The Sunset Drive-In looked harmless enough but worn out at best. Verging more on ugly, some thought. It’d been there so long, and in nineteen ninety-eight there was talk of tearing it down, building cookie-cutter townhouses or duplexes. But Mae Lynn would be the first to take a bulldozer or even an ax to it. Most citizens of Beauford had gotten used to it over the last thirty years, hardly giving it a second glance as they sped down Raymond Road toward Route 31. One movie a week played now from June through August. It wasn’t worth keeping open for that but once it was a huge draw for miles around, the only place to go on week-ends. Now, twenty miles away, there was a four theater movie complex in a much bigger town.
The Sunset was a matter of serious discussion when it first went up, many against it but just as many for it. Mae Lynn Jarrett remembered its beginnings very well. She operated the Tank and Tobacco Stop just a quarter-mile from its entrance. When it was approved, the kids and their parents would stock up on plenty of cheaper pop and snacks and sneak it into the drive-in until Mae Lynn got wise and raised her prices. But for the most part she was against it’s very existence.
“See that movie screen over there? It was doomed from the start, if you ask me.”
She pointed to the Sunset as if accusing a criminal and shook her head with creased lips pressed hard together. There was a For Sale sign at the entrance the last two weeks.
Strangers as well as Beauford residents stopped for gas and a pop or beer. Their gazes followed her costume-bejeweled index finger as the guzzled from sweaty bottles. They were willing to listen while benefiting from an industrial-sized fan. This afternoon two women and one man said they were coming from Nashville, on their way to California. They didn’t much like Missouri so far but Mae Lynn was a hoot.
“Old Man Harrison did that. He’d argue he’d none of it but the fact it, it was his land, and then it wasn’t so he must’ve agreed. His family had held that land for three generations but he said it wasn’t no good after the Four Year Drought. He never did try to plant corn on that piece again; the other acreage was kept in hope of better grazing acreage. It gets rented out now. But he was just getting worn out with it all, like lots of folks out here. So when the land development company–land crooks, we call ’em–offered Old Man Harrison a good bit for just ten acres–he bit good and hard. Never did tell a soul how much. Up and left for Florida.” She planted her hands on skinny hips. “Huh!” She laughed like she had a cough. “We ain’t seen or heard from him since. ” She rubbed her scarf-covered head. “Set for awhile, I guess.”
She paused to help another customer, a local who hurried out again, shaking his head in pity at the captive listeners. They winked at each other–best to just humor the lady.
“Anyway, there was this ugly cracker-box subdivision getting set up out here. So Old Man Harrison’s land was gonna have a strip mall, you know, a couple of good clothes stores for the ladies, a family shoe shop, a small restaurant with overpriced Italian food. Maybe a pharmacy, that woulda been good out here–first aid supplies, all the medicines, a quick birthday purchase of perfume, a rack with sports and news magazines. But no, they had a change of mind at the last minute. Just put in that thing, sold off the rest again and it stands empty. Don’t get it.”
She shook her finger at it, then her whole hand balled up. Mae Lynn caught herself just as a splotchy red crept across her cheeks. She released her fistful of anger to the air; the red receded.
“Plays good movies, though, I hope?” the short-haired blond asked, eyes blue as cornflowers smiling at the store clerk. The younger woman’s dress was about as tight as you could make it and still get into it. It was a soft mint green color, good with her coloration. Her older companion–a sister?– wore coral pants and a blousy white top.
Mae Lynn had from the start thought this gal looked as if she ought to be a model at least or even the film racket herself, and the very idea made her cross. She didn’t show it; her business didn’t thrive on bad manners. No, she smiled right back. They were passing through.
“Wouldn’t know. I don’t see them. When they first opened up I joined the herd to find out what all the fuss was. Uncomfortable as all get-out sitting in the cab of our truck next to my Joe and Howie. Having to adjust the speakers just right. Noticing other people doing things in the next cars that you don’t want to see. Howie, my boy, he always wanted a huge drink or more popcorn and it got spilled over the seat–it’d take days to find all the squashed kernels and wipe down sticky soda pop. Joe would fall asleep, anyway.”
She paused long enough to ring up another gas customer, Tate from the feed store with his delivery truck. She’d have liked to catch up with him but the three strangers were waiting. She bet the two gals were sisters, they shared that papery skin and those large eyes. The man might be their brother, older, none of their charm. He seemed at odds with himself, big and sort of floppy, like he hadn’t yet grown into himself, couldn’t hide it for all he tried with a nice shirt and pants. They were just curious. Looked okay, polite enough, a little rich for her blood but she wondered who they were, what they were off to California for, anyway.
So many still wanted to go as far west as possible, it seemed. It was discouraging. Not her. Mae Lynn had no desire to leave her store or town. She had never even left Missouri, a fact she emphasized when those passing through inquired.
“You been here long?” the big man asked as he eyed chips and beef jerky. The second woman put her hand through the crook of his arm, then closed her eyes while the fan’s wind rushed over her neck and back. Her hair–light but not white-blond like her sister’s–was in a pony tail that flipped up and around in the draft.
“Yes sir, born and raised in Beauford. A decent small town, top-notch farming land. Own the business with my husband, Joe. He’s in a wheelchair now. Got through the Viet Nam war, then got himself a stroke, go figure.”
“Sorry to hear it,” the man said and she nearly believed him. “Well, I never heard what the first movie was that you saw. I’m a movie buff, you might say, so I’m curious.”
Mae Lynn thought a minute; she’d no desire to recall it. But she’d humor him a nit more. “I tend to forget things that don’t deserve a second thought.”
“How long ago was that?” the man prompted. “Nineteen sixty? Nineteen sixty-five?”
“Sixty-nine, maybe?… It was one of those action features…Joe and Howie liked it….the guy was driving a fast car…oh, he was one homely man, hardly moved his face…”
“Steve McQueen? In Bullitt?”
She closed one eye and looked into the distance, trying to pull the movie it from the past. “That’s it, I think. Fancy, fast cars, Ford–”
“Mustang 390 GT! Charger 440 Magnum!” The first woman had spoken up; her perfectly manicured hand pumped the air hard once. “Yeah!”
The big man looked at her fondly while the sister rolled her eyes.
The trio was driving a spanking new Dodge Charger, an alarming red, so they should know. Mae Lynn also knew something about cars, though Joe was the professional mechanic. Or was. Howie had long ago learned the trade and always had more work than he could manage alone. They’d have to hire someone else soon unless Joe miraculously stood up and jumped right into all the work. Not likely after all this time. She winced at her attitude. Howie was a blessing to them even more in middle-age now.
“I’m Delilah Miner, by the way,” the Mustang enthusiast held out her hand, “and this is Marietta, my older sister, and my fiancé, Sam Harking. This has been very interesting”–she looked at the name tag on the woman’s large bust as she squeezed her hand gently–“Mae Lynn. But I’m more than a little wondering why you dislike the Sunset Drive-In so much.”
“I don’t know. It does bring us more business. The last twenty-five years have been good to my family…”
She turned toward the garage where she heard Joe and Howie loudly differing on mechanical problems and repair costs. How would those sleek young adults even know what such a drive-in meant back then? What it could do to people, a town? “Why do you say that, anyway–that I hate it?”
Delilah raised one feathery eyebrow. “Oh, I didn’t say you hated it. That’s a very strong word for a simple outdoor movie theater. Maybe you are…religious? I don’t meant to offend you.”
“Maybe we should move on, Sis.” Marietta placed her hand on the other woman’s arm and left it there, giving her a warning look.
“Yes, time to head out, honey,” Sam agreed, and picked beef jerky, lay two packages on the counter, then hurried over to the cooler to get another orange soda pop. “You ladies want anything more?” he added as he came back.
“We’re good. Come on, Delilah. Nice meeting you, Mae Lynn. You have a nice place.”
They went out to their fiery fine car, chatting with and letting Howie get in and check it out.
But Mae Lynn saw Delilah’s eyes widen with a hungry look, a big curiosity getting the better of her. She thought she might tell her more… if she got her own questions answered. Why not? They’d never see each other again. People came and went all the time that Mae Lynn wished she had talked to even more. But it was business, not a social occasion, Joe reminded her with irritation if she talked too loud or much. He didn’t like people taking up big amounts of time and space (unless it brought income) since he returned from the war; less so since he’d suffered the stroke at forty-nine.
She tried to be patient but the best things about her work were the new and interesting people. The rest of her labor was numbers, which were fine on their own, but they couldn’t hold a conversation worth a damn–and neither, God help them both, could Joe. She felt like she had actually been somewhere else after folks talked with her. Mae Lynn learned things. She found out about other states, the weather, their cities and differing ways. How other people felt about the day or night, how they managed. All she had to do was be herself and ask a few questions. She got skills out of it, like how to calm someone down if he felt he’d been gypped out of a couple dollars on gas or how to make someone smile if she was wrestling with a cranky child. With Joe, anything might happen, but often nothing much or very different, after all. Which could be good. Or could get on her last thin nerve. His silence was a deep reservoir that went dry long ago. Mae Lynn waited, still holding out for hope, and meanwhile chatted up customers.
Mae Lynn leaned on the counter and looked straight into Delilah’s quick, sly blue eyes. The cornflower color had changed to a swampy blue in a shadow cast by passing clouds.
“I’ll tell you what. You let me in on what’s in California and I’ll share why the Sunset Drive In drives me crazy as a buggered loon.”
Delilah’s laughter spilled into the room like silver spangles, her chin up, her open mouth showing off bright, expensive teeth. Then she leaned her elbows on the counter, too, her face a few inches from Mae Lynn’s. She joined in their conspiratorial exchange.
“Why, the movies, of course!” She felt Mae Lynn shrink back, saw her face go a shade paler, then tighten. But the woman had asked. “Sam is a young and brilliant up and coming producer. I’m a stage actress ready to try the big screen. Marietta is a talent agent–mine, but also others’. We thought it’d be a hoot to drive out to LA in Sam’s newest car, or at least for a few days. Marietta and I might catch a plane in Vegas, we’ll see. But we have our ducks in a row so we’re good to go. Sam also likes this locale for another project he’s in talks over.” She considered the soft featured, fine-lined face of the person before her. How still she had become. “So I naturally wondered about the drive-in… why you hold a grudge against it.”
Mae Lynn felt hot, too hot, and weak. She sat on her stool, pulled off her scarf and ran her fingers through grey and brown curls, letting the fan’s wind toss and turn them, cool her neck.
“Okay, I’m fine,” she said.
“You want water?” Delilah tentatively asked, baffled. “Look, we can just drop this.”
“Yes, water would help.”
Mae Lynn smoothed her forehead and retied her scarf, then took the bottled water and drank. She put it on the counter and pressed her steaming palms on the scratched greenish glass counter.
“Candace, it’s about her, you see. My daughter. She had such a thing about movies, said they changed everything, even maybe the world, she kept on and on about it. Drove Joe and me near up a tree, back down and around, kept us awake with worry. As if they were like some magic potion, they were so powerful to her, maybe even like a religious experience to her, because she stopped doing much of anything but reading about them, sneaking out to see them even when we made it clear: no more. It was so easy, the drive-in just a fast walk down the road, meeting up with friends and then we couldn’t find her in that crowd, so why even try? It was everything to her.”
Delilah felt confused, then a small horror crept up her chest and she fought it off. “But, wait, they’re just stories, that’s all, tales brought to a big screen rather than flimsy pages of books. They come alive with good acting, right costumes, great scenery–the movie projector gives it all to us–”
Mae Lynn slapped the counter top once. Silence, then her voice was so soft beneath the noise of cars and trucks whizzing by and the fan’s whir that Delilah had to lean close in. She could hear Sam laughing and it tugged at her. She wished she had not said one thing.
Mae Lynn seemed suspended in time a moment. Joe felt her and rolled his wheelchair around the bumper of a VW van and peered at the women, then rolled away. Let his wife be, she was good at managing whatever it was, she’d find him if need be.
“No. They take away, they don’t add one blasted useful thing. How many boys are drawn to battle by war movies? How many girls are drawn to some wild idea of love that’s just no good? How many people are given the wrong idea about life just because they get lost in a moment, that bigger-than-life hour or two that they think offers something more important than what they already have? Then nothing else can compare, can it? Nothing is as thrilling as that made up nonsense…and real life looks too damn hard. It is hard. It takes stubbornness and, oh, I don’t know.”
It was like she’d run out of steam. Mae Lynn sat back and held up her hands in surrender. She had nothing more to say to her.
Delilah felt her spine tingle all the way to her brain. This ordinary woman was amazing, such energy pulsed in every word, look, pause. She had seen the hunched, somber man in the wheelchair and guessed he was her husband, and the young man, her son, covered in grease, a good whistler, a shyness in his eyes when he glanced Delilah’s way. Her family leaned on her and they loved her.
But Mae Lynn hurt beneath the banter and the talk. She had been hurt badly and so had her family.
“She’s gone, isn’t she? How did she….pass?”
“What? No, no, Candace is alive…as far as I know as of last month she’s still kickin’!”
But Mae Lynn closed her eyes against the sizzle of pain in her heart, willed herself to sit still and strong. What did this awfully shiny Delilah know? What could she understand of her one and only gullible, lively daughter, of her forlorn husband, their smart-as-a-whip son now trapped here with them in their difficult need? And her good gas station business, how much it meant to her–to them–despite the other hard facts. Because of them.
“Oh! I thought she…you spoke of her as in the past. So it had to be the movies that made things happen, right? She felt dissatisfied and restless, they filled her up with such dreams and so Candace up and left the family, Beauford, all that you care for…is that it?”
Mae Lynn held her breath. She held her tongue. When her heart settled and began to hum again, she looked at the other woman. There was one tear trickling down her cheek. Was it a true tear? Perhaps. It touched her. Delilah wiped it away.
“Mae Lynn, I’m sorry we both had to go. That we fell in love with those damned movies and left our mothers, our families behind. But everyone needs to follow a dream!”
“Sure, I know.” Maybe she really didn’t know. This was her true life, this keeping things moving along. What mattered was her family. And this little business.
“If I meet anyone named Candace…”
“I’ll tell her you and I met. Help her if I can, I promise.”
“Sure, sure.” She smiled tiredly at Delilah. A lovely young woman, but there was work to be done.
Sam laid on the horn once. They were impatient to get to LA. Or first, Las Vegas. Somewhere even farther away.
“I have to go Mae Lynn but thanks for talking with me.”
“Thanks for telling me some of your story, Delilah.”
The young woman came behind the counter and suddenly threw her arms around her. She could smell the metallic sharpness of the garage, tang of sweat, ancient rich dirt, sweet hay. Her strength was like the earth’s and she wanted it to be in her some day, too.
Mae Lynn could feel Delilah’s fears flitting about like ghosts playing tag and she knew it wasn’t easy on her. Such deep hopes and her own private aches were taking root in blood and bones, as happened with all as time went on. She patted the-movie-star-in-the-making on her tender, bony back, then let go. Mae Lynn smiled into her limpid, vulnerable eyes and turned away.
The Charger fired up and squealed out of the station as a cranky old truck lumbered in. Mae Lynn stood up and straightened her blouse, tucked a stray grey curl back under the scarf, wagged her hand in a cheery greeting as she walked out to the pumps.