by Scott Jessop
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
After the weekend, I was at it again, sitting at the upright, breaking down takes and then syncing the audio fullcoat, trimming off the excess and hanging the long strips of film. It was monotonous and went on for hours into the night. Around ten, I felt a chill on my neck and shivered. Moments later, my internal proximity alarm told me I was no longer alone. I took off the headphones and called out, but there was no answer.
I went back to work. A few minutes later, I heard someone calling my name in the headphones. I ripped the cans off my head and called out again, “Who’s there?” I heard only the creaking of dry wood and the distant hum of the refrigerator in the dank space they called the lunchroom.
I went back to the work but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. Around one in the morning, another wave of cold washed over me. It was late August and the nights can be cool, but not this night. It had been unseasonably warm, and I had been sweating in the back room just moments before.
My foot pushed the pedal and the screen lit up. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a person, vaguely female, and then a hand shoved my back. The cans came off again, and I stood up and spun around, “Who is there? Come on! Stop it!”
That was it. I was done for the night. Grabbing my coffee cup, I went to the restroom at the back of the studio to wash it. Only the lone stage-light lit my way until I got to the door. Still a little weirded out, I turned on the fluorescent lights and left the door open. “Silly,” I thought to myself, “it’s just Ish’s ghost stories getting into your head.” I glanced back across the studio and saw a woman standing near the other door. She wore a petticoat and white blouse.
At first, my mind didn’t register the specter, and I went back to washing my cup but then what I saw clicked. I looked again at the stage but the phantom was gone.
The following morning, I talked to Paul — Telly’s business partner and the company’s director of photography — and told him about what I had seen.
“Oh, that’s Clara,” he said matter-of-factly. “Did you look at the footage in the upright?”
I glanced over at Telly’s desk where he was busy typing a script. This was 1979, and the company was still a few years from its first desktop. Hunched over the IBM Selectric, Telly banged away, two-finger-typing an opus for the local tourism board. “Yeah,” I started. The click, cluck, chuck of the Selectric stopped.
“Wasn’t I clear? I told you not to touch it. I told you,” Telly exploded jabbing his finger at me as if to push me out the door. “Get out. Get out. You’re fired.”
I stumbled back and felt my throat tighten, but Paul put a hand on my shoulder. “Be cool, man,” he said, “no one is fired.” He motioned Telly to calm down but instead the director tried to sit and knocked over his chair. The act embarrassed him, and he pushed past me and out the door.
“Clara and Telly don’t get along,” Paul said, returning to his desk. He started rearranging things: phone, pencils, pads and envelopes as if he could organize his universe into something that made sense. It was his habit like a dog spinning around three times before it lies down. He did it whenever he and his partner fought, so he did it a lot. “A while back she didn’t like the way he was treating an actress on the set and she tipped over a nine light.”
I shrugged, “How do you know it was this ghost? Could’ve been anything.”
Paul smiled. “We saw her.”
“It was a back-to-school commercial for the Templeton Hills Mall. A young woman in a turn-of-the-century garb and black-laced boots stands out on set.”
“So some Hollywood, silent-film actress just picked a random building in Colorado Springs to haunt?” I asked.
“This place was a movie studio back in the day,” he said. “The silent film guys came out here in the early 1900s to escape the Edison men.”
Paul loved film history almost as much as he loved his bizarre habits. “Edison decided that his patent for the cinema camera included the entire process of filmmaking, so he sent out armies of lawyers and patent enforcers to shut down any production. In those days, most movies were made in the New York City area.
“Filmmakers headed out west, and that included Spike Leibowitz and Johnny McDaniels. They bought this old opera house, converted it into the Rocky Mountain Film Studios, and operated out of this building until 1942, when they moved just north of town. Then they just used it for storage.”
“Did they make any movies?”
“From about 1910 to 1930 they made shorts. Mostly cowboy flicks. Clara Duncan was one of their star players. It was the classic story. They found her in their office working as a typist. She died just before the first war. Then they switched over to what we call corporate work — employee training films, promotional work. When World War II broke out, they landed a government contract and built a big studio on the north side of town. Whole thing went belly-up in 1968.”
“We found her film on the upright in the back. Telly took a look at the footage but something about it just...” he trailed off. “Anyway, shortly after that we started hearing noises, doors slamming, lights turning on and off, that sort of thing. Then the incident on the set,” he said, searching for a cigarette. He went to Telly’s desk where he knew he’d find a pack. “Since then she’s been rather quiet. Oh, every now and then you can feel her presence. That feeling you’re being watched, if you get my meaning.”
I nodded. He found what he was looking for and a book of matches and lit the stick. “She’s harmless.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
Paul shrugged as he relished the tobacco. “No idea. Some say she drowned in the Arkansas River down in Florence during a shoot. Some say she committed suicide. No one really knows.”
* * *
I never believed in ghosts. Sure there were those eerie noises heard at night when you’re lying in bed in an empty house. Noises that make the cat sit up and follow an invisible phantom across the room. The overwhelming feeling that, if you get up to go investigate, something is going to reach out and grab you. Darkness seeps in and a passing car flashes a ghostly shadow on the wall. Lying in your bed, you pull the sheets up tight and feel the sweat around your neck. But while you sit up in panic, I go blissfully back to sleep. I never accepted the paranormal.
Over the next few weeks, I grew used to Clara’s presence despite not believing in ghosts. It was fun, like when I was a kid and I believed in Peter Pan or the Tooth Fairy or that the Beatles would stay together forever. I felt close to her late at night when I was alone in the old building breathing the 100-year-old dust and horsehair. It was comfortable knowing, as I walked through the parking lot at one in the morning in a run-down industrial quarter of town with its warehouses and bars and strip clubs, that Clara might be watching.
Then Clara, my imaginary friend, showed me her secret.
It was around eleven, and I had wrapped up my work and gone to clean out my coffee cup. Like the time before, I was in the restroom at the back of the studio washing the cup when I saw her standing near a couple of set walls.
“Hello,” I called. She didn’t fade away or wisp into the ether like smoke, but instead, walked into the camera room. That’s real, I thought, corporeal. I followed her into the vault and found her standing in the center, casting her eyes about like a kid looking for Space Mountain.
“Clara,” I managed to stammer.
She nodded and smiled. It was a sunny grin, free, playful and seductive, but absent the mischief that radiated in the film. A masterful actress, she took the heart of her audience of one and led me across the room.
I was awash in her curly black locks that fell about her face, piercing blue eyes with flints of green. She was shapely with long legs that made her appear tall, but she was really no taller than I was. She had a way of cocking her hip to the side and gliding her torso the opposite way as if to beckon her admirer to come closer. I did.
Clara pointed to the shelf tucked in the corner of the room. It was stacked with small silver and brown film cans. She touched the third from the top, turned, smiled and faded. I stood alone in the room for a beat or two trying to get my wits, and then I took the can down. It was labeled: “The Romantic Cowboy” and inside was a 1,000-foot reel of nitrocellulose 35mm film.
I took the film can back to my editing room and dragged the old 35mm editor out of its corner. On the reel was a short featuring Clara and a strong jawed, handsome cowboy. They were lovers: Clara the schoolmarm seduced by the dashing cowboy who sang to her and played a silent guitar. A melodramatic, Pantalone-type character was terrorizing them until, at the end of the picture, the cowboy dispatches the villain with a swift punch to the jaw. As I watched, I felt a familiar presence.
“Is that Tom Mix?” I asked turning around to what had been an empty room. Clara was there and she nodded. “The villain looks familiar but I can’t place him.”
She put her hands over her ears. I knew she meant Lon Chaney, the son of two deaf parents who taught at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind just across town.
“You were in a film with Tom Mix and Lon Chaney?” I asked. She nodded. As far as I knew, the two legends had not appeared in a film together. It was a rare find worth tens of thousands to a collector.
Clara clasped her folded hands over her heart.
“You were in love,” I asked. “With which one?”
She grew sad and cast her eyes to the side.
She looked down.
Her eyes shifted but she continued to look down, her lower lip pushed forward.
“Oh, Clara, what were you thinking?” I asked.
“You were ambitious, and they were dogs, I’m sure. Did they promise to take you to California?”
She nodded again.
“They were both married, Clara,” I said. “Did you really think they were going to take you with them?”
She wept into her hands and faded away.
“They were never going to take you to Hollywood, Clara,” I shouted to the air. “You were just a diversion.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Scott Jessop