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The Last Soft-Serve MAG
Tom has been the ice cream man at the Dairy Joy every summer for two years; this summer is his last before he leaves for college. The Dairy Joy isn’t part of a chain, it’s just one lonely little ice cream stand out in the middle of Weston, but a steady stream of locals, among whom the soft-serve is legendary, keep it afloat. Tom mans the big soft-serve machine, throttling in the corner like an old air conditioner, and his friend Joey makes hot dogs and hamburgers in the next window. After two years of quiet, diligent work, Tom has become a master craftsman in the fine art of soft-serve. He can coax a chocolate-vanilla combo into a tiny wafer cone by twisting the cone slowly and evenly as brown and white ropes twirl downward. He can flip a tall vanilla cone into a bucket of chocolate and flip it up without losing a drop. And he can transfer two small cones of chocolate with rainbow sprinkles, one kiddie-sized vanilla, and one strawberry to a pack of screaming kids, and one precariously tall XL creamsicle to their sweating mother, without dropping one.
Tom lifts the paper hat with Dairy Joy printed on the side and runs a hand through his dark, short hair. His hands are always sticky from the ice cream and he rubs them self-consciously on his apron. It’s ten in the morning in August and the morning coolness hasn’t quite left the air; in another hour, sweat will stand on his forehead and he’ll want to hold his head under the soft-serve machine to let the ice cream fall into his mouth.
Joey’s red, beaming face appears in Tom’s order window. “Feels like it’s going to be hot today. I wish I had your job instead of flipping burgers on that stinking grill.”
Tom shrugs. He wipes down the counter with loving strokes. “Man, you’ve got to cut back to three cones a day, or you’ll get fired.”
Joey was big enough to be a football player but was more fond of cigarettes and candy bars than sports. When he leaned in the window, his beefy shoulders filled the whole frame. “Whatever. In a coupla weeks we’ll be outta here for good.”
“When you’re out of money at college, you’ll regret it,” Tom says, but he’s joking. Joey’s father is rich, and while Tom rides his bike to work, Joey drives a Taurus. He doesn’t need the money, and Tom wonders why he wastes his time with this job.
Joe shrugs and moves out of view, then reappears in his stall. He’s whistling as he opens a bag of hamburger buns and lines them up on the counter where rust is showing under the paint. “It’s hot today, you’ll get more fish than me,” he says.
Tom nods and feels lucky that he’s the ice cream guy; it pays better. Joey doesn’t have the patience to hold a cone still as ice cream oozes out, and he spills it when he turns the cone upside down.
At eleven Mrs. Allen’s SUV roars into the parking lot and as the door opens, a wave of chattering children swarm over to the ice cream counter. Mrs. Allen pries herself from behind the wheel, and feebly tries to control them. Tom gives a chocolate cone to the two boys and a chocolate-vanilla swirl to the girl before Mrs. Allen even reaches the counter.
“Hi, Mrs. Allen,” Tom says. He gets her the large strawberry. The children are finally quiet, absorbed in a losing battle to keep the ice cream from melting all over them, and Mrs. Allen is so grateful she pats Tom on the shoulder and gives him a dollar tip.
Once they’re gone, Joey snickers, “The mothers always love you, Tommy boy.”
“Shut up. She’d love you, too, if you could keep them quiet.”
“Whatever you say,” Joey says, irritated, and slaps some butter on the grill to sizzle angrily.
By 11:30 the parking lot is awash with cars. Joey doesn’t have time to quip anymore; he’s as busy as Tom, making hamburgers and hot dogs, drenching the buns in butter and toasting them. Tom pumps out ice cream cones with the speed of a machine. Smile, take order, put cone under machine, pull down handle, take money, make change. Smile. Sweat makes his hair flatten on his forehead and the crisp paper hat wilts. There are kids clambering over the picnic tables and hiding underneath, kids with faces coated in ice cream with sticky fingers and ice cream dripping down their chins. Tom remembers when he was a four-year-old and the saddest day in the world was when his scoop of ice cream lifted free of the cone and plopped onto the pavement. He gives a new cone to any child who loses his, no matter what the manager says.
Around four o’ clock, when things start slowing down, Joey leans in the window and asks, “So, what are you doing tonight?”
Tom shoves a rag around the counter. It annoys him that Joey always asks since he knows Joey knows. “You think I’m going anywhere with my cruddy bike?”
Joey just grins. “All right, no need to beg. Gimme a chocolate cone dipped in chocolate and I’ll let you ride with me.”
Tom rolls his eyes, but obeys, and when he hands it over he says, “This means I choose where we go.”
“You got it, Tommy boy.”
Tom rests his elbows on the window looking out at the road and sighs, “This is my last week here. I want to see all the old places - the places where we hung out as kids.”
Joey rolls his eyes. “Are you kidding? I’ll be glad to see this place go.” He waves a hand around at the grease-encrusted grill, the French fries sizzling in their pans, the rusty cash register. “You gonna miss this?”
Tom doesn’t get a chance to answer, because a convertible pulls into the parking lot. It’s packed with laughing teenagers singing an old camp song Tom remembers. In the back seat, one of the girls is singing and dancing, but to some rhythm no one else can hear. As the car pulls past the window she’s nothing but a blur of motion and sound.
They park in back and all four - one guy and three girls - walk to the front. The girl who was dancing in the back seat is wearing a tank top and jean shorts with flip-flops. The pale shirt makes her honey-toned skin appear darker.
He suddenly realizes that he knows the blonde with the ponytail hanging on the guy’s arm: she’s Amy Moore from his history class. As he recognizes her, she raises her head and smiles, walking over. “Hey, Tom, I forgot you worked here.”
Joey pokes his head out of his order window. “Me too, Amy.”
“Yeah,” Amy doesn’t really care for either of them, but while Tom is a dweeb, Joey’s a creep. “Making money for college, Tom?”
“Yeah, it pays pretty well,” Tom shrugs, and keeps looking over her shoulder. “Who are those other people?”
“That’s my boyfriend, Mike,” says Amy in a proud, possessive voice. “And that’s my friend, Lisa, and her cousin, Lauren, who’s visiting from New York.”
Hearing their names, the girls raise their hands and wave cheerily. Mike is standing with his arms folded across his chest, watching his girlfriend suspiciously. Amy was born to flirt with her hips, her long eyelashes, her long legs. Since birth, Amy’s smile was coquettish and she knew how to bat her eyes by the time she was four.
Tom wipes his hands on a towel. “So, what can I get you?”
After a lot of laughing and joking, they decide: small vanillas for Amy and Lisa, a medium chocolate for Mike, and a creamsicle for Lauren. They clamber on top of the picnic tables and eat with gusto.
After a while Lauren walks back to Tom’s window. Her hair is long and dark like her eyes that have secrets in them. She asks for napkins and Tom gives her a wad she needs two hands to hold, and Lauren laughs. “What was your name again?”
“I guess you live around here?”
“Yeah, up the road.” Tom tries to lean casually on the soft-serve machine, but his hand slips on an ice cream stain and he nearly loses his balance. “So, this must seem pretty rural for a New Yorker.”
“Actually, I’m from upstate New York,” she explains. “I live in the sticks.” She laughs in a way that makes him think she doesn’t think of it as the sticks.
“How long are you here for?”
Lauren shrugs. “A day or two, not long.” Her hands, discovering a discarded sugar packet, occupy themselves ripping it into little bits. “I bet it’s nice working here, with all the free ice cream.”
Tom grins. “One cone a day. Management rules. But all I need is some cash for college.”
The little group on the picnic table is snickering, as is Joey. He jabs Tom in the ribs through the side window, and slides a scrap of paper across with a note: $5 says you’re too chicken to ask her out.
Tom’s face burns and he blinks hard. “What are you doing later?” he blurts out, half stumbling over the words.
Lauren smiles slightly, and she seems to know what he’s up to from the secret look in her eyes. “Just driving around. Amy and Lisa are showing me the neighborhood.” She leans in conspiratorially. “When do you get off?”
Tom wipes his hands on his apron, glances up at the clock. This is my turn to be bold. He throws a hard look at Joey.
Joey coughs and shifts his weight a little. “He gets off right now, actually,” he says seriously. “I come an hour later in the morning and stay an hour later.”
Lauren’s smile makes Tom want to hug Joey. “Great! Why don’t you come with us, then?”
Tom is already unknotting the strings of his apron. He waves at Joey, trying to thank him without words. There’s cheerful jostling for room in the car and Tom ends up in the back, next to Lauren. As they pull out of the parking lot all Tom can see is Joey’s face at first framed by a square of yellow light; then as it gets smaller, Tom can see his ice cream window, the picnic tables, the chipped Dairy Joy sign shrinking into the dark.
The wind roars into his face, through his hair, and washes the sickly sweet ice cream smell from his nose. Mike is driving easily, one hand on the wheel and the other around Amy, as the trees whip past. Every few minutes Tom sees a sudden bloom of light from a house, and his eyes struggle to catch the details of a porch, a swing set, kids playing before it whips away.
“Where are we going?” Lisa asks. Amy is laughing at something Mike said, but she turns her head.
“I don’t really care. Anyone got any ideas?” she giggles.
“What about the old elementary school?” Tom suggests.
Both Lisa and Amy laugh. “Yeah, let’s do it!”
Mike jerks the wheel around, throwing them all hard to one side, and they go.
Suddenly the playground looms; there are the swings that Joey jumped off in fourth grade, breaking his wrist; there’s the slide and the jungle gym. Then Tom can see the baseball diamond where he once struck out three players in a row. Behind the diamond is the forbidding brick monolith that is Weston Elementary.
Lisa and Amy pile out of the car. “Race you to the swings!” Mike jogs after, leaving Tom and Lauren. They get out slowly, Tom staring at the jungle gym, a tangle of brightly painted plastic and steel that looks gray and black in the darkness. He can see kids playing there, arms and legs flailing, the same kids who come beaming to his ice cream window.
Then Lauren touches his hand and smiles. “I always loved the slide. You?”
“The monkey bars,” he says. Like eight-year-olds let out for recess, they go tearing over, and at the monkey bars, Tom jumps up, keeping his knees bent so as not to touch the ground. He grabs hold and swings across bar by bar, gaining speed as more coordinated arms remember the once-loved exercise. He hangs there, letting his sneakers just brush the ground, while Lauren goes down the slide. He looks up in time to see Mike and Amy retreat into the dark place under the plastic bridge. Lisa, standing by the swings, watches them go, then rubs her arm, puts her hands in her pockets and takes them out again, then finally walks back toward the car.
The air is filled with change, heavy and pressing on Tom’s skin, damp like a summer night. He sees the Dairy Joy fading away, and becomes convinced that he, Tom, is still sitting in his little booth reading old comic books, listening to Joey make bad jokes.
This person, out in the dark, riding in a convertible with strangers, is someone completely different. He lets himself fall from the monkey bars, and when Lauren comes up to him with her eyes big and round, he knows what he has to do. That other Tom, the old Tom, would turn away, but this new, wild person presses one hand on either side of Lauren’s face and kisses her.
It’s a timid kiss, so light that his lips barely brush hers, but she doesn’t pull back, in fact she puts her hand on his shoulder and lets it rest there for a moment, and he knows that she’s smiling even though he can’t see her face. Everything is electric; his hand is still touching the metal monkey bars, and he feels a current running down his arm, speeding from his toes to the roots of his hair, and connecting with Lauren, so that when they finally pull back, sparks jump on her lips.
Then Mike, with Amy on his arm, comes blundering toward them, and Lauren removes her hand from Tom’s shoulder, breaking the circuit. He can still feel the electricity, making his skin tingle where she touched him.
Amy directs a knowing and patronizing look at them. “You guys want to get out of here?” she asks.
Lisa nods, starting to pull the car door open, but Tom knows his new persona is as delicate as glass, and might shatter if they leave. The purple night, Lauren standing so close to him she would brush him if she moved - it all might vanish like smoke, and he’d be back in the Dairy Joy making a large strawberry for Mrs. Allen again.
“No, wait,” Tom says, still trying to think of a way to hold on, hold onto the night, and he spots the elementary school. The blood is drumming in his ears. And then, although he would never have dared to think of this before, he says, “Let’s go inside.”
“Are you kidding?” Mike scoffs, and Lisa and Amy give each other looks that say, Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to bring this guy along.
But nothing can stop this new Tom. He looks at Lauren and says seriously, “I carved my name on the underside of one of the fourth-grade desks. I could show it to you.”
Slowly, as if they’re all holding hands and the current is spreading through them, Tom’s excitement laps around the little circle. Mike says softly, “Yeah!” and Lauren grins.
“I’d like to see that,”
she laughs, and presses Tom’s hand with
“But how can we get in?” Lisa protests.
“They’ve got to have left a window unlocked somewhere,” Tom says. They all lope across the baseball diamond, half-crouching like wary animals. When they reach the building, they flatten themselves against the cool brick with little sighs as if they have evaded a searchlight or a marauding security guard.
Tom’s shirt is wet with sweat - no turning back now. He leans against the first window, pushes upward until he can’t anymore, then goes on to the next one. The others creep soundlessly behind him. A car sweeps by on the road and they all freeze, eyes wide, as the headlights wash over them. They’re safe in the blanketing darkness and after half a breath to steady his hands, Tom goes on.
The fourth window isn’t locked.
As soon as it gives, Tom stands back and lets Mike do the honors; his back is half again as wide as Tom’s. Once open, he takes a step back and holds out his hand. “Your idea; you go first,” he says.
Tom gulps, but a little bit of the electricity still skitters in his veins so he jumps onto the sill and pulls himself in on his stomach. Once his feet are inside, he stands warily.
The classroom seems tiny after four years of high school. It is blanketed in a thick silence that has been settling, undisturbed, for two months. The chalkboard is blank, no residue of long division or grammatically incorrect sentences. The walls have no cheerfully sloppy posters, only a fine film of dust that comes off on Tom’s fingers.
He whistles. “Come on, it’s all right.”
Lauren is the first one in, and she looks curiously around her. “What classroom is this?”
“It’s Mrs. Lonsdale’s, second grade,” Lisa says in a stage whisper as she crawls in.
“I remember she made me read from Charlotte’s Web in front of the whole class, and I was too scared to do it,” Tom says, with wonder. He hadn’t remembered that until now.
“Come on, if we’re going to do this we’d better do this,” Mike says, overly loud. The long hall, normally an echoing one, is muted, coated in the same quietness as the classroom, buried under the mothballs of memory. Tom leads the way and each classroom, each brief glimpse of a room inside, snatches at him.
They finally reach Mrs. McAllister’s fourth-grade classroom and Tom looks over at his shoulder to smile at Lauren. “Isn’t it strange how being in this classroom can make me feel like I’m a fourth-grader again? I can almost hear Mrs. McAllister’s voice.”
Lauren laughs. “I know what you mean.”
The others are looking at Mrs. McAllister’s desk to see if she left any of the cigarettes she always reeked of, but Tom moves knowingly among the children’s desks - they’re barely halfway up his leg -- until he finds the right one. He sits, wedging his knees to the side, and reaches his hand underneath, eyes unfocused, until he smiles. “It’s still here,” he says.
From the other side, Lauren reaches underneath, and Tom guides her hand to the rough spot where his initials are carved into the fake wood. “I did it at the end of fourth grade, because I was leaving this school forever,” he says. “I wanted to leave something.” He runs a hand through his hair. “I remember I was pretty scared.”
Lauren’s eyes are right on his, and they know something he doesn’t. “That’s sort of the way I feel now.”
Tom half laughs, then runs his hand through his hair again, “Yeah.”
Suddenly, a car’s engine roars outside, too loud to be passing by, and they freeze, heads raised, like deer on alert. In an instant, all the new power Tom felt, all the electricity, is gone, and he comes rushing back to himself and the thought: What am I doing breaking into an elementary school in the middle of the night?
They all break and run, tearing down the hall with sneakers screeching, back into Mrs. Lonsdale’s room scrambling awkwardly out the window and back across the field, slipping in the night dew. There never was any danger, it was just a car with a bad muffler, but they fall into the convertible laughing with a nervousness near hysteria and Mike peals out of the parking lot the way they do in the movies.
After the adrenaline fades, there isn’t much left to say, and Mike follows Tom’s directions to the little clapboard house with a lawn mower sitting, stranded in the middle of the lawn, out front. There’s a light on the second floor; Tom’s parents never go to sleep until he gets home.
As Tom climbs out the back, Lauren takes his hand. “I had a really nice time. Lisa can give you my email address, okay?”
He nods, and lets his hand slide out of hers, feeling his skin tingling. “Thanks for - thanks for letting me be a little crazy.”
They all laugh, but Lauren just smiles and says, “Everyone needs to be crazy some time.”
Tom half raises his arm in the air as the car lurches and then stalls as Mike presses the clutch at the wrong time. The last of the magic in the air has burst like a soap bubble by the time he gets the car started again and roars away.
For once, Joey arrives at the Dairy Joy before Tom. As Tom comes puffing into the parking lot on his bike, Joey is leaning out of his window, grinning. “I got up early just so I could see your face when you came in,” he calls.
Tom shakes his head ruefully. “So that’s what it takes to get you to work on time, eh?” He starts to go to his stall, but Joey is in front of him with his arms folded over his broad chest, surveying Tom.
“Yeah, you had a good time,” he says with a grin. “I can always tell when you’re happy. You blush like a girl.”
Tom lowers his head and tries to duck around Joey, but he knows he’s red in the face. “And you know what? I don’t care.” He puts a hand on Joey’s shoulder and says, “I didn’t get a chance to thank you last night, man. So thank you.”
Joey waves his hand, dismissing it, and the two go into their separate stalls. Tom’s knotting the strings of his apron behind his back when he hears Joey say, a little hoarsely, “You know, we should do something. Because this week is it, you know. This is just about it.”
“Yeah, I know, Joey.” From his angle, he can’t see Joey’s face, but after eight years of being friends he knows every freckle and line. Suddenly a desolate feeling nearly overwhelms him and his stomach feels hollow.
Finally Tom says, “You know what would make us feel better right now?”
Tom turns on the soft serve machine, and says, “A big cone of chocolate-vanilla swirl, dipped in chocolate, with rainbow sprinkles.” His hand expertly balances the tower of ice cream as he dunks it, tosses the sprinkles on top, and holds it through the window.
Joey’s glum face emerges and gazes at the cone, then finally his hand comes up to take it. “And you know what else?” Tom says quickly. “I’m having one.” He makes a tall chocolate for himself.
Joey stares. “The whole time I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen you have a cone.”
Tom regards the elegant swirl of ice cream thoughtfully. “You know, ever since I started working here, I stopped having ice cream. I was kind of sick of it after being around it all day. But after two years - I kind of miss it.” And he takes a big bite, so that he has a ring of ice cream around his mouth.
That makes Joey laugh. “Man, you needed a night out. It’s done wonders for you.”
Tom nods, waiting for the ice cream to melt in his mouth before he speaks. “Yeah, it did.” He trails his tongue around the edge of his cone to prevent dripping, then says, “Remember when I scratched my initials under my desk in fourth grade?”
Joey nods, busy with his ice cream.
“I thought maybe we could do the same thing here, somewhere.”
Joey stares at him. “Yeah,” he says, and then, “Yeah!”
Tom takes a butter knife and in the window frame between them, they write a T and a J. The empty feeling is gone, either because of the ice cream or because he did a silly, childish thing like writing his name and the name of his friend in the wall of Dairy Joy.
“So you think you’ll see that girl again?” asks Joey.
Tom shrugs. “I don’t know.” But he shivers slightly, even in the rising heat of the August morning, because he is remembering the sparks dancing on her lips and in her eyes. That, and the dangerous purple night, the wind rushing in his face when they rode in the car, Joey’s unexpected kindness, the creamy yellow-lit Dairy Joy sliding away into the trees - all these new things come together and it all rolls over and around him, and he is not afraid.