The days slipped inconspicuously by for several months. Spring announced its presence with the blooming azaleas that grew along the railroad tracks that ran behind my apartment. I had settled into my job and was making a diverse group of friends from many walks of life. Denise was a journalist that wrote a column in a local periodical. She had been visiting the King Street Pub regularly for some time, and after I “rescued” her from an obnoxious drunken lecher one night, she and I began to talk, and flirt, often. Denise was several years older than I. She was willowy, with high cheekbones, auburn hair, and eyes that sparkled with a curious spirit that served her well in her journalistic endeavors.
Early one evening I was talking to Mari, an elderly lady in her seventies that lived at the end of the cul-de-sac quite near me. Mari had lived in the neighborhood nearly all her life, and had seen countless changes during that time. She had a wealth of historical knowledge about many of the houses and shops presently in the area, and many that had come and gone. Every day as happy hour began Mari would walk the block and a half to the Kings Street Pub and drink two beers, and then make the return walk home.
“Did you know, Mark, that there is a ghost that haunts the theatre, and roams the upper level of these buildings?” she asked one afternoon.
Denise had just then entered, sat at the bar within earshot, and ordered her usual spritzer. She wanted to hear this and tuned in enthusiastically.
“No, Mari. I knew that there was some questionable activity upstairs during the prohibition, but no one has mentioned an apparition.”
“Oh, yes.” she proceeded.
Denise moved next to Mari and began to take mental notes as Mari told the story of Aaron, Virginia, and Claudette.
“During the latter years of the prohibition the Pub had operated as a speakeasy. Downstairs was a restaurant but, from the separate, back entrance and upstairs one could drink and gamble – provided they had made the proper contacts of course. I was just a young woman in those days, and I didn’t drink much, well, some. I knew many of the folks that visited the secret place. Aaron was a handsome young man. He stood straight as a board and was over six feet tall. I can verify that the ladies would swoon over him. But he was a gambler, and he had married an older widow woman named Virginia who was quite well to do. She kept him dressed in the finest suits, and financed his vice, provided he fulfilled his role as her pet.
Well, Virginia was an attractive woman, but she was twenty-five years older than he, and she was very possessive of the young Aaron. He would often visit the upstairs “flat” as it was referred to, and would gamble and drink, and try to escape her shackles. Virginia knew that he would play there late into the night. Word was that she was well acquainted with the proprietor of the flat, and contributed to his financial success. She allowed her young lover to spend time there, as she had inside information about his actions.”
I could see Denise’s sly little grin, and her eyes twinkled as she listened intently. Mari continued.
“During those days the theatre was a cabaret. Some vaudeville acts and various stage performances took place there. Claudette was a young actress working the theatre, and was greatly enamored by the handsome Aaron. He was so debonair, and she was so naïve. The two of them soon began a secret affair that took place in the late hours after the theatre shows. Their passion radiated and soon became noticed by some of Virginia’s informant friends. As the story goes…” Mari appeared somewhat energized as she narrated her story. “… Aaron and Claudette were dancing together on the stage, alone, and partially unclothed. It was very late, maybe three thirty, and they had put Duke Ellington on the Gramophone and were Rockin’ in Rhythm. Suddenly, Virginia burst onto the stage, furious and cursing, and pointed a pistol at Aaron. Claudette jumped in front of her passionate lover, crying ‘NO… NO!’ just as Virginia shot several times. Well, as it is told, Claudette was murdered, and Virginia and Aaron conspired to set fire to the theatre to conceal the deed. The theatre partially burned, and as you well know, stands vacant still. However…” Mari grinned,
“…To this day it is said that at in the wee hours of the morning some folks have heard a loud scream, and a woman’s voice shout ‘NO…NO!’ Have you ever heard that late at night, Mark?” Mary concluded her story.
“Well, have you?” inquired Denise, with a sly little smirk.
“No…no,” I taunted, “Can’t say that I have. But I can assure you that I will be more attentive from now on as I close this place down.”
I was intrigued, and Denise was obviously fascinated as well. We discussed Mari’s story off and on for the next couple of weeks. Mari was very convincing. While others had heard rumors of a ghost, they had no knowledge of Mari’s murderous tale. Of course, nobody else had lived in the neighborhood for seventy years either, and creepy old buildings are susceptible to paranormal activity after a generation or two of dubious history.
As the moon was waxing full one night, Denise showed up for last call at the Pub carrying a large, solid flashlight that would serve as a club as well as a tool for illumination. She ordered a martini instead of her usual spritzer.
“I want to explore the “flat” and the theatre tonight, Mark.” She spoke with a dramatically mysterious tone in her voice and a twinkle in her eye. I want to write an article about it, perhaps.”
“I don’t know. How are you going to get up there?” I wondered.
After everyone had left and I had locked the doors, Denise punched in a couple of Miles Davis tunes on the jukebox and I finished my work. I made myself a stiff brandy and soda in anticipation of the forthcoming adventure. “I’m not sure that it is a good idea to be snooping around up there this late at night.” I spoke.
“Probably not a good idea to be poking about up there at all. Wouldn’t find a story that way, though. You’re not afraid, are you Mark?” Denise challenged me in a rather provocative voice.
I added another shot of brandy to my drink, and watched her mouth as she attempted to lure me into her adventure. She was wearing a sultry red lipstick, and a little too much of it. It marked her glass in a way that would reveal much to a detective. She stroked the stem of her glassware, tempting me to be brave, to be strong, to be adventurous. I submitted to the lust of adventure.
I did not have a key to the back entranceway, so Denise and I had to reach the stairs through a crawlspace in the storeroom. Once through, it was very dark. I had taken a standard flashlight, which was adequate, but the super duty device that she had emitted a reassuringly strong beam of light. The old carpet on the stairway was fusty, and the damp darkness set an eerie scene. Denise was curious, and eager, but she grasped firmly to my hand as we crept slowly upward.
There were no coverings over the windows in the upper areas. The bright moonlight shined through the dirty glass and reached through the empty rooms with thin fingers of light that lightly touched the many cobwebs. A fragile, cool draft wafted toward us from the direction of the theatre, and moved cobwebs and dust in the light. Except for a couple of tables and several chairs sitting about, and the remnants of a dilapidated lighting fixture dangling from the ceiling like a dark apparition, there was nothing there. Or, we hoped not anyway. Our lights scanned the area, and revealed only creepy shadows clinging to the corners and just inside the doorways and passageways that led to the balcony that overlooked the stage. Denise and I juxtaposed closely and moved slowly. It was deathly quiet. All I could hear was the slight whistle of the breeze as it passed by and brushed my sweaty face, and the loud drumming of my heart. After cautiously moving through several desolate rooms, we entered the theatre into the balcony.
As we looked down and shined our lights onto the stage, I was overcome by an odd feeling that Denise and I were not alone – that perhaps our spotlights had awakened a troupe of performers that dance eternally in and out of ethereal shadows of time. Here was Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable, and Victor McLaglen, and Cary Grant, and Bustor Grarre, and Claudette, and, there was that always omniscient and ever talented Buck Star.
Although it had not been used as such in quite a while, the theatre had eventually been overhauled into a motion picture theatre, and we came across the projection room. It was dusty and void of equipment. I looked again at the stage. The silver screen reflected from behind a partially opened heavy, blood red curtain at the back of the stage.
Denise grasped my hand, “Come, let’s go down to the stage.” And she led me down the curved stairs and through the dark isles of the vast hall as if we had been selected to receive an Oscar. I took center stage and looked out at the worn velvet seats, and up at the balcony, and at the projection room. I shivered as a cool draft produced motion in the great curtain behind me and I stood enraptured in a macabre déjá vu.
“Dance with me.” Denise whispered at me from across the stage.
“What?” I turned toward her.
The breeze seemed to have abruptly ceased, and the silence was deafening. It was as if all eyes were watching me for my next move.
“Dance with me.” she raised her voice, unafraid of the echoing silence.
I was lured and gradually began to hear the rhythm of the silence as I choreographed slowly, stage left in her direction. Denise responded with a provocative sequence of motions in my direction. We connected and I took her left hand into mine, then placed my right hand behind her petite waist and pulled her body eagerly into mine with an awkward, tangoed maneuver. We danced in the crossed beams of light from the two flashlights that were placed at opposite sides of the stage. She curtsied. I bowed. We danced again. Our pas de deux became impassioned and I forgot where I was. I put my mouth to hers, but she pulled back, moved her lips to my ear and whispered,
I looked into her eyes as they flamed.
“No,” she whispered again.
Reality applauded in my head, and the scene concluded. My spine shivered.
“There is a ladder that goes up through the theater tower and to the roof.” I mentioned. “I could use a breath of fresh air.”
We seized our lights and located the ladder. I looked back. For a long moment I looked back, searching for the apparition of an entertainer.
“Don’t look back,” she stated.
I led the way up, pushed open the hatch that creaked from decades of rust and atrophy, and we stepped onto the roof. The moonlight was bright. Morning was on the distant horizon, and the spring wind was warm and soothing. We took the fire escape to the ground and walked around the building to where Denise’s car was parked.
“Come home with me.” I entreated. “I want your sweat on my palate.”
“No,” she whispered once again. “No…you see, I am a married lady.”
With an affectionate, gracious smile Denise started her car and drove away. I was tired, and walked directly home where I slept restlessly as images of lust, lights, cameras, and action visited my dreams.
Several days later Denise came into the Pub, this time with a man whom she introduced to me as her husband. He was, in my estimation, in his mid-sixties, and old enough to have been her father. Neither wore a ring, but it was of no consequence to me any longer. Like young detectives, Denise and I had adventured into a mysterious moment of storybook fantasy late one evening, to which we had turned the page. We chatted for a while, during which he told of a time in his childhood when he had lived in the area. He proceeded to tell a ghost story about a young dancer that had dramatically taken her life on the stage because her lover had been unfaithful, but as he unraveled his tale, it was only vaguely parallel with Mari’s story.
“And, late at night one can hear the taps of her shoes as her spirit dances across the stage moaning for her adulterous ‘Joe… Joe!’” He concluded.
“I’ve heard that there was a fire in the theatre at one time?” I inquired, to which he responded.
“Oh, yes. I think that there was a fire. It was much later than this incident, and didn’t amount to much. Closed the place for a while, though, and they remodeled it – made a motion picture theatre out of the old place. You know, I remember… …” His thoughts began to ramble.
I couldn’t avoid a sly smile as I looked into Denise’s dancing eyes. She looked especially sensual, and I wondered if she was teasing me. I recalled her telling me “Don’t look back.” She ordered another spritzer, and I poured an expensive scotch for her fellow. Business started picking up, I got busy, and I did not look back.