I decided to log into my register at the worst possible moment. The Popper was making a high-pitched screech of a sound as the the kernels circled around within the kettle refusing to burst forth above the lid line any further. The smoky remnants of burned kernels hung in the air. Annabelle was telling a woman, “maybe you’d get better customer service if you weren’t such a bitch,” and I was now 3 minutes into my shift and being accosted by an angry middle-aged Christmas-time Christian who wanted me to explain why there were only two other people working on a Sunday morning.
“We’re understaffed . . .” My voice faded away as I let him imagine what that meant.
“I don’t care if you’re understaffed or not,” He huffed. “I just don’t think I should have to wait in a line like this. It’s fucking ridiculous.
“Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the line though,” but then he calls me a bitch with his backed turned, “No one is forcing you to stay in the line, sir. You have free will.”
This was 913 days working at the cineplex.
This was me slamming my palm down on the handle of the kettle for the 15,458th time, so that the popcorn wouldn’t be completely blackened and inedible. Pull down, popcorn spills onto the bottom shelf, pull up, let the remainder settle back flat in the 450 degree heat, pull down again to release those few remainders, scoop kernels into a cup, season, pour into the kettle, press that red oil button, finally turn immediately around (with a smile) to face a new customer demanding Junior Mints (without a smile) all the while Bohemian Rhapsody plays on repeat inside my head.
“When do you think it first was when you lost your humanity at this place?”
Madison drops into the break room chair right across from me. She’s stolen a plastic tray from Concessions, and has drowned popcorn with butter, salt, and jalapenos. It gives me heartburn just looking at all those peppers stacked in front of her. She’d been accosting the other staff members for weeks to try her “Jalapeno Challenge” in which she’d swipe the peppers from the Kitchen and guilt her fellows into swallowing a shot-size cup of the those dastardly 2,500 Scoville Level abominations in one go. She claimed it was “entertainment at it’s finest” as her victims made faces of regret and discomfort.
I watch her buttery hands stick kernel after kernel into her mouth, while I stir my half-cooked Lean Cuisine. I pretend I don’t hear her question. 40 minutes pass, and the first of the Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics start once more.
We enter the world of the Lobby. It stretches wide and maroon, glass walls ceiling to floor and endless, endless lines of of animatronic people with sour emotions plastered upon their faces. I push forward the leftward facing swing door, employee side exposed, and feel the weakness of my heart as I, too, become the animatronic producer of popcorn and 64-oz Coke products.
A customer becomes irate and decides to leave a popcorn trail for Hansel, Gretel, and Jacob to sweep.
Madison had been hired 3 months after I, in the late August of 2015. That first Monday afternoon, she wore only her white polo shirt among the maroon clad employees. I could see the sunburn creeping its way up her neck, and immediately recognized the branding. Her story paralleled my own.
His fingertips burned me before any other’s. It was the summer of Anna Karenina and beater-blue Mercedes-Benz’ bumbling along at 3 am down the dirt road to the center of the valley of lightning. It was an uncertain kiss broken only by my laughter. Sneaking in before my dad would wake up, but shaking my sister awake so I could whisper to her in confidence my adventures from the night before. He blistered my skin more effectively than the August sun with that touch.
This isn’t a story about him.
I’ve exited the back of the building, and am inspecting a pile of popcorn seeds just released into the wild by . . . mishap? I will never find out. I pull myself up from the ground, check that my keys haven’t fallen out from the interior hole in my pant pocket, and continue on my journey of pulling out the BERTHA into the 109 degree August. I had half-jokingly told Cassandra to assume that I had died from heat exhaustion if I didn’t come back inside in the next twenty minutes.
December frosted the world over that first year. The cold crept in between my bones, and while everyone else was running for shelter, I felt the full extent of that chill. Yanet and Claire wrapped blankets around me to keep me warm. This was the Great Loneliness circa 2015.
Madison was still in the background of all things during this time. She hovered under the radar neither giving an opinion nor debating anyone else’s. They would try to bait her into response.
“Do you like working here?” They’d ask.
“Do you feel our shared struggle?”
“Are you one of us now?” (But what was the correct answer to that?) I tried to warn her to be careful what she said. There was somebody always listening, and there was somebody always ready to use what you said against you.
I felt my own discomfort after learning the hard way that everyone already “knew” all there was to know about me from the words that would slip innocently from my mouth. I always wanted to know what was being said in order to defend myself. I had no clue who I was or what the point of my existence was, but to some I was a thorn in the side and the reason for men to go astray.
I am melting in the 2017 summer sun. This heatwave has lasted ten days now and I’m growing irritated with the blanket-like envelopment of thick heat dampening my neck with sweat. I turn the trashcans onto their sides, grab the black bag from within, and pull 50 pounds of trash out and over my head as I thrust it into the Compactor. If I aim wrong, all 50 pounds of garbage may end up right back on top of me. I use my left arm to hold the last bag into the over-filled Machine as I close the metal door with my right hand, while a plethora of sugar by-product pours forth onto my arms and torso.
I tell our General Manager that I’m going to need some time off. I’m going to go exploring, I say. He wants me to make sure I understand the protocol of filing for more time off in case “I find the man of my dreams” while away. I find the exchange bizarre. I don’t want to find the man of my dreams. He is furthest from my mind.
What I would like, though, is to escape the dull, non-sequitur reality of trying to figure out my past mistakes. I would like to stop waiting for some grandiose discovery of life’s meaning, and rather go out and search for the meaning myself.
When the vitriolic Arabian man watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens threatened to throw a cup of cheese at me that first winter, my first reaction was to step backward as if his words had slapped me full across the face. No one had ever spoken to me in this manner before. My hands would continue to shake until Madison came up from behind me in the process of tying her hair up, and said:
“Why don’t you let me take over for a little bit?”
So I handed her the reigns of my register, and surrendered myself into the background of my own story. I have been there ever since.
And Madison? She wanted to protect me, and I thank her for that but she diminished me in the process. She was everything I wish I could be. She lured people in with her easy smile, yet she wasn’t afraid to step on toes if it meant situating herself in a better position. She thrived in the security of employment, while I was aching for the consequences I’d face if I stepped out of that dreadful security of financial stability at the cost of happiness. She belonged here.
The ceremonious action of clocking out at the end of a shift is gifted to me by the Manager at 5 in the evening. My time card hangs hidden on the wall with 100 others until I pull the stack down and flip through to find my grime-covered, laminated first and last name. I ask Shauna and Rebecca if they’ve seen Madison or if she had already left for the day. They only half-hear my question: “who?” The box office lines run miles long, and they need to return their full attention to the customers in front of them.
I wave them off and reply with a simple “nevermind” after perceiving their stress and make a mental note to answer Madison’s question tomorrow when I saw her once again in the break room eating her buttery popcorn mess.
I’d say, “You asked me when I lost my humanity here, but I don’t think I have. I’ve hid it away for safekeeping. We both know that you are well aware of that.”
She would pop another kernel into her mouth with her eyes glinting and a half-smile on her face, “You’re right. I am well aware of that.”
and when the sun rises tomorrow morning, it will be 914 days at the cineplex.