As soon as I say I’ve come for a soda, Al squares himself up behind the counter, ready for action. In front of him is a glass-topped freezer for the ice cream tubs. There are three flavors only: strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. As with the rest of the shop the flavors are nothing fancy, yet everyone is guaranteed one they like. On a narrow counter behind him are the tools of his trade: the shake maker and the ice shaver, various stainless steel containers for mixing floats and malteds, and tall glasses, some tapered at the bottom, others straight, for pouring the thick, foaming result into. On the scarred and flaking cream-colored wall hangs a black felt board with red plastic letters stuck in it, crookedly listing the offerings: phosphates, malts, shakes, floats and sundaes. There’s enough room to list various syrup flavors, too.
Al plants his hands firmly on the ice cream freezer, eager to get going and perhaps using the freezer for a little support at the same time. He eyes me expectantly, bushy grey brows waggling. Even if you’re a regular, which I am, Al always allows that just this once you might surprise him.
There are now two ways I can go. The pleasure of getting something at Al’s soda fountain is equal parts the exquisite delight of that first sip of something cold, sweet, rich and made just for me, and the enjoyment I take in Al’s company. I can order one of my favorites, which will get me my soda fountain fix quickly. But, if I have time to spare, I can stretch out the pleasurable agony of anticipation by perusing the board, pretending this is the first time I’ve looked at it carefully. This will give me a chance to chat with Al and prolong the experience as much as possible.
“Tell me again what Tiger’s Blood is,” I say. Ignoring that this is at least the tenth time I’ve asked, Al rubs his chin as if he, too, has to think about it.
“Why, it’s strawberry and coconut syrup.”
I make a wrinkly face. “Not my taste,” I tell him.
“The kids like it,” he says with a shrug.
“I bet there’s a bit to do with just saying the name out loud, too, don’t you think?”
“Could be,” says Al and then wheezes out a laugh. “Heh, heh, heh.”
Moving on I ask, “Do you have hot fudge today?” even though I never order ice cream sundaes. Al knows this, but he opens the fudge lid, peers in as if the contents are a mystery, shakes his head in dismay and says,“Yup. Plenty. Want a sundae?”
“Ice cream sundae? Hmmm. Well, no. Probably not today.” I stare into the frosty glass of the ice cream freezer “So Al. How’s the malt powder holding up?” I have good reason to ask this. Chocolate malteds are one of my two favorites. I can’t get enough of malt and always ask Al to put more and more in until the malt flavor nearly masks the chocolate. I’m a major cause of Al going through his supply faster than usual.
Al unscrews the lid of the malt powder jar and shows me it’s over half full. “Might be just enough for you,” he says. He glances at me, his mouth firmly turned down to keep from laughing. I stare at the board pretending I need inspiration. “I could make you a malted. Chocolate, right?” I can tell he’s trying to second-guess me.
Read Part Three!