A Walk in the Sun
My Dad took me to my first film at the Rialto. She seemed ancient even then, a faded starlet, long past her last close up. We watched film after film together. I remember the sound of his laughter, the smell of popcorn and aftershave and the way he smiled at me, when he thought I was not looking. I loved the films, but I loved the time spent beside him more.
On my thirteenth birthday he took me upstairs to the projection booth. He knocked on the door and Mr Stern opened the door in a cloud of cigarette smoke. He looked even more fossilised than the theatre. He showed me the projector. It was a Century, a real old honey that smelled faintly of machine oil and cigarette smoke. It had a big brass plate on the side stamped 1948. I was instantly in love with the gears, lights and levers that projected those weekend dreams into my life.
My father and I kept going to those weekend movies until he got sick. I still went, but it was no longer a joy but rather an escape from the tears and hollow expectant sadness that filled our house. I always ventured upstairs to share some time with Mr Stern. He would sit back, light a cigarette, and talk about the old times. His quiet, kind voice sometimes faded into the soft clattering of the machinery as he told stories of old movies and their forgotten stars.
Gradually disease stole precious fragments of my father and left nothing but fading echoes. The day he died I ran to the Rialto. Mr Stern found me on the doorstep clutching my knees and crying. He took me upstairs. He never spoke but he showed me how to change the big rolls of celluloid. He sat in the back, only occasionally offering a hand if I struggled. I ran movie after movie. I stayed there, in the booth, until my arms ached and sweat stuck my shirt to my back, until my mother came and took me home.
On my seventeenth birthday he said I could run the Saturday night shows, said he was too old, too tired, to be staying up all hours on the weekends. I asked my mom and she agreed. I think she was glad to get me out of the house.
The Rialto was a one man gig. I showed old films; Noir from the forties, thirties musicals, even a few remastered silent films that seemed to float on the screen like visitors from another time. I sold tickets and popcorn before running upstairs to the projection booth. There were three shows on the Saturday night: 6, 8.30 and midnight. The first two always did a bit of business, not much, but enough to keep the doors open. I hardly ever had to start the midnight show. More often than not I'd shut the doors at half past the hour and be in my bed by one.
I had grown so accustomed to this routine that finding the old man outside the door of the cinema just before midnight caught me by surprise.
He was bent and crooked, leaning heavily on his stick. He stood directly beneath the streetlamp, barely throwing a shadow onto the concrete beneath his too small feet. His face was pale and etched with deep lines. His eyes were almost opaque with cataracts. An ancient scar hooked down from beneath his right eye like a teardrop.
He stood silently on the threshold until I greeted him and waved him in. He silently handed me a five dollar bill and waited for his change. I walked around the booth to the concession stand but he walked straight past it to the cinema. I ran upstairs and started the projector. I looked out the hole at the theatre and saw the old man seating himself in the middle seat of the middle row.
I looked out just before the intermission and he was still there. He seemed for a moment as still as death but as I watched, he turned his head slightly as if he were looking at something in the seat next to him. I could see his hands folded in his lap. He reached to his face for the briefest of moments and I could see the tremor in his hand before he pushed it back into the embrace of the other hand.
I ran some old Hollywood newsreels during the intermission. I waited at the concession but he never came out. I went to the door into the theatre and opened it, peering into the gloom. I could see the old man's head above the seat back. I watched, mesmerized, as he tilted his head towards the seat beside him and whispered something to the emptiness. I watched his shoulders shudder as he laughed and looked back to the screen. I wanted to ask him who it was he was speaking to but there was something in the way he looked at the empty seat, something that seemed somehow intimate, private, and I could not.
I walked back up the booth and flicked the switch to run the rest of the feature. Every now and then I looked out at the theatre to make sure I wasn't playing the film to an empty house. Each time the old man was there, still continuing his odd conversation with the empty seat.
The credits rolled at about 2 AM. I looked out into the theatre and he was still sitting there bathed in the flickering light. I closed the projection booth and walked downstairs hoping to catch the old man before he left. I waited for a moment at the foot of the stairs but he didn't come out. Eventually I walked to the door and opened it. I looked to where he had sat, but he was not there. The theatre once again was hollow and empty. I had a dreadful thought that he had fallen, trying to navigate his way out of his seat, and was lying somewhere between the seats amongst the stale popcorn and old gum.
I stepped into the theatre and for a moment I felt a fear I had never felt before, afraid of what I might find, afraid for the first time of the ghosts of the empty theatre. I swore at myself before slowly walking down the aisle. I held my breath, not exhaling until I got to his row. I shone my torch along it and saw nothing but dust bunnies and popcorn.
I shivered, feeling a chill draft from the still open door. I usually cleaned up after the show, swept the floor and tidied the concession, but that night I could not have stayed in that old theatre a moment longer. I locked up and rode my bike the short distance home, my heart trying to crack a rib on the way out.
I saw Mr Stern later in the week. We sat in the little office at the back of the theatre. It would have been cramped at the best of times but every space was filled with old movie posters and photographs, stacked haphazardly into tumbling piles. Mr Stern sat, smoking, amongst the disarray, as if he lived symbiotically with the memories. We had our usual chat and he handed me a small fold of cash in a yellow envelope. I turned it over in my hand, looking at my name scribbled across the flap.
He smiled at me. "Are you okay, Daniel?" he said. His accent was a soft accented German made rough and coarse by years of cheap cigarettes.
I was going to say yes, but I couldn't. "Do you know an old man?"
"I know many, I am one."
"He comes in on Saturday nights, for the midnight session."
Mr Stern nodded. "What does he look like?" he said.
I described him as Mr Stern nodded
"That's Sergei," he said. "Petrovsky. He's been coming to the midnight sessions as long as I can remember. I haven't seen him in a while, not since his wife died. Petra. Now she was beautiful. I used to wait for the weekend just to see her eyes. I think I have a photo of her somewhere."
He dug around the debris of his desk, old invoices fluttering to the floor like dying leaves. He pulled a photo out, held it close to his face, peering it at through thick glasses, before holding it out to me triumphantly.
The photo was of a man and a woman, arm in arm, the evening obviously cold as both wore long coats. They stood outside the theatre smiling pleasantly at the camera. The pair seemed out of focus, blurred somehow at the edges. The man was unmistakably Sergei, but from sometime in the distant past. His hair jet black and his face unlined by age, unblemished, apart from the scar beneath his eye. Mr Stern was not exaggerating about Petra. She was beautiful. Her long black hair spilled over her shoulders in soft licorice curls, framing a faultless face. She was tall, elegant in a way I thought only possible on film. I felt myself drawn to her eyes. Even in the faded photo you could see the bright humor in them, as if she was laughing at something only she saw.
Mr Stern watched me staring at the photo. He picked up his cigarette from the ashtray and took a long drag, fading away for a moment as if remembering.
"She was beautiful, was she not?"
I looked back at the photo and a detail caught my eye. There was a car in the background. I was expecting the smooth lines of something out of the '30s not the frumpy functionality of a Toyota. How could that be? Sergei looked about 40 in the photo, Petra even younger. The Sergei I had admitted to the theatre would have been 80 if he was a day.
Mr Stern saw my face and snatched the photo from my fingers. "To tell you the truth, I thought he was dead. Some men don't last long after their wives," he said.
I thought about my mom and the empty space that had once held my father.
"I'm sorry, Daniel," he said. "That was careless of me."
I looked away from him for an instant. I looked back at his gentle face and saw the sorrow in it. "That's OK," I said. "I'll see you Saturday?"
He stood, knocking over a small pile of papers. He smiled and shook my hand as he did every time we parted. "I will look forward to it," he said. "Don't be late. I want to be home for my shows."
I smiled back. "I won't be."
Saturday came slowly. I could not sleep easily and the sleep I did have was light and fitful. I woke from dreams that left me shaken but that I could barely remember the next morning. I dragged myself to school each day. I fell asleep in class more than once and even earned myself a detention on Friday for falling asleep not once, but twice, during a double class in English composition. A feat that earned a cautionary note to my mother. I handed her the note on Friday afternoon and she looked at me as if she barely recognized me. She looked at the note, folded it and silently walked into the den. She folded herself into my father's chair and stared at the blank screen of the television. I walked after her. I wanted her to yell. I wanted her to threaten to ground me, argue with me about continuing to work in the Rialto, anything to show she cared. In hindsight I shouldn't have expected more than I got. Even then, as young as I was, I could see the grief had spread to fill all of her, like a cancer, dark and silent.
I left her in there, alone with whatever it was she was feeling. I took the note and threw it in the garbage.
I did not sleep that night at all. I waited for her to make her way up the stairs but she didn't. I went downstairs around 3 am to find her asleep in the chair, bent into the same position I had left her hours before. I found a rug in the cupboard and covered her, tucking the edges around her and kissed her forehead.
I arrived just on time at the theatre. Mr Stern was waiting at the door. Looking at his watch. I stopped in front of him.
Mr Stern shook his head, half serious, scolding me for cutting it fine. He picked up his briefcase and walked towards the bus stop. I could hear him whistling to himself as I closed the door.
I wanted to look at the photo again. There were a few chores before the first session and I rushed through them – loading popcorn into the machine, stocking the shelves with candy and sweeping the theatre. I looked at my watch and had a few minutes before the six o'clock session.
Mr Stern never locked his office, there was never any need. The walls of the office seem to leak nicotine and beneath that there was the faint odour of sweat and age. I would forever associate those smells, together or alone, with old men. My skin prickled with a tiny shiver of fear as my hand fumbled and failed to find the light switch. I finally found it and the single bulb flickered into life. The bulb was cheap and barely lit the room. The stacks of paper and debris threw haphazard shadows that pooled and coalesced with one another. I stepped through to the desk and carefully worked my way through the papers. For a moment I was afraid Mr Stern had taken it with him, somehow aware that I would seek to solve the mystery. But, I found it, buried beneath a pile of invoices.
I looked again at the photo. For a moment I could not take my eyes from the woman, but I saw the shape of the car in the background again and peered at it. I furtively looked over my shoulder and felt a strange disquiet as I folded the photo and pushed it into my pocket, as if I had stolen something personal and precious.
It was only a few minutes before I would have to open the door. I turned as I left the office, looking back for a moment, checking that I had left no evidence of my petty theft and switched off the light.
I managed to rush upstairs to the projector and load the first of the reels before running down to open the doors. A man and woman were waiting at the door. They both looked irritated and the man tapped his watch even though I couldn't have been more than a minute or so behind schedule.
I sold a half dozen more tickets before I started the film. Stalag 17. It was a classic and there was something sad about looking out into the theatre and seeing so many empty seats. The film finished and I waited as the man and woman walked out arm in arm, smiling and laughing with each other. Their frustration forgotten somewhere in a shared celluloid dream.
The second showing was slightly better but not by much.
I did not know what I was going to do if I found Sergei outside the door again. I waited in the ticket booth watching the hands of my watch tick closer to midnight. There was no sign of him as it ticked past twelve. The street outside was empty, not even a car cruising down main. I waited ten minutes, unwilling to give up and go home. I was heading up the stairs to the projection booth to switch off the projector and clean up. I turned and saw a curious bent shadow that had to be Sergei. He was waiting at the door, leaning even more heavily on his stick. I opened the door. He waited again for me to wave him in the door. He moved even slower than the week before, as if he had begun to fossilize in the few days between our encounters.
He didn't speak again, handing me another crumpled note.
My mouth was dry. I swallowed, trying to free my tongue from the roof of my mouth. "Mr Petrovsky?" I said.
He stopped and turned. He looked at me. A flash of curiosity crossed his face. For a moment he seemed younger, the criss-crossed wrinkles of his ancient face seeming to smooth as he tilted his head, looking at me with milky eyes.
He turned slowly back towards the theatre door and walked into the darkness to his seat.
I started the film. He spent the first reel much as he had the previous weeks; talking, laughing occasionally with the ghost beside him. I ran the intermission reel and looked out into the theatre again, looking to see if I needed to go down to the refreshment counter. I looked through the small glass portal and saw Mr Petrovsky looking back at me. I could see the flickering light reflected in his eyes. For the briefest moment I felt a sharp fear that made my guts cramp and a trickle of cold sweat wind its way down my back.
I lurched back into the booth, tripping over a film can I had left on the floor, landing heavily on my backside. I yelped both in surprise and pain. I sat panting for a few moments, feeling the pressure building in my chest as the fear grew inside. I forced myself to stand and change the reels for the next half of the film. I could not make myself look back out into the theatre.
The movie finished and I hung back, putting the reels back into their cans and tidying the booth. I told myself that I was being conscientious, but I knew I was avoiding the inevitability of finding Mr Petrovsky waiting for me as I descended the stairs. How was it I could be afraid of an elderly man so frail he would take flight in a strong breeze?
I checked my watch. The film had finished a half hour before. Mr Petrovsky had managed to leave the theatre, on the last occasion, before I had made it downstairs. I told myself that tonight would be no different.
I crept down the stairs into the silence of the theatre. It had been a warm evening but I felt the skin on my arms and neck prickle at a chill draft. The door to the darkened theatre stood open. The light from the foyer barely penetrated the gloom. I could hardly force myself to walk to the door of the theatre, sure that I would find Mr Petrovsky still sitting in his seat, still turned towards me, still looking for me. I realized I was holding my breath and exhaled past pursed lips. I started to shake with the effects of suppressed adrenaline. I shut the door and turned. He was in the door to the street. Standing in a shadow thrown by the streetlight behind him. My throat closed and my breath forced its way past in a tight squeal.
He was silent, still as death, his eyes somehow bright in the darkness.
"Mr Petrovsky," I stuttered.
"How do you know my name?" he said.
"Mr Stern. He knows you."
"So why should he share my name with a stranger?"
"I was curious."
"You know what they say about curiosity, don't you?"
I swallowed hard again.
He turned into the street and stepped into the darkness. I was frozen for a moment, the desire to move not communicated to my body. Eventually I took a faltering step towards the door, then another. I stepped outside the door and turned into the street. I expected to see the hunched shape of Mr Petrovsky no more than a few steps away, but the street was empty. Nothing moved between the pools of light thrown by the streetlights or in the darkness between them.
I rode my bike home, feeling feverish. My mom was sitting in the den as I opened the door. The television was playing an old movie. The images flickered silently in the darkness of the room. She barely looked up as I opened the door. I did not care that evening. I had no desire to speak, no desire to feel the emptiness between us.
I collapsed on to my bed, still dressed. I felt sleep drag me down. I dreamed of Mr Stern and Mr Petrovsky. I dreamed of them as young men, their faces free of wrinkles, their eyes clear and bright. As I watched, Mr Stern's hair turned grey and receded from his temples. Wrinkles appeared and deepened, forming lines then furrows. His lips cracked and thinned, retreating from his teeth. The teeth rotted and one by one began to fall from his mouth. His face seemed to collapse into itself. All the while, Mr Petrovsky stood beside him, smiling. His face remaining unblemished, unspoiled by age. As Mr Stern decayed, his skin finally dessicating and falling from his skull like grotesque flakes of dandruff, I watched as Petrovsky's face changed, mutating itself into the face of my father, his smile undamaged by disease. Petrovsky's soft pink curl of scar was still visible beneath his eye.
I woke, gasping for breath, a scream dying in my throat. I had a fever sweat. I stripped and showered. Trying hard to wash a vivid sense of some unseen dread from me. I stayed beneath the water until it turned cold, my face upturned to the stream. I climbed, naked, back into my bed. I felt the dream hiding behind my closed eyes and I lay awake, looking at my watch as the hours and minutes crept by, until I saw the sun rise and fingers of light pierced my closed curtains.
I lay in my bed as the sunshine spilled over me. I felt tears slide down my face. I cried in hard hiccups, I could not stop myself. I cried until I lay with my arms wrapped around my folded legs, convulsing in gulps of grief, until I was empty of tears.
I did not get out of bed that morning. It was not until the evening that my mom noticed I had not surfaced. She opened the door and peered around it.
"Are you ok?" It was the first thing she had said to me in days.
I nodded to her.
She stood for a moment in the door frame. She opened her mouth as if to speak then seemed to change her mind and she turned away.
"Wait, mom." She stopped and turned back towards me. "I'm sorry."
She took a step into the room. She looked confused, unsure of where her next steps would take her. She bent and touched the bed, as if to check its solidity before she sat on the corner.
"What are you sorry for?" she said.
I looked at her and felt a tear on my cheek. "Everything. Dad, you, everything."
She turned and looked at me, seeing the tears in my eyes. She didn't speak but put her hand on my leg. I felt a snap, like a rope under tension giving way, and began to cry again. I saw tears in her eyes and she lay beside me, wrapping an arm around me until we both fell asleep.
I awoke to find her gone and for a moment wondered if it had been a dream.
I dressed and walked downstairs, expecting to see her sitting in dad's chair in the den but for the first time in over a year, she was not there.
I found her in the kitchen. I smelled eggs and bacon, the memory of which caused my mouth to water and I smiled despite myself. She turned from the stove. The corner of her mouth turned upwards and her eyes widened as if she were about to smile, but she turned away before it grew to fruition.
She placed a full plate in front of me and sat opposite, her eyes downcast and her hands in her lap. I forked small portions of the food into my mouth, the taste made even more delightful by the method of its manufacture. It had been so long since my mom had cooked a meal, even one as simple, that I had grown accustomed to my own clumsy attempts at cooking, which consisted mainly of various forms of cereal and frozen meals. It seemed so familiar, so reminiscent of times past that I did not speak, afraid to break the moment for fear it would never recur.
"Mom," I said. She looked at me, her hands still clasped in her lap."Thank you."
She blinked and I saw her eyes gloss as tears pooled in the corners. She wiped a hand across them and stood, pushing the chair away from her. She turned for a moment to look at the dishes piled next to the sink and then walked silently from the kitchen. I sat, the remnants of the meal sitting in front of me, the egg yolk slowly congealing on the plate. I could not eat it. The hope I had felt evaporated in the empty kitchen.
In the following week, something had changed though I could not yet discern what that may have been. Although my mother spent most of her time in the den, still curled in my father's chair, there was a cooked breakfast waiting for me as I descended the stairs each morning, even though she did not wish to share it with me. Likewise, each evening there was a meal prepared and she sat beside me pretending to eat, pushing at the food with a fork and occasionally bringing a tiny portion to her mouth. She chewed and swallowed but grimaced as she did, as if it were somehow toxic.
Saturday sneaked up on me like a thief. I had slept poorly the night before. I was unwilling to fall asleep and experience the dreams again, and only sleeping fitfully when I did manage rest. There was breakfast on the kitchen table though I could not see my mom and I assumed she had returned to bed after preparing the meal.
I tried to eat, though my stomach rebelled at the thought of food. My limbs felt heavy and the dull ache in my joints hinted at the start of the flu. I felt a sense of growing tension and for the first time an unwillingness to go to work. I had not picked up my pay packet from Mr Stern, ringing him and making an excuse that sounded false even as I spoke. I thought about quitting but I thought about Mr Stern and the afternoons spent listening to his stories in the booth, the way he had looked out for me after my father became ill, and I realized that I could no more quit than grow wings and fly.
After the last weekend I had taken the folded photo and carefully flattened it between two books on my desk. I had not looked at it in the intervening days but after breakfast I took it out again, carefully flattening the ridged folds, feeling a small thrill as I touched the corrugations with my fingertips. I looked again at the smiling face of Petra Petrovsky. She had lush lips that made a smile creep to my own despite my strange funk. For a moment I could feel the warm touch of those lips and I shivered. Beside her Sergei looked as happy as any man would. It was hard to place the fear I felt at the thought of the old man against the benign joyfulness of the man in the photo. I folded the photo and placed it back into the pocket of my jeans.
I arrived on time at the theatre, just as Mr Stern was packing the old Gladstone bag he always carried. He looked at me and stopped. His hand paused above the open bag.
"Daniel, you look terrible. Are you okay?"
I nodded. "I didn't sleep well. I'll be fine."
"Do you want me to work the night sessions?" he asked.
"No, no. I'll be fine. You'd best go, you'll miss your shows." I said, dropping my bag behind the concession stand.
He closed his bag and walked over to me. He looked me in the eye until I was forced to look away before they betrayed me. "Just call me if you feel more poorly," he said.
He placed his hand on my arm and squeezed. I felt a familiar warmth behind my eyes
"Thank you. I'll be fine."
He let go of my arm and looked at me for a moment longer before nodding and walking out the door, closing it after him.
I sleepwalked through the first two showings. A few of the regulars tried to engage in brief conversation but I mumbled apologies and tried as best I could to escape the intrusion of their company. I was waiting for midnight and Petrovsky. I felt a curious mixture of fear and resignation. I had to answer the questions that were burning holes in my brain.
I barely remember the film I showed that night. I remember a young Ronald Reagan, so I imagine it was hardly a defining moment in modern theatre. I waited at the counter after the 8 o'clock showing, glancing frequently at the door in expectation of the appearance of that familiar shadow. It appeared on the dot of midnight, hovering just out of view so that I was forced to leave the counter and go to the door. He was waiting, as I expected him, beneath the streetlamp, bathed in its yellow glow, so that he appeared almost jaundiced. He moved slowly from beneath the lamp as I opened the door. He stood at the threshold, silently waiting as he had done before. He did not ever enter the building until I had invited him, by word or by gesture. I had decided that I would not oblige him on this occasion until he asked. He stood outside, silently leaning on his stick and I stood in the doorframe, struggling with deeply ingrained manners that obliged me to defer to my elders. We stood that way for several minutes. I felt the desire to speak bubbling up inside me and the dam of my resolve almost broke, but he spoke before I did.
"What is it you want, Daniel Hide?"
"How do you know my name?" I asked, shocked.
"I know many things. I visited our shared friend and he told me many things about you, about your father," he said. I opened my mouth to protest but he spoke before me, looking up into my eyes. His irises seeming to glow like amber candles. "But I sense you have more knowledge than he believes you to possess."
"I don't know what you mean," I said.
"I think you do." He looked hard at me and I felt those eyes scouring my conscience. "I think you took something from him, something that belongs to me, something that I once allowed him to possess."
Unconsciously I pressed my hand to the back pocket and the folded photo that I had placed there before I had left home. He saw my movement and lifted his stick to point it at me.
"You have something of mine. A memory."
I pulled the photo from my pocket and smoothed the creases as flat as I could manage. I held it out to him, holding it up to the light.
"Is this you?" I asked, my voice straining and creaking under tension.
He looked at it, and I imagined I saw a smile flit across his lips like a passing cloud. But it was gone almost before it arrived. "It is."
"How?" I said, not quite able to form the question I truly wished to ask.
"You find it hard to imagine me as young?"
"No," I said. Bringing the photo closer to the light thrown from the theatre. "This photo is not old, yet...?"
"Yet I am?" he asked.
"There are things that move behind the curtain of your reality. Things barely seen."
"Help me understand," I said.
"You will have to invite me in," he said, pointing to the door.
I almost waved him into the theatre, but fear stopped my hand, leaving it hanging in the space between us.
"You are afraid?" he asked, the smile returning to his thin lips.
I hesitated for a moment, afraid to show weakness, then nodded.
"Afraid of me?" he asked.
I nodded again.
"Good." He leaned his weight forward onto his stick and waited.
I stood for a moment not sure of what to do next, feeling his eyes boring holes in my chest.
I waved an arm at the entrance and backed into the theatre, watching him as he began his slow shuffle towards the door, until he had crossed the threshold.
Inside the theatre, beneath the lights of the lobby, Petrovsky looked nothing more than he appeared, a frail old man. The cataracts that had dulled his eyes the first time I had seen him were still present, though now I could imagine his irises, gold and bright like a cat, beneath the opacity.
He unfolded a crumpled five dollar bill from his pocket and held it out.
I waved it away, not wanting to accept his money again, as if it sealed some sort of contract between us, a contract I did not wish to be party to, but he insisted.
"It is customary to take payment for services rendered, is it not?" he said.
I nodded and reached to take the note, but he held it fast between his fingers so that I was forced to try to pull it loose. I pulled but he did not release the bill. He pulled back and drew me towards him. I felt a hidden strength.
"You have something of mine, give it to me." His voice became suddenly strong.
I held out the photo with my free hand and he let go of the bill, taking the photo from my hand.
"You have questions, Daniel, ask them," he said.
"When was it taken?"
"November 16, 1974, outside this very theatre," he said. "We had seen a premiere of a film, Chinatown. It was very good. We were happy."
"How old were you?"
"How old do I look?"
"Maybe 45," I said, thinking of my father's face before he had become ill.
"Then that is how old I was," he said.
"But," I said, shaking my head. "How old are you now?"
"I am ancient," he said.
"How can that be?" I said. He looked up from the photo and smiled.
"Bring me a chair," he said. I pulled a stool from behind the counter and placed it behind him. He sat back onto it and groaned in discomfort.
"I am older than you can ever imagine. I have lived many lives." He paused for a moment as if he were reconsidering.
I nodded, not really understanding, but not wanting him to stop.
"I am old now, because I choose to be." He looked down at the floor and his voice became soft.
"How?" I asked and he looked up at me, his jaw set. I knew that was not the question he wished to answer. "Why?"
"You have seen my wife?" he said. "She was beautiful, was she not?"
I thought of her hair falling over her shoulders and the full smile of her lips and nodded.
"We were together lifetimes. I loved her from the moment I first saw her. She loved me. I shared with her my secret, I gave it to her and she accepted it willingly, but it is a heavy burden."
I ached to ask him more of his secret but I knew he would not answer.
"We lived across oceans and generations. She wanted what all women want, a family, yet she knew we could not. She bore that burden alongside all the others, yet her love never faltered." His voice had become almost inaudible.
"How did she die?" I asked, afraid of the answer.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I did not mean to be rude.
He looked at me. "I am not offended," he said. "I am given to understand you have some knowledge of death yourself Daniel."
I nodded. I felt the familiar sting of tears in my eyes.
"She chose her death," he said.
"No, nothing as wasteful. She chose not to live," he said. "In order to live, some must die, that is the way of the universe. She could no longer live within the harsh terms of that contract and she chose to break it."
I nodded as if I understood.
"She loved me as much as she ever had, but not even that was enough. And I watched as she faded away, folding in on herself like an autumn leaf, finally falling."
"I am sorry."
"Do not be sorry. It was not your choice," he said, though I could hear the sorrow in his voice. "I lived for a while after she left me, but I found life without love unbearable. The taste of life was like ashes on my tongue and I could no longer stomach it. I have made the choice to follow her."
He held the photo close to his face and with a gnarled forefinger touched the face of his wife.
"Will you show me a film, Daniel?" he said. "We loved the cinema, she and I, we sacrificed much to be together. We came together, in this place, to dance in the sun."
He bent his head again and I heard him begin to cry.
"Let me dance with her one more time."
I stood and walked over to him. I placed a hand on his, his skin felt as cold and hard as marble. He leant hard on his stick and struggled to lever himself from the stool. I placed a hand beneath his arm and helped him to stand. I took his arm and walked with him into the theatre, helping him to his seat.
I walked to the booth and started the film. I watched the opening credits and sat against the wall, trying to absorb all he had said to me, but all I could feel was a dreadful sorrow. I thought of my father and my mother and began to cry. I cried until my tears were gone and nothing but gasping sobs shook my shoulders.
I stood eventually, my eyes aching, to change the reel. He was still there, still staring at the screen. I changed the reel and let it play. When the film had ended, I placed another on the projector and let it run, and another until it was almost sunrise. As the last reel of that last film flickered to a close, I walked downstairs to the theatre. Mr Petrovsky was still there, watching the credits.
I walked to the end of the aisle. "I have to close up now, Mr Petrovsky."
He turned his head and looked at me. "Thank you Daniel."
"Will I see you again?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"No, Daniel, I do not think you will."
"What will you do?
He looked back at the door and the light that leaked through it. "I think I will take a walk in the sun." He stood and walked carefully along the aisle. He put his hand on my shoulder as he passed and I shivered to his touch.
He continued to the door, pushing it open and stepping into the lobby. I stood and watched him as he left. His back seemed to straighten as he stepped into the light and his shoulders braced. He looked for a moment as he had in the photo, young. The door closed behind him.
I stood for a long time in the dark theatre, thinking of all I had heard that night. Eventually I knew I had to leave the dark comfort of the theatre. I went upstairs and tidied the projection booth. On top of the Century was the photo. I picked it up and stroked the folds with my thumb. I looked at their smiles and for a moment smiled with them.