At fifteen, I found myself intricately studying the architecture of hamburgers and following the instructions of my uncle regarding the assembly and appearance of such culinary delicacies. Uncle Ron was my mother’s older brother and they were just like peas and carrots, as Forest would say. He knew the food business as he had established two of the best burger joints in town. As a business proprietor, he was hoping to make his mark in food and maybe one day buy a Cadillac. His dream car. He sure liked the new Seville model.
We had just moved back to my childhood hometown, and I was pulling spigots unleashing colas of all flavors, cherry, chocolate, chocolate cherry, cherry vanilla, or just extra cherry while learning to swirl vanilla ice cream cones in circular perfection. I was actually wary of the hamburger grill and wished to entirely avoid the split splattering of the deep fryer. As I was content to hang out in the front of the joint, I also longed to escape to the back in an effort to hide away from the prying eyes of teenagers drifting in after school as they had discovered that I was the new girl in town.
“Don’t you think it is high time you go and register up at the school?” Uncle Ron asked as he appeared beside me in his western shirt with its pearly buttons bouncing off tiny shimmers of sunlight. His hair oil also gleaming slightly as one heavy curl threatened to fall from his perfectly practiced small pompadour style. He was a cross between James Dean, Elvis, and Johnny Cash all rolled into one. Later on in life, I would find that he was a bit of a con artist too, but back then, he was my boss.
“I’m about to,” I replied ruefully. I hated having to up and move at the beginning of my Freshman year, I hated being the center of attention wishing that I could instead disappear into the woodwork beyond the chitter chatter, beyond the empty questions.
“I think you’re avoidin’ it. You been here awhile, you know. You’re gonna git behind, fail your reading or arithmetic.”
“Yep, maybe both. Actually, nobody can out read me, even if I never went to school again!” I replied sulkily.
“I need to talk to your mama. She needs to git you up there on Monday.”
I gave him a level stare full of teenage defiance framed in perfect blue eye shadow. “Why are you avoiding going to see Aunt Reva? Looks like it is high time you did that too. And the Tax Assessor guy, what’s up with that? And who else will work for as cheap as I do?”
“Hmmph!” he said tossing his sharply oiled curl and walked over to fill up the paper cups emblazoned with “The Dairy Treat” in swirling red print.
We were obviously at a stand-off. Aunt Reva, or Aunt Ree Ree as we called her, and Uncle Ron had been married three times already. Or maybe it was five. They had a lot of “disputes.” My mother said they were like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that way. I don’t know why she had left him a few months ago, but when she left, Uncle Ron had a problem as he was no bookkeeper by any means. This had somehow got him in trouble with the County Tax Assessor-Collector. It was my duty as a school refugee and stalwart employee to remind him of these things. About that time the bell rang at the drive-through. I grabbed the order pad, school had not let out yet and the old people in town weren’t that bad.
“Order up!” I shouted pinning it on the metal spinner as Uncle Ron donned his white apron and manned his place at the massive grill.
We never knew what the lunch run would entail, or the dinner run either. There was also the coffee and cola runs. Ice cream was all the time. We were the only game in town. The day I liked the best was when the frozen food guy arrived.
“Just look at these. They’re gonna fry up nice,” Uncle Ron said as he extended a large frozen package to me.
“What are they?” I asked, not even thinking they resembled a food item.
“The best steak fingers in the county.”
I took them and opened the giant walk-in freezer which was actually the best place to be on a hot September day in Texas. The door chimes rang.
“You handle the customer, I’ll put these up,” he said. I went up to the front.
“How may I help you,” I asked the stocky middle-aged man who sat down on the stool.
“Let’s see. I’m looking for Mr. Ronald Walter Green. He here?”
I gave him a look tinged with as much frost as I could muster from my blue eye- shadowed eyelids.
“And your name?”
“Mr. Paul Aker. County Tax ASSESSOR”
“Right. Well, Mr. Aker, he is out right this moment.” I said as I glanced toward the back. My uncle halting short of entering the front.
“Oh, I see. Do you happen to know when he might return?”
“Probably won’t be back today. It’s a business appointment. A long one.”
“Okay then. Let me give you my card. Have him call me when he returns from his business, then.”
“Sure thing,” I replied.
“Oh, and I’ll take a Root beer float also, you got Root Beer?”
“Yes we do,” I replied and headed to the spigots.
After Mr. Aker left, Uncle Ron came back up to work on the jukebox. “You know, I might have to polish up on my arithmetic when I go back to school. Or bookkeeping, even better. Do you think I might should go into taxes someday?”
“Don’t know,” he replied. “You might want to become a Repo Man. I hear they make a good living too.”
“That would be a Repo Woman, Uncle Ron. Isn’t a Tax Assessor-Collector the same thing?”
He smiled, looked at his watch, then he looked back up at me. “Oh, it’s already 3:15! You might want to go ahead and take off, I can handle the after school bunch.”
I smiled back at him. “Nope, not today. I think I’m gonna stay today.”
“Well then,” he said, pressing B5 on the jukebox.
In the next ten minutes, The Dairy Treat was full of high school kids. Curious girls. Prissy girls. Smart girls. Cute boys. Boys that played percussion…loudly. Fighting Steers football players. A cheerleader with a broken arm. A counterculture girl with a broken smile. Home economics cooks. Even members of the honor society and student council. I was able to make an honest assessment to see if anybody’s blue eyeshadow could compare to mine, and I’d have to say, I was way ahead with that, but I did find some interesting takes on eyeliner that I had not previously considered. By the time the afternoon was over, I had increased my cola making flavor repertoire, had a possibility of two new best friends, an offer to write for the yearbook, and even one possibility for a date. It was a done deal, Monday morning, I would be in school.
“I have to say, Missy, I’m proud of you,” Uncle Ron said when the place cleared.
“Yeah, it wasn’t so bad,” I answered. “You are gonna miss me, though.”
“There’s always the weekend,” he replied.
“What about the rest of the time? I think you need to go and talk to Aunt Reva. She can fix the tax mess too.”
He nodded. “Evelyn wants to come back to work anyway, she misses it. You can go get your numbers down in that bookkeepin’ class and take care of them taxes for me.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
“I’ll bet you’ll make a good picture in the yearbook. Get that arithmetic down, maybe you can even buy us a new Cadillac,” he smiled.
“You never know. But right now, I need my paycheck. I have to go shopping, I don’t have a thing to wear to school!”
He shook his head. “Alright then. Get out of here.”
He handed me money from the register which is probably why he had tax troubles in the first place. I gave him a quick hug and hurried out the side door. The tennis courts across the street caught my eye. I needed to find a partner. I turned back toward The Dairy Treat and watched Uncle Ron for a minute as he leaned back over the jukebox like a country western Elvis at work on his next hit single.
Separating fact from fiction:
I did have to move back to my family’s hometown when I was a freshman in high school after being gone for most of my childhood. My aunt and uncle were running a burger joint called The Dairy Treat which was conveniently located near the high school right off the main drag. I was shy, but not as shy as the girl in the story; I only missed a few days before transitioning into school as my mother would never have allowed me to miss weeks of school. I did have the blue eyeshadow thing down. My aunt and uncle had been married and divorced many times. I guess they were a combustible pair. He was a bit of a con-artist (but I still don’t know why). He just had an angle, not the mob or anything. He was an extremely personable character and quite popular among the small town folk. His appearance was as I described. I still remember his hair. He made the best steak fingers around. He and my aunt Reva finally divorced permanently. He married a woman twenty years older than himself. She had a Cadillac. In 1989, I was working in a downtown skyscraper in Dallas, Texas (ironically for Arthur Andersen & Co. (but not in the tax department) far away from the whispers and cadence of my little town. I got the call from my mother saying that Uncle Ron had passed away in his sleep. He was relatively young but had apparently experienced an aneurysm. My job was new at the time, so I did not take off and go back for his funeral. I regret that now, but I was a bulletproof twenty-something, and I was immortal then, anyway…..
This story is similar to those in the Sandman’s 1960s compilation. I am debating on doing a “70s” version of my Sandman series. Just debating…. Press 1 for yes or 2 for no and customer service will get back to you. When they are done applying their blue eyeshadow.