After almost a year, we pined to burst free from our pandemic cocoons without ending up on ventilators. Then an email arrived inviting us to a pop-up drive-in movie: The Greatest Showman. Four years ago, when the film was released, we thought the concept of a P. T. Barnum musical biopic was hokey. But now we were counting the days until we’d park in the wilderness under the stars and watch the circus come to town.
In preparation for our first real date in almost a year, I spent a half-hour applying makeup and shaved my legs for the first time since Christmas. My husband had trimmed his Rip Van Winkle beard and dyed it a lovely shade of fawn brown.
“You look terrific!” I said.
“So do you,” he said, “I like that glitter around your eyes.”
“And I like that shirt. You look good in buttons. Where’d you get that shirt?”
“You bought it for me. Back in June-vember.”
The event was sponsored by our local credit union. I thought they only loved us for our mortgage payments, but, apparently, they cared about our emotional well-being by offering us this break from pandemic boredom at only thirty dollars a car. We could have stayed home and streamed that same movie for four bucks, but this was something different. And admission included a free goody bag.
I’ve always been passionate about mystery packages: Office party grab bags, secret Santas, boxes left on my doorstep by Amazon Prime. I hoped the goody bag would recreate my fond teenage memories of drive-in movies. Perhaps I’d find corn dogs, Good Humor ice cream bars, mosquito repellent, and a condom.
“I doubt that,” said my husband. “The corn dog would melt the ice cream.”
“And they told us to bring our own food.”
He was right again.
As we drove along an unfamiliar, winding mountain road, the aroma of junk-food chicken wafting from its carry-out bag, I was stoked. I’d packed all necessities in the back seat: A blanket, flashlight, toilet paper, hand sanitizer wipes, and an AM/FM radio freshly ordered from Amazon Prime.
We finally reached a glowing pop-up marquee. We turned right and were greeted by a cheerful, masked middle-aged woman who scanned our ticket and gave us our goody bag. As we drove up the hill, I felt an electric surge of anticipation. In a moment, that big-ass screen would be looming over us! But when we reached the lot, all we saw was a tiny, distant white rectangle: the Tom Thumb of movie screens, only one-eighth the size of a fully grown screen.
A teenage boy with a gleaming red light-saber was directing cars. He must have seen the disappointment on our faces because he said, “Go ahead and drive to the front row,” which per the laws of perspective would have rendered the screen slightly larger, but then a group of boys stopped us, waving their light-sabers ferociously, and directed us to park in the last row behind a humongous SUV. We sucked it up and followed their instructions. After all, we were in a pandemic and liked to think of ourselves as good citizens and not Norse mask-hole war gods.
There was only one problem: Ninety percent of the screen had disappeared from our view. All that remained was a narrow strip of white peeking above the SUV’s roof. I yearned for the drive-in movies of my youth, where screens loomed over us like Godzillas. So, when the light-saber boys were distracted by other vehicles, we quickly backed up our little Scion toaster and repositioned it several feet to the left of the SUV. Now we could at least see the screen in the aisle between cars.
By the way, one of the first movies I saw at the drive-in was Pollyanna, in which young Haley Mills finds the bright side in any negative situation. I thought, It’s good the screen is small and distant. It fits so snugly in the aisle between cars. It’s also good that it’s soft and inflated, providing an abstract pre-show to reduce our boredom. When the wind rippled across its surface, it was a sail. When a gust hit it from the front, I imagined a pillow where a weary ghost rested its head. And if a stronger gust picked it up and crashed it into several cars, it would make an even better story, or perhaps lawsuit.
“You know, if we don’t like the movie, we can always leave,” my husband said.
“Maybe not. Look behind you,” I said, as a light-saber boy led a Jeep Gladiator pickup to park directly behind us, practically kissing our bumper.
“Fuck, now we’re trapped like circus animals,” said my husband.
The wind finally died down, and the screen was starting to look like a fluffy white marshmallow, making me hungry. “It’s starting to get dark. We better eat,” I said.
We groped through our fast food bags in the last vestiges of magic hour. My husband fished out his sandwich and fries. I located my chicken strips, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw but could not find anything that felt like a plastic fork. I was hoping to be poked by prongs, but no luck.
“Aren’t they supposed to give you forks?” I said.
“That doesn’t mean they do.”
I dug around the glove compartment and found two straws, hoping to use them as chopsticks, but I kept dropping coleslaw down my shirt. Then I tried shoveling the slaw in my mouth with one straw, but that was even worse. So, I gave up and grabbed a glob of slaw with my fingers.
Meanwhile, my husband was happily and gracefully munching away at his sandwich and fries. “Excuse me for asking,” he said politely, “but are you eating that coleslaw with your fingers?”
“Shut up and find me a napkin,” I said.
Fortunately, my emergency chopstick trick worked better with the mashed potatoes. It was now time for my traditional, ritualistic, pre-movie preemptive pee. Even though I didn’t have to go, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have to get up later.
“It’s pee time!” I announced.
Outside, the air was brisk. Thick clouds obscured all the stars I hoped to see on this remote plateau. I meandered through the jumbled array of cars toward several portable toilets, carrying my flashlight and wad of toilet paper, expecting the worst. I pinched the facemask over my nose and held my breath.
But when I opened the door, I was hit by a blinding flash of heavenly light. Suddenly, I was stepping inside the cleanest, sweetest smelling porta-potty I had seen in my six decades on planet earth. A real flushing system rather than a horrifying poop-infested pit, a sink with running water, jasmine-scented soap, hand towels, and ten-ply organic toilet paper. It seemed oddly larger inside than it had appeared from the outside, and at that moment, when my cheeks hit the stainless steel seat, it seemed as if the pandemic never happened and that all the problems of the first, second, and third worlds had disappeared. I would’ve sat on this five-star toilet longer, but the movie was about to begin.
Once outside the porta-potty, I saw an image projected on the tiny pillow screen. An expanse of cobalt blue sky interspersed with, what were those? Drones? Alien Spaceships prepared to wage war with planet earth? Nope, even worse. We were watching out-of-focus icons, files, and folders. It looked like a trailer for Laptop Screen: The Movie. A cartoon or ad for concession treats would have been more appropriate, but at least this was a sign that the show was about to begin. And the glowing screen helped lead me through the maze of jumbled cars and back to our Scion toaster.
We sat in the car and waited. Soon it was 7:40. The film was supposed to start ten minutes ago. The desktop had changed several times to various troubleshooting documents, some with large red Xs and lots of drop-down menus.
“At least, at home, our computer screens are in focus,” my husband said.
“Maybe they should try rebooting,” I said.
And as if on cue, the screen went dark. Then, a few seconds later, back on again. But still terribly, head-achingly, out of focus.
Soon it was 7:50. Behind us, several children in pajamas lay in the pickup’s flatbed, heads propped up on pillows, eagerly waiting for the show to begin. I hoped it would, for everyone’s sake.
“How much did we pay for this again?” my husband asked.
“Ah yes!” said my husband, pausing for effect. “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Suckers, eh? I could go for a lollipop right now. Then I remembered. The goody bag! I’d forgotten all about it. Now we had something to occupy ourselves while waiting for the movie magic to begin. Daring fate and the wrath of our fellow theater-goers, we turned on our dome lights and peered inside: Two bottled waters! A mini-flashlight! Two half-ounce bags of a puffed corn snack called Pirate’s Booty. And finally, a keychain and lapel pin with our credit union’s avatar so we could display brand loyalty to our mortgage holder.
It was now 8 pm. In the distance, a group of light-saber boys hovered en masse over a laptop, none with the intestinal fortitude to yell out, “Is there an IT person in the house?” Panicked, we turned on our new AM/FM radio to the required frequency, expecting an announcement, something like, “Sorry folks, we’ll have this fixed in just a few minutes,” but all we heard was static. I began to hyperventilate. How long would we be here, staring at an out-of-focus laptop, in this dark parking lot where we could only, per stern instructions in the email, leave our cars to visit the porta-potties? How long could two bottled waters and two half-ounce bags of Pirate’s Booty sustain us?
I squeezed my husband’s thigh and said, “I feel more trapped now than I ever did, at any time, throughout this entire pandemic.”
“Don’t worry, hon. It’ll be over soon,” he said.
“And what makes you so sure?”
“Because nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing.”
He was right. A few minutes later, the light-saber boys were circulating through the parking lot, knocking on windows. A couple of engines began to fire. I heard a woman say, “You’ll all get your money refunded.” A chorus of other engines joined in. The sweet scent of exhaust swept into our open windows. And when the adults in the Jeep behind us roused their kids from slumber and packed them back inside the car, I knew that in a few minutes, we’d be free.
Once back home, we stood outside and gazed at the stars. The cloud cover had lifted, and they sparkled more intensely than ever. And when we walked inside our home again, I thought, what a big, big house. What a big, big TV screen. Thank you, oh great credit union, for lending us the money to live where we have all the space, food, drink, cutlery, and entertainment we need. And of course, for reversing that thirty-dollar charge on our Mastercard.
Although, I have to say, in comparison, our bathroom seemed quite tacky.
About the Author
Laurel DiGangi has had fiction and creative nonfiction published in The Chicago Reader, Denver Quarterly, Fourth Genre, SLAB, Asylum, Atlanta Quarterly, Cottonwood, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. A former graphic designer, illustrator, entertainment journalist, and film critic, she now teaches all sorts of writing at Woodbury University in Burbank, California. Fun fact: She once retrieved Johnny Depp’s cigarette butt from an ashtray after an interview and sold it on eBay for $200.