Pictures From The Drive-In- Chapters 1 and 2
I frequently posted short stories on writersbeat in the past and found great success with that. I thought I would give chapter excerpts a shot today. Here are the first two chapters of my novel Pictures From the Drive-In
Pictures from the Drive-In
By Tristan Mason
I could see the sign for the abandoned drive-in amid an overgrowth of shrubs and weeds just off the expressway. Years of weathering caused its paint to chip and a few of its plastic letters to dismantle. After Jordan and I briefly exchanged nods, he pulled the car into a nearby dirt lot that was blocked off by wired fencing. His fingers were marred by tiny cuts on his knuckles that seemed to afflict him as he forced open the driver’s side door. He brushed his foot against the pavement and looked over his shoulder toward oncoming traffic. He whispered “fuck it” and proceeded to the fence. A cloud of dust kicked up on my jeans as I followed.
“What are we looking for anyway?” I called after him.
“We’re not looking for anything, dude. But I found something last time I was here that I think you need to see.”
“Where and what is it?”
“See that concrete building with the collapsed roof? The snack bar and projection booth were in there. It’s better that you see for yourself. ”
Jordan climbed the waist high fence and jumped onto a grassy knoll that led up to the building. I laughed and ducked through a circular opening in the fence. Memories of weekends at the drive-in with my parents raced through my mind as I tried to spot the screen that was now cloaked behind giant evergreens. I was small enough for my dad to throw me in the air and pretend that I could touch the anthropomorphic snacks that danced across the screen. Looking in its direction made me remember what it felt like to soar above the cars.
“I can’t even remember the last time I saw a movie here,” Jordan said as he pushed through an unhinged wooden door to an almost vacant room littered with popcorn bags, styrofoam cups and candy wrappers. Only a metal counter with an electronic cash register and portable radio remained in the room. “I think it was that movie where a dad shrunk his kids or maybe it was that one with the blue genie.”
“I don’t think you were old enough to remember the first movie.”
“Whatever. Maybe it was the sequel then. It was a lifetime ago.”
Jordan walked over to the radio and adjusted its dusty dials. A news report about a missing man named Jamal played through the static. He turned the dial again and laughed at a jingle about diabetes.
Jordan shook his head and bent over to pick up a taped envelope from underneath a bag of popcorn. The envelope had the date “5-8-99” scribbled in pen over the bottom fold. A patch of sunlight from a broken window illuminated Jordan’s pale, freckled face. He waited for me to open the envelope and averted his reaction as I pulled out a small stack of polaroids. The first photograph in the stack was of two, shirtless blond teenage boys kissing by a campfire. The one I recognized wore a backward, blue baseball cap and tattered jean shorts.
“Is that your-”
I nodded slowly, placing the photograph back in the stack.
“Why didn’t you just bring these to me when you found them?”
“Zack, I had no right finding these in the first place. He was your brother.”
“If you’re asking if I knew, I always had a feeling, but it wasn’t any of my business,” I said. I scratched my elbow. “He was eight years older than me and I only saw him for a few hours a day. Arnold was always out with his friends or playing soccer. I didn’t really even know him.”
“Are you going to keep them?”
“I’m not sure. I’m not sure what they’re doing out here to begin with. He was a private kind of guy.”
“Does it bother you?” Jordan asked. It was a question I hadn’t really thought about since he passed. My parents never spoke about it. Only once did I hear them use the phrase “his lifestyle.” But that was only once after it happened and never again. We didn’t talk about any lifestyle other than our own.
“I’ve...only known him as my brother.”
Jordan smiled as if he understood and continued to rummage through the garbage, looking for nothing in particular. He paused every few seconds to catch a glimpse of me stroking my thumb over the photograph, hesitant to examine the other ones in the pile. As my friend of almost fifteen years, he knew it was best to wait for me to process my thoughts and refrain from offering any advice. I knew he wanted to though by the way he opened his mouth to speak and censored his words with a deep sigh. While I collected my thoughts, Jordan collected a few loose dollar bills and a Troy O’Leary baseball card.
“It would be interesting if you gave them to your parents,” he finally said, lowering his voice.
“You know exactly what I said. It would be interesting if you gave them to your parents and made some copies for your relatives. I’d love to see the look on their faces.”
Jordan was standing up now, his arms crossed firmly over the blue circle on his tee shirt. I took a step back and placed the polaroids back in their envelope, pointing my feet toward the unhinged wooden door. He took one step forward, tapping his fingers over the veins in his biceps. The words “see the look on their faces” echoed through me like the frigid wind that entered through the cracks in the concrete walls.
“Forget it, man. You know how they are. I don’t need to tell you. I’ve never needed to say anything about them anyway. It’s out there for everyone to see.”
“It’s no secret that you don’t like them. Let’s just get out of here.”
“Can you blame me though after what they said about me dating Sasha? She’s a grad student, a really nice girl and they can’t get over the fact that she’s not a Christian. How can you blame me for not liking them when they hate anyone who’s not like them?”
“They are good people, Jordan,” I uttered between quick, short breaths. “They are ignorant people, but they are good people. Can we leave now? I got what we came for. I just want to go back to the apartment.”
“Fine. Are you going to keep the photos at least?”
I nodded and slid the envelope into the left pocket of my jeans. By the time we stepped outside, I could no longer see the screen behind the evergreens. They were too tall and their long ferns obstructed my view. Memories of soaring above the clouds changed to those of shouting matches between Arnold and my parents over him wanting to watch the feature movie from a friend’s jeep. A heated exchange of words caused him to storm off into a sea of brightly lit cars.
Jordan and I sat in silence on the ride home until we passed the brick building that I worked in. It was located just a few miles away from our apartment complex on a main road that most cars in town past through on their way to someplace more ideal. Other than a pizza restaurant, laundromat and post office, there was no real reason for people to stop.
“So, have you sold any knives lately?” Jordan asked as a smirk crept across his face. I sighed, clutching the envelope firm beneath my grasp. The sky was fading to bright shades of orange and red as he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to the rhythm of a ‘90s alternative rock song. “You know it’s just a pyramid scheme, right?”
He looked to me, shaking his head, and then back to the road. “So why do you do it then?”
“At least it pays more than that being a professional Youtuber.”
“Dude, don’t even. At least I like what I do. I can’t imagine you like begging family members to buy your three hundred dollar knife kit.”
“I don’t just sell to family members.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jordan said, braking sharply at a stoplight. “Goddamn. If there were anymore lights, it would be the turnpike.”
Normally Jordan’s comments about my job would have irked me more but my thoughts fixated on the contents of the envelope and how it found its way to the drive-in in the first place. My parents owned very few pictures of Arnold past the age of twelve and there were none of him in his high school yearbook either. His senior photo was a black silhouette mounted on a gray background with the caption “photo unavailable” sprawled underneath. After he quit the soccer team, he had no purpose to be in the yearbook to begin with.
For the remainder of the car ride, Jordan’s rant about Sasha “spending all of her time in class” and “the police not letting him film in the abandoned insane asylum in Meriden” became one with the background noise of guitar riffs and the whistling air conditioner. I wanted desperately to tell my best friend about my brother but knew that I couldn’t without the conversation circling back to his disdain for my mom and dad. I wanted desperately to tell him how little I knew of my brother and how my parents only spoke of him in passing. I couldn’t find the words though and just nodded along to every other sentence I zeroed in on.
“I don’t know. Sasha had all the time in the world last summer to make videos,” Jordan said as he pulled into the wrong parking space outside of our complex. “She tries to make time on weekends but it’s just not the same anymore.”
“I’m sure she’ll make more time on spring break for you. I’m amazed she can make time at all with the labs she has to do. I hated taking earth science when I was an undergrad. I don’t know how she does it for a degree.”
Jordan chuckled, unbuckling his seatbelt and stepping out into the cool spring evening. He asked me if I was “coming inside.” After I made up a story about having to check my email for work, he shrugged and disappeared quickly into the building. Then I waited. I waited until I was sure that neither Jordan nor any of the tenants were in proximity of the car. I waited until orange and red sky started to fade into a deep shade of blue and pulled out the photograph of my brother and the shirtless boy. They were surrounded by only woods and the warm glow of the campfire. Growing up, my brother could never be this alone.
I kept the envelope in a small shoebox on top of my dresser drawer where Jordan wouldn’t think to find or mention it. Aside from the occasional guest, however, no one had a reason to step foot in my bedroom. Jordan was also gone most nights and returned home too tired to have a coherent conversation. In a few weeks, he would forget all about his discovery at the drive-in and move on to exploring another abandoned site for his internet video channel. The shoebox seldom moved from my drawer. When I did open it, I couldn’t bring myself to examine any photograph past the first one in the pile. I wasn’t repulsed by the image of my brother and the young man but felt as if I was encroaching on a past that I had no business being a part of.
I willed myself to walk past the shoebox for as many mornings and evenings as I could stand on my way to and from work. With each passing day, it became easier to move past the box but I never managed to leave the room without gazing at it for a brief moment, knowing that an unspoken history was trapped inside. I often imagined mailing the shoebox to my parents or handing it to them when they came over for our monthly dinners. These thoughts were fleeting though and I usually gathered my briefcase and headed out the door, careful not to wake Jordan or Sasha on the days that she slept over.
My morning routine evolved from a love affair with the snooze alarm to a silent, aimless drive around town to catch the last glimpse of sunrise. I frequently passed the abandoned drive-in, even though it was out of the way. On some mornings, I pulled into the dirt lot and imagined the plastic letters on the sign glowing in neon like they did long ago. My family made Saturday night their drive-in night, no matter what was going on in our lives. My mom and dad would close their bakery early so that they could pick Arnold and I up from our grandmother’s house in time for the show at sundown. It was the only time during the week that all of us were together. On the nights when sun wouldn’t set until nine, we played mini-golf at a nearby course that was lined with miniature castles, bridges, barns and other hand-made obstacles around the holes. The mini-golf course burned down the same year that the drive-in closed and my brother passed away. Years later, I struggled to remember where the course was or how it caught fire.
These detours made me progressively late for work but I didn’t mind. I worked as an independent contractor for a company that sold knives to unwitting family members and strangers. When the company recruited me in college, they did so with the premise that I could build an extended network of clients by convincing my loved ones that they genuinely needed a three hundred dollar kit of high carbon steel knives. They would supposedly “spread the word” about the product to their friends and co-workers, initiating a chain reaction of sorts. After selling my kit to my parents and a few aunts and uncles, I realized that I had met a dead end. Once this situation occurs, an employee must rely upon the company’s list of contacts to sell to, which often meant former clients and kitchen supply stores. In the past year, I became trapped in a never-ending loop of dead end phone calls and cancelled conferences. I saw nothing more than my dim and dusty cubicle for eight hours. Only the cracked screen of my desktop lit the space around me.
I found myself thinking about my brother whenever I traversed the maze of cubicles that stretched almost the length of the office floor. He once sat by my bed side and told me to never “take an office job in the town I grew up in.” I was too tired and young then to understand why he would say those things and too old now to recall the context of the conversation. It was enough for me to think about every time I passed the expressionless faces that never changed from the moment they sat down at their computers to schedule appointments to the moment they left without so much as a word another employee. The only time we conversed with each other was during mandated company outings and trainings along with team-building exercises. After five years, however, I could only recall a handful of names.
When I had down time, which was often, I browsed through a website my brother made in the days of web 1.0 when most sites had simple GIF buttons that blinked or spun, unmoving font, blurry images and a solid color background. My brother’s website had only three blurry images of him and his friends at a local park. The images were fixed on a black background with small white stars scattered about it. Arnold wore neck-length hair under the same baseball cap he had on in the photograph of him and the boy. Only his friends Laura and Carl were in the image though. Laura, a stocky girl who always wore plaid, drove Arnold to school most days and slept over on weekends. My parents had a rule about girls staying overnight but made an exception for Laura. Carl stayed over too but spent most of his time in my brother’s room playing video games to avoid having conversations with my dad about Tiger Woods. Carl was the only black athlete on the high school golf team. Naturally, my dad felt the need to make comparisons. My parents didn’t care much for Arnold’s friends but that fact made me like them even more. When they stopped by with twelve packs of soda they called “fuel for gaming,” they gave me some and let me watch them play.
I sometimes typed the names “Laura Harding” and “Carl Green” into a search engine just to see if I could find any information about them. I modified the search with terms such as “Connecticut” and “Hyde High School”in hopes that it would bring me closer to discovering what happened to them. After Arnold’s funeral, I saw Carl at the grocery store he worked as a cashier for. My mom and him exchanged awkward “hi’s” before she hurried me out into the parking lot, making an excuse about how late it was and a storm that never came. Laura, on the other hand, helped my mom clean out Arnold’s room and donate his clothes. But then she left for college a few weeks later. The two most important people in my brother’s life disappeared from town and my parents never spoke of them again. Their digital footprint seemed to vanquish as well. Other than an article about the class of 1999, my search yielded no results.
I grew so obsessed with trying to uncover Arnold’s past that I became far removed from my present surroundings. Upon coming home from work, I lay my briefcase by the door and retired to the couch where I continued the search from my smartphone. Jordan seldom paid attention because he was either editing footage on his laptop, livestreaming for his video channel or bemoaning Sasha’s lack of presence. Jordan and I fell into a routine of minimal interaction. Phrases such as “do you want to order Chinese?” or “you can shower first” line to be the only exceptions. It wasn’t until the evening I stumbled upon a video of my brother from the archive section of our town’s public access channel website that he showed interest.
“Is...that who I think it is?” Jordan asked after thirty seconds of the clip elapsed. He closed his laptop and hovered over me, the smell of herb lingering on his breath. The clip contained a segment the public access channel aired about the town’s then-developing skate park. Most of the kids featured in the segment expressed excitement about the skate park. My brother, who was standing beside a boy sporting a crew cut and a baggy Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt, told the cameraman that it “probably wouldn’t be any good” before laughing and walking away.
“Yeah. It must have been the beginning of his senior year when my dad paid him to cut his hair. He totally hated it.”
“Who’s the other guy with him?”
When an answer came to me, Jordan knew what it was by the way the phone trembled in my hands. The boy stood a few inches shorter than my brother and buried his hands deep within the pockets of his denim jeans. While I couldn’t see the boy’s face clearly in the photograph, I could he tell was the same person by the way his blue eyes locked on Arnold instead of the camera and the way he blushed a deep red at his smartass remark. As they were walking away, he slapped Arnold on the back, sliding his hand down toward the waistline.
“You have to find out who he is. Skip past the other interviews to the credits.”
“There are no credits. It ends at an image of a ramp being built.”
I shrugged and placed my phone on the wooden coffee table in front of us. Jordan scratched the back of his neck, which was already blotchy with eczema.
“He never came over either? I feel like Arnold was the kind of guy who would have snuck people over when your parents weren’t home. It’s not like you would have told.”
“Yes, but not this guy. He couldn’t.”
A car alarm blared from outside our living room window and echoed into the night. Moments later, a few tenants were yelling in the parking lot and a cat howled in the distance. Jordan walked over to the window and slowly shut the blinds.
“It’s been almost twenty years, right?”
“Yeah just about.”
“When was the last time you and your parents even talked about him?”
I shrugged and reached for the remote on the table. Jordan was pacing now, his hands interlocked behind his back.
“If we talk about Arnold, it’s just in passing. They’ll bring up a distant cousin before they bring him up.”
“I don’t get it,” Jordan replied, interlocking his fingers tighter. “I don’t get why some parents can’t accept their kids for who they are.”
“Would you back off my folks for once, man. We don’t know that they didn’t accept it.”
“Sure we do. If they accepted Arnold for who he was, wouldn’t they talk about him?”
“I’m not going to do this tonight,” I said, clenching a fist into the cushion. “I’m sure it just hurts them to talk about him. They loved him. He was their son.”
“I’m not talking about whether they loved him or not,” Jordan said coldly. “I’m talking about your Christian fundamentalist parents not accepting him for being gay.”
I rose from the couch and took the quickest path to my bedroom as Jordan raised his tone and followed. I shut the door behind me and with my back pressed against it, slid down to the floor and cradled my head in my hands. Jordan’s shouting turned to soft spoken sentences that I assumed to be apologies. I heard none of what he said though. My mind was lost in fleeting memories of my brother that I saw so vividly but could not recall anything about.
Jordan left a note on my briefcase the next morning with the words “I’m an asshole and I’m sorry” scribbled in red pen across the surface. I smiled and placed the note on the television stand on my way out the door. Jordan’s apologies were never an actual admission of fault but his way of keeping the peace during time of tension. Jordan learned from his parents to always admit fault in order to avoid conflict. This strategy worked for Louis and Carol Vassar because they worked in the sales industry where appeasing the client base is a top priority. As a child, Jordan’s teachers admired him for his surprising honesty and encouraged more if it. On the night of twenty-first birthday, however, he learned from a certain officer that honesty is not always the best policy. Over time though, he didn’t part with his parents’ philosophy. He made it his own and in some ways, much worse.
Sasha was waiting outside the apartment door when I opened it. Leaning against the adjacent wall, Sasha braided her chestnut brown hair and mumbled something along the lines of needing an Irish coffee. It wasn’t until I coughed that she looked up and flashed me a half-smile. At eight in the morning, she looked nowhere ready or willing to be here, still in sweatpants and a baggy red tee shirt that once belonged to Jordan.
“Wipe that smirk off your face, Zack. Come on. I didn’t even have time to put on makeup.”
“I don’t get the impression that Jordan really cares.”
Sasha groaned and wiped the water away from her tear ducts. I held the door open while she dragged her feet toward it. It had been a week since Sasha last visited. Consumed by her capstone project, Sasha made even less time time for Jordan and his video projects than usual. In the event that she had time, she slept on the couch while Jordan worked the night away on his computer.
“Is he even up yet?”
“What do you think?” I tightened the strap of my briefcase over my shoulder and checked the time on my phone. “I should probably get going.”
“Jordan told me you guys had a fight last night.”
I sighed. Sasha did too. I didn’t know how much Jordan told her about the fight itself but I didn’t need to ask either. Her face said it all.
“We did but it’s not really a big deal.”
“I know you better than that. What’s it been now, three years?”
I smiled and Sasha stepped toward me, her arms wound behind her back. Down the hallway, a man argued with his two small children about going to school. He ushered the boy and girl toward the elevator, clad in their pajamas.
“I’m sure he’s told you about my brother.”
Sasha nodded. There wasn't a trace of judgement in her eyes as I spoke.
“I can’t talk to him about it without him bringing up my parents. You know how it is I’m sure.”
“Yeah. Jordan’s not exactly impartial about these things. You can always talk to me about it too though.”
“Thanks, Sash.” In the past three years, I hadn’t really considered this. Even on our long drive to Maryland, we didn't connect much. Between the arguing about directions and conversations about their projects, there wasn’t time to get to know each other. “Good luck with whatever you guys are doing.”
“Going to an abandoned children’s hospital, I think.”
“That sounds super fun and legal.”
Sasha groaned again and headed into the apartment. Jordan was nowhere in sight. Just as I turned down the hallway, the words “what was he like” stopped me dead in my tracks. My lower lip trembled. My face felt numb. My mind struggled to process the mere words and emotions that entangled them. It had been an eternity since someone had asked about Arnold like he was more than my dead brother.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that I didn’t know you had a brother until about a week ago.”
She stood in the doorway, fidgeting with her fingers.
“No, it’s okay. I’m not used to talking about him. That’s all.”
“We don’t have to. I was just curious.”
So much time had elapsed since my brother’s death that I couldn’t distinguish real memories from the ones I derived from pictures. When we were little, my mom filled bound photo albums with dozens of polaroids from our first steps to our first day of each grade up until he started high school. Years later, she stored those albums in sealed boxes in the basement, hoping that I would forget where they were or that even existed. For awhile it worked. In college, his face and voice faded alongside many other aspects of childhood. It wasn’t until I helped them move that I found the albums again and snuck one back to my apartment.
“Do you know how Jordan and Brett are?” I finally asked.
“Oh god. Please tell me it wasn’t like that with you and…” Her voice trailed off and her cheeks flushed red.
“Arnold,” I said, smiling. “Like the one from that cartoon show Jordan quotes all the time. And no, it was the exact opposite of that. He was this tall, lanky guy who wore the stereotypical grunge outfit-plaid shirts, ripped jeans and the long hair to go with it. We never fought like most brothers. I mean, when your brother’s eight years older than you, you don’t have much in common to fight about. But he was always cool to me and I never told on him for drinking my dad’s beer with his friends.”
“He sounds nothing like you,” she teased.
“I liked that about him though.”
She smiled and placed a finger on my elbow, tracing the fabric of my sleeve. “Don’t let what Jordan said get to you, okay? He means well. He just has has a shitty way of showing it sometimes.”
“He always means well though, Sash. He says these things and only thinks about them after he pisses someone off.”
“I think he’s angry right now.”
“At what my parents said?”
“Yeah. Other things too.”
I chose my next words carefully when I asked if she “was angry too.”
“No, Zack,” she said reassuringly. “I get it. I get them.”
That was Sasha’s typical response to situations in which people didn’t understand her. She understood their fear and confusion and rarely showed anger. Born to a Dutch father and Syrian mother who moved to Connecticut in mid ‘80s, Sasha was used to the attitude of the suburbs. Her warm tinted olive skin and European sounding last name perplexed those who met her. They didn’t know enough to outright discriminate against her but sensed the difference nonetheless.
“Ugh. I really don’t want to go to work this morning.”
“I couldn’t tell.”
She smirked and turned her head toward the man down the hallway who was now bear-hugging his screaming children and frantically shushing them.
“Zack, I don’t know how you ever wanted to teach that. I couldn’t even.”
“I wanted to teach high schoolers. Not that. God. Never that.”
Sasha laughed and sauntered into the apartment to find Jordan in his boxers on the couch with an energy drink. By the time I walked down to the elevator, the man and his kids were gone but I could hear the distant sound of Jordan and Sasha arguing.
Though I made it to work on time, I sat in the parking lot for several minutes with the windows rolled down. On days like this, I hoped that Mark, the location manager, would storm out of the building with a pink slip and the lone security guard to escort me off the premises. In reality, Mark only brought these habits up at the quarterly review and seldom followed through with a consequence. From the time I began my day to five o’clock at punch out time, I was utterly alone. The friends I began with left long ago to better jobs or married their college sweethearts and moved somewhere south or west. I gained no recognition for managing to stay five years in the revolving door of a company, not even from my boss. If my colleagues ever asked, they gave me puzzled looks followed by the obligatory “oh wow” or “that’s great for you” comment.
On this particular morning, I wondered what Arnold would be like in his mid-thirties. Before his death, Arnold gained acceptance into a small liberal arts college in the pacific northwest. My parents wanted him to go to a state school, which became an ongoing discussion at the dinner table. They threatened to cut him off financially if he ended up attending. This made no difference to Arnold. He knew that they saved very little for his tuition. They barely earned enough money to keep the bakery around. I imagined Arnold leaving the day after graduation and having no regrets about his decision. I imagined him now living in a studio apartment in downtown Seattle with a boyfriend and a part-time art gig. I imagined him calling me from some film festival and urging me to fly out there on a one-way ticket. I imagined being close to him, the kind of close brothers could only be in their twenties and thirties.
“Excuse me,” A girl in a plaid skirt and gray blazer said from a foot outside my window. It took me a solid second to acknowledge her as she swayed from side to side with a three-ring binder in her hands. “Do you know where I should go for the cutlarist interviews?”
Instead of referring to its employees as salespeople, my company referred to them at ‘cutlarists’ to make them feel more important. Like a coffee shop barista, a cutlarist held sophistication only by name.
“Elsewhere,” I mumbled.
“I’m sorry, what?”
I took a good long look at the girl with the neatly straightened blond hair and black-rimmed glasses that rested primly on her nose and sighed.
“I was kidding. It’s on the second floor of the building next to the dentist office.”
“Okay. Second floor next to the dentist office. Got it. What number?”
I laughed. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll see a door with the words “ChopCorp on it in obnoxiously big black letters. It’s the only door without a window on it.”
“Thank you so much. Sorry. I’m kind of nervous.”
“Don’t be. You’ll be fine.”
Every few months, I had the same conversation with budding, over-enthusiastic college students in the parking lot that ended with a forced smile and a false sense of reassurance. Of course, the conversations played out much differently in my thoughts. A simple description of the client sales list, knife demonstration or process of begging family members for money would send them fleeing in disarray. For every candidate I sent fleeing, dozens more would arrive. ChopCorp distributed flyers to college campuses advertising “exciting sales opportunity with $18 base pay plus commission.” The ChopCorp logo hid in a small corner of the flyer as if the company feared any student researching its name and discovering their low ratings on career websites and Better Business Bureau complaints. The flyer also neglected to mention the temporary nature of the base pay policy. Despite these flaws, students still flocked to these interviews in droves. ChopCorp hired them on the spot and saw them resign within a few months for the next batch of college students.
As I watched the girl walk toward the building, I remembered my interview with ChopCorp five years earlier. I had the same bounce in my step, confident about making enough money in afternoon and evening shifts to support myself during student teaching. I met with Mark in his dimly lit office that day, wearing a blue collared shirt and denim vest that I pre-ironed. This caused Mark, who wore the same khakis and oversized polo everyday, to do a double-take. He fed into my overzealousness and let me talk at length about my passion to be a teacher when he asked about my major. He stated that “teachers make great salespeople” and hired me on the spot. Half a decade later, I had become neither a great teacher nor a great salesperson. I became a drone and a defective one at that.
When I searched for my brother on my shift, I escaped that feeling of defectiveness. I escaped to a past that I only now began to grasp. I escaped to a past that was never mine but longed desperately to travel back to. Even finding my brother’s name in an archived article about the Hyde High School soccer team gave me immense joy. My parents were too busy at the bakery to take me to his games but I could vividly imagine him “lofting the ball over the goalie’s head” to score the game-winning goal. When I found Arnold’s name on the Fall 1998 honor-roll list, I imagined him taking his tests high as a kite and still passing with flying colors. Plenty of dinner table talk revolved around Arnold and his friends getting high and how they would never amount to anything worthwhile. My parents’ lectures and our refrigerator were devoid of any of his high marks. I assumed my brother either wasn’t bright or wasn’t trying.
I bookmarked every page I found about Arnold, even if it only mentioned his name. Over the course of the month, I stored thirty results, which were mostly articles about soccer games and the high school honor roll. I stopped short of entering the phrase “Arnold Beckett obituary” or “Arnold Beckett accident” when I reached a plateau in my search. I brought myself to type in the words only to exit out of the browser immediately after and take a walk down to the water cooler. Like the photographs on my bureau, I placed a barrier between myself and anything too hurtful or too unfamiliar. None of my colleagues bothered to notice me drinking three cups of water or ask if I was “okay.” When the girl I met in the parking lot finished her interview, she asked and seemed genuinely concerned.
“I’m just dehydrated. That’s all. How did it go?”
My response gave her pause but it wasn’t enough to stop her from stating with inflection that she “starts tomorrow.”
“That’s great. You’ll really like working here. Congratulations…”
“Heather.” I extended a hand and she narrowed her gaze as she shook it. “This might sound rude but that kind of sounded sarcastic. I’m sorry.”
“No. You’re right,” I said, not bothering to hush my tone or check over my shoulder. “I hate everything about this place.”
Heather burst out laughing to the point of snorting. “I can’t believe someone actually said it. Oh my god.”
Her reaction strayed far from the ones I dreamt up.
“This place is super sketchy. I mean, the manager’s office is in a closet or something and no one talks to each other. I still don’t even get how it all works.”
“It doesn’t. Trust me.”
Heather laughed again and adjusted her blazer. I could have talked for hours about why ChopCorp didn’t work but knew by the glint in her eyes that she understood.
“My friend just texted me about their Better Business Bureau comments and I’m like gee, that’s super helpful now, Chelsea. I should have googled them.”
“Not your fault. They had you at that eight dollar an hour sign you saw on campus.”
Heather blushed and brushed her hair behind her ears.
“So why are you still here if you hate it so much?”
“It pays the bills I guess and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s not like it’s easy to find a decent job in this state right now.”
“Have you tried?”
I shrugged and the twenty-something college student wrinkled her nose. I couldn’t remember the last time I spoke to someone new at work or in my life in general. My social circle involved being the third wheel of Jordan and Sasha along with the yearly visits from my friend who taught in China. The other friends faded away after college or “marrying their best friend” as they would put it on social media. I tried the occasional dating apps too but grew weary of the girls who posted too much to just be in the moment. Somehow after college, making friends felt like learning a foreign language.
“Well, Heather. It would be nice to have an interesting person around but my advice is to forget you even had this interview when you walk out of here.”
“Oh I plan on it. What did you say your name was again?”
“I thought you liked the whole forgetting about this place idea.”
“It might be good to know for the story I tell my friends later. You know, instead of saying some guy who looks a little like that lead singer from The Calling.”
“That... sounds a lot better than Zack Beckett actually.” I could feel the color in my face. “I wish you better luck than this.”
With the words “you too,” Heather disappeared into the empty hallway and I filled another plastic cup.
“She was too young for you anyway,” Jordan declared that evening while we watched footage from their trip to the children’s hospital on his laptop. Sasha punched him on the shoulder, causing him to toss both hands in the air. “I’m serious. She’s twenty-two at most and you’re twenty-seven. When you started college, she was probably getting her first kiss or her first bra. You dodged a bullet.”
Sasha punched him in the same place. Jordan cupped the visible mark. “I seem to remember someone dating a Carly Johnson who was at least four years younger than him. She didn’t know what a fax machine was, so don’t even. Zack, there’s no problem with you dating-”
“Nice try but she was two and a half years younger.” Jordan held up two fingers and bent another to emphasize his point. “Five is exactly double that and it’s creepy, Zack. Don’t be one of those guys. You’re not that desperate.”
I sat on the end of the couch with both feet on the recliner. I focused on the grainy image of a chair Jordan claimed in the video had “moved across the basement” while the two carried on about my lack of a dating life without stopping for my input.
“Zack’s your best friend. I think you of all people would want him to be happy. You’re being really fickle right now.”
“I do want him to be happy. With someone his age. Hey, I’m happy he’s not obsessing over his brother right now.”
Jordan muttered “fuck” under his breath as I locked eyes with him and glared. Sasha glared too and walked over to my side of the couch, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry dude. That came out the wrong way. I’m sorry.”
Jordan bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. I felt Sasha’s hand tremble.
A long silence and a lot of heavy breathing passed before I said, “Forget about it guys. It’s not like I’ll see that girl again.”
That line settled them down enough to go back to their places on the couch. They continued watching the video but not without checking on me every couple of seconds. We sat in silence for most of the video except for the part when Sasha decided to chase a gray cat down a stairway, shouting “Mr. Higgins, come back!” It took those antics to break the awkwardness of the night. We were practically doubled over when she picked up Mr. Higgins and pretended to perform a seance with him. By the time she demanded that Jordan “hold his paw and pray,” we were hoarse and pounding the coffee table. The nights where I felt like more than just the third party to their dysfunctional relationship were few and far between but I savored them all the more.
We watched another five minutes of the video before Jordan called it their “next big hit” and insisted that he “upload it immediately.” Sasha and I knew enough not to react to statements like these. For Jordan, every video that we laughed at qualified as their “next big hit.” He failed to understand why guys half his age posted videos of half the quality and still gained more views and subscribers. Jordan despised the vloggers the most because he felt that someone who only talked into the camera from their room, at a friend’s house or on the road lacked the originality deserving of those views. He also failed to see the irony in the fact that The Lost and Found Club, his video channel and his only source of income, lacked originality too. Dozens of other channels existed with the same premise as his-exploring abandoned places with colorful commentary. When Jordan and Sasha started The Lost and Found Club, the idea was fresh. He gained enough views and ad revenue to pay his share of the rent. Of course, as with any channel on the video sharing site, The Lost and Found Club had a shelf life of about two years before being relegated to the archives.
Whenever Sasha suggested that they analyze the current trending videos and create a partner channel, Jordan refused. He had no interest in making comic book character cakes, reviewing fast food products, unboxing the latest video games or analyzing the songs of one-hit wonders in the making. He considered those videos “pandering to the ignorant masses.” After leaving the school of broadcasting, Jordan chose The Lost and Found Club as his livelihood, knowing that he needed to pander. Nowadays, Jordan’s revenue came from a two-year-old video of an abandoned mill town that a popular ghost hunting show filmed at. Once the show went off the air, the viewership of The Lost and Found Club stagnated and then declined altogether. Jordan depended on my so-called knife selling salary and Sasha’s abysmal earnings as a research assistant at the university.
Sasha attempted to give Jordan clues about the type of videos he could make but most of her attempts went over his head. After Jordan uploaded the children’s hospital video, she clicked on one about Connecticut heroes.
“Come on Jordan, this would be a lot of fun. We could do some good for people and businesses around here.”
“It’s just not us, Sash. I agree with you but it’s just not us. Hey, Zack, you okay dude?”
I couldn’t look away from the African American man in a gray suit walking across an auditorium stage to accept a plaque. The caption on the bottom of the video read “Carl Green-Novik: Connecticut Teacher of The Year.”