Popcorn and Milk Dudds

By Marie LeClaire

For the life of her, Bev couldn’t figure out why the 40th anniversary of the Wood’s Edge Drive-In was important enough to risk his health, but Bill insisted he had to go. Rather than exhaust them both by quarreling, she yielded. After all, his time was running out.

Bill had chosen an old baseball hat over his usual knit wool cap. It kept slipping off as she fluffed and padded him into the passenger seat. She buckled them both in and headed out for the three-hour drive. In his condition, it didn’t take him long to fall asleep.

It was early evening when they crossed the line into his home town of Masonville. A mile beyond that, a large neon sign announced the drive-in’s entrance. After a quick left, she pulled up to the ticket booth.

“Good evening and welcome to the 40th anniversary show,” the booth attendant droned.

Bev handed over a $10 bill. “Yes, thank you.”

“Is he going to be okay?” the attendant asked. Bill was slumped onto the side window, his baseball hat teetering on the side of his head.

“Yes. He came here a lot when he was younger and insisted on being here tonight.”

“Yeah, we’re getting a lot of old people for the anniversary. No offense.”

“None taken.” Bev offered a weak smile. “Your choice of film isn’t helping bring in the young ones, either. Anchor’s Away? Really?”

“Yeah, right?” she smiled. “It’s the same movie they showed when the place opened in 1945. Be sure to stop at the concessions building for snacks before we turn the lights down. Enjoy.” The woman handed Bev her tickets and waved her through.

Bev pulled into the parking area where speaker posts punctuated the pavement. Thick woods surrounded it on all sides. She maneuvered the brand-new Oldsmobile, another concession to Bill’s illness, into a space at roughly the midpoint of the lot. The car was an extravagance but she didn’t care. She wanted Bill to have whatever made him happy.

“Hey, honey. We’re here.” She nudged him gently. “You have to move so I can hang the speaker on the window.”

Bill pushed himself up off the passenger door, groggy but awake.

“Oh, we’re here.” He looked around. “Wonderful.”

She detected an odd sense of relief in his voice as he sat up a little straighter.

“Yes. We just pulled in. Let me set this up, then I’ll get us something from the snack bar. What would you like?”

“Milk Duds and popcorn.”

“Okay,” she laughed. “Milk Duds and popcorn, it is.”

“Thanks, Bev. I love you.”

“You’d better,” she teased.

An hour into the movie, Bev was happy to see Bill surprisingly alert and smiling at the old-time antics.

“Bevie, can I bother you for something from the snack bar again?”

“Sure, pumpkin. What do you want?”

“Some hot chocolate. I don’t know how they make it here, but it’s the best anywhere. At least it used to be.”

“Sure thing.”

The counter clerk recognized her. He was an older gentleman, about their age, and, judging by the flow of his movements, quite comfortable behind the counter.

“More Milk Duds?”

“No, some hot chocolate please. Two.”

“No problem. It gets a little chilly when the sun goes down.”

“You look like you’ve been here a while.”

“Almost since the beginning.”

“I’ll bet you have a lot of stories to tell.”

He raised his eyebrows. A grin stretched the corners of his lips.  “You have no idea.”

“Any ghost stories?” Bev had a compelling curiosity for the supernatural.

“Some say ghost. Some say angel.”

Bev’s interest was piqued by the reply. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s an old story that shortly after the place opened, one of the patrons died in their car. No one noticed until the end of the movie but some people swear they saw a woman, way down front, float past the movie screen and into the woods, during the show.”

“So, does she haunt the place?”

“Not exactly. Local folks call her the Final Usher.” He shrugged. “They believe she comes here to collect souls that are ready to go, you know, like cross over.”

“Well, then, do people die here a lot?”

“More often than you’d think,” the man responded as he passed her a cardboard tray with two hot cups on it.

The information clicked through her brain. Dropping the cocoa, she started a head-on run to the car. She was halfway there when the power went out. The movie flicked off and the parking lot went dark. A moment later, the lights came on and the movie rolled back to life. Bev continued her dash through empty spaces and around speaker poles. When she got to the car, Bill was slumped over, unmoving. She threw the speaker to the ground and pulled the door open. Bill’s inanimate body began a slow tumble toward her. She pushed his frail, nearly weightless body back into the seat. Holding him as best she could, she looked around frantically for a security guard or car hop to help her. Panic gently gave way to resignation and then to sadness when, way down front, at the edge of the screen, she could see the silhouette of a woman heading into the woods, closely followed by a man wearing a baseball hat.

“Goodbye, my love,” she whispered. “Sweet journey.”