Great. Just great. I flipped on my blinker and maneuvered my rental off the interstate and onto the ramp into a sleepy little town. Jane Lew wasn’t any old hamlet, though. It held a trove of dusty memories – some good, some not.
“With any luck,” I said, turning the Sunfire onto Hacker’s Creek Road, “I won’t have to beg an old lady for the use of her john.”
After eight hours on the road alone, I’d resorted to carrying out one-sided conversations with the bobbling hula dancer on the dashboard. The oppressive July heat whipped my tie in the car’s wind tunnel. Its a/c had crapped out less than an hour after I pulled off the rental lot. There’s something about the air out in the country that you can’t get in the big cities.
“The gas station!” I pulled into the rundown Exxon and parked in front of a rusted-out ice bag cooler. “Ethel will have to share her cookies with someone else this time.”
Stepping out of the car, my eyes couldn’t help but wander over to Lou’s Dairy King next door. Many a little league game had been played in the ballfield across the road from it. The old ice cream stand hadn’t changed a bit. Maybe if I’ve got a minute or two. A jagged row of rotten logs still marked the front of the empty gravel lot. The waving cone atop the small whitewash shack had lost its mechanical arm sometime in the last decade.
My nostalgia merged with the dank coldness of the convenient store. I had tried to avoid stopping here on the way to my conference in Ohio. Not that I didn’t love the place. Quite the opposite, in fact. A part of me wanted to cling to those perfect memories of how I remembered the town. Coming back would change all of that.
“They took away the movie rack.” My heart sank a little as I rounded the last aisle and wove between a couple of fishermen discussing their favorite spots on Stonewall Lake.
My cousin and I came here all of the time growing up to get our horror fix with the newest VHS rentals. Thanks to that old wire rack, I had been introduced to “The Lost Boys” as well as other modern classics. Oh, well. C’est la vie. Having done my business, I thanked the middle-aged woman behind the counter and strode back out into the swampy air.
The aroma of fresh dairy treats tugged me by my nostrils next door. I meandered up to the worn wooden counter and waited for the young girl at the kitchen sink to meet me on her side.
“Afternoon,” she said, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Sorry about that. I was just catching up on some of the dishes.”
I held up an open hand. “No problem. I understand.”
“What can I get you?” Her youthful hazel eyes lit up along with her smile.
I scanned the weathered menu to the right of the small sliding glass window. “A blackberry cyclone sounds great right about now.”
She scratched my order onto her pad. “That’s our bestseller.”
I fished a five out of my wallet. “I’d believe it.”
She took my bill to her register and broke the change.
“How’s Lou?” I asked.
Her mouth dropped at both corners. “We had to put granddaddy in a home in town.” She walked over and set my change in my upturned palm. “Alzheimer’s.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “He’s not doing too well.”
“He always remembered my name and my favorite flavor every time.”
The girl turned and scooped the vanilla ice cream into a silver cup. “He doesn’t even know who I am anymore.”
She may have let loose a few sniffles, but the blender concealed them in its wake. “There you are,” she said, setting a Styrofoam cup in front of me. Her face still registered a deep sorrow and loss.
“I apologize. It’s none of my business.”
She sat a plastic spoon on my cup and shook her head. Her blonde locks fluttered in a fleeting breeze. “It’s not your fault. It’s better to think of him during those times anyway.”
I shoved my change into a pocket and walked over to a nearby picnic table. Several of its boards had been cupped and faded by years of exposure to the elements and neglect. Scores of people’s initials were carved into the planks, some of them encased in a heart. Smiling, I dug into my ice cream. The sweetness of the vanilla complemented the sour burst of the blackberries to perfection. The comforting flavors brought back a flood of visions in my mind.
We ran free through the fresh-cut grass in the wide meadow. Its pungent smell hung in the dense summer heat like an inviting blanket. The neighborhood kids had convened in the field for another championship showdown. As always, our hometown heroes, the Pirates, would take on a worthy challenger from the National League for the pennant. Today it happened to be the Cubs. We separated the teams out, boys and girls alike, designated the bases, and got the deciding game underway. In those days, we couldn’t afford real baseballs. So, we settled for one made from crushed scraps of paper that we wrapped in several layers of masking tape. It served its purpose and shorted the home run line.
I stood on the mound awaiting the first batter for the Bucs. My pal, Jessie, stepped up to the patch of dirt and sandstone that served as home plate.
“Leading off,” he said, waggling the wooden bat, “center fielder, Andy Van Slyke.”
I wound up and delivered the opening pitch – a slider to the outside corner. Jessie eyed the spinning ball, his face clenched up in resolve. The Louisville Slugger cut through the morning’s humidity and connected flush with my pitch.
I watched the ball fly high over my head. “It’s a deep shot to right field!”
Marcy and Pat ran back through the dew-laden turf. Neither one took their eyes off the ball sailing through the deep blue. Jessie tagged up on the huge wooden telephone pole that was first base and darted toward the tree stump at second.
“They’re back at the warning track,” I said.
Pat and his sister stopped at the line of round hay bales in the outfield. Pat sprang up over their edges and extended his glove as far as his arm would reach. We all could only watch as the powerful blast landed ten yards beyond the wall.
“Homer!” Jessie rounded second and slowed into a victory trot.
“A deep shot to right puts the Pirates up early,” I said, clapping.
Everyone whooped and cheered as he jogged across home plate in triumph. Our game went on long into late morning with the visitors mounting a comeback in the top of the sixth inning. We agreed to take a snack break for our seventh inning stretch and huddled around the old rusty 1940’s pickup in the meadow. The dilapidated truck may have been a work horse for old Bill’s farm back in the day, but now it was a haven for the neighborhood kids. Huge billowing blackberry bushes consumed most of the ancient relic. I wedged my way between the others and plucked a handful of the ripe berries from their thorny perches. A familiar blend of tangy sweetness invaded my taste buds. Marcy’s giggle fit cut our silence.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, rounding the far side of the truck’s bed.
She pointed to Pat, who poked a finger back at her and doubled over in a fit of his own. Both of their mouths had been stained purple by the snack. The rest of us lost it. Soon, everyone was pointing at one another and laughing so hard that we couldn’t see through the tears. The Pirates went on to win another league championship by the narrow margin of six to five.
I swirled the last of my ice cream at the bottom of the cup. A lot had happened since those days. My folks had sold the old place and retired to the coast to escape the harsh West Virginia winters. Of course, we all grew up and had gone our separate ways in life. The last that I had heard from mom, they had sold our old house to a nurse. It’s just a few miles up the road. You could always swing by for a quick look.
“Nah,” I muttered as my vision moistened. “Those memories are perfect as they are.”
I let the last blackberry linger in my mouth a moment longer before getting up to toss the spent container into the garbage can. I have driven tens of thousands of miles in my travels, but that half of a mile back to the interstate was the longest stretch of road by far.