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New York Movie

The Usherette

By Jenifer NimPublished 12 months ago 6 min read
Runner-Up in Painted Prose Challenge
New York Movie by Edward Hopper (1939)

Mary leaned against the wall and sighed inwardly. She hated these late showings. Her friends were out on the town tonight, dressed up to the nines, looking young, free, and beautiful. It was just after nine, so they would be at a bar now, sipping on small flutes of champagne that fizzed and sparkled like the girls themselves, feeling wild and alive on a warm summer’s evening in the greatest city in the world.

***

She’d watched with painful jealousy as her boarding house roommate, Betty, had sat at the dressing table applying her powder.

“Oh, can’t you take the night off, Mary?” she’d wheedled and whined.

“You know I can’t.” She would give anything to skip work and join Betty and the gals out on the town. Betty was a sweetheart, but she didn’t really understand. Mary didn’t have parents paying her room and board, like Betty did. She couldn’t afford to lose this job by not turning up to work.

There weren’t many options available to Mary, a working-class girl with no education. Compared to factory or retail work, a job at the picture palace was a dream. Work related to the movies was glamorous, and the jobs were highly coveted. Mary considered herself lucky, despite the long hours and low pay.

Mary had looked longingly at Betty’s silky hair, curled and teased into the most fashionable current style. She had watched as Betty ran her hands over her long dress, smoothing it down around the hips, and nodded approvingly at herself in the mirror. Mary had glanced surreptitiously at her own reflection, at the dull navy uniform that covered her from head to toe. It had once made her feel so modern and smart, but compared to beautiful Betty, the trousers and boxy shoulders made her feel ugly and drab.

The shoes though. She could wear her lovely shoes. Betty had gifted them to her, and they were now her most prized possession. When the lights went down and the movie started, she could stare down at her feet in their shiny, strappy shoes and imagine herself in one of the city’s dimly lit and atmospheric bars.

***

Mary had only once been to a nightclub. It had been the best night of her life. Nightclubs were normal for Betty, who spent her days in secretarial school and her nights out, experiencing New York the way it was meant to be experienced. New York wasn’t a city for the day time; it truly came alive when the sun went down and the electric lights took over.

Not that Mary had seen much of its night time delights. Most of the time she could only stare in to the bars wistfully as she walked past on her way home from another late shift, weary and drained. New York hadn’t been quite what she’d anticipated. She didn’t have the glamorous lifestyle she’d been hoping for, the reason she had followed those bright lights so far from home.

The day was too busy and brash, too intimidating for Mary. All those cars, so loud, so fast, careening round sharp corners and down huge avenues. All the advertising, tempting her agonisingly with things she could never have. All the men in suits, leering and throwing their money around, braying loudly as they paraded down the sidewalks. All the people! Hawkers and shoeshiners and newspaper boys shouting over each other, over the cars, over Mary’s own thoughts.

***

At least, Mary told herself, on the late Friday evening shift in a movie theatre, she could have some relative peace and quiet. She worked varying shifts every day, with one day off a fortnight. Some showings were busier than others. The movie theatre could seat 2,000 people, and it could be exhausting greeting all those patrons and ushering them to their seats.

But on a Friday night, there were so few moviegoers that it didn’t take long to seat them, and then she could lean back and relax, torch in hand in case of the occasional latecomer. Although she’d catch hell from her boss if he saw her slouching against the wall. Yes, now the show was started, she could relax. As long as the customers behaved themselves tonight…

Mary’s face turned dark, and she raised a hand to her cheek, subconsciously protecting it from past patrons. Those men in the suits, the bankers, they were bad enough out in the sunlight, but when the overhead lights were dimmed and the theatre was cast into almost-darkness, they were a nightmare.

It didn’t matter if Mary tried to stay in the safety of the light from the wall sconce, or how many people were in the theatre, because when everyone was entranced by the flickering screen, they didn’t notice the stares, the lewd comments, the touches, or the way Mary’s frozen smile faltered as tears pricked her eyelashes.

The usherettes were there to give the patrons an “experience,” Mary had been told sternly by the boss on her first day. Going to the picture palace was a grand night out, and the usherettes were to fawn and flatter the moviegoers, make them feel special. She’d been hired because she was a pretty young girl, and she was there to smile sweetly, to serve, to add to the fantasy of the movies. There could be no arguing with patrons, or telling them off, or showing the slightest displeasure. The customer was king.

How Mary wished she could be out with the girls from the boarding house, wearing one of Betty’s long party dresses and sipping on champagne. Out there, she could be free and fun, she could act however she wanted, choose who she might talk to, which young man she might let buy her a drink. She’d give anything not to be trapped in the theatre on another Friday night while the rest of New York danced and twirled and frolicked without her. In the theatre, she couldn’t choose who to talk to. She couldn’t tell an impertinent young man to back off when he stood uncomfortably close, or tried to touch her as she walked past.

“Excuse me,” came a deep voice from the stairs.

Mary dropped her hand to her side and stood up straight quick as a flash, embarrassed at having been caught out so distracted. Her heart sank as she saw the suit, but she quickly arranged her face into a smile.

“Good evening, sir,” she said brightly. “May I see your ticket?”

He handed it over and asked, “Do you like this movie?”

“Pardon?” Mary almost dropped her smile she was so startled.

“The movie.” He gestured towards the screen. “Do you like it?”

“It is an excellent movie, sir. It has been very popular with audiences. I am sure you will enjoy it very much.”

“But do you like it?” He persisted.

Mary was shocked. No other patrons had ever asked her a personal question before, at least not a respectful one, and certainly not her opinion. She was a pretty face, a young lady with a smile and a torch, nothing more. She didn’t know how to respond. The boss hadn’t covered this scenario.

“I liked it the first time,” she said tentatively. “But the 20th time, not so much.”

The young man let out a hoot of laughter, and the older gentlemen closest to the stairs glanced back briefly, frowning.

“Oops,” he said, and shrugged his shoulders. Mary felt a rare, genuine smile. “Would you like to get some food together when the movie is done? You can tell me what you liked about it the first time.”

Mary looked at his twinkly blue eyes, slightly crinkled at the edges, and the kindly smile on his soft face. She knew instinctively that he was what Betty called “one of the good ones.”

“Yes,” she said shyly. “That would be very nice.” She clicked on the torch and showed him to his seat.

She retreated to the back of the movie theatre but didn’t return to her reveries this time. She didn’t wish she was out with the girls any more. For the first time in many months, there was nowhere she’d rather be.

Fiction

About the Creator

Jenifer Nim

I’ve got a head full of stories and a hard drive full of photos; I thought it was time to start putting them somewhere.

I haven’t written anything for many, many years. Please be kind! 🙏

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Comments (3)

  • Ava Mack11 months ago

    I absolutely loved this, Jenifer! You even included the backstory of her strappy shoes!! Congrats on your runner up!

  • Babs Iverson11 months ago

    Outstanding!!! Congratulations on the runner up win!!!❤️❤️💕

  • C.R. Hughes12 months ago

    Oh this was great! I love how you captured the old time feel of the painting in your story. And I'm glad Mary was able to find one of the "good ones." Thanks for sharing!

Jenifer NimWritten by Jenifer Nim

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