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Hal Prize for Nonfiction, 1st Place: The Empress of Ice Cream

Judge’s Comments

“‘The Empress of Ice Cream’ is a complex exploration of parenthood after divorce. It elegantly weaves personal and generational memory to reveal the legacy of inadequacy in parenting.”

– José Rodríguez

The Empress of Ice Cream
by Briana Loveall

My daughter’s relationship with my husband started slowly, like the cautious unfolding of the tulip in early spring. They regarded each other carefully. How much authority did she have over him? How much love did he have for her? I watched them separate their feelings, analyze the other’s behavior, react and then pause to see what might happen; I watched my husband become a father.

I can’t remember when it happened. She climbed into his lap instead of mine. I pretended not to notice when she brought him a book and demanded he read it to her. He used voices for the characters as he read. I never used voices. I fell into his rhythmic tones, laughed when my daughter squealed as he spoke for a character, his voice shrill and accented. She nestled closer into the side of his body when he finished the chapter, begged him to read another, and because it was probably the first time she asked, he kissed her on the head and said yes.

Later, after clothes were changed, teeth brushed, prayers said, I tucked my daughter into her bed and left the room. Up until this point my husband was never asked for any sort of ritual comfort. That night though, she held out her arms and asked, “Hug?” I watched from the doorway as he embraced her, the dam that kept his enthusiasm contained for the last several months while they navigated their new relationship, broken, his love for her poured out into the first true embrace.

He stayed to talk with her and I walked to the kitchen to get ice cream. While I scooped thick vanilla cream, sliced banana, poured mixed nuts, and drizzled chocolate into a bowl, my daughter told my husband stories. He didn’t shut her down the way I might, didn’t insist she go to sleep so that for the first time all day he could sit in silence. He questioned her and begged to hear about her day, listened intently while she strung stories into a woven narrative.  

When he was done he joined me on the couch. We took turns slurping the chunky concoction off the same spoon. He praised my masterful ice cream creation, the combination of sweet, salty, crunchy, and smooth, was a delight to his taste buds. I let him dig into the bowl with a zealousness. While my husband has loved ice cream from the probable first time his mother placed a fingertip dipped in the cool sweet cream into his toothless mouth, I have always regarded it with apprehension and unease. But while I watched him devour the churned frozen treat, I relished in his joy at such a simple food. I stared at him and wondered when my daughter was going to realize how much he loved her.

Juan Rulfo wrote that nothing lasted forever, that, “there is no memory, no matter how intense, that does not fade.” But this memory stays with me, like the grime that accumulates on hands sticky with sugar.

I am seven and waiting for my father. My mother taps her foot, catches herself, stops. Stares at her watch, sighs, stares at me, my small body pressed close to the window where I wait for his dirty Camaro to come into view. We don’t own a clock, but I can hear the rhythmic ticking of time moving too slow, like it does in school, minutes before the bell rings for lunch.

It’s my father’s turn to get me, which means that he is late, and my mother is angry. I can feel it radiating on my back, passing through me and out to the curb where my father will pull in any second, I do not care because tonight is my night with my father.

He pulls in, probably unaware of the looks my mother is sending at him through the window. I hug my mother and race out the door into his waiting arms, the unmistakable smells of Kiwi shoe shine and starch cling to his jeans and shirt. When I am buckled in he tells me where we are going for dinner and I let him believe my excitement is from his restaurant choice and not the prospect of spending the next two hours with him.

When we reach the Denny’s he always takes me to, I order the Jr. Grand Slam and use the tired, grubby crayons to play tic tac toe and hangman. When our food arrives, my father’s is gone in minutes. While I happily hack away at soggy pancakes and sausage he tells me stories of learning how to eat in under three minutes during boot camp, how it’s a habit he hasn’t broken himself of yet. Perhaps I will eat like him someday, I say, because it seems that’s what I’m supposed to say, things that reinforce to my father that I want to be like him.

Before I am finished he orders us ice cream even though I hadn’t asked for any. I feign excitement again, but I can already feel the stomach ache that comes when melted ice cream meets the syrup drenched pancakes sitting low in my belly. Perhaps, because he thinks I will like it, he orders me the biggest serving of ice cream that Denny’s has, three massive scoops that sit atop a cone too large for my hands.

Later I will learn that my father’s father, because of his inability to cook for himself after divorcing his wife, fed his sons Spam for almost every meal. And maybe this is why my own father felt that feeding me at Denny’s, where I was guaranteed to get whatever I wanted, made him different from his own father. The ice cream at the end of the meal was a symbol that my father was doing better than his own. Had my father asked me however, I might have said no to the end of meal treat, his attempt to be what he thought a good father was. Instead I might have insisted that we go to his house and read books or play a game, that he teach me something new, or tell me a string of silly stories. Instead, I would always feel obligated to settle for the ice cream.  

But at the time of this particular incident I knew none of these things, I’d only met my Spam-serving grandfather on a few occasions, knew his name was Dave and, like Spam, he’d never been well received. I only knew that in a few hours I would be curled up in bed clutching my stomach from the onslaught of sticky sugars and sausage colliding. So, when the ice cream arrived I thanked my father and began the arduous task of dismantling the mound in front of me. At some point, several bites in, I begged my father for help. Ice cream was beginning to run down the cone and onto my fingers, tracing the thin lines of my veins on my slender arms. With a deftness I imagine now only comes from practice, my father, in two bites, consumed the top most part of my ice cream into a manageable treat, the melting sugared cream lapping gently at the cusp of the cone. Even with his assistance it would still take me considerable time to work my way through the rest of the ice cream towards the finish line of the paper wrapping. And by the end, I would be filled not with victory, but a heavy sense of cold, dumb guilt because I could see through my father’s attempts to be something that he wasn’t.

On multiple occasions throughout my separation from my ex, the father of my daughter, I’ve attempted to engage him in meaningful and thoughtful discussions about his “enoughness.” But what I actually do is sit on the phone, because I can never do this to his face, and beg him to be more than enough for our daughter. For several months our contact with each other is limited to the hellos and goodbyes as he drops her off after a brief weekend or evening visit. But then, after phone calls where I listen to my daughter plead with her father for more time, more nights together, more days at the park, more stories to read, more hugs to hold, more games to play, and he responds with a sweet voice that they just saw each other four days ago and she’ll see him next week, I lose whatever cool reserve I had. These phone calls usually happen while driving, and while my hands grip the steering wheel of my car, I’m sure anyone driving by me on the freeway thinks I look outrageously constipated and bitter.

Sometimes, after their phone call is over and I’ve pushed my anger deep, deep down into my stomach, I’ll talk with my daughter about their conversation. She’ll tell me she’s sad but that she still loves her daddy and that next time she sees him she’s sure he’ll buy her a special treat. I want to possess this quickness to forgive someone who isn’t enough. But I am a product of my own relationship with a father who covered his inability to be enough, with the sweet and sticky treats that symbolize a happy childhood.  

Once, when it was her father’s turn to have our daughter, I learned that she was driving out of town with her grandmother to attend a baby shower. When I asked if he was going with her, his mother and he spoke in unison: “Maybe,” and “No.”

“Why aren’t you coming daddy?” our daughter asked him later over the phone.

“Baby showers are for girls, and you’ll see me on Sunday when you get back.”

She questioned him again; why wouldn’t he come? “You’ll understand when you’re older,” and he laughed like she should understand the joke. There were many things she would understand soon, the least of these being the fleetingness of a love that is founded on superficial feelings that disappear under the heat of scrutiny.

“But I go back to mommy’s house on Sunday.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll still see each other.” He used the sweet voice again and didn’t have to watch the way her chin trembled, how her eyes stared out the car window with a gaze full of longing.

My stomach turned with a heaviness that left a bitter taste in my mouth, like soured milk that has accidentally been ingested. When my daughter finally hung up the phone I tried to talk to her about alternatives. She could stay home and not go to the baby shower; she could spend time with her daddy. She repeated many of her father’s excuses. She wanted to go. She’d see him later when she got home.

“Plus, my grandma always buys me ice cream on the way home.” She added, like this was the final fact that swayed her to leave her father behind. I knew the ice cream place she was talking about. It’s located right off a busy highway, inside a large warehouse full of things like homemade chips, salsas, locally brewed beers and fermented wines. Their ice cream is thick and hearty, it doesn’t melt within minutes of leaving the cooling unit, doesn’t leave streams of sticky milk that threaten to overtake the cone or bowl.

I asked her if ice cream was worth more than her father. She stared out the window, silent. Perhaps, her love of ice cream is like my husbands, able to quickly replace any of the bad tastes of the day with its cool, creamy coating. Maybe her memories aren’t laced with the bitter after-taste of guilt and stomach aches, and she doesn’t eat ice cream out of a belief that this image of a child with an ice cream cone represents not the fleetingness of a father’s love, but a happy, brilliant childhood.

Briana Loveall is a graduate of Eastern Washington University’s MFA program. In 2017 she was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award, and the Montana Book Festival Award. She has forthcoming publications with Under the Gum Tree, Under the Sun, Platform Review and The Forge.

 

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