George relaxes his sixty-six year old body as a reminiscence takes over his thinking. His forearms, still strong but beginning to show the looseness of flesh that becomes noticeable with age, lie the length of the wide wicker chair arms. His left hand holds a stemmed wine glass. Light gold liquid shimmers at the bottom of its bowl touched by the late summer sun. Traveling father away from us and losing some of its heat, the sun still spawns humidity to make the outside of his glass glisten with a light painting of moisture.
With his head slightly back he sees beyond the small screened porch. He sees past the manicured lawn and to a neighborhood, street and house long demolished to make room for a highway. A slight smile transforms one side of his face as he hears his grandmother’s voice.
“Here’s fifty cents. Now I want you to go straight down the block to the grocery and ask Mrs. McNally for a pint of chocolate ice cream. Don’t let her try to give you the one with mint in it. No one I know buys it and it’s probably stale as all get out. Just ask for the chocolate and make sure that’s what you get. Come straight back here so it’s not melted before I can dish it out. All right, Pete?” His grandmother used his middle name as an endearment.
He listens and nods, then and now. The sun has set behind the rows of sturdy clapboard homes on Cleveland’s west side. The men who sat on their porch steps aiming the brass nozzles of their hoses back and forth, methodically watering their lawns are coiling their hoses; their evening job complete.
With his hand in his pocket, Pete rubs the two quarters together, feeling their slip against each other. He held them in his hand once on this four block walk but Mr. Wallner’s dog rushed out of the side yard and he dropped them both. He was startled from thinking of how good the chocolate would taste to the immediate fear of an ears back, running fast and snarling dog.
His grandmother had a honey blond Pekinese. It took a nip at him whenever his guard was down or his grandmother wasn’t around. He jumped whenever he saw teeth and fur coming at him. Once the Wallner’s dog had been called back, he’d had to search in the grass for the quarters and he’d felt foolish for dropping them. He was only six but his sense of self-worth was already established as the first born and first grandchild.
It was a time when parents were becoming more doting, especially his mother since his father was in the service. But, grandparents still expected more from children. Perhaps because they had gone to work at a young age themselves, and they wanted to prepare their children’s children, just in case. For all of those reasons and maybe just the temperament he’d been born with, he took his ice cream fetching seriously. Now he always carried the coins in his pocket until he was inside the corner grocery.
Opening the door, the familiar smells of cold meat, stale bread and spoiled vegetables in the bottom of a bin welcomed him. When he came down to the store with his mother during the day, he had time to look into the meat case and wonder over the shapes of cuts, the white to pink to crimson shadings of bone, chicken, pork and beef. He would wind his finger against the slanted glass of the case tracing the spiral of sausage links. He would stick his tongue out to compare it with the beef tongue he saw, thick, meaty and budded.
He’d ignore the few frozen containers of ice cream that, for him, was always served up at night by grandma. He’d noticed other children eating ice cream during the day, but he liked his treat at night. It seemed right and you don’t want to mess with what works.
During his daytime visits, his mother was good for a small purchase of candy. He didn’t need time to peruse the candy jars. Once he tasted Good and Plenty’s licorice flavoring he didn’t need to try the others. Their gumminess lodged in his teeth and a box lasted longer than hard candy and besides, they seemed more grown up than lollipops.
At night his full attention was given to Mrs. McNally. She would be cleaning the glass of the cases, wiping off the day’s finger prints of women and the nose prints of children when he walked through the door. Or she might be leaning over a tablet doing figures when he entered. The bell above the door would jingle and she would look up and see no one and then look down and see him. She called him George, his given name, and smiled a weary, end-of-a-long-day smile. “I guess you’ll be wanting me to dip you some ice cream, eh?” At his nod, she continued. “We have strawberry and chocolate and a good chocolate mint tonight. Would you like to try the mint?”
His grandma was right. She was right about Mrs. McNally, she always beat him at gin rummy and she seemed to know what was best for grandpa too. Although Grandpa argued sometimes, he seemed to do things grandma’s way more often than not.
“No, thank you, ma’am.” He’d been taught to say. “We’ll just have the plain chocolate tonight.” Mrs. McNally put on a surprised face and said “Okey dokey, but you’re missin’ a real treat.”
George said, “I can only speculate that chocolate mint was Mrs. McNally’s favorite and she wanted everyone to enjoy it too. My grandmother would say “Nobody likes mint in ice cream, mint is for tea.” But as I think about them now, I realize that my grandmother just needed to have the upper hand in everything and choosing plain chocolate was her way of asserting herself.” Our sun fell behind the distant trees as George told how Mrs. McNally carefully scooped exactly a pint of ice cream into the container.
It was difficult to make out George’s features in the fading light but I know he was smiling now to think that his grandmother had won another skirmish. He sipped his wine while the memories of the walk home from the store became clear on the pages of the book he saw in his mind. He gave a satisfied sigh as the citrus and berry taste of the wine crossed his palate.
Leaving Mrs. McNally with the bell jangling into the night, Pete turned up the sidewalk. Hose water still lay on the concrete and had darkened it in arcs and runs. The cooler night air was now clear of cooking smells but inhabited by whatever lives in the wet grass and rustling tree branches of dusk. He might be scared if he hadn’t walked this way often but somehow the brown bag and weight of a pint of deliciousness made him brave; that and the red orange glow tip of cigarettes floating mid air on nearly every porch.
The men of the house, fathers and grown sons, had moved off the steps when the sun went down. They withdrew to the semi-privacy of front porches with façades of brick or wood or the occasional post and railing. They sat quietly and smoked their Camels and Pall Malls. Their faces were hidden in the deep shadows of the porch roofs but the ends of their cigarettes glowed like miniature lighthouses guiding his way home. He didn’t speak to the men, his grandparents’ neighbors, as this was a sacred time of evening. Their last chore, an attempt at keeping a square of lawn green in summer’s heat was completed, and it was time for contemplation. It was time to think over the day’s triumphs, decisions made and nuisances that nagged at them; time to let the house cool down before going inside. Time to be alone as their wives put children to bed or sat inside in an arc of light to darn or write letters in the still of the evening. Pete might catch a few words of men’s conversations but he was most intent on recognizing his grandparents’ porch in the dark, so he paid little heed to their talk.
Watching for his return, his grandfather would clear his throat or scrape his chair over the porch boards as Pete came close, a signal that said I know you know this is our house but just in case, I am here. His grandfather would rise and they would go inside for their bowl of tradition, patting him on the back for a job well done.
If it was a really hot night, he could feel the first cold, creamy mouthful hit his stomach; it sent a shiver down his spine. More ice cream cooled his lips and froze the roof of his mouth sending a sharp pain to his head. He scraped at the last dribbles in the bowl. Then his grandfather would bend down and kiss him on top of his head and go out to the porch for one last smoke while he was put to bed.
There was wistfulness in his voice as George said “No one sits out on porches anymore.” His story was told and he was silent for a few moments. He had once been a smoker but had given up the habit years before and he didn’t like to eat ice cream when he was drinking wine, he said the two didn’t mix very well. But the memories of a six year old walking home, guided by the light of cigarettes burning in the night and the taste of chocolate ice cream in bowls had lasted sixty years. The enjoyment of this evening was company, wine and a memory relived and told in tender terms, evoked by a warm summer’s night.
P.A. Bees has worked in the construction industry over thirty-five years. She now consults on environmentally sustainable building projects. She can make a meal out of an empty refrigerator and wants for nothing more than travel and the occasional hug from a grandchild. She has been previously published in Halfway Down the Stairs, The Green Silk Journal, Ghostlight Magazine, and the Clockwise Cat.
© 2008, P.A. Bees