When he saw her coming he balked and almost turned around. But too late. There she was with her tidy hat and jacket, sensible shoes, white ankles exposed below faded purple leggings that inched up as she moved. Her hair…was flyaway in the salty breeze, longer, a surprising ivory hue. She always looked tattered to him; he likely looked flawless to her, as ever. But the truth was their looks were secondary, always were.
He adjusted his face. Better a bit surprised than too nonchalant. She knew he tried to hide but if he didn’t look at her long…it was locked eyes he’d regretted after they’d first met. Her faint grey irises and bottomless pupils got to him. If she wasn’t psychic she was plain spooky, he’d thought then. But she was an artist, for one thing. And also knew how to reach in and find him.
Two summers ago they’d stumbled into each other at Kyra’s Killer Coffee on Beach Road. Literally–he pulled out his chair and she caught her bare toes on a leg, fell onto the table top, clipped his expresso and forearm. He caught his coffee in time to save it. Hers flew up, landed splat on the weathered pine floor, made a rivulet. Then, with apologies, she sat down. He did the same. But really–as if he’d invited her when his buddy was seated across from her.
“You another spoiled boy or a new sort of… summerling?” she’d asked.
He’d looked at his friend, who gave him a bad look. “Summerling?” he’d repeated, and she just threw her head back–with its bad teal blue hair–and laughed.
“That’s one bold, very strange girl,” they’d agreed as they left.
But his head tingling. “Huh,” he said. Her eyes, rapid-fire dry wit, that nerve.
So they got together; he felt he’d hit the jackpot, despite her odd blue-gone-muddy-hair, her stinging sarcasm at the ready, her pronounced lisp when excited. Altogether, the wrong girl. But that underplay of wrongness, the friction and foreignness: too good. For the summer, anyway. She lived at the beach with her wheelchair-bound mother. He visited a couple months at his grandparents’ weekend house.
When he left at end of his summer stay, she was calmer than expected. But in his case, he’d been ambushed by her intelligence, super-x-ray mind vision, velvety lips, clear eyes. Nobody had ever had the right to get to him; he didn’t allow it. He’d let his guard way down. But away from her, he drifted.
The next summer he visited cousins in Germany. When in winter he went to the beach it was to space out at a window, watch the stormy foaming surf, sit by the fire, sleep. He missed her sharp laugh, a hand holding his loosely, how they’d walked in sync since she was also tall. But he never sought her out. He’d been seeing a girl who entering university next year, pre-med, just as was he.
This summer was different. His parents had split up; he’d totaled his car in spring. He planned to enter university despite the head injury, a slow healing femur. He felt this was a last time to loaf, play chess and rummy with his grandparents, explore tidepools, be pampered some.
So when he saw her, he was both anxious and relieved. At last, they met again.
She came around the bend, arms swinging, chin tilted up, eyes forward. The gap between them closed fast, too late to turn back. He felt suddenly unsure, kept eyes to the path as they moved forward, then when they were two feet apart he slowed.
But she smacked his arm with a soft fist, thrust an envelope at him, and kept right on. He stared after her. She was not turning back. He bent to retrieve and open the envelope. Pulled out the stiff watercolor paper card.
It was a little painting she had made, a radiant miniature seascape with two tiny people. A man–was that him? yes–was moving out to sea, afloat on whitecaps, and she–yes, it was her– was standing on the bluff, waving, waving with a poppy colored handkerchief, all that pale hair free like a kite in bright wind, and the sky was so, so blue it hurt to look at it. But he kept looking until he was able to smile.
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.
That’s what she said when informed he was taking windsurfing lessons for his 59th birthday.
She nearly wept; his legs, badly injured in the war. She got him cargo shorts, a fly fishing guide. Neither was what he needed: a major jolt. The old ways no longer satisfied. He’d watched the windsurfers; they inspired him as nothing else in years. It was his turn out there.
“What do you know of that river, its winds?”
He knew some things and wanted more. Trouble was, her adrenaline had been waylaid, passions dampened by defeatist views.
Still, friends cautioned him: age, dangers.
His strength and resolve grew.
When he at last hit water, then sailed, freedom from years of her worry and his subterranean fear arrived. Not easy; not disappointing. He fully awakened.
Finally, he turned back.
Only then did he see her with fists raised in victory.
If it hadn’t been for my chocolate hunger leading me astray, I’d likely not have run into Gabby Montague. As I pushed open the door a little bell tinkled gaily above me. There were my objects of desire and I made a beeline for them. A cottony murmur of voices under soft lighting swaddled the space then rose to high ceilings. Walls were dark blue with old floral prints. Tables were here and there with wooden chairs that were wicker-backed and -seated. I disliked wicker a lot but aromas drew me deeper inside.
So many choices: cacao from Peru, Ecuador, Madagascar, Trinidad….I licked my lips. I was a shameless consumer of dark chocolate but usually bought whatever was available. I certainly lacked insight into the various noted shadings of flavors.
“May I help you?”
I looked up and paused. Was this man speaking to me smoothly really a movie star laboring to pay rent? His eyes were bright; his perfect lips betrayed slight amusement. There was a wedding band on that finger. He was calm, poised.
“Not a clue. Maybe you could pick two of your best sellers for me?”
“Bars, candies or drinks? You may sample, too.”
“Chocolate drinks? I might indulge, let’s see…”
I studied the calligraphed menu behind his head but had trouble focusing. His hair: auburn, glossy and abundantly wavy. Three feet away yet his skin exuded sandalwood and cedar.
The bell rang again. In rushed a swirl of taffeta skirts accompanied by brisk tapping of heels.
I tuned to look but not before I saw Movie Star’s face brighten, formidable teeth flashing in the direction of those heels.
“Hey Gabby!” he sang out.
“Donovan!” she said, husky voice somehow light, sweet.
I latched onto her name as a tingle rippled over my spine but my focus returned to sumptuous displays before me. “Well, Donovan, how about two of your favorite bars and a black coffee.”
With chocolate from Peru and Ecuador in one hand and a coffee in the other, I turned and nearly stepped on black pointy toes, the hot liquid splattering her hem.
“Gabriela Montague,” I announced.
“I am she.” She tossed a cascade of fake silvery curls and raised a dark eyebrow, earrings jangling. “You are?”
“I’ve been meaning to contact you.”
She nodded, smiled. I nearly forgave her for a moment. Who could resist such bright energy sparking that charming cafe?
“I’ll get my card.” She scrabbled inside a gargantuan purple bag.
“Don’t bother. It was your tarot reading that sent my sister over the edge. She left with that feckless man. You’re a terrible advisor. The power you wield over naive fools is a power that banished my sister from a–a–a benevolent universe. She is, for all intents and purposes, ruined!”
I hustled toward the door as Donovan called out, “Wait up, you didn’t pay!”
“Let this quack Gabby Montague pick up my tab!” I shouted back.
“Hey, she’s my wife!”
“Not surprising ! May your futures be very interesting!”
After I ate half of Peru and two big bites of Ecuador, I was calmed by instant delight. But I decided to get over my addiction to dark chocolate. At least for awhile. Of course I did not return there despite the awards its product racked up. Gabby might have felt a smidgen of regret. I absolutely did not. She was a real case. People’s doings were sometimes beyond my ken–and I, for one, was rather good at that sort of thing.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson