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Just a Fall
By Marcia Wilkie

Two months after I graduated from college with my degree in theater, I was held up at gunpoint. The guy only got 50 bucks, and it wasn't even my money. I was at work. There was no one to scream "help" to because I was the only employee in the store. Only one employee could fit in the store because it was a Fotomat, one of those freestanding film-developing booths with a drive-up window. This one was in a 7-Eleven parking lot in Kansas City, Missouri.

I guess I was an easy target. The guy drove up, pointed a gun, took the money and drove off.

I spent my working hours chain-smoking cigarettes and looking through the packs of developed photographs before the customers returned for them. It gave me a keen eye. Very few people pay attention to what's in the background when they take a picture. For example, here's a common mistake:

Someone would take a photo of a baby with a cute, mischievous look on his face pulling open a kitchen cabinet. But the photographer has not taken that extra moment to move the bottle of Clorox, the drain opener or the bug spray out of the shot. They could have hung a small wreath on the U-pipe under the sink and, presto! a Christmas card photo.

But, that takes an artist's touch. Right?

Until the robbery, my friends counted on my evening shifts in the photo booth as a kind of therapy session or a bar stool experience, depending on the point of view of the one visiting. They could always tell from blocks away if I was working. The booth was fluorescently lit and with my continuous cigarette smoke, it became a huge lava lamp, a beacon, welcoming all other misguided thespians that held a B.F.A in Acting.

Not one of us had left for New York City as we so boldly planned just months before in the broad kingdom of the student lounge, sprawled on vinyl couches, our ashtrays spilling over on the yellow laminated end tables.

Through posture alone, we asserted our statement as a group: "We're the theater majors, capable of all things unpredictable, daring, outrageous." At the tone, your eight semesters of delusional thinking will be up. Bllleeeeep.

In the graduation photos we stand, diplomas in hand, each face a look of complete terror. I can tell you why I was afraid. Because, to be honest, I knew that my college acting resume, which included my researched portrayal of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ("Three votes, Mr. McMurphy. Just three. Not sufficient to change ward policy") would be laughable outside of Kansas City, or even off-campus.

So I hid in the Fotomat, employed in the tiniest possible world I could find: four glass walls, arms-length apart, my timid terrarium.

My friends would drive up and idle at the little sliding window and we reaffirmed all of our weak-kneed reasons for not pursuing a life on stage. We would smoke and laugh at pictures of other people's lives because we had no idea what to do with our own. The only acting I did was when a customer would flip through their photos in the drive-thru and show me their favorite shot. I would have to act like I hadn't seen it already.

I wish the phrase "wasting your life" could be dropped from our vocabulary. The people who really do "waste their lives" obviously never think about it, and the rest of us who probably don't waste our lives spend hours concerned about whether or not we do. And in all the hours we spend feeling panicked about it, we are indeed "wasting our lives."

There were a couple of memorable things about being held up at gunpoint. One is that the guy was pretty good looking, except that he had a dead eye. It might have been a poorly fitted glass eye that didn't roll right, but I'm pretty sure that it was his real one, only dead. I may not have noticed the dead eye if he was just driving through to pick up his photos. But when he pulled out a gun and said, "Give me all the money in the drawer," his right eye had a very menacing "I mean business" intensity to it, whereas the left eye had a more lackadaisical "Oh, you know, when you get a chance" expression.

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