“You are monumentally stupid,” Parker said.
“I think that’s a little harsh,” Brian said. He shoved the door open with his shoulder. A cloud of dust billowed out. The smell of molding upholstery and musty curtains emanated from the building.
“This is the worst investment you’ve ever made.”
“You’re overreacting, Parker. Wait until you see the inside.”
“Have you seen the outside? This is bad. Chugging a gallon of milk bad.”
The two men stepped into the abandoned theatre. The creaking floorboards were painted black, as were the walls. The front windows were boarded up, but some of the nails had rusted through and the plywood was slipping, allowing early morning sunlight to leak into the deserted lobby. Old posters clung to the walls, held up by pushpins. Stark graphics proclaimed “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs” playing on the main stage. Brian beamed.
“Beautiful,” Brian said. “And not to mention — a real bargain.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“All they wanted was fifty thousand dollars. Can you believe it? Prime, historic real estate like this? The land alone is worth thirty-five.”
“So, you’re going to tear it down, right?” Parker asked. The hope in his voice was swallowed by the dry, dusty air.
“You don’t see it, do you?” Brian replied, shaking his head. He motioned for his friend to follow him through the lobby. The door to the theatre squeaked open on hinges in desperate need of oil. He flipped a switch and a couple of lights flickered on. Rows and rows of chairs stepped down toward an apron stage. A portion of the roof had collapsed in a snow storm. The wooden boards in the center of the apron were splintered — out of the gaping hole rose a small sapling.
“Dude,” Parker said. “There’s a tree growing in the middle of your theatre.”
“Again, you’re missing the big picture,” Brian countered. He jumped up on the stage and spread his arms wide. “Theatre is dead. Like all luxuries, it collapses in the face of a recession. And how do the people replace it?”
“No. They want spectacle! Escape! They want action and sex and explosions! They want movies! And we’re going to give it to them.”
Something brushed against Parker’s leg and he jumped. He suspected that once the veneer of art deco was peeled away, they were going to find a jungle teeming with wild animals. Everywhere he looked, he saw something that would need to be repaired or replaced. Brian might as well take his money and light it on fire.
“Did you see that History Channel thing about what the world would look like if people suddenly disappeared?” Parker asked. “How nature would slowly break down the buildings? Cities would turn back into forests and that sort of thing? I think that’s what happened here. It’s over. Nature has won.”
“It’s just a tree,” Brian said. “More importantly, it’s a metaphor. New life springs forth from the ashes of death.”
“So, you want to open a movie theatre?”
“Not just any movie theatre, my friend. A boutique cinema experience.”
“It means we’ll serve craft beer. The hipsters will flock to us with wallets wide open.”
He leaped down from the stage and grabbed his friend by the shoulders. Parker had never seen him so possessed. Brian had two problems — too much money and not enough sense about how to spend it wisely.
“I need your help,” he said.
This was a recurring theme in their friendship. Parker was constantly digging Brian out of his self-made disasters. When they were younger, Brian was always picking fights, breaking windows, and stealing things. He was the only child of much older parents who let him run wild. As a result, the part of the brain that tells you when you’re making bad decision never full developed in Brian. His parents were in poor health all through college and died less than a year apart soon after they graduated. Once he collected his inheritance, he embarked on a parade of ill-conceived investments.
“I know I’ve done some stupid stuff,” Brian said. “The yacht with the slow leak; the pay-by-the-ounce frozen yogurt shop.”
“I told you there are way too many of those places.”
“The point is, I need your help to keep this from crashing and burning.”
A pigeon cooed in the rafters. Parker sighed.
“What do you need?”
“I need you to be a human compass pointing me in the right direction.”
“Brian, I know you’re excited about this, but–”
“Look around us. You see a partially collapsed building. I see a community space. A place where parents bring their kids and teenagers make out in the back row. Will you help me make it work?”
Parker couldn’t believe he was being dragged into another scheme, but there was a sincerity in Brian’s voice and maybe even the faintest glimmer of maturity. It had been a long time since the town had a movie theatre. Somewhere in the depths of the building, there was a popping sound and all the lights went dark.
They got to work. They pried the rotten floorboards up with crowbars, replanted the sapling beside the front steps, stripped the moldering yellow upholstery and wet foam from damaged seats, and ripped up carpet worn flat and smooth from years of patron’s feet moving excitedly to catch the curtain. They hired a contractor to fix the roof, a plumber to repair the clogged toilet, and some high school boys to repaint the lobby in modern shades of eggshell and sage. They sanded and refinished. They dusted and swept. And at each crossroads, Brian dutifully followed Parker’s advice.
A few weeks later, Brian found Parker sitting on the edge of the stage, reading a small book with tattered edges.
“I hope that’s a book on projector installation, operation, and maintenance,” he said. Parker turned the page. Brian bent down to read the cover. “Death of a Salesman?”
“I found it in the attic along with a few boxes of old scripts and costumes.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t find a nest of spiders up there.”
“Oh, I did.”
“Could you read your little play later? The screen should be here soon.”
“’Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken,’” Parker said, reading aloud. “’I’m always in a race with the junkyard! I just finished paying for the car and it’s on it’s last legs. They time those things…they time them so when you finally paid for them, they’re used up.’ Isn’t that the truth, Brian? Great stuff.”
“It’s old stuff and nobody wants to hear it anymore. It had its time.”
“It’s actually a shame this little theatre went under,” Parker said. He set the play down. “There’s something about it. The way a playwright can create a whole world with nothing but the words on the page. No CGI. No explosions. A slightly different production every night. I would have liked to see how they did Death of a Salesman here.”
Brian started walking away. He was pouring over a balance sheet on a clipboard. Renovating the theatre was more expensive than either of them predicted. The money was running out. Day by day, Brian grew more restless. They were cutting corners to finish in time to open their doors to the public. They didn’t even have money to replace the rotting steps to the light booth that they’d already ripped out or upgrade the eighty-year-old electrical system.
The night came. They plastered black and white flyers in bold face type: Grand opening! The historic Aspen Street Theatre presents Santa Claus Conquers the Martians this Friday at 7pm! Brian put on a white tuxedo that he found among the musty costumes and spent the hour before opening pacing the stage in front of the silver screen, rehearsing his speech like an actor before a play. Parker waited in the lobby as 7 o’clock came and went.
“I knew we should’ve gotten a better movie,” Parker said.
“It’s not my fault the DVD store has a terrible selection.”
Two people were crossing the street. They were climbing the stairs up to the theatre. A man and a woman in their 60s; she in a black sequined dress and he in a brown turtleneck, sport coat, and slacks. The woman stopped at the top of the stairs and gazed up at the glint off light on the sign. They stepped inside.
“Good evening,” Brian said. “We’re glad you could make it.”
“We wouldn’t miss this for the world,” the woman said.
Parker sold them their tickets and directed them into the theatre.
“I told you the people wanted movies,” Brian said, bobbing up and down with nervous energy. “I said that from the start.”
They looked out the door for any stragglers, but the street was quiet.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” Parker said. He closed the doors. Brian was already in the theatre. He leapt onto the stage and began to address his audience of two in a booming voice.
“Good evening! We are so happy to have you here in this beautiful, old theatre. We have some local brews on tap in the back and popcorn with rosemary goat cheese garlic butter available, so don’t be shy.” Brian paused for dramatic effect, exactly as rehearsed. “We are all here for one reason. One thing that unites us. We love movies. Am I right?”
“That’s not why I’m here,” the woman said from the front row. Brian was thrown.
“You’re, you’re not?”
“I’m here for the building. The theatre shut down 15 years ago,” she said. “I never thought I’d see the inside again.”
“It’s a shame, too,” the man with her added. “I was almost old enough to play Willy Loman.”
“You were actors here?” Parker asked from the back row.
“Four shows a year for twenty years,” the woman said. “We had a lot of good times.”
“Until the company went broke,” the man added.
“And after the storm, the city condemned the building and I thought that was the last of it.” She looked around the large, empty space and smiled. “It’s good to see the old place back up and running. I’ve missed it.”
Brian looked at Parker, who was leaning against the doorway to the lobby. He nodded to him to continue.
“That’s…very nice. I, um, guess the show must go on.”
“That is the saying,” the woman said. She smiled at him.
Brian stepped down and jogged up the aisle to turn off the lights. Then, he and Parker climbed up the ladder to the light booth. Parker clapped his friend on the shoulder.
“For what it’s worth, I’m proud of you for getting this far,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time you finished something you started. These two are having a great night and the movie hasn’t even started yet. They’ll tell their friends and their neighbors — soon you’ll be turning people away at the door.”
“You think so?”
“Good. I don’t know what I’ll do with 400 pounds of popcorn kernels if they don’t.”
Parker placed the DVD into its slot and then gestured to the projector.
“Will you do the honors, sir?”
Brian flipped the switch on the side of the projector. The fan spun to life and a bright light cut through the darkness. The screen shimmered with ethereal light. Brian breathed a sigh of relief. Then, there was a loud pop from somewhere under their feet and the projector went dark.
“Dammit,” Brian said. He fumbled around for a flashlight. “Don’t worry, folks. We’ll have this fixed in a minute.”
He found the flashlight and descended the rickety ladder. The fuse box was backstage, so he made his way down the aisle. After stopping to reassure his customers, he climbed onto the stage and headed off stage right. Halfway to the curtain, he stopped and swung the beam of his flashlight over the stage. Smoke was seeping out between the boards and curling into the air. A toxic smell of burning plastic tinged the air.
“Parker, we’ve got a fire in the basement! Get everybody out!”
Parker raced down the ladder and between the rows of seats to escort their patrons up the darkened aisle to safety. He paused at the door.
He wasn’t there. Parker ducked back into the theatre, which was rapidly filling with smoke. He pulled his shirt up over his mouth and nose.
“Brian! What the hell are you doing? We have to get out!”
He stumbled in the dark up onto the stage and through the maze of curtains. Brian was standing in front of the old fuse box, flipping the switches back and forth.
“I can fix this!”
“No,” Parker said. “You can’t. Come on.” He grabbed Brian by the lapels and dragged him out the back entrance. They emerged, coughing and choking on smoke, into the alley and made their way back to the street.
The older couple was standing across the road, watching as flames crept into the lobby windows and smoke poured out between the roof shingles. The man wept. The woman placed her arm around his shoulders.
Brian was paralyzed to the spot, his white tuxedo turned grey with ash, as the fire department arrived and tried to contain the blaze. By that point, the fire was licking off the fresh coat of white paint. It ate away at the structure supporting the marquee sign and sent it crashing down onto the front steps. From inside, they could hear the faint sound of nearly a quarter of a ton of popcorn popping.
“I’m sorry, Brian,” Parker said. The couple had left and firefighters were now attempting to keep the fire from spreading to the surrounding buildings. A small crowd of people had gathered at the opposite street corner to watch the destruction. Brian and Parker were sitting on the curb across the street. They could feel the heat on their skin.
“Finally, an audience,” Brian said. He didn’t take his eyes off the inferno. “I cut the budget for the electrician so we could afford the projector.”
Parker didn’t respond. The roof began to sag.
“I didn’t tell you, but that was the last of the money from my parents.”
“I thought it might be. You actually seemed to care this time.”
Brian nodded. The roof gave and collapsed into the rising flames. He chuckled.
“It’s good. You know? It’s good,” he said. “I think I can move on now.”
“I think your parents would be okay with that.”
“Of course they would. They were pushovers.” His smile faded. He stared into the fire — at his inheritance literally going up in smoke. “I think it’s better this way.”
He patted Parker on the back and stood up. After taking one last, long look at the theatre, he took of his tuxedo jacket and draped it over one shoulder. Then, he turned and walked away. Parker watched him as he disappeared around a corner. He didn’t look back.
**Jonny Eberle is a Southwest transplant living in Tacoma. His last short story, The Observable Universe, was published by Creative Colloquy in July. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science from Northern Arizona University and was the opinion editor of his campus newspaper, where a disgruntled reader once threatened to throw him off a roof. He blogs at www.jweberle.com.