​​​​Because humor is funnier when you know it's true.

Key West is never the right answer

The economy of Punta Gorda, Florida, where my parents live, seems to be based on river cruises. There are dozens that will take you out at any time of any day to see local nature or history or architecture or whatnot. It’s a convenient enough way for a family to kill time at the holidays, so my parents, my brother, his wife, their two kids, and I all took one on Christmas Eve. It was unremarkably lovely except for one detail. Near the end, they had a trivia question: What was the largest city in Florida in the 1890 census? The question had to cycle through guesses from each of the passengers twice, but eventually my brother won. The prize was a coupon for free ice cream.

One might expect the cruise office to have a concession where this coupon might be redeemed, or maybe a partnership between the operator and the charming mom-and-pop ice cream shop around the corner. 

Those expectations would be very, very, very wrong.

The boat captain owned an ice cream shop as a side business in Arcadia, some twenty miles away.

Many people would not go to the trouble of driving twenty miles with two children under the age of four who had long missed their naps because they were out on a pontoon boat, just to get $4 worth of free ice cream, especially since we’d have to spend $24 more to get ice cream for everyone else. My family contains very few of those people, however, so we began the trek.

Twenty miles later we pulled into the parking lot, and the seven of us—the eldest of whom uses braces on both arms to walk—unpacked ourselves from the car and tromped up to the door. It turns out that some businesses close before 3 p.m on Christmas Eve, and pulling on the door showed that this establishment was one of them.

But Mom had decided: We were getting ice cream whether we wanted it or not. Culver’s was nearly on the way home. It happened to be in the parking lot of a Walmart gridlocked by last-minute shoppers, but a series of bone-rattling stops and starts and squeals and cut-offs eventually got us to the appropriate section. The two exhausted children under four and five adults, the eldest of whom uses braces on both arms to walk made our way up to the door through throngs of people hanging around outside the restaurant. I assume they were simply superfans who loved frozen custard, hated Christmas, and were prepared to camp out until Boxing Day, because it turned out that this Culver’s also closed at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

This didn’t have to ruin our day. Walmart is a store noted for selling several thousand dozens of items, including ice cream, so we naturally joined the painstakingly slow line out of the parking lot. My mother had insisted that the Christmas hordes at Walmart would take far too long to wade through, and the Publix would be a vastly superior option.

Both the mile of highway and the Publix property were nearly as festively clogged as the Walmart lot, but after half an hour we arrived and discovered that the ding and whoosh that happens when you step on a mat and a supermarket door automatically opens are the two best sounds that ever happened. That’s lucky, because we heard it a lot: First with the adult who walked at full speed, then the adults who were shepherding wriggly and impatient kids who have been repeatedly promised ice cream even though what they really wanted was a nap, and then the adult who alternated between walking at full speed and waiting to assist the adult who walked very slowly with the aid of braces on each arm, who came last.

This batch of humanity snaked its way to the frozen section, only being distracted by the oranges, the greeting cards, and the miscellaneous pastas, each of which needed to be thoroughly inspected by the adult who walks very slowly with the aid of braces on each arm. (He does that.) 

But upon arriving at the ice cream subsection of the frozen section, my mother quickly settled on a half-gallon of the cheapest vanilla ice milk in the store. Then, however, the look of realization on her face heralded the traditional mom mantra: “Wait, I think I have a coupon.”

She had dozens, stored in a handbag under enough pressure that could eventually compress all of those 1/20thof a cent’s worths of paper into diamond, but she retrieved the correct one. It was worth twenty cents off the second-cheapest vanilla ice milk in the store, making it almost as cheap as the cheapest vanilla ice milk in the store. A deal that could not be resisted.

At the register, the checker pointed out as kindly as possible that the coupon clearly stated 20 cents off two half-gallons of the second-cheapest vanilla ice milk available, and if we wanted to use it, we’d need to run back to get a second carton. 

In addition to studying mundane objects at length at inopportune times, my father also selects interesting and inappropriate times to assert his abilities. He insisted that he would be the one to go back to the ice cream subsection of the frozen food section of the supermarket to very slowly retrieve the second half-gallon, with the aid of braces on each arm.

This delay was not greeted with good humor by the other customers. Mom ignored their glowers for a while, but eventually sent me to help. Not surprisingly, Dad had gotten distracted again, this time by extension cords, one of his three favorite cables. I left him, retrieved a second half-gallon of the second-cheapest vanilla ice milk in the store, and returned to the check-out.

The rest of the family had been expelled from the line by now, so we rejoined it and waited. Twenty minutes or so and we arrived at the register once again. But the clacking of a pair of arm braces helping an elderly man to walk interrupted the transaction. Dad was carrying a half-gallon of the second-cheapest vanilla ice milk in the store, which he proudly put on the promptly puddling pile of pasteurized provisions. He counted, and began to protest, for we now had one too many half-gallons of the second-cheapest vanilla ice milk in the store to optimize our shopping experience.