Why We Shop at Wal-Mart at Midnight

Jon Sealy

     
   

            We spent the summer working in the lobby of the old Stardust Theater. We were twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-seven—old enough to drink and old enough to have genuine bills to pay, but not old enough to lose our hair or worry about health insurance. We didn’t have 401(k)s. We didn’t want 401(k)s. We wanted to harass teenage hooligans who were trying to sneak into an R-rated movie without buying a ticket. We wanted to send George out for Super Taco take-out. We wanted the night to move along so we could run up a midnight showing after everyone cleared out. Then we could drink our Sierra Nevada or smoke our pot deep into the night and drive home tired and at peace with the world.

            Some of us lived in the country and had to take the lazy back roads to get home, back roads that at 4 a.m. were traveled only by men getting off the night shift at the power plant, men who drove pickup trucks and had black plastic covering their bedroom windows to keep the light out for the day. We never had trouble sleeping during the day. We preferred it. Some nights we might meet up at the Huddle House before driving home, and we would stay at the diner until we sobered, shortly before the early-morning old folks rolled in. We would sleep until noon.

            The Stardust was on one of Issaqueena’s two main drags, between a McDonald’s on one side and a wooded park on the other. We saw all manner of things from our perch. Teenagers leaving McDonald’s would cut through our parking lot and make out in the park. We’d find beer cans and condom wrappers and once even a box of kittens by the dumpster. The theater was part of a failing regional chain, and when the district manager came for an inspection we had to make sure we all showed up, but otherwise we owned the Stardust that summer, the last before it closed, and we each had our role. Cooper was our manager. George ran projection and was the assistant manager two days a week for extra pay. Sammie and I worked concessions, though we each could work projection in a pinch. Jackie, who was married and pregnant, sat on a stool and sold tickets all night.

            The lobby of the Stardust was dirty and tight. The concession stand jutted out from the wall by the ticket booth and manager’s office, so we huddled in our enclave and made fun of the customers during the mad rush to see the second-run shows.

            Once, a family came in out of the country, two parents and a mess of kids bouncing around like fleas, poking the candy glass.

            “That one’ll go to your butt,” one said.

            “Yep,” said the other. “It’ll go to your butt.”

            Snickers, Gummi Bears, Sour Jacks, Junior Mints: Everything in our display case would go to your butt.

            We wondered what their parents were thinking, gazing at combos, the prices too high for their income and the number of children.

            “That much for a Coke?” Mom asked.

            “Welcome to the movies,” Sammie replied. Sammie was a little firecracker. Short. Red hair. Black studs in both ears. He always talked like he was trying to talk black, and failing—“That’s what I’m saying, yo.” He said what was on his mind, which was not much to write home about, which made him fun to work with at times, obnoxious at others.

            Mom stared. We shrugged.

            “Welcome to the movies” was our refrain whenever someone complained, as if we didn’t know everything was marked up for maximum profit, supply and demand. We all took economics in high school, and X graph of blue and red lines meant something new to us here, where we had to tell kids they just didn’t have enough money, and where we took a hundred dollars from a man’s blistered and scarred hands, and we tried not to picture him in some kind of factory: sonic roar, ear plugs, synthetic dust and stale lights.

            Those men were our fathers, these children were us, and we were ashamed of where we came from, ashamed of where we were, and ashamed of the failures and the could-have-beens that were just beginning to dawn in our mid-twenties. It would be years before we understood the consequences of that time, before we understood the track had switched a few years before and we already were going in the wrong direction. By the time we realized we were on the wrong track, the trains would have diverged too far, and we wouldn't have anything but a black tunnel ahead of us.

            But at the time, we played pranks.

            The best was one Sunday afternoon, when we looked out and saw a golf cart parked on our lawn, right under the marquee. “The hell is that?” George asked.

            George drove a battered blue Chevy Blazer with abortion rights and anti-Bush stickers plastered all over the back, Bondo all over the side. He had long greasy hair and walked with a limp and had some kind of fibromyalgia that acted up on occasion and made threading movies difficult. Working with him, you knew that assistant manager was as far as he would ever get in life, and he seemed to account for it by taking charge of a situation. He led us out to the golf cart that afternoon, muttering about a bunch of inconsiderate dicks.

            We followed him out to the lawn. We started sweating immediately. This was South Carolina in July, where the temperature hovered around a hundred with high humidity. We were due an afternoon thunderstorm. According to company policy, we dressed warmly—fake black bowties and maroon vests and black pants and white long-sleeved shirts.

            As manager, Cooper wore a seafoam green shirt and a blue striped tie. He said, “I’ve never seen this before,” and he lit a cigarette.

            George may have taken charge, but Cooper was our true leader, our stalwart. Just shy of thirty, he was still one of us, but he’d nearly crossed the desert of his twenties and seen the promised land of his proper adulthood. Unlike Moses, he didn’t appear to like what he saw, which is why he hid out in a doomed theater in a small Carolina mill town while his peers already were working their way up corporate ladders in Greenville, getting married and buying houses.

            We stared at the golf cart for a while, like maybe it was a Transformer and would rear up and assault us if we weren’t careful.

            “They could have parked in a space, yo,” Sammie said.

            “They’re too lazy for that,” George said.

            “I think I know who they are,” Cooper said. “You’re right, they are lazy.”

            “We ought to move it, yo.”

            Cooper sat in the seat and puzzled over it, then released the emergency brake. The rest of us pushed it off the grass, over the curb and into the parking lot. While Cooper steered, we eased the cart to the farthest parking space, way past the dumpsters, where the woods were overgrown and limbs and acorns and pine needles littered the lot.

            “That’ll do,” Cooper said, and we all returned to the lobby, laughing.

            When the one o’clock show ended, a sweating douchebag yelled out, “Where’s my golf cart?”

            Cooper finished buttering a bag of popcorn, then said, “We moved it to a parking space.”

            “How’d you move it? Who said you could move it?”

            “We rolled it. You can’t park on the lawn.”

            The man stormed off in a huff. The woman with him glared at us until he rolled up to the front door and picked her up. It had rained during the show, so the cart must have been wet and nasty. He drove over the front lawn, turned around, and drove over the lawn again before motoring up the hill away from the theater.

            When we weren’t channeling our boredom into pranks, we sometimes felt a vague sense of foreboding, an uneasy understanding that these were the best years we would get. We worked hard for twenty minutes, selling tickets and shoveling popcorn and threading movies. In the long hours during the shows, we ordered dinner, we drew pictures, we told jokes, we played cards. When we were not hungry and we were bored with drawing and cards and we were out of jokes, we would juggle. We had a collection of bouncy balls in a drawer, left behind souvenirs from the machine in the lobby. We were like little kids playing grown-up in our fake business world, except Jackie.

            Jackie was a senior in college studying to be a Spanish teacher. She collected tickets, and for the bulk of the night remained in her booth, which meant she was always the one who spotted the hooligans first. “Got some kids over there,” she’d call, and we would come to the window and look out and watch.

            The hooligans usually showed up mid-week, and we never recognized them, as though the local school system sent kids on expeditions in pairs, teenage Lewis and Clarks exploring the larger world.

            Toward the end of the summer, we saw a pair of them loitering on the sidewalk outside the theater exit. The first had an amalgamated identity of skater-tennis-Emo. Blond hair swooped in his face and he wore skater shoes and plaid pants and a white polo shirt. The other had a mop of black hair like a storm trooper helmet, and he leaned over the handlebars of a BMX bike.

            “What’s he going to do with the bike, yo?”

            A minute later, George said, “You want me to go out and say something?”

            “Nah,” Cooper said.

            “If you want me to say something, I will.”

            “You can go out there if you want to, but I don’t care what you do.”

            Through the window we watched them argue in the parking lot. We ate popcorn and drank sodas and waited. It was only a matter of time.

            “There they go,” Jackie said.

            “I got them,” Sammie said.  He ran forth, yelling, “Yo!”

            We heard an exit door slam around the corner. We heard a groan. We heard a kid’s voice: “I wasn’t doing nothing.”

            “What do you think you’re doing, yo? You think this is cool?”

            Cooper walked into the manager’s office to light a cigarette. Jackie rolled her eyes, then turned back to a book she had in the ticket booth. George stirred the popcorn and put new kernels into the pot. I sat on the counter and stared at the tiles in the floor.

            A while later, Sammie came back around the corner.

            “I sent them off, yo. Said next time we were going to call the police.”

            “That’s great, Sammie,” Cooper said from the door to his office.

            “Yo, what is this? I did good here. Some secret shopper saw those extra bodies in the theater, we’d be reported.”

            Cooper stubbed out his cigarette.

            “You’re right,” George said without making eye contact.

            Jackie didn’t look up from her book.

            “I can’t believe this,” Sammie said. “I step away to deal with those jerks, and I come back and everyone’s turned against me. What is this?”

            “Nothing, Sammie,” Cooper said. “Thanks for dealing with them.”

            “You know what, I’m going to check the movies. Make sure we don’t have a brain wrap going on up there.”

            George followed him, for which the rest of us were grateful. George was our negotiator, the appeaser. They would come back after a few minutes and all would be well. None of us knew what caused that subtle shift, but it happened on occasion. None of us had any reason to be friends if not for the Stardust, and truthfully we lived in separate worlds—Cooper, the college graduate who regressed and was stuck in a dead-end track; Jackie, whom nothing would stop on her way out; Sammie and George, who were lifers for society’s bottom rung. Then there was me. I had graduated college and moved home with my parents, one of so many in my generation who would get stuck in a state of suspended adolescence. This was before the economy really went south, but already the structure was in place for us, the boomerangs who didn’t know how to negotiate the adult world. If the theater hadn’t closed at the end of the summer, I don’t know how long I would have stayed there, in that state of suspension. As it was, there was only the one summer of forced friendships, low wages, no direction.

            I picked up a broom and swept the floor around the concession stand. No one said anything, and after a time I went to the projection booth to see what was up with George and Sammie. We still used old-fashioned projectors at the Stardust. Rewind and payout platters spun the reel through a network of pulleys—over, under, down and out. The strip formed an S-curve in the machine, and gates locked teeth into the stippled rows. A sheen of oil shined on the greasy film. When you hit start, photoelectric blue light flickered on the walls in time with the click-click of the show. You could sit back and, like God, smoke a cigarette or a joint on the stool in the gloom and watch the mirror image of movie stars on their way to falling in love (Theater A) or getting shot (Theater B).

            From the base of the stairs, I saw George’s hulking figure leaning against one of the projectors. Sammie was hidden in the shadows.

            “Fuck this place, yo. I got to go back to Best Buy.”

            “It’s not so bad here,” George said.

            “What was that out there? I come back and everyone’s giving me the silent treatment.”

            “No one was giving you the silent treatment. Maybe we were just bored after you kicked the kids out.”

            I listened a moment longer as George explained to Sammie, however untruthfully, that there was no conspiracy against him, that he wasn’t picking up any bad vibes, that all was well. Then I returned to concessions, where we would kill time for the rest of the shift.

            The light faded from the world outside and the lobby grew stark and lonesome. Not many people came in for the late shows on weeknights, so we cleaned the soda fountains and bagged the leftover popcorn.

            “Are we watching a movie tonight?” Sammie asked.

            “I’ve got class in the morning,” Jackie said.

            “It’s summer, yo.”

            “Summer school.”

            “Cooper?”

            “I haven’t seen Another Brandy.” Cooper was the decider. If he was up for a movie, a movie would happen. Another Brandy was a slow drama about a man recently divorced, hanging out in diners.

            “That movie looks gay, yo.”

            Cooper shrugged and said, “I’ll call it a night.”

            And with that the evening was determined. Another Brandy was our last option for a late night, and now we were left to our own devices. We finished cleaning and counting the money, turned off the marquee and left George behind to close—the limping, solitary, last-man standing—while the rest of us went out to the parking lot.

            Company policy was for the manager to drop the deposit at the bank and for another employee to follow. Only one of us stayed to lock up. That moment when “we” becomes “I” can be unbearable. When I closed I would sit in the manager’s office and read or draw, or sit with my head in my hands and try to ignore the demons that might exist in the darkened theater. The movies ended and that was the worst part. When the lights came on, I’d walk down the rows to make sure each theater was empty, and I’d pull on the exit doors to ensure they were closed and locked, and I would try not to think about someone hidden behind the screen. When the theaters were empty, I would turn off the projectors, then go down into the storage basement to turn off the breakers, leaving the theater lit only by emergency lamps, soft halogen track lights that were well hidden and that glowed just enough for shadows to creep up and stretch across the entire lobby like something out of an Edward Hopper painting.

            On the nights I had to close I would stop by Wal-Mart on my way home. I rarely bought anything, but the bright lights and modern conveniences helped me shake off the dark thoughts of the Stardust at midnight. Nothing is more dangerous than your imagination, and Wal-Mart saved you from the danger. It was amazing. There were always people there—not as many as in the daytime, but enough clerks and insomniacs to help you realize you weren’t the only person awake at this time of night, when the entire town appeared lifeless.

            But that night George was closing, so the rest of us—Cooper, Jackie, Sammie, and I—herded into the parking lot, in no rush to go our separate ways. The lot was dim, shadowed by branches of tulip poplars and white oaks from the park next door. The canopy blocked the moon and cast kaleidoscopic shadows on the pavement around us. The theater was dark and uninviting.

            As we moved to our cars, something rustled at the edge of the park.

            “Boo!” shouted one of the hooligans from earlier, and they both cackled maniacally. “Boo!” he shouted again.

            “You guys suck!” said the other, and they lobbed a couple of pinecones at us.

            Cooper smirked, but Sammie yelled for them to watch out.

            “What are you going to do about it?”

            “I’ll come over there, yo.”

            “Do it then.”

            “Boo!” yelled the other, and they threw two more pinecones.

            Sammie muttered something and ran toward the woods.

            Honeysuckle hung on the breeze, and for a moment I was lost in time. My friends and I used to hang out here in high school, hooligans ourselves with our skateboards and BMX bikes, and for a moment it was as though I was two persons at once, my seventeen-year-old self, bored on a summer night, and my twenty-two-year-old self, hiding from adulthood in a dead-end job while time moved on beyond us.

            “See you tomorrow,” Cooper said, and he got into his car.

            “I’ll follow you to the bank,” I said.

            From the park, we heard Sammie and the hooligans running through the trail that wended its way down to Lake Hartwell, their feet crackling on leaves and limbs. I stood beneath the spidery shadows for a moment and silently cheered them on.

     
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Jon Sealy is originally from upstate South Carolina, where he worked as a projectionist for two summers at the now-defunct Astro III in Clemson. He is currently a freelance writer in Richmond, Virginia, and his stories have appeared recently in The Normal School, The Sun and PANK. He is ambivalently on Twitter @JonSealy.