It was a normal day at Empire Strikes Back bowling alley in West Greenport, New York as Charlene sat at the counter flipping through her US Weekly. She twirled her hair around her index finger as she drifted away in her mind wishing she had done things differently. Wishing she moved to L.A. to pursue acting, wishing she didn’t get married at such a young age, wishing to be one of the people she was now reading about.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as he pictured herself in a long gold gown posing on the red carpet. Smiling wide as she replied to rumors about her dating whatever actor was most famous at that time. She began reciting an acceptance speech where she thanked her mother and father for believing in her and, of course, God.
Charlene was now mindlessly flipping through the magazine with no cause. Her sleepless dreaming put a smile on her face as the pace of her hair twirling quickened with excitement. Her mouth moved as she spoke with interviewers about who she was wearing that night, what her favorite movie of the year was, what “happening” after-party she would be attending.
She was in her glory among the silence held in the air.
The day-shift was more facilities management than it was customer service. Outside of the few groups that would occupy the higher lanes of the house, the remainder of the day was receiving food deliveries and taking lunch orders from surrounding businesses.
Charlene continued to flip through the magazine when the ringing from the telephone pierced the silence like an air-horn during rush hour traffic. The echo reverberated off the concrete walls surrounding and coiling around her as if it were a boa constrictor squeezing the fictitious life out of her.
The ringing was cut short before she could reach the offending party. Perplexed, Charlene stood by the wall of the office where the owner would spend his days and did what she could to hear what the conversation was about.
Charlene was aware that she was spying on her boss but something about the call threw her off and made her stomach drop. It’s not that the surly owner, who sat like a vulture in his computer chair playing spider solitaire all day, answered the phone, it was that he answered it so quickly as if anticipating it for some time.
“Yeah, it’s about time we made a change.”
As those words rolled off the owner’s tongue, Charlene’s heart started to beat fast. She’s known him for close to twenty years and this job is all she has. Sure they have updated computer operating systems over the years but she still lacked any real computer skills that she can bring to an office setting. Working at “Empire” is her life. She couldn’t even think of where she would go. Her mind began to race more frantically mapping out scenarios where she would have to beg for change in the cold and spend nights in dumpsters to stay out of the rain.
Then like a butchers knife through a watermelon she heard.
“…replaced by the end of the week. Yeah, I’ve made my choice and I’m going with the black one.”
She heard the conversation coming to an end and quickly scurried back behind the lunch counter acting like she didn’t hear a word. Sweat began to form around her forehead and she saw blotches reminiscent of what happens on-screen when a projector gets too hot and sets film on fire.
Shortly after her boss emerged from his poorly lit office that sported only one flickering bulb turning his office into a seedy nightclub with a broken strobe light. He turned the corner and the first thing that caught her attention was that he had more hair on his head than normal.
Charlene thought to herself, “is that wig? did he get plugs? that poor cat!”
“How are you doing today, Charlene?” His voice cracked as he spoke so it was more like “How are you doing today, ChARlene?”
“I’m fine, can I make you anything for lunch?” For the first time she felt it was necessary to prove her worth. “The new turkey burgers are delicious!”
“I’m thinking of ordering out. I’m having a good day.”
Time came to a crashing halt, screeching to a stop like a locomotive when a cow is on the tracks. This was uncharted territory. In all the years that Charlene worked at Empire Strikes Back not once did her boss “order out.” It was only on the rarest of occasions that he would even eat fried food and “Empire” was voted “Best French Fries in West Greenport” by John Willis, West Greenport’s most famous food critic who once had a review make it to the online version of the New York Times.
She was panicking but didn’t want the owner to see how distraught she was. Every word out of his mouth felt like a dagger to her side, inflicting pain and unnecessary torture. She just wanted her fate to be sealed. End it now so she can get her life in order.
The worst part about it was his nonchalant attitude. She the prey, he the black widow slowly crawling toward the center of the web where she lay unable to move. He was toying with her and was seemingly enjoying it. He never hesitated to greet her with a smile and a “hello!” every morning. After hearing the leather creak and the springs of his chair adjust to him sitting she would run off and hide in the supply closet to regain her composure.
7:00 AM on Friday and Charlene lay in her bed listening to the pre-loaded Mergengue ring tone on her phone playing in the background as she worked up the courage to get to her feet. It was officially the end of the week and she knew the hooded executioner or, in this case, the balding bowling alley owner – who may or may not have gotten hair plugs – would be awaiting her arrival, standing by the guillotine with baited breath.
She willed herself out of bed, shuffled her feet to the bathroom, showered, and made her way to her car. She took a deep breath, turned the key to start the engine, and, like an omen, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out” from Eric Clapton’s Unplugged performance on MTV was playing. Charlene hung her head low, composed herself, and backed out of the driveway.
Taking a moment, Charlene worried about losing the house she and her husband bought after they married, the two children they raised inside those walls, and the countless hours of “Wheel of Fortune” that were enjoyed.
Making the left into the parking lot at this point in her life was second nature. She could pretty much be blindfolded and make it to the bowling alley without worry, right down to the train schedule and when it would be safe to cross the tracks. She took her normal spot next to the door and within view of the camera after someone broke into her old car a few years back. There a split second where she was paralyzed with fear and she broke down crying, she quickly composed herself when her boss pulled in next to her. Like every day after “the call” he greeted her with a military solute and a wide smile, she returned in kind.
They made small talk as he opened the door and held it for her to enter. She made it through the vestibule but once she breached the bowling alley walls she broke down crying right by lane 1. This was her last day, she did so much for this place and she felt violated, mistreated, and, possibly worst of all, used. There was no warning, it was as if the owner was going to let her finish her shift, follow her out to the parking lot and shoot her in the back of the head.
“What’s wrong?” The owner said.
“I just can’t believe your replacing me. I’ve worked my ass off for years here and now I get treated like this. It’s wrong and I’m sick to my stomach.”
“Why do you think you’re going to be replaced?”
“I heard you on the phone saying that I’ll be gone by the end of the week and you’re replacing me with someone black,” Charlene paused for a moment the quickly blurted out, “your words not mine.”
“Oh my God! No! I got a new vending machine, the other one broke and I’m not replacing you with someone black.”
Charlene’s loud sobbing, that echoed through the empty bowling alley, stopped and she embraced the owner.
“It’s okay,” he said, “everything will be fine.”
“I’m just so relieved I still have my job.”
“Oh, no, you’re getting fired today. The vending machine can make hot food.”