The funeral had ended. The casket was buried. The dinner at the church had been eaten. The guests had expressed their sympathies and gone.
They were back at the house now, and it was just family. Helen was straightening things up, whether they needed to be straightened or not. Her Uncle Curtis was in the room with her, picking things up, studying them fondly, and setting them down again. Two people were missing.
“Where’d they go?” Helen asked her uncle.
“To Father’s study. The moment the last guest left, they both made a beeline back there to start going over his papers again. They’re going to work out to the penny what he was worth, and no matter what they learn they’ll be angry.”
Helen tried not to sigh. What else would one expect of Aunt Ava and her husband? And, she thought more charitably, what else would one expect of Uncle Curtis? He was looking at the bric-a-brac of his parents’ lives, remembering in the smallest detail how each item came to be there, each one no less a treasure than the next.
He paused in front of a display of salt and pepper shakers from all the states. He smiled wearily. “Mother once told Father how nice it would be to see all the state capitols and collect something from each of them. Presently, Father had this entire set delivered. It cost a bit, but he said it was cheaper and easier than traveling around the country the rest of his life.”
Even though she knew the story well, Helen dutifully asked: “What did Grandma say about it?”
“She told Father that as long as he had short-circuited her travel plans, the least he could have done was to also get her a set of souvenir spoons.”
Helen didn’t get a chance to point out that her grandfather had obliged, and that the spoon collection hung on the wall across the room.
“Curtis!” Curtis did not look up as his younger sister steamrolled into the living room. “Did you know that Father had stock in a tin mine?”
She huffed. “Well, I didn’t. How long have you known?”
“Since he told me. He mentioned it only once or twice afterward. It wasn’t that important to him.”
“Of course it wasn’t. It’s only one of the top-producing mines in the nation. I haven’t found any mention of dividends or a buyout. Did he ever ‘mention’ that to you?”
Ava huffed again and tore back to the rear of the old house.
Helen would liked to have gone home, but as long as Uncle Curtis and Aunt Ava were together she needed to remain to provide a meager barrier. Her uncle could take care of himself, naturally, but his father’s death seemed to have taken every breath of wind out of his sails. And Helen had long ago composed a string of unflattering adjectives to describe her Aunt Ava. Penny-pinching, gold-digging, cold-hearted, and witch were some of the nicer ones. What’s more, it didn’t pay to get her started on Ava’s husband, whom she would not dignify with the title of uncle.
Since the deaths of her own parents – Helen’s mother was Curtis and Ava’s baby sister – it had been Curtis who had done his best to provide the love and direction she had needed in her life, becoming a surrogate father in her late teens and early 20s. Ava and her husband had taken all the property Helen’s parents had owned and put it in a trust until Helen was 25. They had also taken a hefty bite of it as payment for their work.
It wasn’t long before Ava was back. “Curtis! Do you know where Father’s diaries are? He’d have written about the tin mine in his diaries.”
Curtis made a noncommittal shrug. “He kept them in his study, so far as I knew.”
“Well, they’re not there now. Or maybe they are, buried under all that stuff he kept. We’re going through a folder he marked ‘Financial-Misc.’ Maybe it’ll tell me something about the tin mine.” She began to beetle out of the room again but stopped. She spoke more quietly, almost gently for her. “For Pete’s sake, Curtis. Father was 97 years old. There’s no need for you to act like a 10-year-old orphan.” Then she trudged back to her work.
With that, Curtis headed out the door and Helen could see his head disappear as he walked down the front steps. She set down the magazines she was holding and followed him. He was standing at the end of the walk up to the house, apparently thinking about which direction to go. “Going somewhere, Uncle Curtis?”
“Just … out for a bit, Helen. I don’t want to be in there when Ava discovers that Father sold his interest in the tin mine back to the owner for precisely the price he paid in the first place. Some of the glass in the windows won’t withstand the note she’s going to hit.”
Helen grimaced. “Is that in Grandfather’s diary?”
“Yes. But it’ll also be in that folder she found. She’s never going to locate Father’s diaries; I’ve seen to that. Those alone are safe from her prurient interest.” He quickly shifted gears, as though such an admission was distasteful for his niece to hear. “I thought I’d take a little walk. Want to come along?”
Helen looked over her shoulder at the house. “Please.”
And because he had to pick a direction, Curtis turned right, toward downtown. Helen took his arm and walked alongside.
“It’s been a hard day for you,” she said.
“Yes. And expecting it, knowing it had to come, has made no difference. Losing Mother those fourteen years ago was the worst blow I’d ever received. So I came to hang on to Father ever more tightly. Even these last months, when the proof of the diagnosis became more evident by the day, I would sometimes kid myself that he would always be here.” He sighed, a small puff of air lost in the spring breeze. “There’s no more kidding.”
They walked across a street and half a block before he spoke again.
“Of course, I have had the inexpressible luxury of waiting until late in my life before losing my parents. Of having their love and company and advice for so many years. I still grieve that you were denied that luxury.”
“So do I.”
They walked in silence again and the blocks of well-kept homes and lawns gave way to the bustle of Main Street. Curtis stopped and looked around.
“All these people. Each with his own life and his own concerns. None of them aware of the loss we have suffered. And we are unaware of what each of them might mourn. Or celebrate. It all gets smoothed over, homogenized, in the ordinary processes of daily living.” He gestured slightly up and down the street. “All our griefs and our joys, our fears, our failings, our victories … all leveled in these 12 blocks of commerce. Our mourning clothes are out of place here, and if we step into this river we will bring something grim and unwanted with us. They will all know it. They will glance at us and then look away so as not to catch whatever it is we have, because they have errands to run and business to tend to.”
Helen looked at the familiar tableau for a moment, taking in what her uncle had said. Then she looked up slightly into his face. “Tell me again about the medal you won in high school for extemporaneous oratory.”
A chuckle was forced from Curtis’s belly and he smiled a real, if brief, smile for the first time in many days. “I’m obviously still in good form.”
“You always have been.” Helen pointed across the street. “Let’s get some ice cream. I’ll treat.”
“You most certainly shall not while I’m around.”
They crossed Main Street with the light and kept walking to the middle of the next block. Off of Main proper, as it had been for generations, was the ice cream parlor. Curtis paused outside and looked at the old building. The sign announced that it was the home of the Cream Conexion. Sheets of stick-on anti-glare film kept passers-by from seeing much inside.
“This was the Frozen Fields Ice-Cream Parlor in my day. Run by Mr. and Mrs. Avelin back in the long-ago days when a hyphen – a wedding band as seen from above – kept the ice and the cream together before they, like the rest of the modern world, started living separate lives and seeing other words. No one calls it a parlor anymore, either,” Curtis said. “This, too, has been reduced to being merely a store, and ice cream merely a good that is bought and sold and used.”
He opened the door for his niece and they went in. They both stopped just inside, looking around.
“It’s been a while since we’ve come here,” Helen said softly.
“Longer than I had realized.”
Curtis certainly had not expected to see the bright, white room of his youth, with tasteful, understated wallpaper. The metal chairs with the heart shapes in the backs and the ornate, round, metal tables were as long gone as the peppermint-striped jackets Mr. and Mrs. Avelin had worn. But now, even the more space-age stylings the shop had taken on in Helen’s day had been replaced with dark, garish, angular things. The booths had been allowed to become decrepit and the tables were square and hand-painted in unmatched colors. A noise today’s youths doubtless called music didn’t quite blare from speakers precariously perched on boxes in two corners. The peppermint jackets had given way to orange safety vests that Curtis idly suspected had been stolen from a road crew.
Curtis paid a bored girl at the counter for two chocolate sundaes. Helen selected a booth that appeared to be less worn than its neighbors and they sat across from each other. Curtis looked around and saw a couple of handfuls of teenagers furtively staring at him and Helen before ducking their heads.
“They’re being quiet,” he noted. “That’s more than I expected.”
Helen’s mouth quirked into a wry smile. “Remember what you taught me: ‘There are two possible teenage responses to an adult’s presence. The first is to make a lot of noise to drive the invader away. The second is to get very quiet so that important teenage business is not overheard.'”
During earlier, happier visits to this place, in its incarnation as the Dairy Delight, Curtis would remove the maraschino cherry from the top of his sundae and place it gently next to the one on young Helen’s. The Cream Conexion apparently didn’t believe in maraschino cherries, and so this remembered habit was denied them today. Helen smiled a little sadly and shrugged.
They toyed with their ice cream in silence, letting the teenagers wonder about them. Helen finally thought of something to say to distract Curtis, momentarily, from his grief and his surviving sister.
“I remember you telling me about coming here on dates … about the time you won the oratory medal.”
He nodded. “About that time, yes.” He stopped with that and Helen thought perhaps she had picked the wrong subject, but then her uncle started up again, almost smiling. “I’m sure I practiced my oratory on those poor girls, but they always seemed to be pleased to be with me. Of course, I had just bought them ice cream. As you’ve proved over the years, one can listen to almost any drivel so long as the ice cream holds out.”
Helen smiled at him, as much to be encouraging as anything, and he continued with his reminiscence.
“Money was tight in those days, as it so often is. A date meant sharing a soda at the ice-cream parlor. One soda, two straws. I know that’s cliché, but it was nearly affordable. After that, there was little to do but walk in the park – and maybe, just maybe, hold hands.”
Curtis began to warm up to his subject, as Helen had seen him do so many times and had hoped he would do again now.
“Sharing a chocolate soda was a test, and there were many ways to fail. There was the desire to drink as much as one could of the delicious, thick, cold treat. This desire was balanced by the desire to share because sharing was a virtue, especially with the person who had purchased the soda for both of you. These desires were in competition while the soda lasted. For the person whose dime paid for the soda, there was the added incentive of getting one’s money’s worth. And then the counterbalance to do the knightly thing and let her have just a little more to show her she’s worth the sacrifice.
“Further, most of us in that era were raised with the knowledge that the Lord was watching our every move, His pen poised over our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life, ready to scratch them out on account of selfishness or greed.” He paused reflectively. “A shared soda was once a battleground of good and evil.”
“How did you fare in that battle?” Helen asked, a little mischievously.
Curtis shrugged. “The girls kept coming here with me. I must have done all right by their standards, even if not by the Lord’s. I trust He will take that into account at my final reckoning.” Another pause. “Although … if Father was right, He may not see another spiritual war over sodas my way.”
Helen tipped her head. “What was that?”
Curtis was quiet, remembering. “Josiah Fenster was the richest boy in school.” He saw Helen’s eyebrows shoot upward at the name but ignored it. “His parents owned the mill, which was an important business then. So he always had a dime for a chocolate soda of his own. Every day. No sharing. This, naturally, annoyed some of us whose parents were not so well off. One day, I practiced my preaching on him and told him that God looked without favor on those who were greedy, gluttonous, and selfish. Josiah seemed to withstand my sermon pretty well and nothing changed.”
He smiled. “But word got to Father about my effort. I was helping him do some maintenance on our old Rambler when he broached the subject. It was his considered opinion that I was motivated less by charitable concern for Josiah’s spiritual well-being than I was by the desire for Josiah to spread the largesse around in my direction. I denied this, of course. I said, ‘Father, I was merely trying to bring Josiah to the side of the angels. He could give a few of those dimes to the missionary society, or treat poor children who never get ice cream. I considered it my Christian duty to point out to Josiah the error of his ways.’
“Father made an odd noise, which I think was a mix between an angry snort and a laugh. He made that noise a lot when I was a young man. It gradually tapered off as I got older. For the most part. He said, ‘Well, Curtis, if‘ – and he hit that word hard – ‘if you can get the Almighty to go along with that, I guess I will too. But you’re going to have to do some faster talking to Him than you did to Josiah Fenster.'”
Helen laughed and Curtis smiled at her. “Looking back on it, that was the incident that ended any budding career I may have had in the pulpit. If I couldn’t convince a fellow schoolboy to stop being a greedy pig, and if I couldn’t convince my own father of the uprightness of my efforts, what chance did I have of saving souls from Satan’s clutches?”
“And thus it is,” she chimed in, “that you taught high school history for 40 years.”
“And somehow, through my bad example, inspired you to do likewise. Speaking of being in Satan’s clutches.”
She laughed, and so did he.
And then, just that quickly, the moment was broken, and Curtis’s grief returned its full weight to his shoulders.
“I suppose we should head back to the house,” he said quietly. Helen nodded and they stood. At the corner, they waited for the light to change and walked across the street in silence.
As they neared the house, Curtis stopped and turned to Helen.
“Father had a good, long life. He enjoyed his life, which is more than so many, many people can say. My grief is not for what he has lost, but for what I cannot have again. I want more. I am as greedy for time as Josiah Fenster ever was for chocolate sodas. And as greedy as your Aunt Ava was for Josiah’s money, which is why she married him. She’s so unlike the rest of us; Father and Mother never understood her, but they loved her anyway.
“She’s in there trying to wrest every dime she can from what they had. I would give away all I own to be able to hug them again, just once.”
They started walking again and Helen pulled close to her uncle. As they went slowly up the stairs they could hear Ava shrieking madly.
“He gave the IBM stock to the damned church! No wonder they could afford a new bell tower. How could he do this to me, Josiah? The mine! The stocks! He could have been rich! Damn him! Why did he do this to me? Curtis! Curtis!”
Curtis didn’t bother to sigh as he opened the door, but Helen did as she entered the house behind him.