Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Ten: Customer Relations

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You’re a goddamn mess. Why would a man have anything to do with you?


I am either healing myself or punishing myself. I am at the Depot, having a bowl of butternut squash soup. Paul would talk about this soup with a particular look in his eye – as if he were talking about an ex-girlfriend who went on to become a supermodel. It’s good, but I’m obviously not getting the same buzz. Perhaps I lack the emotional investment.

It’s been that kind of morning. We managed to get the latest film from Pixar – quite the coup – and the kids have been whining and screaming all morning. My favorite was the mom who apparently brought every kid in the neighborhood. She arrived at the head of a long line, five minutes until showtime, and only then turned around and said, “Okay kids, what do you want?” As if ten wound-up kids are going to give an organized response. I wanted to slap her.

And now, it gets worse. Mack and Tony have just walked in with Tony’s tight wife and a 50-year-old redhead with the surprised look of a plastic-surgery queen.

This is what I’m down to. I am jealous of the woman who is dating the man I’m being paid to have sex with. I’m pretty sure I’m breaking some prostitutional code of ethics. What’s worse is that my occasional glances are getting zero response, not even an undercover wink. Jesus. I am such a product.

I finish my soup and head for the restroom. When I come out, Mack is scanning the bulletin board, waiting for the men’s room.


He gives me a mystified look, then smiles. “Hello.”

“How’s the lunch going?”

“I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure the redhead can’t see us.”

Now it’s a blank look, and then a laugh.

“Oh! You’re the popcorn girl, at the theater. God, you really had me going there.”

I can’t believe this. I can’t believe he’s carrying it this far.

“Asshole,” I say, and leave.

Three grinding hours later, Javid and I sit at a table in the break room.

“God!” I say. “I am so glad we don’t do a lot of kiddie movies.”

“I’m betting you got the worst of it.”

“Well that’s nice of you to…”

“Not nice at all. A simple matter of straight thinking. I’m just selling tickets. You’re dealing with the evil combination of kids and food.”

I give him a Hindu-looking bow. “I thank you, Mr. Spock, for your insight.”

“Oh, hey… I got something for you.” He pulls a bag from the shelf and hands it to me. It’s a pair of books: God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.


“Javid! This is…”

“Once again, I must interrupt you. You should probably read the bookmark.”

The Dawkins offers a moss green marker with a Darwin fish and the logo of The Free Thinker. Halfway down is a brief note in Paul’s handwriting: It’s time for graduate studies.

I burst upon Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “This is even better! Thank you.”

I wrap the books in my jacket, stuff it into my pack and begin the uphill climb, away from all things small and whiny.


I’m working on the drying table, separating buds and stems, loading a couple of one-ounce bags for delivery. I like this kind of work. It’s tactile, it keeps my mind occupied. My brain is my greatest asset, I marvel at what it can do, but I often wish it would just shut the fuck up. I am lost in the greenery, just about at the level of zen when a knock on the door throws me right back out. In a room full of marijuana plants, a knock on the door is a loaded occurrence.

Whoever’s outside has likely heard no sound. I slip off my shoes and creep up the stairs. Part of the challenge is to fight my innate politeness. I need to be rudely quiet and wait for a signal.

“Paul? It’s Jasmina.”

Clear enough, but just to make sure, I indulge in a worst-case scenario. Jasmina has been busted for prostitution and is turning me in for a plea bargain, standing in my stock room with three sheriff’s deputies. Not likely. I open the door and there she is, alone, still in her work shirt, a black button-down with long sleeves.

“Jesus! This is really not a good idea. How did you get in?”

She scratches her arm. “I’m sorry. The back door was open.”

“I am really a lousy criminal.”

She laughs, then covers her mouth. “I finished the books.”

This isn’t how I pictured our reunion, but still I feel like kissing her. Which is a really bad idea.

“Why don’t we go to my conference room?”

I have recently outfitted the Enlightenment corner with a small sofa and a pair of café chairs. Jasmina slides into the red armchair. I take a chair and straddle it backwards, which I realize is a defensive posture, the back of the chair providing a shield for the family jewels (I have got to stop thinking).

“So. Tell me about the books.”

She lifts her legs to the seat of the chair and folds them Indian-style, then looks at me with wide eyes.

“Thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. All these things I have suspected all my life. All these things I have never spoken out loud because I didn’t want to upset people. These guys, they just say it, and make no apologies. They have roiled up so many ideas in my head that I can barely sort them out. Here’s one: I have noticed this tendency of Marin County folk, so desperate to escape their Christian childhoods that they embrace Hindu, and Buddhism, and Islam, not realizing that they have simply traded one flavor of bullshit for another. It’s all mythology, it’s all been manipulated for the cultivation of power, and the first commandment is always the same: turn off your brain and accept our fairy tales as absolute truth.”

She stops to take a breath. The look on her face borders on sexual arousal.

“It’s pretty exhiliarating to say things like this, isn’t it?”

“God yes.”

“You know, it takes most people – notably Roman Catholics – decades to work all these toxins out of their systems. You’re making leaps.”

“And this idea of Dawkins, that we allow religion to corrupt our politics, to infect our science and to make idiots of our children simply because we have decided that religious thought merits automatic respect, and immunity from criticism. What a load of crap. If the fucked-up patriarchal torturously celibate foundations of your church lead your clergy to molest children, then we have an obligation to criticize your fucking religion!”

I have been here before. I have used Hitchens and Dawkins for years to pull budding atheists over the brink. They are my Atheists with Attitude, and they have a way of switching on so many ideational connections that the reader’s brain becomes an overamped pinball machine. My job is to keep pumping in the quarters until all of the forbidden notions are pulled into the open air, where they may be sorted and assembled into a very necessary arsenal. The rest of Jasmina’s life will be a tricky navigation through well-meaning idiots who worry over the blackness of her soul, and a depressing realization that most of the world is happy to turn off their brains and wallow in superstition.

“One time, I got the black-soul treatment from some old friends who were pagans. I wanted to shake them and say, ‘You’re fucking pagans! Millions of your forebears were tortured and exterminated by people who claimed that they were only doing it because they were concerned about the health of their victims’ souls. And you want to start the same process with me?’”

“So what did you really say?”

“‘Oh look, our pizza’s done!’”

Jasmina breaks up, then catches sight of the clock. “Oh, geez. I need to let you get some sleep.”

My gaze settles on Voltaire, the sharp nose, the narrow features.

“Absolutely not! There are times when the conversation simply must continue. Are you familiar with a fine dining establishment known as Denny’s?”

She rolls her eyes. “All too.”

“Midnight breakfast? Public discussion of heretical ideas?”

“Nothing could be finer.” She smiles and gets up from the chair, her breasts passing inches from my face.

After pancakes, eggs, bacon, several cups of coffee and enough blasphemy to inspire an Inquisition, we exit the restaurant and stand outside. The eastern sky is going baby blue.

“This is epic!” I declare. “This  is the kind of night that American teenagers have after the prom. As long as they’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses.” I feel Jasmina’s fingers folding into mine and I pull away.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

“No,” she says. “It’s me. I…” She falls silent, then pivots to face me. “No! Let’s not be this way. We’re atheists, let’s just damn well say it. I know that my… occupation means that you and I can’t be… involved. But I love you, and you’re my friend, and I want to feel free to express my affection. So set some rules for me. Tell me what’s okay.”

She looks at me with such frankness that I need to look away in order to consider the question. A firetruck rumbles down the freeway.

“Okay. Not the hand-holding. Hugs are fine. Touches on the arm, the back, the shoulder. And… a peck on the cheek, in moments of inspiration.”

I turn back and find myself kissing her on the lips.

“Hey!” She slaps me on the chest. “I was trying to kiss you on the cheek.”

I lean on the hood of my truck and start laughing.

Photo by MJV

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