Friday, May 22, 2009


Yes. I asked and this time it was not no, but rather yes. A quarter. We were allowed to go in to her purse with permission for the rare Certs breath mint and the even rarer dimes or quarters. So I shook the sand off and reached my 8 year old hand into the big brown endless labyrinth of pockets, flaps and zippers. Whatever you pulled out of her purse smelled that vague waxy floral Avon smell. Even the cinnamon mints. There was a drawer at home in the bathroom with the same smell. It was a decidedly grown up and female fragrance. At 41, mother of 2, I still wonder when that scent will find and claim me.

The quarter was cool in my hand. Even though she nodded in distraction when I asked, I still brought it to show her and get one last confirmation that it was mine. I could have it and I would not need to share. I knew enough to be subtle about the whole digging for it and the run by for final approval. If I'd made a show of it, everyone else might also ask. If it were discovered that she did not indeed have 10 quarters in there, enough for each of her children, my own secret shiny cash might have to be taken from me in the name of fairness. Fair is so incredibly unfair when you grow up in a family of 12. Fair didn't mean everybody gets some, it meant nobody gets any.

We knew, if you were gonna get something of your own, best to be quiet about it and take it while you can: eye contact, a quarter, second helpings, help with homework, a laugh, approval...whatever it was. Accept it quietly and move away while gripping it tightly. Because there might not be enough for everyone.

I held my cool quarter close as I crossed the beach, passing my sisters and our new friends we'd made during this year's stay at the resort. We came to Fence Lake for a a week or two each year along with other families of people who worked at the global company where my dad worked in the lab as a chemist.

My little brothers would be the problem. We generally stayed together on this holiday, the older ones wanting little to do with "the 3 little guys" as we were known. As I scurried away, James and John would want to know where I was going, what was in my hand. It was a gamble - mom might have 2 more quarters in there and if she did, she would surely give them to my comrades. But if she didn't? If she didn't, there is no doubt at least one of them would ensure everyone on the beach knew of the injustice he was being dealt. No, best to keep it quiet. Knowing that moodiness would repel them, I walked with my head down as though I was sulking about something. Though we were a pack, the 3 of us, they would have no interest in turning their focus from the beach to cheer a whiny, stubborn sister.

Once assured the boys would not impede my progress, I walked faster up the beach. I felt the sun on my shoulders, the skin tight and dry from swimming all day and sleeping in sandy sheets at night. We all loved these weeks. We had so much freedom in this little few acres of cottages, beaches and playgrounds. Trouble was defined differently. Rules were pared down to the bare essentials.

The one freedom I prized the most was the reason I needed the quarter. Up the beach, away from the cottages and picnic areas, there was a rec room cabin with pool tables, Foosball and other low tech, rainy day diversions. It stayed generally empty on sunny days. The bench out front of the cabin was something I avoided. A few years earlier, one of my sisters told us little guys the story of Lizzy Borden and her murderous ax while we sat on that green bench. I considered the bench itself haunted by Lizzy and her minced family thereafter and would not go near it.

But around the corner on the dark side of the building, the side that got little to no sun, was my destination. The tall white and aqua colored vending machine. This was not your average coke machine. It sold no coke, no Pepsi, no water, no sprite, no lemonade. You could get one thing and one thing only from this machine: Fresca.

We were allowed all manner of junk food growing up, but never soda. Or, I should say, soda was for parties an other very, very special occasions. When we did have it, it was my dad's homemade root beer. We were certain we loved it at the time, dad made it, after all. But I'm not sure it was particularly carbonated, when I think back. We wanted it to be the best and so it was. He died in 1978 and to this day, some of us regard the flavor of his root beer as unparalleled by any on the market. As though we'd be capable of judging such a thing.

On this day when I was 8, I rolled the quarter in my hand, warming it up for its fate of being traded in. I stood closer to the vending machine than necessary, but I loved its hum and the progression of sounds once I thumbed the cash into the slot: the slow and almost primitive sound of the quarter rolling down, hitting the rest of them in the reservoir, the silent pause and then the chunkclunkplunk of the Fresca being delivered.

My hand wrapped around the prize, I lifted it to the sun to admire. This machine was further exceptional because it sold bottles of soda, not cans. Fresca bottles were taller and narrower than most soft drink bottles. The glass clear with a pattern of little bumps all over. The liquid itself somewhat opaque, not clear like the run of the mill non-caffinated drinks - 7Up, Sprite. Something about the look of it suggested juice to me, though I'm sure there was nothing at all natural about it back then.

I grabbed the base of the bottle with both hands and cracked off the lid with the opener on the side of the vending machine. I sniffed the grapefruity mist wafting out the top.

Looking around me first, I moved to the back side of the cabin. Everything suggested this was not the side of the building meant for consumption - few windows, paint peeling, overlooking nothing but the border of the resort property and a bit of rough beach. No one would come to this side except the dog that lived on the grounds.

Rags was a long-haired red dog that walked the grounds freely. He wasn't the kind of dog you pet or played with. He just sort of guarded over the place. Rags passed by behind the building that day. He was the only one that knew and I knew he would keep it to himself.

I sat down in the sand at the line where it changed from light and dry to wet and packed. I played with the bottle a bit, digging a hole to use as a drink holder. The wet sand hugged the knobby glass. I scooched my knees up and hugged them, looking out with my eyes, but staring at my Fresca with every other part of me.

I was alone. No one was here, no one was likely to be here. I did not have to share this seat, this spot, this building, these minutes, these rays of sun, these grains of sand, these ounces of bubbly liquid escape. I did not have to take turns, or defend my claim, or relinquish it in the name of fairness. All mine.

I drank my Fresca slowly, forcing out burps after each small sip - burping being a bonus free gift with the purchase of contraband beverages.

I kept lifting the bottle to sip long after it was already gone. I realized I must rejoin if I were to keep this pleasure secret enough to do it once more before vacation drew to a close. To have someone come and find me would assure this was the last such private pleasure here.

Secrecy also compelled me to toss the bottle away (yes, in the garbage - recycling not so hot in the 70's) with great reluctance. Lingering, the bottle at the bottom of the bin with a few others gripped me a few seconds longer. I would have loved to have taken it all the way home, to keep a piece of what was mine today with me. But it would have become not mine anymore one way or another. Best not to put any bit of it where others can reach it, divide it, make it disappear.

The regret of losing the bottle wearing off, I skipped back along the beach, winding and stopping whenever the spirit moved me to check out a rock, dig a hole, kick at a wave. My brothers spotted me first. They glanced without moving, no doubt checking to see if the funk that seemed to have me sealed up earlier still contained their sister. Seeing that it had appearently freed me, they bustled to include me in that moment's endeavor - checking out a fat ugly muskie though the trap door in the anchored raft about 20 yards from shore.

We ran, then swam, out to the square wooden raft and climbed on to the wet outdoor carpet it was covered with. As we looked down, I felt something rising in me. I had a choice - turn my head and and give no clue to the secret inside me or let it out with gusto, answering or not answering the questions certain to follow.

Decsion quickly made, I bent my knees for torque, grabbed my secret-sheltering belly and heaved out the final bubble of Fresca-flavored air I had. It lasted a few seconds and had a volume that could not but get my brothers' attention and hold it. Afterwards, through watery eyes, my smirk let itself out as I waited for the accusations, the statements of injustice. The grapefruit aroma and verve could not be denied, after all.

But my brothers, ages 5 and 6, only paused. Then laughed. Then made congratulatory remarks about what a good one it was. Hm. Surely they knew. How sporting of them. Fleetingly, I wondered just how many one-shot quarter-grantings my mother had approved this year.

I am many years older now. Decades older. I have owned a lot of things, do own a lot of things. But nothing I have ever owned has been so unfettered, so low-maintenance, so absolute, so undisputed, so mine - as the clandestine aquisition and slow savoring of that luke-warm Fresca in the summer of '76.


Cindy said...

Lovely! I love the many surreptitious actions of an 8-year would have made a great spy! I can see myself in that story!

Tatersmama said...

I LOVED this! Great memories, so thank you for sharing! ;-)

At first, I thought you might have been granted one of those precious musty, little Certs instead, which for some strange reason, always tasted best, straight out of Mom's purse!
Newly bought ones never tasted quite as good!