“Aren’t you a nice boy?” he said.
“I try, Mr. Shapeshade,” I said. “I try.”
Inside, I blundered down the aisle until I felt my way to the brass rail and half-flopped up the proscenium steps onto an always-midnight stage to duck behind the screen and look at the great ghosts.
And ghosts they were, the tall, pale, and black-eyed shadow phantoms of time, twisted like white taffy from the slanted angle at which I saw them, gesturing and mouthing in the silence, waiting for the organ music, which had not yet begun.
And there in swift clip after chop after clip was Fairbanks with an askew face and Gish wax-melting down the screen, and Fattie Arbuckle thinned from this sideview and knocking his starved head against the top of the frame and slithering off into the dark while I stood feeling the tide move under the floor, the pier, the theater which foundered in swarming waters, now tilting and creaking and shivering, with the smell of salt coming up through the boards and more pictures, white as cream, dark as ink, blinking across the screen as the theater lifted like a bellows and sank down exhaling like a bellows, and me sunk with it.
Just then, the organ exploded.
It was like that moment a few hours ago when the great unseen steamliner had plunged to strike the pier.
The theater careened, heaved up, and fell as if on a roller-coastal tide.
The organ shouted and brayed and ricocheted a Bach prelude so that dust flew off the ancient chandeliers, the curtains stirred restlessly like funeral gowns, and myself behind the screen reaching out to hold on to something but terrified that something might touch back.
Above me, the pale images ached and gibbered their mouths and the Phantom strode down the stairs at the Paris Opera in his white-skull mask and plumed hat, even as Shape-shade, a moment before, must have strode down the dark aisle to rattle and chime the brass rings holding the short curtain around the organ, and seat himself like Destiny and Doom to spider the keys and shut his eyes and gape his mouth to let Bach out.
Afraid to look behind, I stared out past the thirty-foot phantoms at an audience unseen, riveted in place, shuddering with music, drawn by terrible images, lifted and then jolted down by the night tide under the theater deck.
Among all those pale faces, fixing their eyes upon the flickering past, was he there? The mourner on the train, the pacer along the canal rim, the leaver of three-in-the-morning rains, was that his face over here, or that one over there? Colorless moons trembling in the dark, a cluster of souls in front, another back halfway, fifty, sixty people, dreadful suspects on yet another fog excursion rushing to collide with nightmare and sink with no sound, only the great suck of the sea going back for reinforcements.
Among all these night travelers, which was he, I wondered, and what could I shout to panic him up the aisles, with me in wild pursuit?
The giant skull smiled from the screen, the lovers fled to the Opera roof, the Phantom pursued to unfurl his cape and overhear their fearful love-talk and grin; the organ shrieked, the theater bucked and heaved with heavy waters celebrating sea burials should the planks gape and drop us down through.
My eyes raced from dimly upturned face to face, and up, up, to the little window of the projectionist’s booth, where a section of brow and a maniac eye peered down at the delicious dooms painted on the screen in geysers of light and dark.
Poe’s raven eye.
Or rather, Shrank!
Tarot card reader, psychologist, phrenologist, numerologist, and . . .
Someone had to run the film while Shapeshade clawed the organ in paroxysms of delight. Most nights, the old man ran from ticket booth to projection room to organ, bouncing off each like a manic boy disguised as rambling man.
Who else for a late night menu of hunchbacks, striding skeletons, and hairy paws snatching moon-pearls from a sleeping woman’s neck?
The organ music peaked. The phantom vanished. A new clip, from Jekyll and Hyde, 1920, jittered across the screen.
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