencer Tracy liked best. Gin was his favorite, his one and only; the drink he used to kill the real-life pain of the ordinary man.
The old man closed his eyes and tried to sleep. And though he finally drifted off, his sleep was restless. On through the night he awoke often, and when he did he looked over at the table and saw the bottle of gin still there waiting.
The morning was usual, nothing different; a poached egg at the corner café, some time to browse the newsstands, and a long walk along the river. He kept occupied until it was time for work. That was his routine, anything to keep him from his dreary apartment. When the afternoon came, he made his way to the old downtown district. A long sidewalk led him to the vertical, art deco marquee of the Arlington Theater. The overhead billboard displayed the films ‘Now Playing;’ Beat the Devil and The African Queen.
“Ah, it will be Bogie night,” the old man mumbled.
He unlocked the front door, went into the lobby, and looked around. Everything was as he had left it the night before. He climbed the narrow staircase to the projection booth, slipped the key into the door lock, and opened it.
As always, the projection booth greeted him like the arms of a beautiful woman. Stepping inside always gave him a warm feeling, like a welcoming home. He smiled broadly. That is, until he saw the note René had left on the clipboard along with the daily features. It read: “Don’t fall asleep! And don’t forget to turn off the lamps!”
The old man tore the note off the clipboard, crumbled it up, and tossed it in the corner.
“He knows nothing of film projection! He is the boss of no one!”
He searched though the pile of film canisters, and when he could not find the scheduled films, he glanced around the room and located them on top of the projection table. Evidently René had placed the films there to make it easier for the old man.
“So now he thinks I’m not capable of finding the proper film cans?”
There were only four reels, which was good, he thought, only requiring two changeovers per film. Not like the old days when you had to do three or four reel changeovers for one movie.
He opened the ‘Beat the Devil’ canister; the one marked ‘one of two,’ and took out the reel. He flipped opened the cover on the first projector, placed the reel on the sprocket, pulled out an arm’s length of film, and held it to the light. Once he found where the numeric countdown begun, he threaded the film through the gate, running the machine just long enough for it to catch, then looped the end of it onto the empty reel and advanced the film to the opening credits. He repeated the process on the second projector, loading the second reel and advancing it to the switch-over cue.
“Life is an illusion,” he mumbled. “It is best to live it as such. Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose.”
He sat at the table and ate a sandwich. After forty minutes, he looked down through the keyhole and saw only one person seated in the theater auditorium. When he looked down a second time, the audience had grown by three. At a quarter to four, he pressed the mechanical button which opened the theater curtains. And when it was exactly four o’clock, he started the film, framing it first, sharpening the focus, and synchronizing the sound. When all was set and done, he sat at the table and listened, to what, for him, was a most beautiful melody – the sound of film clicking through a gate at twenty-four frames a second. It was a six-thousand foot reel, which meant he’d have an hour before he would need to switch over to the second projector.
Through the keyhole came the sound of Humphrey Bogart’s voice. Though he could not see the film from his seated position, he knew every scene, every film angle, and every word of dialogue, verbatim. He had seen the film a hundred times, maybe two hundred.