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The Best Float in the U.S.A.
I can remember the day better than yesterday- I really mean it, too. I can hardly remember what shirt I wore yesterday, even though I do remember we had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. I don’t actually like Italian that much.
It was a Tuesday, and school had been cancelled due to "the most blame snow we've seen in thirty years!" According to my dad, anyways. Instead of being allowed to enjoy my day off, I had been sent to the local drugstore to refill my medication and to buy a tube of mascara for my mother- that was embarrassing. There was a piece of paper taped in the window of the drugstore, on which it was scrawled in Sharpie marker, "BEST FLOATS IN THE USA!" I've learned to regard with suspicion any claim made in lousy uppercase handwriting- especially when it’s done in marker- but that Saturday afternoon I figured I'd earned one of the BEST ICE FLOATS IN THE USA! after having to suffer the burden of Maybelline Great Lash Mascara in blue. I don't know why my mother wears blue mascara.
"What'll it be, son?"
That was the fountain man- he had a funny mustache. No, maybe it wasn't funny, really. Everything was a little funny-looking that day: It was as if someone had snuck in the drugstore during the night and, as some sort of practical joke, shifted every last thing- from tables to salt-shakers- just a smidge to the left. I looked at my reflection in one of the black floor tiles- it looked funny, too. I squinted and scrunched up my nose at it.
"Well, son? There are other people in line, hey."
I jerked my head over my shoulder, my cheeks crimson and my tongue ready with an awkward apology, but there was no one else in line. In fact, the only other people in the drugstore were Ms. Hemingway (no relation to Ernest, despite what she might say), a leathery old woman who didn't have one real tooth to her name, and someone else. I don't want to say her name, though. That'd just be salt to the wound, you know? Not that I've ever really gotten salt in a wound before- it's just an expression, I think. I mean, I've heard my mom use it a couple of times. I am suddenly very aware of how many times I've mentioned my mom. Just twice, but that's two times too many.
Even though I cannot say her name, I suppose I can describe her. Boy, can I describe her. Hemingway (and this time I do mean Ernest) couldn't do a better job, I'll bet. She was just like Audrey Hepburn- except her nose was bigger (but not in a bad way!) and her eyes were minty and maybe her cheekbones weren't as pronounced and of course she wasn't a movie star.
Maybe she wasn't like Audrey Hepburn at all.
But she could've been a movie star if she'd wanted to and maybe could convince her parents to move to Hollywood. She could've been anything she wanted to be, I'll bet.
She was strawberry blond, anyways. That's the perfect hair color, because it looks nice, and it sounds nice. If someone says, "oh, her hair is sandy," it just makes me want to give them a bottle of shampoo.
"Oh, well, I guess I'll have-" I craned my neck to see what she was sipping. Something in one of those tall, curvy glasses. I couldn't see very well though- I'd left my glasses at home. That's partially because I'm pretty absentminded, but mostly because my glasses were ugly. Anyways, I figured what she had a root beer float. I don't know why that was my guess, but it was. She just seemed like the type of girl who would drink root beer floats, you know? She seemed too delicate for a Coca Cola, if that makes any sense. Bobby Jenkins told me way back in fourth grade that you can clean toilets with Coca Cola. That's what I mean. She wouldn't drink something associated with a bathroom, I don't think. I wonder if that's true at all though, about the Coca Cola. But anyways, as she sipped the froth off the top of her root beer(?) float, her eyes were glued to some magazine. There was a big picture of Buddy Holly on the page she was reading. That year, all the girls were in love with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Buddy Holly, whose glasses were stylish enough to not be left on a night-stand.
"I think I'll take a root beer float, please," I told the fountain man. I think he sensed that I was staring quite warily at his mustache, because he twirled it around his finger, almost nefariously, as he declared the price: "Fifty cents, m'boy."
I don't know what possessed him to call me his boy, but I fished the appropriate amount of change (one nickel, three dimes, fifteen pennies) out of my jeans pocket and ended up dropping the coins all over the counter- that made a really terrible racket. I think she looked over at me for just a split second, but I don't really know. The fountain man sure did look at me though; he looked at me like I was crazy. I can't blame him though- I was pretty crazy.
"You're a weird one, know that kid? Now hold on just a sec."
He went to go fix my float- I had this awful suspicion that he might spit in it- and I leaned anxiously against the counter, hoping she wasn't looking at me, but at the same time hoping she was. Have you ever felt like that about someone? It's the worst, because either way you end up a fool.
The man came back with a fizzing glass in his hand.
"Here you are," he said cheerfully. "Now you take care, bucko, all right?” He sort of slapped me on the shoulder then. “Look alive, sport." I mumbled a word of thanks and turned to find a seat. The rotating, red-cushioned stools at the counter were empty, except the one where she sat. I knew I couldn't sit by her- I had no charm, no charisma. No matter how many times I watched Rebel Without a Cause, studying James Dean's every move, I would never get my Natalie Wood. Even though I said she was an Audrey Hepburn before. You know what I mean.
But my feet had forgotten this. My feet- my stupid, stupid feet- carried me to the stool next to hers. I'll never understand why I went and sat by her. Maybe I was inspired by the Buddy Holly lyrics coming from the jukebox: "Everyday, it's a-gettin' faster; everyone said go ahead and ask her." And so I did. Sort of.
Ms. Hemingway took notice of where I sat, and apparently this amused the old coot: "Ah, youngsters."
And on that enigmatic note, she left. I should have taken that as a bad omen, but it was too late, anyways. I had already sat down. My tongue felt funny in my mouth. I felt funny.
"Hey, we both got the root bear flooz!" I nearly shouted, pointing to her drink enthusiastically. Root bear flooz. James Dean would laugh in my face.
"Um, come again?" She asked in that ice cream-sweet voice of hers. She may as well have been an item on the menu.
"I, uh, I meant what I meant to say was-"
"Oh! Root beer float." I nodded my head eagerly- too eagerly. She scrunched up her nose, her nose that she once told Jeannie Price was "too fat," and gave me a perplexed look. I like to think of it as perplexed, anyways. "In utter disgust for the madman sitting next to her" might be the better phrase.
"I'm sorry," she continued, stirring her float with a plastic straw, "but I've got Coca Cola."
"But toilets, 'cause Bobby Jenkins said..."
And I was gone. The medication I was refilling that day had some interesting side effects- fainting happened to be one of them, unfortunately. And she was gone too- when I woke up, all that was left of her were her unfinished float and magazine. After the fountain man fussed over me, asking if he should call my mother (I gave him a hearty no thanks and jumped up from the floor, instantly cured), I took my seat at the counter and sipped my root bear flooz and read her magazine. It was still on the page with Buddy Holly's picture- he had died in an airplane crash that morning.
I continued to drink my float- as it turned out, the fountain man hadn’t spit in it.