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Lexi is such a ditz it drives me nuts. She’s always punching the wrong keys on the register, and then I have to come over and void the transaction. She could learn this stuff herself – she’s been here for a year – but she’s lazy. Blondes. They spend their whole lives having stuff handed to them.
It’s Friday, opening night on two of our screens, one of them that Norwegian mystery writer who begins all of his titles with The Girl Who. I’m hovering over one of my everyday delights –a spanking clean popper, ready for the day’s first batch – when I hear the familiar two-syllable whine.
“Ja-azz! Can you help me?”
You’re beyond help you freakin’ moron.
“Sure.” I walk over, dissect the latest faux pas, and hit the usual buttons. Nothing. I try again. Shit. I smile at our customers, a young Asian couple.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be right back.”
I leave them in Lexi’s inept care and race-walk to the office, where Fosh is posting something on his Facebook page.
“Hi, boss. Did you change the security code?”
He scans the ceiling, searching his memory. “Ye-ess. Just a moment.” He burrows into his desk. His cell phone goes off.
“Fuck, Lexi! Just a…”
Lexi stands in the frame of the hall. Trailing behind her are tentacles of black smoke.
“Shit!” I run to the fire extinguisher, but I can’t work the latch.
“I’ve got it.” Fosh frees it up and runs to the lobby, where the popper is sending out smoke like the stack of a locomotive. He mumbles something in Farsi and hands me the extinguisher.
“Get everybody outside.”
His ferocity snaps me into focus. I wave a few customers into the street and prop open the doors. A river of smoke climbs the marquee. I stand to the side, holding the extinguisher in case anybody needs it. Lexi comes up to offer a few helpful insights.
“Shit, that was scary! What the hell was that?”
I feel the surge of heat but I can’t stop it. “That was the oil overheating. Which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have to help you every five fucking seconds because you won’t learn your fucking job!”
Lexi undergoes her own kind of surge. Her eyes crinkle, she starts to cry, and then she runs off down the street.
“Wow,” says Javid. “You’re kind of a bitch! I like that.”
I check the smoke, which seems to be lessening. “I guess I held back too long.”
“You know, less intelligent people make their way through life by developing delusions about themselves, and they fill those delusions with helium. You have to be careful about popping them, or you’ll end up with a high-pitched voice.”
“That is the weakest analogy I’ve ever heard.”
“See? There you go, popping delusions.”
“So what’s the word?”
“Boss man cut the circuit to the popper. This kind of thing has happened before – no flames, lots of smoke. We’re supposed to tell the customers that the first showings are cancelled. Oh! Here’s a few now.”
He heads for the ticket window, where a dad and two girls are studying the scene. I cradle my fire extinguisher and take a moment to feel sorry for myself.
I arrived at Tony’s boat to find that he intended to share me with three of his friends. One of them was celebrating a long-awaited divorce. I refused, but then he doubled my price. As we neared Angel Island, I actually began to enjoy it. Something about being the focus of all that energy. Now I am deeply afraid of myself.
I’m about to start our surf-punk song when I see a smile and freeze. Smeed leans over and gives me a stage aside.
“Yeah. I got it.” I kick up the beat (three tom, one snare) and we’re off. As my hands sink into auto-mode, I allow myself a sideways glance. Now she’s laughing.
“Geez. You surprised me.”
“So I noticed. Your band is wonderful.”
“We’re pretty tight without the dachsunds.”
“I’ve had such a hellish week, I totally forgot about tonight. But I saw a flyer at the Depot.”
“So you set the fire.”
“Oh God! You saw it?”
“I work across the street.”
Jasmina scans the room – the Baby Seal Club setting up, our squad of followers dominating a large table up front. “This place have an outdoor area?”
I take her hand and lead her to a small patio out back. Across the alley, the well-heeled of Mill Valley are eating Italian food.
She smacks her lips. “So how do you write these songs? Where do they come from?”
“Well, first we hook a couple of mics to a computer and keep it running. This one time, I laid down this caveman beat and Smeed came up with a chord structure – let’s see, full measures of E, G and A, followed by a little cut on D and C. I doubled up the beat and Pamela started vibing some vocal lines. Later on, when we…”
I would go on, but I’ve got Jasmina’s tongue in my mouth. This one lasts for a full minute.
“You know… if I’m talking too much, you can always just… tell me to shut up.”
“I think I prefer my way.”
“I’m not really complaining. But tell me, these little guerilla attacks – what’s that about?”
“You don’t know?”
“I am a visitor from the planet Jehovah. Your ways are strange to me.”
She looks down and rubs a spot on her pinkie. “I’m not exactly sure myself. I do it because I can’t help not doing it. I find you kissable. As for the ferocity – well, it’s been a long time. Not that I’m… What I mean is… could we just enjoy this part before we get onto… the other parts?”
I have to laugh. “Oh! Believe me. See previous comment, ‘planet Jehovah.’ But let me… Hold still a second.”
She freezes, as if she expects me to wipe away an eyelash. Instead I duck down and kiss her very softly, for a very brief time. She keeps her eyes closed, as if she’s expecting more, then opens them and smiles.
“You see,” I say, “those kind of kisses are okay, too.”
“And everything in between?”
“And everything in between.”
Smeed pokes his head through the doorway and grins. “Paul! Safety meeting, Mark’s van. Are we a plus-one this evening?”
Jasmina tilts her head. “Safety meeting?”
I take her hand. “Trust me.”
“I think I will.”
“Excellent,” says Smeed. “I’ll get you a seat next to the wheel well.”
The wheel well is, in fact, poking into my ribs, but I’m also serving as Jasmina’s pillow. I rest a hand along her waist and take in the tremors of her laughter as we pass a joint. I don’t think I’ve had a better moment in my life.
I am back in the red armchair, which I think has become my safe zone. I have become a regular visitor during my breaks, and have grown accustomed to the gazes of my uncles, Voltaire and Jefferson.
I used to think that the shop had no customers, but I have discovered the illusion. Everybody parks in the back. Perhaps The Free Thinker is like a porn shop – perfectly legal, but you don’t necessarily want to be seen entering. I doze a little to the music of the register, happy that my honey is doing well. I see him walking up through Enlightenment, carrying a small book. He kisses me and sets it on my lap.
“Now that we’ve deconstructed St. Paul, it’s time we blow up Christmas.”
I put on my best sad-face. “Oh! Poor Christmas.”
“I discovered this author when he was giving a talk on the Da Vinci Code. He’s a religious studies professor – the writing is delightfully free of hyperbole. The basic premise is this: the early Christians had this fully worked-up messiah, but they lacked a snappy birth story. So they made it up from scratch, being careful to manipulate the details to match all the prophecies. The most obvious fabrication was the tax census, which was a rather torturous way of getting the holy family to Bethlehem.”
“I hope it doesn’t destroy Christmas completely. It’s awfully fun.”
Paul gives me a calm smile. It’s a recent addition, the only smile that doesn’t shift. I’d like to think that it’s got something to do with me.
“The Christians were brilliant marketers, and they stole things from every pagan tradition they encountered. By the end of this book, I think you’ll feel like Christmas belongs more to you than the so-called believers. Ah but shit, here I go telling you the whole story again.”
“You’re my personal audio-book.”
The chime to the back door goes off.
“Oops,” he says. “I better be attentive.”
I stand and give him a kiss. “And I better get back to the popcorn. See you tomorrow?”
And I’m off, into a blinding sun. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I have a Valentine, and yet I’m sandwiched by dilemmas. It’s Mack, the guy whose divorce we were celebrating. I guess he liked my work. Like a good diplomat, he has received the okay from Tony to make me an offer: my own apartment and a hefty retainer in exchange for exclusive relations and two visits a week. I could easily give up the moviehouse. Not that I would. I learned that in Minneapolis: hang on to the day job.
We are tremendously busy. It seems like every couple in Mill Valley is catching a movie before the traditional dinner. Thankfully, I’m on a four-hour shift, and then I get my own dinner. Paul’s not talking, but he did ask me if I liked Indian food.
Fosh wanders into the lobby, patting his face with a handkerchief. It’s not warm in here.
“Jasmina, could I ask you to stay till closing? I’m afraid Lexi has called in sick.”
Why that little cunt. Lexi’s got a whole pack of drooling dog-boys. I’ll bet she’s got a couple of dates tonight. Fucking whore.
Fosh smiles. “Thank you, thank you. I owe you once more.”
I would do almost anything to make that man smile. Him and his horrible wife. I scoop up a large popcorn for yet another couple as I construct a disappointing text message for Paul.
But the rush continues. I don’t even have time to get to my cell phone. I’m surprised by a familiar face.
He gives a sheepish smile. “Hi.”
“You’re not, um… out tonight?”
“Please! Do not rub it in. I am here to console myself on this most horrible of holidays.”
“Not doing much better myself.”
“Lazy Blondebitch called in sick.”
“Oh! That is criminal.”
Somebody steps into line behind him. I give him an eye signal.
“Oh, umm… large popcorn and a root beer.”
A half-hour later, I still haven’t sent a text. I look at the Closed sign across the street and I feel terrible. Somebody taps me on the shoulder. It’s Javid, wearing his uniform.
“You had better get going. You don’t want to be late.”
It’s almost too much to take. I grab Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you! Thank you!”
“Call me Cupid. But do me a favor – read this.”
I take his note and tuck it into my pocket. When I turn to wave, he’s already helping a customer.
We are just outside of town, heading into the wilds. Paul takes a sudden turn into a dirt lot packed with cars. But there doesn’t seem to be anything else here. He leads me across the lot to a small wooden sign that reads Lakshmi. Next to the sign is a graveled path illuminated by a strand of light-rope. Fifty feet along we come to a covered walkway. A trio of broad stone steps leads to a landing, a slab of varnished redwood burl lit by a large red candle. After that, another three steps, another burl, another candle. After fourteen of these combinations, we cross an arched bridge over a creek and arrive at a pair of enormous red doors. Paul pulls the left-hand door, revealing a five-foot bronze statue of Ganesh – the Hindu elephant god – and the interior of an Indian restaurant. The hostess leads us to a green granite table set off by rattan screens. The centerpiece is a squat red candle framed by three white orchids. Paul seems pleased by my expression.
“It’s a fairyland,” I say. “But why are they trying so hard to hide it?”
The calm smile. “Mill Valley marketing. The more you hide something, the more people want it. But I certainly didn’t fool you, did I?”
He refers to my outfit, a sari of butter yellow and tangerine. “Well, you did ask me if I liked Indian.”
“Damn! I should have taken my chances. Regardless, you look like a Bollywood starlet.”
“I’ll play whatever ethnicity you want.”
“Not with that skin.”
“You’d be amazed at what people will believe.”
Our waitress is a light-skinned beauty with the kind of long, straightline nose that Indian women totally get away with. Paul orders Naan flatbread, which we dip into a cucumber-basil-yogurt sauce. I depend on his expertise for the rest: saffron rice, nauraton korma vegetables, mulligatawny soup, tandoori chicken, rogan josh lamb, and a dessert called kajor kheer – creamy dates with almond pudding. The spices leave a warm feeling in my stomach. He insists that I order a mango lassi to wash it down, and he’s absolutely right. I take Paul’s hand across the table.
“This is absolutely perfect.”
“It’s made with yogurt.”
“Oh the drink, yes, but I meant the evening. You are a wonderful man.”
The flattery sends a flush of red into his face. “I’ve been meaning to bring someone here for a long time.”
I take the last spoonful of kajor kheer. “Mmm. You know, this evening has an additional Indian element. We had an emergency at work, but Javid covered for me.”
Paul’s smile shifts. He raises his glass. “Thank you, Javid.”
“Poor boy. He’s very lonely.”
This reminds me of the note, which I slipped into my evening bag. “Excuse me, honey. I need to freshen up.”
The path to the ladies’ room is almost as involved as the entryway. I slip into a stall and give the note a read.
I’m enjoying the evening too much to mess with it, but my resolve gives out at the door to Paul’s shop. He’s hesitating, no doubt entertaining an invitation, and I’m feeling like I need to put everything on pause. I kiss him, and I say, “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Paul smiles. “It’s a little early for that.”
I punch him in the chest, hard.
“You don’t have any fucking aunt.”
He raises a hand, a gesture of protest, then lets it drop. “I don’t.”
“Smoking is one thing, but dealing? That’s illegal and dangerous, and why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s illegal and dangerous.”
I’m not really interested in his answer. I am much too worked up.
“Thanks for dinner. I’m sorry.”
I turn and walk away. I hear my name. I keep going.
Photo by MJV