“Let me guess,” she said. “Elle’s moving in? It’s about time.”
“No.” He shifted his weight. “Did she tell you that?”
“I just figured. You two have been dating for how long?”
“Tink?” he said.
The rain started coming down in fat drops, smacking against the windows like wet kisses.
“When would she? I barely see her. You run her out of the house at three in the morning.”
Wilson was about to speak when the door jingled and Mr. Washburn, shaking out a wet newspaper he’d been using as cover, came in with his granddaughter.
“Welcome to Blue Skies Creamery,” Ally said. “What would you like, sir?”
The girl pushed herself up onto her toes to see into the display case and her eyes widened. Mr. Washburn took off his hat. “Raining buckets,” he said. “Still hanging in there?”
“Still here,” Wilson said. He checked Ally. “Things are picking up. You?”
Mr. Washburn sighed. “Not so hot,” he said. “Terrible, really. But I don’t want to burden you with all that.”
Wilson offered his condolences. He could sense Mr. Washburn’s desperation; he could see it in his bloodshot eyes and the way his skin hung from his brow. It seemed to weigh on him like a yoke.
“What can I do?” Mr. Washburn went on. “We can’t compete with these other stores. It’s all chains now. And they can’t even make it.”
The girl asked for chocolate and Wilson watched as Ally lifted the freezer top, dug out two perfect four ounce scoops and rang up the order. He’d seen her excel in school, in sports, he’d been lucky enough to witness most of the landmark moments in her life, but this gave him a special satisfaction.
Mr. Washburn continued: “This store’s been the cornerstone of this community for 60 years. It’s my life achievement and to think it’ll die like this.” He shook his head. “But I don’t want to burden you.”
Ally made a funny face at the girl, whose mouth was smeared with ice cream, and they both giggled.
“The worst part,” Mr. Washburn said. “The worst part. There’s no money left. Forget the business. I know Fiona would faint if she heard me, but forget it. I’d take the money. I’d do anything to get it back.” He patted his granddaughter’s blond head. “What will there be to leave this one?”
“It’s funny,” Wilson said. “When I opened the place I didn’t think we’d get off the ground.” He and Elle were at a small table in Red’s, the pub down the street from his shop. “I thought I’d be begging my way back to the bank before the fiscal year was out. That seemed like the worst thing possible.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Elle said. She called the waitress over and ordered them another round. “You’re going to be fine.”
“I haven’t even told Tink we’re in trouble.”
“Sure,” he said, spinning his glass. “I’ll tell her, Look, I mortgaged your future for an ice cream shop. I’m broke. I’m 42 years old. But hey, we’ll be fine, sweetheart. At least the Sox are two games up.”
“It’s too late,” he said.
He finished his drink and started the new one. Elle did the same. Her face was pink except for the area around her eyes, so that she resembled a raccoon, and he knew she was tipsy.
“Have you thought anymore about what I said?” Elle said.
“It’s not the right time,” he said.
She leaned forward. “When will it be? When I was 14, my dad had already divorced again.”
“Forgive me if that’s not my plan.”
“Oh, fuck,” she said. “It wasn’t my father’s plan either, but at least he was willing to move on.”
“Elle,” he said.
She put her hand over his mouth. “I know you’re upset, but maybe this is a good thing. You can put this part of your life to rest.”
“And what part’s that?”
“I think we both know. It took my father another divorce to get over my mother leaving. I don’t want it to be the same for you.”
“I’m doing fine,” Wilson said. “Me and Ally, we’re doing fine.”
Elle slid her drink aside. “That may be.” She took Wilson’s hands in hers. “But why don’t you want me to move in? Why can’t I be a part of that?”
He looked away, and was seized by a pang of loneliness he thought he’d willed away long ago. He could begin to picture a life with her, flecks of that bygone image, but the words would not come. “It’s not the right time,” he said again.
She squeezed. “I can’t wait much longer.”
Wilson manned the shop alone. Though it was Friday, he’d closed early and given Ally the afternoon off. He surveyed the back room—the prep table, the fridges, the batch freezer he planned to post on eBay. It all seemed foreign to him. Stripped of its function, the space was no longer his. The memories he tried to tie to this corner, that stain, felt tenuous, as if they belonged to another man, someone he wished he could be. After Jen had moved out to her mother’s, her things had stayed for three days. Standing in their closet, amongst all her clothes, he’d been unable to picture her in any of them. He wondered if Jen thought fondly of any of the time they’d shared.
He went to his office and started assessing the clutter, the contents of drawers and the photos taped to the cinder block walls. He pulled down a picture of Ally and him at Wachusett on her 10th birthday—for her present, Ally had begged to take the day off from school to go skiing and Wilson had submitted though Jen couldn’t join them. A funny thing happens when you have children, alliances are born, between mother and daughter, father and daughter, and the bonds that once connected you as husband and wife change. Ally and he had formed an alliance from the start; they shared the same temperament, interests, faults. When the custody hearings started, Ally had said she didn’t want to change schools and Wilson argued it’d be best not to uproot her. Jen had no choice but to acquiesce. On that January day before Wilson and Ally headed off for the mountain, the last January they’d all spend together, Jen hadn’t said goodbye. It struck him now as a monument to his complacency, one of the many signs he’d ignored. She’d stood in the doorway, blanket draped around her shoulders, watching unflinchingly in the rear-view mirror until he turned off their street.
Wilson walked to the front of the shop and around the counter. Across the street, a crack of heat-lightning flashed above the baseball field. He smeared his fingers along the glass case like he’d seen so many customers do while deciding on a flavor. From this side, everything felt different. As he reeled the flavors off in his mind, the world behind the counter he’d inhabited for so many years receded. There were more important matters at hand. Vanilla or chocolate; cup or cone.