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Summer Shorts 

Short Stories: Seven Days drive-in movie theater story contest winners

Published June 23, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Drive-in movie theaters may be going the way of gasoline under $2 per gallon, but opening day at those still standing is a sure sign summer's here. The idea of watching movies from cars under the stars also evokes all sorts of other associations. We invited the writers among our readers to reel out their own drive-in stories in 400 words or less. Many thanks to everyone who took us up on our offer. We're sharing with you with the seven best. Pass the popcorn.



Look, she had said, love is about maturity, about growing, and he thought, okay, that was something they fucking-A-well knew something about. They had grown tired of stealing comics from the drugstore, hadn't they? And then tired of stealing cigarettes from the carton his father kept in the oak desk in the den, and then they had grown tired of stealing beer out of garages in the neighborhood. Well, she had grown tired of stealing beer. Lately there was a book always sticking up out of the ass pocket of her jeans: Franny and Zooey, A Coney Island of something something, the pocket cut off the rest of the title. In response he had stopped shaving his upper lip.

Look, she had said, Alan asked me to go to the movies, and I'm going. I'm sorry if that hurts your feelings. Anyway, Jesus, it's only a movie.

What are you seeing? he had asked, and spat an arcing jet of saliva between his front teeth.

Oliver. You're sulking. I hate it when you sulk. It reminds me of my dad.

Is Alan driving you himself? he had asked hopelessly.

Later he implored his mother to take him to the Ardmore. She couldn't understand why he wanted to go to a drive-in theater on a Saturday afternoon in July.

To see about a job, he said.

Get in the car. I'll be five minutes, his mother said.

She had her date with Alan. From his new post in the snack bar he had seen them arrive in a blue Valiant and made a point of noting the row they parked in, and on his early break he had spied on them a little. They were sitting awkwardly, far apart, and before the movie was even half over his heart was light and he didn't check on them again. His late break was spent exploring the projection house.

He worked at the Ardmore the rest of that summer and the next two, and then left town to study film at USC. The autumn after graduation he received the invitation to her wedding. He was happy to accept and she was thrilled he was coming all the way from L.A. How lovely, how grateful she would look as she turned to face the congregation, Alan smiling beside her, the trembling bouquet of white and yellow roses cascading like popcorn from her hands.




About halfway between Glen Godfrey and Glen Galagaskin, there used to be a single-screen drive-in movie theater called the Belleview. The screen was erected at an angle whereby those driving south along Route 8 could glimpse the current feature for several seconds as they passed. I never attended the drive-in, but occasionally I'd catch a snippet of something as I drove by and wonder if they'd placed the screen like that hoping to lure customers.

Debbie and I were three months into our marriage the night we came home late from a dinner party. We crested a small rise in the road and there, in front of us, on the Belleview's huge screen was a woman performing an astonishing feat of fellatio on what I can only describe as an anatomical absurdity of a man. Without a word, Debbie pulled onto the shoulder, hit the lights and cut the engine. Both of us buzzing from too much wine, we sat watching while choirs of roadside crickets supplied a bizarre soundtrack.

We were not a pornography-watching couple, so there was no precedent for what we were doing. The experience was outside the language of our relationship and discussion would have been uncomfortable.

Just as the woman was contorting herself into a position I wouldn't have imagined possible, and the man, clearly undaunted, was making ready to assume a new series of machinations in her midst -- a tap on my window scared the hell out of me.

It wasn't a cop, It was just some guy in jeans and a T-shirt who'd emerged from the darkness. He shined a flashlight at us. I opened my window a crack.

"You have to pay to watch," he said.

"You have to pay to watch," I said, looking at Debbie.

"You have to pay to watch," she repeated back to me.

I didn't apologize to the man. Saying "sorry" would have been admitting that my new bride and I were parked on the side of the road at 1:30 in the morning, stealing porn. We were newlyweds. We weren't ready for that kind of commitment.

As we pulled onto the road, I sneaked a final glance at the screen. The man and the woman had succumbed to paroxysms of ecstasy and appeared to be speaking in tongues.




Honestly, I think they should be called Drive-Inns.

But I'm not from this country, so what do I know. Few people own cars where I come from, and few can afford to see a moving picture in a theater.

Here in the United States of America, however, people drive their cars to see a movie but don't even watch it. Instead, they do what the rest of the world does at home in bed. You also watch television and movies in the very place where you should be having sex. You are driving me out of my mind, especially you idiots who won't take the stairs up to your offices or homes but will pay to climb a Stairmaster after work.

If I made a movie about your culture, nobody in my homeland would believe it. In fact, if I told them they had to watch the movie from a car, they would call me a lunatic. And then if I suggested that they make love in the middle of the movie in the backseat of the car, they would send me to the madhouse. But that's where I am anyway -- trying to figure out which way is up or down, in or out. America drives me crazy.




"Turn here," Steve said from the back seat. "The drive-in."

"No shit?" I said.

"No shit."

I pointed the car through the open gate of the Rose Bowl theater, rolled past the unmanned ticket booth. I checked on Steve in the rear-view mirror. His heavy frame was pressed to the door. He looked absently out the window.

It was all thick weeds and dust. Lean speaker stands stood erect, fanned before the giant screen like rows of worshippers facing Mecca. The screen was covered with graffiti and ripped sporadically with long, diagonal stripes, like a sail after a bad storm. I had not been here since I was an antsy teenager, sweating with some lithe girl on some hot summer night. Popcorn, soda and endangered innocence -- the whole bit.

"This place sure has gone to pot," Parker said. He poked his head through the passenger window. "Somebody ought to buy this land and do something cool with it. Like build a bowling alley. Or, hell, I don't know, a drive-in theater."

Steve chuckled disdainfully and shook his head. "There's a reason this one closed. Nobody left to come to it. No reason a new one'd do any better."

"Yeah," I said. "No use trying."

I parked in front of the screen. Parker immediately bolted from the car and jumped on the rotting wood stage, like an excitable dog eager to explore a new place. Steve climbed deliberately up the stairs and sat on the front, dangling his pink, hairless legs over the edge. I leaned on the car.

A hot, clear Wednesday afternoon, time to be working somewhere, yet here we were. I pulled three beers from the cooler in the back. Tossed one up to Steve. Parker made like a wide receiver racing down the sideline. I hit him in stride, but he dropped it. "Shit, shit, shit," he said, chasing the can as it rolled across the stage.

Steve and I laughed. "Ever think about moving?" I said. "Going somewhere things are better?"

Parker ran back toward us with the beer raised triumphantly in his hand. "Watch this," he said, tipping back his head and popping open the can. Beer erupted into his face in a foamy wave and knocked him dramatically to the stage. He spread his arms wide and played dead. We laughed again.

"Nope," Steve said.




A simmering licorice night. Cicada in crazy hum. Dad closes his newspaper. Mom scrapes macaroni and cheese. Kenny and I crawl into poplin pajamas; our skin sweat-sweet from labors of tree-fort building. We've given up on our airplane project: three pieces of raw and fragrant plywood nailed together and heavily punctuated by an orphaned carburetor. Its bulk is asleep in the basement. Kenny and I are not quite ready to abandon our parents for adventures abroad.

Currently, we have chosen to embark upon our very own home in a backyard oak. We plank a branch with pieces of discarded cardboard from a newly installed Amana somewhere down the block. Our sustenance of choice: grape ice-pops and Hostess cupcakes. Kenny licks the frosting. I get the white goo. The cake we roll into turd shapes between our palms.

I fall hard from the oak. Flat on my 7-year-old nose. Gouts of blood follow. Kenny runs to get a roll of toilet paper. He's only 5, but as smart as I am.

Later, mosquitoes fill the car. Dad adjusts the speaker. Puts his arm around Mom in the front seat. Kenny and I have a popcorn fight. Giggle like idiots.

My father's hand crashes into my face. Twice. He says I should know better than to drag my brother up so high into that tree. He tells me if I had half a brain I'd be dangerous.

Calm felt between exquisite pain and reason.

So, I quietly unlock the door of the Impala and squeeze my pajama-self out. Stars are grains of salt. The ground gravel beneath my bare feet. The faces on the screen huge, looming. Kenny stays behind. I really didn't think he'd follow me.




I was running hard on the gravel, masticating the distance behind me until I ran evenly with the space between the cars of the train. Allegro was behind me, although I was running too fast to turn around and see. He yelled something like, "It's now or never, Homey!"

I jumped. The spaces on the end of the cars were a small flat patterned metal surrounded by rusty railings. I made the jump, scrambled over the rail and fell onto the platform. My new home. I got up to watch Allegro do the same thing on the platform of the car across the coupling. He smiled crazy wide, got up to come across the coupling, over to my side. I held out my hand to help him.

"It's time to celebrate," he said, and pulled a thick joint from his jacket pocket. "I've been saving this one, my friend," he said as he crouched down to get it lit.

To the right, the town we were passing glowed dimly on the horizon. Lit windows speckled buildings. Streetlights marked gridded streets. There was a drive-in movie screen aglow, defining the western edge of the town, the edge we were passing. The screen blinked as trees erratically blocked the view. I saw a huge Julia Roberts. Pretty tall woman.

I couldn't see it, but I knew there were people watching her. People who had real lives do things like that; go to the drive-in. Families with roots and plans and values. Young people with hopes of love fluttering in their hearts. People who are somewhere, who have solid senses of things. With the smooth motion of the train it all seemed to be sliding past me, rather than the other way around.

Allegro stood up, inhaled furiously on the joint, smiled wide, and handed it to me.

Allegro and me, I thought, we were a different story. We were here, on this train, but really, we were nowhere. Our lives were still hypothetical, our paths undetermined, our reasons unexplained. It was not now or never, like he had said, but a perfect combination of both. Limbo.

I inhaled broadly on the joint, holding it in as far and as deeply as I could.

This was a good ride I thought, but it was going to be cold that night, damn cold. I had lost my jacket days ago.




I manage to sleep two-and-a-half to three hours most nights. If there's a double-double feature, I can even manage about six to seven hours, because I always fall asleep after the first movie. Ever since I was a kid, I've needed the flicker of a screen to fall asleep by. The quick flashes of light and dark as scenes change, as the settings move from interior to exterior, day to night, they are a lullaby; a celluloid cradle that rocks me to sleep.

Prosper comes up to my apartment to watch the movies with me. Sometimes I wonder if it's the screen he's watching or the unfolding stories of the people and cars parked below at the Midnight Sun Drive-In. Of course, we're so close that we could tune the radio to pick up the audio, but I've been doing this so long that I can lip-read and, besides, the sound wouldn't do Prosper any good. He can't hear and I haven't spoken to anyone since I was 7 years old, so we're perfect for each other.

On screen, Ben Kingsley has just said to Kathleen Turner, "Regret is the only true failure." I turn to Prosper and want to tell him why I haven't said a word in 22 years. He turns to me, not as if he wants to say something, but as if he knew that I had something to say.

"I can only sleep when the movies are playing." I say it out loud. He can't hear it, but he can read lips as well as I can.

He nods.

I look away before I start to cry. I haven't cried in 22 years, either.

Prosper leans over and offers me a piece of cherry Red Vine licorice. I take it without looking at him. He puts his hand on my shoulder and I wince from the pressure and warmth of another body touching mine.

"Don't," I say and slide my body to the edge of my chair as far as I can while still being able to balance myself without falling.

Prosper stands up, folds his chair and says, "I'm sorry" with half-closed eyes. He tucks the chair under his arm and goes back down to his apartment.

Alone in my empty bedroom, with only my chair and soft, warm piece of licorice, I fall asleep while Kathleen Turner cries.


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