“The Dairy Queen Window” by Kirsti Sandy

04 November 2012 on Nonfiction   Tags:

During the day the front counter's windows gave you a full view of the line of customers, of the cars pulling in and out, of the traffic on Laconia, New Hampshire's Union Avenue heading to and from the beach. But at night, as you looked out at the lights and the line, you could also see your own reflection, staring at you as you asked, “What I can I get for you?” over and over.

Later, during my ten years in a Midwestern graduate school, I would realize that our Dairy Queen was much smaller, and with a more limited menu, than most. Central Illinois was the birthplace of Dairy Queen, after all. The one in Bloomington served a full fast food menu, featuring corn dogs, burgers, and fried cheese. It also had a drive-through, air conditioning and indoor seating — the Cadillac of Dairy Queens. Our Dairy Queen was a little box of a building,and when more than two people stood in the back room at the same time it felt crowded. The front counter, also called “the fishbowl,” had windows that slid open and shut, letting in the summer air with the customers' orders.

I was seventeen when I applied, and the application was more challenging than it had aright to be. It was hard to fill out in the way that only part-time, minimum-wage applications can be: you had to list things like babysitting and that mind-numbing job you quit after one week. I included Dexter Shoes, where, two steps under cashier, I had walked down the aisles of the windowless basement to scan for out-of-place boxes, because we never had any customers. I wrote down the clothing store where I had served as the living security system for the dressing room — cheaper but less observant than a camera. I had taken to hiding the hangers shoplifters abandoned on the door hooks so the manager would not notice the thefts.

The hardest part was knowing what to call the position I wanted. Business parlance seemed too formal - "Frozen dairy product salesperson"? "Dairy Queen associate"? "Ice cream clerk"? - but I worried that “ice cream scooper” would limit me professionally. Would I get stuck making soft-serve cones while the other girls were placed on banana split or ice cream soda detail?

My mother's helpful suggestion was “just say you want to be a dairy queen. Isn't that what they call the girls who work there?” I am still highly skeptical about this. It was a fact that they hired only girls for the front window. Not in a Hooters type of way but rather like the Girl Scouts — we stood for wholesome and industrious young womanhood. The tan and red shirts even looked like scout uniforms, with their collars and the sewn patch of the “D” logo on the chest.

I ended up going with “ice cream clerk” and learned from our manager, who was eighteen and in my senior class, how to fill the Mr. Misty machine and how to make Dilly and Buster bars, which we did out back, listening to the transistor radio duct-taped to a hook on the wall. I mastered the art of dipping the cones in the warm greasy coatings without having them fall in there (and remain for eternity, because I don't ever remember a protocol for cleaning them out.) The year 1985 saw the release of the Blizzard, so we tried to keep our hands out of the tins of toppings: crushed Butterfingers, Oreos, M&Ms.

We ate and tried not to eat, we pointed out cute boys and laughed about rude customers. It was easy to be generous — we were on our way to other places, so we could tolerate pompous tourists and people griping about prices and cone sizes. Every time a customer complained about the fifteen cents' charge for whipped cream, Holly explained calmly, "It's easier to charge extra than to subtract the cost for people who don't want it." I loved the looks on their faces when they asked for the manager and Holly, one inch short of five feet, would step back, then step forward again, saying, “Hello, I'm the manager.”

The Laconia Dairy Queen was ours to run as we saw fit. The manager lived in Florida and, apart from infrequent visits, rarely checked in. And still we wore our uniforms, cleaned the machines, did what we were supposed to do. There were days when a boy I liked stopped in for a cherry-dipped cone that I would give him for free, only because he was tanned from his summer construction job and because I could not resist it when he bent down and leaned his elbows on the counter to talk to me. The smell of sweaty boy would waft in the window and I would breathe it in slowly, wishing I could follow him into the haze. The fishbowl was always cold.

It was on the busiest day when I had my first encounter with a former Dairy Queen. I was waiting on a group of college girls when I noticed one of them pointing out different pieces of equipment.

“There's the cone dip, and there's that poster I put up,” she said, laughing with her friends.

“I used to work here,” she explained to me. “It hasn't changed at all! Is that Holly? Holly!”

“This happens a lot,” Holly told me later. “Sometimes they want to come in and look around. It's up to you if you want to let them.”

Holly wasn't kidding. Sometimes they were in college, sometimes older, but their excitement at seeing their old workplace was palpable. “Well, when I worked here...” the stories would begin, and regardless of our response, they would continue to tell about the day the vanilla machine conked out or a prank they had pulled by locking someone in the freezer. They wanted us to listen to these stories, to participate in the telling, even when we had a long line or it was time to start cleanup, and sometimes I would because they were older than I was, and pretty, and when you are a high school girl whose fingernails are gummy with ice cream and your hair is matted with sweat you welcome any chance to be included. Still, I didn't understand their enthusiasm. Sure, Dairy Queen was a fun place to work, but some of these people were grown women now, with babies trying their first cones, on a lake vacation with their husbands. What could be so exciting about a place that in fact looked exactly the same as it had appeared when they had left?

The second summer I worked at Dairy Queen I stayed through the fall. The boy I liked had packed off to college and I was in school, too, but my parents had decided I should commute to a local college for the first year. With all of my friends gone, I remained at Dairy Queen until it closed for the season at the end of October, and then it was just Chris and me.

Chris had permed blond hair and a slightly nervous manner; she was the only twenty-year-old I knew who was not a college student. I found out the details of her life slowly, as the fall came and the temperature of the fishbowl grew warmer than the air outside. Chris lived with her boyfriend and her two-year-old, Alicia, in an apartment. Sometimes when it was sunny out her boyfriend and Alicia would come by and Alicia would get a kiddie cone, while Chris poked her head out the sliding window to give her a kiss. Chris was considering going to school part time to major in management or business, maybe nursing. Whatever would lead to a decent job, one with benefits.

"But what do you want to do?” I asked her. I could not believe that this had not factored in. I was a psychology major, but after I realized that the first unit in my intro course was on the physiology of the five senses and not on psychosis or schizophrenia, I dropped it for English,which began and ended with dysfunction.

“Maybe I could run my own day care, so I could stay home with Alicia,” was what she finally came up with, and it seemed to me that her problem was the opposite of mine. I had all the time I could take to figure out what I wanted. Chris needed time to keep what she already had.

The last night of the season was my last night at Dairy Queen, though I didn't know it at the time. I would go on to wait tables and then, in the spring, move on campus to become a kid again, or at least to live under the illusion that I had never stopped being one. It was my first time closing the shop for the winter, and there was a lot to do. Before leaving for college in Vermont, Holly had left a detailed note, and we followed each step of her instructions. Chris agreed to deposit the money, but there was the problem of what to do with the keys. Chris didn't want to take them, because she didn't know where she would be next March. I was the more logical choice, but the idea of holding the keys over the winter made me nervous. Did that mean I would be responsible for the building?

“Let's just throw them in the lake,” Chris said, and it took me a minute to realize that she was kidding. The idea had a strange appeal, though. We could make our way down the brambles and pricker bushes and trash that covered the hill behind our parking lot and pitch them in, then say we lost them.

“Let's do it!” I said, suddenly wanting very much to make my way down that hill. We were giddy, dashing toward the trees and bushes, to this place we had never been. It was dark and cold outside but we could see enough to get by.

“Aah! I stepped in something!” Chris howled, but we didn't stop. My sweater caught on a branch and I pulled it free, and once in the woods it was too dark to see, but we kept going until we hit what seemed to be a wire fence.

“Well, that makes sense,” Chris said, practical once more. “It's a pretty steep drop to the water.”

Quieter now, we turned back, back up through the open door. We got our things, turned the lock and before closing it I threw the keys back into the building, as though they burned my hand.

Every New Year's I watch the Twilight Zone marathon on the SciFi channel. My favorite are the episodes where the main character is haunted by a past or future version of themselves,and the climax of the story is the moment when they make this discovery. The engaged woman being pursued on horseback realizes that it's her future self warning her not to go through with it; the old man on the phone discovers that the boy he is speaking to is his own childhood self. It's a fantasy, but it's meant to be horrific.

If a Dairy Queen customer had slid open the window and announced herself as my future self, and told me that I would not have a stable job for nineteen more years or a child for another twenty four, what would I have thought? We can't know these things because objective fact tells us nothing; we would not know what to do with this knowledge, and knowing even a little makes you hungry for more.

The Dairy Queen is still there, twenty six years later, and it looks the same, though it now boasts a drive-through, and boys work behind the counter along with the girls. The urge to stop by, to see the window slide open and see the chrome machinery and the rows of blizzard candies,to tell the boy or girl at the counter that I used to work there, it always hits me when I drive by. But I never have. Instead I slow down, strain my eyes to see if they still wear uniform shirts, still touch their crushes through the window while the warm air rushes in, still see their own reflections in the lit window at night, asking what they want, never quite hearing the answer.

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