Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
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Almond Sweaterhead

Alma looked at the clock above the doorway. Every summer afternoon since seventh grade, Mr. and Mrs. Cortepassi would come into the store at 1:00 p.m. and order a banana split that they would share at the table by the front window, which overlooked Goldsborough Street. Alma had been told that this tradition went all the way back to when Isabelle’s Ice Cream was known as The Talbot Dairy, which, according to Isabelle, was before color television existed. Alma liked how Mrs. Cortepassi would watch her each time from the counter as she prepared the banana split. The old woman always wore a tan cardigan sweater—even when it was hot outside—and she would study the assemblage of the dessert as if she had never seen it done before. Alma especially liked how Mrs. Cortepassi smiled when the trick with the banana was performed, peeling and cutting the inside without having the banana itself touch human hands.

“You’re a magician,” the old woman would always say. “Where did you learn that?”

“Magicians never reveal their secrets,” Alma would always say back.

In truth, Isabelle had trained Alma to peel the banana in such a manner that the last remaining unpeeled part became a cutting board, where you would balance it on your hand so that the peel protected your skin as you cut the untouched banana with the knife.

“It’s like the customer did it themselves,” Isabelle had told Alma that very first day back in seventh grade. Alma was now sixteen and had been working at Isabelle’s ever since. How many banana tricks had she performed during that time? A thousand? Ten thousand?

Alma scooped ice cream cones for a tourist family from the Tidewater Inn, but she was distracted by the clock. It was now 1:20 p.m., and the Cortepassis were late for the first time ever. Next, she cleaned the lid on the hot fudge machine, wiped down the refrigerated glass tops which covered the cartons of ice cream, and refilled the napkin containers. 1:45 p.m. Isabelle returned from a supply run across the other side of Highway 50. She carried two boxes of sundae cups and lids.

“There’s another box with sugar cones out in the Subaru.”

Alma looked through the front window—the Cortepassis’ window—and saw the light blue vehicle double parked, its hazard lights blinking. She went outside and popped the trunk on Isabelle’s car. The sugar cones came from a bakery in Queenstown, near the dreaded outlet mall, and the bakery gave Isabelle a discount because they wanted to brand themselves as a “leading local sourcer” to small businesses on the Eastern Shore. Alma balanced the box on her shoulder and stepped inside. Isabelle nodded toward the back, and Alma moved past the ice cream counter, nudging open the aluminum kitchen traffic door with her hip. She deposited the sugar cones on the prep table, and returned to the front, where Isabelle was waiting at the counter.

“Weird,” said Isabelle, pointing to the clock. “It’s almost two.”

“Right? I know!” said Alma.

There seemed to be an understanding about what was going on without anything being said specifically.

Isabelle spun toward the stack of glass parfait bowls and picked up the black telephone which rested next to them. She punched in some buttons.

“Who are you calling?” whispered Alma.

“The lunch counter at Hills.”

Alma thought about the walk to work that morning down Harrison Street, and how she always looked left on Dover toward the blue and white drug store sign. It said, “Soda,” on the bottom underneath “Hill’s Drugs,” and she always liked how, when the soda part was lit up, it made her feel as if she had gone somewhere else in time.

“What siren?” said Isabelle into the telephone. “We didn’t hear anything.”

Alma felt a strange sense of shame as Isabelle hung up. There was a fretful look in her eyes, something Alma had never seen.

“What is it?”

“Mr. Cortepassi,” Isabelle said, then she pulled Alma into one of the seats of the little tables where customers would eat their ice cream. “Mr. Cortepassi died, Alma.”

She looked at Isabelle and waited for the rest, but Isabelle stopped talking. It struck Alma that she really wanted to know how he had died, and then she wondered if she should feel guilty for wanting to know. But wasn’t that human nature to want to know? Alma didn’t like how she felt.

“Poor Mrs. Cortepassi,” Alma finally said. “They’ve been together their whole lives.”

Isabelle nodded, but her eyes seemed in a faraway place, like she wasn’t even hearing. Alma frowned, got up, and grabbed a cleaning rag. From where she was sitting, she could see a few sticky spots that she hadn’t noticed from behind the counter. She sprayed them down and began wiping the tables.


The pews at Christ Church were smaller than Alma remembered. The whole place was smaller. Even though it was barely two blocks from her house, she almost never went, and her parents went for a while without her, then they cut back some on going, too. She was trying to piece together the timeline in her head—had she stopped around the summer she began working at Isabelle’s? But she forgot her train of thought when she saw Mrs. Cortepassi enter. The air in the room seemed to change with her arrival. Alma felt a strong temptation to rise out of the pews and walk over, but she was sandwiched between her mother and father, and they adopted solemn expressions that made Alma conclude that this was a poor idea, almost as if they sensed what she was thinking. A pastor she did not recognize—dressed in long black and white vestments— came through the door and caught up to Mrs. Cortepassi. What had happened to Pastor Jerry? Alma whispered this question to her mother, who quietly explained that Pastor Jerry had died of cancer and that if Alma had paid more attention to things in the world besides music and firecracker licorice then maybe she would have known all about Pastor Gunter. Alma watched the pastor take Mrs. Cortepassi by the arm and lead her up the aisle.

“The new guy’s name is really Günter?”

“Alma, you’re not saying it right, and he’s been here for more than a year.”

“I’m saying it with an umlaut.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s German, Mom.”

“I don’t think he’s German, dear. I think he’s from Maine.”

Alma’s father looked over with a heavy frown on his face.

“In case you two have forgotten, we’re at a funeral.”

Alma smiled politely and tried to refocus on something else around her. She grabbed a hymnal, thumbed through its very thin pages which seemed somehow both sacred and cheaply made. It was a different songbook than the little, pale red ones they had when she was young. Had the new pastor brought in these new hymnals? What else had he changed since he’d arrived? And why did she care?

She studied Mrs. Cortepassi’s face as the woman moved to sit in the front aisle with Pastor Günter’s help. For a split second, Alma felt her eyes lock with Mrs. Cortepassi’s, and she tried to communicate a message of compassion to the old woman, a somber feeling of apology and grief and dismay, all wrapped in one. Mrs. Cortepassi looked away without reacting, and Alma felt a weird tinge of regret at being unable to express herself in just the right manner.

A yell of “No!” echoed outside the church, from the road perhaps, or the sidewalk on the corner. “No!” it came again, and Alma was sure it was the voice of a young woman, maybe even a girl. She realized everyone around her had turned toward the back of the room, as if an answer to the sound was about to walk through the door. Some people were standing now, including her father, and Alma used the opportunity to get up and slide past him out of the pew and into the side aisle. She walked to the back of the church and disappeared through the door which she knew led to the bathrooms and also to a second door that could take her outside.

In the sunlight now, between the gray stone of the church and a series of hedges, Alma ducked down and watched the girl with the voice. She was maybe the same age, or maybe a year older, a junior, and she was struggling and yelling with an older man, handsome with gray hair at his temples, maybe her father, and the girl yelled, “I’m not going in there. I told you I’m never going into a place like that ever again!” And the man groaned in frustration and wagged his finger at her as if she were in trouble. The double doors of the church blasted open, and Pastor Günter stormed out and went right to them. The yelling couple stood side by side now, united in their noisy guilt, and Pastor Günter said to the man, “Dr. Waters, I’m not sure how they do things where you come from, but here we honor our dead with prayer and not with yelling. Now are you coming inside or leaving? What you’re doing here in the street is not an option any longer!”

Alma watched the man, Dr. Waters, shrug an apology, and he silently followed Pastor Günter back into Christ Church. But the young girl who’d been shouting stayed put outside, turning her back now to the two men disappearing through the double doors. Alma shifted as if to reenter, too, but then for some unknown reason, she suddenly moved to the farthest bush in the very front, and she continued to watch, staying hidden and silent as the girl hugged her arms around herself. A little yelp of pain escaped from the girl’s mouth, and she knelt down on the sidewalk curb and began to cry.

Alma wanted right then to disappear into the dirt underneath her, disappear and forget everything she was seeing and take it all back. Shame rushed into her, and she felt her cheeks flush. She was eavesdropping on something meant for no one else to see, meant for no one to know. She inched backwards, then took a step, then two, until she made it safely to the stone wall without being noticed. The door handle clicked, and she froze for a moment, waited, then slid back inside and entered the closest pew.

Alma locked eyes with her father, who seemed to sense her return. He was a few rows up and over toward the center, but the angle made it so that they couldn’t miss each other. She held a finger to her lips, echoing the “shush” sound she knew was in his head. He returned his gaze to the front, no damage done. Alma studied the room, tried to get her bearings. What had she missed? Pastor Günter was up at the altar, arms outstretched, saying something she couldn’t really understand. Two women next to her held their hymnals open. Had they just finished singing, or were they about to? Suddenly, Mrs. Cortepassi rushed forward from her first-row pew, nearly tumbling over Pastor Günter. She collapsed against the closed casket in the chancel, and she sobbed, shaking back and forth. Alma felt her chest tighten. As the old woman hid her face, Alma was struck by the image of the girl outside on the street, the daughter of Dr. Waters, doing the exact same thing. Pastor Günter turned and looked as if he might comfort Mrs. Cortepassi, but he froze and then quickly spun back to the congregation. He lifted his right hand toward the organist, and the music began. Everyone sang except Alma, who was stunned. Perhaps the pastor from Maine thought he was sparing the woman some embarrassment, but why hadn’t he followed through on hugging her?

Alma was in the aisle now, marching briskly forward while everyone else sang. Their eyes were locked on their hymnals, focused on unfamiliar lyrics and an unfamiliar tune, and so it wasn’t until she herself had reached the altar that anyone seemed to notice. Alma darted around Pastor Günter and went straight to the mahogany casket where Mrs. Cortepassi was sobbing. Alma sat down next to her and wrapped her arms around her as best she could, and she felt the old woman crying into her chest, and Alma rocked her. From up front, staring at the gallery, all eyes were on them, and Alma saw a tight-lipped but approving smile from her mother.


Sundays were always busy at Isabelle’s even though none of the other stores on Goldsborough Street were open. Checkout time at the Tidewater Inn was 11:00 a.m. It was a short walk from there to the ice cream shop, and so a lot of tourists got in one last travel activity before they steered their loaded-up cars to Highway 50 and back to D.C. Alma had arrived right after breakfast to start getting everything ready for the post-checkout rush. She expected to find the doors locked—she’d been the Sunday opener the last two summers—but instead Isabelle was already there, and, next to her, was the girl who had been outside the church at Mr. Cortepassi’s funeral, the girl who would not go inside with her father.

“This is Opal Waters,” said Isabelle. “She’s starting here today as a trainee.”

“Hi,” said the girl.

Isabelle smiled a little broadly, and this made Alma feel uncomfortable. “Opal’s father is the new pharmacist at the Giant.”

“Nice,” Alma managed.

She and the girl looked at each other, and Alma thought how different she appeared up close, not crying or screaming or sad but just a regular person now.

Alma introduced herself and held out her hand.

Opal shook it lightly and mumbled, “Did you say your name was Almond Sweaterhead?”


Alma instantly pointed to her name tag and frowned. A worried expression came across the girl’s face, and she looked back at Alma then at Isabelle. “I’m sorry,” the girl said.

“It’s okay. I get that all the time.”

“You do?”

“Not ever,” smiled Alma. “Never ever ever.”

The girl’s eyes glistened for a moment, and then a smile seemed to be forming on her face. Alma smiled back.

“I have to make Opal a name tag,” said Isabelle. “While I’m at it, I can make you a new one, too—if you want.”

“You mean, one that says Almond.”

“If you want,” Isabelle nodded playfully.

“Why on earth would I want that?”

The new girl’s eyes lit up. “Why wouldn’t you?” she said, her voice filled with excitement.

“Because it’s not my name.” Alma thought about it for a moment. “It’s not anyone’s name. No one in the history of this earth has that name!”

“You’d be the first,” said Opal, with a wistfulness. “Think of the adventures you’d have.”

“Why does the name Almond mean there would be adventures?”

“Not Almond,” she said, coming around the counter. “Almond Sweaterhead!” Opal touched her on the shoulders with a weird enthusiasm. “You’d be like a superhero.”

“No,” said Alma. “No, I wouldn’t.” Alma frowned. “If anything, I’d be a villain.”

Isabelle spun away. “Girls, I’m making name tags before the rush. Get started on the training.”

Alma froze. “I’m doing the training? Why aren’t you? You trained me.”

“Exactly,” said Isabelle, and she disappeared through the aluminum kitchen traffic doors.

Alma turned back and found the new girl smiling at her.

“Private Opal reporting for training,” she said, saluting.

Alma looked at her. It didn’t seem possible that this was the same girl crying alone outside the church that day. She recalled the moment of regret that she had felt, watching the girl from behind the shrubs, watching her private moment while hiding like a voyeur. Alma looked down at her shoes.

“Come on, Private Opal. Let me teach you the secrets of banana split making.” The girl’s eyes were filled with expectation, but she didn’t move. Finally, Alma said, “And you can bet that if I’m telling you a secret, it’s a secret you must take to your grave. Because if you don’t, then I will hunt you down. Even if I have to scour the earth. And you can believe I mean what I am saying here. It’s a guarantee, or my name isn’t Almond Sweaterhead.”

“Yes!” Opal shouted, pumping her first in glee. She spun around. “Yes! Yes!”

Alma watched the new girl’s grin, and she felt less guilty now, seeing how happy this silliness had made her.


The tourist rush was handled in a way that Alma could have predicted, based on previous summers with previous trainees. Alma pivoted between scooping ice cream cones and prepping sundaes and other deluxe orders while Opal handled cashiering duties. She couldn’t really blame Opal for this. The line would grow as Opal asked for instruction in fulfilling certain orders, people would get impatient, and Alma would just take over and complete the orders because it was faster. But now, two hours later, Alma’s forehead was beaded with sweat, and Opal was still standing behind the register, while two boys from school, Kurt Stovall and Benny Calloway, chatted her up. Alma knew them only as varsity soccer players. The past spring, the team began the custom of wearing their jerseys around campus—even to class—on game days to stoke attention and attendance. Alma had played one season on the frosh-soph girls’ team, but the practice schedule conflicted too much with her assignments for the newspaper and her AP class workload. Her mother and father had taken the news of her stopping soccer without much issue.

“It’s on your transcript now, anyway,” said her father.

“Unless you’re getting into college as a scholarship athlete,” said her mother, “it’s much less important than your GPA and SAT scores.”

Alma had been surprised they didn’t seem concerned about exercise, her health, and the psychological downside of quitting a sport she had been playing since third grade. But the first time the subject was discussed was also the last time.

Kurt Stovall and Benny Calloway were like most of the players on the boys’ team that she had met before. Not really interested in her, and not really interested in anything much else, either. In one way, she was surprised to see them so animated as they spoke with Opal. On the other hand, though, as she sized up the new girl from a new perspective, she could understand what they found interesting in her. Opal Waters was attractive in the way that she somehow looked elegant and yet also looked approachable. Alma could imagine how her mother would describe the combination:

“She’s like a princess and a tomboy rolled into one.”

Alma didn’t want to be a killjoy, but she also didn’t want to do all of the ice cream work during the next rush. The choice for help was to get Isabelle out of her office upstairs, where she was working on the accounting, or to get Opal up to speed before the next surge. Alma knew what Isabelle expected of her, and so she pointed to the glass sundae boats still on the tables, and she said, as diplomatically as possible, “Opal, those tables aren’t going to bus themselves. I can’t do everything.”

“I’m on it,” Opal said, and her quick, no-nonsense answer surprised Alma. She had been expecting some pushback. Instead, Opal moved out from behind the register, squeezed past Kurt and Benny, and began gathering the used sundae boats.

“Hey,” Benny said, locking eyes with Alma. She realized he was now squinting at her name tag, her new name tag. “Hey, Almond,” he continued. “Couldn’t you do us a favor and take care of that for Opal? We were talking.”

Alma was a little stunned at being called Almond for the first time, but somehow it was worse that Benny Calloway was the one calling her this—in a way that made it clear that he did not remember ever talking to her on campus or on the soccer field or that they had been in the same schools since they were both twelve.

Opal walked over with the cleaning spray and cloth, handed them to Benny, and commanded, “Get to work, dude. Help us out.”

“What?” said Benny.

Opal’s eyes narrowed. “First,” she said, “you don’t talk to Almond Sweaterhead that way—”


“And second, if you really want that Adderall—a Schedule IIN amphetamine, by the way—then you’d better listen to me and do what I say.”

Benny Calloway jumped over to the ice cream shop tables, the white Formica tinged by chocolate sauce and whipped cream, sticky and gooey, and sprayed them down.

Kurt Stovall was still at the counter, his face a little stunned. “Dude,” he said to Benny.

Benny, focused on the task now, didn’t answer, and so Kurt aimed his cellphone toward his friend and started videoing. He also started narrating, and it sounded to Alma like the golfing TV broadcasts she sometimes caught her father watching on rainy Sundays. “There he is, all conference right wing for Easton High, yes, Benny Calloway in the flesh, and, as you can see, ladies and gentlemen, he’s executing the first of his many community service hours—”

“Yo!” Benny said, turning toward Kurt and the phone filming him. “Turn that off, bro. I’m not kidding!”

Kurt Stovall backed up from Benny, who was now advancing toward him, the spray bottle still in his hand. All the while, though, Alma realized, the video was still rolling. “Ladies and gentlemen, a sad day, as a young man, paying his debt to society, suddenly snaps under pressure.”

Alma looked over. It was as if Kurt was making it all come true. Benny Calloway’s temples had become red with rage. She looked at Opal, who had a sort of bemused smile forming on her face, then back at Benny, who had the cleaning spray pointed like a gun at Kurt.

The phone kept filming, and Kurt whispered, “Dear loyal viewers at home, this is the face you will remember, a woeful teenage boy who found the path to redemption too daunting—”

“Enough!” shouted Benny, but instead of squirting the cleaning spray at Kurt with his right hand, he uppercut him with his left, sending his friend flying into the back of the cash register.

Alma looked at Opal, whose eyes were wide in disbelief. “Holy fuck!” yelled the new girl.

On the ground now, Kurt Stovall mumbled something about his phone. Benny stood over him, ready to strike again. He was breathing heavy, and his cheeks fluttered in rhythm. “I warned you, dude,” he said.

Opal was moving in between the two boys now, and she gestured toward Benny with a sort of time-out hand signal and said, very calmly, “It’s true. You did warn him. Now step off.” Benny did as he was told, and Opal kneeled beside the fallen Kurt Stovall. “You going to be alright?” she said.

“I’m not a baby!” Kurt Stovall yelled at her, and he sprung up on his feet, pushed past Opal and Benny, ran out the front door, and then onto Goldsborough Street. He turned left, heading east, and disappeared.

“What was that?” mouthed Opal to Alma.

“Here’s your cleaning stuff,” said Benny, suddenly calm, and he set down the bottle and cloth on the counter and followed his friend out the front door and up the street.

The store was strangely silent.

Alma realized the phone—Kurt’s phone—was at her feet, and she picked it up and placed it inside her apron pocket.

Opal moved to the front table by the window—the Cortepassis’ window—and tilted her head in the direction of the boys. She spun back to Alma, her eyes all aglow. “They’re gone.”

Alma walked over. “That was exciting,” she managed.

“That was stupid,” laughed Opal, still watching through the glass.

Alma fingered the cellphone in her apron pocket but said nothing. Another car drove past, going east, and, for a moment, it seemed like they were both content to watch the traffic leaving them in the historic district and heading to Highway 50.

Opal sat down at the Cortepassis’ table by the window, and Alma felt a strange sense of misplaced spite wash over her. No one was supposed to sit at their table, she thought, but then she took a breath and tried to clear her head. Her mind was racing. “I have his cellphone,” she said.

Opal smiled. “I told you Almond Sweaterhead would have adventures.”

They suddenly realized Isabelle was standing in front of the aluminum kitchen traffic doors.

“How long have you been watching?” said Opal.

Isabelle looked at them and shook her head. “Just clean up that mess,” she said, and then she disappeared back into the office.


Alma and Opal were walking south on Harrison Street, the store closed, the streetlights flickering on and off in that way that they always did in summer as the sun set later and later.

“And that stuff about Adderall?” Alma said.

They stepped off the curb and crossed the street.

Opal’s answer was calm, as if she had been expecting the question, “My dad is a pharmacist. You saw that ad in the Press-Democrat welcoming him to the town?”

“Not really.”

“Everyone else did, I guess.”

“Nothing happens here, Opal. Like, my whole life. So, I guess your dad counts as news.”

“Every town we’ve lived in like this, it’s the same. Pharmacist’s daughter. I bet she can hook us up.”

“Sounds like you were going to.”

Opal frowned. “That’s how you have to play it. You don’t say no.”

“But you don’t say yes?”

Alma studied Opal’s eyes, waiting for an answer.

“You ever taken Adderall?” said the girl.

“I’ve never taken anything.”

“This isn’t heroin or meth, but it still counts as theft of a controlled substance. A felony, get it?”

Alma felt her heart quicken, her palms kind of clammy now. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say back. No one had ever talked with her about anything like this. Suddenly, she blurted out, “But Almond Sweaterhead is supposed to stop crime!”

Opal’s eyes flashed with amusement. “If that’s the case, then why did Almond Sweaterhead steal that LAX bro’s phone?”

“He’s not an LAX bro. He plays soccer.”


“And I didn’t steal it.”

“Didn’t you?”

“He lost it. We’re returning it. Almond Sweaterhead is going to save the day.”

Opal snickered. “You mean you realized that the phone has a password and so it might as well be a brick to us.”

“Yes,” laughed Alma, “yes, I did realize that.” She nudged Opal. “Also, I realized that there is nothing in the entire world that would make me want to see what’s on his phone anyway.”

“Dick pictures.”


“Sexting texts with one of your favorite teachers. Your whole earth shatters as you come to find that Ms. Literary Studies, your hero, your role model in high school, is as shallow as all of the other girls around you.”


Alma stopped and reached into her back pocket.

Opal walked another step or two before realizing. “Almond, come on. What are you doing?”

“Here,” said Alma, “I’m giving you his phone.”

“How come?”

“I’m grossed out now.”


“Take it.”

“Good, because I’m going to try to crack the password.”

“Wait, no.”

“Yes. What’s his jersey number?” She started tapping the screen.

“Opal! If you do it wrong, he’ll be locked out of it!”

“God, so serious. I wasn’t really going to do anything. God.”

Alma felt her cheeks redden. “Almond Sweaterhead is sorry.”

Opal grinned. “Referring to yourself in the third person now. I like it. That’s very pro athlete of you.”

“It is?”

“I love it. Do it more!”

Alma looked back at Opal, not sure how to react. Was she making fun of her? What was happening? “Almond Sweaterhead doesn’t do things on command,” said Alma.

Opal started giggling. “I get it. I see what you did there. Clever.”

Alma looked over at the elegant princess tomboy next to her, striding in the moonlight. The pharmacist’s daughter, the girl who had been crying outside of the church. It was probably 9:30 p.m. by now. Only the porchlights on Aurora Street were lighting their path.


They arrived at Choptank Lane, a commercial cul-de-sac which connected with Dover Street, maybe only a block from Highway 50. Alma could see the lights of the four gas stations, one on each corner, bright now against the dark summer sky. Another handful of blocks, and they could be at the Dairy Queen Brazier. A few blocks more, and there was a Tastee Freeze. Isabelle had once told her that when she first took over The Talbot Dairy in the historic downtown that both of these stores seemed like the big competition, but nobody going to these stores ever wanted to walk. They were part of the Highway 50 zone, so the Ocean City refugees stopped on their way to or from D.C., and the locals who went were the locals who were driving in their cars. Isabelle learned they weren’t competition at all. The chamber of commerce guy had even told her once, “Your little store is a loss leader for us, for our town. We need you open.”

“What’s a loss leader?” asked Opal.

“You know when the grocery puts a sale on bottled water and it’s like cheaper by half compared to anywhere else in town?” Alma realized she was starting to feel hungry. “They attract you inside with that deal and they don’t care if they take a loss on the price because while you’re there, you buy all of this other stuff and they make a profit.”

“Ice cream is a loss leader?”

“I don’t know,” said Alma.

“Downtown is weird, right, Almond Sweaterhead? A yarn store? It’s open like one day a month. And that American Pennyroyal? What do they even sell?”

“Junk,” admitted Alma.

They stepped toward Giuffrida’s Pizza, whose own lights were drowned out by the white fluorescence of the four gas stations.

“I think I need a slice,” said Alma. “Normally, being around ice cream all day, I never want to eat after my shift.”

“Don’t think about food,” said Opal.

“We’re in front of a pizza place.”

“We need to keep walking, so put it out of your mind. Think about something else. Think about something that bothers you. Think about something that worries you. Think about something that gives you anxiety.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Anxiety kills appetite.”

“Oh, god.”

They stepped past the pizza place and into a small street of houses which looked like they each had only one room. There were no road lights in this neighborhood, and Alma could only think that somehow the builders thought the intensity of the fifty gas station signs was enough. But the little brick houses looked also like the ones built just after World War II, so maybe they were here before the highway went from two lanes to eight. The darkness of the area, though, gave Alma a strange, disquieting sense of sorrow.

Kurt Stovall was alone on his front steps, leaning against one of the metal handrails. He had a plastic bag of ice on his cheek.

Opal held up the phone toward him and called out, “Missing something?”

He set the ice aside and came down the steps. “Oh, man, thank you,” he said, taking the phone. Suddenly, he added, “How come you didn’t call me—” and then he realized and laughed. “Oh, damn, I’m an idiot.”

“That looks like it hurts,” said Opal, gesturing to his face.

“Dude needs to get a sense of humor,” said Kurt. Though he was trying to play it off, his eyes had a certain disappointment, and the girls looked at each other, acknowledging it between them.

Opal reached into her pocket and pulled out a small bottle. “Go inside and get another one of those plastic bags.”

“For what?”

She shook the pills in the bottle up and down, and they sounded like a rattle. Kurt scampered up the steps and into the dark house.

“Doesn’t seem like anyone else is home,” said Alma.

They both stood there a moment, and an uncomfortable silence surfaced as they waited. Alma was surprised that Opal was going to give him the drugs, but she tried to hide her surprise.

Kurt whipped open the screen door, ran out, and handed the bag to Opal. She unscrewed the lid on the bottle and dumped the pills into the bag. “Benny’s the one who wanted them, right?”

Kurt nodded.

Opal zipped the bag up and handed it to him. “Charge him whatever you want,” she said.

“And how much are you charging me?”

“I’m not,” said Opal, spinning away.

She started walking, leaving Alma standing there. Kurt Stovall looked at Alma, a quizzical expression forming on his wounded face, the bruise starting to take on colors. Finally, he said, “Your name isn’t really Almond Sweaterhead, is it?”

“Yes,” said Alma, immediately. “Yes, it is.”

“How come I’ve never seen you at school?”

Alma wanted to say, “You have.” Instead, though, she left without a word and moved quickly to catch up to her friend, who was up ahead on the street now, walking on the asphalt next to the parked cars. There was no sidewalk here, Alma realized, just road transitioning wildly into grass or gravel.


By the time Alma caught up to Opal, they were headed in the general direction of town. They had crossed Tred Avon and were on South Street. Alma could see the firm streetlights of Harrison Street, and just the top of the steeple of Christ Church. How strange it was now to remember Opal crying outside. It seemed almost impossible that this was the same person walking next to her.

“If you’re wondering about the drugs—”

“I wasn’t,” said Alma.

“Well, if you were, those were mine. My own prescription. I didn’t steal them.”


“They gave me a bunch of different things after my mom died.”

“I’m sorry.”

They crossed the old train tracks, which had been turned into a hiking trail, and then stepped back onto the sidewalk of South Street.

Opal seemed to be walking faster now, and Alma matched her pace. “You’re probably wondering how she died. I know I would be.”

“I wasn’t,” said Alma, and, this time, it was true.

“The kind of cancer men don’t die from,” mumbled Opal.

Alma understood what this meant, but every reply she tested in her head seemed wrong.

“My house is around this corner,” said Opal.

“I’ll walk you,” said Alma. “I don’t mind.”

They were on Brooklets Avenue now, and the houses were looking more and more familiar to Alma. They were getting near the part of Harrison Street which was her neighborhood.

“It’s that one there,” said Opal, pointing, and suddenly she froze. Alma stopped, too, and looked over. Out front, in the driveway, Isabelle was kissing Dr. Waters. They kissed a second time, then embraced.

“I guess we now know how I got the job at your shop,” said Opal, and though the words were formed in the shape of a self-deprecating joke, the grimness to the phrasing was unmistakable.

Alma was stunned seeing her boss like this, in a human moment. Any other time, it might have been a good thing. Why begrudge someone happiness? But walking into this now, with Opal, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Finally, Alma said, “Let’s go to my house.”

“Yes, let’s,” said Opal.


The tidy mailbox in front of Alma’s house had on its side, painted in simple black letters, “The Swerengens.” Alma noticed Opal staring at it for a moment.

“How do you really say it?”

“The Sweaterheads,” smiled Alma. “It’s Dutch.”

Opal grinned, and Alma pulled her by the elbow, up the steps, and onto the porch. The sound of their arrival was noticed. Both Mr. and Mrs. Swerengen came out to greet them. Alma introduced Opal and said nothing about how the girl’s father was the new pharmacist over at the Giant, and Alma’s parents said nothing about it, either.

Instead, her father said, “Nice night for a walk. Did you have a good time?”

“We did,” Alma said.

“Feel like something to eat?” said her mother.

The girls nodded and followed Alma’s parents inside toward the light in the kitchen, which was already on.

“We had turkey for dinner,” said Mrs. Swerengen. “I can make some sandwiches.”

“Thank you,” said Alma.

Mr. Swerengen stepped around the island in the kitchen and began slicing some bread, while Mrs. Swerengen put some turkey on a plate and began heating it in the microwave.

“We had ice cream for dessert,” said Mr. Swerengen, a little smile surfacing on his face. “I assume after a day of scooping it that you don’t want any of that.”

The girls looked at each other.

“No, Dad,” said Alma.

The girls sat down at the kitchen table as the sandwiches were served. Then, Alma’s parents turned to leave.

“Hey, there’s some Jiffy Pop in the cupboard,” said her father. “Maybe you want to make some after your sandwiches and watch a movie or something.”

Alma’s parents went down the hallway and upstairs, presumably to get ready for bed.

“What’s Jiffy Pop?” asked Opal.

“My parents are old,” said Alma, smiling, a little bit of an apologetic tone to her answer. “You heat this tin of popcorn over the stove flame like you’re out camping, and then the foil bubbles up when the popcorn pops, and it kind of looks like a metal balloon.”

“Actually, that sounds kind of fun,” said Opal.

Alma was surprised. “Okay, then we will make some Jiffy Pop later.”

They continued eating their sandwiches.

“What do you want to watch?” said Alma. “What kind of movies do you like?”

“Oh, just anything.”

“Come on.”

“Really, just anything,” insisted Opal.

Alma could tell that she meant it. What they watched wasn’t going to matter, and Alma was getting a sense of what kind of role she would fill in Opal’s world, and she realized that her own normal day-to-day life, which maybe she hadn’t ever thought about one way or the other, had a certain attraction to it that she hadn’t really recognized.


The next afternoon, the girls switched roles at the shop, with Alma at the register and Opal handling orders. Isabelle was nowhere to be seen, and Alma was grateful for this rare absence. She dreaded the day when all three of them might be in the store alone, the two girls knowing the truth, and Isabelle blissfully ignorant of what they had witnessed.

Alma was opening a new roll of quarters for the till when Mrs. Cortepassi entered. Alma’s breath clutched in her throat for a moment when she saw the woman for the first time since the funeral. The clock read 1:00 p.m., and she felt her eyes glisten, but she was able to gather herself before any tears formed. The stoic expression on Mrs. Cortepassi’s face told her that it was very important for this to be a regular visit to the ice cream shop.

“One banana split, please,” said Mrs. Cortepassi.

Concern washed over Opal’s face, and she turned to Alma with an almost frenzied look in her eyes.

Alma nodded calmly and said a quiet, “Go on.” It would be the first sundae Opal made without Alma standing right next to her, but the training was over now, and she had to let her do it. Alma gave Mrs. Cortepassi a friendly, but closed-lipped, smile, and Mrs. Cortepassi’s eyes registered the smile, but she was focused on the task, looking through the glass, watching the process.

Opal grabbed the banana and a knife and began the complex task of peeling it and slicing it without touching the inside. She concentrated so hard, that her face scrunched up in an expression as if she had just eaten something sour. Opal’s hands, though, did not shake, and she deftly sliced the banana on three sides, rotated it so that the fourth peel was her cutting board against her palm, and then she split the banana down the middle and loaded the two halves into the glass sundae boat. In seconds, it was joined by three scoops of ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry in the center.

“You’re a magician,” Mrs. Cortepassi said. “Where did you learn that?”

“Magicians never reveal their secrets,” Opal smiled back.

Mrs. Cortepassi eyed Alma after she spoke, and then she took her dish over to the table by the front window, sat down, and ate as she watched the people come and go on Goldsborough Street. Alma noticed Opal watching, too, and then the two of them turned back to each other, and they began busying themselves with tasks, trying not to stare.  

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