The semis crawled south along the state highway, headlights cutting through the rain. It was the middle of the day, the middle of the week, the middle of the summer, and Ed guessed it was about time for some rain to fall. The summer people were complaining, of course. Ed could understand it. They’d come up for a week at a rented cottage, and here it was raining. They’d have to go back without getting sunburned, the kids were whining, and the cottage was beginning to smell of mildew.
The rain was good for Ed’s business, though. The Ojibway Museum and Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor was always busy on rainy afternoons. He could be sure of selling at least two dozen rubber tomahawks made in China, a dozen beaded coin purses imported from Thailand, and six or seven pairs of moccasins that he made himself. It would be a profitable day, even if Stephen didn’t show up.
In the winter there was hardly enough traffic on the county road to justify plowing it. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Campbell kids living down by Cutter’s Creek, all of them still school age, the plow probably would have stopped right there at the state road. Dave Campbell had paddled the youngest two last spring when he caught them walking home from school in the middle of the road. The kids were puzzled – “But there’s no CARS, Daddy!” his littlest girl wailed. Dave figured you had to raise them to expect the unexpected.
A minivan full of damp tourists pulled into the parking lot. The kids piled out and headed straight for the petting zoo at the side of the building, but their father called them back. “It’s raining, for godsake,” he hollered. “C’mon inside and I’ll buy you a cone.”
Ed thought privately that the kids could’ve done with less ice cream and more time with the animals, but it wasn’t his call. “Coffee?” he offered as the parents sat at the counter, the four kids strung out between them.
“A root beer float for me,” said the woman. “Kelly, what do you want?”
“A banana split,” replied the smallest child. Ed couldn’t tell if the shaggy bangs and grubby jeans belonged to a little girl or a little boy. More and more he found he couldn’t tell the boys from the girls.
“That’s too much sweets. You’ll spoil your supper. What kind of cone do you want?”
“I don’t want a cone – I want a banana split. Bananas are healthy.”
“A cone, Kelly. You can have a cone. What flavor do you want?”
“OK, what do you want, Kevin?”
“A hot fudge sundae.”
Exasperated the woman looked over the heads of the four children at her husband, who was staring at the menu. “Ken? Ken, are you listening? Shall we have lunch here?”
Ken turned his head and focused. “I think I want a malt,” he said. “A chocolate malt.”
The woman looked at Ed. “One root beer float, four double dip cones, half chocolate and half vanilla, and a chocolate malt.”
“Coming right up.”
Ed piled one scoop of chocolate and one of vanilla into a sugar cone and handed it to little Kelly.
“No, Kelly gets one of the all-chocolate cones,” explained the woman. “Kelly gets chocolate, Kevin gets vanilla, Kenny gets chocolate and Karen gets vanilla.”
“Moth—errr.” Karen, who looked 23 and was probably 15, rolled her eyes. “I don’t like vanilla any more.” She turned to Ed. “I’ll have one scoop of pistachio and one scoop of white chocolate, please,” she said.
“Actually,” said Ed, “we just have chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and butter pecan.”
Karen stared at him. “Well, then,” she said, “I guess I’ll have a root beer float. Make mine with butter pecan ice cream.”
“Yuck!” said Kenny. Kevin giggled.
“Fine,” said the mother. “Two root beer floats, three cones, one chocolate malt.”
Ed knocked the scoop of vanilla off the cone he’d offered to Kelly, and replaced it with a scoop of chocolate.
“Mom! There’s vanilla under there!”
Ed looked at the child, calculating how long he’d have to spend in jail for shoving the offending ice cream cone into his/her piggy little face.
“Give me the goddam cone,” said the father. “Kelly, shut it. Now here’s what we’re going to have. Six cones. This one that I’m going to eat, and five more. Karen, tell the man what flavors you want.”
“Never mind,” said Karen. “I’m on a diet anyway.” She flounced out the door and sat in the minivan.
Ed served him.
Ed served him.
“I don’t want anything.”
The woman opened her mouth to say something – Ed suspected it was “I’m not your mother you oaf” – but then gave it up. “I – would – like – a – root – beer – float,” she said between clenched teeth. “With vanilla ice cream.”
Ed made the float without comment. “That’ll be $9.01,” he said as he put the float on a little paper doily in front of the woman.
No one moved.
Ed tried again.
“That’ll be $9.01please,” he repeated, a little more loudly.
The woman looked up, exasperated. “Ken, pay the man.”
Her husband looked stunned. “I don’t have any money – you have the money.”
“I don’t have any money,” she said. “I distinctly remember giving you all the cash last night when we stopped at the Burger King.”
“There’s an ATM at the bank just north of here,” Ed said.
“We’re headed south,” said Ken.
“Nearest ATM south of here is about 20 miles away.”
Ken thought over his options. “Well I guess I’ll go north, then.” The kids clamored to go along. Their mother stared into her root beer float. She’d decided to wait where she was, a hostage for the $9.01.
The door slammed. The place settled into quiet, the dripping rain and the swish of the tires on passing semis the only sound. The woman rubbed her eyes and looked up at Ed ruefully.
“You married?” she asked.
“Not any more,” Ed said.
“Smart man,” she said. She drank some of her float. “Any kids?”
“Two girls. They live with their mother.”
“See them much?”
The woman finished her float. “That was good,” she said. She slid off the stool and began to browse among the racks of souvenirs. “How come you have this stuff?” she asked, holding up one of the rubber tomahawks and a drum decorated with garish feathers. “It isn’t exactly authentic.”
Ed shrugged. “Kids ask their parents to buy it for them.”
“How far away is that ATM anyway?”
“Only about two miles. Maybe there’s a line.”
“In the rain?”
“Maybe they stopped somewhere on the way back.”
The woman looked doubtful.
“The moccasins look real anyway.”
“It’s all real, ma’am.”
“You know what I mean – they look handmade, not like something off a Korean assembly line.”
“I’m glad you like them.”
“They remind me of the ones they used to sell at the prison gift shop up in Marquette. I always thought that was weird, a prison gift shop right there near the tourist information center. I guess it was a good thing – gave the prisoners something to do besides make trouble. You ever been up there? To Marquette, I mean?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the U.P.,” he said. “I was born there. Not in Marquette – in L’Anse.”
“Over by the Keweenaw.”
She mulled that over awhile.
And that’s as far as I got. Now I have to finish it or die of embarrassment. Who the heck is Stephen anyway? What happened to Ken and the Kids? And is a deserted roadside ice cream parlor in the rain boring? Menacing? Funny? I forget, but I’ll make something up. Stay tuned.