It’s tough being the new guy.
Nobody likes seeming as if they’re inexperienced. Unfortunately, we all have to start somewhere, and my somewhere was at Cinemark. I loved working for Cinemark theaters, and in my time there I learned all sorts of wonderful things, saw all kinds of excellent movies, and met tons of great people. However, being a timid young person at their first job is certainly something that can strike fear into someone, and I was no exception. I had been working for less than a month, and the daily routines of manning the concession stand had finally started to become a deeply-rooted part of my everyday life. I knew how to take an order from someone, while multitasking at the counter behind me. I could start the popcorn, clean off the counter, organize candy, fill drinks, unjam the hotdog cooker, and fix the credit card receiver (as it consistently broke), all while taking a large order from a family of five. I was nervous when I started, but I learned to take things in stride and gain wisdom from my small mistakes to not make large ones.
As I stood leaning against the tangerine-colored counter, I stared at the console in boredom. I didn’t like this POS (Point of service, not piece of shit) machine, and its only semi-cooperative touch screen. As I fiddled with the buttons, racking up totals and wiping them off the screen, I lost myself momentarily. Often times a single person is left at the counter in between the rush of people who show up to see movies during a round of movie start-times and end credits, and this person is usually responsible for taking care of the majority of orders while other staff members go on break. This day, I was handling this responsibility, but staring through the glass doors on the opposite side of the room made me long to be outside. Something about staying in a quiet lobby will make anyone stir-crazy, and I decided it would be best to stay busy until the others got back. I turned around to the tiny refrigerator housing the Dasani water bottles, and began to pull them to the front. This is a common practice used by most businesses to present the illusion of organization, and abundance. Since movie theaters make the vast majority of their profits from concession stands, as opposed to the tickets themselves, it was important to keep the stand as pretty, and presentable as possible. As I closed the frosty door, I slid over to the gigantic popcorn popper to tip the kettle over. A mass of beautiful, golden popcorn poured out onto the pile, and I closed the heat-sealing doors to the sound of someone clearing their throat behind me.
“Hello sir,” I greeted in a friendly manner. “What can I do for ya?”
The man was an aged gentleman, most likely in his late 60’s. His face was shrouded beneath a thick, grey beard. He wore a lose fitting pair of khaki slacks, and a black polo shirt, complete with a matching black hat, denoting his status as a veteran of the Vietnam war. Having only the utmost respect for any veteran, I extended my hand to shake his.
“Thank you for your service, sir.”
He returned the gesture with a smile and a nod, and held out his drink cup with the lid removed.
“Would it be possible to get a refill on this drink?” he asked while holding it over the counter.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to. One of our company’s policies, was that we were allowed to give a single refill on popcorn if they purchased a large bag, but for drinks we weren’t. The managers urged that it was more for a sanitation reason than anything else, but I’m sure it was undoubtedly costly, as well. However, I was also urged by my managerial staff to go to extraordinary lengths to please customers, as it built loyalty from them, and made them more inclined to return to a theater where they understood their patronage was appreciated. This man was also a war veteran, and I felt that it was only right to offer the man a damn fountain drink refill, at the very least. Compelled to fulfill my duties as a responsible customer service representative, but torn between policy and principle; I went with my gut.
“Well, we’re not really supposed to give drink refills,” I apologetically stated to him. “However, I think it’ll be okay this time, sir.”
He grinned, and handed the empty cup to me. As I grasped it, I stopped halfway across and halted my hand before it got to the fountain tap.
“However,” I weakly said before placing the cup on the drain. “If it’s not too much trouble sir, I’d like to hear a story from the war. If you don’t want to, I understand, of course.”
The man looked solemnly at me, and then mustered a chuckle.
“I’m afraid my experience wasn’t too exciting, but I do have one story,” he responded while leaning against the glass case on the opposite side.
Shocked, and nearly unable to contain my excitement that he accepted my proposal, I dumped ice all over the concession floor. I quickly picked it up and trashed it, eagerly awaiting the man’s tale. He began:
“Well, the year was ehh…1968 or some time around then. Some friends and I were stuck on the offensive in this nasty lookin’ village in Nam’, and unfortunately we were fairly outnumbered at the time, and dropped on the ground by a chopper into this place with practically no reinforcements. Needless to say, things didn’t go so well. My buddies and I got taken hostage by the NVA, and they brought us to this even worse POW camp nearby that was stuck on the edge of this river. So, they bring me and one of my friends into this broken-down shack, and they sit us at this table. Then, they hand us a gun.”
My mind is racing at this point. I’m talking to a real, live veteran who has seen the horrors of war and has lived to tell about it. This dude is a hero, and he has no clue. My respect goes through the roof, as I finish topping off the man’s drink and I place it on the counter. Completely absorbed in the story, I stand with blank expression. He continued, a grim look of recounted stress as his visage.
“So, they pointed at the ugly revolver on this dirty table, and just started smackin’ me and my friend. They hit us again and again, until finally I picked up the pistol and placed it to my head. Knowing that they wouldn’t stop until I did it, and realizing I had a fair shot of winning, I pulled the trigger. I was so damn scared, but hearing the click of it told me I was still alive. They then handed it to my friend across the table, and hit him in the face twice. After putting it to his head, he couldn’t go through with it, and shot it upwards past his skull, which of course they weren’t happy about. Lucky for him though, because that one had the bullet in it, and it would’ve killed him. So, just to make sure he suffered for not playing, they dragged him outside and threw him in a cage in the water. You could hear his screams from outside!”
My hand moved to cover the appalled form my mouth took as it opened, instinctively. I was receiving way more than I bargained for. This man’s story was something tragic. It was horrible, and judging from the amount of detail he was putting into the story, I had just pulled up from the depths one of the most painful memories of his past. I wanted only for it to end, before he (or I, for that matter), had a nervous breakdown.
“On the way back in, this NVA guy drags my other friend in from outside and puts him at the table with me. They then start throwing their cash at the table… putting bets on us. Who was gonna live, and who was gonna die? That’s all we cared about, and we started to get desperate. That’s when I got the idea to start counting the soldiers in the room. So, there were four of them there, and probably only two bullets in the gun to make it interesting. I got their attention, and convinced them to let me put a third bullet in the pistol. Then, I had to play my other friend to get to the live rounds. I laughed off the first shot, knowing that there probably wasn’t a round in the chamber, that time. Clicked it, and nothin’. Then, I handed it to my friend and told him it’d all be okay. He did it, but not without gettin’ smacked a few times, and a lot of tears. It clicked again, so I knew it was time to make my move. I distracted them in the room by confusing them with hysterical laughing…”
Heat sprang into my face. My flushed appearance did nothing to hide the fact that tears were swelling in my eyes. I just knew he was about to tell me of the death of a comrade, or a serious injury. This entire scenario was a nightmare. I just couldn’t believe it happened to this guy, and he was willing to share it. Such intensity! Such drama! It was like the perfect climax to an action movie!! Almost… TOO perfect.
THEN I JUMPED FROM THE TABLE! SHOOTING ROUNDS INTO THE HEAD, AND THE CHEST OF THE TWO GUYS BESIDE ME! I COULD HEAR GUNSHOTS GOING OFF BEHIND ME AS-”
“HEY! WAIT A MINUTE!!” I cut him off as he began to perform the scene in front of me in the lobby. He stopped instantly, looking confused as I held my hands out to get his attention.
“Seriously?! The Deer Hunter?!” I asked in a loud, frustrated volume as he returned to the faded-orange counter.
He laughed and slid his drink to the edge, replacing the lid and straw on top, while beaming from ear to ear.
“Baaah- you never said it had to be a true story! Anyways, you seemed to be enjoying it,” he said in a matter-of-factly tone.
I was pissed. I felt betrayed, and wronged, and all sorts of embarrassed. In an exasperated tone, I decided to finish what I had started.
“Oh yeah? Then what really happened, huh?!”
I was glaring at him with full force now, but the man was not remorseful. He had gotten the best of a sixteen year old, and it was pretty comical.
“Meh, not much. Served my time, and went to some really god-awful places. Then I got home, and went to work. I had a family to take care of. Promised my kids during the war that if I made it home, I’d go and take them to every damn movie on the planet. So! Here I am,” He said cheerfully, while picking up his drink and turning to the corner. “You have a nice day, alright?” he exclaimed, while walking down the hallway towards his theater.
Defeated, and humiliated, I threw my face into my palms. As I stood at the terminal, clutching the machine in a death-grip, all I could think was:
Should’ve just stuck with “no free refills.”