by Rick Hoffman
pareidolia – a psychological phenomenon resulting in perceived meanings or images in otherwise random patterns.
The first time I met Root Beer, he was just a boy. Before his mama and daddy passed, they used to take him down the lakeshore on Saturdays for sno-balls. Afterward, Ms. Léonie kept on bringing him, and all that boy ever got was root beer flavored. It must be twenty years he’s been coming by my stand, and he never got nothing but the same flavor. I watched him grow up on it.
Most people change it up—get one flavor one week, another flavor the next. One time when Root Beer was at my stand, I told him I was out of his favorite, and when I asked him what flavor did he want instead, he told me he didn’t want no other flavor. He just sat there while everybody ate their sno-balls. He was like that.
He was strange in other ways too. Sometimes he said things that made you think he wasn’t right up in his head. I remember once I asked him—and this was when he was grown—what would he do if they stopped making root beer sno-ball syrup. He didn’t answer right off, but he got this look like he was scared. Then he asked me what company made the syrup, so he could write them not to stop making root beer. I told him Brother Juniper Ice makes my syrup. The next week, he showed me the letter and asked me could I sign and mail it for him. I told him he could put it in the mail himself and it would get there, but he said it had to come from me ‘cause I was one of Brother Juniper’s best customers. If it came from me, they’d do like the letter said. I never seen him so serious. I told him I’d send it, and when they wrote back, they said, “You can always count on us.” Root Beer was so happy when I give him that letter.
I had this other customer always got the same thing too—Anisette. He was one of them people who look like they’ve always been old. He wore this big old hat and used to come down here with his wife to walk the path. He always got him a small anisette flavor. His lady didn’t have no favorite flavor. She used to get all kinds of flavors. Sometimes she even got her a two flavor swirl. But Anisette always got the same thing, just like Root Beer. You take two people like that, and they’re bound to cross paths sometime.
Eugene sat on a bench outside Antoine’s Sno-Ball Shack, eating a root beer flavored sno-ball and staring at the thunderclouds over Lake Pontchartrain. He turned his gaze up to the sign that advertised the frozen treat: a laughing, fat-bellied friar with a sno-ball in his hand. He had known the sign his whole life, but it was never the friar that he saw. Rather, it was the folds in the friar’s robes that formed a peculiar shape, like a silhouette of someone in a wide-brimmed hat: a cowboy perhaps, or Zorro; it was nearly that wide. In that space Eugene had always sensed that there was something sinister in the world—that there were secret, dark, and stealthy men in wide-brimmed hats whom you could only see in silhouette. He knew if men like that existed, they would know the secrets of a lurking underworld. There exciting things were sure to happen. There crooks and spies conducted nefarious transactions. There the line between good and evil became obscured, like that long, low causeway disappearing across the lake toward New Orleans. But in Bernardsville, nothing ever happened.
Eugene grew up in his Aunt Léonie’s house in Bernardsville, just out of sight of that legendary city where anything was possible, yet routine had been his life’s framework. He believed Aunt Léonie had treated him well while he was with her, but she wasn’t any kind of mother, and she never did adopt him, so he kept himself occupied with make-believe. Since leaving her to go off on his own, his life had been second shift at the factory, two beers after work, late night mystery films or spy novels into the small hours, sleep till noon. On Saturdays he walked the narrow lanes down to the lake and stared out at its vastness. It might as well have been the Gulf itself, as he couldn’t see the other side. All he could see were the causeway and the dull, gray flatness languishing below illusory faces in the clouds.
Still daydreaming of adventures, Eugene gazed at the water, where the storm threatened. The wind picked up, the anglers packed their gear, and the last rush on the sno-ball line sent lakeside walkers dashing for their favorite flavors—all but one of them, whom Eugene noticed. As moms and dads and droves of sno-ball-sticky children bolted for their cars, one solitary form stood staring at the clouds from beneath the cover of a hat so familiar to Eugene that it was a moment before he realized he had never actually seen it in person. He was looking at a living copy of his secret man in the hat, who was watching the chop the weather had aroused.
The man held a dark object—a box of some sort. He held it like a stone, and Eugene thought the man might throw it just to watch it sink, but he did not throw it. Instead he turned and walked toward the boulevard. Eugene could not see the man’s face, but if it was as Eugene envisioned, then it would be gaunt and creased and grim. Eugene had seen it a thousand times in his imagination. It was a hitman’s or a bounty hunter’s face. The stern countenance of a gun for hire. A hard face, taciturn and cruel. Eugene wondered what was in his box.
The average lakeside walker would not have cared, but Eugene was a victim of his own impulses. When the familiar urge took hold of him, Eugene thought of his mother and knew he shouldn’t meddle. Before the accident, she had always reminded him not to pry, but compulsion overwhelmed him, and he threw away his sno-ball to follow the man with the incredible hat and his curious box.
Eugene trailed the man through escalating rain into town where he watched him enter the old Magpie Theater, a decrepit one-screen movie house that had long since given up the ghost of its former glory. Eugene stammered his way through purchasing a ticket and followed the man inside. From the last row of the darkened cinema, Eugene watched the outline of the man’s hat tilting alternately up toward the lighted screen and down into his lap, where he must have held the box. Eugene’s mind raced with inexplicable thoughts. He tried first to be rational, but nothing rational would take hold in Eugene’s mind when he applied it to the box. Only fantasies would stick, as if rationality and the box were the wrong ends of two stubborn magnets.
At first the man was a spy sent to recover secret documents. Then he was a thief meeting his fence in the darkness. By the time Eugene had chased the man across the diverse and decorated corners of his own imagination, he had traversed the improbable to arrive at the absurd and had lost the truth along the way. Even the hat made sense in Eugene’s fantasy.
Then the man did something strange. He stood up, rushed down the aisle, and stashed the box beneath the screen behind a curtain of heavy cloth. Then he hurried up the aisle past Eugene and out into the lobby. Torn between two curiosities—the man and the box—Eugene struggled for a moment with the choice of which one to pursue. The box, he decided, was more important, and he would have to see what was inside it. He bolted down the aisle and ducked beneath the curtain.
From that darkened space, Eugene looked up at the back of the screen and realized he could see through it, perforated as it was with tiny holes. He saw illuminated in their seats the staring faces of the moviegoers, like a captive congregation at a worship service, and Eugene was in the screen where the actors should have been. For a moment, he felt a part of some convoluted espionage. He was a spy surveilling in the darkness.
When a door slammed in the picture overhead, he woke out of his momentary trance and searched for the box in the smothering dark, but everywhere he reached, his hand fell on the surface of a storage box or broom handle. Then his hand hit on a cube—hard, solid, and cool. He gripped it to his chest and ducked beneath the curtain once again and headed for the exit. Standing in the rain, he thought he had better not open the box there. What if someone saw him? He tucked the box under his shirt and headed home.
Bounding up the stairs to his apartment, Eugene threw the door open and tossed the box onto the coffee table. He stared at it. He had never stolen anything before, and he half expected someone to break his door down. He thought he might as well look inside. There was no more harm in that than stealing it. To steal it was a crime. To open it was only snooping. And it wasn’t as if he had robbed the man at gunpoint. Nevertheless, Eugene knew such reasoning was only casuistry. That box had been hidden, not abandoned. Hidden by a stranger with a hat the shape of which Eugene had thought was only possible between the folds of a cartoon friar’s robe. That much was enough to push his curiosity to the limit. He took the box and opened it.
Inside he found no secret documents, no smuggled diamonds. Rather, there was a narrow, two-inch cone covered in gray felt, protruding at an oblique angle from a square base. It was the kind of merchandise display that one might see inside a jeweler’s case to display a ring, but there was no ring inside the box. Eugene’s concocted fantasy began to fade.
Regret took hold of him. This was not the first time he had yielded to imagination, and he was ashamed. His cheeks grew hot with the guilt of his impertinence, and he knew he should return it, but he also knew that if he put it back, then he would never know its purpose nor why the man had left it in that void behind the screen.
He had to give it back. He had never seen the man before, but he had a way of finding him. If anyone would know him, it would be Antoine, sno-ball seller. When Eugene approached the stand the following afternoon, he was shaky with anticipation.
“Hey, Mr. Antoine,” Eugene faltered.
The sno-ball vendor looked up from his ice machine. “Where y’at, Root Beer?” Antoine said in the familiar greeting. “It ain’t Saturday, is it?”
“No, sir,” Eugene said. “I’m just looking for somebody. I thought you could help.”
“Depends,” said Antoine.
“Couple of things.”
“Like who you’re looking to find, for one.”
“And do I know him, and do I know where he’s at?”
“You know everybody, Mr. Antoine,” Eugene said.
“I wouldn’t say I know everybody,” Antoine said.
“He was here yesterday,” Eugene said. “He was wearing a hat.”
“That don’t cut it down much.”
“It’s kind of a unique hat.”
“What’s it look like?”
“Like that,” Eugene said pointing at the friar. Antoine looked.
“That monk ain’t got no hat, Root Beer,” Antoine said.
“No,” Eugene said. He paused, reluctant to point out what had been so obvious to him but that must be, he believed, imperceptible to others. “I’m talking about the shape in his robes.”
The sno-ball vendor paused and eyed Eugene. “You’re looking for Anisette, I know that,” Antoine said.
“Anisette?” Eugene repeated.
“He comes here sometimes with his wife to walk the path. Always gets a small anisette. ‘Cept yesterday he come alone, and he ain’t ordered no anisette. Got him a swirl just like his lady. Said she was home asleep. What you want with Anisette?”
“I have something that belongs to him,” Eugene said. “I want to give it back. Do you know his name?”
“Root Beer, I don’t even know your name,” Antoine said.
“Oh,” Eugene said, disappointed.
“But I know where he works,” said Antoine.
“He owns the old Magpie Theater over on DeBray.”
“Thanks, Mr. Antoine,” Eugene said. “Sorry to bother you.” He turned to go, but the sno-ball seller called after him.
“How’d you come to have something belongs to Anisette if you don’t know him?”
“I found it,” Eugene said, but he could tell Antoine did not believe him.
“How do you know it’s his?” Antoine asked.
With tangible reluctance, Eugene told Antoine everything. Starting with his minding his own business on the bench, he confessed his secret pursuit through town, all the way through his discovery of the ring stand in the box. Antoine listened and nodded once when Eugene admitted his embarrassment.
“Root Beer, why’d you do that?” Antoine asked.
“I don’t know,” Eugene said. “Sometimes I just can’t stop myself.”
Antoine wiped syrup from his hands and leaned on his counter. When he spoke, his tone was patient and paternal. “Boy you need to get over there and give that thing back to him,” he said.
“I’ll go right now,” Eugene said.
“He ain’t there now,” said Antoine. “He don’t work on Sunday. He goes to Mass at St. Joe de C’s. Then he takes the day off.”
“How do you know that?” asked Eugene.
“I know ‘cause I know.”
“Do you know what the box is for?” Eugene asked.
“No,” said Antoine, “but I do know if Anisette left it somewhere, then that’s where he’s got a right to have it stay.”
“I understand,” Eugene said.
“I ain’t sure you do.”
Eugene knew Antoine was right. He had never understood why people did certain things. Even handshakes confounded him sometimes. This box was just one piece of an intricate puzzle that the rest of the world seemed already to have put together, but Eugene always had felt as if he had never seen a picture of the finished puzzle as a reference; thus, he counted himself lucky if he could make two pieces fit.
“Thanks, Mr. Antoine,” Eugene said.
“See you Saturday, Root Beer.”
I don’t know whether Root Beer understood. I feel bad for him. I think his mama and daddy raised him right while he had them, but it ain’t seemed to take in some ways. Since they ain’t around, he got to make his own way. He didn’t mean no harm, but I don’t know if he realized why it wasn’t his business. It ain’t that he’s simple. He’s got a head for learning. He can tell you the numbers on any season for the Saints or LSU, but he don’t think enough to come in out the rain. It’s like the Lord give him brains but no sense. Now Anisette, he got sense, but it’s made him a cynic, and I knew Root Beer was fixing to find that out.
From my spot on the lakeshore, you can see the causeway going out over the lake. Just that long, low, white highway going. Lots of people come here to watch the water. I seen painters there looking at it so they can make their pictures. Fishermen watch the birds to know where the fish are at. Sometimes even I look at that lake. Imagine that. I’m there every day, and still I sometimes catch myself staring. I guess I just like how big it is. I don’t know what Root Beer sees out there, but I know it ain’t no birds. That boy looks at a monk, and he sees a hat. Who knows what that lake looks like to him?
When Eugene arrived at The Magpie, the woman at the box office waved him in without a ticket, and told him Saul was in the office at the far end of the lobby.
“Who’s Saul?” Eugene asked.
“He’s the owner,” she said. “You’re the one who’s coming to see him, aren’t you?”
“He’s expecting you,” she said. “Go on in.”
As Eugene walked across the lobby, he tried to reason how anyone could know that he was coming. Had this Saul known Eugene was following him all along? Had the whole pursuit through the streets been a mere show? Had the box been just a lure to ensnare Eugene in some conspiracy? Convinced that it was all a trap, Eugene stopped halfway through the lobby and looked around. The box office clerk was an agent provocateur, positioned to lure him in the door. The girl behind the candy counter, who now smiled at Eugene, was a Mozhno girl, a seductress. The ticket taker—Eugene was sure that he had seen him before—was a resident agent whose youthful appearance belied a sinister motive. And they were all ushering him toward Saul, the spymaster who had run the operation from his field office in The Magpie.
But what did they want with Eugene? Uncertainty gave over to anxiety, and Eugene began to sweat. His stomach lurched as he sought escape. When the office door opened and the brim of Saul’s hat made a friar’s robe against the light behind it, Eugene froze, seized with momentary dread.
“Come on in,” Saul said.
There was nothing Eugene could do. He followed Saul into the office where two chairs waited for them in the cramped space. The lights were bright, in stark contrast with the gloom of the lobby, and Eugene looked around for anyone who might be standing in a shadowed corner.
“Sit down,” Saul said, and Eugene sat. “My name is Saul Fontenot. What’s yours?”
“Antoine told me you’d be coming, but he didn’t know your real name.”
For a moment, Eugene felt the icy sting of betrayal. He could not believe that Antoine would sell him out, but then he looked at Saul, who sat across from him, and wondered whether he had misread the man’s intentions. He was smaller than Eugene first had thought. The day before, it had been difficult to tell, but now Eugene saw Saul’s narrow shoulders and his hunched posture and concluded that this man looked beaten and abused by an unforgiving something. He saw his face for the first time. It was gaunt, yes, but not sinister. It had a jaundiced look, which his protruding Adam’s apple and crooked nose did little to conceal. His chin was weak, and his eyebrows knew no bounds, but the wide brim of that impressive hat did its level best to shade those features from the glare of the florescent lights.
“I understand you have something that belongs to me,” Saul said.
“Yes,” Eugene managed.
“May I have it back?”
Eugene fumbled in his backpack for the box and handed it over to Saul with trembling fingers. “Here,” he said.
“I’m sorry that I took it,” Eugene said.
“Apology accepted.” Saul took the box and put it on the desk beside an adding machine. “Is there anything you want to say that you didn’t tell Antoine?”
Eugene struggled to find the words. Still slightly fearful that he might be assassinated at any moment, he wanted only to please Saul enough that he would allow Eugene to leave, but since Eugene had spent his life in Bernardsville seeking adventure only in the pages of cheap novels and the frames of cheap films, he found himself seduced by the possibility of something happening in a town where nothing ever happened. His nerves were no less fragile, but his courage had grown, and he began to yield again to the impulse of adventure.
“It’s just that,” Eugene began and faltered. “I guess I just always wanted to do something meaningful, but I never do.”
Saul sat back and studied Eugene’s face. When he spoke, there was nothing sinister in his tone. Rather, it was complacent—avuncular almost—and calm.
“Eugene,” he said, “do you ever get over to New Orleans?”
“Sometimes,” Eugene said. “Not in a while.”
“What do you go for?”
“A Saints game every now and then.”
“Not for Mardi Gras?”
“They have parades here.”
“But you don’t ever go over, just for fun. Just for a night out, you might say?”
“Would you like to take a ride with me?”
“Across the lake.”
“A couple of drinks. Maybe we’ll do something meaningful. Take a walk down Bourbon Street. You ever walk down Bourbon Street?”
“Well, let’s go then,” Saul said. “Come on.”
“I have to work later,” Eugene said.
“Call in sick,” said Saul. “You can take a sick day, can’t you?”
“I never take sick days,” Eugene said.
“Well, then they won’t mind just this once.” Saul waited, but Eugene did not respond. “Look, the ride in will do you good, and it’s one of the greatest cities in the world. Plus, it’s Monday, and I haven’t had the red beans and rice special at Landrieu’s in months. You like red beans and rice?”
“Well, Landrieu’s makes the best. Let’s go.”
Eugene was terrified, but he was in too deep to back away. He had given himself over to curiosity getting into this business, and only the same compulsion would see him to the finish. Besides, if Saul had wanted him dead, then he’d be dead already. This stranger in the hat wanted something altogether different from Eugene, and he would only reveal it over a bowl of red beans and rice.
Before Eugene knew what was happening, he found himself in the passenger seat of Saul’s blue pickup, racing across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in the haze and glare of a humid Monday afternoon. It was the same as always. The plain white concrete roadway stretched over water the color of liquid bronze until Eugene could not see land in any direction. The two men were silent in the truck. Whatever Saul had to tell Eugene would evidently have to wait until they reached the restaurant because Saul spent the entire ride—nearly twenty four miles of bridge—staring out the windshield into emptiness. As far as Eugene could tell, Saul never even blinked as they made their crossing.
When they reached Metairie, on the other side, Saul made his way over to the Crescent City and down into the French Quarter, where he parked the truck and led Eugene among the wrought iron and the urine and the jazz to the entrance of Landrieu’s Restaurant. A plump host seated them in an enclosed garden courtyard, and Saul ordered them two bowls of red beans and rice and two beers. When the beers arrived, he finally spoke.
“It was for my wife,” he said.
“What was?” Eugene asked.
“The ring stand. I bought it for her as a divorce gift because she’s leaving me.”
Eugene hesitated. He thought a gift for a divorce was strange, but something made him wait to say so.
“Why is she leaving you?” he asked.
“Because she doesn’t love me,” Saul said. “I give too much time to the theater, she told me, and not enough to her.” Saul stopped and took a long pull on the neck of his beer. “And she’s right.”
Eugene sat dumb. He had not considered the intrusion his adventure had been. He knew that it was wrong to steal the box, but this was an altogether different transgression. He had invaded Saul’s private misery, and he felt ashamed. Saul was no secret, dark, and lurking man—only a broken, sad, and lonely man whose wife had left him. He was not remarkable, and no one ever thought to notice him. The only thing remarkable about Saul besides his hat was that Eugene thought to notice him. An ineffectual “I’m sorry” was all Eugene could manage.
“Yeah, well that’s the way it is.” Saul said.
“Why a ring stand?” Eugene asked. “And why would someone buy a divorce gift anyway?”
“Fair questions,” Saul said, and he took a breath to begin what Eugene thought would be an explanation, but just then their food arrived, and the moment was broken with the shuffling of cutlery and the tucking in of napkins. Then there was a request for two more beers and the first taste of the exquisite comfort food that was a Monday institution in Louisiana. Always on Monday—laundry day—wives and mothers and old matriarchal grandmas set beans to soak while they attended to their wash. Now Saul was airing his own dirty laundry, but the beans still tasted like the comfort of a Jefferson Parish home.
“It was the best that I could think of,” Saul said between bites, and Eugene looked up from his bowl to see the man across from him now sitting back in his chair, looking into the past. “When we got married twenty seven years ago, I bought her a ring. Since divorce is the negation of marriage, I thought, what’s the negative of a ring? It’s the space that fills the circle where a finger goes. Well, her ring wasn’t going on any finger anymore, so I figured I’d get her a stand to put it on. That way, when she looked at it, she’d think something good about me. It was a stupid idea, but at the time it seemed like it meant something. I put it behind that screen because I couldn’t stand to look at it, but I couldn’t throw it away either. Now she’s going to live with her sister in Bay St. Louis, and I guess she’ll get what she needs there.”
He went back to his food, but Eugene could see he did not relish it. The taste had gone from Eugene’s meal as well.
“Why did you bring me here?” Eugene asked, and Saul put down his fork for the last time, leaving a bowl of half finished beans.
“Antoine told me all about you,” Saul said. “He told me about your parents and what you said about my hat and why you took the box. He also said you get ideas in your head you can’t get out. Is that right?”
“And you go by his sno-ball stand every Saturday, and you always get the same flavor. Root beer, is it?”
“Well, I thought it was time you tried something different,” Saul said.
“Because it’s working for me,” Saul said. “I know I did my wife wrong. I know she needed something I never gave her. I failed her, and I just don’t want to see somebody fail like I did. When you do wrong, you ought to know what to do to make it right.”
“What’s that?” Eugene asked.
“Something different from what you’ve done. My wife was right about me, so I’m trying to be different. Don’t be like I was, Eugene. That town might be home, but it’ll suck the life out of you if you let it. You can only live if you own your life, and that means not giving it over to the things you can’t control. See, I couldn’t control my life because I had to run that theater to put food on the table. I thought that’s all I had to do, but it isn’t. There’s more to being a man than bringing home a check. I know that now, but it’s too late for me. That’s why I brought you here because it’s not too late for you to own your life and do something different with it.”
“Like what?” Eugene asked.
“Like a real adventure.”
“Lunch?” Eugene asked, looking around.
“No,” Saul said. “Not lunch. You see, I’m leaving now. You’re staying. I’m paying for the meal and leaving.” Saul slipped some money underneath his bowl and stood to go.
“Wait,” Eugene stood up. “You can’t leave me here,” he said.
“I can, and I will. You know where you are, and you know where you want to be. Just connect the dots. You did connect the dots games when you were a kid, didn’t you? Just connect the dots to make the shape.”
“How am I going to do that?”
“You have to find your way.”
“But I don’t have a car,” Eugene protested.
“You’ll figure it out.”
“Is this like a punishment?” Eugene asked. “I stole your stupid box, and now you’re ditching me here?”
“Not a punishment,” said Saul. “A favor. You’ll understand along the way. Now I’ve got to go, and you’ve got to do some figuring. Good bye, Eugene. You get back to town, stop by The Magpie and get you a free popcorn.”
Eugene watched Saul turn to leave. Panic gripped him again. He followed Saul into the street and grabbed his arm. “You can’t do this,” Eugene said. “I can’t do this.”
“You have to,” Saul said, “or you never will.”
“What does that mean?”
“Your mama and daddy moved on when you were young. Like I said, Antoine told me that. You never had a chance to have them fix your mistakes when you were a boy, so you’ve got to do it now as a man. It won’t be easy, but being a man never is.” Saul paused and looked Eugene in the eye. “Well, my wife moved on,” he said. “Not like your mama and daddy, but similar. They left you because they didn’t have a choice. Boy, you’ve got to choose while you can. Own your life or something else will.”
Bewildered and terrified, Eugene stared helplessly into Saul’s resolute face. He wanted to go back to where it all had started—back to Lakeside Park, back to the boulevard, back to the sno-ball stand and to his childhood, when first he’d seen that hat between the friar’s robes—and erase the details altogether, but he was alone in another crisis of desertion, where no fantasies or fictions could provide escape, and Saul was walking away.
He watched Saul’s shape receding down the sidewalk.
“Maybe something will happen,” Eugene called. Saul turned.
“What?” he asked.
“Maybe something with your wife. You never know. Maybe something will happen and you’ll get back together.”
“Grow up, Eugene,” Saul said. “Nothing ever happens.” Saul turned the corner and disappeared from view, and Eugene was alone in a city of almost four hundred thousand people.
With only sixteen dollars in his wallet, he wandered the Quarter for an hour, drifting past the bars and stealing sideways glances through the doors of peep shows until he came to North Rampart Street and left the Quarter behind. At a taxi service, a dispatcher told him it would cost eighty dollars in advance for a ride across the lake. When Eugene said he didn’t have enough, the dispatcher said a bus would cost about the same—maybe more—and that he should call someone to pick him up.
But Eugene had no one to call. His parents were gone, and the only other people he knew well enough were all from work. After taking a sick day, he couldn’t call them either. Outdone and more than a little terrified, he sat on a curb to collect his thoughts. He wanted something to calm his nerves, and he thought one of Antoine’s sno-balls would be just the thing, but Antoine’s stand was miles away, and in any case, it wasn’t Saturday. Still, his craving for the frozen treat was growing, and he found a sno-ball stand a few blocks away.
“Small root beer, please,” he said, and the girl behind the counter scooped his ice into a plastic cup. As she was pouring on the syrup, Eugene saw the label on the bottle. “Brother Juniper Ice,” it read in green and yellow lettering, “Gretna, Louisiana.”
Eugene bolted out the door without his sno-ball and went back to the taxi company.
“How much to get to Gretna?” he asked a driver outside.
“Can you take me to Brother Juniper Ice?”
After a short ride across the river, the taxi let Eugene off in front of a warehouse. Eugene paid the fare and gave his last four dollars as a tip. When the taxi pulled away, Eugene looked up at the innocuous brick building and its green and yellow sign for Brother Juniper. Below the lettering, Eugene saw the familiar friar smiling and laughing, and Eugene let out his own laugh. Some men had gathered near a loading dock, piling boxes into vans, and Eugene approached them.
“Are any of y’all going to Bernardsville?” he asked.
“I am,” one of the drivers told him.
“Can you take me there?”
“How much you got, chief?”
“Ha!” the driver blurted, but there was no mockery in it—only genuine good humor. “Sure, chief. Get in.”
When Root Beer ordered him a cherry sno-ball the next Saturday, I thought the world was fixing to end, and I told him so. He just ate his sno-ball, smiling the whole time. I told him I knew what Anisette did to him, and I asked him how he ever found his way home. He asked me did it matter, and I said I guessed it didn’t.
Wasn’t long before he started bringing a lady with him to walk the path. A pretty girl with brown hair and a shy smile. They always got two different flavors and traded off halfway through. One time, he told her she should get a root beer flavor, and then he winked at me like we had a secret. When she tried it, I thought she was gonna melt, she liked it so much. They didn’t trade off that day. Root Beer said he didn’t care much for it no more. They don’t always come by. Sometimes they stay in on Saturdays. When they do come, I always call him Eugene.
[Check out Rick Hoffman’s back porch wisdom]