Things in quiet Katherine Falls were going a bit better. Dad seemed happy with his position at the new office and the Barzciks had become like a second family.
I still hadn’t met anyone my age that I really wanted to know but I figured that, as terrified as I was about it, that might work itself out during the school year. The Fly had four showings per day for its week long run and for the first day it got a decent crowd but soon the novelty had worn off and we were back to a few folks per showing.
As an added post-birthday gift, Mrs. Barzcik finally gave in to my begging and agreed to show me how to run the projectors. First she taught me the basics, some of which I already knew just from watching her but I wasn't about to interrupt, hoping that soon she would let me run the projectors by myself. She taught me how to change the reels from one machine to the next smoothly and you could tell that she loved the two of them because she even named them: Tracy and Hepburn.
“When the movies are sent to us, they arrive in four or five reels,” she said. “Each reel is about twenty minutes long so every twenty minutes - ”
“You have to change the reel,” I finished.
“Yes, but the reel on the projector that’s not running should already be threaded and ready to go. No leader needed. Leader is the blank section of film that’s at the beginning. When it’s done right, all you should have to do is switch over to Hepburn and when she takes over you should be rewinding the reel on Tracy and then putting the reel in the can. Then you mount the next reel - they're all marked in which order they go in - onto Tracy and thread it and have it ready to go by the next cue mark. It seems easy enough but that twenty minutes goes by faster than you think.”
“Um, cue mark?” I asked.
“Oh, here, I'll show you,” she said. I watched as she swiftly placed the large reel on the top arm of Tracy and slid the film into the projector. She pushed the feed button and I followed the film as it threaded its way through the series of rollers and gears of Tracy before coming out the back. She connected it to an empty reel on the bottom which she called the takeup reel and closed the door on the side before motioning me over to the small window where I could look out into the theater. On the screen the police had just discovered the body of Gramps Johnson at his store, the latest victim of the giant, atomically-mutated ants.
“Keep your eye on the upper right corner of the screen,” she said. A moment later I saw a small black dot quickly appear and then just as quickly vanish. If I had blinked I would have missed it.
“Keep watching,” she said and rested her hand on a lever that connected the two machines. I saw another black dot magically pop onto the screen and then disappear. She flicked the lever and now the soft yellow beam of light was coming from Hepburn instead of Tracy. On the screen you couldn't tell that a switch was made at all. The handful of people below in the seats took no notice.
“You have to keep your eyes out for those marks,” she said. “There’s only about seven seconds between them and Tracy can be a bit stubborn when he wants but you’ll get used to him.” She led me to the small wooden table - I had already heard it called the cutting bench but it didn’t seem to be used that much. There were a couple of different metal gadgets (one with the name “guillotine” on it which was very cool) with spokes on them and sections of film hanging from clips. Mrs. Barzcik told me that this was where they splice and fix the film if something happens.
“Film breaks or it catches and the lamp melts a hole, the film arrives with not enough leader…a lot can go wrong up here but if you keep your eye on things then you won’t have to worry too much about it. Everything you need to fix the film is right here,” she said proudly. She showed me the log book. “If something has to be done to the film, like the film had to be spliced or the spokes of the projector chewed up a section, this is where you recorded it.”
For the next few days I came in early and Mrs. Barzcik patiently trained me. I sat in the booth and watched and learned, not only how to thread the film but how to move myself around in such a tiny space without tripping. While she worked, she talked to Tracy and Hepburn, coaxing them or reprimanding them when needed.
She watched as I practiced switching from one to the other and got used to the kinks and personalities of both projectors. She timed me on threading the film and fixing a splice. It was a bit nerve wracking but she was wonderful and never barked or anything. When I inevitably forgot a step I never felt like she was upset or anything.
“I’m going to put you in charge of these two tomorrow,” she said and rested her hand on Hepburn. “Think you can handle it?”
“You bet,” I answered.
At the 12 o’clock show I was of course nervous but also excited and ready to prove myself. I looked through the window down onto the seats and was a bit disappointed that only a few seats had anyone in them. Maybe it was good that it wasn’t a full house for my test run but still…kind of like doing your broadway debut and no one shows up.
That night, during dinner, dad told me that he was at the first show.
“I was thinking about waving or something but decided it was best for me to sit near the back and out of sight. Figured you were nervous enough as it was, right?”
“Absolutely,” I answered, “and thanks.”
“Was the second half supposed to be upside down?” he asked and spooned more corn onto his plate.
“Har, har, mister.” I said and flicked a kernel at him.
Things went smoothly those first few days. In fact, if the Stella had been packed I probably would have been more nervous but only a few people showing up each day took away a lot of the pressure.
By Friday evening the crowds were almost non-existant. The last showing was scheduled for 7:30 and I kept my eyes glued to the clock on the wall, flipping the switch that dimmed the house lights just as the second hand hit the twelve. I felt like being very dramatic about it and slowly dimmed each section of the theater. This would be goodbye to The Fly and I already had planned on asking Mr. Barzcik if I could help him pick out the list of movies for the fall.
Next came the curtain switch and even though it was automated I imagined it opening a bit more slowly this time. I waited for a moment or two before switching on Tracy just for effect and watched as the previews rolled across the screen.
I loved the way the Stella looked from up here. The screen threw the light back onto her seats, rimming their curved backs in silver. I glanced up but the faces on the ceiling were shrouded in shadow now, maybe enjoying the movie themselves. I pointed my nose down and counted a total of five heads, three boys and two girls, sitting together, in the center of row H.
I could tell from here that they were somewhere in my age range. One of the girls had a red ponytail that bobbed up and down as she laughed and the other had a big cloud of blonde hair. One of the boys had his arm around her. I had the overwhelming urge to shout “I am the great and powerful Oz!” from behind my “curtain” but soon came to my senses. Maybe I was getting crazier the closer school got. It started Monday. More on that later.
The previews ended and there was a ten second pause before the film credits ran. One of the kids called out “Come on!” and they all broke into laughter.
I kept my eye on the reel and had Hepburn threaded and ready to go with reel #2. Tracy spooled out the story, beginning with the little girl wandering alone in the desert with a broken doll in her hands. Always creeped me out.
At the cue mark I expertly switched from Tracy to Hepburn. I packed reel #1 back in its can and threaded reel #3 onto Tracy for the next switch. When that was done I sat back at the window and watched as the police still tried to figure out what had destroyed Gramps Johnson’s store and killed him.
And then I saw it.
It was only for a moment but once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it: popcorn flying through the air. A handful aimed at the screen. One girl laughed, making a tinny, squeaky sound. I craned my neck anxiously to see if something else was heading for the screen.
The first cue mark popped up and I went to work, switching back to Tracy at the next cue mark and canning reel 2. No problem. I threaded reel 4 onto Hepburn and got her synced up. No prob -
More laughter from the seats. I pushed my nose against the window and on the screen were the huge ants in all their glory, emerging from the darkness of the Los Angeles sewers. This was one of my favorite parts! Why were they laughing? Then more popcorn hit the screen. Someone let out a fake cry for help.
One of the girls shot a spitball through their straw onto the screen and hit Vincent Price on the forehead.
“Got him!” shouted the other girl.
Where was Mr. or Mrs. Barzcik? I rapped my knuckles on the window but no one turned around. At the next cue mark I switched over the projectors and canned the reel. I kept finding myself moving to the window to see what else they were doing. Still no one had come into the theater.
One of the boys dumped half of his popcorn onto the other’s head and everyone erupted into laughter. That started a chase up one aisle and down the other. I quickly threaded the next reel and raced back to the window. The two girls cheered them on while the other boy sat eating his candy.
The girl with the ponytail began tossing popcorn to her friend, who moved four seats away and was now trying to catch them in her mouth. I don’t think she got one in, which only made them laugh harder. A mess was piling up on the floor. Why the hell were they even here? Did these jerks have so much money they could just waste it on a ticket without watching the movie? Couldn’t they go act like idiots at the mall or in town or anywhere but here?
The two boys eventually sat and joined the others.
Let me say here and now, I realize I take these sort of things way too seriously. Even when I was little, sitting next to mom and dad, it really annoyed me if someone was talking during a movie. I actually used to turn in my seat and shush other people. It always made mom chuckle. In school I was always the one who corrected the other kids when they were acting like fools. Maybe there was another reason I didn’t have that many friends.
So even though I’ve been a weirdo for these old horror movies since as long as I can remember, I know that they weren’t about to scare any high school kids today. This wasn’t Alien or Friday the 13th. The special effects weren’t great and the acting was old-fashioned. These days it seems like there has to be a bunch of blood and gore to even get a peep out of audiences. Still...there was still something to love about these classic -
One of the boys grabbed the candy box from his friend (yep, the only one who wasn’t making an ass of himself) and started tossing Milk Duds at the screen.
I went for the door and before I knew it I was marching down the aisle, the skin on my neck getting warm. They hadn’t noticed me until I was practically in front of them.
“What the hell are you doing?” The words flew out.
They turned and immediately their eyes fell on me like I was some sort of dead animal they had found by the side of the road.
“Excuse me, what did you just say?” asked the girl with the ponytail. A single braid of hair fell over one eye and a wad of blue gum bounced between her teeth as she spoke. Her makeup was perfect and I hated it. The girl wit the teased out blonde hair was wearing bright pink lipstick and a pinstripe jean jacket. She tried to cover her grin with her hand.
I could hear James Whitmore asking if there was a way to kill the ants when ponytail stood up. She was taller than me by a few inches and dressed in tight jeans with a gray windbreaker that almost matched her eyes. Mom told me once that gray eyes in the black and white movies were actually blue. This girl’s eyes didn’t look blue at all. They looked gray, gray and deadly right now. She narrowed them and took a step toward me. I almost matched her by taking a step back but didn’t.
“Say that again?” she said.
“Well,” I began and looked at the group, “where do you think you are? You can’t act like that here.” The three boys sat quietly, two of them grinning like cats at me while the third looked just bored. He had light brown hair and had a boyish and round face. The other two were blondes but the one (wearing, of course, a Van Halen shirt with cut off sleeves) had grown it long, probably to make it look like he knew David Lee Roth or something.
“I’m sorry, are you in charge here? I mean, do you own the theater?” ponytail asked as she looked around. She chewed her gum and then eyed me up and down. I really wasn’t a fighter and the last thing I needed was this right now. I mean, if push came to shove (and that might be where we were heading), I might be able to take the one girl but that would be only if the other didn’t jump in.
“No, but who do you think has to clean up the mess?” I answered.
“That’s what you're paid for,” she said and then put on a sad expression, “and from the look of it you’re not doing a very good job.” She looked back at her friends for a second before turning her box of milk duds upside down. They clattered across the floor and the other girl let out a howl of laughter.
“You missed a spot,” she said and dropped the box as well.
More giggles. One of the boys laughed and I heard more candy rattle to the floor. Sounded like Goobers. The blonde girl poured her popcorn out and then tried to be funny by looking in the bag to make sure that there was nothing left inside.
“Oh, and,” said the girl with the ponytail, taking another step toward me and chuckling, “what the hell is with the hair? Did you lose a bet or something?”
The heat climbing up my neck was making me sweat under my shirt. I was never good at these things and I could feel my hands starting to tremble. These odds were not in my favor right now but sometimes my mouth doesn’t listen to my brain.
“What the hell is wrong you you?” I blurted. The other girl stood up but the boys stayed seated, fascinated, like they were watching a nature show or something.
Suddenly the sound stopped and the picture on the screen froze. Everyone turned to the screen and my stomach dropped as I watched the image of doctor Medform slowly brighten an orangish color and then split apart in large bubbles. After that there was nothing but a bright, blank screen. A pure white shaft of light was shooting out from the projection room.
“Kenzie! The reel!” I heard Ms. Barzcik yell from somewhere.
I raced back to the booth and cleared the stairs in one leap. saw that there was still film left on both reels but the feed reel wasn’t moving and the take up reel was flapping angrily. The film had caught in Tracy and burned and split. I quickly shut off Tracy and the theater went dark. The kids let out a scream and then laughed. Mrs. Barzcik soon came in to the room and flipped on the house lights.
“Oh, jeez,” she sighed as she hustled over to the projector and took the melted end of film on the top reel in her fingers.
“I’m really sorry,” I managed as I watched the takeup reel slowly stop spinning. Less than a week in the booth and I already wrecked a film and not just any film. One of my favorites. Shit. “I should have been in the booth.”
“Why weren’t you?” Mrs. Barzcik asked a bit sharply. She pulled the top reel off and walked it over to the splicing table. I walked over with the other reel and placed it down.
Someone knocked and ponytail with the gray eyes was leaning against the frame with her arms crossed. “Excuse me, can we get our money back?” Her tone was different now and was probably the one she used when asking daddy for money. “I mean we payed for a whole movie and now we’ll never know if the guy ever becomes a cockroach or something.”
Mrs. Barzcik didn’t look too happy as she examined the chewed up sprocket holes of the fim. “Just go see the manager and he’ll give you a voucher for another show.”
“The old guy in the ticket booth?”
Mrs. Barzcik took a quiet deep breath. “Yes, the old guy in the booth.”
“Also, she used some foul language with us in the theater.”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn…”
Ponytail pressed her lips together but followed it with a smirk and threw me the finger.
I wished Mrs. Barzcik had just given them their money back. I didn’t want to see any of them back in the Stella ever again and a voucher means they’d be back, to harass me again if for no other reason. And at no extra cost.
Mrs. Barzcik snipped off the ragged end of the film and motioned me over. While she guided me through the process of splicing the break in the film I explained what had happened. She then had me log the incident in the notebook and sign it before putting a note inside the can with the film. The people who received it would read a note that only read, “machine failure”. Mrs. Barzcik explained that it was the theater equivalent of an 'Act of God’. No harm no foul.
“I told you that Tracy could be a pain in the ass when be wants to be,” she said as we stacked the reels by the door. “And don't worry too much about Lori and her little fan club. I doubt they’ll be back but fair’s fair and the film did break. She’ll probably lose the voucher before she hits home.”
“So you know her?”
“Oh, sure. She used to come here when she was a little kid with her folks. I watched all of those kids grow up and Lori's always had a bit of a nasty streak, to be honest. She's gotten a bit worse now that she's in high school.”
My stomach dropped. Crap, I never even thought about that.
“Where does she go to high school?” I blurted, silently praying that the answer wouldn’t be -
“Oh, right here. Katherine Falls High,” Mrs. Barzcik said, completely unaware that she was now talking to a dead girl. “I think she's probably going into her Sophomore year.”
Only days until summer ended and I had managed to destroy any chance I had of having a normal life. Terrific.
That night I didn’t tell dad about what happened. The thought of hundreds of new faces judging me and trying to decide if I was worth talking to made me nauseous. Even the other freshman had something in common because all of them had gone to grade school together. That’s what you did in these small towns. I didn’t want to worry dad too much because, well, there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
The Barzciks offered to keep me on at the Stella for weekends during the school year and I was thankful for that. I didn’t see a bright future in my social life here and my weekends were probably going to be very free.
Our house began to look more like a home and it was getting that vague look of being lived in by the end of the summer. Dad was very cool about letting me pick out some of the new furniture for the kitchen and the dining room. I had finally unpacked my stuff and now my walls were plastered with movie posters and magazine covers once again.
Lori’s face hovered in the back of my brain and I wondered what her bedroom looked like. I doubted she had a poster of The Blob on her wall and, providing she could actually read, wasn’t going to have a book in her room with the title, “99 Movies You Must See Before You Die”. It’s also pretty safe to say that none of her friends had a video collection that included Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly or Village of the Damned.
Of course, not a whole lot of people back in Philly got me either. Shara and I made sure that we called each at least once a week and her voice was like a lifeline.
“So what’s it like, living in Mayberry?” she asked me last week and I couldn’t tell her honestly that things had gotten much better. I told her that I loved working at the Stella, though.
“Of course you do,” she said.
“I sorta got into a thing with these kids though,” I admitted.
“Yeah. They were getting out of hand while I was running the projector and - ”
“Wait, let me guess,” she broke in, “you gave them a stern talking to, right?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.” It was so nice hearing her voice on the other end of the line. “It didn’t go as well as I planned though.” I told her about the idiots running around the theater and throwing milk duds at the screen...and the film breaking. “I mean, it was The Fly, after all.”
“And this brain trust is going to be in your school?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “In my grade.”
“Crap,” Shara muttered. “Well, maybe they’ll have forgotten it by then.”
“I’m not so sure.”
Shara sent her love across the line, said hang tight and we hung up.
I was alone again.
The closest thing I had to a friend here (other than the Barzciks) was Linus across the street. I had made a point of waving and smiling whenever I saw him but I never got anything more than a slight nod before he retreated back into his house. It was sort of comforting that I could depend on him to be wearing almost the same thing every day (khaki pants, some pale color shirt).
Well, we would both be entering the world of high school in a few days like it or not. It was cruel to think it but I hoped that the bullseye would be on Linus more than me when school began.
A thought hit me. I scanned the walls and made a mental note of everything that was likely to cripple me socially. The more I looked the more I got depressed. Everything in the whole room was screaming Do Not Talk To This Girl, this poor, poor girl. It wasn’t like I didn’t like music but there were no posters of bands anywhere to be found. Why didn’t I have a poster of Duran Duran or Van Halen up there? My big crush was a director?
What if someone actually comes over? What if the world tilts a bit too far to one side one day and I actually make a friend here? Is this really the Kenzie I want to show the world? Why am I still hanging onto these things? Girls like Lori would eat me alive if they saw this assortment of loser materials. The whole school would laugh and it would get out - believe me.
Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s time to grow up.