I am glad to be posting on The Writer's Beat again! Every year or so, I will post a short story on here and I've always loved interacting with the members on this site. They have helped me grow as a writer. This is the first chapter of a novel I am writing called Pictures From The Drive-In
. Constructive feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
Pictures from the Drive-In
By Tristan Mason
I could see the sign for the abandoned drive-in amid an overgrowth of shrubs and weeds just off the expressway. Years of weathering caused its paint to chip and a few of its plastic letters to dismantle. After Jordan and I briefly exchanged nods, he pulled the car into a nearby dirt lot that was blocked off by wired fencing. His fingers were marred by tiny cuts on his knuckles that seemed to afflict him as he forced open the driver’s side door. He brushed his foot against the pavement and looked over his shoulder toward oncoming traffic. He whispered “fuck it” and proceeded to the fence. A cloud of dust kicked up on my jeans as I followed.
“What are we looking for anyway?” I called after him.
“We’re not looking for anything, dude. But I found something last time I was here that I think you need to see.”
“Where and what is it?”
“See that concrete building with the collapsed roof? The snack bar and projection booth were in there. It’s better that you see for yourself. ”
Jordan climbed the waist high fence and jumped onto a grassy knoll that led up to the building. I laughed and ducked through a circular opening in the fence. Memories of weekends at the drive-in with my parents raced through my mind as I tried to spot the screen that was now cloaked behind giant evergreens. I was small enough for my dad to throw me in the air and pretend that I could touch the anthropomorphic snacks that danced across the screen. Looking in its direction made me remember what it felt like to soar above the cars.
“I can’t even remember the last time I saw a movie here,” Jordan said as he pushed through an unhinged wooden door to an almost vacant room littered with popcorn bags, styrofoam cups and candy wrappers. Only a metal counter with an electronic cash register and portable radio remained in the room. “ I think it was that movie where a dad shrunk his kids or maybe it was that one with the blue genie.”
“I don’t think you were old enough to remember the first movie.”
“Whatever. Maybe it was the sequel then. It was a lifetime ago.”
Jordan walked over to the radio and adjusted its dusty dials. A news report about a missing man named Jamal played through the static. He turned the dial again and laughed at a jingle about diabetes.
Jordan shook his head and bent over to pick up a taped envelope from underneath a bag of popcorn. The envelope had the date “5-8-99” scribbled in pen over the bottom fold. A patch of sunlight from a broken window illuminated Jordan’s pale, freckled face. He waited for me to open the envelope and averted his reaction as I pulled out a small stack of polaroids. The first photograph in the stack was of two, shirtless blond teenage boys kissing by a campfire. The one I recognized wore a backward, blue baseball cap and tattered jean shorts.
“Is that your-”
I nodded slowly, placing the photograph back in the stack.
“Why didn’t you just bring these to me when you found them?”
“Zack, I had no right finding these in the first place. He was your brother.”
“If you’re asking if I knew, I always had a feeling, but it wasn’t any of my business,” I said. I scratched my elbow. “He was eight years older than me and I only saw him for a few hours a day. Arnold was always out with his friends or playing soccer. I didn’t really even know him.”
“Are you going to keep them?”
“I’m not sure. I’m not sure what they’re doing out here to begin with. He was a private kind of guy.”
“Does it bother you?” Jordan asked. It was a question I hadn’t really thought about since he passed. My parents never spoke about it. Only once did I hear them use the phrase “his lifestyle.” But that was only once after it happened and never again. We didn’t talk about any lifestyle other than our own.
“I’ve...only known him as my brother.”
Jordan smiled as if he understood and continued to rummage through the garbage, looking for nothing in particular. He paused every few seconds to catch a glimpse of me stroking my thumb over the photograph, hesitant to examine the other ones in the pile. As my friend of almost fifteen years, he knew it was best to wait for me to process my thoughts and refrain from offering any advice. I knew he wanted to though by the way he opened his mouth to speak and censored his words with a deep sigh. While I collected my thoughts, Jordan collected a few loose dollar bills and a Troy O’Leary baseball card.
“It would be interesting if you gave them to your parents,” he finally said, lowering his voice.
“You know exactly what I said. It would be interesting if you gave them to your parents and made some copies for your relatives. I’d love to see the look on their faces.”
Jordan was standing up now, his arms crossed firmly over the blue circle on his tee shirt. I took a step back and placed the polaroids back in their envelope, pointing my feet toward the unhinged wooden door. He took one step forward, tapping his fingers over the veins in his biceps. The words “see the look on their faces” echoed through me like the frigid wind that entered through the cracks in the concrete walls.
“Forget it, man. You know how they are. I don’t need to tell you. I’ve never needed to say anything about them anyway. It’s out there for everyone to see.”
“It’s no secret that you don’t like them. Let’s just get out of here.”
“Can you blame me though after what they said about me dating Sasha? She’s a grad student, a really nice girl and they can’t get over the fact that she’s not a Christian. How can you blame me for not liking them when they hate anyone who’s not like them?”
“They are good people, Jordan,” I uttered between quick, short breaths. “They are ignorant people, but they are good people. Can we leave now? I got what we came for. I just want to go back to the apartment.”
“Fine. Are you going to keep the photos at least?”
I nodded and slid the envelope into the left pocket of my jeans. By the time we stepped outside, I could no longer see the screen behind the evergreens. They were too tall and their long ferns obstructed my view. Memories of soaring above the clouds changed to those of shouting matches between Arnold and my parents over him wanting to watch the feature movie from a friend’s jeep. A heated exchange of words caused him to storm off into a sea of brightly lit cars.
Jordan and I sat in silence on the ride home until we passed the brick building that I worked in. It was located just a few miles away from our apartment complex on a main road that most cars in town past through on their way to someplace more ideal. Other than a pizza restaurant, laundromat and post office, there was no real reason for people to stop.
“So, have you sold any knives lately?” Jordan asked as a smirk crept across his face. I sighed, clutching the envelope firm beneath my grasp. The sky was fading to bright shades of orange and red as he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to the rhythm of a ‘90s alternative rock song. “You know it’s just a pyramid scheme, right?”
He looked to me, shaking his head, and then back to the road. “So why do you do it then?”
“At least it pays more than that being a professional Youtuber.”
“Dude, don’t even. At least I like what I do. I can’t imagine you like begging family members to buy your three hundred dollar knife kit.”
“I don’t just sell to family members.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jordan said, braking sharply at a stoplight. “Goddamn. If there were anymore lights, it would be the turnpike.”
Normally Jordan’s comments about my job would have irked me more but my thoughts fixated on the contents of the envelope and how it found its way to the drive-in in the first place. My parents owned very few pictures of Arnold past the age of twelve and there were none of him in his high school yearbook either. His senior photo was a black silhouette mounted on a gray background with the caption “photo unavailable” sprawled underneath. After he quit the soccer team, he had no purpose to be in the yearbook to begin with.
For the remainder of the car ride, Jordan’s rant about Sasha “spending all of her time in class” and “the police not letting him film in the abandoned insane asylum in Meriden” became one with the background noise of guitar riffs and the whistling air conditioner. I wanted desperately to tell my best friend about my brother but knew that I couldn’t without the conversation circling back to his disdain for my mom and dad. I wanted desperately to tell him how little I knew of my brother and how my parents only spoke of him in passing. I couldn’t find the words though and just nodded along to every other sentence I zeroed in on.
“I don’t know. Sasha had all the time in the world last summer to make videos,” Jordan said as he pulled into the wrong parking space outside of our complex. “She tries to make time on weekends but it’s just not the same anymore.”
“I’m sure she’ll make more time on spring break for you. I’m amazed she can make time at all with the labs she has to do. I hated taking earth science when I was an undergrad. I don’t know how she does it for a degree.”
Jordan chuckled, unbuckling his seatbelt and stepping out into the cool spring evening. He asked me if I was “coming inside.” After I made up a story about having to check my email for work, he shrugged and disappeared quickly into the building. Then I waited. I waited until I was sure that neither Jordan nor any of the tenants were in proximity of the car. I waited until orange and red sky started to fade into a deep shade of blue and pulled out the photograph of my brother and the shirtless boy. They were surrounded by only woods and the warm glow of the campfire. Growing up, my brother could never be this alone.
I kept the envelope in a small shoebox on top of my dresser drawer where Jordan wouldn’t think to find or mention it. Aside from the occasional guest, however, no one had a reason to step foot in my bedroom. Jordan was also gone most nights and returned home too tired to have a coherent conversation. In a few weeks, he would forget all about his discovery at the drive-in and move on to exploring another abandoned site for his internet video channel. The shoebox seldom moved from my drawer. When I did open it, I couldn’t bring myself to examine any photograph past the first one in the pile. I wasn’t repulsed by the image of my brother and the young man but felt as if I was encroaching on a past that I had no business being a part of.
I willed myself to walk past the shoebox for as many mornings and evenings as I could stand on my way to and from work. With each passing day, it became easier to move past the box but I never managed to leave the room without gazing at it for a brief moment, knowing that an unspoken history was trapped inside. I often imagined mailing the shoebox to my parents or handing it to them when they came over for our monthly dinners. These thoughts were fleeting though and I usually gathered my briefcase and headed out the door, careful not to wake Jordan or Sasha on the days that she slept over.
My morning routine evolved from a love affair with the snooze alarm to a silent, aimless drive around town to catch the last glimpse of sunrise. I frequently passed the abandoned drive-in, even though it was out of the way. On some mornings, I pulled into the dirt lot and imagined the plastic letters on the sign glowing in neon like they did long ago. My family made Saturday night their drive-in night, no matter what was going on in our lives. My mom and dad would close their bakery early so that they could pick Arnold and I up from our grandmother’s house in time for the show at sundown. It was the only time during the week that all of us were together. On the nights when sun wouldn’t set until nine, we played mini-golf at a nearby course that was lined with miniature castles, bridges, barns and other hand-made obstacles around the holes. The mini-golf course burned down the same year that the drive-in closed and my brother passed away. Years later, I struggled to remember where the course was or how it caught fire.
These detours made me progressively late for work but I didn’t mind. I worked as an independent contractor for a company that sold knives to unwitting family members and strangers. When the company recruited me in college, they did so with the premise that I could build an extended network of clients by convincing my loved ones that they genuinely needed a three hundred dollar kit of high carbon steel knives. They would supposedly “spread the word” about the product to their friends and co-workers, initiating a chain reaction of sorts. After selling my kit to my parents and a few aunts and uncles, I realized that I had met a dead end. Once this situation occurs, an employee must rely upon the company’s list of contacts to sell to, which often meant former clients and kitchen supply stores. In the past year, I became trapped in a never-ending loop of dead end phone calls and cancelled conferences. I saw nothing more than my dim and dusty cubicle for eight hours. Only the cracked screen of my desktop lit the space around me.
I found myself thinking about my brother whenever I traversed the maze of cubicles that stretched almost the length of the office floor. He once sat by my bed side and told me to never “take an office job in the town I grew up in.” I was too tired and young then to understand why he would say those things and too old now to recall the context of the conversation. It was enough for me to think about every time I passed the expressionless faces that never changed from the moment they sat down at their computers to schedule appointments to the moment they left without so much as a word another employee. The only time we conversed with each other was during mandated company outings and trainings along with team-building exercises. After five years, however, I could only recall a handful of names.
When I had down time, which was often, I browsed through a website my brother made in the days of web 1.0 when most sites had simple GIF buttons that blinked or spun, unmoving font, blurry images and a solid color background. My brother’s website had only three blurry images of him and his friends at a local park. The images were fixed on a black background with small white stars scattered about it. Arnold wore neck-length hair under the same baseball cap he had on in the photograph of him and the boy. Only his friends Laura and Carl were in the image though. Laura, a stocky girl who always wore plaid, drove Arnold to school most days and slept over on weekends. My parents had a rule about girls staying overnight but made an exception for Laura. Carl stayed over too but spent most of his time in my brother’s room playing video games to avoid having conversations with my dad about Tiger Woods. Carl was the only black athlete on the high school golf team. Naturally, my dad felt the need to make comparisons. My parents didn’t care much for Arnold’s friends but that fact made me like them even more. When they stopped by with twelve packs of soda they called “fuel for gaming,” they gave me some and let me watch them play.
I sometimes typed the names “Laura Harding” and “Carl Green” into a search engine just to see if I could find any information about them. I modified the search with terms such as “Connecticut” and “Hyde High School”in hopes that it would bring me closer to discovering what happened to them. After Arnold’s funeral, I saw Carl at the grocery store he worked as a cashier for. My mom and him exchanged awkward “hi’s” before she hurried me out into the parking lot, making an excuse about how late it was and a storm that never came. Laura, on the other hand, helped my mom clean out Arnold’s room and donate his clothes. But then she left for college a few weeks later. The two most important people in my brother’s life disappeared from town and my parents never spoke of them again. Their digital footprint seemed to vanquish as well. Other than an article about the class of 1999, my search yielded no results.
I grew so obsessed with trying to uncover Arnold’s past that I became far removed from my present surroundings. Upon coming home from work, I lay my briefcase by the door and retired to the couch where I continued the search from my smartphone. Jordan seldom paid attention because he was either editing footage on his laptop, livestreaming for his video channel or bemoaning Sasha’s lack of presence. Jordan and I fell into a routine of minimal interaction. Phrases such as “do you want to order Chinese?” or “you can shower first” proved to be the only exceptions. It wasn’t until the evening I stumbled upon a video of my brother from the archive section of our town’s public access channel website that he showed interest.
“Is...that who I think it is?” Jordan asked after thirty seconds of the clip elapsed. He closed his laptop and hovered over me, the smell of herb lingering on his breath. The clip contained a segment the public access channel aired about the town’s then-developing skate park. Most of the kids featured in the segment expressed excitement about the skate park. My brother, who was standing beside a boy sporting a crew cut and a baggy Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt, told the cameraman that it “probably wouldn’t be any good” before laughing and walking away.
“Yeah. It must have been the beginning of his senior year when my dad paid him to cut his hair. He totally hated it.”
“Who’s the other guy with him?”
When an answer came to me, Jordan knew what it was by the way the phone trembled in my hands. The boy stood a few inches shorter than my brother and buried his hands deep within the pockets of his denim jeans. While I couldn’t see the boy’s face clearly in the photograph, I could he tell was the same person by the way his blue eyes locked on Arnold instead of the camera and the way he blushed a deep red at his smartass remark. As they were walking away, he slapped Arnold on the back, sliding his hand down toward the waistline.
“You have to find out who he is. Skip past the other interviews to the credits.”
“There are no credits. It ends at an image of a ramp being built.”
I shrugged and placed my phone on the wooden coffee table in front of us. Jordan scratched the back of his neck, which was already blotchy with eczema.
“He never came over either? I feel like Arnold was the kind of guy who would have snuck people over when your parents weren’t home. It’s not like you would have told.”
“Yes, but not this guy. He couldn’t.”
A car alarm blared from outside our living room window and echoed into the night. Moments later, a few tenants were yelling in the parking lot and a cat howled in the distance. Jordan walked over to the window and slowly shut the blinds.
“It’s been almost twenty years, right?”
“Yeah just about.”
“When was the last time you and your parents even talked about him?”
I shrugged and reached for the remote on the table. Jordan was pacing now, his hands interlocked behind his back.
“If we talk about Arnold, it’s just in passing. They’ll bring up a distant cousin before they bring him up.”
“I don’t get it,” Jordan replied, interlocking his fingers tighter. “I don’t get why some parents can’t accept their kids for who they are.”
“Would you back off my folks for once, man. We don’t know that they didn’t accept it.”
“Sure we do. If they accepted Arnold for who he was, wouldn’t they talk about him?”
“I’m not going to do this tonight,” I said, clenching a fist into the cushion. “I’m sure it just hurts them to talk about him. They loved him. He was their son.”
“I’m not talking about whether they loved him or not,” Jordan said coldly. “I’m talking about your Christian fundamentalist parents not accepting him for being gay.”
I rose from the couch and took the quickest path to my bedroom as Jordan raised his tone and followed. I shut the door behind me and with my back pressed against it, I slid down to the floor and cradled my head in my hands. Jordan’s shouting turned to soft spoken sentences that I assumed to be apologies. I heard none of what he said though. My mind was lost in fleeting memories of my brother that I saw so vividly but could not recall anything about.