It was one o’clock on Monday and no one had been in the shop yet. Wilson poured the dairy blend (milk, cream, sugar, egg yolk) and vanilla extract into the batch freezer, and flipped the combination of switches that would give him his trademark 35-percent-air, super-premium ice cream. He listened to the movement of the dasher through the liquid, the hum of the freezing process. Other than spending time with Ally, making ice cream was his greatest pleasure. When he’d first suggested leaving the bank, Jen was skeptical. Ally was still young, there were years of expenses ahead, college in the not-so-distant future. He’d set out to allay her worries, taking classes and speaking with business managers, even interviewing shop owners in Boston and Worcester, but after months of research he’d found he wasn’t sure himself. He’d put in years at the bank and was pulling down a good salary. But then Jen surprised him; he told her of his reluctance, and she said: “Let’s take a chance.” It was all he needed to hear. Seven years later, Blue Skies Creamery was still running.
As the machine finished its load and he slowly spread the soft vanilla mixture into a new carton, Wilson remembered the late nights testing flavor combinations, how many batches he and Jen had lost learning the trade. He thought about how long it had taken to haul in the equipment and scrub the walk-in a sterile clean; those early days had been an exercise in humility. He grabbed a spoon—perhaps it was missing a hint of salt—and the hanging bells chimed against the storefront glass, a sound that didn’t come as often lately.
Mr. Washburn, from the pharmacy, entered with his granddaughter. “How’s it going, Will?” He took off his fedora and shook Wilson’s hand over the counter.
“Surviving,” Mr. Washburn said. “Trying to at least.” He ordered a cone for the girl and paid with a crisp $20 he peeled from a money clip.
“Well, you know I’m pulling for you,” Wilson said, handing him his change. Mr. Washburn and his wife, Fiona, were Brits who’d fled during the war. They’d built their store up from a small soda shop in the ’50s to a fully licensed pharmacy.
Mr. Washburn glanced outside. “I’ll pray for sun,” he said, pointing to the sky as he guided the girl through the door.
Just two years ago, Wilson had planned to open a second location in Natick. Then the chains moved in—one on Pleasant, another on Homer—and the area saw its rainiest summer in 30 years. In November, the shop got tagged by the DOH for a crate of expired product and a month later the machines went down. He was one bad season from having to close.
Wilson went into the converted walk-in he used as an office. Pictures of Ally playing sports, of the two of them at Fenway and the Cape hung on the walls. He sifted through the bills for vendors, taxes, and rent on his desk. He could close before his savings were exhausted, the equity line dried, but then what? Ally looked down on him from her fifth-grade graduation photo, a younger version of himself smiling beside her. He could hardly believe his life had once been so unburdened.
The oven beeped and Wilson slid the tray of meatballs in. The water was coming to a boil and the sauce had been going for a half hour. Ally was due home from the mall any minute and after her customary change into pajamas and inventory of purchases, he’d have dinner hot on the table. The meatballs were Jen’s recipe, an amalgam of TV chefs and cookbooks. She’d kept a binder full, neatly scrawled and collated by cuisine, which he still used, with some personal tweaks, whenever guilt, or necessity, impelled him to cook. Tonight was for dinner alone with Ally before she left for her mother’s.
A car pulled into the driveway and Wilson readied himself over the stove. He was mid-taste when his daughter and a girl he had never seen before walked in. “I don’t know if I can go,” he heard Ally say as the door shut behind them.
“Go where, Tink?” Wilson shouted.
His daughter looked at him from the dimly lit foyer. “Nowhere, Dad,” she said, and started for the stairs.
“Hold on, hold on,” Wilson said. “Aren’t you going to come say hello?”
Ally trudged across the living room, her friend in tow. As they entered the light of the kitchen Wilson got a better view of the interloper. The girl was tall, nearly Wilson’s height, with long brown hair and curves that made him glance away. She had a woman’s body, and next to Tink, whose frame had not yet matured, she looked like a babysitter.
“This is Lana,” Ally said, flourishing her arms; the Slinky’s worth of thin metal bracelets she wore lately jingled. “She’s on the lacrosse team.”
Wilson extended his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Lana.”
The girl shook it weakly, unimpressed. “Nice to meet you,” she said with the jaded expression of a casino cocktail waitress.
He sized her up. What was such a pretty, mature, disillusioned girl doing with his Tink? “Is Lana staying for dinner?” he asked.
Ally glanced over at the stove and nodded.
“You two better go and get washed up. It’s almost ready.”
“Actually,” Ally said, “we were thinking about ordering in.”
Wilson gestured toward the stove. “I’ve got two pounds of meatballs in the oven.”
“We’ve been talking about it all day.”
He could hear the want in Ally’s voice. “OK,” he said. “Go ahead.”
Ally looked at the table set for two then back at her father. “No, we don’t have to. We’ll be down in a minute,” she said, and led her friend upstairs.