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queen anne's lace and a toblerone
When my dad died, my wife Rachel and I drove down Route 7 south along the Vermont side of the Vermont-New York border from Burlington, as we always did when we went to visit my parents.
It’s a route that no GPS or smartphone map would ever direct you to take, but we took it anyway. It keeps you in Vermont for longer before crossing into New York, and you end up circumnavigating both Lake Champlain and Lake George, which probably adds around forty-five minutes of total drive time and, in our age of total efficiency and fear of inconvenience, makes it a technically less advisable way to go.
Like most white dads, my dad for some reason enjoyed conversations about the best route to drive anywhere. He could tell you about ten different ways to get somewhere and the reasoning behind it, how convenient or efficient it was.
He never understood our reasoning for why we went this way: “It’s more scenic,” we’d say, because it is. Route 7 South is quintessential Vermont scenery. Black and white cows, pastures, the Green Mountains. Middlebury, Rutland. Places with craft breweries, flannel shops, farm-to-table restaurants, maple syrup sugarhouses – all the reasons why anyone loves Vermont. Eventually, this route takes you to Bennington, and then you head west into Upstate New York on Route 67.
Around this juncture, Rachel and I always agree to stop and take a rest, get gas, grab a snack. We stopped at an Andersen’s in a little farming village near the border.
Andersen’s is a convenience store endemic to upstate New York. Their slogan is “Always Around the Corner,” and indeed they are. Andersen’s is the Capital District’s equivalent to a New York City bodega, but more uniform, more corporate, and more situated according to local automobile traffic.
When I’m at an Andersen’s, gone are the Vermont-y things that lured me to Vermont. They are replaced by a feeling of resigned contentment in the face of hometown familiarity: employees in the trademark Andersen’s dark blue polos and visors; food under revolving heat lamps on the counter; an old couple sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups in a booth; a New York State Department of Transportation worker with a high-vis jacket, hard-hat, and grimy hands grabbing some beer from the cooler at 11 am; a travel nurse emerging from a mid-morning shit in the public (and unlocked) bathroom. I am in the Capital District of New York.
“Are you going inside?” Rachel asked me when she got back in the car after pumping gas.
The pump had advertisements for impossibly low-priced food. A dollar and a half for a hot dog; a whole buffalo-chicken pizza for eight dollars. They might as well have advertised the diarrhea as well. There were Help-Wanted signs – Andersen’s is always hiring because people are always quitting. It’s tough to work there.
“Yeah, I think so. Grab a snack, for the road, ya know?” I said.
She started the car and drove us to a parking spot, an act of societal politeness that may or may not be unique to the region. Don’t take up a pump spot if you’re going inside.
It was a rainy summer day. We both put up the hoods of our rain jackets and exited our Subaru with all its bumper stickers that denoted us as transplants who had fully embraced the Vermonter culture. The bell jangled above the door as we went in but did nothing to alert anyone to us. Andersen’s is busy at all times of day, any day of the week, and the lines were four or five people long at both registers. As usual, the holdup was people buying cigarettes and a diverse array of lotto tickets.
“What are you going to get?” Rachel asked me, preemptively combatting my propensity for indecision.
I struggle with choosing how to spend money, despite in the grand scheme of things having little dire want for it. In general, I am a very poor practitioner of capitalism, even when it comes to something as simple as choosing an on-the-road snack. I knew she was asking because she didn’t want to be milling around the handful of ‘aisles’ that Andersen’s offers while I tried to find the proper Proustian impulse within myself. She wanted to get back to the car and make sure we got back in time for my dad’s wake.
Andersen’s has no shortage of good snacks to choose from, but the advertised hot food was not on my radar. Too risky to roll the dice on digestion issues when I had to be fully present for the few days after my father’s passing. This left the typical wares of chips, candy, assorted energy bars, nuts – the sort of stuff for which most people have a go-to choice. The indecision was brewing, and Rachel could see it as well as I felt it. She already grabbed a bag of Cheeze-Its and an iced tea for herself.
“Just pick something, David,” she said, not unkindly.
As I stood surveying the collection of snacks, the familiar burned coffee and stale cooler smell of the Andersen’s brought me back to the first time I ever did the whole capitalism thing, the first time I ever went somewhere and was presented with a choice as to what to buy that was fully independent of an adult’s guidance or strictures. It was in an Andersen’s just like that one, in my hometown of Veddersburg, New York. I must have been about eight or nine years old.
If you grew up in the Capital District, you’ll know that Andersen’s is one of the few places that would have been close enough to home for a kid to ride their bike to without much trepidation on the part of their parents. Well, for most parents. My father had an acute sense of the fragility of life and thus had trepidation toward me doing anything.
That’s why it was important for me to hang out with my friend Carlos. Everyone needs that one friend who has the more lenient parents. They allow for those life-experiences outside of your comfort zone that are often the most formative.
Such an experience for me was riding bikes to Andersen’s with Carlos and his older brother Jose. His parents would slap a five-dollar bill in his hand and tell us to ride down and to pick something out for all of us, just to get us out of their house. They would never mention a word to either of their kids about going helmetless. I strapped mine on, knowing without a doubt that fate would conspire for my dad to see me without it if I did not, and I would be in trouble in a way I had never been before.
I liked going on these little adventures to Andersen’s – for the most part. Jose was someone I looked up to and enjoyed being around. He was three years older than us and introduced me to music beyond the confines of my father’s yacht rock fetishes revolving around the Eagles and Jackson Browne. Like: My Morning Jacket, Rage Against the Machine, Eminem, Linkin Park.
Carlos liked this music too, but I knew he was only a disciple to his brother, just as I was. Jose even had his ear pierced, which was foreign enough to my experience to be automatically classified as cool. Besides his brother, Carlos was just a good friend, and we were lucky to have lived in the same neighborhood as one another.
But there was one aspect of the rides down to Andersen’s that always worried me. Most of the way was sidewalk, but in true Capital District fashion, there was a small quarter-mile segment that was without. It was on a steep, winding hill which ran past the cemetery, without much of a shoulder. It was so steep that we would have to walk the bikes on the way back up. On the way down, it was sure to careen us to our deaths without heavy use of the hand brakes.
The first time embarking on the Andersen’s journey, my reticence caused us to pause at the top of the hill. Riding down this thing would be like the roller coasters at The Great Escape, except at least the roller coasters didn’t share their tracks with automobiles.
“This is really steep. Is there another way we can go?” I asked, adjusting the strap on my helmet. Jose ignored me, choosing a different song on his Zune music player.
“Don’t be scared,” said Carlos. “We do this all the time.” His tone was not comforting; it was mean and matter of fact in the way kids are.
“Let’s go,” said Jose, not thinking much of my argument for the hill being ‘steep.’ “FREEDOM!” he yelled as he plummeted with his bike downhill, Carlos close behind.
I don’t know what he was referencing at the time when he yelled that, but looking back, it seemed to be some primal incitation of his inner bravery. It comforted me to get this signal from Jose that he too kind of saw the hill as a big deal, even if he wasn’t afraid of it. It made me laugh. I set off without a similar shout of defiance, squeezing the brakes every ten yards, stutter-stopping my way down. Carlos and Jose disappeared beyond the bend. I knew I would have to catch up or else face their taunting. I released my brakes and stayed as far to the right of the white line as I could while still staying on the pavement.
The road along the cemetery was lined with these white flowers that are always around in the summertime; my dad told me they are called Queen Anne’s Lace. They do have a sort of lace-like pattern to them, but I think, in the end, they’re just a wild relative of the carrot and nothing so glamorous as the name implies. They were drooping over the shoulder of the road, almost horizontally from a small hill that led up to the cemetery. My aversion to the white line meant they were hitting my chest and the front of the bike at regular intervals, thwap-thwap-ing me like Victorian handkerchiefs in an 18th-century approximation of a car wash as I rode down the hill.
I prayed an automobile would not come down the road behind me, so, of course, one did. I couldn’t muster the grace or courage to look over my left shoulder without guaranteeing I wouldn’t stray from the shoulder of the road. I kept my eyes ahead. In ten yards there was the entrance to the cemetery, where the asphalt expanded into a driveway and would allow me to pull off and the car to go past.
Then, in front of me upon the road: motion. Two chipmunks were engaged in what was either playful frolicking or some sort of tussle. They darted to the middle of the double-yellow lines then back. One stopped on the shoulder side of the white line while his friend made it back to the safety of the roadside undergrowth.
The soft roar of the car began to overtake me. Stay right, stay right! my mind screamed. My gripping knuckles turned white as the flowers. The chipmunk felt the rumble of the approaching car as well. It scrambled to the edge of the undergrowth, then -- for reasons I do not understand to this day -- turned around and went back toward the road as I rode past.
I gasped, but in the moment reconciled my impulse to preserve the chipmunk’s life with the desire to preserve my own. My front tire made the faintest of hiccups as it traveled squarely over the chipmunk's back just as the vehicle passed on my left.
It was an occasion for swearing, but all my nine-year-old self could muster was: “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” I made it to the driveway of the cemetery and pulled my hand brakes tight. I gracelessly put my feet down to stop and looked back up the hill. The little chipmunk lay twitching, incapacitated in some way that guaranteed a death that was unmerciful compared to getting hit by a car. Its little chipmunk friend ran out to sniff its body, and I began to cry and laugh at the same time.
There was something about the experience that made me realize that our existence is moment to moment and could be extinguished without warning. I could not have enumerated the feeling at the time, simplistic as it seems, but that was it: an understanding of mortality in the same way my father understood it. It would turn out that my father’s death was just as sudden, though thankfully less gruesome.
There was nothing funny about it, despite my laughing. There wasn’t much time to dwell on whatever it was I was feeling. Jose and Carlos would be at the bottom of the hill already, joined up with the sidewalk and waiting for me. I wiped my tears away and sped down the hill, a little less concerned with riding on the shoulder. They could tell I had been crying; my face was melted butter.
“You okay, bro?” asked Jose, removing one of his earbuds. Their volume was so loud I could make out that he was listening to ‘Of All The Gin Joints In The World’ by Fallout Boy. My dad’s rule was that if he could hear the song from the earbuds, it was too loud.
“Did you get scared by a car and the big scary hill?” mocked Carlos.
“No,” I said, and it was only a half-lie, in context. I was scared by the car and the big scary hill, and in general riding my bike off the sidewalk. But it wasn’t why I was crying. They laughed at me.
“Okay, bro,” said Jose. I sensed that the story of hitting the chipmunk would be unappealing to them and that they might be confused as to why it had impacted me so emotionally. I let it go, and we proceeded in awkward silence. Andersen’s was just around the corner.
The smell, the ding of the bell, the uniforms of the employees, it was all the same twenty-two years ago.
“Pick somethin’,” said Jose to us. I wandered the aisles staring through product and advertising, visions of the twitching chipmunk passing before me. It was hard to concentrate on what I knew was a first-time opportunity I should be cherishing.
I had, of course, picked and chosen things to eat at the market before, had the privilege of parents who could afford what I pointed to in a toy store or at the state fair. But they were always there, and thus some of their rules applied. Cotton candy was forbidden. A Nerf gun would imbue me with violent tendencies. No sugary cereals. Or, most common of all, the one rule that always still applied: too expensive.
There I was in Andersen’s, limited only by my portion of the five dollars in Jose’s pocket and the governmental restrictions on alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and pornography.
Yet I couldn’t choose.
Carlos came up to me, slapping his stick of Spree into his palm. “What you gettin’?” he said. Jose was already in the (perpetually long, of course) line, staring down at his Zune player. In his other hand was a peculiarly shaped candy bar in a long triangular prism. ‘TOBLERONE’ it said on it with a picture of a mountain.
I snatched one for myself and got in line, aware of my mimetic action and unsure whether it was a bad thing or a good thing or neither. How a twelve-year-old Puerto Rican kid from Upstate New York like Jose came to appreciate a Swiss Toblerone as a choice of candy I will never know. He found the song he wanted and eyed me.
“Toblerone? Nice, nice. Shit is good,” his twelve-year-old mouth said.
“Yeah, I like it,” was all I could say, lump still in my throat. They scanned his Toblerone twice, and the transaction was complete. We left the cool Andersen’s and stepped back into the sunny, humid Upstate New York air. I unwrapped the Toblerone as we sat at one of the sticky metal picnic tables.
I was pleased by the unique flavor of the European chocolate and its hints of honey and nougat and broke off several pieces of the little mountains before putting the rest in my back pocket for later.
“Let’s go back up Harvard Street instead. Then we don’t gotta walk the bikes up so steep,” said Jose. No suggestion had ever made me happier, knowing that I wouldn’t have to pass the mutilated corpse of the chipmunk; or worse, see that it was no longer there on the road and know that it was in the woods somewhere and slowly starving to death as a paraplegic.
The rest of my Toblerone melted into my jean shorts before we got back home.
Rachel’s hand touched me on the shoulder, and I found myself in front of the candy bar shelving by the cash register, my hand grabbing a Toblerone.
“That’s interesting; I’ve never seen you get a Toblerone,” said Rachel as we got in line.
“I have before,” I said. She was right though. I had never gotten a Toblerone with Rachel; I hadn’t in years. Despite buying one each subsequent time I went with Jose and Carlos to Andersen’s, I never continued the habit after we grew apart as friends. It reminded me that there was very much life before Rachel, and life after her. And now there was life before and after my father as well.
A blue-shirted employee finally got around to checking us out. As we stepped back out into the rain, I began to unwrap the Toblerone and broke off one of the triangular prisms of chocolate. We got into the Subaru.
“You know, I’ve never had one of those before,” said Rachel as she started the car. I turned and popped a piece in her mouth.
“Mmm, pretty good. Do I detect a hint of honey?” she said as we turned out of the parking lot and back onto Route 67 to go west.
“Indeed it is. Nougat too,” I said as we passed an old church. “You know what my dad would say when get there, right? ‘Oh, so you came south then through Bennington then came west? Why’d you do that?’”
She laughed. “Yeah, he was always talking about how to get places. Never use a phone or GPS.”
“‘There’s an old church right by that one intersection, right? You know, you could have gone any other way and saved almost an hour. I think there’s actually two ferries you could take across Lake George and Lake Champlain’,” I said, not quite mocking the dead but impersonating my dad’s diction in a manner that always made Rachel laugh.
She laughed, then sighed. I stroked her shoulder while she drove. Smiles and laughter in the face of emotional turmoil; just one of the many kinks of personality we shared that made us fall in love.
We passed an old farmhouse with some goats grazing nearby. Along the side of the wire fence containing them were some Queen Anne’s Lace flowers. The rain stopped, Rachel clicked off the windshield wipers, and I finished my Toblerone, knowing I would never again fail to know what to buy at Andersen’s whenever we took the long way home.
BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS:
What’s the first purchase you ever remember making without your parents?
What’s the equivalent of ‘Andersen’s’ convenience stores where you grew you? Do you think most convenience stores are the same no matter where you go?
Who was your friend whose parents were more lenient than your own?