“I yelled at him, yes. What happened to your head? I said. Did a grizzly bear claw your wig off? I said. His hair was a laugh riot. So who took a lawnmower to him? Demon Cal?”
“Yeah. Did you see someone meet William Smith and take him away?”
“I got busy. All of a sudden, six people came for tickets, six! When I looked around, Mr. Smith, Willie, was gone. Why?”
My shoulders sank. My frustration must have shown in my face. Shapeshade quickened with sympathy and enunciated his Sen-Sen breath through the ticket booth’s glass speak-hole.
“Guess who’s inside on the big 1922 moth-hole-sieved silver screen? Fairbanks! The Black Pirate. Gish! Broken Blossoms. Lon Chancy! Phantom of the Opera. Who was greater?”
“Lord, Mr. Shapeshade, those are all silent.”
“So? Where were you in 1928 you didn’t notice? The more talkie the less movie! Statues, they played. Mouths moved and your feet went to sleep. So, these last nights, silence, hmm?
Quiet, yes? Silence and gestures forty feet across and scowls and leers twenty feet high. Quiet phantoms. Mum’s-the-word pirates. Gargoyles and hunchbacks who talked in winds and rains and let the organ speak for them, eh? Plenty of seats. Go.”
He thumped his brass ticket key.
The machine stuck a nice fresh orange ticket out at me.
“Yes.” I took the ticket and looked into the face of this old man who hadn’t been out in sun for forty years, who loved films madly, and would rather read Silver Screen than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His eyes were gently mad with his love of old faces on yesterday’s posters.
“Is Shapeshade your real name?” I said, at last.
“It means a house like this where shades are shaped and all shapes are shadows. You got a better name?”
“No, sir, Mr. Shapeshade.” And I hadn’t.
“What…” I started to ask.
But Shapeshade guessed with relish. “What happens to me tomorrow when they knock my movie house down! Say, not to worry! I got protection! So have my films, all three hundred of them up in the booth now, but soon, down the beach one mile south, the basement there where I go run films and laugh.”
“Constance Rattigan!” I cried. “I’ve often seen that funny light flickering in her basement window or up in her front parlor, late nights. Was that you?”
“Who else?” beamed Shapeshade. “For years now, when I finish here I just foxtrot along the shore with twenty pounds of film under each arm. Sleeps all day, Constance does, watches films and eats popcorn with me all night, that’s Rattigan, and we sit and hold hands like two crazy kids, and rob the film vaults, and cry sometimes so much we can’t see to rewind the spools.”
I looked out at the beach beyond the cinema front and could not help but see Mr. Shapeshade jogging the surf in the dark, toting popcorn and Mary Pickford, Holloway Suckers and Tom Mix, on his way to that ancient queen to be her subservient lover of multifold darks and lights that sprocketed the dream screen with just as many sunrises as sunsets.
And then Shapeshade watching just before dawn as Constance Rattigan, so the rumors said, ran naked to leap into the cold salt waves and rise with healthfood seaweeds in her straight white teeth and regally braiding her hair, while Shape-shade limped home in the rising sun, drunk on remembrance, mumming and humming the drones of the mighty Wurlitzer in his marrow, soul, heart, and happy mouth.
“Listen.” He leaned forward like Ernest Thesiger in the dim halls of The Old Dark House or as Dr. Praetorius looming in Bride of Frankenstein. “Inside, go up behind the screen, have you ever? No. Climb up on stage in the night behind the screen. What an experience! Like being in Caligari’s lopsided chambers. You’ll thank me forever.”
I shook his hand and stared.
“My gosh,” I cried, “that hand of yours. Isn’t that the paw that slid out of the dark behind the library bookshelves in The Cat and the Canary to grab and vanish the lawyer before he could read the will?”
Shapeshade stared down at his hand cradled in mine, and beamed.
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