When you’re young, you love to hang out where you’re not supposed to.
For me that was Grandpa Gene’s store: Gene’s Drive-Thru Carry-Out. I wasn’t forbidden to be there, but it was an adult world-one I wanted to know dearly. “The Store” sat between two cornfields, with just a row of trees behind it to protect it from the dust when the wind picked up. Neon beer signs and Cleveland Indians signs hung in the windows and a Snoopy bank sat on the Formica counter, right where the edges were peeling back to reveal the cork underneath. Candy covered the wall next to the drive-thru, and a freezer full of ice cream hummed against the wall facing the road. A wall of wine faced my grandparents’ house, just across the asphalt and over the clothesline, and a picture of my Uncle Mike was perched above a doorway with a sign that read, “I want to be like Mike, THE STUD!”
My mother and my aunts and uncle worked there from the time that they were old enough to sell beer. I recall my mother, moving cases and smacking cigarette boxes against her palm between swigs from Diet Pepsi bottles. When I was lucky enough to be at the store with her, (Grandma couldn’t take babysitting all of us grand kids all the time) she would pass me the Diet Pepsi and smile, scan a lottery ticket, and wait on the next customer who drove up. My mom’s Diet Pepsis always tasted different than the ones I drank myself–like stale smoke and love and her perfume.
And I loved it. I loved being out there, seeing my grandpa leaning over the counter on his elbows while he listened to a man named Squirrel talk about his wife and scratched lottery tickets. I loved handing free Tootsie Rolls to the kids who weren’t lucky enough to have a grandpa who owned every kind of candy on earth.
But there was a whole world behind the front room of the store. There were long hallways packed with boxes of beer, old signs and mirrors under moving blankets, and a heavy steel door that led to the cooler.
My cousin Meghan and I were always trying to get into the cooler. We loved looking through the bottles of Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew to the glass doors that looked out into the store and made a sucking noise when they were pulled open. And the way that the cases were stacked in the cooler made for excellent fort building and climbing. During the hot summer days, nothing felt better than pulling open that heavy door, stepping into the foggy cool air and feeling the sweat freeze on our arms.
But sometimes the door was too heavy.
Grandpa had a lot of friends, and he bent over backwards for them on more than one occasion. Grandpa also knew how to throw a good party, and when one of his friends decided to throw one. Gramps helped out, but not in the way you might expect…
Meghan and I were really the troublemakers of the cousins, and we were constantly pretending we were tornado chasers, spies, explorers of unknown worlds–i.e. Grandpa’s store. After some careful planning, we ran across the blacktop and hid in the brush behind the store. Once there were no cars in the drive-thru and my mother and grandfather were preoccupied scanning lottery tickets, Meghan and I made our way into the backroom maze, hiding behind cases of beer and dollies. We were only feet away from the cooler door when my mom spotted us. We made a mad dash for it, and I felt the cold handle of the heavy door give way under my urging.
And we were in. We turned around in the icy fog and stared at the door, pulling it shut against my mother’s advances to get us out. And then she stopped. We wondered what had happened, but decided to take advantage of our free reign over the beer mountains.
Then we saw it. Right there. On the floor of the freezer wrapped in Saran wrap and on a piece of cardboard was a big dead pig. Suddenly the cooler wasn’t so cool, and we were still sweating. Its eyes were open and its legs lay unnaturally. And although I’m sure there wasn’t a smell, we could smell it.
We screamed, pushed hard at the inside of the cooler door, looking over our shoulders to make sure the pig wasn’t crawling out from underneath its plastic sheath. My mother looked at us through the clear glass doors from the front of the store and I swear I saw her smile. Slowly, more slowly than should be humanly possible, she walked around to the heavy door that, thanks to the vacuum of the cooler, we could no longer open. When she finally pulled it open from the outside, we ran out gasping for fresh air and hid behind her legs before taking one final glance back at the pig. Then we were out into the heat, feeling it come up from the blacktop as we darted across it to the dry grass on the bottom of our bare feet–where there were no pigs.