A Coke and a Smile
I know now that the man who sat with me on the old wooden stairs that hot summer night over thirty-five cars ago was not a tall man. But to a five-year-old, he as a giant. We sat side by side, watching the sun go down behind the old Texaco service station across the busy street. A street that I was never allowed to cross unless accompanied by an adult, or at the very least, an older sibling. An unlikely pair, we sat together, perched n the top step. His legs reached down two stairs; mine angled, barely reaching the first. The night was muggy ad the air thick. It was the summer of 1959.
Cherry-scented smoke from Grampy's pipe kept the hungry mosquitoes at bay while gray, wispy swirls danced around our heads. Now and again, he blew a smoke ring and laughed as I tried to target the hole with my finger. I, clad in a cool summer nightie, and Grampy, his sleeveless T-shirt, sat watching the traffic, trying to catch the elusive breeze. We counted cars and tried to guess the color of the next one to turn the corner. I was luckier at this game than Grampy.
Once again, I was caught in the middle of circumstances. The fourth born of six children, it was not uncommon that I was either too young or too old for something. This night I was both. While my two baby brothers slept inside the house, my three older siblings played with friends around the corner, where I was not allowed to go. I stayed with Grampy, and that was okay with me. I was where I wanted to be. My grandfather was baby-sitting while my mother, father and grandmother went out.
"Thirsty?" Grampy asked, never removing the pip' from his mouth.
"Yes," was my reply.
"How would you like to run over to the gas station there and get yourself a bottle of Coke?"
I couldn't believe my ears. Had I heard right? Was he talking to me? On my family's modest income, Coke was not a part of our budget or diet. A few tantalizing sips was all I had ever had, and certainly never my own bottle.
"Okay," I replied shyly, already wondering how I would get across the street. Surely Grampy was going to come with me.
Grampy stretched his long leg out straight and reached his huge hand deep into the pocket. I could hear the familiar jangling of the loose change he always carried. Opening his fist, he exposed a mound of silver coins. There must have been a million dollars there. He instructed me to pick out a dime. I obeyed. After he deposited the rest of the change back into his pocket, he stood up.
"Okay," he said, helping me down the stairs and to the curb, "I'm going to stay here and keep an ear out for the babies. I'll tell you when it's safe to cross. You go over to the Coke machine, get your Coke and come back out. Wait for me to tell you when it's safe to cross back.
My heart pounded. I clutched my dime tightly in my sweaty palm. Excitement took my breath away.
Grampy held my hand tightly. Together we looked up the street and down, and back up again. He stepped off the curb and told me it was safe to cross. He let go of my hand and I ran. I ran faster than I had ever run before. The street seemed wide. I wondered if I would make it to the other side. Reaching the other side, I turned to find Grampy. There he was, standing exactly where I had left him, smiling proudly. I waved.
"Go on, hurry up," he yelled.
My heart pounded wildly as I walked inside the dark garage. I had been inside the garage before with my father. My surroundings were familiar. My eyes adjusted, and I heard the Coca-Cola machine motor humming even before I saw it. I walked directly to the big old red-and-white dispenser. I knew where to insert my dime. I had seen it done before and had fantasized about this moment many times. I checked over my shoulder. Grampy waved.
The big old monster greedily accepted my dime, and I heard the bottles shift. On tiptoes I reached up and opened the heavy door. There they were: one neat row of thick green bottles, necks staring directly at me, and icecold from the refrigeration. I held the door open with my shoulder and grabbed one. With a quick yank, I pulled it free from its bondage. Another one immediately took it place. The bottle was cold in my sweaty hands. I will never forget the feeling of the cool glass on my skin. With two hands, I positioned the bottleneck under the heavy brass opener that was bolted to the wall. The cap dropped into an old wooden box, and I reached in to retrieve it. I was cold and bent in the middle, but I knew I needed to have this souvenir. Coke in hand, I proudly marched back out into the early evening dusk. Grampy was waiting patiently. He smiled.
"Stop right there," he yelled. One or two cars sped by me, and once again, Grampy stepped off the curb.
"Come on, now," he said, "run." I did. Cool brown foam sprayed my hands.
“Don't ever do that alone," he warned firmly.
"Never," I assured him.
I held the Coke bottle tightly, fearful he would make me pour it into a cup, ruining this dream come true. He didn't. One long swallow of the cold beverage cooled my sweating body. I don't think I ever felt so proud.
There we sat, side by side, watching the sun go down behind the old Texaco service station across the busy street. A street I had been allowed to cross by myself. Grampy stretched his long legs down over two stairs. I dangled mine, a bit closer to the first step this time, I'm sure.