Chelly was counting the flies: 17 since she’d begun her shift. They careened about the storefront like daredevil mini- planes, dipping and buzzing their tiny energized bodies as if on a mission. Their wings folded a few seconds as they landed on the still-sticky counter. A damp towel was frequently rolled up and snapped at their whizzing bodies but she usually missed. Newspaper made a better weapon but the body count was still unimpressive. She wiped the whole place down all the time–she had a high regard for acceptable hygiene. And no appreciation for stealth bombers.
It was a rare, hour-long respite between clots of customers seeking sugary gratification at Hettie’s Ice Cream Parlor. What a corny name, as if cast and cemented in the early twentieth century, not budging a bit. The tacky nostalgic decor mimicked the name, white wrought iron chairs and tables, baby pink, sea green, peachy cream accents. Pastel prints lined the walls with old-fashioned park scenes, families daintily eating treats. A striped, scalloped awning. Chelly would change it to Hettie’s Icy Sweets or First Stop Ice Cream, make it black and white decor with splashes of red. If anyone asked her. No one did, of course. And the public flocked to the place.
She got the job when the weather had taken a zigzag and heated up faster than usual in April: more business sprang up. So, one more worker. People had pressed their noses against the window, tongues hanging out even when the line was out the door and it’d be fifteen minutes before they’d get in. That’s how it was with ice cream, the chilliness overtaking the toasty, the icy soothing the sweatiness: it was a hunger, sure, and eagerness for a fresh batch of happiness. Like in people’s lives, Chelly thought, looking for relief and pleasure.
She checked the big ice cream tubs and found a couple too low so informed Mike, the ancient store manager, and went to the freezer room.
Once the heavy door was pulled open, she let it close against the daylight and tepid sweet air. It felt like a strong, frigid safe for treasure on the good days. And a prison of doom on bad ones, one that could kill if you overstayed your visit. However long that might be, she hadn’t asked. Today it was a nice place to linger. It calmed her yet woke her right up. She didn’t much love the work though she pretended. Smiled as she stacked another mountain of sugary delight into a cone for reaching hands. It was hard labor, that’s what it was, made her arms and shoulders ache to scoop frozen dessert for hours. Her back whinge. It made her fingers numb sometimes. But she stayed on.
She tapped on each cellophaned, weighty container with gloved hands, counting as if counting was needed, saying aloud each flavor’s name as if she might forget.
“Minty cocoa, peach cobbler, salty-sweet seaweed, mango madness, espresso with sweet cream, vanilla bean harmony, blueberry blast, orange peel fireburst, sesame coconut….” She spoke them with flair, as if showing dessert offerings at a fancy restaurant her parents owned. Until: “Lastly, our great vintage creation… caramel-pecan-chocolate pie.”
She spoke that flavor slowly, words fluttering from her lips, her pulse increasing. Then she counted to seven with each breath in and out until the squirmy feeling passed. Chelly grabbed minty cocoa and blueberry blast, exited and shoved the door hard, pressed shut with her hip.
Three customers had come in. After she switched near-empties for full ones, she started serving. It was weird how some weeks certain flavors ruled, some lagged. Lately it was dark chocolate and blueberry. The week before, bubble gum and Key lime sherbet. Tomorrow, tropical banana with carob sprinkles. Passersby studied the menu on the door.
But Jay…he’d laugh like crazy when she listed how many sherbets there were. He thought sherbert had no business in a real ice cream line up. But she liked it; others did, too.
“Hey, what’s up?” Mike gently elbowed her. She spaced out sometimes.
Chelly blinked at him, put muscle into her scooping motion of the new batch of blueberry blast and plopped two perfect mounds into a waffle cone. Smiled at and checked out the customer. The shop went quiet again, excepting Mike and the new guy, Terrance, talking with another patron, and the overhead fan slowly rotating. Catching at a fly now and then, she imagined, only to fling it into another trajectory.
“We need something to scare off the invasion of flies in here!” she reminded him for the hundredth time. As if he hadn’t waged the war for years.
“A fly strip would scare off the customers. We don’t even have a screen door to keep some at bay. Any new ideas? I personally open the back door now and again to let them go out the back way.” Mike chuckled at this absurdity.
“Maybe an electronic zapper outside by the door–ever try that?”
“Also unappealing-it stuns every flying thing and scatters them by the doorway. We use citronella candles in summer, you know. People put up with this, they want their ice cream.”
Their words halted as she mopped up sticky drips. Then she stared out the window, at taller and wider folks scurrying by, the darker and lighter and young and aging human beings going up and down the sidewalks with easy intention. As if it was another fine day, life a fun parade, and the greatest worry on earth was if enough sunscreen was slathered on to fight off the onslaught of UV rays.
She scrubbed harder. Chelly avoided sunbathing, saw it as irresponsible of her friends. Though she always went with them to the lake. Maybe this year she’d miss out, now she was working. It made her a little sad. But the lake would still be there.
“You do a nice job, Chelly, but what’s up, why are you here? Pocket change?”
Chelly’s spun around and her mouth was about to say something she’d regret but she caught herself in time and shrugged.
“Yeah, pocket change, Terrance, why are you here?”
He smirked. “I actually need pocket change, unlike you.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Your aunt owns this shop, right? I know you could do better stuff at your family’s other places. Didn’t think I’d see you here.”
She wanted to demand why did he think of her at all–and did it matter to her what he imagined? If his tone had been stupidly accusatory or snide with an edge of cruelty she might have smacked him. But she knew Terrance a little. He was 16, a year behind her. He’d arrived in Newton five months ago. He often stayed to himself but somehow had to find her appealing. He was great at math like she was, maybe better. But he apparently lived with dark blinders on and earplugs in his large ears 24/7– because he’d not ask her that if he had any info or good sense.
“Terrance.” Mike said sternly with a sharp motion of his head at Terrance to get back to work.
“Never mind, Mike,” Chelly said, “he’s still a stranger here– he’s just, you know, speculating, got the wrong scenario started.”
MIke shook his head, returned to his desk in back. Terrance glanced at her with cautious anticipation while he straightened chairs.
But she was taken with a woman who hesitated by the door, a little boy tugging at her hand to persuade her to go in despite it being close to dinnertime. Chelly’s face relaxed; her hazel eyes widened at the boy. He half-banged on the door with his balled up fist but just once. She gestured a welcome to him with a smile. Dinnertime be damned. He was a little kid and needed ice cream. She’d get him in if that woman didn’t. Then she was going to give him a huge extra scoop to take home–she’d pay if Mike complained.
She peered at Terrance, noting a flush staining his pallid cheeks. “So Jay, my brother, was an ice cream nut. We made ice cream at home and he wanted to work here when he grew up. Invent one hundred more flavors. But he didn’t get to grow up. He died before you got here, before the ripe old age of ten. So I’m working for him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…” He hung his head, shuffled off.
“Yeah, now you know something real,” she said and gazed out the window again.
Four more people appeared and got in line behind the stalled duet. The bell on the door rang as mother and son entered, and the kid raced to ogle the beautiful ice cream tubs, eyes glossed with sunshine, shaggy hair stuck this way and that, hands pressed to his round cheeks as he pondered mind boggling choices.
“What can I get you today, boss?” Chelly asked and readied her scoop.