Author’s note: In the interest of starting Smokin’ & Cryin’ as close to the inciting incident as possible, I cut a couple of scenes that came beforehand. I still like them and thought it’d be fun to share them anyway. City Dairy is 2 of 2.
All Bev wanted was milk, bread, and Virginia Slims. And Lisa out of her hair. My stepmom’s eyes were puffy and she wore the stubborn scowl that always showed up after a long night of arguing with my dad. She’d wanted Arthur to move back home with us for a while and I was kind of proud of the fight she put up because usually she’d just sigh and give that jerk his way.
As I pulled Lisa down to Johnson Street in her red wagon through the humidity of a gray summer day, I thought about them yelling at each other half the night. I’d had my pillow over my ears when Lisa came into my room and silently curled onto the foot of my bed, dropping off to sleep as soon as she knew she wasn’t alone.
Today she was riding in the wagon like last night never happened, mashing the faces of her Liddle Kiddle dolls together, making kissy sounds.
“Knock it off, Lisa. You’re three.”
“Pee Pee and Lilac in love.” Pee Pee was how she said Sweet Pea, which was the pink-haired doll’s name. I only knew that because I’d got it for her at Czuba’s and stuffed it in her Christmas stocking.
I’d already bought the kid a donut with my own money at the bakery, but when we got to the City Dairy on Johnson Street, she pitched a fit for ice cream. I was telling her to forget it when Arthur walked in. Red eyes, his dirt-blond hair a mess.
“Ice fiend. I want ice fiend.” Lisa yanked on my T-shirt, smearing it with chocolate donut glaze.
“Forget it. It’s practically lunchtime,” I said.
“It’s called ice cream.” Arthur squatted in front of her. “Say it right. Ice cream.”
She put the back of her hand against her wisp of dark bangs. “Shit man, I starve.”
“Get a load of this kid.” Arthur tipped his head back and laughed.
I rarely missed a chance to spoil Lisa. Dad and Bev had her after Arthur got recruited—maybe to replace him, maybe to justify the way they’d broken up two families. The whole pregnancy it was boy this, new son that, when your baby brother arrives. They’d picked the name Vernon Jr. Then the baby turned out to be Lisa: a colicky girl with Arthur’s square, defiant jaw. A secret agent sent straight from hell to settle the score. Or maybe sly help from above, courtesy of my dead mother.
“Double dip Superman in a sugar cone,” I said to old Mr. Thayer, who was wiping the counter in his white apron and side cap. He nodded and took my forty cents.
By the time I got my strawberry malted and Arthur got his Stewart sandwich, sheets of rain were splashing down on Johnson Street, splattering the big windows lettered with the words City Dairy Cash & Carry, backward from our point of view. We sat on spinning stools at the far end of the counter by the jukebox, which we loaded with nickels. Arthur selected “Susie Q.” without even knowing it was Lisa’s favorite. She danced barefoot, grinding her toe into the floor like Gidget in a beach flick, dripping blue and red ice cream all over the place.
“Can you play this one?” Arthur bit a hunk out of his sandwich and took a drag off his cigarette almost simultaneously.
“Duh. Yeah. Easy.”
“Still in church choir?” he asked.
I slurped my malted. “That’s not really my bag.”
“So, what are your plans? College? Get married? Work on the line at GM? What do you want out of life?”
“You sound like my dad. I don’t know, man. Survive eleventh grade? Avoid the draft?”
A huge crack of lightning made us both jump. The lights cut out and the jukebox fell silent.
“Jesus!” Arthur said.
“Jesus,” Lisa repeated. Ice cream dripped from her elbow.
“Language,” Mr. Thayer said to me. Me. The only one who hadn’t used any. Jesus.
It was still pouring when Arthur got up to leave. “It’s water, man. Plain old water.” He shoved out the door.
I stayed back with Lisa, waiting for the rain to let up. Bev would freak out if Lisa got her clothes wet.
She was overripe for her nap by the time we got home, and she threw a fit in a puddle in the driveway, yelling for “Shit Man,” which she thought was Arthur’s name.
That was strike one.
I’d forgotten to pick up Bev’s Virginia Slims. Strike two.
Arthur had smoked so much that I smelled like an ashtray, so Bev assumed I’d smoked her cigarettes. Strike three.
She bawled me out, then when Dad came home he said my long hair was giving me a bad attitude and I better have it brush cut by the next time he laid eyes on me, or he’d do it himself. I thought about arguing for the half-second it took me to realize that would only get me my teeth knocked down my throat.