Spring 2011, Volume 10

Fiction by Strat Warden

Sundaes To Die For

I can’t remember his name; we called him Old Mr. White Coat. During the Eisenhower years, he lurked behind the fuzzy glass, high in the back of the Crow Drug Store, and haunted that oasis of delights in Bentonville, Arkansas. An unfiltered Camel, clinging to a supernatural ash, dangled from his lips as his golden-bronzed fingertips counted pills or mixed potions. When he ventured out to stock shelves or wait on customers, his wrinkled, dusty-gray white jacket, ink squiggles sprouting from the breast pocket, didn’t cover his backside and gapped over his belly; and its buttons stretched to their limit beneath the tip of his too short, dark-blue-and-emerald-green-striped tie.

When someone, anyone, offered, “Good mornin’” or “Howdy,” Old Mr. White Coat scrunched the leather valleys of his face, bristled the yellowed-gray whiskers that concealed his upper lip, and glared over the wired lens that perched on the hump at the top of his nose. “S’pose so” or “Ya say so” would crunch back as though it were being forced through six inches of county road gravel.

While Old Mr. White Coat reigned from the window and shelf that was his throne, we enjoyed a singular pleasure, the marshmallow sundaes of Crow Drug. The thick goblets with their scalloped sides and heavy bases were the perfect purveyor of velvety French vanilla ice cream, smothered under a blanket of foamy marshmallow sauce, drizzled in chocolate, topped with whipped cream—from a mixing bowl and not a can, sprinkled with crushed peanuts, and crowned with a maraschino cherry.

The soda fountain wrapped around us, made this luscious treat an event. The marble counter secured us in our world. The chrome rings circling the red leather stools, when spinning, flickered excitement in our eyes. Would our Converse All-Stars ever reach the lowest rung?

Pastel chalk on the menu board offered, for a nickel, Cokes and lime fizzes. A dime got you cherry syrup or a root beer float. For 20 cents, you could enjoy a milkshake, malt, or chocolate soda—best with chocolate syrup and chocolate ice cream. But sundaes were the Saturdays of treats. Not fat-free, not sugar-free, they were pure taste good, without guilt. Guess what? We weren’t fat: TVs were black and white and only for the Joplin news.

Old Mr. White Coat and the delicious sundaes were not all that made Crow Drug extraordinary. In the summer, the sun dominated northwest Arkansas. Memories of seared thighs and legs haunted us from the bulbous fenders of every car. With the oppressive thickness of the breath-snatching air, if dads didn’t open all the doors and windows and turn on the attic fan in the middle of the night and then, in the predawn, shut doors, close windows, lower shades, and pull together curtains, houses were unbearable. Air-conditioning didn’t exist, except at the Crow Drug Store.

The mysterious, gargantuan machine that produced this affront to nature stuck out from the brick wall near the alley like a granite prominence left by a forgotten Ice Age. From early June until the homecoming football game, it rattled and clanked, no less than a dying hay baler, and dripped a river that coursed through the rock of the side parking lot then into the brick street, leading to our six-sided town square. Inside, when its hum floated out from behind the elevated window where moms picked up cough medicine, Neosporin, or that pink stuff for the chicken pox, the taste bud delicacies were otherworldly.

On the opposite side of the square, in the café where local businessmen played a numbers game to assess the bill for their ten-cent coffees, arguments percolated regarding what health hazards might threaten the community because of the unseasonable temperatures created by this device.

“Not natural.”

“In, out, all day, unhealthy.”

“Against God’s creation.”

A similar debate simmered about another calamity threatening Bentonville: fluoride in the drinking water. “Thank you very much, but I like the water just the way it is!” Mr. MacFarland proclaimed, two weeks into the month long fluoride trial—unbeknownst to him.


One thick, oven-hot July day, while we savored the supernatural coolness and annoyed the selected high school cutie of the season behind the counter, Mrs. Lumpkin, her round, doughy face crowned with a tight blue-gray bun, picked through the Crest and Colgate.

Old Mr. White Coat abandoned his shelf and window high above the green-and-white tiled center aisle to serve the matron. Grumbling, head tucked into the nut case past the end of the counter, he shoveled cashews into a waxed-paper bag.

As I licked a dollop of marshmallow from my thumb, my eyes wandered toward the nut scoop’s crunch. I sensed, more than saw, a tremor in our world.

Old Mr. White Coat straightened. He stared at, but didn’t see, the Hallmark cards. The Camel, pinched in the corner of his dried and cracked lips, released its ash. It dropped in a silent void then splashed on the faded tiles. Without even a grunt and still holding the bag of nuts and the scoop, Old Mr. White Coat crashed to the floor.

The stainless-steel scoop clattered against the magazine rack. Cashews scampered off in all directions, shaking off their salt.

His wedged-up white jacket exposed red suspenders, buttoned to rubbed-smooth brown corduroy pants. His shirttail peeked over a black leather belt above a missed loop, and his spectacles angled over the left side of his forehead above a glassy eye. His jagged yellow teeth jutted between a crusty lip and the brush below his nose. The ashless Camel, trapped in the corner of his mouth, leaked a triumphant thread of smoke that meandered toward the ceiling fan, circling on overhead.

Mrs. Lumpkin, holding her toothpaste, and the cheerleader behind the counter, both frozen, and I gawked at Old Mr. White Coat, each other, and him again. Ice cream dripped, and the hum of the air conditioner crescendoed into a roar.

Mrs. Lumpkin took her hand from her mouth. “Call Dr. Fuller.”

The soda girl stood mute.

Mrs. Lumpkin walked behind the counter, lifted the receiver, and spun the black phone’s dial. “The Doctor’s needed at Crow Drug.” She faced the mirror. “Yes, his heart.” She turned further and bowed her head. “Yes ma’am.” Her back still toward us, she returned the phone to its cradle, paused, turned, smiled as though it were Halloween and she were going to give us candy, and said, “The doctor’s on his way.” No 911, no CPR, no EMTs, and no ambulances, only the doctor’s on his way.

Old Mr. White Coat was gone, and we all knew it. Unless someone fabricated a heart-lung machine and an extra heart was in the freezer with the Popsicles and Push-Ups, he’d never greet another Crow Drug patron with his disgruntled frown and rusty snarl. Yep, Old Mr. White Coat had counted his last pill, mixed his last potion, scooped his last cashew, and lipped his last Camel. As though it were yesterday, I see him, my first dead body.

Mrs. Lumpkin decided we must be spared and ushered us out the door and into the gathered crowd, peering in from the sidewalk.

“Air conditioner kilt him.”

“In and out’s what did it.”

“’At’s certain.”

There was no mystery. We had all heard the conjecture, but the cool, refreshing comfort felt too good to little sweaty boys. It was proven that day on the green-and-white tiles of the Crow Drug Store. Theory and speculation had merged into fact: that air conditioner kilt off Old Mr. White Coat as sure as if it had been standing over him with Sheriff Black’s gun, smokin’.


For weeks following, friends begged me to go back, but I ventured no closer than a bench on the courthouse lawn.

By late August, the memory of Old Mr. White Coat’s swan dive to the tiles and oblivion began to wane. I stood half in, half out of the door and watched others buy Baby Ruths and 16-ounce RCs after peewee baseball. I felt this might allow my body to adapt to the lethal coolness.

However, Labor Day came and with it a relentless, parched heat; I surrendered to the treats of the Crow Drug’s soda fountain. The wonder of those marshmallow sundaes would…well, they would not die. Unlike Old Mr. White Coat, they would rise again to refresh my youth then linger, thickening and becoming sweeter, even as they melted away into the memories of my life.



BIO: A Nebraska native, Strat Warden was a multiple-sport college athlete. He joined the Navy as a corpsman for the Marines in 1972, rose to the rank of lieutenant commander while completing his medical training, and practiced general surgery until 2005. Married and the proud father of two young athletes, he is currently the chairman of the board of ZirMed Inc. He writes under the pen name Strat Warden.