I was in the dark. Not a new state for me, either literally or
figuratively. This time it was literal, preceded by a clap of thunder that
could have been God's Foley artist answering George Lucas. The boom
launched me off my stool and precipitated my knee into a close encounter
with the makeup bench. I cursed the darkness, pressed one hand to my
throbbing knee, and reached for the flashlight with the other one. I felt
it bump my fingertips. Then I heard it hit the floor with a crack, and
"Oh, hell!" I shouted, the sound bouncing off the walls of the projection
booth and hurting my own ears. In every direction, I knew, lay obstacles
waiting in the darkness to trip me, stab me, bash my shins, and fall on
top of me. In one direction only lay the door, but I would have to feel my
way to it.
I took a deep breath. Aloud, I muttered, "Think happy thoughts, Gilda.
This is no time to be cranky. You're an independent theater owner about to
be visited by the box office darlings of the summer season, who will leave
their dinoprints all over your ticket sales reports. Better to have the
power outage tonight and get it over with than to send everybody home from
The Lost World on Thursday night. As your cousin Faye would say, chill."
My knee still smarted as I limped in the general direction of the door. In
the dark, I was more acutely aware of the smells of the old theater--a
faint mustiness, the scents of the cleaners and oils used to keep the
antique projector and the newer platter system running, the rich, buttery
odor of more than half a century of popcorn. A deep silence inside the
theater answered the rumbling storm outside. As my eyes adjusted to
the disorienting blackness, I realized that a few photons had made their
way into the booth from the exit signs at the front of the theater.
I took the stairs slowly, surprised by the darkness of the lobby below.
The late afternoon thunderstorm had crept up on me while I was working in
the booth, but it must be some storm, I thought. A sudden flash of
lightning lit up the lobby, and I cried out. Two feet away from where I
had frozen on the bottom stair, a man was standing. A clap of thunder
rattled the glass doors on the front of the theater.
Training, my Aunt Lillian always says, counts for everything in situations
"May I help you?" I croaked.
Out of the darkness came a sigh, barely audible under the sounds of wind
and rain outside.
"I used to be in pictures," a voice said softly.
Poised for flight, I considered my options.
"Yeah?" I said.
"Long time ago," the voice said. "Before the war."
At that moment, Central Ohio Power seized the upper hand, and the lights
flickered on. The ice machine resumed its contented purr.
The man before me looked to be in his seventies. He was slightly
stoop-shouldered and had white wispy hair retreating along both temples.
He wore dark green polyester pants and an old brown military jacket, even
though the day was warm.
"I'm Leo," he said, turning to look at me.
Then he smiled. He had a jawline shaped like a boomerang, and his smile
widened his mouth into a V. A row of front teeth protruded like an awning
over his lower lip. If ever a grin could be called wolfish, this was it.
"Gilda Liberty," I said, putting out my hand. He looked at it, then put
out his own. "I own the Paradise."
He nodded, and continued to grin at me.
"Did you want to, uh, look around?" I asked hesitantly. I had work to
finish upstairs before the early show.
"I'm waiting for my girl," he said.
"Your girl?" I echoed. I didn't think any of the summer help could be in
this guy's range, romantically speaking, and none of them would tolerate
being called a "girl," much less with a possessive pronoun attached to it.
"Gladys," he said, beaming at me. "You know Gladys?"
"I haven't had the pleasure," I said.
"Glad's a real peach," he assured me. "Works at the engine plant. She's
crazy about the picture show, she is. She can't get enough of Ronald
Colman and that other guy--you know who I mean? I forget his name. I say,
what do you need those guys for, when you got me? But she just laughs, and
I keep shelling out the dough."
I nodded, wondering briefly if perhaps the storm had somehow precipitated
me into the past, and I was having some kind of weird Back to the Future
experience. The engine plant had been closed for years; what was left of
the building was as dusty as the inside of Ronald Colman's coffin.
"Say, I got a picture of Glad," he said, snapping his fingers. He reached
into his back pocket, but came up empty-handed. His face crumpled into
panic. "It's not there!" His frightened eyes circled the lobby as if he
thought a thief was lurking in the shadows.
Now I knew which one of us was experiencing a flashback.
"That's okay," I said soothingly. I took him by the arm and guided him to
a chair. "You can sit down here and describe her to me. That way, it'll be
I stole a peek at his back pockets before they hit the seat of the chair.
Sure enough, I saw no telltale bulges there. I wondered how I would find
out where Leo lived if nobody came looking for him.
"About Gladys," I prompted him.
His worried expression cleared. "You know Gladys?" he asked eagerly.
"I don't think so," I said. "What does she look like?"
I was just making conversation. I didn't expect Gladys, if she walked in
the door now, to look like she'd looked in the Ronald Colman years.
"Aw, she's a sweet kid," Leo told me. "A real peach."
That appeared to be all the information I was going to get about Gladys,
at first. His gaze circled the lobby again, and he sighed.
"Gladys?" I said again.
"Gladys?" he echoed. Again he seemed momentarily confused, then clarity
returned. "Oh, Gladys, why, she, she's got me wrapped around her little
finger, I can tell you. Hold on! I've got a picture--"
I interrupted before he could get his hand in his pocket. "You live around
here, Leo?" I asked.
"Around here?" he echoed. His gaze swept the lobby again as if I were
suggesting that he had a bachelor pad back behind the concession stand.
"No, I don't think so," he said slowly. Then he brightened. "No, I live
over on Lenox Avenue with Shelly." He gestured over his shoulder with his
thumb. Something glinted on his wrist when he raised his hand. It looked
like an ID bracelet.
"Shelly?" I asked, faintly hopeful.
"You know Shelly?" he responded eagerly.
"I don't think so," I said. I fished out a cigarette and lit it. His eyes
followed my hands. I should have offered him one, but I hesitated, not
knowing whether he would be able to manage it without catching himself on
"Shelly, he don't have time for movies," Leo told me. "He's all the time
practicing, or playing gigs. That's what they call it--playing gigs. Say,
maybe you saw his band! They played over at the park for the Rotary Club."
He gave me more thumb action, this time in a different direction.
"Sorry, I missed that concert," I said.
There was a moment of silence as we contemplated my missed opportunity.
"I want to go home now," Leo announced abruptly, and stood up.
"Okay," I agreed. "Let's see if we can figure out where you live."
"I want to go home," he repeated, not whining, just stating a fact.
"Believe me, Leo, I'm all for it," I said, stroking his arm
"There you are!" A woman's voice, sounding tired and
exasperated, came from the front entrance.
"Hello, Pauline," Leo said. "I want to go home."
"That's good," she told him. "At least we agree on something." She turned
to me. "I'm sorry if he bothered you. I was around the corner at the
optometrist, and I just took my eyes off him for one second. Honestly!
It's like having kids all over again."
Pauline was a graying brunette of medium height, about my age and looking
it. She had the same middle age spread at her hips, the same thickening of
her upper arms. She wore a nondescript cotton skirt and a white cotton
shirt, and she kept running a hand through her short, curly hair. Her hair
might have been styled when she left home that morning, but it wasn't now.
I couldn't afford to criticize; mine wasn't styled, either. It was on its
own, which might explain why it was always reaching out to everything I
passed as if I were running a strong electrical current up from my toes.
"I'm trying to help out while my mother's in the hospital, but I don't
have a lot of practice at this sort of thing." She waved a hand in Leo's
direction. "Leo's my stepfather. Leo Mayer is his name, in case you ever
find him here again. I'm Pauline Kline. He wears an ID bracelet, so you
can always call the number on there." She hauled up Leo's hand to eye
level to show me the bracelet on his wrist. Then she shook her head at
him. "I don't know how you can stand to wear that jacket in this weather,
Leo. It must be eighty-five degrees." To me, she said, "I know I shouldn't
let him wear it in this heat, but he's so attached to it. My mother says
let him wear it if he wants to."
"I never sweat," Leo announced. "My ...