By John Karastamatis
Read by David Mucci / Length: 18 minutes
“Jack, what’s this nonsense I hear about you seeing a ghost?” Herbie McGill asked in a stern and concerned voice.
It was just before midnight on the last Monday in January and Herbie had made a special trip to the Royal Alexandra Theatre to catch Jack just as the stage door man’s shift was beginning.
Jack was surprised to see Herbie, the theatre’s general manager. He had never seen him in the building this late, not unless a show ran overtime. But the theatre hadn’t had a show since the beginning of the year. Maybe Herbie did occasionally visit the building at midnight. After all, Jack had only worked at the Royal Alex for the last two months so he wouldn’t know. Maybe Herbie wasn’t as angry as he sounded. Jack had never given Herbie a reason to question him before.
Jack didn’t know how to answer Herbie so instead he fussed with the envelopes on the tiny desk located just inside the stage door entrance before he answered. He shared this desk with two other stage door men. Together they were the gatekeepers and custodians of the backstage area. Since he was on the lowest rung of the ladder, Jack pulled the overnight shift.
“I don’t like talk about ghosts,” Herbie said. “I’ve worked here longer than anyone else, since 1939. And I’ve been alone in this building more than anyone else. I’ve seen no ghosts, ever.”
“I really didn’t see a ghost, boss,” Jack said.
“Then why did you tell Hazel you did.”
“Honest, Herbie, I didn’t say that. I told her I thought I heard ghosts.”
“No difference. Hearing or seeing, you still claim you believe there’s a ghost in the building.”
Jack said nothing. He sat there, poker-faced.
Herbie sighed. Then he continued.
“You may not know this, given that you’ve been here since, when? End of November?”
“But we’re under a lot of pressure here these days, Jack. The theatre barely has any shows. For all of this year, I’ve only got 15 weeks on the books. Fifteen weeks out of 52 for all of 1959. When I started, we’d have at least 40 weeks of shows.
“Sooner or later the trustees will be forced to close the place and we will all be out of work. Spreading stories about ghosts doesn’t help the situation. It may scare some people from coming.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. McGill. I meant nothing by it. But I swear to you what I said to Hazel is what happened to me.”
“Don’t interrupt me, Jack. You’ll have your chance. And don’t call me Mr. McGill. We’re all on first names here, like a family – a theatre family. I know that’s not your background, Jack; but the theatre business isn’t like any other. That’s why all of us choose to work in it. You can’t think of the theatre as just another job. I hope you learn to understand and appreciate that.”
“Yes, yes. Thank you … Herbie. I do appreciate it. I really do.”
“Good. The theatre business is suffering nowadays. First came the talking pictures, entertainment for a quarter. Big stars for only a quarter! And now television offers entertainment for free at home. Okay, you have to invest a lot of money to buy a set first, but then it is non-stop entertainment.”
“And just around the corner at Yonge and Front, the multi-millionaire E.P. Taylor is using the O’Keefe Brewery’s money to build a shiny, new and enormous ‘performing arts centre’. It will have 3,300 seats. Do you know how many we have? Only 1,500. The place is supposed to open in a few years. When it does it may be over for the Royal Alex.”
Herbie had been lecturing without taking a breath. He stopped to take one now as he rubbed his forehead and massaged his temples.
Jack had never seen Herbie look so frantic. He didn’t dare say anything else. He didn’t want to risk making him even more angry.
“Now do you understand why fairy stories about theatre ghosts are infuriating to someone like me who grew up loving this theatre?”
“Yes.” But Jack made it sound more like a question than an answer.
A few moments passed without either man saying anything. Then Herbie pulled a chair over and sat down right in front of Jack.
“Okay, Jack. Now tell me what you experienced. When was it, last Friday?”
“It was eerie, Mr… Herbie. I know nobody but me was in the building, it was two in the morning and I had just done my rounds, just like I do every two hours, like you taught me. But I heard these noises coming from the dressing rooms. Like someone was down there. I walked through the backstage areas, the auditorium, the front of house, I checked that all the doors and windows were locked. Everything like it should be. But there were these loud noises.”
“What kind of loud noises?” Herbie asked.
“Strange noises. Crash, bang, bang, boom, crash. I have no idea what would have made them.”
“It’s just the pipes. They make loud noises, especially in the winter.”
“I know pipes, Herbie. I know steam. Before getting this job, I looked after the big furnaces at Hart House. These weren’t noises made in pipes.”
“Okay. Did you investigate?”
“You bet I did. I took my keys” – for visual emphasis he touched the ring of keys hanging from his belt – “and I went to the dressing rooms. I unlocked and went through each dressing room.”
“Was the noise still happening?”
“No, I couldn’t move until the noises stopped. Just couldn’t. But I looked in each dressing room on all three floors. I checked every nook and cranny. It took me almost an hour. Nothing. If someone was playing a joke on me, they would have gone by now.
“But then, about half an hour after I had returned to my desk here it started up again.”
“The noise, worse this time. It was horrible, Herbie. Horrible. I couldn’t stand it. It was so loud, it felt like it was drilling into my head. I thought I might need to change my pants, if you get what I’m saying.
“And then it stopped again. It was about four o’clock and I had to do my rounds again. This time I took this pipe with me.” Jack reached into the corner behind his desk and held up a big, lead pipe.
“I went everywhere and still nothing. What kind of madness was this? But that wasn’t the worst.”
“It got worse?”
“Just before seven, the noises came back. But this time … this time I could make out screams. Loud, angry, horrible screams.
“It was all I could do not to run out of the building screaming myself. I thought about running around the corner to the fire station and asking the guys there for help. But they would have thought I was crazy or maybe that I had fallen asleep and had a nightmare.
“Then it all stopped. Peace. Quiet. And then there were genuine noises in the steam pipes. Those settled me. I thought, ah, something natural.”
“Natural? What do you mean?”
“You know, sounds that weren’t … unexplained. Sounds that I could understand what made them.”
Herbie remained silent for a few moments. Then he reached over Jack to a cubbyhole in the wall behind the desk. From the shadows he took out an almost empty mickey of whisky. He placed it on the desk in front of Jack.
“I swear I hadn’t a drop that night. I drank nothing but coffee that night.” Jack lifted the coffee thermos on his desk.
“C’mon, Jack. I can smell the whisky on your breath.”
“That’s because I drank it tonight. I’ve been going through a mickey every night since Friday. That’s the only thing that’ll calm my nerves. Look at my hands.” He showed his hands, which were trembling. “I used to have the steadiest hands. I tell you, this thing, whatever it is, has done me in.”
“Aren’t you exaggerating? Noises frightened you? You said yourself you went throughout the building and found nothing. How can nothing scare a grown man like you?”
“I wish I had found whatever or whoever it was that did this to me. I tell you, I would have destroyed them. I would’ve left nothing but blood and mush. Don’t care if I was charged with murder and thrown in jail. I know it sounds crazy, Herbie, but those screams. They wasn’t… of this world.”
Herbie flinched at that statement. This guy is really unnerved, he thought.
“Okay, Jack, I understand. But there’s been nothing since Friday, right?”
“Thank the lord. I swear I’m not making it up, Mr. – Herbie. What I said to you is what happened. I swear on my children’s lives.”
Herbie let out another sigh and stood. He put the chair back and then went over to Jack and patted him on the back, as if Jack were a kid who needed reassurance. He then took the big flashlight from the top of the stage door desk, turned it on and walked toward the wings of the stage area.
“I’ll do the rounds before I go.”
It was dark, almost pitch black. The only light came from the bare lightbulb on a stand in the middle of the stage. Herbie walked towards it.
“The goddamn ghost light,” he said under his breath as he reached it. “The entire goddamn theatre business is built on superstition and stupid rituals and childish beliefs.”
Herbie thought of all the nonsense actors spouted – ‘The Scottish Play’ ;‘don’t bow to an empty house’; ‘never whistle’ – all nonsense.
“Macbeth. Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth!” Herbie shouted before bowing. He laughed at himself; this business was making him loony.
Herbie looked out into the empty auditorium. The seats on all three levels were covered in white dust sheets. They looked like they could be ghosts. It was easy to see how Jack’s imagination could run off in that direction.
Herbie wasn’t afraid because he didn’t believe in this supernatural hokum. To him ghosts were about as real as unicorns.
Herbie spent another hour in the building. He knew the theatre like the back of his hand and took a great deal of pleasure in his tour. As the general manager he rarely had time to just wander through the building.
Starting on the ground floor, he walked the entire lengths of all three floors of dressing rooms backstage. There were 26 dressing rooms and Herbie made sure that each one of them was locked.
Herbie took the west flight of stairs to the stage floor. He walked across it, through the pass door into the auditorium. He made his way to the back of the orchestra level and into the front of house.
He inspected the various rooms of the front lobby and then walked all 69 steps to the top balcony. Then he walked down to the dress circle and inspected there, and then to the orchestra level.
He saw no evidence of anything out of the ordinary. He heard no unexplained noises.
He then headed back to the stage door. He needed to get his overcoat, hat and galoshes, and he wanted to say good night to Jack. Over the last hour he started to feel sorry for Jack; maybe he was too harsh with him.
He picked up his pace because he couldn’t wait to get to his car and then home to his wife and kids. They’d be sleeping in their warm beds; Herbie should have been asleep in his bed at least two hours ago.
When he got to the stage door foyer, Jack wasn’t there.
Where could he have gone? For a whiz outside?
Herbie pushed open the stage door and looked into the long alley that ran the length of the building’s east side. It was snowing lightly. In the distance, King Street was barren. Not a car, not a person. Not even a trace of footsteps in the light dusting of snow on the ground.
He closed the door and looked on the stage door desk. Jack’s thermos was gone, as was the mickey. But his ring of keys was still there.
The son of a bitch had bailed. The goddamn coward. The idiot. Damn him and his infantile superstitions.
Herbie checked the clock above the desk. It was just past one. Rory, the daytime stage door man, wouldn’t be in until 8:30. Seven and a half hours, that’s how long Herbie had to be here.
Maybe he should just go home. What could possibly happen overnight in an empty theatre? Maybe an overnight stage door man was no longer needed. That job could be eliminated, another cost-cutting measure to help with the bottom line. After all, the building was insured.
Except the insurance policy stated the building had to have a staff member on the premises at all times. Nobody there, no insurance.
That goddamn halfwit better not show up here ever again.
There was no way around it. Herbie would play stage door man tonight.
He slumped into the chair behind the desk with a big thud. He had to do something to get his mind off of Jack’s betrayal, he could practically feel his blood pressure rising to unsafe levels.
He hurried through the building to his office behind the box office. There were dozens of books of newspaper clippings that told the history of the Royal Alex. He always liked looking through them, to relive his childhood and teenage years spent watching shows here.
He returned to the stage door with five of the large, red-leather-bound volumes. These documented the shows that had played the Royal Alex from 1918 to 1925.
Herbie arranged the books on the desk and made himself comfortable on the chair. It was going to be a long night.
Herbie twitched and realized he must have nodded off. Before he even opened his eyes the dusty, mildewy smell of deteriorating newsprint, ink and glue reminded him where he was, and why he was there. Thinking about Jack, his fury grew again.
He sat up in his chair. The wall clock said 3:33. He wondered how long he had been asleep. The book on the desk that he had used as a pillow was open to 1920. He hadn’t gotten very far in his reading.
As he closed the clipping book he heard a noise. Followed by another and another. Loud noises. Very loud noises.
They sounded as if they were being made by enormous industrial machinery. But what kind of machinery would make noises that sounded like steel and glass being chewed and chains being dragged on a stone floor? The noises were both high-pitched and very low and guttural. And in the midst of these piercing noises there were layers of screams. Were they animal screams? Human screams? Were they screams at all?
Herbie began to shiver. He felt hot and cold at the same time. He couldn’t keep his legs from shaking. He flew out of the chair but his legs were too weak to hold him and he fell to his knees. Then a sudden feeling of sickness came over him. He had the good sense to put his head between his knees. He gasped for air as he retched. But nothing came out, not even bile.
As quickly as the noises came on they were replaced with sudden quiet. The only sounds now were the ticking of the clock and his own heavy breathing.
His shakes and shivers subsided. His retching stopped. He lay on the cold cement floor until he could gather his thoughts.
Nothing like this had ever happened to him. He didn’t know how to even describe it, never mind explain it.
It took all his strength, physical and emotional, to stand and steady himself.
Then his anger came back. He grabbed the ring of keys and the flashlight and headed for the dressing rooms. If this was all some elaborate hoax Jack was pulling, Herbie would see to it that he’d never work again. Maybe he’d never even walk again.
He opened the first dressing room door on the first floor. Nothing. The second. The third. The fourth. Nothing.
The second floor. Dressing room number eight. Number nine. Number 10. Number 11. Number 12. Nothing.
He was about to insert the key into dressing room number 13, but there was no dressing room number 13. Never was. Stupid superstitions of stupid theatre people.
He reached out to the thirteenth doorknob and it was ice cold. From behind the door of what should have been dressing room number 13 he heard:
“Mr. McGill. Mr. McGill. I need your help. It’s Yvette. Please help me.”
Music and Lyrics by Ron Jacobson
Performed by Steffi DiDomenicantonio
Video by Tristan Gough
Length: 5 minutes