In the balmy June of 1979, the drive-in is on fire. The smoke rises high over the Guadalupe River, but the kids on the blanket in the park across the way hardly notice. George Jr. is too busy hiking up Mary Allen’s skirt to care about the indistinct whiff of asbestos and lead in the air. It’s June; of course there’s a fire. Just last week, the dropouts from Tivy High lit up a garbage can in the Calvary Temple parking lot. Ma says it’s Satan. George Jr. knows it’s the boredom. The summer’s only started and there’s not a fucking thing to do.
Two days before, George takes Mary to the movies. He doesn’t have to beg Pa for the keys this time, so he’s feeling big as he pulls onto Gilmer Street, stops at the corner of 4th, and honks twice for the yellow house on the left. Mr. Allen eyes him through the blinds and Mary bounces out the door. She’s been waiting. They don’t kiss until George Jr. rounds the corner back down towards the 1350 block of Junction Highway, where the Bolero Drive-in’s been in Kerrville longer than he’s been on God’s tan-and-taupe-colored Earth.
Like any good boy from the vacuous heart of central Texas, George Jr. pays for his date. He counts out six dollars and two cents in change to Betty Stotts in the ticket booth. She counts it back, peels off two little pink tickets from the roll in the office, and rips them in half, keeping the numbers and handing back the stubs. It’s a stupid little process, she knows, but that’s just how it goes. Betty’s been there two decades at least. Ever since the kids skipped town, there’s not been a thing for her to do but ask Howard Hiegel up the road for a job. He’s a good neighbor, Mr. Hiegel.
Betty likes the movies well enough. The variety is nice, if the quality isn’t. Sometimes, she’ll sneak Mr. Stotts into the booth and they’ll do it like the kids, not watching at all but letting the sound drown them. Betty likes the booth. It’s cozy, but big enough for two. Her Buick doesn’t have the room for fun like that, but there’s an awful lot of seat in George Sr.’s dear old F100. After he parks the truck in the lot, all George Jr. can remember is the title card, the popcorn grease, and the thick musk of Mary Allen’s flower-printed Penny panties on the dashboard.
The projector is warming up on the 16th of June in 1979 and Betty’s thinking about calling Mr. Stotts. It’s the same damn cheap flick as before, something about a bear and a river. The toxic waste in the Ossipee makes him a killer, but Betty doesn’t know what an Ossipee is. She doesn’t know that Randy Woolls is watching her and thinking about rivers too. He’s been driving along the Guadlupe’s edge since Medina, just following the road as best he can on 40 doses of Valium.
It’s not the most Randy’s ever taken, but it’s the first time he’s taken it liquid. Two nights ago as George Jr. pulls Mary Allen’s Penny’s off her thighs in the front seat of his Ford pickup, Randy Woolls breaks the lock off a door in Hondo. What he wants is pills, but all that small-town drugstore has is vials. Maybe that’s why he miscalculates. In Medina, Randy’s digging a needle into his arm and hoping he’s missing the muscle. There’s hardly a viable line in the grey and skinny flesh of his bicep. It burns all the way down. In Kerrville, Randy sweeps crushed cans of Coors off the floor with his feet as he leaves his Chrysler in a ditch off McFarland, lurching across two intersections to the 1350 block of Junction Highway.
Randy’s stumbling through the sodium lights. Betty’s still thinking about calling Mr. Stotts when he hits her over the head with a tire iron. There’s some debate about the origin, but the jury later figures Randy found it somewhere in the lot. With so many cars passing through, it seems likely that something should fall out of a boot in the bustle and nobody should notice. The shock of the impact strikes Betty dumb, just long enough to push her into the little closet at the back of the booth, knocking rolls and rolls of tickets off the shelf. Randy Lynn Woolls cuts her throat when she screams. He’s never killed before and, even now, he doesn’t think he’s killing. He still doesn’t think he’s killing when he stabs her nine times and throws his lighter in.
Betty’s alive when she sees the rolls of pink tickets catch fire and the plastic start to melt. In all, it takes minutes, just enough for the light to change on the intersection of Main and Junction Highway. The cars are turning right into the lot again, so Randy closes the door and opens the register. In court, he claims he doesn’t remember this part, but George Jr.’s got both hands firmly on the wheel in the drive-in. Maybe he thinks it strange that Betty’s out for the night, but he can’t smell the smoke as Randy Lynn Woolls takes his two cents and six dollars, peels off two pink tickets, and hands back the stubs. He’s got other things on his mind.
George Jr. circles twice. The night is packed. He smells the popcorn and thinks about Penny panties. He’s burning, but Mary Allen is nervous with 400 spots tight in the carpark. You really wanna watch this again, George? Why don’t we get some fresh air? By the time George pulls out, the booth gets too hot for Randy to stay. He empties the register, takes the keys to Betty’s beater off the counter, and shuts the door. The movie’s just getting started as the parking Buick swerves and clips the bumper of the fleeing Ford. George Sr. asks about it later, but tonight, George Jr. zips back onto Junction Highway. Mary Allen gets all the sky in Laura Hays Park as Betty burns in the Bolero. The kindling’s mighty good.
Mr. Hiegel doesn’t see the fire for another ten minutes. He sees Betty’s Buick first, and that ain’t Betty in the driver’s seat. It’s Randy that’s kicking his feet onto the dash and counting the bills and change. His hands can hardly grip the paper as it goes tumbling into the cracks. Later, the court tells him it was 600 dollars and he marvels at the sum. It couldn’t have been that good a movie, not that he was watching. Mr. Hiegel’s watching the ticket booth. Twenty minutes after Betty dies, he calls it in. He’s a good neighbor.
By the time George Jr. takes his face out of Mary Allen’s Penny’s in the park long enough to see the squad car lights and big red engine come down Junction Highway, the column of ash that’s been pouring out the ticket booth has irreparably damaged the screen of the Bolero drive-in. It never quite gets repaired, and every actor in every film that’s ever shown after looks a little grey in the face. Nobody notices that night, but they do the day after when the whole thing hits the papers. Randy Lynn Woolls, too gutted to move under the influence of drugs and beer, is still sitting in the car when he’s arrested. On 40 doses of Valium, your honor, there’s no way Mr. Woolls knew what he was doing.
In the August of 1989, Randy’s on the table and the technician can’t find a vein. An addict all his life, he’s got no trouble pointing out a thin line of blue on the back of his palm. When the plunger gets pulled, it burns all the way down. Nobody’s crying when they close the Bolero that year. There’s just no interest in drive-ins anymore.
Adrian Belmes is a reasonably depressed Ukrainian Jew residing in San Diego. He is the EIC of Badlung Press and has been previously published in Riggwelter, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. His chapbook, “this town and everyone in it”, was published by Ghost City Press. You can find him at adrianbelmes.com
Image via Pixabay