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The Popcorn Girl
a novel by Michael J. Vaughn
For Michelle Sutton
with special thanks to Wayne Rogers, Nina Koepcke and Akire Tiduj Csavok
jersey said to the popcorn girl
add two letters to your name and I will
make you a streetcorner
the popcorn girl swooned
jersey woke to the sound of
pecking on the shower stall door.
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.
I have what you would call an ineffectual smile. When I manage to get it to make an appearance, it is inevitably off-kilter – too small, listing to the left, a square of gritted teeth. I have landed only one natural-looking smile on a photograph, at my sister’s wedding, when my uncle made a fart joke.
For the girl in the white hood, this is not a problem. The counter of my shop is positioned in such a way that my gaze falls on the box office of the moviehouse. A customer approaches. She flashes that smile as if it were hooked up to a light switch, and it is always perfect. I am terribly envious.
I have found the secret to those dark eyes. I apologize for not knowing a better word, but her face is porcelain. The contrast is alarming, a woman in black and white. And thick lips, as if she is permanently pouting. Unless she’s smiling.
I am an accidental stalker, a victim of feng shui. And it surprises me. After all that… nonsense, I thought I had lost these urges entirely, had tossed them into the creek like a useless appendage.
At the end of her shift, she counts up her cash drawer and takes a moment to gaze out at the street. Her face takes on an expression of despondency, as if someone has just told her the most awful news. For those two seconds, she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
I work hard at my sunny disposition, but some days are tougher than others. Anthony has taken me to lunch twice. He is charming, genteel, but I wish he were a little more rude. I need to know what he wants. More importantly, I need to know how much he intends to pay for it. But I have learned my lessons from Minneapolis. You need to let things unfold at the customer’s pace. Even if you’re a week late on rent.
The weather’s not helping. The skies have been gray for a month, and the moviegoers are irritable. My stress buttons are out there, waiting to be pushed. When I duck my head into the box to scoop some corn, the popper spits a drop of hot oil onto my cheek.
I take time with the butter, hoping to quell my frustration. But my customer has noticed, so I’d better acknowledge it.
“Sorry. Our popper likes to spit oil on me.” I hand her the bag.
She smiles. “Maybe it’ll leave a beauty mark and you’ll look like Cindy Crawford.”
She’s a blonde lady in her fifties. Something about California baby boomers makes them cooler with stuff like this. God bless her.
“Hey Jazz. Why don’t you take your lunch?”
Javid, my savior. He always knows what I need. If he was thirty years older, I might go out with him.
“Thanks, Jav. 45 okay?”
“Go for it.”
I am thankful for the power bar I had at break, because I have something in mind that is not related to food. I head across the street to the store with the curious name. The owner is perched at his counter, applying price tags to a stack of Darwin fish magnets. I’m tempted to do the noncommittal browser thing, but I’m short on time, so I head straight for the source.
“So what does The Free Thinker mean?”
He laughs, and I realize right away that this is his calling card, his secret power. It’s a deep, manly laugh, absolutely heartfelt.
“I thought of calling it the Atheist Shoppe, but I thought that might be a little forbidding.”
“That’s funny,” I say. “I’ve been thinking of becoming an atheist.”
I feel a little rush, like I just stepped off the high dive. He makes again with the laugh; he really should hire out to comedy clubs.
“I like the way you put that. But there is a distinction. You don’t really become an atheist. It’s more like discovering you’ve been one all along.”
Behind his spectacles are small eyes that appear to be hazel, but they give off flashes of blue and green as he shifts his gaze.
“So how does one go about discovering one’s atheism?”
“Ooh. Tough one. I would say, you should start by studying some Christian history.”
“Isn’t that what I’m trying to get away from?”
“A religious upbringing is miles thick. You’ve got a lot of mythology to shed. And the best place to start is Paul.”
He pulls up an old-looking green book.
“It’s an analysis of the New Testament, and especially Paul’s epistles, written by a Talmudic scholar.”
“The Torah. The Old Testament. Paul basically created Christianity, and this…” He stops himself. “I’m sorry. Why don’t you read this without any pretext? We can always talk about it later."
“Awesome! How much?”
“I tend to find these at yard sales.”
I hand him money that should be going to my rent. When he hands me my change, I see his long fingers and I smile.
“Hey! You’re the guy with the raindrop riverraft.”
“Oh! Yes.” He gives me an awkward smile.
“I’m Jasmina. I work at the moviehouse.”
“I thought you looked familiar. I’m Paul.”
“Now that’s funny.”
He nudges his glasses. “Should I tell you the standard story?”
“By all means.”
“On the road to Tarsus, I was struck down, and I saw a bright light. Then I realized it was a BART train, I was in Berkeley, and I was very drunk.”
“That’s good. But then, shouldn’t your name be Saul?”
“I enjoy the irony.”
“Irony is good. I’d better get going so I can grab a snack. ‘Bye.”
“Thanks for coming in!”
I exit to find the sky still gray. The green book feels hot in my hand.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six novels, a competitions judge for Writer's Digest, and a poet with works in more than 50 literary journals. He lives in San Jose, and plays drums with the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland.