One recent, uncomfortably warm day, I was sitting on the back porch with my teenage son, Alyosha. We knew there were things we could do to cool off, but the heat had imbued us with a stifling inertia. "I'd like to go swimming," Alyosha said, "but it's too hot to even get up."
I thought for a second about what my heart's desire of the moment would be. And then it came to me. "An ice cream soda," I voiced.
My son threw me a quizzical look.
I returned his gaze. "A nice, cold, old-fashioned ice cream soda. That's what I'd like to have right now."
Alyosha tried to connect. "You mean a float?" he offered.
"Nope. An ice cream soda." I went on to tell him about Mr. Riley's corner store in my New Jersey town in the 1960s. How we'd go in there on hot summer days, all of us kids, and line up along his counter. Then we'd watch, with eyes wide and mouths open, as Mr. Riley, with practiced skill, prepared ice cream sodas in tall, fluted glasses, jetting them up with seltzer until he had created veritable Everests of foam half as big as the glasses themselves.
"I don't think I've had a real ice cream soda since then," I concluded.
"Why not?" my son asked. "Don't they make them anymore?"
I nodded reflectively. "Oh, they make them," I admitted, "but not like they used to."
He rolled his eyes. I could read his expression: Oh no, not another "not like they used to" story from Dad. But before he could escape I had whisked him off in my truck. "Where are we going?" he begged.
Within a few minutes I had pulled up in front of Pat's, a small restaurant in my northern Maine town. Pat's has been there since 1931, and very little about the place has changed. If anyone could make an ice cream soda - an ice cream soda in the strict sense of the phenomenon - they could.
When we walked in, my son headed straight for a booth, but I upended him. "Oh, no," I corrected, "over here." I dragged him right to the counter and directed him to take a stool. "You've got to sit at the counter for an ice cream soda," I lectured. "And you've got to rest your elbows on the countertop, like this." Alyosha watched skeptically as I demonstrated the technique. Then I gave the place the once over: ceiling fans, linoleum tile floor (well worn), wooden booths, soda fountain. The ambience was perfect.
A waitress approached on the opposite side of the counter. "What'll you boys have?" she asked as she arranged our place settings.
"May I ask you a question?"
The waitress shrugged.
"How long have you worked here?"
Sandy - I later learned her name - cracked a beguiling smile. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Perfect!" I exclaimed, and several patrons jumped in their booths. "Listen," I continued, leaning across the counter. "Can you make an ice cream soda?"
Sandy waved me off. "Are you kidding? Of course."
I rolled my hands in anticipation and began to enumerate the ingredients. "Vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, a dash of cream... "
" ... And seltzer," said Sandy, picking up the beat.
"In a fluted glass?"
"A paper straw?"
Sandy frowned. "We use plastic now. Can't get the paper straws anymore."
Well, one couldn't have everything. "Ma'am," I announced, sitting bolt upright on my stool, "two ice cream sodas."
Alyosha had watched the negotiations with all the focus of a spectator at Wimbledon. Now both he and I looked on as Sandy prepared our ice cream sodas with a panache that would have done Mr. Riley proud. First the ice cream, then the syrup, cream, and finally, before our very eyes, she placed the glasses under the fountain head, yanked on the handle, and discharged a violent stream of seltzer, creating a froth that took me back 30 years in the instant.
Sandy placed the sodas before us, stepped back, and folded her hands. She hovered with cautious abandon, watching anxiously, as I directed my son to take a sip. "What do you think?" I asked after his first taste of the ambrosia.
He swallowed, turned his eyes to me, and nodded. "Good," he pronounced.
I quickly seized my straw and, with one eye on Sandy, took my own inaugural sip.
A few seconds passed. "Dad," prompted Alyosha, breaking the silence. And then, "Dad!"
Still bent over my soda, I slowly rotated my head his way.
"How is it?" he asked.
I nodded, first to Sandy, and then to my son. "Alyosha," I said, barely able to speak, "I am so happy now that I could burst."
And that's how Sandy came to tell the story of the $5 tip for a check that came to only $2.50.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society