It’s the kind of fall day Seattleites are accustomed to. Jacket-cold cloud cover that keeps the trees green and the skin pasty-pale. Liz pulls her VW into the mall parking lot and takes a space near the movie theatre box office. Nothing says you’ve arrived like the rattling of an old Beetle engine, but Liz is wishing for a more subtle entrance on day one of her first big job. In what could be mistaken as nonchalance, she steps out without bothering to lock the doors. Nobody could be interested in stealing the old metal shell on wheels.
Intersecting neon circles hanging under the theatre marquee flicker to life as if to announce Liz’s arrival. They bathe the entrance in multi-colored light, making it feel like Dorothy is about to step into the Land of Oz. The two workers in the box office have stopped counting their tills and stare as Liz tries the doors.
“They’re locked. Can’t go in right now.” The taller of the two is leaning toward the circular hole in the glass. He’s a redhead with bushy eyebrows and protruding ears.
Both ticket sellers are wearing burgundy uniform blazers with droopy shoulders and frayed sleeves. The theatre’s logo is sewn on the breast pocket.
“Brown pants. Oh, you must be the new person.” The shorter one is holding a wad of twenties in her hand as she leans toward the speaking hole. She was told to wear brown pants. The only ones Liz could find were in the old lady section of JC Penney. Brown polyester clinging unflatteringly to her hips with a sewn crease down each leg.
“Yeah, I think so. How do I get in?” Liz is still holding the brass door handle.
“We buzz you,” Tall Guy answers without making a move.
“Okay…would you mind buzzing me in?”
“Buzz her, for God’s sake.” The girl reaches in front of her companion and presses a black button on the counter. “Nobody knows this, but sometimes when we get here first we reach through the money slot and buzz ourselves in.”
“Oh, good to know.” But the two look as if they want to erase the secret they just shared.
There’s a buzz and a click and Liz pulls the door open. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit lobby. She’s standing on a dark, wildly patterned carpet of deep reds, purples, and orange with the dark remains of spilled drinks. A long wood counter is directly ahead, topped with dented aluminum. Light is glowing from deep glass cases full of colorful boxes of movie candy. Sugar Babies, Jujubes, Junior Mints, Milk Duds…Liz is running her fingers across the scratched and scarred glass case, naming each box of candy in her mind.
“Full price for those.” A voice snaps from the other side of the counter.
Liz looks up slowly, scanning the logoed polyester shirt, plastic nametag pinned askew over his left chest. The name is Rodney.
Rodney has a long, chicken-y neck with a huge Adam’s apple protruding above his buttoned up collar. It appears as if his hormones want to produce facial hair, but there’s been no consensus as to where the stubby bristles should go. His zits, on the other hand, have pocked his face into a red, volcanic landscape. She forces herself to look into Rodney’s eyes, but finds them largely obscured by his unkempt mop of wavy blond hair.
Rodney seems unfazed by the close scrutiny and continues lecturing, “No discounts on the candy ‘cause of inventory. But we can eat as much popcorn as we want. Only you’ll get tired of it by the end of your first week. If you want any pop you gotta pay five cents for the cup. We do inventory on the cups. My name’s Rodney.”
“I’m supposed to see the manager.”
“Larry’s in the office. Over there.” Rodney looks toward the end of the lobby and Liz follows his gaze. A painted brown door is open just a crack, allowing a sliver of yellow light to escape. Liz adjusts the strap of her macramé bag and walks toward the office, aware of the swishing noise made by her pants.
The moment Liz raises her fist to knock on the door, it swings open and she’s temporarily blinded. A dark shape stands backlit in the doorway.
“Liz! You decided to take the job. Of course you did! Just kidding. Hey, did you already meet everyone? Of course you didn’t! Let me show you around. We need to put you to work before the guests arrive.” Liz notes the emphasis on the word “guests.”
Larry steps into the lobby and reaches out as if to guide Liz by the arm, but misses the mark when she pulls in her elbow. He swings his hand out as if he’d intended to gesture around the lobby.
“Concession counter. Box office. Auditorium’s up the ramps on both sides. The theatre was built in 1951, holds thirteen hundred for a sold-out showing. Haven’t had one of those in a while, though. Men’s room lobby left, ladies’ lobby right. Those stairs go to the projection booth. Mr. Brooks works up there. You don’t go up there. Nobody goes up there but Mr. Brooks, got it?”
“Uh huh.” Liz acknowledges.
Larry continues on. “We’ll start you on concessions. Hey, Rodney, where’s Margaret?”
“Not here yet.” Rodney is pouring kernels into the metal pan of the popcorn maker and doesn’t turn around.
“Jesus Christ! Can’t she figure out a way to get to work on time?” Larry looks at Liz and says, feigning apology, “Pardon my French.”
Instead of a theatre uniform, Larry’s wearing tight bellbottoms with a wide braided belt. His fitted shirt has a contrasting western yoke and collar. A string of white puka shells rings his neck. Larry is paunchy for a guy putting so much effort into accentuating his personal assets; his sides spill out over the top of his slacks and his shirt buttons strain over his belly, showing the white undershirt beneath. His hair is styled like the cool guys at school, feathered on the sides and long in back, although Larry is years out of high school. His thick mustache has been in progress for a few years.
Larry bangs open part of the counter top, and steps aside to let Liz enter the back of the concession area. Three cashier stations are set up around drink dispensers and candy display cases. Cups and popcorn bags are stacked high and neat.
The sound of popping corn punctuates Larry’s instructions. “Okay, this is pretty basic. All the prices end in zero or fifty. Just add them up in your head.”
Liz notes the lack of cash registers, only divided drawers poking from beneath the counter. She considers her near-paralyzing math anxiety with Larry’s words echoing in her head, Just add them up. In your head.
“Always go for the value packs,” Larry is saying. “They’re pre-priced and you can get folks to size up on the popcorn or the drink, or add a box of candy.”
The door buzzer interrupts his lecture, and Larry begins shouting before he’s even turned around.
“Margaret! What the hell! I needed you here ten minutes ago! You were supposed to take the new trainee. You know I’ve got better things to do!”
“Hey Larry. I gotta put my purse away and I’ll be back in a sec.” With a turn of her head, Margaret’s silky straight hair sweeps around and then comes to rest, hanging down the center of her back. Thin strands of twisted hair from each side of her face are pulled back and secured with a little bundle of dried flowers.
“Take the new girl!” Larry commands.
Liz follows Margaret through a door next to the women’s restroom. It’s a storage room cluttered with janitorial supplies. Along the wall there’s a row of schoolhouse lockers. Hanging on a single closet rod are polyester uniform shirts and a few burgundy Blazers.
“Pick a shirt,” Margaret says. She opens two lockers and points to one for Liz.
“Thanks.” Liz picks out a shirt she hopes will be large enough and looks around for a place to change. “Uh, is there…”
“Just put the shirt on. We gotta get out there.”
Liz turns her back and clumsily changes while trying to stay covered with her sweater. The two step back into the lobby where a few theatre-goers are milling around. Rodney is already serving popcorn and drinks.
Behind the counter, Margaret points to one of the cashier stations, then stands behind the adjacent one and looks out to the people in the lobby.
“Can I help the next person?” A young family walks over to stand in front of Margaret.
Liz watches as a small crowd begins to queue in front of her. “Uh…How can I help you?”
She hears Margaret ask the family if they’d like a family meal. Liz realizes she can’t see the guests. A thin haze has obscured the focus of her eyes. “Uh…would you like a family pack?” She knows she said it out loud, but hears it as a muffled sound through the pulsing of blood in her ears.
The shape in front of her is backlit by daylight streaming through the main doors. Liz can feel her heart pounding in her neck. The man speaks. He orders the Family Pack. Liz turns to the menu board to check the price, “Five dollars…please.” She puts his five dollar bill in her till and begins to feel this might not be so hard. She fills two cups with ice and coke, scoops the hot popcorn, and pulls out a box of Milk Duds. Done.
Families, couples, gangs of teens; they all step up in turn to challenge the rookie in her first half hour on the job. Liz tries not to count the people waiting as she pulls out candy box after candy box for an indecisive little girl. Each time someone makes an order, Liz has to turn and check the board for prices. Once, as she’s standing and scanning the menu, attempting to calculate in her head, Margaret leans over to her, “Don’t worry about getting the price exact. Nobody really notices if they have to pay a little extra.”
Then suddenly they’re gone. The lobby is clear. Margaret is clearing popcorn from the lobby carpet with a broom and long-handled dustpan. Movie music is emanating from the theatre. The box office door opens and the girl in the burgundy blazer walks across the lobby carrying two cash trays. She breezes past Margaret, stepping over her pile of popcorn and trash.
Rodney is holding a flashlight out to Liz. “Let me show you how to check the house.”
Liz takes the flashlight and follows him toward one of the side entrances.
“Don’t turn it on.” Rodney pulls aside the heavy velvet curtain that separates the lobby from the house. The theatre is large but sparsely populated. Guests slouch in seats; young men drape arms over their dates’ shoulders. The large screen flickers with light and images. Liz stands and takes in the scene: Clint Eastwood is riding in a car with a lanky orangutan. Accompanying the soundtrack is the crunch of popcorn and the rattle of ice.
Rodney leads Liz up the aisle in the direction of the screen. Their movement distracts some patrons. A boy removes his arm from the shoulder of his date as if he’s been caught doing something untoward. His date nestles closer.
Rodney stops where a walkway cuts behind a row of seats. “Check this out.” He leans toward Liz and indicates four boys with their feet propped on the seats in front of them. Liz clutches her flashlight. Rodney looms behind the boys. In one deliberate move, he flicks on his light and taps it on one boy’s shoulders, placing a hand his companion’s back. Their bodies straighten and they drop their feet to the floor. Their two comrades follow suit, reacting to the disruption.
“No feet on the seats,” Rodney breathes. He walks back to Liz without waiting for a response. “I love that,” he whispers.
Rodney leads Liz around the rest of the auditorium, keeping his flashlight lit but pointed to the floor. Patrons shift in their seats. Liz is unsure what to do with her flashlight, so she keeps it dark and at her side. They ascend a set of steep stairs to a door that opens into a glassed-in balcony. Once inside the empty space, Rodney speaks in a normal voice.
“This is supposed to be for mothers with babies, but kids usually come here to smoke. Most people don’t know it’s up here.”
Liz is thinking about the girls who smoke in the bathroom at her high school, rendering the place unusable. At the beginning of her freshman year she braved the taunting gauntlet in order to pee, but decided it wasn’t worth the humiliation and the smoky stench that hung on her clothing for the rest of the day. She decided the preferred option was to avoid drinking anything and wait until after-school swim team practice where all she had to contend with was sopping wet toilet seats.
Liz can’t imagine a mother bringing an infant into this creepy, musty place. Out the broad window she can see the beam of light from the projector bouncing off airborne particles. She conjures an image of Mr. Brooks squeezed into the dark projection booth surrounded by stacks of metal film reels.
“Sometimes I take my break up here,” Rodney is saying. “It’s quiet, and you can hear Larry on the stairs.”
“Yeah, you’re s’posed to get two fifteens a shift.”
“Where do you go if you don’t come up here?”
“Sometimes I just sit in my car and listen to the radio.”
They climb down from the balcony and exit the auditorium. Liz can hear sounds of the movie through the thick curtains. Margaret is wiping the counter top with a stained white towel. She shows Liz the cabinet of cups and popcorn bags and tells her how to stock the workstations. The show is a double feature, so guests will be coming out for refreshments in between. Neither movie is a blockbuster. Most of the patrons are just killing time on a cold Saturday afternoon.
Music over credits is coming from the auditorium. Patrons exit on both sides and line up in front of the concession counter for another round.
Liz takes a breath and addresses the people in front of her. “Can I interest you in a Family Pack?”
And it starts again. Popcorn flies and drinks overflow. Guests shift from one foot to the other as they wait for Liz to deliver. Then they clutch their popcorn in the crook of an elbow, stuff straws and napkins in pockets, grasp their drinks, and head back toward the auditorium. When the intermission wave subsides, Margaret hands Liz a broom and the two girls sweep popcorn off the lobby floor once again.
At the end of the second movie, Rodney gestures for Liz to follow him back into the auditorium. This time he tells her to bring along a broom while he pulls a large trashcan on wheels. At the entrance he turns on the house lights. A few guests remain, mesmerized by rolling credits.
“We’ve gotta be quick. Seating for the next movie starts soon.”
Rodney shows Liz how to walk up and down each row, picking up empty popcorn bags, candy boxes, and cups. Liz’s shoes stick where soda pop has spilled on the floor. She remembers her Mom telling her, “Never wear open toe’d shoes to the movies. The rats will run across your feet.” Liz keeps her eyes fixed on the floor.
At the end of the next intermission, when the lobby is clear, Larry emerges from the office.
“Liz, take your fifteen. Everybody, next week’s schedule is in the office.”
Unsure what to do, Liz watches Larry walk back to the office. Margaret stares at her for a moment, then opens her hands in the air, “Are you gonna take your break? We can’t go ‘til you get back.”
Liz notes the time on her watch and goes to use the restroom. Inside, the four stalls stand open and bits of toilet paper litter the floor. A long counter with three round sinks is puddled with water and soap powder. A metal towel holder hangs on the wall with a long loop of cloth hanging down about three feet. Liz uses the restroom, washes her hands and shakes off the water. She pulls on the sides of the towel to expose a fresh section, wondering as she always does how the device knows to take up the proper amount of used towel. She puts her hands up to her face. They still smell of popcorn oil. She makes a face when she sees in the mirror how pathetic she looks in the burgundy polyester uniform shirt. She buttons and unbuttons the collar to see if any improvements can be made, ultimately deciding to leave the top button open.
In the little office, Liz can feel Larry’s eyes on her while she tries to decipher the schedule. “Is this me? The initials L.A.?”
“Yeah, L.A.” Larry gives a low laugh. “Miss L.A. Miss Hollywood.” He laughs again at his joke, “Miss Hollywood.”
“You’ve got me down for five days. I thought when I got the job you said…”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t filled the other position yet…”
“I thought you said I only have to work three days, on the weekends.” Liz turns toward Larry, but she studies the things on his small metal desk in order to avoid eye contact.
“Do you want the job or don’t you?” Larry says. “I need you five days.”
“I guess I could…It’s just that I’ve got school and swim team.” And my parents aren’t going to like this.
“Well, I’m sure you can make it work.” Larry dismisses her with his tone. “Isn’t your break about over?”
Rodney slides a Coke over as Liz takes up her post behind the counter and gestures for her to keep it out of sight. Margaret is outside under the broad marquee awning smoking a cigarette and twisting strands of hair around her fingers. Liz touches her own shoulder length fringe and wonders what it’s like to have hair that’s not predominantly split ends.
The rhythm of the job is like standing in a wave pool. While the movie is playing, the lobby is calm and flat. Between shows, waves of humanity press in on them. Liz is reminded of her Dad’s saying about flying: “Hours and hours of boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror.”
By the end of the night, Liz’s feet and knees ache. Her neck protests the act of holding up her head. After admitting the last of the paying customers for the evening, the box office duo stay in their glass sanctuary counting their tills. Even after it seems they’re done, they stay locked up where they won’t have to come in contact with any cleaning supplies. Rodney and Margaret head off to clean the restrooms while Liz is assigned the lobby floor. She begins gathering up the latest piles of spilled popcorn.
It’s after midnight. The last credits have rolled; the final movie-goer has walked away into the night. The concession stand is wiped clean and stocked. The last kernels have been scooped from the popcorn maker. A thin dark man in a gray overcoat emerges from the forbidden door and leaves without a word. This must be Mr. Brooks.
Larry steps out of the office and stares at Liz, giving her an uneasy feeling.
“Uh, I was wondering if maybe I could ask about the schedule,” she’s thinking how she’s going to defend taking this job when her parents see her coming home at one in the morning on school nights.
“Schedule is set. Listen, there’s one more thing you need to do before you’re done.”
“But I was wondering…I mean, I was supposed to…We talked about…”
“Maybe tomorrow. We can look at it tomorrow.” Larry motions for her to follow him behind the concession stand. “Newest person cleans the popcorn maker. Here’s the stuff.” He pulls a spray bottle and a stack of paper towels from the lower cabinet and hands them to Liz.
“What’s the best way…”
“Rodney will inspect when you’re done.” Larry turns to go.
Liz sprays blue cleaner on the inside of the glass and metal enclosure. She has to reach far inside to wipe down the surfaces and the harsh smell attacks her sinuses, making her eyes water. She tries not to breathe. Crumpled paper towels stack up, saturated with oil, salt, and chemicals.
Liz is intent on getting the task done before she collapses with exhaustion, so she doesn’t notice Rodney’s return. He’s standing behind her when she pulls her head out of the toxic enclosure to take in air. She’s checking to see if any of the skin has started peeling off her hand when Rodney clears his throat.
“Did you do inside the kettle?”
Liz startles and turns toward Rodney. “The…I didn’t know…I don’t know…”
“The kettle.” Rodney points to the metal pan suspended in the middle of the enclosure. “You gotta get the grease out.”
“Yeah, well you’ll know next time.” Rodney leaves for the locker room. Liz takes another breath and dives in to spray the kettle.
By the time Rodney has returned wearing his street clothes and jeans jacket, he’s ready to declare the popcorn maker “pretty good.” He waits as Liz retrieves her purse, then silently holds the main door so she can finally exit for home.
Standing at the box office before Sunday matinee, Liz taps on the glass to get the attention of her coworkers.
“By the way, my name is Liz. Nobody told me your names.” Because you were holed-up inside that sound-proof booth all night, she says in her head.
The taller one leans toward the hole in the glass. “Mike,” he says, “and that’s Jo.” They look the same as they did the night before, and Liz wonders if there’s a nest inside the booth where the pair bed down at night, preening their polyester feathers and squawking to the tune of the door buzzer.
Mike buzzes her in. Liz crosses the sea of carpet swirls to put away her purse and change into the popcorn-scented uniform shirt. She notices a small mirror at the end of the row of lockers and checks her hair. Today she’s tried something different, tying it back in a ponytail, but strands of hair that don’t reach the rubber band hang in limp vines by her ears. A sigh and she goes back into the lobby to take her place at the concession counter.
When the wave hits, Liz is surprised to discover how mechanical the job has become. Popcorn and Coke. Popcorn and Sprite. Large popcorn, two large pops. How ‘bout a Family Meal? Hello there little guy, which candy would you like with your Fun Pack? The wave subsides as Mr. Brooks starts the movie.
After the second feature, Liz is granted a 15-minute break and rushes into the office to examine the schedule on the wall. Larry has her marked down for Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the coming week. The schedule for the current week shows her on Saturday and Sunday. A number eight is written next to the letters L.A. on Saturday.
“What’s the number next to my initials here?” Liz doesn’t turn around, but she can hear Larry pushing back his chair.
“That’s the number of hours you get paid for. For calculating pay checks.”
Liz looks down at her fingers, trying to add up the hours between her arrival at 3:30 and half past midnight. “But I…I’m not sure…”
“Hey, I’ve gotta take off and go down to our other theater in Lake City. Are you done here? I need to lock up the office.”
“I was hoping we could talk about the schedule for next week. I really can’t do five days.”
“I can’t re-do it this week. Everyone else is pretty much maxed out.” Larry is holding his leather jacket and standing in the doorway. “You want this job, don’t you?”
“I guess…I guess I can see how it goes this week.” Liz turns sideways to shuffle past and Larry shuts the door.
On her second break, Liz is sitting in her little VW Bug listening to KJR AM and watching raindrops wash down the windshield. It’s the familiar voice of Casey Kasem and the American Top 40. Liz has lost track of the number on the countdown, but it’s another song from the Bee Gees, the group everyone is playing. She’s relieved to get away from the smell of grease and popcorn and the movie soundtrack that has pierced her brain.
As she gets used to the flow of intermissions, Liz allows part of her mind to imagine the lives of the anonymous people on the other side of the concession counter. She studies couples and wonders what it’s like to have a boyfriend; tucking hands into each other’s jeans and sharing little kisses. She watches groups of girls, wishing she could be share secrets with them and waste the day in the dark theatre.
Another night ends and the concession crew is picking up the discarded popcorn bags, cups, and candy boxes from the aisles of the auditorium.
“You’d better get out there and do the popcorn machine,” Rodney says to Liz.
“Oh, I thought it would be someone else’s turn.” Liz can feel herself gag.
“Newest person cleans the popcorn machine.” That’s all he says.
If she’d imagined it would be less horrible this time, Liz soon finds she’s wrong. She can barely breathe when she reaches inside to wipe the machine down. She works as fast as she can, and by the time Rodney and Margaret are done, she’s ready to leave. 12:35 a.m. In bed just before one.
Liz navigates her school day with bleary-eyed, feigned attentiveness, largely unnoticed by the teachers. Swim team is a relief. She revels in the monotony of the laps, appreciating that water sports stifle chit-chat. The locker room is the social center.
“Hey, Liz! Was that you working at Northgate Theatre?” It’s one of the sprinters. Liz is a plodder, so coach puts her in for the distance races, which suits her just fine.
“Hey, yeah, we saw her there on Saturday.”
Liz is unsure whether they’re speaking to her or about her.
“That movie really sucked.” Apparently at least three girls from the team were there. Liz is trying to remember whether she saw them, but most of what she remembers from Saturday is still a dizzying haze.
“It must be pretty cool working at the theatre. You get to watch the movies for free, and you can eat popcorn all night.” At the mention of popcorn, Liz gags. “Sure beats flippin’ burgers.”
“Yeah, Liz, is it pretty cool?”
Liz is surprised to suddenly have the attention on her. “It’s…well, it’s different from what I expected.”
“Is it pretty cool, though?” Girls in various stages of undress are looking over at her.
“Well, I just started and…”
“Yeah, you’re lucky to have that job. It’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Liz is stuffing her towel and swimsuit into her duffle bag.
The locker room cacophony starts back up. Discussions of homework and evening plans echo against the backdrop of slamming metal doors.
By Friday night, Liz is wondering if she’s really only worked at the theatre for a week. It seems like a month, and as she thinks about cleaning the popcorn machine again at the end of the night, she counts the days on her fingers. It’s been five. And now she’s going into three consecutive days. The newest person cleans the popcorn machine. Liz is wondering how long she’ll be the newest person. Mike and Jo look as if they’re lifers, so opportunities for advancement seem limited.
At the start of her first fifteen-minute break, Liz climbs the stairs to the enclosed balcony. Nobody is inside, so she leans back in one of the chairs and stares out at the movie screen. She doesn’t bother trying to follow the movie. Despite what the swim team girls imagine, the demands of concessions means never seeing the beginning or end of the show. But Liz has seen enough of this one to know their assessment is accurate. It sucks. And she’s seen, smelled, spilled, and cleaned up enough popcorn that she can’t imagine ever thinking of it as a treat again.
Liz hears footsteps on the stairs. She sits up straight. Larry enters.
“C’mon. I need you,” he says.
“Yeah, we’ve got a real live blockbuster opening at Lake City and I’m short staffed. I’m going to take you over to work the intermission.”
“This is going to work out great. The movie times are staggered so I can drive you back here to work this intermission.” Larry is impressed with his scheduling prowess. He’s standing with his hips forward, the thick grommeted belt of his leather jacket dangling open at his waist like an appendage. “You and me, we’ll be getting to know each other better.”
“My break is over in about ten minutes.” Liz says meekly. She’s learned to covet her break time; the only time she’s off her feet.
“You’ll take your breaks in the car with me.” He’s standing in the doorway. Liz squeezes past him to descend the stairs.
Larry leads the way to his crayon-yellow Chevette. It has a black Starsky and Hutch stripe curving down the side and black vinyl seats. A lacy garter hangs from the rear-view mirror. Unsure what to do with her hands, Liz crosses them over her chest and looks straight ahead. The engine starts with a roar that’s out-sized for the car.
“I call it The Bee.” Larry rubs his hands along the leather-wrapped steering wheel. “Like Muhammed Ali, ‘I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’”
Or maybe it’s because it’s yellow with a black stripe. Liz keeps her eyes straight ahead.
“Let’s get it in gear.” Larry reaches for the stick shift, his hand brushing Liz’s thigh. She pulls her legs away, making a rubbery sound on the black vinyl.
“The story’s right out of the comic books. I know what I’m talking about, too. I’ve got a bunch of first editions. Man, the place is going to be mobbed!” Larry lays out every detail, glancing at Liz occasionally.
When the theatre comes in view, there’s one word on the marquee: SUPERMAN. Someone must have found a box of extra large plastic letters. And there’s a line outside. Liz thinks she might recognize some of the teenagers from last week’s double feature.
The lobby is smaller than Northgate theatre, and the greasy popcorn smell is nearly nonexistent. Two people are behind the tight concession counter, stacks of drink cups and popcorn bags, but no popcorn machine.
A girl with jeweled cat-eye glasses beckons her in. “You’ll work backup. Bag the popcorn. Fill the drinks. We’ve got hotdogs at the end of the counter.” The other worker is a teenage boy with feathered hair like Larry’s. Larry Junior, Liz thinks.
As Liz squeezes into the narrow space, she sees garbage bags of popcorn lined up along the floor and more popcorn in a deep bin set into the back of the counter. Larry returns from parking his car with two more full bags in his arms. Guests are starting to fill the lobby.
The only numbers Liz has to deal with are small ones: Fill three colas, bag two popcorns, pull two hot dogs off the cooker. She’s a machine, listening to orders from the counter crew, scooping popcorn, sloshing drinks. She doesn’t see the people in the lobby, just hears laughing, talking, the crunch of the popcorn and the crinkle of bags.
The wave finally subsides. Liz turns to find herself alone behind the counter. Her two partners have gone into the auditorium with their flashlights. Liz longs to see the handsome new actor playing Superman, to watch him fly with Margo Kidder in his arms. Instead, she pulls out the broom and long-handled dustpan.
Larry emerges from the office. “Let’s go, Liz! Intermission awaits.” He’s pulling his leather jacket on, car keys jangling.
Larry talks all the way back to Northgate. “Man, you shoulda seen it. Christopher Reeve was born to be Superman. And that Margo Kidder, what a hot broad!” Larry pats his stick shift.
Back at Northgate, intermission is in full swing. Rodney and Margaret look desperate and annoyed.
“How was it at the big blockbuster?” Rodney pronounces ‘blockbuster’ with sarcastic emphasis and steps aside to let Liz take the station at the end of the counter.
“I didn’t really have a chance…”
“Well, we’re working our butts off here.”
“Oh, it was kinda busy there, too.”
In the box office Mike is counting his till while Jo sells tickets to a group of teens.
The rest of Friday night is intermission after intermission, with Larry shuttling Liz back and forth. At midnight, Liz pulls out the cleaning supplies and goes to work on the popcorn machine, looking over to see the sliver of light around the office door. When she’s done with the hateful job, she hurries over. Just as she reaches the office door, Larry emerges.
“Is the schedule ready for next week?”
“Yeah, I had to do both theaters. What an ass-busting job.”
“Can I see it?”
“Not tonight. I’m wiped out.” Larry locks the door behind him. “You can check tomorrow.” Then he hurries to catch up with Margaret, who’s leaving the locker room. “Hey Mag, you need a ride home?”
Liz can’t hear her response, but when Margaret turns to leave, Larry doesn’t follow.
As soon as she arrives for the Saturday matinee, Larry hands Liz two garbage bags of popcorn and tells her she’s starting out at the Lake City. Liz holds them on her lap while he drives, thankful for the cover.
“Hot damn! It’s gonna be another crazy day,” Larry says as they cruise past the line of patrons.
Inside, the girl with the glasses is having a discussion with the customer in front of her.
“All our popcorn is fresh,” she explains. “Our popcorn machine is…in the back room. We make it right here.”
The man is holding out his bag of popcorn. “This stuff is stale. Gimme some fresher stuff or I’ll talk to the manager.”
“Okay, sir. I’ll get you a new bag.”
Liz puts her hand out to take the rejected popcorn, but Glasses Girl whispers, “I’ll take care of this.” She empties the bag back into the bin and scoops more in, filling the bag half way. Then, using her body to block the customer’s view, she reaches for a metal shaker and pours in far too much salt. She covers it with a second scoop, then turns and smiles as she tops it off with two pumps of butter flavoring.
“Here you go, sir. A fresh new batch. So sorry for the inconvenience.” She tilts her head to the side and smiles until the man leaves the counter, then mutters under her breath, “Creep.”
By evening, Liz isn’t even sure which theatre she’s working until she hears the movie music from the auditorium. Riding with Larry in his yellow Chevette starts to feel as claustrophobic as the dreaded popcorn machine. This is Liz’s first experience with a predator in a position of power. She wonders how long Margaret has had to fend off his midnight advances.
“Hey, Margaret!” Margaret is on her way home, but stops and turns at the entry doors. Larry hurries to catch up and they exit together. They stand talking under the broad marquee awning, intersecting circles of colored neon glowing above their heads. Larry is leaning in, gesturing toward the parking lot. Margaret is fiddling with her long hair, taking steps back as he gets close and touches her sleeve. Liz breathes a sigh as they depart in separate directions, then reaches under the counter and flips the switch that makes the neon circles flicker and go dark.
Sunday, Liz is half an hour early for her shift. She watches the front doors of the theatre from the parking lot. The neon rings under the marquee are still dark, as are the box office lights. Liz rubs her hands down her brown slacks to dry them. Casey Kasem has just introduced Hotel California.
The Bee pulls into a space closer to the theatre. Larry gets out, checking his hair in the rear-view mirror before striding toward the front door. Liz watches him enter and Eagles sing their signature phrase, You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave… She snaps off the radio and approaches the theatre. She puts her face to the glass door to see inside, but nobody is in the lobby, just the line of light around the edge of the office door.
Liz reaches in the box office window, bending to stretch and twist her arm through the slot. She feels for the little black button and hears success when the buzzer sounds. She quickly extracts her arm and pushes the door before it can re-latch. The door gives way more easily than she expects. An arm is holding the door from behind. She stumbles forward and turns, coming face-to-face with the stony expression of the projectionist.
“Oh, hello Mr. Brooks.”
“Hello, young lady.” Mr. Brooks has a deep voice and cloudy eyes. He’s carrying a paperback book and a brown bag with its top neatly rolled down. His dinner, Liz guesses.
“Do you like the movies?” Liz ventures.
“It’s a job,” he replies. “Don’t make them like they used to.”
Liz wonders how long Mr. Brooks has been working in the dark little room above the theatre lobby. And how much longer he’ll be the hidden man behind the forbidden door. Is this the face of failure, or contentment?
They part company, and Liz goes to the cluttered locker room to change into her uniform shirt. Then she throws her shoulders back and crosses the lobby to the office. She pauses a moment by the door, thinks of knocking, but decides to push the door open instead. Larry is seated at his desk, flipping a pencil around in his fingers.
“I’d like to look at the schedule,” Liz says.
“Sure. You know where it is.” He continues pencil flipping.
Liz studies the schedule pinned to the wall. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
“Huh?” Larry looks surprised.
“Five days. I can’t do five days.”
“I can’t do five days.” Liz aims to look him in the eye, but lands on his thick mustache.
“Can’t change it.” Larry points with his pencil as if he’s about to hurl a dart. “You want the job, don’t you?”
“I… I want…”
“Don’t you? Don’t you want the job?”
Liz can hear her heart beat. Then she hears another sound. It’s the sound of popping corn. And maybe she smells popcorn grease, too, or maybe it’s just her imagination. Surely the smell hasn’t reached the little office yet.
“No. No, I don’t.”
And all Larry says is, “Oh, hell.”
Liz is aware of Rodney’s eyes following her as she struts across the lobby, pushes open the main doors, and steps out under the colored neon.
The air is cool and fresh, a rain storm in the making. A light breeze is shifting leaves and litter around the parking lot. Margaret is just arriving, and she walks in through the door just before it closes. Liz looks over to see Mike and Jo staring at her from inside the box office. She stares back and realizes she can see her reflection, mixed up with the swirly pattern of lights. In that reflection she sees triumph and the birth of confidence. And she sees one more thing: She sees that ugly uniform shirt.
With a low growl, Liz turns back to the door. Jo buzzes her in without a word. The popcorn machine seems to be keeping beat with Liz’s steps. She opens the locker room door a little more dramatically than necessary, then closes it with a click and leans against the wall. She hurriedly changes shirts and swings her purse over her shoulder.
Liz turns the key and her little VW rattles to life. Before pulling out of the parking space, she flips on the radio. It’s the Bee Gees, Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive…
Copyright Liz Behlke 2015