The shadow I had lost in the streets could not have been as far off as the registrar had led me to believe the Omega was. Time passed. The lines crumbled into heaps of confetti that blew away when I slipped the map from its frame and held it to the open window.

Under the blank marquee. The ticket booth stood concealed in an octagonal pillar of imitation marble whose blue glaze was dulled by a layer of soot, its window facing the entrance. No one there. Through the pane, behind its metal air vent, I could dimly see the calendar print of a wintry forest hanging on the wall, a wooden stool. an empty cash drawer to the right of the ticket slots. The telephone receiver was off the hook. It must have been dangling below. Silent, out of sight. The last one to inhabit the booth had not bothered to draw the curtain over the window or to empty the ashtray, which held a half-smoked cigarette with lipstick traces. By one of the entrance doors a poster in a cracked-glass frame depicted, in garish colors, a statuesque blonde clad in a negligee, the outline of her body a vague silhouette behind a muslin window. Farther into the room, a man was standing. His face, dull yet oddly menacing, lit from the side by a weak night-lamp near an unmade bed. I’d expected a line of ambulances (at least a paddy wagon or two) to be parked by the curb.

There was nothing. The mist, which hid less from me than the shadow I had lost, shrouded the opposite walk so completely that, for all one could tell, only abandoned excavations were to be found there, or vast asphalt lots jammed with cars that were no longer allowed on the streets, some perhaps holding those who had gone to sleep behind the wheel and been left to rot. I hadn’t seen a car all morning, not even close within the precincts of the roundhouse. What kept me out there? Obviously another dreadful miscalculation. With no landmarks to follow, I had hoped for luck enough to stumble on the Omega theatre. This couldn’t have been the one. The letters, lost in fog. Markings of where the sleepers were kept. I tried the door by the poster. It wouldn’t budge. Then the one next to it. My hands on the iron crossbar, pushing through to the darkness.

The foyer led up a carpeted ramp between two ranks of posts strung together by velveteen ropes. My reflection leapt from one wall panel to the next. A mottled blur, caged on both sides by netlike veins, seemed to flit through dim pools of yellow light across mirrors that reproduced its shrinking image to infinity down their endless corridors. The stale odor of popcorn and threadbare upholstery almost reached me. I made my way past humming soda machines-luminous buttons, glittering cup-wells in shadow-to the vacated counter which stood in a nook by the ingress, its shelves emptied of all but a few gum-drop boxes, some scattered candy bars and a bag of half-crushed salted peanuts. I went slowly, softly, after having trod so many unfamiliar pavements. Tufted swirls of orange and black flowers muffled my footsteps in a purple ground. Another more muted hum began to filter from the wormy umbra beyond the counter and the soft-drink machines. I slipped through the archway, turned right down a narrow passage, groping the inside wall for vague glimmers, and came at last to a water cooler in an alcove of mosaic tile. The light shifted over it in irregular pulses, from silver to black. A section of partition had been taken down behind the last row of seats, giving an odd view of the screen through a maze of silhouetted tubes and flickering bottles that left evansecent afterimages as my eyes moved over them. The hum I had caught faintly in the lobby was the dry sound of all those open mouths, those slumping heads with phosphenescing numbers, dashes of glowing paint, scattered over the middle section of seats in a dense clutter of hanging glucose bottles. Puddles of sick-sweet urine trickled out of the occupied rows into the aisle, where the floor took a sudden tilt, and widened the stains in the carpeting. The screen fluttered its half-light onto the sleeping audience, throwing off black-and-white images of what may or may not have been scenes from the movie advertised. Facing the sleepers, alone at its desk, in the limbo between the first row of vacant seats and the black matting under the screen, an egg-shaped head, completely bald, lit from beneath by a lamp that cast a liquid glimmer in its eyes, seemed to beckon me. Above the head, an old car with spoked tires and a running board sped off down a winding country road, crossed by shadows that writhed in a cloud of dust.

The head was reading, arms folded on the pages of a dog-eared magazine, bending to decipher the last few lines in the haze of print. This was the caretaker. There were no other guards in the theatre. For all one knew, the projection booth had been left untended between reels. The sound was off. The caretaker closed his magazine, rolled it up, tossed it into an otherwise empty wastebasket, and rubbed his bleary eyes with ink-smudged fingers, speaking in a loud voice whose echoes rang off the distant walls to the corners of the balcony, at which he stared from time to time, as though preoccupied with the contrast of that wide, black recess to the light-box which sucked the dust in a beam through its little window.

-Please. No need to stand on ceremony. We’ve still got plenty of seats left, but I wouldn’t want to predict how long that’ll last. I was told to expect you.

He let out a booming yawn which died all around us, shaking his head rapidly like a dog trying to dry itself, as he began to rummage through his litter of papers, whistling under his breath. His eyes fell on the luminous hands of the desk clock.

-Shit. Half an hour, is it? Then the alarm goes off and the two of us will have to start replacing the bottles.

The two of us?

-Oh! Don’t get the wrong idea. I was talking about the man up there. He likes to sit it out in the balcony between reels. Can’t take the heat in the booth. Can’t say as I blame him, either. It’s hell up there. Hope he remembers to set another one going before he has to come down. We could have used a blank white projection, you know, but it’s too hard on the eyes. And since we were told to keep the electrical expenses to a minimum, we had to settle for this old movie. Never seen the thing all the way through, myself. It was either that or shut off the coke machines. Can I get you something? It’s free. We do get some concessions.

He opened one of the drawers and pulled out a dime fixed to the loop end of a copper wire.

-You could probably use a cold drink after all that walking. I know. I can. How about it? Orange? Grape?

Can we get on with it?

-Yes. Well, I’m working overtime. It had been my understanding that the registrar was to arrive here three hours ago. But I could always be mistaken. He’s the one who handles all the paperwork and tends to the fine details. What could have detained him? No matter. Since you’re here, you’ll want to look things over. Isn’t very much to see besides this, really. Except the projection booth. We could go up there now, while there’s still time. The screen makes it easier to see if anyone sneaks in and tries to have his way- you get my meaning?- with one of the women.

The roundhouse was full of bodies, but there will be more than enough left over to seat this place to capacity. It’s merely a question of time. There aren’t enough of us left to police them properly, hence the delays. The interminable delays. The screen is only a fair deterrent without guards. Please make note of that. Tell them that, under present conditions, I cannot accept responsibility for any foul-ups that may have occurred in the past, or will occur in the future. Do you know what we’re up against here? The problem of false or “pantomime” sleepers is an ever-present one, and has plagued our operations from the very beginning. Men and women alike! But mostly men. They usually have the presence of mind to strike an attitude of complete oblivion during the search-and-examination procedure. We’ve even had to resort to tickling all the new arrivals, and managed to catch a few of them out that way. But there are always some with more than the usual amount of self-control who get through. They’re not above taking small doses of a soporific to help them along! Later, they wake up here in one of the seats with a tube in their arm and a number painted on their head. Then, when I’m looking the other way, or if I go to the can- what am I supposed to do, anyway, isn’t there enough muck on the floor here without my adding to it?- the pantomime sleeper crawls from row to row, on the prowl. I tell you, it’s disgusting! I caught one raping a woman in one of the back rows, right over there. He’d stuck his IV into the armrest, taken off his jacket and folded it in such a way that, from a distance, it looked like just another slumped-over head. What finally gave him away is that he got so worked up his foot tipped over the woman’s rack: bottle, tube, and all. Hell of a mess. Others are more discreet. If ever we find an empty seat between two occupied ones, we know something’s up. Often the crime is committed and the culprit is long gone when we come on the victim. That’s off the record! Don’t say anything. It’s one hell of a lot easier to get away with it here than it was at the roundhouse. The rows of seats and all these goddamn tubes make excellent camouflage. But I ask you, where are we going to find another roundhouse? They say at least two other theatres have been commandeered for future use.

The owners were glad to receive a fee for them. No one goes out anymore for fear of dropping in the streets. Just wait a while longer. We’ll have this place filled, standing room only! Soon, when the space runs out, we’ll have to start burning them alive in the streets! That’s the rumor, keep it under your…hat. Identification has always been something of a problem. About a third of the sleepers have remained anonymous. I’m not talking about the derelicts and the “old horns” we pick up in the gutters. Pantomime, pantomime. But that doesn’t explain all the cases of sexual molestation. We’ve been finding plenty of women, just in the last few days, without a stitch on. It’s being blamed on the one they call the Narcolept. But one man? No, I can’t believe it! There must be pantomime sleepers that haven’t yet been taken into account. One man couldn’t possibly be in so many places in so short an interval of time! Certainly there are lacunae. Unaccountable gaps that must forever remain a mystery to us.

But what if someone dies?

-No one has dies.

Maybe the father wasn’t putting on an act after all.

-What?

This 1976 text by Eric Basso from the book ‘The Beak Doctor,’ Short Fiction 1972-1976 was given to the artist Mick Peter as an inspiration for the drawing ‘The Popcorn Variations‘ and words from the text appear in a new composition ‘Time past – Lipstick traces’ made for A Moment of Eternal Noise by musicians David Barbenel and Johny Brown.

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