First, don’t kill anyone. Don’t make them choke on small bits of plastic, which might happen if you push the ice chunks into the grinder with the plastic scoop—something everyone in my family often does. The ice clogs when you dump it in. Also, the chute is metal—ice can stick like a wet tongue on a swing set. You’re going to have to shove it in a little, but not so hard that the plastic scoop gets mauled. The shaved ice is white and shiny. By happenstance, the plastic is too. It’s hard to know if you’ve ground up the scoop or not. If you think you might have chewed plastic into the shaved ice, while the customer looks in eagerly through the front window of the Snack Shack, just calmly scoop out the snow from the plexi bin and dump it into the yellow bucket below. Say, “I want to start over; I didn’t like that bunch,” and put more ice chunks into the machine. The customer will not know of his proximity to death by choking and may be flattered that you took the time to chop more ice—better ice—for his sno-cone. One truism about tourists: They like to feel important. A delay, when it’s a delay for them and not a delay for someone else is evidence of your wish to deliver them perfection.
Second, the grape flavor tastes watery. Don’t push the grape.
Say, “Cherry, blue-raspberry, grape, or a combo?” The cherry flavor is the best single flavor, and you will say so if you’re asked, but don’t volunteer the information.
Mom says to give one squirt into the ice at the bottom of the cone, then two squirts into the dome on top. Do it slowly so the ice doesn’t dent.
The best ice is the cold ice, but customers rarely get that. We grind up ice for sno-cones one at a time because we don’t get enough orders to shave up a mountain of ice and leave it to melt there all day. Dad would have a fit. Wasteful, wasteful. For one sno-cone, we only chop one sno-cone’s worth. But the best ice comes after five or six sno-cones. The whirling blades get good and cold.
The ice chopped for the seventh or eighth will be so cold and fluffy that it may not even pack into a ball. If that happens, just dig into the mound with your scoop until you’re at the bottom, then add some wet (bad) ice to your ball. People like their ice in a ball. It’s how they imagine it should be. But we know better. We are sno-cone snobs.
Mom and Dad let us have one free sno-cone a day. But we refuse to eat a sno-cone if it’s made from wet ice. Even on the hottest day of July. We wait until the blades are cold from serving up ice for other people, and only then add a few chunks for ourselves.
If the ice is wet, the cone may overflow before you get the third squirt on there. If so, stop. Hand the cone slowly to the customer. Say, “Be careful. This one is pretty full. You’d better take a sip right away.” You know—and will never reveal—that if the cone is overflowing it means the ice was not great. It will be gritty and the flavor will be diluted. But the customer always feels privileged that his cone is overflowing.
What the customer wants is what he imagines a sno-cone should look like. This is his vacation, after all. This is his week at the lake, and the family has played mini golf, and the kids have matching Brewers’ baseball caps, and the sun is hanging low, and this is the last day before the long drive home. And the little girl looks up at her father and, in her most delicate voice, asks, “Daddy, can we get sno-cones?”
He smiles and says to me, “Do you have rainbow?”
I drape perfect stripes of brilliant color over the perfect dome of snow. Then they stroll across the parking lot together, sipping cones and leaning toward each other.
If you see a bug inside the machine when the ice comes out, you can wipe it out with a paper towel even while customers stare through the window at you from less than two feet away. They won’t see that you are removing an insect.
The sno-cone machine rarely breaks down, maybe once every three years. This is something of a miracle. It was purchased when you were young enough not to question whether your parents understood the idea of food product safety and potential lawsuits. And nothing bad has ever happened. This, too, is a miracle. Sometimes, if people come early—it’s before 10:00 a.m., but Mom and Dad let them buy snacks anyway—the sound of grinding ice is the first thing you hear in the morning. The roar of hungry blades wafts through the house and wakes you in your bed.
June Melby is a poet and spoken-word artist who has toured the United States and Europe. She is writing a memoir about her family’s mini golf course, Little House on the Astroturf, in which this essay appears. Excerpted from Water~Stone Review, a literary journal published annually by Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.