Stolen Glances

I was part of a cleaning crew that had been sent to clean a concession booth at a summer resort that was out in the middle of nowhere.  The concession booth was a small wooden shack.  It sat on a midway lined with other concession booths.  It was the off season and all the booths were closed, their metal shutters locked.  Dry leaves drifted across the pavement along the midway and there were a few faded red flyers scattered here and there, trampled under dirty shoe prints, advertising the live entertainment that had been booked for the past summer.  We all pulled up in the driveway alongside the booth.  We unloaded our cleaning supplies and we went in through the side door.

The booth was very bare inside.  All the equipment and supplies had been cleared out and the dusty shelves and cabinets were all empty.  We opened up the metal shutter over the concession window to let in some light and air, and we got to work cleaning.  There was one decorative touch that had been left behind and it caught my attention.  On the wall beside the concession window there was a small framed photograph.  It was a photo of a young woman with dark hair, turning away from a sunlit window to look into the camera.  Her expression suggested that she had been startled when the picture had been taken, and her piercing blue eyes stared out at us, troubled.

I kept looking up at this photograph as I cleaned.  I found it a bit unsettling, as though the woman had been distracted from her pleasant thoughts at the window by something in this dark empty booth, something that only she could see long after the rest of us were gone, as through she were caught forever in that moment in this lonely place.  As I glanced up at it again, one of my coworkers swept up beside me, leaning on his broom, and said, “We’re not allowed to mess with any of the owner’s personal effects,” and it wasn’t until he said that to me that I realized that I wanted to take that photograph off the wall and take it far away from here.

But I had to figure out how to get it down without my coworkers or the head of the cleaning crew seeing me and knowing that I was taking it.  I thought about this all day as I worked.  In the afternoon I walked down to a small country store about a half a mile down the road to grab something to eat for lunch.  The sun beat down along the deserted midway as I walked back.  The day had warmed up as the sun climbed high, and the light glared off the faded paint of the closed booths.  I stopped for a moment to consider a few small weeds struggling to grow up through a crack in the pavement under my foot and an idea occurred to me how to get the picture off the wall.

When I returned to the booth, the crew was finishing up and loading the equipment into their cars.  The woman who was the head of the cleaning crew had the keys to the booth in her hand and she was about to lock it up.  I told her that I had something I had left inside that I needed to grab.  I held my hand out for the keys.  She seemed reluctant to give them to me.  She studied my face, peering into my eyes.  I just kept my hand held out, holding it steady and keeping a blank, fixed expression on my face.  Finally, my firmness seemed to wear her down and she handed over the keys.  She hesitated as she got into her car, looking back at me, having a moment of doubt.  But it passed, and she and the rest of the crew got into their cars and drove off.

Afterwards I could never remember if I actually took the picture off the wall, whether I had left behind a clean square of space or whether the picture hangs there still.  I just remember sliding the key into the lock and the next thing I remember is driving off down the midway.  The time that passed in between, whatever had transpired when I was alone in the booth, was forgotten, missing.  I pulled out of the resort and onto the main road, and I realized then that I didn’t know my way back.  We had all come down as a crew, and we were supposed to go back as a crew.  Only the head of the crew knew the way back and we were supposed to follow her.  But I had let them go, and they were long gone.  I had only the sun to navigate by.  It was low in the sky to the west, so I got onto the highway heading north.

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