EXT. – MOVIE THEATER – MID-JUNE, 2002
5:55 PM. You wish there was a slow-motion button that you could use on life for dramatic effect because this would be the perfect moment. You can picture it in your head: a raging orchestral theme playing in the background; a shot of the setting sun on the horizon; your feet walking (maybe through puddles); the name tag being adjusted; the ponytail being tightened; the shirt being straightened; then — wham — slam it back to a wider shot of you, real-time, striding across the parking lot, bag slung over one shoulder, expression fierce enough to scare the shit out of Hannibal.
You shoulder open the glass doors and are greeted by your two compatriots for the evening — Emily and Camille — who are lounging against the box office counter, conserving their strength.
“Hey, Jessie,” Emily drawls as you enter. “You working box tonight?”
“Yeah. I’m on six to close.”
“Awesome, I’m gonna go see if I can take my break now. I’ve been working all day.”
Emily got on at three, which doesn’t really qualify as “all day” in your book, but that’s Emily. She has a talent for complaining, and she practices it a lot. It’s not fun to be scheduled up in box with Emily, but it’s better than working concessions. Nobody likes concessions. People sell the souls of their first-born children to avoid concessions. There’s just something about the combination of customers and oily popcorn that makes a person want to sprint headfirst into a brick wall. There’s a rumor that one employee did that a few weeks ago to avoid an open-to-close weekend shift. Poor bastard.
You drop your bag off in the employee room, and by the time you return, Emily has disappeared on break so it’s just Camille which is fine because Camille, quite frankly, rocks. Camille has pen wars with you during off-times, and the two of you reenact scenes from pirate movies. You’re always the roguish but good-hearted pirate because you can act drunker than she can, while she is better at keeping a straight face and parodying the noble and stupid romantic lead.
You enter the tiny world of the box office, which is set up differently than many. The main thing is that there is no glass. This is not a walled-off dome of safety with a Darth Vadar voice box to speak to customers through. There’s just a half-wall and counter space to serve as a barrier between you and the battlefield outside. That means direct contact with the customers and the automatic assumption that the box office is local headquarters not only for ticket sales but also theater cleaners, managers, bouncers, new projectors, free money and magic wands. As if you have a jack-in-the-box in the employee closet that can just churn out whatever the customer wants. Speak to a manager? Sure you can! Let me just go into my room, turn the little handle, and tada! One pops straight out of my ass! Hope you enjoyed your show, please come again!
You have a reoccurring fantasy when there are dozens of people in your line and they are all shouting about one thing or another. You imagine disappearing into the employee closet and reemerging as the ULTIMATE THEATER WARRIOR! Metal plates on your legs, enormous space boots, massive torso armor, a Storm Trooper helmet, and around your arms are TICKET CANNONS and thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka — you just shoot ’em out — thunka-thunka-thunka — the crowd is falling back before your onslaught — thunka-thunka — white paper missiles! people are going down! — thunka-thunka-thunka — take that, O whining mob! — thunka-thunka — you deserve a raise.
But you are not the Ultimate Theater Warrior and you have no cool Storm Trooper helmet and no Darth Vadar voice box. You are Box-Office Barbie®. You are the all-blond, all-smiling, all-simpering, thank-you-very-much-and-enjoy-your-show machine, and you have all your gears oiled for tonight. Because it’s going to be a guaranteed bitch.
Camille is looking anxiously toward the doors. “Jessie, you know the new Blake Orlan movie came out today, right?”
You clock on and get your computer terminal up and running. “Yeah, I know.”
“The romantic-comedy one.”
“I remember.” You check your ticket paper, your pen, your credit card machine. Rodger that, Houston, all systems are go.
“And that Civil War epic opened, too.”
“Yes, it did.” You wish you had gauntlets to buckle on your arms. Nobody would mess with a theater employee wearing fucking gauntlets.
Camille shoots you a drowning look. “And it’s only you, me and Emily working box tonight. We’re dead, Jessie. We’re dead.”
You are inclined to agree but keep a brave face for your comrade-in-arms. In fact, after three summers working here, you have never encountered a more deadly combination than these two particular movies. Each is aimed at two very different markets, so there is no overlap. This is not a weekend dominated by a popcorn blockbuster that will channel the crowds into one, manageable mass. This is a night of polarization. These are the Capulets and Montagues as only Baz Luhrmann has imagined them.
On the one hand, there are the people coming to see the fluffy Blake Orlan extravaganza. It is a blatant star vehicle that has been manhandled and hogtied into the formula: cute boy + cute girl + kicky friends + sitcom jokes = profit. It is a wading pool, and it doesn’t draw a very deep crowd. There are a few specific elements to this group. There are the teenyboppers — predominantly junior high students who have yet to have their very existence belittled by high school upperclassmen. The girls squeal if a boy so much as sneezes, and the boys pretend to ignore the girls and play video games until their eyes fall out and roll around the floor and are swept up by the cleaning staff. They come to the movie theater because it is the only place their parents will drive them, and they go to the Blake Orlan movie because it is the only one which they are old enough to buy tickets to.
To the fangirls, the above ambivalence is sacrilege. They have come to the theater on opening night with their one dollar bills smashed together and stuffed tightly into their pockets for one reason: Blake Orlan — that gorgeous, god-like creation who’s not only beautiful but has an accent to boot. Someday they will be embarrassed to admit how deep their fervor ran for this icon, but for now they are constantly distracted by his airbrushed face on the movie posters all around them. They will drink large quantities of caffeine before the movie even starts, and then they will sit there, bladders near to popping, rather than go to the bathroom and miss one of Orlan’s signature furtive glances toward the camera. You know this intimately. You were once one of these girls.
Then there are the gushy couples. They are twenty-somethings. They are prone to bubbly flirtatiousness that triggers your single-person gag reflex. They are either in the first stages of marriage or the first stages of love, and this movie has been billed by bribed critics as “The Best Date Movie Of The Year!”. They come solely because of this tagline. It is not desire; it is requirement. All of their other couple friends will do the same, and you will serve them as well.
The Civil War drama draws more adults. It is an Oscar-hopeful eager to shine amid summer shallowness. It wants to be passionate and rousing and depressing all at once, but in the end, it is just formula of a different sort. Beautiful woman + reluctant hero + canon fodder best friend + botched history = award nominations. It is pretentious, trying to be more than what it is, and therefore it is just as bad as Orlan’s two-hour long close-up. There are a couple elements to this group, too, and one of these elements you actually like. You call them the “chick flick” group, although they don’t always go to the stereotypical chick flicks. They are middle-aged women in groups of a half a dozen or so, and they are there for girls’ night out. They are all escaping for a few hours — from work, home, family — and they are downright giggly at the freedom as they float in the aura of estrogen that surrounds them. They will sit through the two plus hours of heavy-handed drama, and they will cry in all the spots that the director was hoping they would cry at when he finished the film.
The other section is made up of those around the senior citizen discount age and beyond who are distinctly aware of the benefits their 55 years of patronage to the consumer industry SHOULD have earned them. They are critical of everything from the size of the theater to the butter on the popcorn to the aesthetic layout of their movie tickets. Your very shoelaces are under scrutiny, and a thousand 100-watt smiles are not enough to convince them that YOU are not being impertinent and disrespectful and THEY are not being swindled and mistreated by the entire movie industry so take THAT and ‘where the hell is my credit card?!’ They come to this movie because it is based (loosely) on truth, because it harkens back to simpler times, but mostly because they would not be caught dead sitting next to an Orlan fangirl.
And now all of these groups will be opening their gates and pouring forth. They will come to you, and their demanding inner buyers will burst out of their chests screeching, scrambling and spewing acid saliva like those nasty buggers on Aliens. You consider calling your parents to let them know that you may not be coming home and that you love them and that it doesn’t matter if you die tonight, your brother still doesn’t get to touch your stereo. It shall be placed on a shrine dedicated to you along with all your CDs.
6:25 PM. Approximately five minutes before meltdown, and the pre-launch sequence has already been completed. A few minutes ago, one of the managers dropped in to make sure the box had enough change and then disappeared in an instant, not to be seen again until the rush is over. You don’t know how they manage to do this, but you’re pretty sure they have Star Trek transporters stowed away.
Emily returns, banging the half-door shut behind her. “I just caught twenty minutes of that Blake Orlan movie — oh my god, that man is gorgeous! As soon as I graduate, I’m driving out to Hollywood and marrying him.”
Camille rolls her eyes. “He’s from England, Em. He doesn’t live in Hollywood.”
“Yeah, but I’m going to be an actress so I’m bound to run into him.”
And here you had always thought she was going to end up as a Laker girl. “I didn’t know you acted, Emily.”
“I don’t, but I’m looking for an agent.”
You turn back to the doors, pretty sure that Emily is just a springboard to a whole new world of absurdity. There are headlights streaming into the parking lot and you mutter to Camille, “If you build it, they will come.” She giggles as a few clusters of adults and a handful of teenyboppers slide in to scan the marquee. Scouts. One of the kids is jangling change in his pockets, and you can tell that he will be paying for his ticket entirely in quarters and pennies. A man is looking around for your credit card signs, making sure the theater accepts Discover, which is doesn’t. Some of the people are probably wishing they had gone to the other theater chain across town.
“I’m doing an accent,” Camille whispers to you in the still breath before the thunder breaks.
“Seven o’clock rush only. Irish.”
“Can you keep it up?”
“Ye’ve got no feyth i’ me, child.”
“You’re going to get caught one of these days by some random Kansas moviegoer who just moved from Dublin, and then I’m going to laugh.”
“It’ll be worth it.”
6:45 PM. You have made the horrible mistake of trying to pay someone a compliment. The grizzled man in front of you requested senior price for his ticket, and you asked to see his I.D. Most people find this flattering. You’ve gotten tips a couple times for asking this. The man is not amused. He leans across the counter into your face.
“You calling me a liar?” he barks.
You’re aghast. You sputter. You deny. Golly gee, no, sir, I just —
“Maybe I should speak to your manager!”
You backpedal, apologize, and practically shove the discounted ticket into his hands. You offer to build an altar of repentance, but he is satisfied with your groveling. He leaves, and you handle the next customer with somewhat less efficiency, flubbing up her movie and number of tickets a few times (I’m sorry, again, I can’t remember, did you say 7:30 or 7:45?). You waste a good half a minute jabbing furiously at the screen trying to get the credit card scanner to come up, only to realize you are pressing the wrong button. The lady seems sure that this is your first night working, and that it will probably be your last.
You have twenty people in your line, and the number is growing rapidly. They are all busy people, punctual people who are smart enough to get here half an hour early, but they are impatient. They want to get their ticket now. They want to buy their popcorn now. They want the best seats in the theater or this entire endeavor to them is an utter failure.
This is when the phone chooses to ring.
During breaks, when no movies are starting and there aren’t any customers clamoring for your attention, it never rings. It just sits there in its black, plastic, silent glory. Now it is clamoring, too.
You snatch it up and cradle it between ear and shoulder while counting back change.
The connection is full of static. “Yeah, I was…you could…times…playing?”
In the lobby behind you, someone hops on the gigantic Star Wars video game. Theme music blares. “I’m sorry, your phone is cutting out, and I didn’t catch that. What did you need?”
This time the person hollers and all the right words come through. “…want…times…movie Carmichael Falls…tonight…”
“Oh, Carmichael Falls isn’t out yet.”
Pause. Crackle. “…not out…?”
The teenage girl in front of you has very long false nails. They click in rolling succession against the counter. “No, I’m sorry, it doesn’t come out for a couple weeks.”
Pause. Crackle. “…movie…Zoe Reverie…love story. …sure…not out…?”
Somewhere out on the battleground, a toddler screeches the beginning notes of a proper fit. “No, no, I’m really sorry, but it isn’t.” You hand a customer three ones, fifty cents and their ticket and mouth thank you. She nods, and you address the phone, “Is there something I can do for you?”
Pause. Crackle. Click. The line goes dead. You hang up.
7:00 PM. The din of video games, human voices, overhead soundtracks and the tank-sized popper popping mounds of overpriced popcorn has all collided into a steady roar. You cannot distinguish particular sounds anymore; all you know is that you have to speak in your loudest, perkiest shout in order to communicate with your customers. They, on the other hand, choose to mumble. You ask for clarification. They mumble again and throw in some hand gestures this time. Obviously this is meant to cross all boundaries. You ask again, apologizing profusely, sir, could you say that one more time? He yells out which movie, what time, how many, and gives you a look that says, Get a hearing aid, for Christ’s sake! You are all warmth, all effusions of joy because, of course, there is no other place you’d rather be right now than here. That’ll be theater 13 on your left, enjoy your show.
Your line is a good fifty people long, and Emily and Camille are in similar situations. The poor bastards in the back are standing in the parking lot to the irritation of slowly circling drivers who must truly believe that on the next time around all the people will disappear and a kick ass parking space will open up.
“Helloooo? Can I get some help back here?”
The voice floats to you under the commotion, and you interrupt your mechanical multitasking to turn around. There is a small-built lady waiting at the back counter. Her arms are crossed. She is working her jaw quickly as if she can’t find a comfortable position for it. Her eyes are cutting and fixed on you because you are the idiot who had to turn around. Emily and Camille are still safe.
“I’ve been waiting back here for five minutes!” she exclaims.
The fifty people in your line have become sixty. You can’t abandon them so you pull change and work the computer and call over your shoulder, “I’m sorry, ma’am. What can I do for you?”
“I want to talk to a manager.”
Shit. “Is there a problem?”
“You’re damn right, there’s a problem. The sound on our movie is horrible, and the size of the screen is ridiculous. We did not pay $8 a ticket for this.”
“Thirteen dollars is your change, enjoy your show,” you tell a middle-aged black man who gives you a sympathetic smile that you will cherish the rest of the night. He has no idea he has given you so much. You call back to the lady, “I’m very sorry about that, ma’am. Which theater are you in? I’ll contact projection.”
“I want to talk to a manager.”
Fine, then. You give your next customer their total, grab the walkie-talkie and let every employee in the building know that you need a manager – any manager – up at box immediately and they may want to bring a machete for protection. You take a $20 from Mr.-and-Miss-Two-Adults-for-that-new-Blake-Orlan-movie-please across the counter and tell the lady behind you that a manager is on their way.
“Every time – every damn time – we come to this theater, we have an awful experience,” she says. “Your theaters are small, your sound system is all messed up, and these workers you have around here – they are just plain rude. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know why we keep coming back.”
Neither do you.
7:20 PM. The teenyboppers have multiplied. You can only recall seeing maybe a dozen come through the doors, but by now there are hundreds. They are in the lobby, on the video games, ganging up on the concessions stand and clustering in the hallways by the theater doors, shouting and screeching. You don’t know how they multiply so quickly, but you theorize that they are capable of some type of asexual reproduction akin to cell mitosis. One preteen becomes two who become four who become a collective mass that the employees must constantly threaten to expel if they don’t “keep their voices down” and “go see their movie.” They don’t want to see their movie. The girls want to yip and yammer and exchange pheromones. The boys want to exhibit their popstar coolness and pretend that they didn’t just crawl out of the backseat of a minivan a few minutes ago. A good hour or two after their movies have ended, this mob will filter their way back into minivans, but you’re not exactly sure that they are the same vans from which they came. It’s possible that they don’t even know the people, that they’re just attracted to that type of vehicle like magnets.
You ponder this enormous philosophical question while the little old lady in front of you repacks all the odds and ends she just pulled out of her purse in her search for change. It was amazing to witness — like people coming out of a clown car. She was terribly sweet, so you try not to seem like you’re impatient for her to get out of the way so you can serve the next person in line. You pretend to calculate something on an piece of scrap paper, eyes down, and only when you see her clear out of your peripheral vision do you look up to greet the next customer.
It is Chad Allen.
You imagine the director would want a close-up of your dully surprised face right about now.
Chad Allen was the baseball star of your high school, and a few notches short of being the most popular guy in your class. He never had enough sweetness to be a bonafide darling, but he was still gorgeous and relatively high on the hierarchy and involved in activities completely separate from you — an A/V geek who splits her time between the art room, the broadcast equipment, and the movie theater. Yet a few months ago, without warning, there had been interest. There had been a few weeks of flirtation so heavy it bordered on foreplay. There had been a couple of dates complete with makeout sessions. You had felt special and sexy for the first time ever. Then it was gone. You hadn’t even received a pink slip. A friend spotted him exchanging tonsils with a sophomore he had study hall with, and that was it. All your female friends dutifully called him nasty names pulled straight from the Scorned Women’s Thesaurus, but you just felt empty.
You feel empty now, staring across the counter at him standing there with that sophomore girl wrapped around his arm.
“Hey, Jessie,” he says.
You are trapped inside that tiny box office space, hemmed in by neon and stale popcorn with no choice but to communicate. This is your opportunity to come up with something viciously clever to say while he is right in front of you, something witty and ripping. You can do this sometimes, just drop perfect verbal bombs on a situation — kablam! insert awed silence here — and aside from referencing movies, it is your only talent. But it has abandoned you right now. You are blank. You are stuck in Box-Office Barbie® mode.
“Hey, guys. What can I get for you?” It comes out much perkier than you wanted it to.
He smiles. Probably hoping to get free tickets, the bastard. “We’re going to see that movie that just came out today…that one with, you know, what’s-his-name…baby, who is it?”
“Blake Orlan,” she breathes, beaming. You force a smile. She looks like a praying mantis, all thin and supermodel-angular, with her arms latched around him, ready to devour him after he’s fertilized her eggs. It happens. You saw it late-night on the Discovery Channel.
He leans forward and gives you the smile he used to reel you in the first time. “Is it any good?”
“I haven’t seen it.” Your heart still performs a stunning back flip at the smell of his cologne. Damn it. “That’ll be $11.50.”
He laughs as he hands you the cash. “Come on, Jessie, you see all the movies. You haven’t seen this one?”
“It just came out today. Fifty cents makes twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and five makes twenty.” The tickets print, and you hand them over. You are disgusted with yourself for being so docile. “It’ll be theater six.”
He takes the tickets, gives you an up-nod as way of farewell and tugs on that sophomore girl’s arm. She giggles, “Later!” You hope she eats lots of buttered popcorn and that it all goes to her bony little hips. You hope one day she is caught at work in a dorky company uniform by an ex she still has gotten over. You hope your father is right and that someday Chad Allen, high school baseball star, will regret ever having let a gem like you go. You, however, would not bet your money on this last one. You need it for film school.
7:45. You should have chugged more caffeine. You are no longer the compassionate young woman that your mother always tells you that you are. You want to stomp on kittens and other cute, fluffy things. You want to burn flowers and not use them for potpourri. It took you several customers after Chad left to regain your animation and stop sounding like a Mac computer, but a residue of irritation lingers, shredding your patience slowly.
“So your gift certificates…they only…come in 10s and 20s?”
The lady in front of you has a habit of pausing every few words to decide what’s she’s going to say next. You are down to forty people in your line, but they are antsy. Most of the start times for their movies were at least fifteen minutes ago. Commercials are over, previews will last only five more minutes — ten at the most — and they still want popcorn — layer the butter, would you? — and a Diet Coke.
“Yes, ma’am. Only 10s and 20s.”
“No 5s? I really…wanted to give them…each 15.”
“I’m sorry, we only have 10s and 20s.”
“Oh, dear. Well…let me think…”
She stands there, staring up at the marquee which is surprising because it has absolutely nothing to do with gift certificates. You usually have a customer taken care of in less than forty-five seconds. She has been there for going on two minutes. The longest damn two minutes in your eighteen years.
“Well, I guess I could…nooo…”
Your line is ready to riot. You are thinking about ticket cannons.
“Yeah…I’m going to have to…just get…I’ll just get two 20s…yeah…that sounds all right.”
Action. Finally. You tear off the perforated gift certificates. She asks for an envelope, but you’re out. She pays with a credit card that takes an agonizing thirty seconds to process. By the time she has stepped aside she has consumed over three and a half minutes. Your worst time ever.
8:00 PM. The end of the line is visible. The whole theater staff feels it as the customers thin out, and there is room to breathe, to think, to pray for an office job next year. The last movie started at 7:55, and all that remains are the late stragglers in line, the ones that waltz in, scan the marquee and inexplicably buy tickets for the 7:05 Blake Orlan special even though they could go see the 7:25 and catch more of the movie. You always offer to sell them tickets to the later show, but they always refuse. You can’t comprehend why they would do this. Movies, in your opinion, are too sacred for such behavior, and so is the money you shell out for them.
A clique of four girls giggle their way up to your terminal. They can’t be more than fourteen, and they keep shooting glances at three boys off to one side who are not much older, but a little. Just enough.
“What do you have that gets out around 10:30?” asks the tallest girl. She’s wearing a magenta kids’ version of a top designed for twenty-somethings, a top that you used to want to wear at her age but your mom wouldn’t let you. At eighteen, your mom would let you now, but you realize it would look as ridiculous on you as it does on this little poseur.
You ask, “Why do you need a movie that gets out at 10:30?”
The tallest girl giggles. The other three are gibbering quietly about the boys, about going over to ‘his house’ that’s ‘across the street’. “We need something to tell my dad when he picks us up,” she whispers.
You are older, and not too old yet to be considered ‘uncool’. She thinks that telling you this will make you sympathetic, make you feel included, convince you to help them out on their little escapade. Instead, you feel like your mom.
The computer chirps short little notes as you touch the screen, flipping through showtimes. There are two or three movies that these girls could have gone to that will drop around 10:30. You tell her the only thing you have is the Civil War epic which is rated R.
She is disappointed, and her friends are heartbroken. No alibi. You are contemptible and no longer worth their attention, and in a strange way, that feels bad. It would have been gratifying to have had these girls look up to you as an all-knowing accomplice. You want to explain why you won’t help them. You want to tell them that they don’t know, they couldn’t possibly know, how horrible these games can be. But they wouldn’t listen. You didn’t either, when you were their age.
They go back and talk with the boys, and you do not see them leave. You only notice that they are not there half an hour later. They probably went over to ‘his house’ anyway.
8:15. The battle is over. There are no lines, and a manager has counted the money in Camille’s drawer so she can go home. As she walks out the front doors, she tells you she’ll call you tomorrow so the two of you can come see a movie, maybe the Blake Orlan one. You say, yeah, why not, since all the critics are raving about its snappy dialogue and stunning portrayal of inner city life. She laughs and waves. The glass door closes behind her, and you miss her company almost instantly.
“I need a break!” Emily moans. She drapes her upper body across the counter and whimpers until you tell her to go ahead. There aren’t any customers anyway. She is already gone.
Your co-worker Kyle comes up to the back of the box office to hang out. There is a lull in the floor tasks now that all of the movies have started for this round, and hovering around box helps him avoid being sucked into concession duties.
He starts to gripe about how it’s been a bitch of a night, and you wander back toward him without paying attention. You are thinking about Chad. You are trying to come up with something you could have said, something that would have fixed what happened and detangled everything inside you. Words are supposed to be powerful like that. Instead, all you can think about is that scene in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman calls out at the police, “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” right before he’s snipered in the neck. It is your favorite scene of the movie: both wretched and wonderful.
“Jessie?” Kyle punches you in the arm, playfully. “Rough night?”
“Like you said, it’s been a bitch.”
“You off tomorrow night?”
“Yeah. Camille and I are going to see a movie.”
“I don’t know yet. Want me to call you?”
“Sure.” He walks off to go clean the water-spotted mirrors in the men’s bathrooms, and you are left to notice that Chad is at the concessions stand getting an enormous popcorn tub refilled. His back is to you, but you recognize his stance — like John Wayne, one hip thrust out. His attention wanders, and because you don’t react fast enough, he catches you looking at him. He smiles. “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” Paul Newman drops like cement. You turn away.
A very tall man comes up to your terminal demanding to know why you don’t have an 8:30 of the Civil War drama on the marquee. He insists that there was a listing for this time in the paper this morning, and you spend several minutes repeating, “I’m sorry, sir, but that movie doesn’t have another show starting until 9:30.” He leaves, grumbling, vowing to never patronize this particular theater again, but the movie theater has its own gravitational pull and the box office prices here are hard to beat. You will serve him again in a few weeks, maybe even a few days. He will come and he will vomit money he can’t afford to spend in order to be diverted. He will, like you always do, sit in a theater as the lights eclipse and pretend that the world on-screen is real, that there is a life out there that is less ordinary and more glamorous, where people work jobs they love for more than minimum wage, where everything feels right and well-planned instead of chaotic and pointless, where there are definitive endings that are satisfying even if they aren’t always happy.