More Class Than Custard by Erin Smith
“Oh, guess who burned to death?”
She said it at the end of the conversation, almost as an afterthought. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, couldn’t read anything into the monotone of her voice, didn’t quite know how to answer such a question—Jesus, didn’t know how someone could formulate such a question—so I closed my eyes and said, “I don’t know.”
I opened my eyes on my dim apartment. My VCR was paused—fuzzy gray bands ran through flesh, hair, open mouths emitting frozen groans—the crotch of my pants flattening from the sound of my sister’s voice and the morbid topic.
My life here wasn’t perfect. I was single, prematurely balding. Low paying job. Shit living.
The glow from my cracked plasma TV screen cast soft shadows on the shredded arms of my sofa and my bare, stained and split walls. In the silence, sometimes I heard music in the courtyard, trumpets and bass, and the cooing of pigeons.
But even at its worst, it still beat Oklahoma.
I didn’t miss Mom’s cupboard-cleaning soup, an opaque mishmash of corn, tomatoes, canned spinach and anything else that was around. I didn’t miss my step-dad Carl’s heavy breathing as he walked to the cooler for another Steel Reserve. I didn’t miss my sister Annabelle’s Chanel No5-over-hash scent that did more to call attention to her bloodshot eyes than it did to detract.
“Annabelle,” I said, my voice strained. “Who died?”
* * *
Okay, so fast-forward. I’m in my rusted-out Corolla, tearing down the flat, flat interstate on my way to Oklahoma; the left channel blew out of my speakers miles ago, so when “Baba O’Reilly” comes on it sounds one-dimensional and stripped bare—like Super Bowl XLIV.
I sing along anyway. It is only teenage wasteland.
* * *
When Annabelle was seventeen, she got a job at the drive-up ice-cream shop—Mr. Snacker’s. Now, she’s twenty-six, and still scoops and blends. Her clothes smell like sugary, rotten milk and they’re speckled with a rainbow of colors brought to you by Mars, Incorporated: Snickers, M & M’s, Twix.
Mr. Snacker’s is an architecturally unimaginative square with windows on three sides providing a 180-degree view—a field to the left, a used car lot to the right and, across the highway, in front, an eight-percent grade driveway winding up to a dark home partially obscured by trees. Annabelle always called it the “Mansion on the Hill,” and, in true deference to the Boss, ever since she was a child, she’s been looking up at that mansion.
* * *
“She has a tattoo now,” Mom whispers over the phone.
“Only one?” I say, distracted. This is not why I’m calling.
“Well, one that you can see.”
“Mom.” I feel like a petulant child. “Dad—he’s dead. Can we talk about that please?”
“Yeah, burned up in the shop.”
Dad was a lawyer. When I was five, he left us to find himself in the mountains of Colorado. I was eighteen when he came home. He’d found himself a cobbler, apparently. He set up shop right in town but continued to ignore us, his family.
“What happened?” I asked.
I could hear the shrug in her voice. “Probably had a heart attack, fell and dropped his cigarette and up went the place.”
The place was Discount Dave’s Shoe Repair. He’d been living the dream, a cot in the back of the shop where he slept cozied up to man’s best friend. He’d never been healthy. He’d never been careful.
“He never had a chance,” Mom said. “Neither did poor old Rex.”
* * *
In winter, the ice cream shop windows fog up in 180 degrees and Annabelle uses her apron to wipe holes big enough to see customers through. Or to look up at the Mansion on the Hill, see if anyone is home.
“Who lives in a place like that?” Annabelle is always asking, always wondering, always looking.
This is an unfathomable question for someone who has sold ice cream the better part of her adult life.
Oh, yeah. It’s “frozen custard”, not ice cream. I keep forgetting that. Frozen custard has more class than ice cream, Annabelle says.
“Well, we’ve got cold press coffee,” I say. “And French press coffee, which has more class than regular coffee. We’ve got gelato, Dippen Dots. We’ve got ‘frozen custard’ all over.”
I shouldn’t have said that. Oklahoma has lots going for it.
Like a frozen custard shop.
And Discount Dave’s Shoe Repair, home of the “Kustom Kut Klog.”
Oh, wait. They don’t have that anymore.
* * *
I drive into Mom’s yard and cut the engine. The porch light is out. A rectangle of dead grass sits where Annabelle’s car should be. Through the white sheets hung as blinds I see the sparkle of her Christmas tree lights.
“I don’t care if it’s March,” Mom says when she opens the door, motioning to the tree. “I didn’t get the damn thing up until after New Years and I’m gonna enjoy it, okay?”
“Working late at the ice cream shop.”
Of course Annabelle is working late. She’s as dedicated to the ice cream scoop and cone as Dad was to his stitching awl and needle. Like Dad, she’s living the dream. In another time, I can picture my sister with a cot on the floor at the back of the foggy custard shop.
My duffle bag leads me down the hall to my old room behind Mom. I stare at her back. She’s cut her hair, I think. But what am I saying? It’s been two years since I last saw her. I’m sure she’s cut her hair several times.
Inside, the room is a mess. Boxes of crafts fill the room except for the bed—aborted projects bought on impulse from late Home Shopping Network binges. I throw my bag on the bed and Mom turns to look at me.
“The visitation is tomorrow at the funeral home,” she says. “I hope you brought something nice to wear.”
I look her over: stained, baggy T-shirt (God, is she even wearing a bra?), dirty OU sweatpants and once-white, holey socks.
I shrug because I’m afraid of what I might say.
Later, in the living room, Carl and Mom sit on the couch together and nurse Captain n’ Cokes. I’m in the recliner, staring at the Christmas tree. There’s an ornament shaped like a wreath with a picture of my sister in the center, age six. She hadn’t met Dad yet, wouldn’t until she was almost fifteen, but she looked just like him.
“You look great,” Carl says. I can hear his wheezing from four feet away.
Mom stirs her drink with two fingers, licks them and cocks her head at me.
“You’ve gained weight.”
It’s true. We’ve all changed. Mom cut her hair. Annabelle has one confirmed tattoo. I’m a fat-ass.
* * *
And Dad’s a piece of jerky in a cheap metal casket at the front of the funeral home chapel.
“You didn’t cremate him?” I ask in surprise.
“Seemed cruel to finish the job,” Mom says.
You can’t argue with that logic.
Carl comes in from parking the car. He’s winded. At over three bills, Carl outweighed my father by almost a buck and half. More than that now. I wonder if I’d feel different if it were Carl in the casket instead of my real dad. Carl at least came to my high school graduation. I imagine Dad was busy smoking in his cobbler shop.
I stare at the casket and think of marshmallows, chestnuts, crackling fire logs, and when the funeral director arrives I ask if it smells.
“There is no odor, sir,” he says with the air of someone practiced in rewording horrifying things for the general consumption of the public.
“They put him in a bag and vacuum sealed it,” Mom says as if she’s talking about freezing fruit, or efficiently packing clothes.
I look around. Where the hell is my sister? She came in after I’d gone to sleep and left before I woke. Was she avoiding me?
When I look back at Mom, she’s staring at me, a somber look on her face. She sighs.
“The poor bastard kind of had it coming.”
Carl slaps me on the back and he and Mom make their way up the center aisle toward the casket.
I breathe deep. Is that barbeque I smell?
* * *
Rewind to my awkward conversation with the funeral home last night.
Mom didn’t have any info. Annabelle wasn’t around. I needed answers.
“I was just wondering if . . .” there is a hitch in my voice. “Just if you knew how he died?” I almost want to laugh instead of cry. Listen to me, voice cracking over a man who didn’t give me the time of day until I was almost twenty.
Annabelle wouldn’t have wept for this man.
“I mean . . .did he suffer?”
There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “Who is this again?”
In the silence, I hear organ music playing. “He’s my dad.”
This feels fake. I don’t have a dad. I have a Carl.
“Well, sympathies,” the man says in a monotone voice. “But we don’t really know the cause of death.”
“Aren’t you the funeral home?” I ask.
“Yes, the funeral home. Not the coroner.”
In real life, the funeral home doesn’t know why people die. No one does.
* * *
Fast forward to the graveside. It’s the Veteran’s Cemetery in the old part of town. The white headstones radiate out from us, perfectly spaced in every direction. Service to country was not a part of my dad’s past that defined him in any way, but burial is free so I know why we’re here.
I refuse to look at the thin black figure in my periphery, but her shadow falls across my scuffed dress shoes. One glance at her ankle and I see the green tattoo. I think of the Mansion on the Hill, the Ozarks spread out before me, Mr. Snacker’s hidden by the trees. I think of seeing Annabelle for the first time in two years in the foyer of the funeral home.
It’s a breezy day. The minister drones on about ashes to ashes and dust to dust as a chain clinks relentlessly against a nearby flagpole.
* * *
The luncheon is at Mom’s house. It’s cupboard-cleaning soup and a crock-pot of meatballs. She has the serving table set up by the Christmas tree. Next to the fried cornbread is a line of tea candles. Mom has handwritten a sign.
“Keep a light burning in memory of Dave.”
The house is packed, but only two burn: one for Mom, one for Carl. Of course Annabelle won’t light one. Maybe frozen custard does have more class than ice cream.
I reach for the Bic lighter, my eye on the ornament shaped like a wreath.
I’m thinking of the conversation that led me here.
* * *
Typical of Annabelle, she called just when I’d started my movie. I paused it, settled in to an inane conversation about ice cream. We speak once a month. How was I to know anything had changed?
“Business at the custard shop is good. It’s March, you know.”
“I forget how much warmer it is down there,” I said.
“Yeah, you’d be pretty disappointed if you came back.” Or did she say “we’d be pretty disappointed?”
I grunted in response.
“I knocked on the door yesterday,” Annabelle said.
“The mansion across from the shop. I walked up on my break and knocked.”
I shuffled in my chair, my finger poised over the play button on the remote. “You made it up that hill?”
“Huffin’ and puffin’. It was worth it for the view. God, you could see the whole valley from up there, all the way from the Square out to the fairgrounds. I think I could even see Dad’s shop. Below me, through the trees, Mr. Snacker’s looked so insignificant.”
I cleared my throat. “So, who lives there?”
“I don’t know. No one was home.”
“Well, life’s full of disappointments,” I said.
“Yeah,” Annabelle said. “It is, isn’t it?”
She sounded the opposite of disappointed; she sounded awed. But I had nothing to say. In the silence, I heard two staccato voices, a woman crying softly across the courtyard.
“Oh, guess who . . .”
* * *
Annabelle arrives at the funeral home.
There’s a gust of wind as she opens the door and it sounds like the whole building is sighing.
Her slim figure shows under a fitted black dress and she’s nearly my height in three-inch heels, looking surprisingly sturdy. There are more lines on her face, around her mouth, around her eyes, but rather than making Annabelle look old, they just make her look grown up.
“You look nice.” I smile at her. I have this overwhelming urge to tell her that I’m proud of her. I’m proud of her for walking up that hill. I’m proud of her for not being disappointed.
“You’ve gained weight,” she says.
Unlike Dad, unlike me, Annabelle didn’t need to leave to find herself.
I should ask her to come and visit me this summer. I should tell her the truth about my job and my life. But the truth is too embarrassing.
So instead, I say, “I’m too big for this town.”
© Erin Smith, 2016
Erin Smith is a writer, funeral director, and shiatsu therapist living in the Twin Cities. A transplant from the South, she's seen her O’s lengthen in her fourteen years in Minnesota and has learned to love AWD. When she’s not writing Erin can be found with her cat, Chloe, on her lap. Erin has written about death, food, boxing, religion, and gravity in Mount Hope Magazine, Foodservice News, Anotherealm, and Mortuary Management Magazine.
More Class Than Custard was read by Michael Petrocelli for Borders & Boundaries on 1st June 2016