Eskimo Pies: An Atlantic "First"

Now in his early thirties, ROBERT SOMERLOTTturned out enough fiction in his student days to fill a small library. After attending college in the Midwest, he wrote speeches for politicians, did newspaper work, and churned out commercial releases. Today he is concentrating on his own writing in a small Mexican rillage.

DURING the worst of the Depression we lived in a mustard-colored house on Majestic Boulevard in Columbus, Ohio. This property was owned jointly by my grandfather and the Buckeye Home Loan Association. It was one of the better houses in the city’s worst slum.

When I was old enough to feel shame, I began to lie about where I lived. The Bible I won for sterling character and perfect attendance at the First Methodist Sunday School is beautifully inscribed with my name and “621 Camelot Road.”That happened to be the rather romantic address of Mrs. Ethel Muellenberg, principal at the South Ward Elementary School.

My grandfather was an anarchist without a bomb. He had outlived his generation of earthscorching rebels and now dwelt in a curious era of his own where the events of the Haymarket Riot were as current as John L. Lewis. He had been left alone at the barricades, but he still sang loudly:

They shot our boys at Leadville,
Our loyal Union sons.
But blood and fire will answer
The dirty bosses’ guns.

Before cancer finally got him, the tide of radicalism had ebbed, leaving him beached on an island with the lonely ghosts of Emma Goldman and Eugene V. Debs. My father drifted somewhere in the same political ocean, halfway between the island and the shore.

Our street was grandly called “Boulevard” because the Inter-Urban tracks ran down the middle, dividing it into two narrow belts of red brick. In summer, long after sundown its surface was hot enough to burn the soles of my bare feet. On these nights my grandfather, my father, and sometimes one or two other workmen would gather on our front porch and talk politics over glasses of home-brewed beer or spiked Kool-Ade. “If Barbara Hutton got only one dollar a day from every Woolworth store, she’d have more in a week than you’d earn in your whole goddamn lifetime,” my grandfather said.

My father added, “The workingman don’t have a prayer except his union. They think Roosevelt will do everything but wipe their noses for them. But it’s only the CIO that’ll put milk in the icebox.”

I listened only on Monday nights, for on Mondays my mother worked overtime at the SnowWhite Laundry, where she was a shirt finisher. Other nights she would take me to the sleeping porch at the rear of the house, and we would read aloud to each other. Usually we read from her favorite book, The American Speaker. The cover was adorned by a star-spangled Uncle Sam standing in a marble pulpit. His piercing eyes gazed heavenward at a wooden-looking dove that clung precariously by its beak to an unsuspended olive branch. Inside, the dog-eared pages contained about three pounds of nineteenth-century American verse. The flyleaf proclaimed that the selections were “appropriate both for recitation and meditation.”

Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated beside the sea,
And oft in dreams go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town. . . .

The moth millers banged against the screens. The ancient electric fan buzzed fiercely, and my grandfather’s voice rang from the front of the house. “God gave the earth to man. Just how much of it do you own?” But my mother and I heard only my thin voice chanting, “This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign, Sails the unshadowed main. . . .”

My grandfather hated my mother, and I think he hated me. He would snarl at her, his voice deep in his throat. He sounded more like a dog than any other human being I ever heard.

“Fairyland,” he snarled. “Sonofabitching fairyland is what you live in. And you’ve got the boy right there with you. He don’t know a goddamn thing about the world except Sunday school and la-di-da poetry. You’ll both wake up someday, and I hope I’m here to see it.”

My mother never answered back, but once I flew into a tantrum. “Don’t you talk like that to my mother!” I shouted at him. “Don’t you dare!” He only laughed and seemed to like me better for it. But my mother marched me to the kitchen table and made me stay in all afternoon, writing over and over again, “Be kind and be gentle to those who are old. For kindness is dearer and better than gold.” That, too, was from The American Speaker.

The women who worked at the Snow-White Laundry quit at five thirty. An hour later my mother would get off the Inter-Urban. She looked cool in her clean white uniform and white shoes. A Negro boy on the street asked me if my mother was a nurse. “Yes.” I said. “She’s a nurse at the State Hospital.”

At supper she would talk about the Snow-White Laundry and the women who worked there. She talked of Mary Tarkey, who was Polish and had B.O. but was lots of fun just the same. Then there was Pearl Mooney, a hillbilly from Tennessee who lived with her six children in a tar-paper shack on the edge of town. “They’re poor people, but her oldest daughter plays the accordion and they sing together. Last week Pearl bought them ‘a mess of hawg jowl.’ They cooked it with dandelion greens the children dug up in the neighbors’ yards. They all help each other, and they’re all very happy.”

The Snow-White Laundry was not always a safe topic. Sometimes it set my grandfather off into a lecture. “Goddamn yellow-clog sweatshop! Slaving over some rich bitch’s filthy underwear for a lousy seventeen cents an hour.”

“Yeah,” said my father. “Oughta have a union.” He had been inside the laundry once when he was broke and had to get carfare. “No safety equipment. Oughta have a union.”

My mother smiled brightly at me. “I don’t think I told you about little Viola. She said the funniest things today. All about the Catholics —”

IN JULY my father lost his job at the glass factory. “It’s on account of I was the second man in the shop to join the union. But they can’t fire me. Those days went out with Prohibition. We got the Wagner Act.”

But the days went by and there was no sign that the Talcott Glass Works had ever heard of Senator Wagner or his Act. My father became desperate. He urged my mother to write to Mrs. Roosevelt. “Maybe you could put the whole thing in rhyme, so she’d be sure to notice it.” Perhaps it would be even better if I wrote, since Mrs. Roosevelt was known to love children. Somehow the letter was never written.

My father worked a few days on a huckster wagon, peddling vegetables from door to door. No one bought cabbage that week. And so it was decided that I would begin a modest career in business by selling ice-cream bars and Popsicles to the workers at the Snow-White Laundry. Both my parents coached me the night before.

“Take an extra clean shirt with you and keep it in your bike basket. Smile, and always say ‘Thank you, sir’ or ‘Thank you, ma’am,’ whether they buy anything or not,” my mother said.

“Don’t be afraid to sell. Speak up loud, and don’t look scared green,” my father said.

The Arden Ice Cream Company was downtown. My clean clothes were wet after I had bicycled four miles in the August morning. I went in timidly, clutching my precious capital in my sweaty hand. Eighty-seven cents would buy two dozen Eskimo Pies and one dozen Popsicles. The rest of the money would go for a quarter pound of dry ice and a cardboard box with a cord to go around my neck. A woman took my money and opened a thick door to an icy room full of mysterious equipment. “Two and one with dry,” she yelled at a white-clad man. “And the kid’s got no box.”

A boy about twelve years old leaned against a steel table waiting for his day’s supply. While our orders were being filled, we sized each other up. This boy seemed to have no parents to guide him. His pants were filthy, and my mother would have said he had enough dirt under his fingernails to grow carrots. Nevertheless, he spoke to me with the easy arrogance natural to a veteran.

“You new, kid?”


“Where you sellin’?”

“The Snow-White Laundry ”

“I used to sell at the Eagle Laundry. Jeez, it gets hot in them places. The babes that work there don’t wear no brassieres. Know what I mean?”

I nodded and tried to look wise.

“Some of ‘em don’t wear no panties, neither. If they’re climbin’ up the stairs, you can see Pike’s Peak.”

The white-clad man appeared with boxes, a small one for me and a huge one for my fellow salesman. “Here you are, Fergie,” he said to the boy. “Six dozen pies, four pops, six extra for the Frees.” He handed me mine without a word, “Thank you, sir,” I said. He looked startled.

The boy Fergie took a stack of Eskimo Pies from his box and undid the silver wrappers with great care. “I’m takin’ out the ‘Free’ slips. With every dozen there’s one that’s got a ‘Free’ tag inside the wrapper. If somebody buys that one, they’re supposed to get another one free. So you just take out most of the slips, and who’s the wiser?”

It was my first contact with the business world, and my shock showed on my face. “Christ, you’re green,” he said. “I’ll bet you suck your mama’s titty.”

I got out as quickly as I could. I was helpless with anger, and at the same time felt a strange envy of this boy who could say anything he wanted to and who seemed to know so much more than I.

THE Snow-White Laundry was a squat two-story building whose white-brick front belied the ramshackle tin barn behind it. I parked my bike and walked slowly around the corner, completely bewildered. Should I just walk in the door and ask people to buy? What if someone told me to leave? What if nobody but my mother wanted an Eskimo Pie? I sat on the curb and dipped into my capital by eating a Popsicle. I examined the silvery contents of my box, which was misty now with thin smoke from the dry ice. Then I unwrapped bars until I found a “Free” slip, which I rolled into a pellet and threw in the gutter. The re wrapping was a bit sloppy because my hands trembled at the boldness of my deceit. I walked back to the laundry, more sure of myself than I had been all day.

Stifling heal struck me at the door of the workroom behind the office. The air shimmered around the great pipes that ran in every direction. They coiled out from a huge central tank like the arms of a white octopus, bandaged in asbestos. The wooden floor shook with the thunder of flatwork presses. At one of these a dozen women clustered, some feeding in wads of sheets while others pulled the hot, smooth linen from the other side. Several had discarded their uniforms and worked in sweaty slips. Clearly, none were nurses at the State Hospital.

One of them turned away from the machine to mop perspiration from her naked arms. I stepped toward her, suddenly realizing I had forgotten to change my shirt. “Good morning, ma’am, I said. “Would you care for an ice-cold Eskimo Pie or an orange Popsicle?”

“Huh?" she said. I repeated my question. “Naw, kid.” She yelled over her shoulder. “Any you girls wanna buy ice cream?" No one looked up. “Naw, kid.” She turned her back on me before I had time to say, “Thank you just the same, ma’am.”

Washing was done in the basement. Steaming pools of water stood on the slimy concrete floor, and I felt my sox warmly wet through my sandals. Three light bulbs hung from damp cords, dimly illuminating a murky cavern lined by pothellied vats whose innards whirled and writhed, accompanied by the hiss of steam and clash of metal. I stood at the brink of a subterranean world and peered into its darkness while my cars were deafened by the crash of iron doors, the scream of gears, and the yells of its strange inhabitants, who moved mysteriously in and out of the shadows, communicating with each other by shouts and gestures. Only men worked in the basement.

The vat closest to me was attended by a fat worker in ripped white shorts. He had tied a dirty rag around his dripping forehead. As he hurled soiled clothes into the maw of the waiting vat, his wet breasts quivered. They were big and sagged like an old woman’s.

“Eskimo Pie?”

“What?” he yelled.

“Eskimo Pie!”

“No. Makes you hotter.” I started to leave. “Tell you what, kid,” he shouted after me. “Get me a coupla cold beers and a coupla hot broads.”

I climbed the two flights of stairs to the second floor weighed down by failure and embarrassment. In a moment I would see my mother. Although I had been told not to talk too much or distract her from work, I knew there would be time for the inevitable question, “How many have you sold?”

The second floor had open windows. There was light and even a bit of air. The hot air still shimmered above the presses, but it was like ascending from hell to come here from the basement. My mother was bent over an ironing table in the far corner, one of live women who stood at the end of a long production line in which each machine ironed a different part of a shirt. She was wearing not the starchy uniform she always came home in but a limp white garment open halfway down the front.

I began at the opposite end of the room. I said the most fervent prayer of my life. And I sold nothing. My empty pockets were heavy as I approached my mother. She buttoned her uniform as she turned to me. “Hello, dear. How many have you sold?”

I could only shake my head.

“Then I’ll be your first customer.” The nickel she slipped into my empty pocket was a token of my complete failure. I wanted to throw it on the floor. I wanted to cry. “Now ask the other girls,”she said quickly. I made my way slowly down the line.

“Eskimo Pie? Eskimo Pie?”

“Why, I think that’d be real good.” a small woman said, turning from a great press that clamped down on shirt bosoms. I knew from her words that she was going to buy, and I knew from her accent that she must be Pearl, the hillbilly with all the children who were so poor but happy. “I hope I’ll get one of them free ones. Two’d be real good.” She handed me a dime, and I gave her my mother’s nickel for change. I forgot to say “ Thank you, ma’am.”

She returned to her machine, holding the Eskimo Pie in one hand, and deftly straightened a shirt with the other. I was only a few steps away when I heard her scream. She screamed and screamed. I stared dumbly at the ice cream on the floor and watched her kick at the pedals of the great press that locked her right hand in its searing jaws. Her free arm beat and flapped, pounding helplessly at the metal.

Everyone seemed to be shouting. A man plunged past me, knocking me down and scattering my ice-cream bars. I began to gather them up again. The man was now leading the woman away from the press, holding her up with both arms and saying, “You’re all right, Pearl. You’re all right.” But she did not stop screaming.

Suddenly my mother was beside me. She seized my shoulder with strength I never knew she had. “Get home.” Her voice was harsh. “Get home!" I ran down the steps to the street, the box that hung around my neck banging against my stomach.

But I did not go home. My grandfather would be there, and maybe my father. I went to Denham Playfield and watched the little kids climb the monkey bars. I sat on the cement railing by the broken fountain all afternoon, while the dry ice in my box slowly evaporated and the Eskimo Pies melted to a soggy slop. Not until suppertime did I go back to Majestic Boulevard, leaving my ruined merchandise for the black ants to find and eat.

We did not talk much at supper. There was a hard look to my mother’s mouth, and my father and grandfather seemed uneasy. They spoke only of the August weather and the unusual number of lightning bugs. Then they went to the front porch.

“Should you read first, or should I?” my mother asked.

“You read first.”

As soon as she turned on the light in the sleeping porch, the millers began to bang against the screen. She opened the Speaker and read.

There’s no dew left on the daisies and clover,
There’s no rain left in Heaven.
I’ve said my seven-times over and over,
Seven times one are seven.

I heard the clink of a beer bottle on the front porch. I could hear my grandfather’s voice droning on. I could hear my mother reading, but I was not really listening.