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The Show: A Love Story

It’s 1995 and your first job. You spend so much time in these shoes your feet have sweated through the leather. It leaves white rings on the shoes, sweat or dried soda and popcorn dust. You stand at a podium in a black vest and bowtie and tear tickets. Enjoy the show. You direct people behind black ropes and chrome stanchions. Enjoy the show. You help people find seats – two empty seats scattered in a row and you can move people around like human Tetris, like Moses parting the sea, so a late-arriving couple can sit together. Enjoy the show. You clean bathrooms and auditoriums. And, because it is a long time ago and you don’t yet know better, you fall in love.
Half the customers are in love, too, and the lines for popcorn are always a little longer when she’s working, date night boyfriends getting popped in the jacket by girlfriends for being suspiciously overpolite, letting their eyes linger a little too long, forgetting to get their change. She’s oblivious to all of it, of course – them, you, everyone – in that charming way of girls too young to understand the arc of beauty.
The work is hard. A box of soda syrup is close to 40 pounds. Popcorn seed comes in 50-pound sacks. The red buckets of popping oil weigh more. And the films arrive from the distributors in big orange cans with metal handles that cut off circulation to your fingers when you carry them upstairs to the projectionists.
You get to know the regulars. One of the assistant managers has nasty nicknames for most, though she smiles to their faces. Sunday matinees the first customers are always the Old Couple. They must be in their 70’s, maybe 80’s, but they shuffle to the box office, always two tickets for the first show. He takes off his hat and holds the door when they go inside. They share a small popcorn and Diet Coke from the counter. They hold hands. Even the manager, crusted cynical by years of customer service and retail labor, has nothing to say when they pass into their auditorium. He just nods and stares at the floor.
It is a refuge. On slushy winter nights the theater is warm with food and glowing neon. In the shimmering heat of a summer afternoon, it is dark and ice cool. On your breaks you scoop hot popcorn straight out of the kettle and slip into the back of a theater, empty or almost so, and watch. You start to understand life in trailers and episodes, fragments.
The last shows start at 10 p.m. and you lock the outside doors. The managers and box office workers count the drawer, get the deposit ready. The concession workers chatter in the kitchen, scrubbing the oil and salt from the popper. She’s in there, too, you know. Maybe laughing with the others. Maybe thinking of you. The overnight janitors will clean the houses, so your job is to be visible. You pull out a novel. Maybe it’s for your community college class, maybe just something that caught your eye at the bookstore after your last paycheck. From ten doors come ten muffled stories: explosions, laughter, gunfire, tears, blasting lasers and ringing swords, songs of love, tension, despair. Dreams.
You learn the diners and bowling alleys, the places open late. That’s where you go after work, how you blow off steam. You memorize the menus and know the staffs by name. After work you go to these places even though the food is bad and you’re too young to drink and, it being 1995, you can’t see across the room from the cigarette smoke. You go because there is nothing else. Outside the hungry dark awaits. It’s at a bowling alley where she first rests her head on your shoulder. Probably just tired, but it excites you and haunts you.
The projectionists look down through face-size windows like the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg. They’re adults, unionized. They have their own doors, their own keys. You don’t see them much. They watch the drama play out, unfolding newspapers in easy chairs while the giant rolls of film unwind from horizontal spools. Sometimes the film snaps, the audio rolling on while the screen is black. You call up on the phone. They hang up on you and fix it.
Finally you ask her. Other than good looks and hormones and (of course) youth, you have nothing in common, but it works. She talks about Friends and The Real World and you talk about Hemingway and Carver, but somehow it works. In your free time you go to movies, what else. The rumors get out ahead of you and soon the managers are scheduling you on different shifts so you won’t distract each other. But that’s okay. You’re in love. So you stay up late in the basement of your parents’ house watching X-Files or E.R. or in the back of her Chevy Cavalier listening to Bob Seger or the Beatles and the two of you learn and teach, though she mostly teaches and you mostly learn.
The magic of it. You watch from the back of the auditoriums and it never gets old. Three hundred strangers joined for two hours in a single story. Even then you knew it was special, knew you’d never have another job like it. Strangers sharing a story together. The eruptions of laughter. The righteous applause when justice is served. The tight-throated silence when it isn’t. The soaring scores (John Williams, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith) uplifting everyone, showing them that everything, their whole life, could be different. Could be more. And for a few moments, maybe it is. My god, the magic of it.
The majesty of it. There’s a heaviness to that curtain, a dignity in the unfolding of the deep navy velveteen catching the darkening house lights. It drops again to cover the screen between the trailers and the feature. The lights dim to black and the crowd, gently tittering throughout the previews, takes on a reverential and anticipatory silence. Popcorn crunches. Seats squeak. Ice rattles in cardboard cups. Slowly the curtain rises again.
It’s just a part-time job but you feel like you fit in. There’s the usher who was a boxer and wants to be a writer. There’s another usher grinding her second job and old as your grandma. There’s the pony-tailed alternative-music-obsessed concessionaire, the nympho box office girl from the nearby Christian university. There’s the crazy dropout usher who likes to turn off the lights in the kitchen and use a lighter to ignite his farts. You’ve never quite fit anywhere before. But mostly? You feel like you belong here.
On some summer nights after close when the customers are gone you all play softball in the auxiliary lot behind the building. It’s lit, the night is warm. Occasionally someone pops one onto the theater roof – sometimes it’s you, you played some ball when you were a kid – and the game stops while someone finds keys and makes their way through the upstairs office, past the projectionist hallway, up the ladder to the roof. Once a squad car rolled up and started asking questions, bunch of kids in a parking lot with a bat looked suspicious. What if the manager of this facility found out you were here? Sir, he’s on deck.
It’s at the sushi place next door you know you’re losing her. One of the waiters, your regular one, has her eye. They hug. The hug lasts a little too long, long enough to let you know they’ve seen each other outside the restaurant, enough so you realize, even though it’s never happened before, your heart is about to break.
The manager screens the big releases for the employees at midnight the Thursday before they come out. Braveheart, Apollo 13, Independence Day. An assistant manager and a couple of the employees sneak in beers and weed. Between 1994 and 1996 you see everything. One dark fall night you watch Casino and Heat back-to-back. Forever after you will bristle at having to pay for a movie.
She breaks it off. She says it’s just her, she needs time, but you know it’s the sushi guy. You know before your friends report back to you how she hangs on him. It doesn’t matter that it won’t last, that he goes into the army a couple months later and drops her first chance he gets. By then it’s too late. You turn into a mope. Maybe you always were one.
The movies and songs when you were a kid in the ‘80’s taught you a love story is supposed to be hard. Something not to be discovered, but struggled for. It’s supposed to hurt, the movies said, if it’s worthwhile. So you have those romantic moments alone, suffering in the moonlight of a deserted parking lot with a special memory, the stereo of your parents’ station wagon blaring the melancholy soundtrack to a montage no one can see but you.
You have to prove yourself – the movies taught you that’s how love stories work. Grand gestures, soulful reflection, moments of crushing solitude which, if practiced and sequenced correctly, led to heroic epiphany. To glorious reunification. She would realize she wanted more. Deserved more. And that there you were (you!) offering more. That you’d been there all along. A happy ending while the credits roll and she, finally, is in your arms.
But it’s bullshit. It takes you too many years later to figure it out, but fighting for it is all bullshit.

You learn the soundtracks because you clean the theaters during the credits. The first time you hear Janis Joplin is “Piece of My Heart” during the credits for Home for the Holidays and it is a spiritual experience. You pause with an empty cup in your hand when you first hear Little Steven belt out “Time of Your Life” at the end of Nine Months. And every time Crimson Tide lets out, a few scattered people stay until the lights come up, dabbing their eyes to “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” because it reminds them of JFK’s funeral.
It’s Saturday night. You are addicted to the adrenaline rush of having seven minutes to clean a 400-seat theater while an impatient crowd presses against the velvet ropes outside. As you finish, the curtain descends over the screen and the lights come up. The seats are empty. The silence is broken by an automated, Green Day-heavy CD: “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around.” You wheel the garbage bin and its sugar-rot smell out of the theater and open the ropes. The crowd surges past. The next auditorium awaits.

They tore it down a few years back. You didn’t know anyone working there by then, so your dad told you first. Like your grade school, your old town library, the ice cream shop your parents took you to after little league games, it no longer exists. Built a multiplex up the road – bigger screens, bigger seats, aisles so wide no one has to look at each other. The old theater is a stripmall now, Chinese food and dollar stores. You wonder if, when they tore it down, they found an old softball rotting on the roof.
At the new multiplex you can order your seats online, pick them on a screen, order dinner off a menu – they bring it right to your seat. You don’t have to talk to anyone. The concessionaire looks at you strange when you order popcorn – just popcorn – at the counter. In the auditorium a group of teenagers a few rows in front of you films TikTok videos. Others are scattered, heads down on their phones. There’s no curtain anymore, just a screen, already blasting commercials before you walk in. The images transition from commercials to previews to feature without fanfare, without the ritual of the curtain dropping and rising again. A few people stop their conversations, one or two put their phones away, but most hardly notice.

Still, you dream about it. In your dream it’s close to midnight, the auditoriums packed with audiences lost in other worlds, and you’re patrolling the muted hallway alone. Strong, alert, young again. It’s exactly how you remember – the squeak of your shoes on the carpet, the buzz of the neon, the walls vibrating occasionally with the bass of an explosion. When it wakes you, you watch your sleeping wife. You hear your children snoring down the hall. Your heart swells with gladness.
You wonder at how easily we slip back to the places we can no longer go.

You’re outside after close. You’re all there, lingering in the parking lot beneath the darkened marquee and its listing of showtimes. It’s early spring – still winter really – but it’s weirdly warm, and you know it won’t last. Your first time outside without a coat in months. Lightning pulses on the western horizon. It’s far away but it’s coming. You debate where to go, diner or bowling alley. Someone suggests getting the softball. But no one does. No one goes anywhere. You all stand together in the parking lot: talking, laughing, dreaming. Young and unbroken and only guessing at the future. You don’t know it, not consciously, but this is the love story, and it has nothing to do with a girl, not really. Your eyes leave your friends for the horizon, tracking the lightning, the first distant rumble. You laugh with your friends and you wait for the storm to come.

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