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Ghostlight

A lonely theatre electrician finds fleeting romance with a charming spectre.

I don't cotton much to superstition. The world is so complex as it is, so full of marvels, I can't see adding any other conditions to what nature's already given. Most others here, though, seem to make things as complicated as possible. So many imaginary rules about what one must always and never do. Only roses and hothouse flowers in the dressing rooms. Only the top of the playbill and marquee. Never wish someone "break a leg." Never utter the name of the Scottish play. Never acknowledge the deck electrician unless he's lit you with an unflattering color of gelatine.

I do my best to make them appear the way they wish to be. It's my job to make the visible invisible. I change the aspect of the light so the set changes can't be seen, the riggings fade, and their faces soften to those of the ingénues they play. It's their job to be emotional, but they'll chew up the damn scenery over a few wilted lilies and bad reviews. I'd rather avoid the tears and recriminations of actresses when I can help it. So, I don't walk under any ladders and I don't break any mirrors. And, I always leave the ghost light lit.

According to superstition, a single light must always be left burning to keep the ghosts appeased. Even when unoccupied, the theatre cannot be left completely dark. There's a portable light standard with a wire cage on top that holds an exposed incandescent bulb. I set the standard down center stage before I go at night, six nights a week. Show's closed Tuesdays. I'm usually the last one out anyhow. Others are in a rush to sign autographs outside the stage door, or go to fancy parties, or whatever swell things they do. So, I always leave the ghost light on, except for the one night I didn't.

Between intermission, at which folks had chatted happily and smoked under the glow of the marquee, and the third act, a fabulous storm had manifest. There was a mad rush of actresses and audience members after the show, all looking for umbrellas and newspapers and such to protect furs of varied quality. People practically tumbled onto the street. The cacophony of voices, both amused and fretful, and thunder claps and booms diverted my attention to routine. I left last again. And, my umbrella having been absconded with by some unsavory patron, I was wet, worried, and slightly unmoored. Only two blocks along, the storm grew even more intense. While I could navigate the theatre blindfolded, each aisle and catwalk and cable, I could see little of the city sidewalk regardless of the reflected neon. I turned back to the theatre for shelter. It was not until I'd reached for the lobby door that I'd realized I'd left the theatre absolutely dark.

There was still a slight hum of electricity and the residual heat from the lamps. Something unfamiliar, skittering, and frantic grew louder as I neared the lighting panel. A loose cable, I'd considered, swinging its plenty of lights? A small animal seeking relief from the weather? I raised the dimmer bar slowly. A young woman in a long skirt and cloche hat was flinging herself across the stage. It brought an instant recollection of the time when, as a boy, I'd put a beetle in a cigar box and it had frenetically careened from corner to corner with neither plan nor pause. As we both came into the surprised view of the other, she calmed. Her mouth opened, but no sound emerged. Her tongue touched her teeth and then made a rosebud O as she mouthed the th in thank and the round vowel of you.

Thank you for the light.

She was pretty and perfect. Her long hair was gathered at the nape of her neck, right at the lace of her collar, and she wore no lip rouge or jewelry. Her cheeks were flushed with anxiety. I ascended the stairs slowly, so as not to frighten, and she watched me take each step with care and curiosity. More than pretty she was. As the flush left her cheeks, she became pale to the point of translucency. I walked to the wings, still in her gaze, and turned up the footlights to better see.

As the deck electrician, I run the crew for a production, in the few times there's more to the crew than just me. I'm responsible for all aspects of running the lighting on or backstage. I hang the riggings, point and shape the beam, and connect the circuits of instruments and panels. I add gel to color the light or change patterns to create texture, focus and readjust lamps that get moved, and manage any set pieces that are electrified.

In the glow of the footlights, I saw at once she was indeed a phantom. For I knew every calibration of light in that space. And she, where nature and science would have prescribed otherwise, she cast no shadow.

I'd heard tales of hauntings, of course: tortured spectral dancers pacing the boards, bankrupt producers hanging from rafters, ruined ingénues. I hadn't put any credence to it, the taletellers being so dramatic in the telling. But, she didn't look like an actress at all. And, now in the light, she didn't look tortured. From the skittering beetle she transformed into a caged bird. Still enchanting in color though quieted and caged.

I could offer her not food nor coffee nor coat for comfort, not even a proper introduction. When I shook her hand I merely shook a glove. Yet there was electricity between us. In the subtle language of light, we told our stories. I was an only child, made an orphan during the War, and with no siblings or cousins for consolation, I'd grown up in solitude, dark, and quiet. My character is not of this modern world; I'm not even quite sure how to live in it. I do understand the interplay of light and shadow. Were there no actors and no lines, I could tell the journey from city to country, from content to ruin, from loneliness to love - only in light.

And she, as I came to learn, had danced her story over and over again - almost 25 years a spirit confined to this stage - in the nightly incandescence of the ghost light. Until that night, she'd had no audience save other ghosts. These spectres put on their own plays late every Tuesday, depending on the theatre to be closed. In the few times, tourist season and such, when the plays had booked seven straight days, the phantoms had not been pleased. In my tenure, cords had been quite dangerously frayed, colored lights shone in the wrong hues, and more than one performer suffered mysterious injury. Now, even the nonbelievers left Tuesdays for the ghosts.

I started staying late. Not on Tuesdays. It seemed to me the loveliness of watching her play the role of Ophelia or Ondine would be tempered by the discomfort of seeing her with her own kind. For I imagined, though trapped in the light, she still felt more at ease with other spectres than she could ever feel with me. So, six nights a week, after the crew and cast had gone, I set out the ghost light and beckoned her come.

As we came to know each other, I introduced more lamps to our strange and silent symphony, and let the colors tell what we could not articulate. Though she cast no shadow, her ethereal form changed in the telling. In green light, I saw her vibrant youth, and imagined a sun-dappled orchard and a family farm. In yellow, she transformed to a young woman too curious and inspired to stay home. As the lights became pink, then magenta, then red, she was not the fresh-faced beauty I saw at first. Her hair was shorter, curled like a chorine, and her lips were lacquered in a tiny bow. Her eyebrows thinned and arched, her skirt shortened, her blackened lashes lowered into a come-hither gaze. In the blue light, she was bejeweled, though barely clothed, platinum bobbed, back arched in pinup fashion. Beautiful and indecent in the way much of the world appreciates, but not me. She was bare and vulnerable and I cloaked her quickly in deep purple light. Back once again in the single filament of the ghost light, she appeared the simple beauty I'd first encountered that wet Saturday. In the white incandescence, there was she.

My heart could not hold my affection. We could not continue, and we could not be apart. Yet, I was not yet ready to meet the Lord in Heaven, especially seeing no guarantee that we'd be reunited joyfully there. What could I do?

I focused a follow spot at the apron of the stage. It was filtered with green gelatine, and the enthusiasm of her youth returned under its illumination. She touched one pretty shoe in its circle, right on the edge, farther than she'd ventured before. I could see her still. I carefully trained the spotlight on each stair. She descended with trepidation, and I think a bit of curiosity and joy. I'd aimed the spot then at the aisle. Then with light after light, all we had in the house, I created a glowing bottle-green pathway out of the otherwise dark theatre. With each step, her pace quickened and lightened, as did my heart, and I imagined her becoming more and more corporeal. I moved the lights in quick succession, so there would never be an unlit step. Through the back of the theatre, with much effort into the lobby, and as close to the box office as their beams could illuminate. I prayed it was enough.

Once the last light was placed, I raced up a dark aisle parallel to her path. I wanted to take her hand as she emerged from the theater door. There she was still, crossing the threshold from the theatre to the lobby. And still, right up to the main doors. I opened the door for her, not yet knowing if she was with me only in spirit or body as well. It had been raining again. The sidewalks were slick and dark. The city smelled clean. I took my eyes off of her lovely form only long enough to notice the reflection of the neon signs in the street. The beacons of other theatres, Chinese restaurants, girlie shows, all shimmering at my feet. She stepped through the doorway. One little buttoned shoe and then another touching the wet pavement. And in the riot of color in that wet reflection, her spectral form could not conceive of which she to be. She sparked briefly and said a silent thank you for the very last time. Then she disappeared completely in the pools of reflected neon light.

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