The Popcorn Girl by Michael J. Vaughn
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Saturday, August 4, 2012
I want you to say it like this: Yazz-mee-nuh Kawn-treh-vitch. Very good. You’ve noticed already: I don’t talk like a Jasmina Contrevic. I talk like a Betty Smith, a Shirley Martin, a Heather Warner.
Not all of the Serbs were guilty. But bombs are indiscriminate. I was five, living on the outskirts of Sarajevo. The night was cold. My parents left me home, for safety. I stood at the window to watch them drive away. I felt the rush of air. They were vaporized.
I ended up in Bergen County, New Jersey with my second cousin. The trees were bursting with color, and Laszlo’s backyard felt like a country estate. He bought me a swingset, and we spent the afternoon putting it together.
Laszlo was so affectionate, for such a long time, that I did not recognize when it was that the line was crossed. Looking back, it was the introduction of the penis, but at the time I suppose I thought of it as a new toy. At twelve, after much painful effort, Laszlo put his penis inside of me, and it was then that the triggers finally went off.
I went to the library and scoured the biology section until I discovered the word intercourse. If Laszlo continued, I would have a child in my belly. I didn’t want that. Over the years, Laszlo gave me little cash gifts. I took all that I had saved, plus the diamond engagement ring that he kept in his dresser, and bought a ticket for Minneapolis.
I ended up in Mill Valley, California, a dollhouse town guarded over by redwoods. I work at the old moviehouse, where I take tickets, clean the theater after screenings, and work the box office. But I think of myself as the popcorn girl.
It’s been raining for weeks. The hillsiders are walking their perimeters, looking for signs of mudslides. Down here in the village, with our asphalt and storm drains, we feel pretty safe. Although the corner by the Depot is beginning to resemble a koi pond.
It’s January, so I don’t expect shoppers, but the gray desolation is getting to me. I hang the Back in 15 sign and walk a cigarette to the bridge.
Not so much a bridge; the creek crosses under the road through a concrete tunnel. I’ve seen kids hiking the tunnel in summer, and I’m a little curious about where it ends up. Some of the bigger mysteries are right beneath us. I lean over the railing and watch the water as it roils into civilization. It’s downright river-like.
“Isn’t it magnificent?”
To my right is a white hood.
“Do you ever picture a single raindrop falling into the water like a tiny kayak, and the wild ride it must take before it reaches the Bay?”
I take a drag and let it go – a stall tactic.
“Oddly enough, I do. Only, for me it’s a raft. Like Huckleberry Finn.”
The hood angles away, revealing a remarkable pair of eyes. Round as marbles, black irises, glimmering in the faint light. She smiles.
“I love Huckleberry Finn.”
I can’t speak. She glances at her cell phone.
“Oh shit! Gotta go.”
She crosses the street to the moviehouse. She takes off her jacket, revealing thick black hair, falling to her shoulders in sidewinder waves. Egyptian princess. Russian czarina. My cigarette burns down to my fingers. I flinch, and it falls to the water.
Why do people find it so difficult to be nice? There are certain (blonde, lazy) employees who expend large amounts of energy being surly, acting like each customer through the door is another one-ton weight upon her oh-so-frail back. People often tell me how pleasant I am, but really I’m just taking the logical path. I am being paid cash money to engage people, to be nice to them, so I embrace my role, and the day goes by much faster. And here’s the key to the whole thing: I ask people how they’re doing, and then I listen. You’d be amazed at how many people are desperate to talk to someone.
The owner, Fosh, is a Persian man with a jowelly brown face. He reminds me of a cinnamon roll. The rest of the staff is a little scared of him, but I just treat him like another customer: I ask him how he’s doing. Sometimes the answer is very long, and I have to remind him that I need to get to work. Fosh is long-married, to a woman who looks like an ambassador’s wife. I’m betting it was an arranged match. I’m betting he hasn’t had sex for years, and I’m betting she does not ask him how he’s doing.
Tuesday evening – very slow. An older couple. The man has silver hair, but retains a bit of youth in his face: sharp features, blue-gray eyes. The woman is well-preserved, but much of it is artificial: the $200 frost-blonde hairdo, the tight, expressionless face. She looks bored. Most of the terrible stuff in the world is perpetrated by those who are bored.
Fifteen minutes into the movie, Mr. Silver returns, armed with a soda. He wears a gray suede jacket, knit collar, very nice. He breathes a sigh and hands me the soda.
“I’m sorry. Could I get a Diet Coke? I could have sworn she said regular.”
“Happens all the time. How’s the movie?”
He rolls his eyes. “Chick-flick. But I’m tough; I can take it. How are you doing today?”
Ambushed by my own trick.
“Slow. It’s harder when it’s slow.”
“I know precisely what you mean.” He eyes my name tag. “Jasmina. Gorgeous name.”
“And you pronounce it so well!” I snap a lid on his Coke and hand it to him.
“Lucky guess. What’s the damage?”
I smile (this being just the right time to smile). “Let’s just pretend that the whole thing was my mistake.”
He smiles back – a small smile, a little controlled. “You are a gem. It does an old man good to be served by a young beauty.”
“Enjoy your chick-flick. Take notes.”
“Oh I will.” He laughs and turns to go. Ten feet away, he stops, comes back and hands me a business card.
“Jasmina, could you email me sometime? I have some business I’d like to discuss with you.”
I slip the card into my jeans pocket. “You’d better get back to your wife.”
“Yes I’d better. ‘Bye.”
Mr. Silver lopes away. An hour later, I take a bathroom break and give the card a scan: Anthony Francis, attorney, tax specialist. I envision my most recent trip to the ATM, the drop in my stomach when I saw my balance. The Minneapolis cushion is gone.