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From the author: A tired and broke single mom scrapes together the change to take her daughter to the fair. When she tries ice cream that tastes like childhood, she gets sucked in and goes back, again and again. Meaningful breakthrough coming, or swept into a spiral of addiction? Take a lick and find out...
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Shanti squirmed with anticipation, trying to wriggle away from my hairbrush but caught by the knots in her curls. "A fair!" she said. "With monkeys and elephants and a magic man!"
"Yes, a fair!" I agreed, not wanting to confirm the rest – not wanting to set up any disappointment as I set down the brush on her bedside table. She beamed up at me with her sunshine smile and I looped a thin elastic around a pigtail. Four years old, and I'd never been able to take her before. Too expensive.
Fairs don't come to the city. It's too crowded, and where would they set up the tents? To even get to the fair it was a five dollar bus ride (two dollars for kids), plus a dollar eighty five for the shuttle if you didn't walk. We walked.
"Look, Mama, look!" She pointed at the water as the bus went over the bridge. The water was gray, reflecting the gloom of the clouds. A duck paddled by.
"Yes, a duck! Do you know what sounds ducks make?" I asked, but my heart wasn't into the game this early in the morning. My shift had ended only three hours ago, with barely an hour to sleep. I'd swapped with Christine, who usually took the night shift, so I could have today off. She was more than glad to spend daylight hours at the diner. The night crowd got a bit... sketchy at times. But we didn't usually have to call the police.
The bus rolled to a stop near a large parking lot. Shanti was still bouncing, pulling herself up on the seat in front of us. God, what a happy kid. No idea how she did it. But she always made me smile, even on days when I felt zombie-like for lack of sleep.
When we could see the tents of the fair, poking striped red and yellow in the distance, Shanti urged me to "Run, Mama! We have to run!" But of course within five minutes she tired out and was back to her usual pace.
It looked like a picture from one of the storybooks in the library. A metal and fiberglass arch proclaimed, in curlicue letters, Welcome to the Dinkley Fair! Colorful fiberglass balloons sprouted from its top, next to a few real balloons tacked on for good measure.
It was fifteen dollars for me, plus another ten for Shanti. I saw the sign that said that if she'd been a year younger she could have gotten in for free, and kicked myself for not going last year. That was twenty five. Plus bus fare, both ways, that made thirty nine. And this was before we actually got inside to be assaulted by the expensive temptations of hotdogs and carousels and shows. I'd brought granola bars and crackers and filled a water bottle at home, but they took my bottle at the gate. "No outside food or drink," they said, but fortunately didn't check my purse.
Shanti's eyes grew huge when we walked inside. I inhaled the smell of straw and sugar that permeated the air as she tugged me in one direction, and then another. We walked past the aisle of games and watched a teenage boy in a wifebeater show off for his girlfriend at the high striker. He slammed down the hammer and watched the puck lazily move up and stop short of the bell by a good foot and a half.
"Step right up and test your strength!" called the operator, a weaselly little man who seemed way too enthusiastic.
"He's very strong," I said to Shanti, pointing to the teenager.
"Just like Daddy! Daddy was strong, right mama?" She looked up at me, trusting and innocent.
"That's right sweetie," I lied. Well, it wasn't entirely a lie. Dan was strong enough to lift me up over his shoulder. His words were strong enough to get me into bed. And I did, if only to prove to myself that I did like boys after all. But he wasn't strong enough to stick around.
It was a stupid thing to do. College, future, family, all gone when the second little blue line showed up on the pregnancy test. My family kicked me out when I told them I wouldn't marry him even if he were around, and I lost my scholarship because of the stupid morality clause.
Not that I didn't love Shanti – she was the best thing in my life. But I always wondered what could have been if I'd just accepted who I was. Or at least waited until graduation to have her, so that the loan officers at the bank wouldn't have a reason to sneer down their noses and tell me I wasn't a trustworthy investment.
I had no idea where Dan was, and had no desire to know. But as far as Shanti was concerned, her dad was a hero, killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan. It was better that way.
We went from booth to booth. Shanti had to check out everything, from the petting zoo (free, to my delight) to the pony rides (thirty five dollars, far too expensive for us) to every last funnel cake and hotdog stand. No monkeys or elephants, but that didn't seem to bother her at all. We stood for a full twenty minutes in front of the juggler, which was impressive for her usually minute-long attention span. How was he keeping all those balls in the air at the same time, keeping track of each one individually, while keeping a smile on his face? It was exhausting just to look at him.
The morning gray had burned off, and by the afternoon the sun beat down on us relentlessly. We'd long finished the granola bars and crackers, and I'd agreed to buy us water at extortionist prices. Five dollars a bottle, but we were still under budget. Just as we finished the water, and I was thinking that it was too hot and we should head back home, Shanti saw the ice cream stand.
Dinkley's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream, it said in peeling pink letters. A man of indeterminate age – he could have been forty or sixty – stood with a vintage-style paper hat. He looked like he could have been a soda jerk from the fifties. The hat worked well with his slicked-back hair, brown with touches of gray at the edges, and his horn-rimmed glasses. Even his apron matched. This wasn't the most modern of fairs, but he looked downright anachronistic.
"Mama! Mama ice cream! There's ice cream! Can we have ice cream? Pleeeeeeeeease?" Shanti begged. We were already at forty nine dollars for the day. Less than I'd budgeted for, but still not cheap.
"It's a bit expensive, sweetie," I said. "We can have ice cream at home."
"Ah, but not ice cream like this!" interrupted the soda jerk. "It tastes like childhood – just like when you were a kid."
"I'm already a kid!" said Shanti proudly.
"That's right, you are! And a kid like you probably needs ice cream all the more, or else how will you have ice cream memories as an adult?" He smiled at us.
"Mama pleeeeeeeeease." Shanti tugged at my pant leg.
I looked at the little laminated sign, tacked to the side of the booth.
A small was three dollars, which was much cheaper than the other booths. The ice cream flavors certainly were beating in the nostalgia with a baseball bat.
"Tell you what," winked the man, "you get one for your daughter, and I'll throw one in for you for free. You'll feel like a kid again. It's a good deal..."
"Mama now we have to get some! You always say we need to get good deals." Her pleading eyes became too much, and I broke.
"OK," I finally said. "Just this once."
She slowly went through the flavors, with my help on most of the harder words. (When did she learn to read this well? She was picking through the menu like a champ!) She finally decided on the Cookie Dough, and I got the Fudge Ripple.
It was hot, and the ice cream started to drip down the sides of the cone before we even got a chance to taste. I went to show Shanti how to swirl the cone around so your tongue catches all the drips, when suddenly...
I'm fourteen, sitting in Mrs. Pritchett's math class behind David. I can smell the clouds of her chalk dust from here. She's squeaking the chalk horribly on the board. I doodle in my notebook. I'm working on the sets for the school production of Romeo and Juliet, so I draw a few design ideas for the balcony. I still have to figure out how to build the structural supports to keep it up when Mrs. Pritchett mentions something about hexagons being made of little triangles, and that's how you calculate their area. Hang on. I read somewhere that honeycomb shapes were really great for supports. We don't have much wood, but I bet with a strong enough hexagonal structure I could build the base out of cardboard. Samantha interrupts me to pass a note to David. She's wearing vanilla body spray today, which is really nice. It's cute on her. All the girls love David, but I really don't get it. He makes gross jokes and plays football and always has a vacant stare over a doofy grin. I pass the note and return to the doodles. I really like building the sets. Not just the design, but also figuring out how to keep them standing and moving. I think I'll be an architect. Four more periods until I can go backstage and test this hexagon idea. The clock drags from tick to tick... I swear it's slowing down. I keep doodling. Maybe I can build the trellis with hexagons too, so Romeo can actually climb it....
… and suddenly, I was back at the fair, holding an empty cone and Shanti's hand. What the hell was that? Not a flashback or a memory... it felt real. Like I was really there again. Like I hadn't yet turned fifteen, or eighteen, or twenty and gotten a kid and two jobs to make ends meet.
I looked at the man suspiciously. He winked. "Takes you back, doesn't it?" he said with a smile.
I was being ridiculous. Probably just the heat, I thought, shaking it off. Too many nostalgia-like prompts and too much sun.
Shanti, meanwhile, seemed unperturbed. In full sugary bliss, she was attacking her ice cream from all sides. Her mouth was smeared and sticky, as were her hands and the front of her hand-me-down overalls with flowers on them. I was glad she'd picked something based in vanilla and not chocolate. Fewer stains to worry about. I cleaned off Shanti as best I could with a napkin, and begged an ice cube from the nearby soda booth to do a better job with water. There were only porta-potties here, no proper place with sinks.
Shanti fell asleep on my lap on the bus ride home. Such an angel, I thought. I wished I could spend more time with her. But with my work schedule, it got hard. Our neighbor Miss Grumble would take in the neighborhood kids during the day as a makeshift daycare. Much cheaper than a real daycare. For somebody named Grumble, she had an amazingly cheerful disposition. Kids loved both her and the panoply of Fisher Price toys she'd collected over the years as the local kids (including her own) grew up and moved on.
So instead of walking her the four blocks over to Miss Grumble's, I surprised her by taking her to the bus stop. It wasn't until we were on the bus that she figured it out, and shrieked her delight.
At the fair, I found myself drawn back to the ice cream booth, like a magnet drawn unerringly to the north. The man gave me a knowing smile. It was nine fifteen in the morning. Who on earth goes to a fair at nine fifteen in the morning, much less gets ice cream at that hour? It was cloudy and gray again - not ice cream weather.
Shanti started screaming "Ice cream! Ice cream! We're gonna eat all the ice cream!" in a hyper sing-song voice as she marched around in little circles. Ordinarily I would have asked her to calm down, but we were the only ones around so I let her have her fun.
She was able to calm down enough to order, though. I got her a Cotton Candy cone, and got a Lemonade Stand cone for myself. This was for Shanti. Not for me. Not my personal escape. I was sure I could convince myself if I thought it enough times.
Dinkley, as I now thought of him, smiled knowingly and said "It's powerful stuff, isn't it?" He scooped out cold creamy spheres onto the cones.
This time, I watched Shanti take her first ecstatic lick. There was nothing unusual about it. She was acting exactly as a hyper four year old should act when given a surprise treat two days in a row. She continued her sing-song to the cone itself. "I'm gonna eat you, ice cream in my belly." An adorable reaction, but an unexceptional one. Surely there was nothing special about this ice cream, other than that it was delicious. I was being ridiculous. Too many late nights, not enough sleep, that was all.
Hesitating for only a moment, I took my first lick.
I'm seven, and at home after school. I'm sitting at the kitchen table, covered in its plasticky red and white checked tablecloth. It's a little bit bumpy. I've already finished my worksheet of homework and I'm building with cardboard. Laina, my doll, needs a doctor's office. How can she be a doctor without an office? I carefully choose a piece of cardboard from my stack in the closet. I collect cardboard. You can build anything out of cardboard. My family and friends and even some neighbors know how much I need it, so they bring it over. I get old tissue and cereal boxes, boxes from appliances, the stiff backing that came on pads of paper... and I use all of it. I even like the smell of cardboard, but I don't tell people this because it might sound weird. Nobody's here now, though, so I take a deep sniff. I measure out some squares and rectangles with my ruler, and carefully cut them out with my best pair of scissors. They have a purple handle, and everybody knows purple is the best. I put the pieces together with hidden scotch tape, and now Dr. Laina has a table the patient can sit on. She would have patients of different sizes, though, so I should make a couple of different tables so that Teddy Bear and Ducky McBubbles can get check-ups too. She needs her doctor tools, too, so I cut out a stethoscope, some of those little triangle hammers they hit your knees with, and a tongue depressor. I grab my markers and start to decorate...
...and just like that, I was back at the fair again, back to the crushing weight of reality. My cone was empty. The only evidence I'd actually eaten it was a lingering hint of sweet lemon on my tongue.
This was unreal. It felt like I was there, seven years old and my biggest worry was making sure I didn't get marker on the tablecloth. Like I could build anything and make it real, with energy to change my little world.
"Buddy," I said to the man, "what the hell is up with this?"
"Hm?" he asked. "It's old-fashioned ice cream! We even churn it by hand. People say it tastes like childhood." He gave another one of his winks. Honestly, who winks this much?
"And how... um... literal is that meant to be?" I asked, feeling stupid as I heard the words come out of my mouth.
"As literal as you want it to be," he said, and started whistling. That's all I was going to get out of him, I guessed.
I'd forgotten about the cardboard doll accessories. I'd built my dolls everything they could possibly need. Sometimes I didn't even like store-bought chairs and necklaces for dolls because they weren't the perfect size or color – I was able to make the perfect sizes and shapes for the things I wanted to do out of cardboard. Old toilet paper tubes were turned into round boxes for hair elastics and barrettes, some for me and some for the dolls. I wondered why that memory came up, of all things? And was it really just a memory? It felt more real than that.
I looked down at Shanti, who was licking her fingers. What would she make when she was be seven? Would she even like making things? She still had so much ahead of her, so much to discover. I felt a twinge of regret for the things that I would no longer discover. I would never be that architect I used to want to be, after dropping out of college. It just wasn't practical, and there were bills to pay.
I missed that hope for the future. Seven-year-old me would be disappointed, I think.
"Once upon a time there was a woman named Janelle. She liked to build things. She built dollhouses and stage balconies and even built a part of a house with Habitat for Humanity when she was in college. One day she met a wonderful man named Dan. Jenelle and Dan loved each other very much, and built something more incredible than anything Jenelle had built before. It was a beautiful baby girl! And her name was Shanti and they both loved her to pieces." I tickled her belly as I pulled the covers over and gave her a kiss. "I love you sweetie. Good night."
I went back into the kitchen to juggle the bills. We were in better shape than we used to be. College loans, for all the good that they did me, were almost paid off. The double fair day made things a little tight. And Shanti would need a new pair of shoes pretty soon. No pizza night this month, or next month, and I could probably pick up an extra shift or two to get us back on track.
But somehow, instead of walking to the bus stop for the 74, I found myself back at the stop for the 38. And I found myself sitting on the same worn seats and walking into the fair alone. I couldn't explain it – it was like someone else's legs had stepped into mine, and operated them like puppets.
The usual calculations of fare plus entry plus cost of missed shift didn't even enter my mind until I walked past the fair's entrance, past the sign that said "Last day, last chance!" in big green letters. I vaguely remembered texting Christine on my pre-paid Nokia to tell the manager I was sick as I wafted, moth-like, to the ice cream vendor's stand.
Dinkley gave me that obscure, knowing smile, with a slight nod. "I thought you might be back. Sometimes it takes people a few times to really get what they need."
I ordered a cone of the Birthday Banana Split and thrust my wrinkled dollar bills into his hand. I needed to try this again. Needed to understand what was going on. But more than anything else, needed that escape into hope for just a few minutes. Needed that blissful release of the tiredness and tension, that sudden infusion of energy that I'd lost over the last few years. I took a lick...
I'm four and a half. I'm laying on my stomach on the scratchy living room rug with my feet in the air. I have the best ever set of markers. They smell! The orange one smells like orange and the brown one smells like chocolate. I don't like brown very much for coloring, but I really love the smell. I draw pretty pictures with my right hand with the red, which is good for flowers but smells like gross cough syrup, and I hold the brown to my nose so I can smell chocolate instead. It touched my nose! Hee hee now I have a brown nose, like a dog! The president has a brown dog. One day I'm going to be the president too. I'm going to be the first president ballerina fairy there ever was. I grab a new piece of paper and start to draw that. I probably won't get a dog though when I'm president. Dogs are kind of slobbery. I draw me, with a flag (gross cough syrup and ok blueberries) and fairy wings (nice strawberry and yummy grape) and some grass (lime)...
...and I was back at the fair again with an empty cone. Stunned yet again. Not a memory, but a... well, a re-experience. Dinkley was again uninformative, but I guessed it wouldn't matter. It was the last day, after all. Back to reality I would go.
This must be what it was like for Shanti now. The whole world was still at her feet, with endless possibilities. And they weren't even unlikely possibilities at that age. Of course I was going to be the first president ballerina fairy. Or later, an architect. There wasn't even a question about it. No harsh real life coming in, no bills to pay, nothing to stand in the way. Shanti wanted to be an astronaut or a teacher, depending on the day. And of course she would be.
Shouldn't I be a better example for her about that?
I took the 38 home but took a transfer to the 55. I would get to the diner only ninety minutes late, and planned to just tell them that I was feeling better. They probably hadn't found someone to cover my shift anyway. The bus rumbled over the bridge. Someone had left the local newspaper on the seat next to me, open to page four. As I picked it up a folded section flopped out from within. On it there was a large ad for a community college with night classes in architecture.
I tore out the whole page with the ad. Next year Shanti would be in kindergarten, which would mean daycare savings. I could do this. I could get it all back. Get the hope, the ability to build my world the way I wanted. And to make sure Shanti could do the same. Set a better example for Shanti.
I pulled out my phone and dialed the number for admissions.
This story originally appeared in Crossed Genres.