“I’m telling you, Cora,” I said, making eye contact with my niece in the rear view mirror as we burned the miles between my house and the best soft ice cream I know of. “If I thought for one moment that you were actually allergic to Christmas trees, I’d have to suffocate you with a dry-cleaning bag.”
“There isn’t one in the car, Uncle Joe,” came a smug response.
“There might be, and if there is, I’m not afraid to suffocate you with a dry-cleaning bag, hon. I do have a spare niece, you know.”
“What if I was allergic to Christmas trees, too?” asked my other niece, Rain.
“I guess I’d have to go niece-less, then, girls,” I said.
“You’d go to jail,” they said, nearly in unison.
“Nah,” I chuckled, hoping to sound at least slightly sinister. “I’d wrap you up in Astroturf and dump your little bodies behind the tire store, then tell Jenny that you hopped a cut-price Vietnamese gambling bus to Atlantic City to become baccarat hostesses.”
“I doubt she’d believe you,” smirked Rain, “and she’d come looking for us.”
“I don’t think your mother likes baccarat all that much,” I said.
“She’d still come looking,” said Cora, completing the thought with an outsized pout and folded arms.
“Well, it’s all immaterial, because you’re not allergic to Christmas trees, right?”
“Mmm…yeah,” Rain said, looking up with a puzzled smile.
“Good! I’d hate to have to suffocate the two of you and dispose of your bodies in Astroturf when all we really wanted was ice cream, anyway. Astroturf’s real expensive.”
In the news, I see that mothers have taken to writing the names of their children on their shoulders in thick permanent magic marker in the face of the rising water, just in case…
There’s so much sorrow in the world, and it’s everywhere.
So we pull up and park and the girls tip their heads at me, saying “this is just a Dairy Queen, Uncle Joe,” as if it’s not the best soft ice cream within twenty miles, and I think of the subtle difference between a cone of vanilla with a little twisty tip there instead of at the Tastee-Freez and it’s the difference between crushed ice and feathery snow, and I don’t expect them to get it now, but I hope they will before the place slips quietly away like so many other places.
The old Dairy Queen is the kind that’s nearly gone now, with outdoor picnic tables and a front that’s just barely boxed in by glass, the kind where you used to walk up to a screen window and make your order and then sit on the sticky old benches, licking an ice cream cone and listening to the zippery song of the fading insects of summer. If I close my eyes, the years all slide together like the pieces to a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve all my life, and the denizens of every era appear and stand together there with their ice cream cones, castaways on an island of unnatural light under the indigo sky. They come in droves, young families from the ticky-tacky Levittown houses of Odenton, the freshly-clipped army boys from Fort Meade, the massage girls and tattoo artists from the old strip across from the base, and me, all here for one of the simplest pleasures imaginable.
All over the world, endless lives are always ending, whole timelines fizzling out like the fuses on fireworks that were never destined to light up the sky, and they’re constantly on my mind, constantly reminding me that I might be right behind them. The phone rings and the subtle edge to my mother’s voice makes me think “there’s been a terrible accident,” or someone’s late to arrive and the cogs start to spin and I see the grimmest possibilities curling out and branching like the limbs of a tree, forking at the probability lines that build a billion possible worlds.
As a child, my favorite things to read were books about things that went wrong, about trains stuck in tunnels, excursion boats rolling over with families in their Sunday best drowning with their lineage, matinees ending in fatal fires, and the evening when the entire side of a mountain slipped into an Italian reservoir and sent the complete contents of a lake over the dam and down the valley in a two hundred foot-high wave. I’d sit there, gasping in my study carrell, turning the pages faster and faster, trying to connect all those horrors with the world I knew, with the pure joy that was so close to me, even when things were at their worst, and it seemed like maybe I had some kind of understanding of this life, something to keep it all in its boundaries when it just seemed impossibly deep and confusing.
The wave comes crashing our way from the moment we’re born.
“Uncle Joe, I changed my mind—I want a double chocolate cookie dough Blizzard, too,” said a bouncy Cora, pointing at the board. Their reluctance to embrace the perfect zen koan of a simple vanilla cone was frustrating to me, but I shrugged it off. She skipped back out the door, out into the blue, and I stood and waited while the line crept along and watched my nieces running between the picnic tables, playing some insane game they’d made up on the spot. In a blur, Cora was back inside, poking me again.
“Yes?” I said, in what I hoped was a thoroughly patrician tone.
“I changed my mind. I want a chocolate cone dipped in chocolate,” she said.
“Hon, that’ll be fine, but remember, I have that dry-cleaning bag in the trunk and I’ll have to suffocate you and dump your body behind the tire store if you change your mind again,” I said, completely matter-of-factly. The father of a similarly bouncy pair of boys standing behind us in line made a nervous sort of eye contact with his wife.
“You can’t dump my body behind the tire store, Uncle Joe. You don’t have any Astroturf,” she retorted, punctuating it with a smug little smirk.
“Well, in lieu of Astroturf, I’ll take you to the meat market and have you ground into veal. I’ve got a friend there, you know.”
Cora rolled her eyes.
“I’m too old to be veal,” she stated, as if answering a quiz.
“Well, maybe I’ll just suffocate you with a dry-cleaning bag and make my decision about the rest later,” I said, “and I’ll eat your ice cream, too.”
That seemed to irk her more than anything.
“No you won’t,” she huffed. “I’ll struggle and make you drop the ice cream and then it’ll get ants.”
“I’ll eat the ants, too,” I said, with a wicked grin.
“Gross, Uncle Joe.”
Behind us, the last surviving nuclear family squirmed, fingering their cellphones and wondering if they should call social services.
We stand there, on the cracked cement of the sidewalk around the Dairy Queen, the girls tending to sloppy things full of lumps of candy and chocolate while I approach my vanilla cone like a potter at the wheel, turning it, whittling it down in a slow and glorious procession of licks until that magic moment when its time to start biting little pieces out of the cake cone. The sky is magic, as deep as the world, there’s a cool breeze teasing the hair on my forearms and making me smile, and the light of the Dairy Queen and the Shell station next door just deepens the blue, making it hard for me to even catch my breath.
The huge, lacy framework of the pylons for the nearby high tension powerlines turns to black, the opposite of the sky, laid over the blue like some kind of amazing work of art, the contrast so high it’s almost sensual, and I try to point it out to the girls, but it’s not that time for them, not yet. They live on the sidewalk, in a blur of instant choices wrapped in laughter and screams, and it’s infectious, that energy, even if I’d wear myself out in thirty seconds if I even tried to accelerate into their frantic timestream.
The lighted signs of the gas station and the Dairy Queen make the hair bristle on the back of my neck, that perfect combination of pure, flat color and the glorious surrealism of the pools of fluorescence that stand so starkly against the road and the dark woods behind us and that impossible sky, and I can’t help but smile and feel the purest kind of joy, like we’re all in Heaven, at least for a moment, at play on the cracked concrete of the last remaining islands of the twentieth century, blown helplessly into the future by the weakening breezes of the hurricane.
Rain dodges behind me as Cora comes her way, coated in sticky chocolate as if she’d been dipped in the stuff, and she screams, circling as she dodges. I offer Cora a stack of napkins and she gives me a look that says “but why?”
“Okay, girls, don’t make me get out my dry-cleaning bag,” I say, but they laugh.
“You don’t even have a dry-cleaning bag!” laughs Rain.
Which is true, of course.
"I don't have any Astroturf, either, but still…"
They laugh and turn to a blur all over again.
There are so many things that can never be explained, so many stories that will be sadly left untold, and so just much horror in this life, always right around the corner, a whole forest of grim possibilities branching out without end, but behind it all, there's always that indescribable blue, the color of something even better, and so I stare up into the sky in awe, thinking how could I ever forget this?
It's a good question.