The Martyr of Moviedom
In the movie theater lobby, just after midnight
Chapter 2 of 11
It was just a kid standing at the door pressing the buzzer with his thumb sticking out looking like a late night hitchhiker in his dorky uniform and lopsided baseball cap. Charlie hopped over the counter and popped the lock for him. Nobody would have picked this poor kid up on a highway, even with his smiling sunglasses face. In those baggy clothes and sweaty t-shirt, he might have robbed someone of all good taste.
“Yo!” cried Charlie, fanning the door happily, “Pizza man’s here.”
“Don’t let the dog in,” Terri warned. Too late. The gray ghost of a mutt slid past them and into the lobby. “You ordered pizza?” she said. “Tinkleman’ll have a skunk.”
“Tinkleman is a skunk,” said Tubby, surprising them all. “Plop that sucker over here.”
Eagerly he pulled the pizza box onto center counter, pushing aside price boards and popcorn buckets to make room. The lemonade gurgled a protest as it was elbowed aside. There was no need for an invitation. Everyone instinctively moved toward the concession stand as if caught in a whirlpool. The only thing with greater gravity than a black hole is a warm pizza.
The pizza guy slapped his money bag on the counter and it sagged into a tired little heap which looked not unlike himself. “So who’s going to pay?”
Toy-gun fingers pointed at each other. The gunslingers attached to them grumbled and then dug deep into their dusty pockets for more ammo. Coins and bills rained in on the counter with soft clinks.
“There goes my gas money,” said one.
“I’ll ride my horse in tomorrow,” said another.
Donny slid the money over to pizza guy, who stuffed it into the bags under his eyes. “You look beat,” he said.
The baseball capped head shook back and forth, “Man, I hate midnight calls. Gives me the creeps. You can’t imagine some of the weirdoes we run into this time of night.”
Donny nodded, imagining.
“Weirdoes?” Charlie asked, “What kind of weirdoes?”
“Last week I delivered a pizza to Dracula, man, I swear on the grave. Long black hair, cape, castle on a windy hill. ‘No garlic!’ he rasped over the phone. One day they’ll make a movie about me and they’ll call it Midnight Delivery.”
Charlie was pulling napkins for everyone from the napkin dispenser and dealing them out like a deck of cards. “Place your bets!” he smiled at each in turn. Even the Pizza Guy, as he was now officially known, got one out of sympathy for his bedraggled appearance. Anyone who looked down on his luck got free rations around this place.
There was one homeless man in the neighborhood who slobbered so badly when he spoke that you could barely understand what he said. When you finally figured out that he wanted to see 101 Dalmations for the hundred-and-first time, he’d buy a ticket and spend all day long in the theater on hot days soaking up air conditioning, watching the same movie over and over again. Nobody had the heart to ask him to leave, and Donny would bring him popcorn from time to time. “Weirdoes, huh?” Charlie repeated. “Sounds cool.”
Pizza dude nodded, “You can have it.”
“Hey!” Toby slapped the counter, shaking the change in everyone’s pockets. He had been listening to all this and had made up his mind about something. “You guys ever had a seance?” He flipped the pizza box over and set the whole pizza out on the counter on its cardboard tray. “I’ll be the medium!”
Charlie snagged one slice of pizza before Tubby could slap his wrist. “You’re a large, Tobe,” he set the slice out on his napkin and slid it towards his mouth. “Definitely not a medium.”
Toby smiled, but it was only a decoy smile as he grabbed the napkin out of Charlie’s hand and set the pizza slice back on the counter before Charlie could take a bite out of it.
“We’ll need these,” Toby insisted.
Terri set the empty carton on the floor, away from the struggle.
Pizza Guy stepped inside the concession stand, stuffing the money bag down the back of his pants. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Don’t look at me…” Donny shrugged
“I just work here” Terri finished the Company motto.
Toby took Charlie’s slice of pizza gingerly by the crust with his fingertips and positioned it flat on the countertop like the triangle of a Ouija board. It slid easily back and forth on its greased napkin. This pleased Toby, and his eyes sparked with electricity. “Here, give me some of those,” he pointed eagerly.
Infected with Toby’s excitement, Charlie stated pulling letters off the plastic price board.
“Hey!” Donny frowned. “Give me a break.” It was his job to put letters on all the boards, including the giant sign out by the road.
“Stop whining, jeez,” Charlie sneered. “We’ll put ‘em back,”
Letters of the alphabet arranged themselves into a rough semi-circle over the counter top. The tip of the pizza slice pointed right at them. Now they had their Ouija board.
Toby giggled, barely containing himself. “Okay everybody, join hands.”
Looks were exchanged, everybody at each other then back at Toby. It was as if each of them, after spending six-hours a day, seven days a week in the same ten-foot space, had suddenly been stripped naked in front of one another. Eyes fluttered like shower curtains, but nobody moved. They wiped their hands on their pants and would have turned their coat pockets inside out except that their coat pockets were fakes, stitched to the insides of their jackets for mere appearances. The company wasn’t big on benefits.
Someone did take up Donny’s hand, however. It was Terri, and she smiled as she held his hand lightly and bit her lower lip in anticipation. Okay, maybe there were some benefits, after all.
“Come on people, grow up,” said Tubby in his best Chief of Staff voice. Frustrated that his ship had run aground, he grabbed the nearest thing next to him.
“Ow take it easy, you meathook!” cried Charlie. “You’re crushing my hand”
Hands were clasped with a shy brushing of palms, and even the Pizza Man was drawn into the circle, taking up his position around the center island. Unnoticed, the dog wagged its tail and slid in behind the counter sniffing at the empty pizza box.
“What are we supposed to do?” asked the Pizza Man, shaking hands and stepping around the empty box. “Who’s dog is this, anyway?”
“Shh!” hissed Toby. “I have to summon the spirits.”
“Sorry,” Charlie winked, “no alcohol in the theater.”
Toby squinted at him out of one eye then squeezed it shut, same as telling him to shut his mouth. Snickers were heard from the candy case.
Leaning his head far back, Toby sucked two tanks full of air in through his nose. Huge lungs swelled like a puffer fish. If he pulls in any more air, thought Donny, he’s going to blow his ballast and float to the top of the theater. Head back, eyes shut, lids tight, he then exhaled dramatically and almost blew the letters across the counter.
Charlie looked at Donny. Donny only shrugged. Everyone had their heads lowered as if attending an all-night prayer service. Strange how any contact with the dead becomes a solemn occasion. A hush fell over the lobby. Even the dog was quietly licking the pizza box.
“Spirits of the cinema,” Toby droned in monotone. It was as if someone had taken over his voice. “Phantoms of the night. Hear my call. Six have gathered here in your name to be witnesses to your presence. We are all your brothers in another world, a circle of one.”
Terri squeezed Donny’s hand. He squeezed back and smiled with a wink.
“Enter through the circle, the doorway to our world. We are the doormen of eternity, here to usher you into the world of the living.” Donny didn’t like the sound of that. He looked around. “Give us a sign of your presence.”
All breaths were held. Even a pin drop would have sounded like a cannon in the silence of the lobby. The soda machine gurgled with nervous indigestion.
For several seconds there was not a sound beyond the licking dog and a cardboard pizza box sliding across the floor. Then a mouse entered the lobby, or so it seemed, with a tiny squeak. One of the front, glass doors opened gently on its own, giving everyone a start, as if tugged on the sleeve by a gentle night breeze. It was one that needed oiling, Donny noted. A cold wind passed through the lobby and into their bodies.
“I thought you locked that thing?”
Donny gave Charlie a stupid shrug.
From the game room alcove, screens flickered to life and voices crackled. The games were turning themselves off and on by unseen hands. A game of “Ghosts & Goblins” buzzed to life and began to rattle up on-screen credits. The games whispered and winked at each other, with empty coin buckets sitting in front of them. Donny had removed the contents of their stomachs an hour ago.
“Uh,” Terri wiped the hair from her collar. “Maybe we should do this another time.”
Toby sweated, not having as much fun as before. “It’s too late now,” he swallowed. “We invited them.”
The dog howled suddenly, and it sent slivers of icicles riding tricycles up and down their spines. Hairs stood and saluted at the back their necks.
The mutt slipped and skidded its way out of the concession stand on icy paws and stood barking at one of the theater doors. He launched off towards it like a rocket and disappeared behind a cinderblock wall.
“Hey!” Donny started. “You stupid mutt!”
“Don’t break the circle!” Tubby hissed, so searingly that it stopped Donny in his tracks. “It could be bad. Real bad. They might take it as an insult.”
“They who?” asked Charlie.
“If he runs away,” Terri teased, “who cares, huh?”
Toby closed his eyes and sighed trembling. “Are you here for a reason?” His fat hands moved on the counter. The pizza slice slid towards the letter Y.
They all groaned in silence now, wishing they’d never begun.
“And what,” Toby hoarsed, “is that reason?”
They held their collective breaths, now making little clouds in the brisk November air moving in through the open door.
“It’s freezing,” Terri shivered.
The pizza slice slid on the counter, quickly pointing to the letters D, E, A, T, H, in that order.
They all bit their lower lips at the same time. Donny bit his so hard that it started to bleed. He could feel the salty popcorn taste in his mouth. Everyone froze in terror.
Toby was shivering now. His whole body shook horribly. Donny was right. It may take a week for it all to stop shaking. Sweat drained from his brow onto the counter top, despite the cold night air. “We don’t understand,” he croaked nervously.
Under his fingertips, the pizza slice flew off the counter and hit the floor with a soft plop. Terri gasped and dropped Donny’s hand. It was like an electric shock because they were the first to break the chain.
“Whoa–!” Charlie buckled and lost his balance. Everyone dropped hands and moved back a step.
Untouched, the whole pizza began to spin on the counter top like a giant roulette wheel. This startled everyone, but they were too scared, too fascinated by this crazy spinning pizza, too tired to jump the counters and run. There was one missing slice in the pizza pie, and the empty space pointed at each of them as the whole pizza spun, first gaining then losing speed.
Holy cow, Donny thought, it’s just like Wheel of Fortune. His eyes were white as napkins. When can I buy a vowel?
Only this puzzle is already solved and the answer is DEATH. Each of them waited tensely as the Bankruptcy swung around to them in turn.
The pizza spun and spun spiraling down slower and slower. Olives, pepperonis, mushrooms, canadian bacon, anchovies, hot peppers, mozarella. A pizza with everything on it. Some people called it a garbage pizza. It wound down to a stop and the missing piece was pointed at one of them.
Nobody looked at him.
Charlie slid away from him.
Toby glanced away from him, frightened and sorry.
The pizza guy tucked his money bag under his arm and decided it was time to leave, not looking at him as he left.
Terri wouldn’t let go of his hand. She squeezed it tight, turning the letters over in her mind like Vanna White. DEATH, she thought. “Donny?” she said.
He wasn’t speaking. Donny stood squarely, half smiling, half frowning, as a question mark grew on his face and nobody looked at him. It was a game, right? Just a game? This was all Toby’s idea of having fun, getting back at him for not wanting to be Chief of Staff. Chief of Stuff, alight. I’m the chief of stuff. I’m in the stuff!
The missing piece of the pizza pointed right at Donny the doorman. I’d like to solve the puzzle now, Pat, he thought to himself. But what is the answer? The answer is death!
In an alcove, the video games continued to play with themselves. The little knight in the “Ghosts & Goblins” game was hit, lost his armor, and died.
It was closing on midnight when someone collared the lock and shooed the dog out the door. Donny watched him disappear into the fog…