In the middle of his morning walk, Ray paused to light a cigarette, took a deep drag and held it, then slowly exhaled. He had promised his wife he would quit before they came to Florida for the winter, but he couldn't help sneaking one after breakfast. After 40 years of smoking a pack a day, he was doing well to have a single cigarette.
He walked alone down the one-lane blacktop that passed their small house and intersected US19, the busy main road through town. He was curious about the renovations to the old Dutch Inn motor court that for years had been a landmark for him and Pearl, and was glad that whoever bought the motel had saved the windmill and was building a miniature golf course. Most of the other motor courts had been torn down ages ago - throwbacks to the era before Ike's interstate road system - and replaced with look-alike office buildings, fast food chains, convenience and drug stores that all seemed to be run by foreigners. There were so many of them - Mexicans, Indians, Koreans and such - moving in and taking over things. Nothing wrong with that, if they ran a decent business, but Chiefland was no longer the same place these days and it made him feel older than he was. Change was necessary, but must it happen so close? Even the windmill had changed: it was painted hot pink, but still standing. That was something, at least.
Ray wanted a better look at the new place; he was actually excited, chuckling at himself, an overweight man of sixty-eight smoking on the sly and heading down to the local putt-putt course to see a pink windmill.
Traffic was light, and he crossed the four lanes without slowing his pace much. The windmill looked in good shape, structurally, but it seemed to glow - throb almost - in the bright morning sun. There was a concession window with a chest-high counter sheltered by an aluminum awning, above which sat a plaster sculpture of what appeared to be a smiling Dutch boy wearing wooden shoes, and holding in his outstretched hands an ice cream cone and a putter.
An Asian man dressed in khaki trousers and a purple golf shirt stood on the sidewalk, arms folded across his chest watching four workmen hoist a yellow sign with red letters: DUTCH BOY LICK & PUTT.
"Nice idea," Ray said to the man. "Miniature golf and ice cream. Sure is pink, though."
"You like it, huh?" he said turning around. "Thought of it myself." The man seemed to vibrate with energy as he shifted from one foot to the other. He looked young, early forties at the most, with close-cropped hair and a wide smile.
"Did you do all this?" It sounded too much like an accusation.
"That's right. This my baby."
"Well, congratulations. I'm glad you kept the most interesting part of the old motel. I hope it's a roaring success." Sure, the windmill was pink, very pink, but it looked like a fun place, so why not? At least it wasn't another Chinese restaurant, so maybe this guy was okay, a businessman with a vision. A strange one, but a vision nonetheless.
Both men nodded, watching the workmen attach the sign to the pole.
"It's motorized," said the man. "When it's finished it'll turn round and round."
"Wow. What you really need," Ray said, half joking, "is a nice bed of bright tulips. In keeping with your theme, I mean."
"That's a great idea, I never thought of that." He extended his hand. "Name is Kenny Cho."
"Ray Harding. I used to own a business, too, so I know how tough it is to get one off the ground."
"Grand opening in seven days. Still need some part-time help. Know anyone?"
"Just retired folks like myself, sorry."
"Too bad. Always looking for good people."
Ray wished him luck, and popped a breath mint into his mouth before heading back to the house.
All that day and into the night he couldn't stop thinking about Kenny Cho and the Lick & Putt. He certainly hadn't been looking for work; he'd had a life's share.
He had started young, at nineteen, driving for a major long-hauler out of Pittsburgh, and by age fifty-five had his own freight business which he later sold for a huge profit. He and Pearl were set, financially, for the rest of their lives, so why was the idea of working at the Lick & Putt so intriguing? Maybe he could help Kenny out, share his mechanical skills and business experience with him, be a consultant of sorts and work on commission. Ray didn't need the money, really, but a few hours a day out of the house would be perfect (he wondered if Kenny allowed smoking on the job) and would keep his mind busy. Pearl could work in the garden, and then watch her soaps undisturbed after lunch. She had always suggested he be more active, find a new hobby; she'd even mentioned golf.
On the Monday of his second week at work, Ray smoked a cigarette (his fifth of the day) behind the windmill, wiping congealed ice cream from his old black cowboy boots. Business was decent, but not spectacular.
"Ray! I need your help with this machine!" Kenny called from inside. The old Carpigiani was acting up again.
"In a minute, Cap'n." He called him Cap'n, short for Captain of Industry, which always made Kenny smile. Ray was enjoying himself and feeling like a kid again.
Kenny had done a fine job with the Lick & Putt. He had razed everything but the old Dutch Inn's office - the 40-foot-tall windmill - and built ten miniature golf holes around it, populating them with colorful animal statues he bought from a local auction house (they had thrown in the eponymous Dutch boy for free). After the ninth hole, however, Kenny had run out of statues; since Ray had done some of the landscaping (planting a bed of bright yellow tulips on his first day), he offered to install a waterfall and small pond to the final hole - nicknamed the Oasis - just in time for opening day. Kenny had been thrilled with the completed course, and predicted a successful future for the new business. Ray wasn't quite so optimistic. Small businesses were risky - this one seemed on the fringe - but, despite Kenny's overall strangeness, he respected his work ethic. He wanted to help him succeed.
"Ray! Now, man!" Kenny shouted.
"Coming, Cap'n." Ray took one last drag, then flicked the cigarette away and went inside.
Kenny peered inside the back of the machine with a flashlight. "It's the compressor again. Damn these old European machines. Piece of crap." Kenny began banging on it with a wrench.
"Woah! Don't do that!" Ray poked his head in next to Kenny's. "Maybe the return valve is stuck. Just unscrew it, release a bit of the pressure and tighten it again. That should do the trick."
Kenny fit the wrench over the valve, made two counter-clockwise turns, waited a moment, and turned it back. Seconds later the machine chugged to life.
"You shouldn't force these old things," said Ray.
"Don't matter anyway, the new machine is coming. They call me from Tampa early this morning, said the Xuemei arrived in the port last night, truck should be here tomorrow."
"All the way from China, imagine that. Hope it's worth the wait."
"You'll see, best machine on the market today. Chinese design with state-of-the-art Japanese components. It's so luxurious," Kenny said, licking his lips. "Runs smooth as silk like a new Rolls Royce. We get the Rainbow Ripple attachment too. Man, I tell you that'll be something. Four different ice creams at the touch of a button. When people see colored syrup on the vanilla, they flip! Nobody around here ever seen three colors on one cone before."
Ray tried not to laugh. Kenny was the first Chinese person he had ever known in his life. Were they all such oddballs? He was enthusiastic, but such a queer duck peppering his speech with the quirky man that he said he picked up from listening to the radio as a salesman in Miami.
"Exciting," said Ray.
"Yeah!" Kenny's face lit up. "Like the windmill, I always tell you, people attracted to bright colors," he said, as though describing honey bees.
The next day the new machine arrived. Although it looked smaller than Ray had expected when they were unpacking it, it was sleek and impressive; he thought for a moment it looked almost cunning and serious - if that were possible for a machine - and ready to kick butt. They slid the Xuemei into place and plugged it in. Kenny began preparing its first batch of ice cream with the recommended red, green, and yellow syrups, while Ray helped a family choose putters and balls for a round. Then he went out back and smoked a cigarette, his fourth of the day and it was barely eleven o'clock.
"Ray, we ready now. Come, enjoy." Kenny leaned out the back door motioning to him with a large waffle cone.
Ray followed and watched while Kenny held the cone underneath the dispenser and turned the lever. The machine spat out air and flecks of vanilla ice cream, so Kenny backed the lever off a bit, and then slowly the cone began filling with thick white ooze, colorful ribbons gleaming on the sculptured edges. The kids will like it, thought Ray.
"Oh, it's beautiful, man!" Beaming, Kenny reached out and hugged Ray. "Now we ready for the real grand opening! Friday night, man, be here at six."
"You want me to work on a Friday night?"
"No, no, you'll be my guest. Bring your wife, we gonna have a party. Free stuff, live music, lights, people flock here. I gotta put out the signs, advertise this."
Kenny disappeared into his office holding the spangled cone out in front of him.
At the end of the day, Ray disconnected the old Carpigiani, rolled it out back and set it beside the dumpster, then went home.
That evening after dinner, he and Pearl sat on the patio sipping iced tea as a group of robins hopped and pecked for worms in the grass.
"Ray, honey, let's drive to the Cape tomorrow. There's a shuttle launch on Saturday, and we could stay in Cocoa Beach like we did that one year. That was so much fun." She reached over and stroked his hand.
It would be a long drive. He really craved a cigarette about now.
"But what about the party? I told Kenny we'd be there."
"You really want to go? You've been spending so much time there as it is."
"I feel like we should, just for a little while. He's planning something big and he'd be disappointed if hardly anyone showed up. We'll go to Cocoa on Saturday, okay?"
"I guess a few more days won't matter much." She gazed out at the lawn as two robins stretched their wings under the oscillating sprinkler's liquid fingers. "Ray?"
"Mmm-hmm." He drained his tea.
"I know I told you I wouldn't pester you about it, but are you smoking again? You seem so fidgety lately."
"I smelled it on your shirt the other day. And the day before, and those mints you've been carrying around, come on. You promised before we came down, and I thought you were doing really well for a while."
"Okay, I had a few. It's so hard to stop cold turkey like that, you just don't know. I've tried everything." He stood up and tossed his ice cubes out onto the lawn, scattering the birds. "I'll try harder."
"All the reports say it's never too late to quit."
"I know, I know. I'll try again."
Pearl walked up beside him and slid her arm around his waist.
"And we'll go to the beach right after this gala of Kenny's, right?"
Ray kissed her cheek. "Promise."
The place was packed, people were everywhere eating ice cream, waiting in line to play the holes, laughing, smiling, joking with each other. A crowd of a dozen or so people danced in front of a cover band playing Neil Diamond tunes in the corner by the Oasis hole. Kenny stood near the concession stand, while the two high school kids he'd hired handed out ice cream and sodas from inside the windmill. It was all very surreal to Ray, but it was like a party and everyone was loose and loud, uninhibited, but with no alcohol in sight. Kenny must have spent a bundle on it all, but folks were having a ball and would remember the Lick & Putt.
The cool evening breeze gently tugged at Pearl's light cotton dress with the little purple flowers on it, the one he always liked to see her in. Brightly colored bulbs hung from the palm trees over the golf course casting a festive glow on everything. Ray glanced over at Pearl and noticed that her short gray hair looked almost red under the lights, and he was taken back forty years to when they first dated.
"You sure you won't have any ice cream? It's really good." She stretched the word out, reeeeally.
"No thanks, this soda's fine," said Ray. Pearl rarely drank, but she sounded tipsy. Maybe she was just tired.
"Suit yourself, I'm going to get another one."
Ray watched his wife glide toward the windmill for another cone, and she looked even younger from the back. It must be the dress and working in the yard; she never looked better. He should really quit this time and get in shape, if not for himself, then for her.
"You try it yet?" Kenny asked.
"Nah. That machine's a real workhorse, though."
"You gotta try the ice cream. It has special ingredient."
"What'd you do, spike it?" Ray laughed.
Kenny smiled and watched a couple dancing.
"Really, Ken, what'd you do?" His smile disappeared.
"Just a special ingredient, like I said, nothing harmful. Chinese herb."
"Hold on, now. What kind of herb we talking about here."
"Don't worry, it's all natural."
"So is marijuana, but . . . wait, did you put dope in the ice cream?"
"No. I tell you, Chinese herb!"
"Opium? You put opium in there . . . everyone - Pearl! - they're all stoned? Jesus, Kenny, the children!"
"Relax, man -"
"- Is this what you're all about, dealing dope?"
"Ray, calm down. I would never do that, I lose my business. It's really just a harmless Chinese herb unable to detect, make people feel calm, relaxed, bring out the good feelings. You really should have some, I think you need it."
"Not funny. Not funny at all. This must be illegal, giving drugs - herbs - to people without their knowledge. It's not right."
"I only do it this once for special occasion to get people to associate good feeling with my ice cream and keep coming back. It's called repeat business."
"Yes, I know what it's called, but this is not the way to get it. You have to earn their business with good, honest service, not by slipping foreign substances into the product. What are you thinking? Where's your head at?"
"Chinese herb better for you than those cigarettes you smoke. They killing you."
"He's right." Pearl appeared behind them with her ice cream, a dab of green syrup on the tip of her nose.
"I can give him something," said Kenny.
"Is it better than the nicotine patch thing? That didn't work for him either."
Kenny nodded and smiled. "I have a special tea that will help him."
"More herbs?" Why were they talking like he wasn't there? "No thanks, I can quit on my own."
"You're doing such a wonderful job, honey." She said wuuuunderful, and rolled her eyes and giggled at Kenny, who blushed and looked down at his shoes.
"Okay! If you're sure it's just tea, I'll try it." She was practically flirting with Kenny!
The three of them went into the windmill to Kenny's office. Behind the closed door Ray could still hear the band playing outside, doing some song about people coming to America. Kenny opened a cabinet and took out a black lacquer box about the size of a bread loaf. What did they call it on TV? His stash? Kenny opened a plastic baggie full of thick, oily leaves that looked more like pipe tobacco, and smelled like dirty socks.
Kenny closed the bag and handed it to Pearl, but spoke directly to Ray.
"This special tea. You drink it for one week whenever you feel like lighting up."
"Yes, without fail, every time or it won't work."
"I'll make sure he does," said Pearl. "Thank you, Kenny."
"No problem. Good luck, Ray."
Ray had never drank so much tea in his life that first day. With a thermos on the seat next to him, they drove to the beach that weekend, and the tea had such a strong aftertaste Ray could barely smell the ocean when they arrived. After a cup in the hotel room, he tried sneaking a smoke while Pearl was in the bathroom, but the cigarette tasted so horrible he couldn't finish it, and he vomited over the balcony into the sand. As revolting as it was, he had promised Pearl he'd go through with it. She suggested he think of it as a prescription, something he would take for only a week, and that seemed to help somewhat. He really wanted to quit smoking, and if this would do it, he could stand a little discomfort. The more he drank it, though, he discovered an unexpected side effect. Ray was perpetually and unrelentingly aroused. Pearl would remember it as the best vacation in years.
When they got back to Chiefland, Ray stayed home with Pearl and puttered around the yard, did minor repairs around the house, sipped his tea, and made love to Pearl every afternoon. By the end of the week, he had lost five pounds and hadn't smoked a single cigarette. Pearl sent him to the Lick & Putt for more tea.
"The tea working for you?" Kenny smiled.
"It's powerful stuff."
"See, it works!"
"Can I get some more? I'm all out."
"Sorry, first part of program is over." Kenny opened the cabinet and took out a jade green metal tin the same size as the black box. "But drink this for three months, only at meal time. It's not as strong as the first batch; don't want you to have a heart attack."
"Three months? But Pearl and I go back up north in two months, what if I run out?"
"I give you extra, and if you need more I FedEx it to you. You'll be fine, don't worry."
"This is amazing stuff. A combination of Viagra and a sure-fire way to quit smoking, you could make a fortune with it."
"Maybe, maybe not."
"I'd like to at least pay you for it."
"Not necessary, Ray. You basically a good man, so it's my pleasure. You coming back to work for a little bit?"
"No, I think I'll spend the rest of my time with Pearl.
"Too bad for me. Business really picked up, we doing parties now."
Ray raised an eyebrow.
"No Chinese herb, man, don't worry. People can't handle too much good feeling at one time, not yet. We busy all the time now, I'm thinking about expanding. Got my eye on a vacant building at the edge of town."
"Let me guess - go karts?"
"Cho's House of Tea." Kenny smiled. "Like it?"
"I do." He shook Kenny's hand and went home to help Pearl with dinner. He was ravenous.
About the author:
James Simpson lives on the outskirts of Atlanta, GA, with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has been nominated for the 2003 Pushcart Prize and has appeared in such literary journals as storySouth, Literary Potpourri, and Big City Lit. His story "Eduardo Tends the Garden" was a finalist in Night Train Magazine's Summer 2002 Firebox Fiction contest, judged by Pamela Painter.
© 2011 Word Riot