Small Popcorn, Medium Coke
No one really experiences loneliness until he works a cash register. At least a register at the Palace, because that’s the only job I’ve ever had. I offered to work this year, but my parents told me I’d have my hands full in my first semester, and it was sort of an empty offer anyway. I’m glad now, because college is tough. But sometimes I sort of miss it, the Palace, usually when I’m walking at night and it’s all dewy and no one’s around except maybe a girl in a sweater walking the other way.
So, girls. I know every guy has a “girls story,” where he can lay out all of his past crushes and girlfriends like old pictures from an album, or list top break-ups like in High Fidelity. I won’t do that, because I don’t like clichés and my “girls story” is actually kind of boring. It’s four or five total, and four or five of them minus one were just crushes, because I get nervous about asking people out and back in middle school I had a lot of acne. I don’t understand guys that can just ask girls out, all smooth. My hands get sweaty and my heart rate spikes just thinking about it. I really had to steel myself to ask out Anna Williamson.
That happened around the middle of junior year, two or three months before I took the job. I’d gotten whispers from friends of mine and friends of Anna’s and friends of both of ours that Anna likes you and Dude, ask her out! and She’s getting impatient…
That last one really pissed me off, by the way. If girls get so impatient, why don’t they do the asking? When I say that, people tell me it’s hard for girls to ask guys and all this other stuff, and I just think about sweaty hands and thumping hearts. Gender roles are stupid.
My plan was to ask her out as we walked home from a football game. She was staying the night with a girl from my neighborhood, and it would be just Anna and me, and the darkness would help. The problem was that the girl from my neighborhood passed up her ride to walk with us and get some “fresh air.” Like we hadn’t just sat in a frigid breeze to watch our team get destroyed by the rich-white-kids’ school from two towns over.
So instead I walked Anna to her car the following Monday, and just before she got in I sort of spat out, Hey can I talk to you for a sec? and she said, Okay, with a half-smile, which gave me a bit of confidence. So I said, I was sort of wondering what you thought about maybe seeing a movie with me this weekend?
I’ll never forget how she rubbed her cheek and glanced away, just for a second. Yeah. That sounds good.
Good echoed in my head for weeks. And then the feel of her hand just before she let go of mine. Until we kissed, and then it was her leaning in, like a movie, over and over again. For a long time.
I don’t want to talk about how it ended. There was another guy involved, which basically sums up the whole stupid thing. After that I started seeing little moments in my head, good and bad. Just like movies.
But movies were something I could count on. They hold every truth and emotion of anyone caught in the vortex of horrible sweetness known as the human experience, so that’s why I filled out the stupid three-page application, and delivered it in person to a manager, and wore my dad’s suit to the interview.
I trained on a Wednesday night at five o’clock, with Daniel as my shift lead. I remember unwrapping the uniform like it was yesterday, separating polyester from plastic, adjusting the cheap bow tie as I absorbed the laminated Managers’ Motto: “Look nice, treat customers nice, and remember that for eight years the Palace has been the best theater in the county.”
I’ll paraphrase, Daniel said from behind me. ‘Bullshit.’
My first day on register, I discovered that hell exists, there is no god, and people are the worst. I’m not religious, but if humans did fall because someone ate an apple, then we fell far.
No, I said layered butter. They do it for me every time.
Are you new here or something? Jesus.
Yeah, just give it to me man, I don’t want no fucking upgrades. I gotta get to my show.
Well fuck you all, because I’m in college now and someday I’m going to be in business and make good money and maybe have a wife and kids. And if I had a time machine, I’d go back to that afternoon and flip you all the bird.
But I liked some customers. Especially Donald. I didn’t learn his name until that summer, when I saw his credit card. And when I was clouded over with Anna stuff.
I thought the register would be a distraction from all that, with the people and popcorn and sodas and pretzels, but it wasn’t. I learned that rushes and dead hours are the same; you zone out either way. During rushes your fingers get numb from punching keys and your socks get wet from all the spilled soda and leaky drains and your head is filled with an incessant beeping: flip the popcorn. FLIP THE POPCORN.
Damn it! You guys have to flip it when it’s beeping. This batch is fucked.
So during rushes you zone out and start playing movies in your head of kisses and morning hikes and other guys and late night Cold Stone…
And when it’s dead, you just stare out at the front desk and the sun cuts through the upper windows and your mind wanders.
When I had a crush on this girl Kara in eighth grade, I decided I wanted a wife and maybe three or four kids, depending on if I made it to the big leagues and lived in a high-rise in Chicago or settled for a CEO gig and a smaller house down here in San Diego. Now I’m not so sure. Not just because I haven’t picked up a baseball in four years, but also because of other things. Girls are great, don’t get me wrong, but I think I could be alone. My roommate gets depressed when I say things like that or go to movies by myself, but he’s just got Jerry Maguire syndrome: can’t be alone. I’m immune, and so was Donald. I never saw him with anybody. I always admired that—solo moviegoers, like smart blockbusters, are practically nonexistent.
Anyway, I never asked Kara out, because I had a lot of acne that year. Like I said.
I won’t go into my whole top ten, but my all-time favorite movie is Memento, and here are five reasons why:
- Christopher Nolan is a genius.
- Memento is his best film, despite all the jump-ons who just loved Inception.
- Brilliant plot structure.
- Simple locations, low budget, no CGI.
- The main character isn’t falling in or out of love with someone.
I don’t get offended if people dislike Memento, though. Or other movies. I learned that one the hard way.
Mallory was a cute redhead in pre-algebra. I went up to her one day and asked for a pencil; she told me to shut up, but with a smile like we had a secret pact not to trust whatever the other said. I fell in love…the point is, the spell was broken a couple of weeks later when I found out she hated National Treasure.
I was young.
So, Donald. I don’t remember when I first met him, but I’d love to go back and see what it was like, assuming I still had time left on my time machine after flipping those fuckwads the bird from my first day on register. I bet I liked him better than the others, even then. He was direct, but not like a businessman. He had a way of asking for his food that made you want to get it for him.
Small popcorn, medium Coke.
And I’d scoop only fresh, snow-white popcorn, and layer the butter, and wipe off the side of the bag so his hands wouldn’t get sticky.
Thank you. Have a good one.
After the fourth or fifth time I brought Donald his order I decided he deserved recognition, and I said something on break.
Favorite customer? Sid asked that afternoon, tearing open a Hot Pocket. Goddamn packets of shit.
We were sitting in the break room’s white bleakness, wasting our halves away. Yeah. What’s wrong with having a favorite customer?
For starters you’re implying you like a customer. Another bite; something meant to resemble a meatball plopped down on the table. So there’s that.
I did like Donald, and I wasn’t ashamed of it, either. That was the problem with Anna after a certain point, actually—I was sort of ashamed to be her boyfriend. It’s a horrible thing to say, but that’s the truth. She didn’t like any of the movies or books I liked, and even though she was smart and cool and all that, she was always texting and saying how, like, she had so much, like stuff going on this weekend. Like. I know people talk that way now, but still. Come on.
Anyway, during the time of pain and frustration that clouded my memory, back before all traces of Anna Williamson were purged from my heart, I was never quite able to remember how ashamed I’d been.
I’ve never been very good at anything with girls. It took me about a billion years to finally go for the kiss with Anna. But maybe it’s just social stuff in general. Talking, for instance. I couldn’t even build up the courage to say anything to Donald besides the usual employee stuff, except for this one time. I remember he was seeing something I’d been interested in, an action movie without any CGI in the trailer. I noticed his ticket and asked him about the movie.
Looks good, he said.
Yeah. I nodded. Well I hope you enjoy it.
Thank you. Have a good one.
The night when I saw Donald by the water park, the circus was setting up in an empty field by my house as I drove to work, probably around five or six. It’s one of those operations that moves from city to city putting on shows each weekend. They’d materialize about every month, although I can’t be sure because it was such a strange thing to see. By the time the familiar blue awnings and muddy pick-ups reappeared, it seemed like they’d just been there last weekend.
That was a Friday night. I remember the half-erected tents, the two men in torn jeans and straw hats bent over as they raked the ground, pushing mud this way and that until it was close to flat. I don’t know why, but that field always looked like it had just been rained on. Or maybe it was just me.
The other thing about that night was how dead it was. I’d never been so idle on a Friday, much less during the summer season. We’d built it—plenty of blockbusters and horror flicks, even an animated for the younger crowd—but they hadn’t come.
Except Donald. He sauntered in around seven or eight, examined a couple of movie posters, and stepped up to my register exactly ten minutes before his show. That was something I’d come to notice about Donald—he was punctual. Always at the register ten minutes before, and you could judge how early he was by how many posters he looked at in the lobby on his way over. There were some other things about Donald, too:
- He always wore slacks and a collared t-shirt, though once I saw him in a black blazer.
- He always arrived from the right side of the theater and walked out to the left.
- He always took off his glasses and wiped them with his shirt while I was swiping his card.
- When he was in line, he stared straight ahead. Not up at the monitors (they played previews), or around the lobby, or even down at his feet. Straight ahead.
- His order was always the same.
I was pretty happy to see him that night, because I’d been lost in my thoughts for a good hour or so. Daniel was still on his break, but I’d seen our shift manager, Gerardo, striding though the lobby a few times, so the tops of the soda machines were clean.
I said hello as Donald walked up. He smiled and nodded, which, for him, was like jumping over the counter and wrapping me up in a big hug.
Small popcorn, medium Coke, please.
A smile. I’m the guy who can get it for you.
That night I scooped the whitest, freshest popcorn and layered the butter many times over. I swiped his card and he wiped his glasses.
All set. I eased the popcorn across the counter. Enjoy the show.
Thank you. Have a good one, Alec.
My name! He didn’t even look at my nametag, either. At least I don’t think he did. I’m eighty percent sure he didn’t look at my nametag, but I could be wrong. Anyway, it was great.
At ten Daniel and I started cleaning the poppers, which is a process too horrifying and arduous to describe in writing. Basically it involves a lot of brushing, spraying, scrubbing, spraying, brushing, wiping, and spraying, all with shitty brown paper towels that spread the cheap lemon-smelling cleaner around more than they absorb it. Daniel took one popper and I took the other.
Fast night, I said after some silent scrubbing. Pretty empty.
Daniel glanced at me through the butter-smeared side window of his popper. No distractions that way.
Daniel was always saying he loved it busy until it got busy, and then he would complain about customers and say he loved it dead. I think that’s sort of how we all felt, though.
I swear, Daniel said when we’d shut off the poppers and rolled them back into place, this is the last time I close concessions.
I’m serious, he said.
I don’t know. Soon. I’ve been here too fucking long.
How long again?
Long enough to be a shift lead twice. Like two buns with a juicy demotion in between.
Gerardo came by at eleven to shut down the registers. Daniel and I were already filling the paint-speckled Home Depot buckets with hose water.
As we dragged the buckets out front, I said to Daniel, Every night for eight years.
Daniel rolled his eyes.
It doesn’t bother you at all? I asked. That this place has never taken a day off?
Or that we do the same thing every morning and every night?
We went to opposite ends of concessions and started splashing water across the grimy tile. When Daniel had emptied his bucket, he sloshed some blue cleaner on top and we grabbed a couple of brooms.
Okay, so why doesn’t it bother you?
Daniel stopped scrubbing and stood up. Why does it have to? I fucking hate it, but this place works a certain way and always has. That’s what you sign up for when you take an interview for a minimum wage shit job.
I kept scrubbing, but Daniel hopped up and sat on the counter, swinging his broom back and forth.
Should I fill up the buckets? I said once I was done.
Yeah. Just one should do it.
The lights were already out when we bumped through the swinging door and left concessions. Only Gerardo remained in the lobby, sitting at one of the tables with his legs kicked up, face aglow in the dim light from his phone. He waved.
It only took me a few seconds to gather my things in the break room. Daniel sighed as he clocked out in front of me, black hood obscuring his buzz cut. Night.
I stepped out into warm air, the kind that you only get during summer nights. The parking lot was empty except for three or four cars and a few puddles. The sprinklers always turned on around eleven. My car, parked under a light in the second row, sat in the biggest puddle. I decided to go for a walk.
I love to walk. It’s a great stress reliever. That’s one of the ways I got over Anna. I remember after one awful day at work I stopped by a park on the way home and walked a couple of miles to unwind. Really cleared my head.
Anyway, I headed across the street to this pathway that winds through a sculpture garden and empties out next to the water park. No one was out, and I was able to sink into my thoughts as I passed shadows of animals and kites and naked figures. I don’t understand sculptures, but maybe that’s just me. I knew this girl, Alexis, who really liked the sculpture garden. She was another high school crush. This one day we went to see some action movie with a group of friends, and afterward we walked through there on our way to get lunch. My friend Tommy was making fun of this sculpture that just looked like a blob, and Alexis put a hand on his shoulder and said, Could you make that?
Tommy said something like, Sure, if I had the tools, and Alexis rolled her eyes.
What do you think? she asked me, smiling. Isn’t it good?
I remember nodding. Yeah. It’s interesting. I was still young.
Stray headlights cut through my daze, and I paused on the edge of the curb, across from the water park. It’s a cool place, and really popular during the summer, especially for kids. But at night it was sort of eerie—all of the slides cast long shadows, and the pool covers bobbed up and down like huge boats on a dark sea. I wouldn’t have walked in there for a hundred bucks.
There were two cars in the side lot, illuminated by dull orange street lamps. One was a beat-up white Volvo with a “For Sale” sign taped inside the back window. The other was a Nissan, either blue or black. It took me a second before I saw the shadow: a figure dressed in dark clothes, sitting on the Nissan’s hood, facing away from me. No movement. Probably a man, judging by his wide shoulders and stout frame. It’s funny—standing there on the curb, I remember guessing, almost knowing, in a way, what he was up to. Only daydreamers share that tilted head and static, slumped posture.
I checked my watch: time to go. Starting back toward the theater, I cut across the street to get a better look at whoever was sitting there, taking care not to give myself away. When I finally had an angle, his face caught the lamp’s glare and I halted mid-stride. There was no mistaking him; I recognized those glasses, that nose. He wore a blazer, but otherwise was no different than he’d been earlier that night when I’d gotten him his small popcorn and medium Coke. Only now he stared straight ahead into the dead water park in the late hours of the night.
So, like I said before, college is tough. There’s a lot of work, a lot of distractions.
In high school people always told me to “have a plan.” When you wake up after high school graduation, they’d say, you need a plan. The real world is waiting. And I feel like I have a pretty good plan. Business. Enough money, maybe a wife and kids someday. I don’t know. I’ve definitely moved on from things—high school, the Palace, Anna. It depresses me when people can’t move on, when they’re stuck in one time and place. But anyway, what I really want to say is that sometimes, when I’m out in the late dew, walking with the moonlight, clearing my head, sometimes a girl will pass me, or the breeze will pick up a little and I’ll get goose bumps, and it’ll be like I’m on register again, settling in for a long shift.
And I miss that.
Nick is a first-year student at UCLA and plans to double major in English and Statistics. He’s the author of three or four unpublished novels and a few short stories, and he dreams of becoming a published novelist. Besides writing, he enjoys reading, running, and watching movies that don’t use too much CGI.