We have a witness from the end of the night. A chance encounter in an alleyway, blurred by alcohol. But everything else is conjecture. The police reconstructing a crime, the lawyers lying, employees stumbling across evidence in the hard light of the following morning.
He began with the first register, sitting in the front window to the left of the main entrance. The candy counter. A long, glass case, emptied out each night. Every day, by the time the doors opened at 10am, the shelves would be stacked with fresh candy and chocolates, manufactured on outdated equipment in the recesses of the second floor by arthritic ladies who had worked for my family for the last 40 years. Their realm was a world of massive chunks of raw chocolate waiting for the chopping block, the strange and indescribable smell of caramel cooking away like some witch’s brew in cauldrons that dated to the 19th century, and antique machines molding, pouring, and stamping everything into shape.
Each register was balanced to $100 at the end of the night. He moved in the darkness of the building he knew so well, turned on the register, hit no sale, and took the money. Register two, halfway down the long bar where the candy counter gave way to our 51 flavors of ice cream, was next. I had stood there in silence, after the store had closed, many times. In the wide-open space of the front parlor, alone, there was no sign of life except for the freezers all softly humming away, red indicator lights for each the only illumination. Over it all was the gentle, purring sound of water that ran the length of the counter, filling reservoirs for the ice cream scoops. A lonely place, as busy places often are when the crowds depart.
He emptied the drawer and moved on to register three, the supervisor’s position, where the ice cream counter made a sharp 90 degree turn. There was an opening where waitresses could pass through, a door leading into the bowels of the building just beyond. From the high seat by the register, the supervisor could keep an eye down the length of the “L” shaped counters and also on the 100 seat parlor.
Another $100 into the bag. The last register was on the shorter section of the “L,” where the milk shakes were made, the servers picked up their orders, and a few of the more experimental ice cream flavors lived – we were the first to sign a deal with Oreo to make cookies ‘n’ cream, a flavor no one believed would catch on, so it languished with the sorbets and the less popular seasonal specials. The Oreo contract was big money, though. Something my father signed into power ten years before. With the tub of Oreo ice cream behind him, he began to rush at register four. He left it open – the first thing the morning shift would notice.
Leaving the parlor and heading to the flight of stairs that led up to the offices and candy factory was a strange journey. One I haven’t taken in 26 years, yet I can remember every inch of it. Once through the door into the back of the building, there was a service area. Dishwashing and all the trappings of a busy kitchen turning over a thousand customers a day. The stench of sour milk and old ice cream was always present as an army of dishwashers coped with the avalanche of sundae dishes, plate settings, and silverware. The store was the sort of ice cream shop where you sat down, dealt with a waitress, received and paid for full table service. A high brow affectation in the 1930’s when it all began, and an anachronism in the 1980’s. On the left, the ominous door to the basement was always looming. I ventured down there just once – a cavernous room full of boxes, disappearing into darkness and with three inches of water on the floor. Employees would have to dance from crate to crate to get to whatever they needed…not that anyone needed anything. The basement was where merchandise went to die. After a few steps, there simply were no lights. Fifty years of lost memories and rotting junk.
Past the prep area, the building’s true colors showed through. Originally a coal house at the turn of the century, my grandfather had bought it and refurbished it on a shoestring budget in the early 1930’s. Between front parlor and prep and the “Factory,” where giant machines lumbered away to produce thousands of gallons of ice cream a day, was a dirty, dreary storage space, piled with long abandoned equipment, centered around a rickety service elevator that last saw an inspector just before the Second World War. Walls caked in decades of grime gave way to the glittering doors of the walk-in freezer, fed by a conveyer belt that led back to the factory. The freezer was larger than any place I’ve since lived in my adult life.
A quick turn past the wide, swinging doors to the factory and a narrow staircase led up to the second floor, split evenly between offices and an employee locker room and the manufacturing area for all of the chocolates and candies. My father started going through desks. He patted down clothes, then threw them aside. He rifled through drawers and lockers. He stole everything of value. By the time he got to the main office, he simply tore through safes, leaving them open, papers scattered across the floor. Something must have spooked him in the walk through darkness to the stairs. Or maybe the oppressive, empty silence of a building that screamed during the day. Was he rushed? By what? We can’t even be sure he was alone.
Sometime close to 1am, a drunk man in the alley behind the store was puking his guts out when he was nearly run over by a red Chevy Caprice, rounding the corner and pulling up to the back loading dock. My father stepped out, opened the trunk, opened the loading dock door, and then paused, peering into the darkness at the drunk man. The drunk man stumbled away and didn’t look back as my father loaded everything into his car and drove off into the night.
Earlier that night, at around 6pm, my mother had taken me to see my father in the parking lot of Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do near our suburban home. A meeting that felt clandestine, like I was meeting someone entering witness protection, or some minor mob boss. Mom kept watch while my dad emerged from between two cars, crouched down in front of me, and told me he was leaving town. He was going to Charlottesville. He swore he’d be back on Monday, and patted my shoulder as if I were made of fragile crystal. One of the few times my father had ever made physical contact with me.
Six hours later, he was stripping every penny out of the store, a drunkard in the back alley the last person to see him for 15 years.
Hours before he told me his final lie, he had cleaned out all the bank accounts. He forged my name on a children’s account that just had a couple hundred dollars in it, and cleaned out my mom’s personal accounts. He emptied the business accounts, and took the payroll and the gigantic pension. He had help, the lawyers think. He had to be working with someone, the police said. He made off with, literally, every single penny. Down to the cash registers and the petty cash, down to my mother’s wallet, down to a jar of pennies I had in my bedroom closet. A jar that I would find after his death in 2007, buried in a briefcase that he hadn’t opened since that night he left in 1985.