Today, I pulled my A&W mug down from a cabinet. There was a dead spider in it, a thick coating of dust on the rim. It’s been thirty years this spring since I stole that beveled glass mug, thirty years since I saw you.
Do you remember sledding at St. Mary’s Glacier when we should have been shelving or returning books as high school student assistants, when we threw on jackets and hiked up the trail, raced each other to the top of the glacier, and threw ourselves on old sleds? Do you remember cursing to the wind, your voice thin like breaking ice? Could you hear what I screamed while my teeth chattered? Did I scream loud enough to be heard?
While I soaked the mug in soapy water, while I gently wiped its thick glass, I remembered that spring afternoon. Snow and mud mixed in the dirt parking lot of the A&W. We passed the restaurant every time we’d gone sledding at the glacier. Each time, we said we’d stop the next time.
“Want to stop?” one of us would say. We’d look out the window longingly, the idea of root beer, with its carbonation and the suspected trace of caffeine dangerous to you as a Mormon and me as a recently rejected fundamental Baptist.
“We’d better get back. Next time.”
“Yeah, next time.”
What made us stop that day, finally go inside, finally order two root beers in frosted glass mugs, finally sit at the small table? Do you remember that day, Josh? I sat with my back to the dusty windows, you with your back to the kitchen. The sun shone in your blond hair, making it almost disappear. You reminded me of my brother, the younger brother I knew I should have protected, should have saved from our parents, the church, God.
When the waitress brought our root beers, you flinched. You froze. I saw your eyes go empty, saw your shoulders hunch forward, your hands jump into your lap. I saw it because I had done it too. It had been several years since I had lost my parents, my brother, my extended family, the church, my faith. I didn’t tell you. I was ashamed.
You watched each sip I took, the dark root beer shooting up through the straw. I held the thick syrup in my mouth; carbonation bounced off my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I closed my eyes, swallowed, pulled soda hard through the straw.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone enjoy a soda so much.” There was a taunt in your tone.
You never touched your root beer, never took even one sip. That’s when I knew you were still Mormon, that you had never really left. There was too much of you at stake. I had already lost everyone. I didn’t want you to experience that kind of loss.
I guzzled the rest of my root beer and stood up, my mug dangling from my thumb behind my back. I smirked, daring you to steal yours too.
You smiled, then stopped when you realized I wasn’t teasing. You looked at the waitress, her back turned.
I took a few steps toward the door. “We should get back.”
In the car, you watched the sky for darkening clouds, for lightning. I had already stopped believing in lightning coming after sinners, stopped believing in hell or heaven or God. You still needed it.
“You know you can never go back now,” you said, meaning the A&W.
I nodded. A small pool of root beer sloshed from side to side in the bottom of my mug. I would move from one foster placement to another that weekend, shove what little I had in a black trash bag, and move from one place I was unwanted to another. I kept the mug. Through each move, through college, through various jobs and places I’ve lived, one marriage, and another, I kept the mug. It was the first time I had something that I wanted to keep, the first time I knew I could keep something.
The mug has dried while I wrote this. I hold it carefully between my hands. It’s durable but still worth protecting. I set it back in its place behind a water bottle, turn the mug so I can see the A&W logo if I look for it, so I can remember.
Shawna Ervin has an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University. She attended Bread Loaf in 2021 in nonfiction. Recent publications include Tampa Review, Rappahannock Review, The Delmarva Review, Sonora Review, Summerset Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook Mother Lines was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press.