By Darin L. Cozzens, ‘84
THE bowl, covered with a clean dishtowel, sat wedged between Mom and Dad on the front seat.
Fresh-popped. Buttered. Salted.
For twenty miles, the smell tormented us.
Just one handful?
Mom was adamant. “Everybody takes a handful, and pretty soon there’s none left for the show.”
Just one kernel?
Regarding us in the rearview mirror, Dad said, “You heard your mother.”
But there was slyness in his face. He should have known better than to challenge our ears. We could detect a soda pop-top from anywhere in the house, a candy wrapper at a hundred yards, the lid of an ice cream carton at a mile.
“Get out of there!” Mom said, tap-slapping his hand away from the bowl. “You wait like the rest.”
When we cleared Dairy Queen and hit the strip, a tourist town in summer unfolded before our eyes–hitching post hotels, restaurants with buffalo on the menu, a huge teepee stretched over PVC poles. Somewhere on that wide stretch of four-lane, the lights of the distant arena came into view (Nightly Rodeo Through Labor Day!), then the big signboard–West Drive-In–edged with a hundred blazing bulbs. Show time at dusk.
Dusk came late in June, backlit the mountain beyond the movie screen, fired grand acres of clouds from the horizon upward. On these, the longest evenings of our summer, bedtime was postponed.
At the turnoff we parted company with Airstreams and over-cab campers bound for Yellowstone. Always nervous about holding up a line, Dad rolled his window down forty yards early, dug hard for his wallet, and looked to Mom for prompting. We could smell the snack bar long before we got to the gate.
“Two adults and four children.” No charge for the baby.
“Enjoy the show.” Little did the ticket man know. We enjoyed the show and every thing leading to it. At lunch we had studied the movie-schedule flyer retrieved from a nail on the inside of Dad’s closet door, where it hung with a sheaf of receipts for seed, fertilizer, parts. We planned the afternoon’s work with warnings all around to quit in plenty of time.
For supper we ate cold roast and scrambled eggs and plotted the fastest tending of irrigation water. An extended bedtime wasn’t the only waiver the occasion called for.
“Just let the grass hayfield go for the night,” Dad said. “Leave that water right where it is. It won’t hurt anything.”
With the sun dropping, the edge finally off the day’s heat, we kicked off rubber boots and socks stuck full of brome seeds and showered to the sound of corn popping in the kitchen.
“Hurry,” Mom called to the whole house. “It’s a half hour to get there.”
Dad came from the muggy bathroom wet-combed and radiating Old Spice.
“Everybody ready?” he asked. His eyes fell on the bowl of popcorn. He inhaled appreciatively.
Mom wagged her finger, then countered with her own question: “Do you have enough money?”
“Lady, I’m loaded,” he said, patting his hip pocket, winking at us kids.
Despite the head-shaking, Mom couldn’t help smiling.
And on entering the cable-fenced world of mammoth screen and speaker posts, she even relaxed her frugality enough to allow a snack bar trip.
“Make mine large,” Dad said.
On the way back to the car, careful not to slosh Sprite, we could look across a strip of sagebrush and see the snapping heads of bronc riders under the lights of the arena. Somehow, among the long rows of cars, indistinct in the twilight, we always found ours. And finding it was always a mild relief: it was the one to which we belonged, the one where people waited for our return. Then, settled in at last for previews, with boxes of Junior Mints and Milk Duds, we grabbed handfuls of popcorn as fast as we could swallow them.
If family has a smell, for me it is the smell of buttered popcorn. If it has a taste, it is the taste of popcorn mixed with chocolate and Sprite. In the years after leaving home, I went to a lot of movies, almost all of them indoors. But I never passed a snack bar without thinking of the drive-in. And I could not think of the drive-in without thinking of family and its meaning to me.
Like buffalo, drive-ins are mostly gone now. No one sends me a schedule flyer. With tapes and VCRs we don’t have to wait five minutes or drive anywhere for the thrill of a movie.
But we still have popcorn–the kernels still oil-sizzled, exploded, buttered, salted–with a smell more permanent, more enduring than any I know. And when our own big bowl sits on the living room floor within the circle of my wife and children, where we all belong together, even a jumbo box of Junior Mints would be superfluous.
Darin Cozzens teaches English at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, Ariz. Readers may submit personal essays between 600 and 800 words long for After All.