Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Blue Fuzzy Popcorn and the Terror of Fire Ants

Shit, my windows are dirty. They're so dirty that I don't want to open this one in front of me in fear of letting loose a newly hatched spider egg sac. Have you ever seen one of those things open up? It's like a horror movie from the 1950s only in miniature. It's like looking at the daleks from any season finale of Dr. Who. I remember one movie my parents should probably not have let me watch.

Those were the days when we'd load into the car at 5:30 in our pajamas with two Wonder bread bags filled with warm aromatic popcorn. I could never get my hands on either of those bags even though I sat in the middle between my brother and my sister, even though there was a wide blue arm rest that folded down so I could sit on it and gain a little height to see out the windshield. Keep-away was a serious business when Daddy pulled into the vacant drive-in and parked our car on the berm next to a speaker box mounted on a post.

Daddy always arrived before there were three other cars in the lot. That gave him a half an hour to get ready before the movie started. He spent all of that time shifting the car back and forth for the most natural view of the screen when he had slid down and his head was resting on the back of the bench seat. Sometimes, he pulled into another slot because he didn't like the crackly sound coming from the speaker box. They always sounded the same to me and, like listening to someone from England, I could usually decipher the meaning by the time the Dalmatians or princesses came onto the screen.

Daddy was in the habit of bringing a screw driver to the drive-in.

"Bob, I'm sure the management doesn't want you taking those things apart," Mother would say. Oh, in the time it took her to turn to my father and his business, I had a new bruise and the three popcorn kernels I'd managed to squeeze into my sweaty little palm had already been knocked onto the blue carpet whereupon, Jingles, the dog, had snapped up her unexpected treat. Jingles may not have been invited into the house for the sake of black fur that might foul the new green carpet, but her job of cleaning up detritus in the back seat of the Chrysler was undisputed. She was also the comforter when you were six and no one was letting you have any popcorn, so the popcorn I successfully squabbled over had a definitive taste of wooly dog.

"They won't mind if I fix the speaker," Daddy would say as he focused on the tangle of wires inside the speaker box.

"But what if they see you?"

"Damnit. This place is run by sixteen year old boys. They don't care what I'm doing." He was right. I don't ever remember anyone asking him to stop, though he wasn't a man you'd think of approaching when he had a screwdriver in his hand and that manic look on his face when it came to the noise that came out of those speaker boxes. Maybe they even knew him by then and figured if they switched each bad box into that fifth-row middle spot for places away from the sound of flushing toilets in the lobby, eventually Daddy would fix them all and they'd save some money.

I was going to tell you about that movie, wasn't I? I got distracted by the popcorn and the dog and Daddy spilling the guts of the speaker box on the floor before magically putting the whole thing back together just as the movie started.

For me, the beginning of any movie is still tainted with that anxiety that we would get into trouble, we would be asked to leave like my mother said, or that the drive-in would fill up completely and we would be stuck with the one remaining speaker box that didn't work because its only resistor had fallen out onto the floor and rolled under the seat. Sometimes I wondered if Daddy wasn't going to whip out a soldering iron to reattach it after he got out of the car and dug around until he found it.

The Wonder Bread bag of popcorn was usually down to the old maids by the time the dancing soda cups started singing, "Let's all go to the lobby, let's all go to the lobby...". Then, in a moment timed to the millisecond, just before Mother would pop a fuse and yank the popcorn away from my brother, he would oh-so-sweetly hand the flaccid bag over to me saying in a loud voice for everyone to hear, "Here you go. Why don't you have some popcorn?"

Mother would look on with pride as I sat in my elevated middle seat holding the Wonder Bread bag containing a handful of mostly old maids and a few blue-furry kernels that Jingles hadn't found, but my brother had carefully replaced for my dining pleasure.

And after the dancing soda cups, Disney took over and all was not lost. I loved when the princess would break the spell of the witches and she'd get her bag of popcorn and it was new and fresh and didn't have any kernels in it with blue fuzz attached.

But when that movie was finished, there was a long intermission for another round of that 'let's all go to the lobby' song, a cartoon or two and by the time the next movie started, all good children were supposed to be asleep in the back seat with little bits of popcorn still gripped in their sweaty hands.

I was not a good child.

I learned to act as if I were asleep so as not to be yelled at to go to sleep. Just when did yelling at a child to sleep ever truly lead to a kid falling to sleep? Never, but I still yell that phrase now and then and so did my parents. With three kids, they rarely got a night out and this was it and, damnit, no antsy child was going to interfere with that.

And then the next movie started.

Immediately, there was the scene during which a woman stood on a log and was devoured by fire ants crawling up her arm as she reached for the cameraman for help. Even if I closed my eyes, the music coming through that speaker box turned to maximum, only magnified my horror. I was too terrified of my parents to call out for comfort, but I was also too tired to stay awake to see that the ants were eventually killed at the end of the movie and a happy ending happened so we could all go home feeling safe.

No, I still think about those fire ants when I look at that fuzzy white ball just inside my screen. Did that thing move, just a little bit?

Thank you for listening, jules

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