I shall never think of Valentine’s Day again without thinking of Joe and chocolate cordials. Not that anyone named Joe ever gave me a chocolate cordial for Valentine’s Day but, because they’re a favorite of mine, my mind I guess informally equates them with the holiday. So to wish everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d tell you about Joe and his chocolate cordial.
It was twilight hour at the C Shop, the night dark, the indoor lighting that odd sort of yellow that makes you look as tired as you are. The front windows no longer let us see outside but had become black mirrors, caging us in with weary facsimiles of ourselves. Beyond the C Shop, thin peals of laughter bled into the night as the last of our customers took their ice cream cones and headed up the beach for their campgrounds or cottages or million-dollar condos. A breeze, carrying autumn’s first chill, sifted though the open doors. It was just me and Rochelle and Joe inside, watching the clock, beginning the routine of cleaning up before closing. I was outside the counter, sweeping up Jelly Bellys and straightening the saltwater taffy, more than ready to go home. The work was hard for someone my age and, yes, I confess, I took home a cup or so of free ice cream that had fallen to the bottom of the freezer so I could eat it while soaking out the stiffness in my hot tub overlooking the far side of the bay.
For those of you who don’t know, the C Shop is a candy shop and café at Birch Bay, WA, right off the beach and full of memories for summer visitors who now bring their kids to fill ‘em up on the Jelly Bellys and popcorn and Patricia’s famous “peanut butter yums,” her “dreams,” and truffles. “I used to come here where I was a little girl!” they’d say, themselves looking like children.
This particular night I’d been working the “candy side” all summer with about ten or fifteen teenagers, scooping the ice cream and developing biceps like Popeye, using my breaks to have a sit on the beach with a free snow cone unmercifully drowned in homemade syrup. I got on with the kids; they let me pretend I was seventeen again, and I don’t think the forty-year-age difference ever came up, which suited me fine. And Joe, seventeen years old, cute as they come, was my favorite, a likable young guy who easily blushed and more often than not made me wish I was seventeen again.
“Hey!” he said that night from the other side of the antique counter. “I dropped a chocolate cordial, want it?”
“You know I do!” I tossed off the broom, held up my hands to catch.
“You don’t like ‘em?” Rochelle asked Joe.
“Na, I hate ‘em. It’s like—” I was just biting when he said it: “It’s like biting into a zit.”
I choked, sputtered, and spewed. The timing could not have been worse—or better if you were Joe. He went hysterical with glee, pounding the counter, giggling like girl. I was no better. Laughing, retching, hardly able to breathe, I staggered around like a drunk, spitting and gagging. Patrick, who owns the shop, came in from the porch—and for the first time since I’d known him he was unable to say a word. He simply stared in astonishment, at a loss to know what to think. We couldn’t help ourselves and the look on his face made it all the funnier. Patricia, who owns the shop too, came in from the kitchen. By now I was beating Joe in the chest and he and I and now Rochelle were falling all over ourselves, wiping our eyes and laughing so hard our sides ached.
All Joe had to do the rest of the summer if he wanted to get a rise out of me was to say, “Hey, Brenda, want a chocolate cordial?” Or simply hold one up and grin.
I haven’t eaten one since. Can’t. Because Joe is right. Eating one is exactly like biting into a zit. And so on that happy note, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!