Lori Barrett "Concessions"
Virginia snapped the magnetic back of her nametag into place. The last time she had to wear a nametag, she was selling lemonade at an amusement park in high school and it clung to her uniform with a pin. That was back when British bands like the Jam or the Clash sang about economic despair and miners losing their jobs. At the time that was something Virginia knew nothing about. Magnets are genius, she thinks. Fewer stabs to the fingers. For all the technological updates and disruptions touted in business media, this one hasn’t decimated employment numbers.
At her movie-theater job her boss, a guy named Hal with a beard and a braided ponytail, greeted her with a wave. “Ready? We’re going to be slammed. Christmas day is the busiest day of the year.”
She also hasn’t worked during Christmas in decades. The last few months at her copy-editing job were like a magazine office during the holidays: empty desks, silent telephones, no burning coffee in the staff kitchen. Except it wasn’t a holiday. It was a downturn. The day she was let go, her second layoff in two years, the HR manager handed her a card for a therapist. “Job loss brings its own kind of grief,” he said.
She took her place at the usher stand, hands behind her back, so she wouldn’t be tempted to lean. Red Christmas lights at the box office blinked in her periphery vision, like emergency vehicles at the scene of an accident. She stared out the window, toward the shuttered seafood grill across the parking lot. At the concession stand Ashley, a teenager taking a gap year who was in her second week on the job, poured kernels into the popcorn machine. Even though this was the first batch of the day, no one could tell because butter permeated the walls, the ceilings, and the carpets.
Virginia had trained Ashely at concessions the week before. In front of the warm popcorn machine, Ashley pushed the long sleeves of her uniform shirt above her elbows. One of the regular customers approached the counter and asked for nachos. Virginia pointed to the plastic clamshells under the counter and told Ashley to limit the cheese sauce to two pumps. Dark spots on the inside of Ashley’s wrist had caught Virginia’s eye. Like purple freckles, but symmetrical. Ashley noticed Virginia looking.
“A semicolon,” she said.
“I used to be a copy editor,” Virginia said. “I’m all about the punctuation.”
Hal laughed as he handed Ashley her magnetic name tag.
“It’s a semicolon. It means my story goes on,” Ashley said. “It’s about suicide prevention.”
Virginia nodded. Should she offer some sort of condolence?
The night after training Ashley, she drove back to her mother’s house, a lifestyle regression like the name tag. She didn't need the heat. Her anger provided the kind of comfort and warmth one gets from a sweater. She saw the therapist the HR guy recommended, which led to a psychiatrist, who prescribed a series of pills and meditation apps. None of it helped with the bills that prevented sleep or the rejections that filled her inbox. After a brief stay in a hospital she had sublet her apartment and took the movie theater job, where she’d been working for four months—long enough that she had some expertise in concessions.
Customers wearing Christmas sweaters and shirts with gift-box creases lined up and waited to have their tickets torn. Virginia pointed them to the correct screening rooms. As she worked, she recited in her head song lyrics that she’d heard on the radio on her way to work about rejoicing in being a bitch. In the nineties, she sang along to the same kinds of songs, reminding men women weren’t doll parts, that they’ve had it up to here. In her new minimum-wage job she felt the singers' rage, but at her age, it was meant to stay in the margins, never to appear. It was only empowering for younger women.
After the eleven forty-five screenings, Virginia got her break. The sandwich shop nearby was closed, giving its employees time for family or rest. She went to the concession stand and bought a box of Milk Duds and a pretzel with cheese sauce. Hal gave her an extra half-a-pump of cheese, since it was a holiday.
Ashley was in the breakroom watching videos on her phone. “Merry Christmas,” she said as Virginia sat down.
“You too,” Virginia said, not sure she really meant it. “Is your family missing you today?”
“My mom’s working too. And my dad’s gone.” Ashley stared at the table, as if searching for an invisible sign.
Virginia passed the candy to Ashley.
“To sustain you,” Virginia said. “There will be plot twists.”
Bio: Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, Bustle, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse, Paper Darts, and Entropy. She has participated in Chicago's Live Lit events That's All She Wrote and Tuesday Funk. She volunteers as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel, and as a writing tutor at a local public high school.