GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 9, Part 5

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“Back in ’28, when this barn first openedt,” Angels continued as he related the history, “they hadt live stage shows here, along with the flicks. It even once hadt an orchestra pit, where some of the closer-in seats are now. Not all the films hadt gone to soundt, so they’dt sometimes needt an orchestra – not just for the stage show, but for the flicks themselves.

“Well, of course, films eventually went all soundt, especially at Fox, which was the first to have soundt on film, not on a record. What with a depression andt all, the stage shows didn’t turn a profit. So, aroundt ’32 or so, this little barn stoppedt having them.

“The orchestra pit was filledt in andt they put up more seats. They set a firewall up behindt the screen and blockedt the stage area, but that meant they also hadt to put in a fire door – that’s the door we just went through. Andt here we are.”

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“Backstage, Bozo,” Angles replied. “The stage, backstage, the whole area behindt the screen – it’s all still here, totally intact. Well, relatively intact, if you allow for a complete absence of light, a few missing stair steps, a few more rotten banisters and floorboards, a bunch of less than savory furry critters – y’know, that sort of thing. Technically, we’re on the stage where the performances happenedt — most of the ‘backstage’ area is actually one flight down, under the stage, where they storedt props and scenery, hadt dressing rooms, makeup areas – all that stuff.”

“Oh, Hell,” I said.

“It’s not as bad as that,” said Charlie.

I laughed, remembering what Stan had told me about such areas. “No, no – ‘Hell’ is what they call it in the theatre when a backstage area is beneath the stage.”

“Wow,” said Charlie, “I didn’t know that.”

“Anyway,” said Angles, “There’s a stage door on the sidte of this place.”

But, to get there, we’ll have to go down a flight of stairs from the parking lot, that leads to – uh – ‘Hell.’ That’s where our newfoundt friendts are waiting for us to let ’em back in. The door can’t be openedt from the outside at all anymore – andt it’s in such badt shape that two people – in this case, Charlie andt me – are neededt to open it even on the insidte – once we have a quick look-see t’make sure no oddt stray usher’s spottedt us. We have to wendt our way down what’s become a very dusty, rickety stair with a few missing steps – no light except that providedt by two cigarette lighters in my pocket.

“So, Reggie ladt, though I’dt ordinarily love t’give you the 29¢ tour of the downstairs, it’ll have to wait ’til I have real flashlights with me, you’re breathing better and we have time to really go exploring. So I’m leaving you here to keep an eye on the door for stray ushers and to warn us if they’re coming.”

“How do I do that?” I asked.

“Subtly, I hope,” Angles replied.

He lit one lighter, handing the other to Charlie.

“Sorry, but we’re gonna have to leave you here in the dark,” he said. “Then again, this way you’ll see the ushers but they won’t see you. Brilliant, huh? Ta.”

I’d just enough time to see a staircase some five meters away, as Charlie and Angles vanished down the stairs, the glow of their lighters disappearing, too. A couple seconds later. I heard a high-pitched yelp and a thud, followed by Angles’ voice. “Careful, Charlie – gotta watch for missing steps.”

“Maybe this is the road to Hell,” groused Charlie.

A few lighter thuds followed; then the place was pitch silent again.

The light was less dim by then, or perhaps my eyes were simply acclimating. But, I could see — just barely — a shadowy corridor, perhaps fifty yards away, with a dainty but distinct shadow at its far end. It stood there for 10 or 20 seconds, no more, than swept down the corridor, heading right in my direction. It was the translucent shadow of a young girl of 16, no more than 18.

Thanks to Bethany, ghost girls didn’t innately terrify me, but she emitted a low-pitched moan as she hurtled at me. There was no time to get out of its way, I simply closed my eyes and held my breath. For four or five seconds I felt her icy vapors pass through me. I wasn’t scared, but I was definitely shaken. When I opened my eyes, it was pitch black again.

I stood in the darkness, thinking about the revues this place must once have seen – the lights, glitz and glamour, all the music, all the dancing. I wondered what it must be like to have been this stage – to experience all that, only to spend the next thirty years alone in darkness and silence. I strained my eyes and ears in the hope of catching a glimpse, or hearing some faint echo, of this bygone era, but I neither saw nor heard anything.

Then, as I stood alone, enveloped in that darkness and silence, I slowly began to hear a gramophone, playing off in the distance, then another, and another – yet the sounds didn’t clash with one another, instead each seemed to take its turn in the foreground whilst the others continued to play more softly behind it. Just for an instant, I smelled rose and violet. The music became slightly louder, much clearer: A medley of torch songs, ballads, love songs, patter songs and rousing choruses.

Then, on the other side of the stage area – at first I thought it was a stray beam of light – that the fire door had been opened a crack – but I soon realized it wasn’t any beam, but a slowly escalating glow, independent of any outside source. It was as if the dim echo of a long-ago spotlight were returning. Its center grew more concentrated, even as the glow at the edge became more diffuse. One by one, principals of the old shows stood before me, waving, smiling, taking a final bow. It seemed to be a strange curtain call from a distant time, as each appeared and vanished in rapid succession.

At last, the spotlight was empty; it began to fade and was about to disappear entirely. Then it suddenly it grew brighter once more, but this time its color was a blend of vivid amber and dull pea soup. In the midst of that glow – in the center of the light, against the wall – emerged another figure.

It seemed like a figurine at first — it took several moments to realize it was no carving or statue, but a breathing,  moving entity, standing behind a column-like podium and between lights. It took several more to recognize who it was in the strange light.

Then, my blood froze.

It was Black Pinocchio, my “Doll Girl.”

It had been a few days; I was overdue for another “dream.”

Except this was no dream — I was very much awake.




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