It was a grey and drizzly afternoon; the rain fell in a mist—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a sudden beam of light falling through a break in the clouds onto the streets (of San Francisco, where this story begins). The breeze made no real sound, although the wheels of cars rattling along the streets fiercely splashed the puddles while their headlights illuminated the fog.
McKeyla Bulwer jumped off the curb and into a puddle, making a satisfying splash. She was wearing her dad’s old brown leather jacket, khaki combat pants with the legs rolled up (since they were too big for her), and the leather flying cap with goggles that Old Man Fredricksen gave her before he moved to Paradise Falls. If she weren’t so short, she’d have passed for a WWI biplane pilot.
She liked it when it actually rained. Usually it was just cold with some occasional fog. What she really liked was anything new or different, unlike her father—The Most Boring Man in the World—who ate the same thing every day, kept the same schedule, and took their family on vacations every year at the same time to the same place (every June to Catskills, New York). He was an accountant, and he only felt comfortable with cold, impersonal numbers.
She had dropped by his office on her way home from her school’s orientation (it was late August and she had started the new school year that very day) and he said that he’d be working late, so he gave her some money to get dinner. Her mother—The Most Boring Woman in the World—was a station agent for the Muni (Municipal Railway) subway and she worked the evening shift on Mondays, so McKeyla wouldn’t see either of them until late that night or the next morning.
This was a good thing. It meant that she wouldn’t have to listen to them talk about their boring days. She skipped on towards Shelly’s Soda Shoppe—a fantastic retro 1930’s diner and ice cream bar. McKeyla’s dad would eat lunch there every Sunday (at precisely 11:30). He would always get the pastrami on rye with a cherry phosphate. Always. He was The Most Boring Man in the World. McKeyla never ordered the same thing. She would make up a sandwich and the owner would oblige her so long as they had the ingredients in stock. She’d let him make up a new soda for her to try whenever she came in. She didn’t always go to Shelly’s (that would be boring), but it was her favorite place, and she didn’t have to take a smelly bus to get there like her other favorite restaurants.
Entering the Soda Shoppe was like going through a time portal. It was just off of Golden Gate Park, amidst refurbished houses with new black BMWs and white Teslas parked up and down the street. It was the only business on a street filled with boring white, grey, and tan houses which contrasted with Shelly’s floor-to-ceiling windows, framed by bright red trim, with benches breaking up the monotony of the sidewalk (allowing people to sit outdoors and enjoy ice cream on the occasional sunny day). It really didn’t belong there, but there it was—like a bright red thumbprint on a black-and-white photo.
Inside it had lime green walls, a sloping ceiling, and two marbled counters—one along the right side of the wall and the other parallel to the back wall. There were three tables by the front windows and about ten stools along the left wall which had a one-foot deep wooden counter running front to back, where single patrons could eat. Opposite it, along the middle of the right side, there was a giant glass-covered ice cream display with twenty flavors of homemade ice cream that were constantly changing: corn-flakes with blueberries, Guinness and caramel, snozberry crunch, chocolate peanut butter banana ripple… there was always something new. On top of the glass counter by the front tables were a long row of cake stands with fresh cakes and pies under glass, and against the back right wall were floor-to-ceiling shelves of brightly colored candies in glass jars, sold by the quarter-pound.
The back counter stretched out from the left wall, leaving space to the right for a swinging door to the kitchen, an old phone booth, and the bathroom. The bar was an art deco masterpiece of polished wood with three big mirrors and double-framed polished aluminum. Between the center mirror and each of the two side mirrors were hand-printed lists of all the various sodas you could order that day (based on what fruits were in season, as well as the year-round flavors). Six stools lined up against the marble-topped bar, which held several stainless steel taps and syrup pumps.
The back counter was where they made the sodas. Not boring, modern sodas like you can get at any fast food place, but real sodas in any flavor combination that you could imagine. The left wall was covered in shelves holding mason jars filled with odd leaves, skinny shaker bottles with colored powders, and old-fashioned brown dropper bottles with concentrated tinctures—all homemade. The labels were just pieces of white masking tape with handwritten scrawls indicating what was inside. Normal stuff like vanilla, lime, cherry, and chamomile, but also weird stuff like digitalis, sassafras, wormwood, and castoreum.
It was well past lunchtime but too early for the dinner crowd, so the place was empty except for a clown sitting alone at one of the four-person tables by the front window. He was wearing a tailored, double-breasted suit in blue and yellow zigzags, a hot pink dress shirt, and an oddly normal mint-green silk tie. His hair was dyed a rainbow-striped pattern around the edges, but bleached white in the center. It was all combed upward, graduating to a point at the top, like a soft-serve ice cream cone. The only coloring on his face were bright orange, inverted teardrops covering his eyes and lips to match. He looked like the angriest clown in the world. In any other restaurant, this would be exceptionally strange, but not at Shelly’s. The place attracted the weird like fruit flies to a rotting banana.
McKeyla sat down at the far left of the back bar with her back to the front door. She glanced at the phone booth that was tucked into the far right corner. It was really old but looked like it had just been installed. Not old like 1970’s Superman-old with glass and steel and a backlit blue sign, but 1920’s black-and-white-movies-old in different shades of stained wood with a folding door and a small spring-loaded stool on hinges, which stood upright against the wall unless someone was sitting on it. A black, iron, rotary phone was mounted above the stool. The handset was the really old kind where you put the speaker handle up to your ear and talked into a hole by the dial. An ancient incandescent light came on when you closed the door. Sometimes people would go in there when they were talking on their cell phones so they could speak in private, but McKeyla had never actually seen anyone use the phone-booth phone itself.
LeeRoy Essmort was the owner and everything looked new because he was always cleaning and polishing when he wasn’t waiting on people. This was one of the finest soda bars in the world. The evening staff hadn’t arrived yet, so LeeRoy was the only one working.
“Hey kiddo, what’ll it be today?” LeeRoy was wearing his usual light green shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a black bow tie, white apron, and a paper hat atop his head at a jaunty angle. He wasn’t just waiter-looking-for-a-big-tip polite; he was genuinely kind to everyone. Sometimes he’d give kids free sodas for no particular reason.
“Hmmm…” McKeyla thought for a second. “How about a banana, cheese, and ham on pumpernickel?”
LeeRoy chuckled. “Sure. You want a specific soda to go with that?”
“Nah, you surprise me.”
“I’m thinking… a mangosteen phosphate? Maybe a bit of elderflower, possibly round it out with a tamarind bottom note… Yeah, ok.” (Mostly he was talking to himself.)
“Sounds good,” she replied. LeeRoy smiled, turned, and went to the kitchen through the swinging doors between the phone booth and the fountain to get started on her sandwich.
McKeyla took a quarter out of her pocket and started spinning it on the counter. She’d been doing this since she was little, and gotten good enough to make it precess as well as spin—kind of like a curveball in baseball. She’d shoot it toward the end of the counter and could usually make it stop travelling (but remain spinning) just before it fell off the edge. She always sat in a different stool so she could test herself against any distance. (And sitting in the same stool would be boring.)
She’d lost herself in practicing when she heard the front door open and the bell ring (not an electric door buzzer, but an actual brass bell on a metal hanger above the door). She turned to watch a boy about her age come in whom she’d never seen before. Everything about the way that he walked and looked around the place screamed “new kid.”
The clown gave him an angry scowl.
The new kid walked past the clown without making eye contact and continued down the length of the diner until he got to the soda fountain and sat down right next to McKeyla.
“Otto. Otto Lytton,” he said as he stuck out his hand.
She looked at him like he was an alien, but shook his hand anyway. She wasn’t used to people being this friendly.
“McKeyla,” she replied, somewhat cautiously. “You new to San Francisco or just visiting?”
“Just moved here yesterday. Starting Rooftop School tomorrow. My mom and dad both work at Spectacle. We used to live in Minnesota where I went to John Hughes School, but my parents got tired of the snow and managed to get transferred to the main Frisco office. We used to…”
“Stop,” McKeyla interrupted. “Unless you want to get beaten up tomorrow, do not call it ‘Frisco.’ You can call it ‘EssEff’ or ‘San Francisco’ if you want, but almost everyone calls it ‘The City.’ I’m probably the least popular girl in school, but even I wouldn’t talk to you if you call it Frisco.”
“Ummm… OK,” Otto replied. “Isn’t that a bit arrogant? The city? I thought that was New York? I mean everyone from any big city thinks that their city is the best. Isn’t it a bit much to pronounce it like it’s the capital of the world?”
McKeyla shrugged and glanced at the ceiling for a split second. “Probably. But I don’t make the rules. I’m just telling you the way things are. No-one cares if you’re black, white, or brown. You can get away with being weird around here. Or normal. Straight, gay, or trans. Short, tall, ugly, pretty, sporto, motorhead, geek, waistoid, punk… Whatever. Just don’t call it ‘Frisco,’ unless you want to eat lunch alone for the rest of your life.”
Otto returned the shrug and said, “ok.”
Before he could continue introducing himself, LeeRoy returned from the kitchen with McKeyla’s sandwich (chips on the side). He immediately started making her soda while simultaneously asking Otto what he wanted.
“I’m not sure, let me peruse the menu. What recommendations could you make, my good sir?” Otto replied. McKeyla rolled her eyes at his affected formality.
“Well, as the owner, chef, headwaiter, and chief bottle washer, I like everything. Of course it depends on your own tastes. If you want comfort food, try a Babe, which is a pulled pork sandwich on Australian soda bread. Or a Foghorn, which is Southern fried chicken with cornbread. If you’re feeling adventurous, I love the Arnie—a Limburger and Sauerkraut sandwich on toasted Austrian rye bread.”
LeeRoy took out a frosted uranium glass (which glowed soothingly green under the blacklights hidden discreetly above the counter), grabbed a few of the tincture bottles off of the shelves, added a few drops of each brightly colored concentrate, poured fresh soda water off the tap, and topped it off with some acid phosphate (which sounds bad but is really quite delicious), before vigorously stirring it with the satisfying clinking of metal spoon against glass. It bubbled and frothed like a magical potion (which to some degree it was—it didn’t have any real magical properties, but it made kids smile, which is a kind of magic).
“We make our own root beer here, which is stellar. Here, I’ll give you a glass to try.” He set McKeyla’s soda in front of her and then grabbed a fountain glass from the freezer (the glasses were kept ice-cold so you didn’t need ice, which would melt and water down the flavors). The glass was frosty, which made it seem to glow as well. It was almost opaque, but still allowed a few shards of light to come through. LeeRoy quickly poured Otto a glass of root beer from the tap.
He grabbed two candy-striped paper straws from a jar and dropped one in each glass. McKeyla and Otto simultaneously sipped their drinks, and both broke into wide grins. LeeRoy never disappointed with his sodas. Otto immediately decided that this was the finest root beer that he had ever tried. McKeyla wasn’t as superlative in her decision, but she kept slurping away at the soda that LeeRoy had made for her. It wasn’t quite as good as a LOLA float or a lime phosphate, but it was still trés delicious.
LeeRoy grabbed two extra-large marshmallows from a bag, put them on a small plate, and then pulled a blow torch out from under the counter. He clicked the torch trigger and flame shot out at the marshmallows. He slowly spun the plate under the bright jet of fire until the marshmallows were golden brown, before setting the plate on the counter between McKeyla and Otto.
They each popped one into their mouth, where the marshmallows slowly continued to melt onto their tongues. They were amazing.
McKeyla took a bite of her sandwich (cut diagonally) while Otto involuntarily watched her. He was still trying to decide what to order, and wasn’t entirely certain that this was really happening. There were a lot of old-fashioned diners in Saint Paul (even one in a vintage train car), but their fare was pretty standard, and certainly none of them made their own root beer or served flaming marshmallows. He broke into a bigger smile as he decided that he really liked this place.
“Hey, waiter!” The clown yelled from the front of the house. LeeRoy rolled his eyes and glanced up from the kids at the counter. “What’s this fly doing in my ice cream?”
“The backstroke?” LeeRoy offered.
“You’re not funny. Quit playing babysitter and come look at my food.”
LeeRoy let out a sigh, reached below the counter, put a large dill pickle on McKeyla’s plate, and told Otto to “take your time picking out a sandwich. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I have to admit, this place is pretty cool. Nothing like it back home,” Otto continued by way of introduction. “We moved to a place right next to the park. My dad says that there’s a pinball place nearby and I really want to check it out. I also like to collect comic books and I’m a pretty good juggler. Do you know of any place nearby that sells magic tricks?” McKeyla started to answer but Otto was too busy talking to let her reply. She took another bite. “I saw you spinning that quarter when I came in; it was pretty cool. I can make it disappear if you let me.”
McKeyla tried to answer, but her mouth was still full of sandwich, so what came out was something like “Ooo kin eye affa aye wawwow.”
“Just taste the ice cream!” the clown shouted from behind them. LeeRoy muttered something indignantly, but the kids weren’t really paying enough attention to understand him.
Otto remembered just how hungry he was and turned back to the menu. He skimmed through the various mouthwatering offerings and decided on a Magnum Opus—a pickled herring sandwich with dandelion greens on toasted white bread. Suddenly there was a loud thud from the front of the diner followed by the sound of breaking glass and then a flash of color in the mirrors behind the bar. Both kids glanced up into the mirrors to see what happened and then spun around on their bar stools.
LeeRoy was dead.
And the clown was gone.