Last chance groceries in the Winn-Dixie saloon
Christmas Eve. The last thing standing between my current state of consciousness and Christmas morning was a few hours and a vast, primal craving for mint chocolate chip ice cream that felt more akin to heroin withdrawal than a mere, mortal craving.
I was drinking tea on the couch, doubled up on sugar and memories. I had the remote control. Jeff and I were browsing through the wan, unappealing TV listings. This was the night of endless nutcrackers and carols, and there was not even a hope of halfway-intriguing television between then and dawn on the twenty-sixth.
I was trying not to think of home, in the same desperation and utter lack of success that one might encounter while desperately attempting to avoid thinking of a white elephant after having one suggested in conversation.* * * * *
"If we stay up late enough we could watch the local meteorologists track Santa during the evening news."
Oh no, I have never done that. No, no more than I have ever slept in my clothes for fear that my sister and father would once again come tearing into my room at six a.m., armed with a running video camera, merrily beginning taping before I could even crawl out of bed.
Christmas memories hold the rich and faintly bitter taste of fine chocolate.
I tell Jeff that I am headed to the store - a store, some store, somewhere - that is still open and has ice cream for sale. Mint chocolate chip would be my preference, but it's that combination of sweet and bitter I am looking for.
I slide my feet into shoes, sans socks, and grab keys; one set for the house and another for the Audi loaned from the dealership while my Jetta is being examined. The dance ensues: garage door up, seat belt buckled, foot on brake pedal, ignition key, start!
Drive. The road is dark, untroubled by cars. The overly-informative dash of the Audi tells me it is 7:44 p.m. on December 24th. Everyone with sense is huddled up on their couches, eating the ice cream they bought last week, and listening to the endless nutcrackers and carolers.
The parking lots and signs of Target and Wal-Mart are closed, and the chill mist begins to thicken into rain. I do a donut in the parking lot of Wal-Mart because I can, and whip back out onto the highway.
I am angry at the world only once during the drive, angry not just because Dad is so spectacularly gone, but angry because I am out on some harebrained quest for ice cream when what I really want is a few minutes of solitude to let the bitterness inside me rage and, once again, settle.
Publix is closed, and Bruno's is closed, but there are cars parked in front of Winn-Dixie. A right into the parking lot lets me stare at the customers head-on, as they make the rain-soaked dash from store to car while loaded with edible parcels.
It is 7:50 p.m.
This Winn-Dixie is, quite possibly, the only store still open in the metro Huntsville area, judging by the amount of traffic both inside and out. Most of them are pushing heavily-laden shopping carts full of holiday favorites like cranberry jelly, turkey, vegetables, and premade sweets.
I am the only person staring at the ice cream, much less at the single-serving packets of them.
I spent a good eight minutes wandering back and forth between the two sections of ice cream; did I want the multiple-serving bucket of mint chocolate chip (my original choice) or did I want the individually-sized cup of Phish Food (my all-time favorite flavor of ice cream)?
These are the decisions that the relative normality of my life allows me to obsess over now. How far I have come.
I took the package of Phish Food to the counter, where a tired blond teenager rang up my purchase with ruthless, exhausted efficiency. I wished her a merry and restful Christmas; if she remembered me five seconds later, I would have been surprised.
I ducked back out into the rain, which the occasional forecaster or two had said might produce an occasional snow flurry or two sometime before morning, which was, really, to be interpreted as a nice way of saying that I'd be at least another year older before seeing the first white Christmas of my lifetime.
I turned on the Audi, and turned on the radio. For a moment I became Amy Carol of the bells, and sang the words to my favorite Christmas carol, glad that no one could hear my voice reach and flex and break before hitting key.
The tears that slid out were quick and quiet and solitary. They were dried, forgiven, and mostly forgotten well before the Audi made its way back into the garage. I plied the dance in reverse: engine off, foot off brake, garage door down, lights out and garage relocked.
I ate perhaps ten bites of the ice cream, but it was enough.