The summer after I graduated high school, to save money for college in the fall I got a job at a Dairy Queen. A former teacher of mine had recommended me to Mr. Frick, who owned the store.
Marilyn was his store manager. She was short and slight with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and out-of-style drop-temple glasses. She drove to work every day in one of her two Corvettes. I never figured out how a Dairy Queen store manager who lived alone could afford even one car like that!
Marilyn did not like it one bit that Mr. Frick wanted me to work the counter, as every other counter worker was a girl and it had always been a girl’s job. She began my training reluctantly.
Marilyn first taught me to make Buster Bars, which are soft serve layered with peanuts and fudge and covered with chocolate. She supervised me closely, issuing staccato single-syllable orders. When I erred, she grunted. Soon she taught me to make cones. There’s a special way you have to move your hands to get the three distinct bulges of soft serve and that trademark curl on top. You just have to get the feel for it, and it took me a long time. I wasted a lot of soft serve before I started to get it right, which I knew was happening because Marilyn’s brow began to un-knit, her lips began to un-purse, and an occasional multi-syllable order passed her lips.
Next she taught me how to make banana splits, Peanut Buster Parfaits, and all the other special treats. Finally, she showed me how to make shakes and Blizzards.
The Blizzard was new that year and we were still working out the kinks. We had three special Blizzard-making machines of stainless steel with a heavy spiked spindle that spun fast enough to chew off your finger. None of us could figure out a way to get the Blizzard off the spindle without spraying soft serve all over the inside of the machine and onto us. Customers swarmed our store for Blizzards, and so I came home from work every night with a thick line of overspray across my chest.
This drove Marilyn bats, as she was staunch: her store would remain clean! As it was, we spent ninety minutes after closing every night making every surface shine. But those Blizzard machines kept us there an extra half hour because soft serve was sprayed everywhere inside, soaking deep into every nook and cranny. Eventually the home office issued us stainless-steel sleeves that nestled into the Blizzard cups and caught most of the spray. Marilyn was almost giddy the day they arrived.
Soon I settled into a nightly routine. As ours was the only Dairy Queen on the south side of town, almost everybody I knew came to my window at one time or another. It was fun to see them. Because a young man at the counter was novel I soon had some regular female customers, including a very cute television news reporter who stopped frequently as she drove home after the late newscast. During lulls, I would search through the change in my drawer looking for old coins to add to my coin collection, which I swapped with change from my pocket. Kids would raid their parents’ drawers looking for change to take to the Dairy Queen, and sometimes they’d end up spending old coins their parents were saving. I got several silver dimes, wheat-ear pennies, buffalo nickels – and, once, an 1898 Indian-head penny.
Things usually slowed down in the last half hour before we closed, and I would lean on the counter and watch the cars go by on US 31. One day a truck drove by towing a flatbed trailer, on which sat a stock-style race car plastered with sponsor logos. Several minutes later the race car passed by again in the other direction – slowly rolling backwards on its own wheels. Its trailer and truck were nowhere in sight! The racer ran out of momentum just past our store.
At that time of night there was little traffic; one or two cars took it wide around the forgotten racer. I expected the trailer driver to come back for his car, but many minutes passed and the car just sat there. Soon we closed and began to clean. I told Marilyn I thought we should call the police. She drew back and grew wide-eyed, and insisted I not call. “I don’t want to be involved!” I let that deter me for several more minutes, but finally I declared that somebody would surely hit this car and it needed to be dealt with. With Marilyn muttering protests in the background, I called the police.
A squad car arrived in a few minutes and I went out to meet it. The officer got out and barked at me, “Is this your car?” “No!” I barked back. “Like I said when I called, it rolled backwards down the highway and came to rest here! It’s been there for 20 minutes now! It’s a hazard!”
The officer got back in his car and talked to his dispatcher. Nothing happened for several more minutes. Then a truck with an empty flatbed trailer, coming from the same direction the race car had, drove by slowly. I wondered if he saw the police car there and was considering driving right on by. He pulled in reluctantly as the officer walked over to meet him. I went back inside to finish cleaning.
When I arrived the next day, Marilyn came up to me and peered squinty-eyed at me over the top rim of her glasses for a moment, as if she wanted to give me a piece of her mind. Finally, she grunted and sent me into the back to make Buster Bars. It was clear: the race-car incident would never be spoken of again. But ever after, Marilyn spoke to me in complete sentences, just as she did to the rest of the counter crew.