I don't know if I can explain just how exciting that quarter was. How pristine. How perfect, on a perfect night. It was lucky, I was sure, and it added to the magic of that summer evening in Liberty, the tiny, horrible manufacturing town in central North Carolina. Liberty was small. Though, like most of the towns in rural North Carolina, people needed cars to do things like go to the grocery store or get to their jobs and many people lived in sun-bleached houses outside of the town limits, unlike the town I'd spent most of my childhood thus far, Liberty was very walkable. The center of town had a library where my mom took us every week in the summer, pushing my baby brother in his stroller and telling the other two under-five boys to keep up! Stay in front where I can see you! Stay out of the street - there are cars coming!
She drove me to school in the mornings (a relief, since the school bus terrified me) and picked me up in the afternoons. But a lot of times, we walked where we wanted to go. Like, that evening, to the movie theater. It was a girls' night - just Mama and me, something that never happened. Daddy stayed home with the boys, and Mama and I walked downtown to the little one-screen theater that mostly showed Disney cartoon classics and other family-friendly fare. This time, they were showing Annie, just recently out in theaters, and Mama had somehow come up with enough cash to take the two of us to the theater to see it.
I'd been to the theater before on a number of occasions. For reasons I've never quite understood, a common field trip for my second-grade class was to walk in a line from the school to the theater to see whatever Disney classic was playing - Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Fox and the Hound - and then walk back in time for a few minutes of free play before the final bell rang. I'd never been there with my family, though. The boys were too young to sit through a movie, and even at the second (and third and fourth)-run theater in a depressed area hit hard by the '80s recession, it was too expensive to take six people to the movies.
So I was surprised when Mama told me that we were going to have a night out. "We're going to go see a movie," she told me, "just the two of us."
"What movie?" I asked, thinking that Miss Euliss had not sent home a permission slip for a cartoon movie recently.
"Annie," she told me. "It'll be fun! It's got singin' and dancin' and stuff, about an orphan girl a long time ago."
I really didn't care. Mama and I were going to the movies and my brothers weren't coming and I'd be able to just be with Mama. We walked through the warm evening after dinner, and I stopped from time to time to pick a clover flower from someone's lawn and we laughed and held hands and went to the convenience store so Mama could get us something to drink. The theater had drinks, but they charged too much, Mama said, so we'd just get these and she'd hide 'em in her pocketbook (a mom-sized bag big enough to keep diapers for two and an extra bottle for the baby and so many other things that it seemed we could survive for a week on the contents) so we could have something while we watched the movie.
And then I found the quarter, and I got some candy, and I had never been so purely happy in my life. The quarter and the candy were even better than the movie - just pure luck that someone had dropped something as valuable as a quarter without looking for it.
Mama hid the snacks and we went to the theater and sat in the darkened room as we watched the story of a poor orphan girl spool out on the battered screen. At the end, she was wealthy and loved and safe, and all because she'd managed unreasonable optimism in the face of abuse and neglect.
On the walk home, Mama sang "Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow, it's only a day away," and I pretended to be embarrassed, just as I did for the rest of her life, every time she sang that song.
"Mama! That's going to be stuck in my head forever!" I'd say, when I was 14 and 18 and 25 and 30. "That's a terrible song!" But I'd remember the quarter, and the magic, and one night where unreasonable optimism didn't seem quite so far away.
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