A dusty, scarlet minivan pulls into the McDonald’s drive-thru, jostling an assortment of fake flowers and bobbleheads that were strewn across the dashboard. The driver, with her eyes hidden behind thick shades and a navy blue baseball cap, steers the vehicle with the ease of someone used to navigating cluttered SoCal traffic. It rolls to a stop in front of the menu, but she doesn’t pay the selections any mind. Instead, she rolls down the window, lowers the volume to the car stereo, and leans back. There was a passenger in the form of a teenager sitting shotgun, leaning past the driver so that she could stick her head out of the driver’s side window. The passenger leans against her companion as they both wait for the speaker to crackle to life, clearing her throat as the garbled, distorted voice of an employee chirps the usual greeting through the battered receiver.
“Welcome to McDonald’s, what can I get you today?”
“Two large caramel frappes, please,” the passenger calls out.
Eventually, they pull up to the drive-thru window, the driver passing the frappes to her accomplice, who takes them and sets them in the car’s cupholders with learned efficiency. She is handed the straws as well, and then unwraps and puts them in the drinks before they even start to pull out of the drive-thru. The driver pats her arm in reward and hands her the receipt when she receives her change, which is crumpled up and stored in her hoodie.
“Thank….you….” the driver says, carefully enunciating every syllable. The employees smile back every time; or they better, for their own sakes. The passenger is watching them judgmentally just in case.
The dusty, scarlet minivan leaves the McDonald’s drive-thru, and doesn’t stop until it pulls into another driveway, except this one is a little stranger. A waterless fountain and the stone likeliness of an alligator bracket a curved walkway leading to a white house with a weathered, sun-baked roof. Instead of a front lawn, there is a garden of pale rocks stretching out beside the driveway, its expanse sprinkled with the fake, plastic arms and legs one would find at the Dollar Tree around Halloween time. One unfortunate severed foot has been ran over so many times due to its proximity to the driveway that it looked less like a limb and more like a stain clinging to the stones below it. The passenger exits the car, grabs her bag from the back seat, and almost tackles the driver into a hug when she gets out as well. They talk, hug again, and then the driver takes her leave.
This is the routine me and my mother perform every other Sunday, always a few hours past noon and always with a shared smile. It had started when McDonald’s had announced about a year ago that for a limited time, every drink item was buy-one-get-one, effectively killing my sense of self control with one fell swoop. And so every chance I got, I dragged one of my parents to the McDonald’s for two large caramel frappes; which is like cocaine to my ADHD brain. My parents had divorced back when I was barely four years old, so I spend the weekdays with my dad and then go to my ma’s house in La Mirada every other weekend. Because of this, me and my ma don’t see each other often, and so when we do we tend to do something special together, like go to McDonald’s in order to enable my sugar addiction. Luckily, there is a conveniently-placed establishment that we could swing by when she goes to drop me off back at my dad’s house. Every time, we’d get the same thing.
Even though the sale ended, our ritual didn’t. If anything, it got more efficient. My amazing, beautiful mother had a stroke many years ago, and has had a speech impediment ever since. It didn’t bother me, because about a year into being around her new speech pattern I understood what she was saying without her even articulating it properly, as if I had learned her new language. So, instead of making her struggle to communicate to a worker through a cheap, half-broken speaker, I decided to simply clamber over her and shout the order through the window. It was a decision that saved us both a lot of energy, as driving on highways while downing caffeine was draining enough.
It was a long drive, too; forty minutes if we’re lucky, an hour if we’re not. It was only the two of us, our frappes, and the swanky melodies of Carol King keeping us company throughout our journey. Ma had left an old, broken circuit breaker in a cupholder at some point, which I had promptly stolen and used as backup percussion for Carol and her snappy piano skills. Even though it was a mostly pleasant ride, it always felt just the slightest bit bittersweet, because I knew that I would miss her for another two weeks until we could see each other again.
McDonald’s is unhealthy and low-quality, but the memories I had in that single drive-thru were light-hearted and priceless. If I die from diabetes or something from drinking so many frappes, at least I could do so knowing that I got to make a loved one smile.