Published on 2011/05/29

The Lonely Strand

Michael C. Keith

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them.

–– Isaiah

Only a handful of businesses, among them a barber shop, convenience store, farm supply depot, and pharmacy remained open along the dusty main street of Seymore, Kansas, Every one of them was teetering on the edge of extinction. Just eighteen miles from the Colorado border, the tiny hamlet had seen most of its population move elsewhere or die off. The Miller Grain Cooperative had kept the town afloat for nearly a century, but it had closed down a decade earlier. With its demise, Seymore fell on hard times. Young people fled for opportunities elsewhere, leaving in their wake an aging population to keep the windswept, high plains town on the map. By 1997, the number of residents had slipped to 372 from nearly a thousand two decades earlier.

As a life long resident of Seymore, Josh Emmett had worked in the Miller granary his entire adult life. Though he might otherwise have gone elsewhere when it closed, his disfigurement kept him from setting out to more promising places. His settlement with the company after his accident allowed him to pay off his modest house on the town’s edge and meet his daily needs, which were minimal. Josh’s only extravagance was an occasional tin of Skoal and a trip over to Goodland for some extra crispy KFC. His was a simple, if not solitary existence. Both parents were gone and his few remaining relatives lived in other parts of the state and places more distant. His childhood friend, Henry Capon, also a former Miller Grain employee, had died of a lung disease he attributed to his job, although he had been a chain smoker since his teens.

Josh’s hopes of living a normal family life ended when his arm and leg were caught in a sweep auger while he was attempting to repair it. While part of his arm remained attached to his body, it hung from his shoulder like a dead tree limb. His right leg had been severed from the knee, and although he was given a prosthetic device, he never used it––preferring to walk with the aid of a crutch. Josh knew whatever appeal he possessed for the ladies was lost that fateful day.

“Not a big market for someone with a three figure bank account that looks like me,” he had commented to his cousin in Wichita, and it pretty much summarized his situation.

This was not the future he envisioned when he was young––these bleak and endless days at age fifty-eight. Alone in his windblown one bedroom bungalow that stood in the shadow of the abandoned grain silo where he’d earned his living, Josh would reminisce about better times––such that they were. Invariably, his recollections would center on the times he spent in the old Strand Theater viewing movies that nourished his imagination while contributing to a long standing mystery that came to intrigue and haunt him.

* * *

On two occasions he had witnessed something quite extraordinary and disconcerting. While watching a vampire movie called Horror of Dracula, he had seen the actual star, Christopher Lee, standing in a corner next to the stage while his image filled the backdrop. He could not believe what he was seeing and looked harder, shading his eyes from the glare of the screen. What he observed was the actor turning away after a moment and vanishing in the darkness behind him. When he reported this to Henry, he was told he had bats in his belfry––a favorite insult of his friend. His parents said pretty much the same but in kinder words, and after a while, Josh became convinced that he had, indeed, been seeing things.

He held that belief until he was fourteen when he had another vision in the Strand, but this one was very different from the first. He was not watching a horror movie but rather a romantic comedy, called Rally’ Round the Flag, Boys! starring one of his favorite actors, Paul Newman. Midway through the lighthearted flick, one of its young starlets, Tuesday Weld––who instantly captivated Josh with her stunning looks––appeared on the left side of the stage exactly where he had seen Lee years earlier.

Josh jabbed Henry in the shoulder to get his attention determined this time to verify the bizarre sighting, but his friend was not to be distracted from the scene before him.

“Shh!” he snapped, elbowing Josh.

To his surprise, the young Hollywood beauty remained motionless as Josh starred at her. Then his heart jumped in delight as she returned his intense gaze with a seductive smile. Again, he tried to get his friend’s attention and again was elbowed. From his seat in the balcony’s front row, Josh followed the beams of smoky light from the projection room down to the screen and understood why Henry was so engrossed. The beguiling ingénue filled the cynosure within the Proscenium Arch. He then moved his eyes back to Weld and mouthed the words, “I love you,” not expecting a response––but he received one. She returned his words, turned, and vanished.

During those fleeting moments, Josh had fallen in love with the film goddess, who he knew was totally unobtainable. Yet he hoped he might meet someone who possessed Weld’s qualities, if only minutely. She was his dream girl and rarely left his thoughts, although no one like her ever entered the narrow landscape of his life. Any chance of finding someone even remotely resembling her was lost when he was maimed. After the life-altering incident, he viewed himself as something akin to the monsters in one of the horror movies he’d seen, so he reluctantly abandoned all hope.

When the Strand finally closed its doors because of declining ticket sales, Josh took it hard. It was as if a vital aspect of his meager existence was taken from him. He had seen all the Tuesday Weld movies at the Strand, and she had appeared in the flesh two more times exactly as she had in the first. Josh loved each of her films, except for one in which the actress was sexually assaulted from the rear by Robert DeNiro. It made him jealous, but her naked backside aroused him and dominated his thoughts endlessly.

* * *

Memories of the strange occurrences in Seymore’s moving picture hall were never far from his mind, and over the years Josh had examined the outside of the movie house where he calculated Lee and Weld must have exited. In addition to the main entrance, the only door to the building was on the side leading to the parking lot. He recalled its illuminated exit sign above the door inside. He had considered breaking into the Strand but always felt apprehension at the idea. There was something foreboding about the out of screen appearances of the actors. Why had they only appeared to him? What did they want? he wondered, but then his thoughts reverted to Tuesday Weld and his anxiety would be mitigated by desire.

It was that cherished memory that gave Josh the courage to break into the vacant auditorium. Josh had to find out what was in the mysterious depths of the corner that provided his visions egress. He waited until after midnight to enter the abandoned cinema and did so by prying the side door with a crowbar. It popped open easily, and a blast of dank air greeted him as he stepped inside. It gave him goose bumps and he froze for a moment. Regaining his courage, he shot the beam of his flashlight across the first floor row of seats and up to the balcony where he had spent so many happy afternoons and evenings in his younger days.

A gust of wind slammed the door behind him and he jumped.

“Shit!” blurted Josh, and then advanced toward his target. To his disappointment but also a degree of relief, no actors awaited him on the corner of the stage. He aimed the shaft of light to the side and noticed a hallway that led to a door.

How was that possible? Josh wondered, moving cautiously toward it. The handle of the door felt warm and moist as if another hand had just been on it. He turned it slowly and then gave the door a slight push. Daylight poured from the small opening.

“What the . . .?” Josh mumbled, stopping to catch his breath.

Bracing himself he pushed the door further and the glare caused him to squint. When he was able to open his eyes fully, he beheld the empty field behind the Strand, but instead of moonlight it was awash in summer sun.

I’m dreaming this. I have to be, he told himself, as the phantom door closed behind him. A figure dressed in black from head to toe stood across the arid clearing. Josh took a few steps forward and then gasped.

“It’s her!” Josh uttered in total disbelief. He then shouted her name at the top of his lungs. From his position, he could just make out a smile on her face, exactly like the one he’d seen before. He began moving toward her as quickly as his disabled body would allow. As he neared she placed the hood of her garment over her head. Tears of joy were running down his cheeks when he arrived at her side.

“Is it you . . . really you?” Josh sputtered, breathlessly.

A mocking laugh came from the hooded figure before him.

“Tuesday?” asked Josh, apprehensively.

“You mistake me, sir. My name is Christopher . . . Christopher Lee. You surely remember,” said the thespian smiling sardonically as he revealed himself, the red pupils of his eyes aglow.

Josh stepped back. “You’re not . . ..”

“Tuesday Weld? Of course I’m not. What did you expect? That was only a movie . . . an illusion just like this.”

* * *

John Cargill arose from the cot in back of his farm supply store and, since his bathroom was broken, he went outside to relieve himself. As he stood there, he noticed the silhouette of a lone figure on the moon lit horizon with his arms outstretched to the heavens. He momentarily wondered whom it was, shrugged, and went back inside to bed.

Michael C. Keith is the author of two short story collections and an acclaimed memoir.