When I push open the glass-paned door to the soda fountain, a hanging bell tinkles a discreet invitation to stay awhile. It jingles again as the door clicks shut, leaving the billowing skiffs of dust that were accompanying me to blow on down the sidewalk in the searing dry breeze.
It’s as if I’ve stepped onto a movie set of 1950s small town America. But this is my town and it’s the 21st century. Inside the long, narrow shop it’s warm enough to inspire thoughts of thirst, but cool enough to be calmed by dust motes slowly rising and falling in front of the smudged street window. A wood bench, thoughtfully positioned with its back to the glare, is empty of visitors. From somewhere I can’t place, a radio turned down low twangs out country tunes. Outside, the sputtering rumble of diesel pickups slowly cruising Main Street on this sultry summer day, recedes.
At the front counter is a hodge-podge of handy items: envelopes, miniature sewing kits, small bottles of Elmer’s glue, candy bars, gum, thin notepads. There’s a bin of single pens, another with single pencils. No multi-packs here. Farther in are tiered glass shelves with plaster bears, elk, moose in heroic poses, resting next to pale busts of angelic babies and cute china figurines. Stacked at the rear are small boxes and vacuum-sealed sacks of children’s toys, mingled with racks of greeting cards left over from previous seasons, perhaps stored and unpacked as the holidays repeat themselves.
Not being assaulted by anything remotely related to any current trend is refreshing. But, the most comforting and heartening sight of all is seeing Al at his usual place, ready to make an ice cream shake or flavored seltzer to order.
Al always seems startled to discover someone has entered his shop. Most likely the bell was installed to alert him a customer was here. Yet even with a hearing aid, the bell isn’t always enough to catch his attention. Besides, Al’s in constant motion, a short, slightly stooped whirlwind of activity, wiping ice cream bins, checking inventory, washing glasses. He’s focusing so hard on the upkeep that it’s not till I’m directly in front of him that he notices me. When he does, his head pops up, his eyes, cloudy with age, brightening.
“Well, hello there,” he says, a quick smile displaying some old-fashioned dental reconstruction. “Fancy meeting you here!” This is followed by, “Where you been,” and “What can I getcha,” welcoming one-liners which he flings out with the smoothness of long habit.
There are certain things that Al’s soda fountain is not. Besides not trendy, it’s also not fancy. There’s no polished chrome countertop, no griddle a-sizzle with burgers and there are no leatherette swivel stools. No stools at all, actually. But there’s always Al, all slightly shrunken, five foot two of him, dressed in a faded plaid shirt and khaki pants. The hearing aid is firmly planted in his ear, his sparse grey hair combed neatly back on his skull. At 84 years old, his hands don’t shake and he doesn’t need glasses.