Fire Exit

Fiction
Phillip Mitchell


Photo Credit: Jon Seidman/Flickr (CC-by)

Sebastian swore she was Rita Hayworth. In her black capris and purple blouse—hair in a ponytail—she wasn’t Golden Age of Hollywood. But the broad face, wide-set eyes, auburn hair, and full lips were unmistakable. “She had a substantial face,” his grandfather once said, pointing to the Down to Earth poster on the wall. Until today, until seeing it in the flesh, Sebastian didn’t know how a face could be “substantial.”

“You can only see it from a distance. Like the Grand Canyon.”

Hayworth rested one leg over the other, the suspended pump dangling off her heel as she inched her foot up and down the side of the desk.

“They all had it. Monroe. Davis. Hepburn. But none of ‘em like Hayworth.”

Who was he, film geek, high school loner, bearer of acne scars, to even entertain the notion that she’d see him, too?

At the behest of his father, Sebastian pretended to take notes. “Learning to be manager,” his father had said.

But instead he was studying Hayworth in furtive glances, sketching her, winding his pencil around the legal pad.

Scenes from Cover Girl played in his head.

“We make a fine couple.”

“We make a wonderful couple.”

“Don’t we, though?”

“Why here? Why a rickety old movie house?” his dad, William, said and looked at her resume, then back at her face, like he were watching her from the other side of a seesaw. William’s ancient white short-sleeve button-up—a line of yellow at the collar—belied the glimmer in his eyes. But Sebastian could see it. Hated it.

Yes, it was a family thing, this being attracted to Hayworth.

Had William not asked these questions dozens of times the past couple of weeks, Sebastian knew he would’ve been fumbling over his words at the sight of her.

“I live about a half-hour outside of town,” she said. “I’m a film minor, kind of late getting my BA. I’ve worked in video rental stores for the past six years. Just trying to get my feet on the ground…”

She talked, smiled, stopped, tangled her fingers together, and thought just a moment then carried on.

Talking—just being alive!—was art to her, Sebastian thought. He’d never met anyone so calculated, so poised. He reminded himself this was, after all, a job interview, but it did little to quash his enthusiasm.

“And what about your job at Blockbuster?” William said while adjusting the picture of the family on the desk, moving it toward him.

The photograph had been taken three years before. The family was in Chatham, New York, out front of the Crandell Theatre, in business since 1926. Sebastian’s mother, Lorraine, stood before them, arms out and palms down, head thrown back, diva-style. An older gentleman, who had a catalogue of stories about the theatre in its heyday—that he was too willing to share—had snapped the photograph while Sebastian and William stood on either side of Lorraine, hands in their pockets, staring blankly at the old man. Sebastian remembered thinking the whole trip was dumb. But Lorraine had said that the family, “being in the theatre business and all” should be required to see the oldest theatres in the United States. It was three weeks of William wrestling the cumbersome RV into campgrounds, backing it out, and keeping it between the lines on those infinite stretches of interstate. Sebastian never heard him protest, but he knew his father tired of the trip quickly. He wanted to be back at home and back at Aspire. At the time, Sebastian was too young to care about movies, much less movie theatres. He was fourteen. Video games consumed most of his time and energy. So the trip was a bust for all of them. But Lorraine had probably had the worst time, Sebastian now thought.

He didn’t realize Hayworth had answered the question about Blockbuster until his father asked another about dealing with “irate customers.”

Hayworth straightened in the chair. “I’d respond politely, you know. I wouldn’t get mad or anything. I’d get a manager. If what they wanted was reasonable, I guess. I’d try to help them all I could. People say I’m congenial, I guess, kindhearted.”

William rehashed the “strength/weaknesses” bit, a common question Sebastian had learned about in business class.

“My weaknesses? Well…” she glanced around the room, stopped for a moment on the Down to Earth poster, and turned back to William. Sebastian wondered if she recognized herself hanging on the wall.

“Probably trying to answer questions in interviews.”

She giggled, but not like a schoolgirl. It was a woman-married-five-times kind of giggle.

She turned to Sebastian, pursed her lips.

It was only a half-smile, but it was enough. Sebastian was hopeful. She wasn’t too old for him. She was twenty-five, maybe twenty-six at the most. She, like him, carried a burden.

That his father still had youthful vigour, a face untouched by wrinkles though he was forty-five, would not help Sebastian’s prospects. His father looked like Neil Gaiman, long, wiry hair and all. And, today he sported a dark five o’clock shadow. Sebastian couldn’t even grow stubble.

“Sebastian. Will you get us some coffee?”

God, he thought. He stood, dropped the clipboard on the seat. “Sure, sure.”

Once into the foyer, he jumped over the concessions counter. He had to jump to expend the energy at work in his seventeen-year-old brain. Realizing he’d forgotten to ask how they wanted the coffee, he scaled the counter again and ran back. He was out of breath when he opened the office door.

“Just black,” she said.

“Oh, she’s a tough girl. You okay, Sebastian?” William said.

He felt the heat in his face, the steady rhythm in his chest. “Yeah, yeah.”

She was tougher than Sebastian was, for sure. He had to take both sugar and creamer in his.

He’d felt a hint of it before, back when he’d started high school and had a crush on Katie Ransom. But this was different. It was stupid, he knew. He’d just met her. And, technically, he’d not even done that. He was a silent observer, the errand-boy-in-training. He didn’t even know her real name.

He was back at concessions pouring coffee into Styrofoam cups when he heard his father laugh. Not just laugh, but explode. Guffaw. Hayworth followed suit. He edged to the door to eavesdrop, gripping the cups in his hands, steadying himself.

His father was taking off. He hadn’t heard him talk this fast in years. He couldn’t make out what he was saying, just the rhythm of his voice, and the laughter. They were both cracking up.

Opening the door with a foot, he discovered them red-faced. Hayworth grabbed her hair and twisted it.

Sebastian leaned over and extended the coffee. She took it from him. The cup trembled in her hand. When he placed the other cup on his father’s desk, he didn’t notice the ‘See Rock City’ paperweight and set the cup partly on it. He let the cup go, and it fell over, sending a wave of brown over the desk. It covered Hayworth’s resume and parted at the family photo, sending tributaries that led into a stack of papers and off the side of the desk.

His father kicked back his swivel chair. “Jesus Christ, Sebastian.”

“Sorry, sorry.”

Sebastian grabbed the stack of paper and began dividing it into smaller stacks, trying to wall in the spillage.

“What are you doing? Get some paper towels. Jesus,” his father said. “Those are my tax papers.”

“Sorry.”

Sebastian left the room, walked across the atrium, shouldered open the bathroom door, and jerked the paper towels from the dispenser.

“His” tax papers. Whatever. His father hadn’t done any paperwork since Lorraine had passed. Truth told, he’d never done any, and his mom, who’d had an MBA and an affinity for small-town American cinema, had kept the place floating since Sebastian’s grandfather had died.

When Sebastian returned from the bathroom with a handful of towels, Hayworth was standing, her purse strapped over her shoulder.

“No, it’s okay,” his father said. “He’s just a klutz sometimes. Aren’t you Sebastian?”

“Well, I—”

“It’s okay, Sebastian. I do it all the time. That’s why I’m not a waitress,” she said and laughed.

“Come on, I’ll show you the theatre,” William said to Hayworth. “Sebastian, will you get this?”

“Yeah, I’ll clean it up,” Sebastian said.

As they walked out, Sebastian cleaned off the desk. He threw the towels in the wastebasket. After stacking the papers again, he set them on the windowsill and cracked open the window.

He grabbed his clipboard, plopped down, took up the pen, and drew himself clutching his father by the throat, suspending him in the vast ocean of white on the page. He ripped off the page, wadded it up, and launched it into the wastebasket. He drew another of himself leaning over the Hayworth, handing her the coffee.

What would Mom say now?

Last night his father was in the garage, tinkering with his collection of antique film projectors, flicking them off and on, the ancient light casting grainy images onto the wall.

He always used the same film to try the projectors out, the old eight-millimeter of their outing to Hollywood, in which the ghost of his mother, Lorraine, flailing her arms in the air, waved at the camera and pointed down to the stars on the sidewalk as the video moved down to her feet. She was standing on Marlon Brando and looking nothing like Rita Hayworth. The camera moved back up. She was a plump blond and the nicest person Sebastian had ever met. Then little Sebastian appeared in the frame, grabbing his mother’s hand.

His father’s voice woke him from the daydream.

“Built in 1950, by my father, after serving in WWII, Aspire raised the post-war generation of the suburbs on Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Grace Kelly, Doris Day, John Wayne, Deborah Kerr, and James Stewart, to name a few. This was a bulwark of American Optimism, imagination, and all the bustling madness of a place trying to put itself back together.”

Sebastian noticed that he left out Rita Hayworth.

He’d heard his dad give the same spiel dozens of times, to movie critics, to school groups. But never to employees. Part of it was taken from a write-up in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Over the past three decades, Aspire had reached museum status. It was one of the only independently-owned theatres left in Georgia. The fact that it had survived in what was a borderline rural community made its longevity all the more surprising.

Hayworth met William’s monologue with more than a passing curiosity. Did they wear those uniforms back in the day? The little hat and all? Do you have any original posters from the fifties and sixties? Tickets? Films?

Randy Newman’s theme from The Natural played from Sebastian’s pocket. He pulled out his cell. “Hello.”

“Good man, Sebastian.” It was his father’s accountant.

“Hi, Donald.”

“Listen, have you talked to your dad?”

“He’s not listening to me. Hasn’t been all year.”

“You shouldn’t have to—”

“I’ll tell him again.”

Sebastian put the phone back in his pocket and turned to the open door.

His father had gotten louder. “Yes, the person we hire will be taking part in history.”

The truth was, he wasn’t going to hire Hayworth—or anyone else. Sebastian wouldn’t let it happen. Because what his father wasn’t saying to her was that next week the place would close. Last week they’d sold five tickets, one small popcorn, and three sodas.

What he told Donald was true. He’d tried to make it clear. Three weeks ago he’d sat on the garage floor while William tinkered with a projector. Sebastian had a file on his lap.

“Dad,” Sebastian said.

“Bit busy, Sebastian.”

“We’re going to have to talk.”

“This here,” he said, clinking his screwdriver against his latest project, “is a 1960—”

“Dad, we’re going under.”

“I just have to replace the bulb and it should work.”

Two years before, the Boulevard opened twenty miles north of Winder, boasting twenty auditoriums, stadium seating, hardly-fit-in-your-hand drink cups, and popcorn buckets you could carry small children in. They had 3-D. They had seats for fat people. They were servicing all the small towns that were too far from Athens and Atlanta, and they were packing the house. Twenty theatres, at least three showings a day in each, sometimes more, meant they were showing more than ten times the number Aspire could.

*

Sebastian stepped outside the office, clipboard cradled in his arm. Hayworth and his father were in front of the famous wall of signatures. They used to mean something to Sebastian. Now they were liquid assets. If they sold the photographs, the memorabilia, and some old film reels, they’d have enough to get them through the next few weeks while he figured out what was next for the two of them.

And, then, he felt it again.

No normal woman had an ass like that, he thought. It was the animal in him. Or maybe it was something else. He’d seen nice asses, mostly in films, or some in his high school, and he’d had tons of adolescent fantasies, but he’d never been in the presence of a truly great ass like he was now. It was a substantial ass, he thought, though he couldn’t imagine his grandfather saying that. This yearning was more than adolescent horniness. He was keen enough about his own senses to detect something profound at work. Then he was watching the scene in slow motion, him shutting the door, clipboard in hand, her turning, her hair moving gently to the side, until that face, that substantial face, came into view, and, lit by the incandescent lights from above, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen came into the frame, that smile. Jesus, even Hayworth’s dimples. It wasn’t just her ass; it was every part of her.

Sebastian was in Gene Kelly’s place, in Cover Girl, cracking open oysters in the diner, hopping off his stool and breaking into a dance number, out into the Brooklyn alleyway to “Make Way for Tomorrow.” But his father kept breaking in, holding her resume in the air, as he and Phil Silvers paddled the oars in the imaginary boat, then locked arms. His father hopped down and took her other arm, just as the police officer walked into the frame swinging his nightstick.

“Something the matter, Sebastian?” his father called.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, scrambling over to the wall of signatures, gripping his pen, jotting down nonsense in a blaze.

He stood behind them, looking between, then at the wall of autographs and back down to his clipboard. Burt Reynolds, Betty White, Michael J. Fox.

“So you met Michael J. Fox?” she asked.

“I did, yeah. About ten years ago. Real nice fella. A lot of energy,” William said.

Looking at his goofy smile, Sebastian wondered what his mother had seen in him. In the short time Sebastian had been alive he’d seen at least three people reach out and pull him back from the edge of the abyss.

Lorraine and William had met at the University of Georgia. She was a business major. William was a film geek and not much else. He’d dropped out of his literature degree halfway through—too institutional, he’d complained to Sebastian several times over the years—though the truth was, Sebastian figured, that his dad had always planned to do nothing but manage Aspire—and to do so under the auspices of his own father. When William’s father died, Lorraine anchored him. Maybe his mother liked saving things. Maybe in him she saw her life’s project.

“Take care of him, Sebastian,” his mother had said.

Sebastian thought that in his father’s world, people stayed alive indefinitely—and took care of the daily grind while he kept his head in the garage—and floated like a spectre at the theatre. It was a convenient arrangement, until his way of living was no longer consistent with realities that beset him. Now Sebastian was to assume the roles that his grandfather and mother had played for William.

But he couldn’t do it. Trying to finish high school was tough enough. He’d taken on a business class this year to try to help out, but he was drowning. His mother had six years of higher education and still struggled to keep the place going. As a member of the Small Business Owners Association, she’d been able to waylay the development of the multiplex for several years. But when she got sick, there was no one left to fight.

Sebastian found her last presentation, “The Real America,” last night. He’d thumbed through the yellowed document, trying to curl back the edges of every page. They’d curl as soon as he’d press. He gave up. Gave up de-curling and gave up reading.

He didn’t have her knowledge or finesse. And, more than that, though he tried talking to the bank, they told him in no uncertain terms that he was too young to apply for a business loan, and, even if he were eighteen, it was his father’s business.

That it was supposed to be the other way around didn’t matter. He’d accepted his new reality with resolve. But he knew this couldn’t be what Wordsworth—or Parks Van Dyke—meant by the “the child is father of the man.”

“So sad about his disease,” Hayworth said, looking up at Michael J. Fox.

“It is. Sebastian, tell her about the time he visited, you asking about time travel and all. I’ll be right back.” His father hurried off toward the restroom.

“Um, it was lame,” Sebastian said.

Hayworth turned and smiled again and looked back up at the photographs. “So what’s your favorite film?”

He didn’t look over, just scribbled nonsense on the legal pad. “Oh, um, I’m not sure.”

It’s a Wonderful Life was the answer. Every Christmas since he could remember he’d sat with his family in Theatre Three on Christmas Day, long after the gifts were open and Christmas dinner eaten, to watch George Bailey decide that suicide wasn’t, after all, the way to go. His father always cried and touched his shoulder when George read Clarence’s card at the end.

Rocky, I think. The first one,” Sebastian said.

“You’re kidding,” she said.

“Come on, that’s great characterization,” he said.

“Stallone’s a one-trick pony. And it’s boxing. If you’re going with boxing, it’s Raging Bull. That’s characterization. Think about him all fat in that nightclub in Miami at the end.”

“Rocky lost, too.”

“I bet you like Cinderella Man,” she chuckled. “Nice picture, by the way.”

He scratched his head and pointed his face to the floor. “Yeah, they’re all decent, I guess. I like Burt Reynolds’s ‘stache.”

“I mean the one you drew.”

Sebastian bit the inside of his lip. He fastened his eyes onto the legal pad, and wrote, at first doodled, endless circles, ocean waves, which bled into the fantasy schedule for next week’s films.

Then he was back inside Cover Girl. “Long Ago and Far Away” played in his head. He was stacking chairs on the tables at the club, and she emerged in a blue dress, waves of it cascading down her body. He lost himself there. She sang while he pretended not to notice, closing up for the evening, until he hummed, and his hum exploded into words, and then walked back into the room, and they kissed, they danced, they walked off arm in arm as the camera shifted back into an establishing shot.

“Don’t blush,” she said and put her hand on his arm.

“Oh, I’m not. Just a bit warm.”

It was all slow motion again. What if he spun around, grabbed, dipped her, as if they were at the close of a dance, and he leaned in for the kiss? Would she laugh? Did she feel it, too?

She was smiling at him, but he couldn’t look her in the eye. He looked up, focused on Betty White hanging there on the wall.

“She was my mom’s favorite Golden Girl.”

“Golden Girl?”

“You never heard of Golden Girls?”

*

William had gotten Betty White’s autograph when she’d visited Aspire a few years back. Sebastian was behind concessions, perched on a stool doing his math homework while the exchange with his father took place. He wasn’t starstruck. At that time, Sebastian didn’t know who White was, either. More important issues, like his mother in the hospital, were on his mind. When the last of the Sunday matinee-goers had paraded out the double doors, William drove them to the hospital.

Sebastian never knew the details of his mother’s illness, just that her kidneys were failing. He was fourteen at the time. The waiting list was long. William wasn’t a match and, though Sebastian was, Lorraine would hear nothing of her son giving her a kidney.

William and Sebastian had sat on either side of Lorraine, William staring out at the window and Sebastian holding his mother’s hand. When they’d come in, William had leaned over, placed the Betty White photo at her chest, and turned the chair around.

“Oh my!” Lorraine said. “She came by the theatre?”

“Dad?” Sebastian said to the back of the chair.

“He loves us, Sebastian,” Lorraine whispered and squeezed his hand. “You’re so strong, Sebastian. You know that, right?”

“That White,” William said, from what sounded a faraway place. “She’s sassy.”

*

William was tucking in his shirt when he emerged from the restroom and took his place next to Hayworth. He jerked at the sides of his pants. “You tell her about Fox?”

“I told her about Betty White,” Sebastian lied.

Hayworth glanced between them.

“Oh. Um,” William said.

“Someone have a crush?” Hayworth said, turning up to the picture of White.

Sebastian bore down on his father, but William wouldn’t return the gaze.

He ran a hand through his hair and pulled at his pants again. “Listen, Jennifer, we’ll be making decisions tonight so you should hear something soon, maybe as soon as tomorrow.”

“That sounds great.” She extended a hand, and his father took it, offered a warm smile, slightly blushing, and let it go and slid his hands in his pockets.

“Sebastian, listen, can you make sure the fire exits are locked? I’m gonna finish up here with Jennifer.”

“Oh, alright,” Sebastian said. He turned to Jennifer and offered a quick nod and a “nice to meet you” and shuffled out of their way and into the darkness of the hallway leading to the theatres.

The fire exits were always locked from the outside.

*

When he emerged from the darkness of the hallway back into the atrium, he noticed the lights were off there, too. The sky outside was indigo, and his father was a shadow in Jennifer’s headlights. If he hadn’t known him, Sebastian might’ve mistaken him for a sentry.

Does he even know? Sebastian wondered.

“Dad?”

“What do you think of her?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“You know it does. You’re going to take this place over, right?”

“This is over, Dad.”

Sebastian didn’t move closer, and William didn’t turn to face him.

Sebastian didn’t know whether to scream at him or retreat.

He was almost old enough to leave. In just a few months, he could skip town. He’d be responsible for only himself.

“I’m so sorry to bother,” Jennifer said, and poked her head in one of the front doors. “You know anything about cars?”

“I do,” William said, walking toward her.

“Thank God,” she said.

It’s just as well, Sebastian thought. He knew as much about cars as he knew about women.

So Sebastian mopped up concessions and started the vacuum cleaner. Through the window he watched his father hunched over her Rodeo, twisting shit, shaking his head, and wiping his hands on a rag. The streetlights illuminated them. It was almost black-and-white, this picture. At one point, William held Jennifer’s elbows. She was laughing. Then his father was laughing. Then they were both trying to gain their composure.

His father came in, flushed, out of breath. “Hey buddy. I can’t get her car to start, so I’m going to take her home. Close up, okay? I’ll be back in a bit to pick you up.”

*

He sat in Auditorium Three with a bag of popcorn. 1:30 a.m. It’s a Wonderful Life. It had been hours since his father left. Was he still with her? Maybe he was in the garage, tinkering again. Or maybe he’d not taken Jennifer home at all but had walked past her on the way out of the theatre, eyes fixed ahead, hands stuffed into his pockets, a somnambulant, streetlights casting his shadow onto the sidewalk, one foot in front of the other, stretching into the future ad infinitum. That’s what he’d been doing all along: strolling into the darkness, fading, as if he were only a tangential component of the world of objects around. And if he did it, if he went quietly, Sebastian wasn’t sure he’d care.

What would Mom think?

When at the sentimental end to end all sentimental endings, George Bailey’s life had been restored and he glances down at Clarence’s words, “No man is a failure who has friends,” Sebastian was suffocating.

The screen went black. He heard only the hum of the projector, a slight hiss in the speakers.

His father opened the door to the theatre and called out, the hallway light illuminating the aisle.

Sebastian knew what his mother would think. He gripped the armrests and imagined catapulting himself to the fire exit before standing and following William out.

pencil

Phillip Mitchell has a creative writing degree from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. He currently teaches English at the University of North Georgia. His work has appeared in New Writing, Grand Central Review, Pismire Poetry, and elsewhere. Email: phillipmitchell26[at]gmail.com

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