Middlesex Dairy could be called a dairy only because ice cream was made on the premises. It was a short-order restaurant serving nothing more complicated than tuna-salad sandwiches and fried clams, one of the few places in town where you could order food or ice cream.
The owner and his wife traveled around the U.S. in a Winnebago. The business was left in the hands of Brad, the manager, a tall man in his 40s who lived with his wife and five kids in a town 45 minutes away. All we knew about his past was—one—that he’d been in Korea and—two—everyone kidded him about his previous job as a Mister Softee, driving an ice-cream truck to sell cones to little kids.
He hired me after an interview that lasted two minutes. I needed to work that summer, even for the dollar an hour the job paid, which was money for college in the fall. I reported at 4:00 every afternoon to empty the garbage cans, mop the floors, and fill the coolers with ice cream from the big freezer in the back.
By the time people had finished their suppers at home, Mary, Cliff, Alice, and I would be working non-stop. Sometimes, in those days when home air-conditioning was rare, 8 or 10 people would be lined up at each of the windows. The ice cream was fairly good, but few customers were satisfied with a scoop of ice cream or sherbet. They bought sundaes, frappes—the Massachusetts term for a milkshake made with two scoops of ice cream—and banana splits.
You got three scoops and two toppings in a banana split. The classic combination was strawberries and pineapple, but sometimes they ordered hot fudge with strawberries or hot butterscotch with pineapple. For banana splits to go, we used the large frappe containers, and the ingredients were plopped vertically into the cup, getting all mixed together: split banana, three scoops, two toppings, whipped cream or marshmallow, and nuts if desired. We had a jar of cherries in case someone asked for one, just as we kept a jar of powdered malt for the rare customer who ordered a malted.
When we closed, long after 11:00 on hot nights, I joined the others in winding down while cleaning up—joking, throwing sponges, and making outrageous sundaes we never finished eating.
One day I came to work with a bandage on my finger. It had stopped bleeding, but the gash—a paper cut—hurt when I put pressure on it. As the night wore on and I got water on it, and corn meal from the fried-clam batter, the bandage started looking frayed and dirty. I hoped the customers wouldn’t complain about my handling food with that terrible thing on my finger, so I tried to keep it out of sight, handing out cones and change with my bandage-free left hand.
Late in the evening I had a free moment to lean against the freezer in the back. At the end of a hectic hour, I had just put up five banana splits to go. I wiped the sweat from my forehead with my right hand, and I noticed that the bandage was gone.
Every spare moment—unfortunately, it became busy again—I scanned the floors, the sinks, the storage freezers, hoping for a glimpse of that revolting chunk of fabric and gauze. No luck. After 15 minutes, I asked the kids if they’d seen it. They took my desperation lightly:
“Hey, kid, there’s a toe in my hot fudge!”
“I asked for chopped nuts, not fingernails!”
“It’s all right—no extra charge!”
I could no longer postpone the next step. I went into the kitchen. “Brad, I came in with a Band-Aid on this finger. It’s missing since I put up five banana splits to go.”
The miracles I have witnessed have all been due to people’s unanticipated reactions and actions. This was one of those miracles. Brad didn’t fire me. He didn’t yell. He didn’t groan. What he said was: “Well, if somebody comes in, send them to me. I’ll say, ‘What do you mean coming around here with that and saying we put it in your order?’ ”
I stared at him, as he calmly went on filtering the fat from the deep fryer—he took on some of the dirtiest jobs himself—and I thought, Of course! In a case like this, you overwhelm the opposition with totally false and irrational assuredness. Why invite trouble by expressing doubt or apology?
I walked out of the kitchen on a cloud of wide-eyed admiration. Such nerve! Such boldness and courage! I would never again kid him about being Mr. Softee. When I was his age, would I have the same kind of common sense, asserting myself and protecting my loved ones? (The answer, it has turned out, is only now and then, but that night anything seemed possible.)
The rest of the evening, as I tried to work with one eye searching all crannies for the bandage and the other watching for the enraged customer, the fluorescent lights were brighter, the night air was exciting. My anxiety, combined with Brad’s audacity and the awareness that my welfare could depend on a bald-faced, immoral act, made it so.
This account, like the event, has to end in anti-climax. After we closed, while sweeping the floor, I found the bandage, hidden in a dark space at the foot of one of the coolers. I picked it up and showed it to everyone.
It wasn’t quite as filthy as I remembered it.