"Yes, the AMC is Open" by Jesse Saunders
There is nothing left but a kettle, settling in the glow of a single space heater. To the left of the kettle a girl with a cigarette in her mouth sits on the counter. To the right of it is an empty lobby, covered in dust. Today is the last day the theatre will exist. The kettle is popping its last batch of popcorn as the girl sits. Her uniform is a pair of red shoes, clearly not non-slip, ratty black jeans that will rip in one more wear, one black AMC Sweater tied tightly around her waist, and a red tank top. She has spent approximately a third of her life within the walls of this building, and the theatre has spent a third of its life with her.
Popcorn is a delicate food. Easy to make, easier to make badly. Of course, no one would believe that, not when you can make it in your microwave. Her nose is purposefully tuned to the smell of burnt popcorn. One tiny kernel at the bottom can ruin a whole batch. This popper has seen better days. The oil was manual, the heat was a space heater, and the shining metal had been stained by years of yellow popcorn salt, or Fun Salt as her manager insisted it was called.
They drew straws for the last shift. Who wanted to sit in the shell of a theatre, and check equipment, when there was a shining new theatre less than a mile away with their name plastered all over it? But this theatre was hers, and as much as she hated to admit it she’d be sad to see it go. There was an itching in the back of her skull, one that would spread forward toward her brow, caused by the oils and salts currently churning in the once sparkling monstrosity that was her favorite popper. She had worked at the theatre for six months when someone coined the term “popcorn headache,” the tightening and releasing of the brain caused by the overwhelming smells, the lack of drink options beyond soda, and the film crews’ propensity to eat McDonald’s for dinner nightly. Now that she was older she still used the title but understood that the pain she felt rattling against her skull was much more self-inflicted. If she was in a working theatre she would have found an empty auditorium, shut her eyes, and forgotten about it all for five minutes; that wasn’t much of an option anymore though.
They had already scrapped most of the concession stand, three walls of Plexiglas, a steel fixture, and what was once a shining kettle all that remained. There had been seven film crews, five general managers, and one popper since she had started. It was easy to romanticize the only constant at a theatre of variables. Even when it was broken, she could trust the popper. Her arm marked by fading burns from the machine wasn’t enough to deter her from loving it all the same. There was no pattern to the marks, a few ripped holes in her sweater, one larger scar from the release of some superhero movie, and the hardened tips of her fingers from testing the kettle to see if she could put the popcorn seed in and start the day.
The rumbling from the old machine picked up pace as she took another drag off of the barely lit cigarette. It wouldn’t be long now, and the kettle she had grown so fond of, the kettle she had treated like a home base, would be marked for either scrap or salvage, all based on her opinion of its output popcorn. When she had been new to this job, this theatre, this kettle, she had burnt dozens of batches of popcorn, scarring the inside of the kettle, contributing to the rusting structure’s damage. Now she could hear a finished batch from upstairs, smell a leftover burning kernel from outside, and fill a warmer with popcorn in half the time it took a guest to order.
It is hard to say whether or not these skills could be considered transferable. Quick. Clean. Friendly. Seemed easy enough to sell on a résumé, but paired with a sick buttery sense of sentimentality, and a defensive attitude for what could easily be considered a shithole, the cons seemed to balance the pros. She places a hand on the side of the Plexiglas, far enough away to not be stung by the flying kernels of oil covered corn, but close enough to watch each one hit the bottom grate and spread among the growing crowd. She still had projectors to check, light bulbs to unplug, and posters to pull down before she was allowed to move on. There was still a checklist a mile long to finish before she could place herself somewhere better, but for now all she had was popcorn and time.
She liked to tell her friends that popcorn didn’t taste as good at other theatres, that it was stale or crunchy or they packed the bags too tightly and left nothing but crumbs. It was hard now, hearing the popping start to slow, to know if that was the truth. If there was anything special about this little theatre, this strange kettle and its oil-stained walls, or if it was only the best because it was hers.
In the end there was nothing left but a kettle. Nothing left but yellow puffs descending from it in a waterfall. Nothing left but ashes on a counter and another mark on a checklist.
Jesse Saunders is an aspiring anything else, and a current movie theatre manager. She graduated with a degree in History from Hofstra University and spent too much time with the student publications, The Hofstra Chronicle, where she served as Multi-media Editor, and Nonsense Humor, where she served as Social Media Manager. In her free time she pretends to understand politics, and watch way too many films concerning the early 2000s. One day Jesse hopes to move out of her parents house or become president, whatever happens first.
Jesse provided her own art for this piece! You can follow her on Twitter @OhMySaunders.
Jesse’s piece is a selection from issue one of Beer Money, which is available now. All profits are divided evenly among the editors and contributors.