Warning, this post contains nostalgia.
This post is about one of my favorite childhood meals, though it was hardly a meal at all. I was about 13 or 14–too young to get a job, but too old to run out the front door for day-long and hotly contested games of tag, red rover, or kings square. After I’d finished chores around the house, I would get on my bike (a beautiful blue Raleigh–slim and sturdy) and ride to the library.
Where the librarian knew my name and would watch from behind her desk, as I scanned the shelves, pulling interesting titles onto their spines, and then circling back for a deeper dive and final choice. There was a series on the childhoods of famous Americans and I took out every book about a woman–Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, Babe Didrikson–and read them over and over again. I loved Babe Didrikson; when her mother sent her to the store for bread, Babe would leap over the neighbors’ hedges as if they were hurdles; she was so cool. This is the vintage I remember, though it’s been updated since.
When I was older there was a book either by or about someone named Hermione that recounted the adventures of chic young Londoners. Also a repeated read. And the wonderful Joan Aiken–The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea. Thanks to Nightbirds on Nantucket I knew what a widow’s walk was well before college courses in architectural history.
I chose books carefully, just enough to not quite fill my bicycle’s basket, because there was another stop. From the library I’d ride down our town’s main street, past an old gym mat factory, the golf course, and the plant nursery to a retail anomaly called the Country Store. (And, OMG, it’s still there, though considerably cleaned-up.)
It was a jacked-up old farmhouse, with an apartment upstairs and a small, two-room shop on the first floor, fronted by a dusty gravel lot and run by a cranky man with a twisty Italian name–Tramontana, Testaverde, Tarantella? He was besieged. Surrounded by the press of neat suburban houses who couldn’t have been fond of their shabby neighbor. Assaulted by school kids stealing penny candy and leaving thumbprints on the National Lampoon magazines. Sullenly beseeched by teenagers for cigarettes.
I’d get my usual–a Fresca and a bag of Fritos. Here comes the nostalgia. A citrus flavored soda and a bag of salty corn chips. No supercharged nacho spice or green-powdered flavor. A citrus soda, not mountain breeze or blue ocean flavor. Fresca and Fritos–try finding that today; start at the most forlorn truck stop you can find.
I’d tuck them into my basket, so they wouldn’t bounce out when I went over a curb, and head home. Up the hill, past the willow tree, across the flat where my friend Emily lived on a long pipe-stem lot that you’d never know was there unless Emily was your friend, and down the hill–free fall and flying.
I’d bump into the driveway, across the side yard and into the back where a wide rope hammock was slung between two trees. I’d prop the bike on its kickstand and pull the Fritos, soda, and books into the hammock with me. I’d read away the entire afternoon, crunching and slurping, sometimes understanding only half of what I’d read–Jane Eyre or What Makes Sammy Run?
And I’d stare up into the leaves–overlapping shapes and shades of green–and imagine my life beyond the hammock. Going away to school, meeting people, maybe a boy, maybe out west. My mind was whipping down that hill, free and fast, fueled by imagination, library books and deep-fried corn snacks made from an extrusion of masa.