What Fresh Hell Is This?

Nostalgia’s a hell of a drug. It lies dormant around my apartment, like tuberculosis, activated only when it’s time to pack up and move to another place. It gets stirred up by the rustle of notebooks and photo albums, the digging out of drawers and storage boxes that never got unpacked from the last move. It goes straight up your nose and directly into your brain, and then you’re no good to anyone as you mourn bygone relationships and succumb to the crushing weight of bad judgment and missed opportunities.

Wow, I got derailed before I even started.

I wanted to talk about how nice it was to receive a visit from my grandparents, and I’m sure everyone can relate to this. If you’re my age, you remember when you were allowed to enter an airport all the way to its inner bowels without a ticket: you would line up at the gate and peer at all the strange people disembarking, catching whiffs of their backstory and agendas, until the gray heads of your forebears flowed through like apples down a stream. You’d embrace, your nose filling with menthol unguents and perfume, and Grandma would share a butter-rum LifeSavers on the ride home.

But you wouldn’t go straight home, would you? No matter how tired they were, there was always time to stop by the Fresh Hell outlet in your neighborhood. The car engine hadn’t even shut off before you were out the door, ringing the greeting bell at the entrance of the glass-and-tile bakery, your grandparents somehow keeping step right behind you. You could see the fresh hells being baked right there, plopping out of the deep-fryer, trundling down the barbed-wire conveyor belt. The worker behind the counter, glowing with a mixture of old-school professionalism and nubile promise, would fit you with a souvenir paper hat—”always on the house”—a scant moment before they plucked up the fresh hell with tongs and flung it directly into your unguarded face.

“What fresh hell is this?” you cheered, rolling around on the floor before your grandmother’s sensible, beige orthopedic shoes. That was when the weekend with family truly began, with Grandma rubbing burn cream over your cheeks and recounting your personal failings as you smiled up at her, your head in her lap.

Remember those days? I sure do. I remember how I cried when they all shuttered and production got off-shored to the Philippines. You could only get Fresh Hells in the frozen section of certain grocery stores, and believe me, it just wasn’t the same.

If you miss those days like I do, there’s a special place in your heart for those souvenir paper hats that never fit any human skull. You know what, though? They were nothing more than “pressman hats” with a fancy label affixed to them! And if you’re anything like me, you have a little extra time on your hands as the pandemic ravages our disbelieving and entitled national population, again and again, worsening each time, so what better time than to murmur a reverent “what fresh hell is this” as you make your own Fresh Hell hat?

Instructions are here, and you can print out this replica graphic to cut out and paste or tape to the front of it. Now you can, in some small way, relive these sweet and scalding days.

2 thoughts on “What Fresh Hell Is This?

  1. That was great. My grandparents lived in southern IL and for me it was playing pinochle and Scrabble and getting to drink coffee with the adults. One of my dream tattoos is their last name in scrabble letters on my hip. I realized I am old and I probably will never get my dream tattoos. I had an adjacent person’s death from COVID this week and hearing from friends is especially nice right now. Someday I hope to have a butter rum lifesaver with you myself. Thank you for writing. Love to you and Rebecca and your lovely cats. The one I see the most reminds me so much of Brodie that it makes me nostalgic.


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