“They see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another,
which the fire throws on the opposite wall…”
-Plato, Allegory of the Cave
The empty lot used to be a supermarket until it was torn down. Weeds and dying grass stitch together the broken concrete. Cans, cigarette butts, and crumpled fast food wrappers drift across the asphalt. Laura ducks through the gap in the chain link fence at the far end of the lot, where the metal has been peeled away from the posts. The reader board above the Valley Movie Theater is a dingy yellow wedge pointed at the highway. The mismatched letters are a collection of black and red, numbers stand in for both capital and lower case letters.
Laura pulls her baggy jacket around her as she enters the stale popcorn smell of the lobby. The intermittent sounds of the video games lined up along the far wall bang and rattle. She ignores the vaulted ceilings and stares the duct-tape patched carpeting.
In the small break room Laura takes off her jacket and puts on the red bow tie and satiny black vest she’s required to wear. The daily assignments are listed on a clipboard hanging from the wall. She stares at the list and tries to focus on the names. This is her seventh shift in as many days, and she has had a hard time sleeping, the evening shifts throwing her schedule out of whack. Laura’s daily assignment, along with Chance, is: “Guest Comfort”.
She pushes through the heavy metal door and emerges into the lobby. Manager Dave and Crystal are behind the concession’s counter. Dave is explaining something about the soda machine. He dumps pitchers of ice into the top of the machine and checks the syrup levels. Crystal is newish, a high school kid. Laura has yet to have a conversation with her, but they’ve been introduced several times.
When a movie lets out Laura and Chance stands in the hallway making sure no one screen surfs from one movie to another. A movie is letting out, and several families make their way towards the lobby – small kids sprint down the hallway. Smaller kids are carried by their parents. Here in the lobby the lighting prevents shadows. During the summer, it isn’t until you exit the building that the sun stings your eyes; the overwhelming brightness.
Laura and Chance stand aside and let the families pass. When the next film begins they stand at the entrance to the long hallway and collect tickets, dropping them one at a time into the podium situated between scarlet ropes. Once the film starts they walk through the theater and to make sure people are reasonably well behaved. After the movies end they walk through the cavernous screening rooms and pick up Abba-Zabba and Butterfinger wrappers. They sweep stray popcorn from the sticky floors.
Rain scatters against the front windows. It promises to be a slow night, which is good. Laura will be able to slip into one of the movies and watch, or, more likely, fall asleep curled in one of the chairs in the back row. She never has much trouble sleeping here. There is comfort sleeping in a large room as a movie plays. The soundtracks and dialogue invade her dreams.
A young couple comes in and heads into a movie that has already started. They’re ten minutes late, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry. They are high school kids, probably seniors. Crystal nods to them and smiles in a way that says she knows them – a dim familiarity. Chance walks over to where Laura is running the vacuum back and forth over the same patch of carpet.
“We could mess with them,” he says.
“We could,” she says.
Chance shrugs and walks away. Laura vacuums the threadbare carpet. When she is done with one patch she puts the vacuum away and checks the ladies’ room. She scoops a handful of crumpled paper towels off the counter and tosses them in the garbage. The arcade games along the wall make roaring spaceship noises and the sounds of explosions and gunfire.
The rain is comes down in sheets, creating broad lakes of water in the low areas of the parking lot. A group of teenagers comes in. Four in all, moving like puppies, clumping together, tripping over one another. They yap and bark at each other. They shake their coats and throw back their hoods – the shoulders of their jackets stained dark with rain, and hair dripping across their foreheads. They split into groups, the girls head to the concessions counter and the boys head towards the video games. Chance straightens up and walks around the concessions counter to help Crystal with the orders of popcorn, extra-large sodas, Jujubes, Junior Mints.
Laura positions herself behind the podium between the ropes. On the top are numbered slots – each slot represents a screen. The kids bound up with popcorn and sodas and candy.
“Screen Four, down the hall on the left,” she says tearing the tickets.
“Screen Four,” she says, “Screen Four.”
She hands the tickets back and drops the stubs into the slot for Screen Four. Chance heads back to start the movie, and Laura goes past the other screen to check on the couple in Screen Two, whose movie will be ending soon. The couple is sitting in the middle row in the middle of the theater. The girl’s head leans on the guy’s shoulder and his head is leans over on top of hers. The way people stare straight forward at the screen for hours at a time is always strange to her.
Laura watches the screen a moment before slipping out and down Screen Four. The kids have the theater to themselves. They jump over the seats and throw popcorn at each other. The two boys are up near the projector window creating shadow puppets on the screen. Laura is beyond caring whether or not they mess up the theater. In the hallway she runs into Chance. He asks if the kids in Screen Four are behaving.
“Like kids,” she says.
“Did you talk to them?”
Laura shrugs. The wind buffets against the lobby windows. She stands staring at the windows. David asks if she’s already checked the bathrooms.
“Take your fifteen,” he says, “send Chance when you get back.”
Laura grabs an extra-large soda from concessions, hoping the caffeine will keep her awake. The syrup coats her teeth in sugary fuzz as she sits otherwise motionless at the break table. The sugar sits like a ball in the pit of her stomach. She feels tired and slightly sick from the soda. She walks through the lobby and nods to Chance and Chance nods back and heads to the break room for his fifteen. In Screen Four the kids have mostly settled down and are intermittently shouting at the screen.
She continues to vacuum, not because the carpet is dirty, but because she has nothing else to do. She vacuums down the hall, edging in overlapping angles. One of the boys from theater four comes out, full of a smiling, predatory energy. His age is hard to discern. He watches Laura like he has the perfect joke. Laura looks up at him as he pulls a crumpled pack of Marlboros from his jacket pocket.
“I just took a break.”
“You look busy.”
Laura glances up as Chance comes out of the break room. He slips his cell phone into his pocket and walks over to where Crystal is leaning on the counter, no doubt leaving greasy arm prints on the glass. She figures that David much be in the office. Laura slips into the break room for her jacket and walks outside with the boy.
In the alley behind the theater, near the dumpsters, he puts his back to the wind and lights his cigarette, then shields the flame for her. She has to lean close-ish to him, and she can see the black crescents of his fingernails as the flame wavers. They stand exposed to the wind and rain, trying to use the dumpster as a windbreak. Smoke drifts up and away from them in stages – blowing first one way and then another – sometimes just hanging low beside them like some sea creature caught in the wavering undercurrents of the wind. Shadows of trees waver on the wall above and behind them. He drops his cigarette and chases it with his foot, dragging a toe across the cigarette as it rolls away. Sparks scatter into momentary constellations.
Laura shivers and takes a long last draw on her cigarette. The kid skips and hops next to her as they enter through the front door of the theater. Chance looks up at her curiously and Crystal smiles with a knowingly. Crystal’s smile is the secretive sort that seems beyond her high school years. Laura hangs up her jacket in the break room; the cold dampness of the jacket in her hands.
She refills her soda, the straw squeaking as she stabs it through the lid. The taste of wax and sugar and cloying syrup. It’s barely keeping her awake. The young couple that was alone in screen two walks out arm in arm, and Chance walks down the hall to clean the theater. Even though there were only two people in Screen Two Chance will walk down both aisles and check most of the seats, sweep the floor. For the most part it is another way to take up time; to inch ever closer to the end of the shift.
Shortly after the couple leaves Dave sends Chance home. Chance jogs across the parking lot to his car. Laura watches as the headlights come on, and the wipers bounce across the windshield. A low cloud of exhaust builds turning red in the brake lights before Chance tears across the parking lot and out onto the highway.
There is only one more late night showing, the 12:10. And the three of them: Dave, Crystal, and Laura will be enough to close up. They’ll shut down Screens Three, Four, and Five and it will be even easier to close. They have to stay through the first half of the film before they can shut down if no one comes in.
Screen Four lets out. The kids come out into the hallway, slightly more subdued then when they went in. Two of the girls are walking arm in arm, weaving against each other. It’s obvious that they’ve been drinking. It’s not unusual. In fact, it’s such a common thing; they almost assume that it’s going to happen.
Passing into the lobby The Kid stays behind. He digs into his pocket and pulls out a handful of quarters. Standing before the shooting game, feet at shoulder width, he begins pumping quarters in. He takes it seriously, eyes locked on the screen. There is intensity to the way that he shoots. Focused and determined. He lines up quarters on the ledge of the game so that he can pump them in one after another. When he runs low he jogs over to concessions and cashes in several crumpled dollars for quarters.
Dave comes back down the hallway having locked up all the screens except Screen One. The film is cued up and the cinema is reasonably clean. Dave sends Laura to gather up the garbage. She takes the rolling trash bin from the cleaning closet and pushes it down the long hallway to Screen Five. After emptying the trashcans beside the entrance to each screen Laura trundles the cart outside. She shivers as she heaves the cart over the ruts and cracks of the uneven parking lot.
Laura realizes that what she thought was rain is only water flying off of the trees in the parking lot. Bright colored leaves plaster themselves to the cement – bright oranges, yellows, rust reds. The colors only slightly muted by the damp. As she parks the gray bin at an angle next to the dumpster to keep it from rolling away she wishes she’d grabbed her jacket. The lights on the side of the building are a dim fluorescent glow. She hoists one bag onto the lip of the dumpster and nudges it. She listens to the heavy thudding of the bags as they hit the bottom. The hollow bass sound as echoes down the alley.
Cigarette butts cluster at the base of the dumpster. As she lets the dumpster lid drop back into place Laura wonders how old The Kid actually is. Above her, on the wall, the shadows are painted on the bricks. She wheels the bin back towards the front doors and through the lobby, but The Kid is gone.
There’s a slow dissipation of minutes as they wait for the evening to end. Dave, Crystal and Laura lounge at the concessions counter, watching the clock, hoping that no one else will come in so that they can leave early. Laura thinks only of curling into her bed and cocooning herself in the blankets and pillows. Dave and Crystal are talking about new movies that they wish were playing at the theater. Dave has an encyclopedic knowledge of films.
“I wanted to be a director when I was a kid,” he says.
“I think it would be cool to be in a movie,” Crystal says.
“Sure, acting is one thing,” he says, “but directing.”
“If the movie flops it’s always the actors.”
“The audience only sees what the director wants.”
Laura refills her soda yet again and replaces the lid. Dave checks his watch and says they might as well shut it down. He locks the front doors and turns off the sign. He pulls the tills from the ticket booth and Laura and Crystal set to work shutting down the concessions counter, wiping down the surfaces and restocking the candy. The cinema is quiet and chilly. At a quarter to one they are turning out the lights and gathering at the front door, while Dave sets the alarm and then lets them out into the parking lot. The rain shatters the smooth surface of the puddles. Crystal climbs into her boyfriend’s pickup and Dave crosses to his sedan. They shout goodbyes to each other.
Laura walks around the end of the building and ducks under the fence and pulls her jacket tight around her. The heavy wind pushes against her thighs as it comes low across the parking lot, rattling empty wrappers and beer cans. She reaches the far end of the parking lot and glances over her shoulder at the empty lot. Inside her apartment she locks the door and crosses to the window and looks down at the street. In the early morning breeze there is nothing but shadows.
A Pacific Northwest Native, Michael Overa has worked with 826 Seattle, The Tinker Mountain Online Writers’ Workshop, the Richard Hugo House, and Seattle’s Writers-in-the-Schools Program. Michael earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in Virginia, where he was a 2009-2010 Teaching Fellow. During the 2013-2014 academic year Michael also participated in the Teaching Artist Training Lab at the Seattle Repertory Theater. His work has appeared in the Portland Review, Fiction Daily, Husk and Syntax, among others.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: Although it wasn’t initially part of the drafting process I went back and re-read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave during early revision. Initially I was worried that the connection between a movie theater and the allegory would seem cliché. Then my concern swung the opposite direction. Ultimately I decided that the epigraph was necessary as a way to frame the story.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I think most of us have received an overwhelming amount of advice over the years, (most of which we don’t follow). The one piece of writing advice that I try and follow diligently is Hemingway’s idea that to be a writer one must go away and write.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Like many other young writers one of my earliest influences was Hemingway. Nowadays I go back to Don Delillo’s Body Artist once or twice a year. I have recently gotten into the short stories of Richard Bausch and Karen Russell.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical Seattle writer, I do most of my writing in coffee shops, which have become my defacto office. I’m prone to hunker down in a corner with my unlined notebook and pen for first drafts – for later drafts I drag along my computer.