Image: Painting by the LA-based artist, Kelly Reemtsen.
Jessica Bonder is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories in The Stockholm Review, The Lonely Crowd, STORGY Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, The Writing Disorder, and The Cabinet of Heed, among others. Her website is jessicabonder.com and you can tweet her @jessbonder.
A large man bearing a bouquet of Dum-Dums welcomes us to the Warwick Drive-In. He waves at the gate, steps up to our car, smiles a big smile like he’s been expecting us. His forearms are ham hocks; his T-shirt, face, red. Sunburnt and bleach-bearded, he’s Santa in July.
My son cranks the lever, counterclockwise and quick, rolls down the window, the heat flies in. Santa approaches, spare tire first, sidles up eager and asks want one? Thrusts it inside our car—his lollipop-packed fist—sudden as a spike on the glycemic index. Next my son’s face moons Santa’s sweaty pit, greasy as the spatter on a Domino’s box.
My son Jeremy, my son Jem is so happy. Tonight he’s getting candy, tonight it’s allowed. His eyes glitter like sparklers on the 4th. From the rainbow crowd of lollies, he plucks a watermelon.
And how’s about for Mom?
I shake my head no.
No Dum-Dum for Mom, thank you very much.
Over Santa’s left moob, STAFF is silk-screened in white, in a blocky font like the Hollywood sign. Santa, I’m thinking, he’s like a Walmart greeter; this must be his part-time job. His something to do, his reason to sober up, to put on pants and leave the house. The soup factory here closed ten years ago; Mama’s Italian Wedding’s stewed in Mexico now. I’m thinking Santa, he’s like all the other Santa’s, all across the country: involuntarily retired.
Santa asks what movie we’re seeing this evening.
Asks my son, I should say, not me.
Wonder Woman! cries Jeremy, loud, pumping his arms, pumping his legs. Thrusting in his seat just like a toddler would. Except my son is not a toddler. My son is 13.
My son Jeremy is special needs.
Santa recoils, shrinks from the car. His face makes a face like what’s wrong with your kid. By now it’s a classic, seen it a million times. I could recite the entire script off-book. My executive role as Jem’s mother is to deflect; for deflecting offenses, I could win an award. I’d walk down the red carpet in a long black dress. I’d thank myself and nobody else.
What screen are we then? I act all normal, like I didn’t just see what Santa just did.
Santa says screen three and motions with his bouquet. Up ahead you’ll pay, you’ll pay up front. Twenty bucks a car, cash only no checks. Concessions are available. Enjoy the show.
Santa leaves. Moves on to the next car.
Should I have said thank you? I’m thinking no.
My son unwraps his Dum-Dum, hands me the wrapper, balled wax paper a compact cloudlet. I roll it between my fingers, like a worry bead, pray a little, maybe, that tonight goes okay. That tonight we can make it past the previews. That it doesn’t go as badly as it did last time. When it was Batfleck in a theater, us confined with the public, Jem having a meltdown, you can only imagine.
So it’s Wonder Woman this time around, what Jeremy wanted so badly to see. I checked my shifts; I work as a nurse; I had off this Saturday; that is today. Not that I had plans, or ever do anymore. But it was my one. My one Saturday off a month.
Okay kiddo, we’ll go see it. Jeremy whooped, dispensed a high five, cartwheeled ecstatic across the grass. His therapy ball, his blue rubber planet, orbited the yard and my son chased it. I stepped inside the kitchen and ran a rag under the faucet. I held it to my eyes: they burned and they burned. Through a curtain-parted window, I watched my son be. Jem in his world. Sometimes it’s too much.
Jem shows me his work, the shrunken lollipop, glistening with spit. He is so proud. I remind him don’t bite, and I tap on my teeth, to demonstrate with an action: careful. My son nods and puts the lolly back in. Its stick, poking out, is white and soggy. His drawn lips are the knot of a tied pink balloon.
Jem’s chipped his teeth on hard candy before.
I roll down my window, get my cash ready. Twenty bucks for two people, that ain’t so bad. Anyway we’ll save money because we brought our own snacks: Ziplocs of grapes, pretzel rods, juice boxes. Plus we filled up the tank back where there’s no tax, across the border in Jersey, where we drove in from. All things considered, the drive-in was cheapest.
Trust me on this one. I Googled like a mother.
We left super early to leave extra time. We knew where we were going but we didn’t know where. Once we got off the highway, it was one country road, one narrow artery winding through Nowheresville. At multiple points, I feared we were lost; nothing to distinguish one deciduous from another. Then came the tailgaters, aggressive as could be, eating our bumper, flipping the bird. We had Garden State plates, we were doing the speed limit, 25 mph (apparently) just a suggestion. The lines were double solid so the gaters couldn’t pass. They mocked us with high beams. Flick flick flick.
Dread called shotgun, buckled itself in. I was white-knuckle cold and flushed-face hot, thighs stuck to the seat like melted popsicles. There was no shoulder, not even a sliver, no safe space of asphalt for me to pull over. I panicked for Jem. I panicked for me.
WHERE THE FUDGE WAS IT, THE FUDGING DRIVE-IN?
Sweet relief came in the form of a landmark, a miraculous vision of almost-there. A where-to-turn tip someone posted on Yelp: a corner-lot pub with a moose head on it. The pub looked a cabin on a maple syrup bottle, a Lincoln Log chalet, stone chimney up top. Motorcycles out front, a backlit marquee, touting 2-4-1 specials and live music weekends (tonight a Doors tribute: SAT NITE: LIGHT MY FIRE). Per my chicken scratch, the loose leaf on my lap: after u pass pub, make next R. So that’s what we did, we made the next R. Half mile down the road, and there was the drive-in. Four grateful Goodyears hugged gravel, turned in.
A boy got a free Dum-Dum. A boy was actually fine.
A mother was not fine. A mother could barely breathe.
Next car behind us—where Santa just went—is a black pickup truck, a shiny Dodge Ram. Sable and rumbling like a grizzly in spring, post-hibernation hungry, starved to the bones. Wheels twice big as ours, exalting it high and mighty; an unfurling rope ladder, of the pirate ship variety, is how I’d wager you’d manage to climb in. A silver ram icon mounts the front grill, bucks on hind quarters, thrusts curled horns. A frame of steel thorns embeds the license plate. Mud-flap women, big-busted silhouettes.
There’s a man at the wheel of the black rumbling Ram. He’s a cap and a beard, sideburns and moustache. He’s no co-pilot; he’s flying solo; he’s a man in a truck navigating the world. Solo’s leathery arm hangs loose out the window, a cindering loosey hangs loose out his hand. He yucks it up with Santa, they must know each other. How’s about them Steelers, got that new coach for fall. What passes for badinage in these parts.
Go on back now, go on back and see the kids, says Solo to Santa, tipping his hat.
Santa slaps Solo’s door, all friendly-like, goes on back now and sees the kids.
A squealing mixed litter of dogs and children, is in back of the Ram, crawling over each other. No seatbelts or crates for this precious cargo, flatbed-tossed like bags of fertilizer. A Dum-Dum salute riles up the pack, the candy bunch raised like an Olympic torch. Pigtails and dog tails, hair and fur flying, the Ram rocking back-and-forth with their galvanized bodies. The kids fight over flavors, grubby fists grabbing, strawberry grape root beer cream soda lime. Santa’s nearly toppled over—Whoa there kids whoa!—he grabs the fender and rights himself.
Meanwhile, on this side of normal, a watermelon Dum-Dum falls out a boy’s mouth. The barks and screeches are just too much. An avalanche of stimulation through our down windows.
The boy cups his ears and moans, cups his ears and moans, the intrusion of noise is a certain unforgiveness. Drops his lolly into the abyss between seats, the dark wretched cavity a mother’s hand can’t reach. The boy cups his ears and moans, cups his ears and moans. A mother thinks fast, as she must, in a list:
- Roll up windows.
- Get Jem’s headset.
- Forget the whole thing, turn around and go home.
I unbuckle my seatbelt, throw my body across, my arm outstretched like a pull of taffy. The stick shift in P jabs at my stomach; my torso twists like a flustered windsock. I roll up Jem’s window, squash his squirming body, say sorry Jem sorry, Mommy needs to reach it.
That’s what love is: small feats of strength.
I sit back up. Roll my own closed. Notice something.
The line is moving.
The chain of red tail lights is breaking in succession, feet easing off pedals, anxious autos advancing. A gap is slowly forming, between us and the car ahead, growing wider and wider. Growing obvious. Now a car’s length…now almost two…There’s people behind us, maybe twenty thirty cars, the pressure is building, the pressure for us to move. The threat of a gap, any visible gap at all, and normies rush to close it. Sublimate difference.
Except Jem is still upset. And I’m tired of being bullied. These people can wait. These people can fucking wait. Welcome to America. America is a line. For once in my life, I’m putting us first.
So Jem’s headset, right, where did we put it. We did bring it with us—didn’t we?
Quick look round the front—it’s not in the front.
Quick look round the back—it’s not in the back.
Nothing backseat but our insulated tote, our excessive stack of napkins, all pointless now.
Then it occurs to me.
Hold up. Wait.
Could Jem’s headset be in the trunk?
I turn off the engine, keys out the ignition, check if Jem’s still buckled in. (Yes.) I leap out the car like some brave or stupid animal, some nutty squirrel attempting a four-lane highway. At the sight of me, like a target in the crosshairs, Solo pounds his horn. HONK! Then the driver behind him, like they’re a tag-team, ganging up on some woman they don’t even know. HONK! Then everybody dogpiling, honking all on down the line, a riot of blares punctuated by shouts: Move it, lady, move it! Get back in your car! Quit holding up the line! DRIVE!
Ignore it, ignore it, just get what you need.
Problem is I can’t.
There is no space left.
What Mr. Solo has gone on and done (in the interim of me helping my son) is ram his Ram as close as he could ram it. An inch of air, tops, now separates our vehicles; a sneeze worth between us; possibly a shrug. Rammed it so close as to assert the line’s rule, to enforce his privilege, his entitlement. Whatever space there was left for a mother, space for her arms, space for her legs, space for her to open her own goddamn trunk, whatever space there was left—is motherfucking gone.
Don’t tell me what I logically know.
Don’t tell me to just pull forward.
An asshole is an asshole is an asshole is an asshole.
And asshole needs to back the fuck up.
Excuse me, sir. Could you please move your truck?
I address the asshole (Solo) with hands on my hips, like pay attention buddy, you’re going to listen. I get no response, can’t tell if he heard, so I step closer, get up in his grill. Crane my neck upward, say it louder, then louder. Say it exactly like I think a man would.
YO BUDDY! MOVE YOUR FUCKING TRUCK!
Asshole honks. Right in my face.
There is hair in my mouth.
I spit it out.
Santa comes over, from wherever he went, ambling easy peasy like nothing urgent here. Appraises the scene casually, like what have we got tonight, typical frantic mom, okey dokey folks. Raises his hand to silence the honks, like he’s a sea-parting Moses, addressing the throng. A man raising his hand is a recognized power. Just like that, everybody stops.
Santa rummages in his fanny pack, he is looking for something. In the car I can hear him, can hear my son crying. The car is turned off, the windows are up, and in the heat of summer—I forgot the A/C! I run back, horrified. What a monster I am! What a failure of a mother! Will I ever get it right???
I blast the A/C, pull the car out of line, carve arcs in the gravel, turn around to go home.
In the rearview, Santa is running. He’s yelling and huffing and waving something in the air. I stop at the STOP sign like I’m supposed to. The only ones at the exit, like we always are. Always heading out when everyone else is heading in.
Santa comes up to my window. I roll it down.
I say what is it, what is it now.
He holds it up to me, the world’s tiniest concession. He says how’s about another, another Dum-Dum for the road?