This is a story I tell people when they seem to want a story. You can tell when this is so by the expectant look in their eye, or by how they hold their brain in their hands and ask you to take it for a while, please. How can I deny that look? (Think puppies in the kitchen begging for scraps, or a full-grown dog whimpering for the leash.) I can’t. The weight of another’s want is too much for me, and I begin. As I begin the story, sweet relief spreads like butter across their face. (Yes, “their” is a plural possessive pronoun and “face” is singular, but I have not misspoke, for all of the people to whom I tell this story have but one face.) They smile, nod, and coo in understanding. As an incidental side effect (in the interest of full disclosure I tell you), when I tell this story I often feel a certain dissipation of pressure in my sinuses and from behind my eyeballs, as when air hisses from a balloon. In my experience, both parties involved find a tissue or hankie useful.
But I reiterate: this is fiction. What I tell you is a lie. The events as I will relate them did not happen, are not happening, and will not ever happen. If you reflect on it afterwards, I think you will realize that events in real life do not transpire as they do in this story, at which point its essential veracity or lack thereof will become transparent. (If nothing else, an hour of a man’s life would consume reams of paper, mind you, and let us not even discuss his last hour.) If you are looking for truth, you should read something else. I would not suggest, however, anything that purports to be truth. Perhaps you should in fact read nothing and should instead do something. Seeing as how, however, it is difficult to truthfully do anything, perhaps, in the end, you should do nothing. After all, you possess free will. I digress.
I was a boy. (Dear reader, for the last time I say to you, please remember that this is only a story, meant to comfort friends, relations, and acquaintances, and as such it only exists in your head and those heads who have heard it.) As a boy, I was not especially different than other boys, though I was somewhat indifferent towards them. Of girls, I remember the existence of none save my mother and other assorted relatives: a passel of cousins, an aunt, and a grandmother. I was predominantly interested in myself, though not in a selfish way. I was simply not aroused by games of sport or make-believe or conversation. Allow me to make myself clear: sport, make-believe, and conversation were three of my most cherished pastimes, but they were activities I preferred to conduct with myself. With others these pastimes were diluted, somehow losing their piquancy.
What I was most passionate about, though, was observing. I would sit for hours in the same spot, quietly taking mental note of my surroundings. I would not speak my observations, nor would I write them down. I would simply take mental note of the position of a fork on a table, of the number of tines it had, of the sharpness of those tines, of the curvature of the head, of how gracefully the head met the handle at the neck, of any ornamentation on the handle, of any fingerprints. I would note the construction of the table, how its disparate parts were joined, the lay of the grain of the wood, the pattern of the sunlight splashed on the tabletop, the angle of sunlight entering through the window, the shape of a leaf outside the window. When I could fit words to my observations, I did (silently), but I never forced the issue. I did not wish to force my surrounding reality to conform to words if no words were adequate. For example, if the pattern of light on the table was rhombic, I would say so silently to myself, and so too if I could say with reasonable probability that the light passing through the window (forgiving refraction) entered the kitchen at an angle of 30, 45, or 60 degrees while my mother spread peanut butter and jelly on bread for me, I would use just those words. But more often than not, the pattern of light was decidedly unrhombic and indeed indescribable, just as the angle of the sunlight’s penetration was generally immeasurable and inestimable. In such instances, I would wordlessly observe and make wordless mental note. The words, after all, were not what I was after. Words were merely tools. I was after the thing itself. I wished to take in the thing’s very essence, not to consume it, not to digest it, not to steal it, but simply to have it, to have noticed, noted, and notified myself of it, and therefore of the plurality of reality, to have my surroundings within me. (If only a selection—I recognized my limitations; do not think I thought myself God! I knew even then that my faculties were limited and was undistressed by my inability to observe every detail, just as now I remain unperturbed by my inability to observe the movement of electrons, for example. I am made content by science having made their presence known and I do not long to know them any more personally.) To have, in short, life. (What good were all these details, I thought, that life presents, if they pass unobserved?) Or, at least, to have had. Even then I was aware that these details began to pass away as soon as I made mental note of them, that if I attempted to return to my mental notes of only a few minutes prior, they would have evaporated. Granted, a few most startling observations would remain, such as the jangle of my mother’s bracelets, or that her glasses, which did not just up and walk off the face of the earth, had been on the windowsill above the sink, or the way a spider’s leg caressed the web strung between the house plants also on that windowsill. But except for a few notable exceptions, the particulars of that previous, time-sensitive existence had passed. Forgetting did not bother me. I was not one of these boys who wanted to relive every moment. I wanted to proceed and make more observations to feed my ever more infinitesimal and insatiable curiosity. I lived under the auspice that it was better to have had than to have never had, and that it was best to be impervious to the past and always face forward. And that, possibly, the residue of all those details would accrete, even while the facts themselves sublimated, into a reflection of life.
One afternoon, not particularly unique in its nature, my mother sent me out of the house with the complaint that I was always underfoot, sulking, and unresponsive, as if I lived in a dream and the better part of things was in my head. Mother, I insisted, I am no sulker! I was an observer. As such, I knew the better part of things was in the details, not in my head. I will grant her that I had and have little time for unobservant or pandering conversation when there is so much to be done. But underfoot? Please, I preferred an out-of-the-way corner or nook, where I could observe my experience while affecting it not, the exact opposite of what she suggested. My stated goal was not to be a roach squished on the bottom of her shoe. (I routinely observed the skittering prehistoric creatures in that house, and how my mother squished them with the sole of her shoe. Though she seemed ancient at the time, and was not one given to moving quickly, she could move just as fast as they. The roaches crunched audibly, and often their innards were propelled across the floor by the pressure of her foot. I tried to remain the dispassionate observer to these episodes, but never did I cease to flinch.) It was little skin off my nose, though, if I went outside; my job could be conducted just as well, if not better, out of the house, where my surroundings never ceased. I exhibited a charming optimism as a boy. I have no doubt that my mother wished me to ride my bike about and find some boys with whom I could play some sporty game, or even perform some hi-jinks. She found it odd to have a boy who got into no trouble.
She gave me two dollars and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (crunchy peanut butter, apricot jam of her own making, the bread’s crust cut off and eaten by her as her only lunch) in a non-zipping sandwich bag placed in a brown paper bag with an apple (a pink lady with an aesthetically pleasing apple shape and a rose hue) and told me that I was not to return until two hours had passed, at the minimum. Ours was not a neighborhood where you worried about children being out alone during daylight hours, though truth be told, children ran around and adults screamed at all hours of the night as well. But certainly, my being out alone was not cause for anyone’s comment.
For my mother’s peace of mind I took my bike, but I walked it. Bikes were too fast. The feeling of air breezing by as I rode was noteworthy, but I preferred to walk so I could make observations. At this remove, I remember nothing about the walk, except that it was pleasant. It was late September I believe, an altogether pleasant time of the year where we lived. Since I was not in school, it must have been a Saturday. Presently, I arrived in the park, which was clotted with people. I was able to nevertheless find a free oak tree under which to take my lunch. This tree was ideal because it was large, old, and in the corner of the park farthest from where young ladies sunbathed in little more, and sometimes a little less, than underwear, and where young and old men and old ladies ogled them. This oak, then, was in the portion of the park with the lowest population density, which also owed to the fact that it had no lake frontage (the path around the lake being a popular artery), no playground or pool (reducing child-produced noise density), and no picnic shelters, benches, or barbecue pits. In short, there were no attractions. It was free green space and trees. It was the most peaceful place in the park, and peace is what I was looking for. It is easier to observe details when their quantity has been mediated, if only by a trick of the mind. (There are of course infinite details in a pinprick.) With less skin, less shrieking, and fewer children, dogs, or old men playing chess, I was better able to commence my task.
The sunlight passing through the tree was dappled. That is all I will say about that. You can imagine, but you can never experience it because it is gone. The effect was not unlike being underwater, floating. Enough. The grass was shorn and patchy and strewn with large oak leaves of various shades of brown. Also, there was a smattering of shredded oak leaves. I leaned against a buttress of a root before it plunged into the ground. There was a slight breeze rustling the leaves and stirring wisps of my hair (blonde, as a boy). The tree’s bark was thick and furrowed, the tree itself gnarled with many long, strong arms held aloft like a mother hen spreading her wings to protect her brood. Through the skeleton of branches and skein of leaves, blue patches of sky were discernable. I could barely hear the cheers and guffaws of a far-off baseball game. It smelled like the end of summer. Blades of grass were bent where I had placed my hand to help me sit down. The track of my bike led to where my bike lay carelessly on its side adjacent to me.
My peanut butter and jelly sandwich was perfect. My mother had made it precisely, according to my specifications. It was as if she used a micrometer to measure the perfect thickness of peanut butter and apricot jam, even though I saw her spread them each with a few deft strokes of a knife. Her cutting off the crust and eating it was an agreement we had come to long before without discussion, as it suited us both. The bread was soft, the peanut butter crunchy and salty, the jam sweet. Soon though, the peanut butter stuck to the roof of my mouth and I was unable to swallow. I had nothing to drink. My gullet was clogged and the situation was dire, and I briefly considered the possibility of expiring under that grand old oak. Then I remembered my apple. I took a desperate bite. The apple was crisp and juicy and tart, the perfect bride to my sandwich. The combined effect of the juice and solid chunks of apple did the trick of penetrating, lubricating, and finally dissociating the cement plugging my throat. Henceforth, I consummated every bite of sandwich with a bite of apple. Every subsequent swallow was a pleasure. My mother packed delicious lunches whenever she sent me out for the afternoon.
Though I setup shop in a corner of the park that did not have people crawling out of the woodwork, life there teemed. Ants carted my crumbs on their backs to a nest I could not see. The ants were often smaller than the crumbs they hauled, and so were completely hidden underneath them. Under such circumstances, it appeared that the crumbs moved of their own volition. Ants occasionally veered onto my legs, but finding nothing but patched pants (I was the kind of boy who wore pants all summer long), they would dismissively return to the ground with little bother. I swatted a fly that landed on my knee, and it fell amongst some grass. It twitched as ants dismembered it and hauled its pieces off. A small cast of titmice (possibly black-capped chickadees, my avian identification skills were then in their infancy) alighted on the ground and pecked at the invisible. A squirrel, a fat red squirrel mind you, leapt into their midst and sent them into the trees. The squirrel returned to his occupation: stalking my sandwich bag, which was rolling away on the breeze. There were various cigarette butts within sight. A brightly colored (red or orange) scrap of litter lay about a foot from me. Its inner lining was foil. Probably a condom wrapper. (Little boys are never so naive as you think. I knew I was not the first person to sit in that spot and discover my surroundings.) The sounds of street traffic were behind me. A border of flowers (of what kind I failed to notice) lined the path along the lake. From the distance of my vantage point, the path was an amorphous, slinking mob of humanity. The pressure of that many people funneled into such a tight space was bound to shoot a few castoffs in my direction. Who knows, one or two of them could have likemindedly been interested in my interests. It is a pity that I could not compile their observations alongside mine in my mind, so as to paint a more complete picture.
Two older boys, or young men, with long, stringy hair (one wore an American flag bandana folded like a headband, the other utilized a pony tail) and no shirts tossed a Frisbee back and forth. They moved like swans. The Frisbee did not touch the ground for the entirety of my stay. An older gentleman, for gentleman he was (it is not entirely unlikely that he was foreign), in linen pants, a white shirt unbuttoned to expose white chest hair, and wearing a straw hat, slowly bent over to pick up my sandwich bag, then strolled towards a nearby trashcan, periodically stopping to wait for his dog (leashed of course, he was a gentleman), a Scottish Terrier who enjoyed snuffling in the grass. The terrier pooped before he reached the trashcan. The man (a gentleman I reiterate) fortuitously utilized my sandwich bag (though it was small and transparent, the dog’s poop was also small and the bag formed a sanitary border) to pick up the dog’s poop and, finally, deliver it to the trashcan. A mother in a breezy yellow sundress followed her toddling son, making a straight line of his zig-zag. He zigged. He crouched to inspect some interesting thing, a discarded straw, an apple core, a leaf somehow different than the other leaves. He picked it up and raised it to his face and groaned with pride of accomplishment. She congratulated him on his achievement, cooed and clapped for him, and told him not to put it in his mouth. He zagged; he disappeared into a valley in the uneven terrain (he was short). Not far from me, a woman of indeterminate age half fell, half plopped herself down next to a stroller piled to overflowing with bags themselves full near to overflowing. She was a large woman, wearing gray clothing and too much of it for the heat, and it appeared as she fell/sat/plopped that she was not entirely in control of her body. I cannot speculate about her faculties, though there was some vacancy in her eyes. She in fact was under the same tree as I, but the canopy was large and she was still some 30 feet removed and on the opposite side of the trunk, so that I was beginning to feel conspicuous craning to observe this obese and apparently homeless woman. She, though, took no notice. She lay back (again not holding her weight for the entire descent, but at a certain point going into freefall and landing with a small thump; she was well-cushioned) on her back, looked up at the sky, and heaved a great audible sigh.
Lying down after a pleasing lunch was not a bad idea, so I did the same. I looked up through the tree and its layers of shifting, lobed leaves and intertwined branches at the blue sky. If there were nothing to distract me, and if my bodily wants could somehow be provided for (for instance if I were able to tap into the tree’s root system, I would hope symbiotically instead of parasitically), I could watch the sky through tree branches forever. There is an infinite variety of detail to observe there. (If a baby is crying inconsolably, shake a branch for him or her. He or she will watch it and forget their woes. I learned this in Africa, where they have many things that we never had where I grew up, such as giraffes, famine, oil, and the origins of man, but where they still have babies and branches.) The woman began to snore. I fought the urge to inspect her more closely. I especially wanted to know what was inside the black garbage bags on her stroller. For some boys, such a clandestine investigation would have been undertaken with relish, but, first of all, I was clumsy. Moreover, however, I was not the type to be enticed by wrongdoing or the threat of being caught or the possibility of making a spectacle of myself, and did not yet possess the strength of will to intimate myself into another’s private life, let alone to unabashedly pry into another’s belongings like a thief in the night. So I do not to this day know what she had in her bags. I have since discovered that homeless people often collect cans or bottles, for which they can receive change, though I don’t think that she had cans or bottles on the stroller. I have no evidence for that opinion. Just call it personal bias.
I heard a man hawking ice cream and sat up. I was a boy, and ice cream sounded like a very good idea. And my mother, knowing something about boys in general and me in particular, had sent me out that afternoon with two dollars. Everything was working out splendidly. The ice cream man rode a white bike, pulling a small white clattering cart in which was, presumably, his ice cream. He toiled and sweated without a path for his bike. Indeed, he must have been the new guy (though he was rather old), to be relegated to this virtually childless corner of the park. I stood and made to intercept him. I noticed that the homeless woman was of Native American heritage. Her bags, as I’ve said, remained a mystery, and her eyes remained closed.
The ice cream man saw me approaching, pedaled hard toward me, said “Whoa horsey,” and stopped. He was a black man in a white outfit and white paper hat. I was a white boy. (At this later date I know that these facts carry socio-historo-cultural connotations, but I knew it not then. Now, he sounds like the old crutch of the old wise black slave, but he was no slave; color is just often the first thing one notices. I observed that he was black and I was white because we were, and I relate the details to you now to paint the story as clearly as possible. There is no social commentary in his blackness or my whiteness; we were born thusly, with different color skin, which is nothing but an incidental fact. He was also old and I was young. This information is only meant to inform you.) Sometimes, ice cream men dress up as clowns or ride around with carnival music; he did neither. I appreciated his straightforward approach, cleansed of obfuscation and fake fun. He was about the ice cream.
Leaning on his handlebars, he said, “You son, want some ice cream.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “I would very much like some ice cream.”
He asked how much money I had, and I told him two dollars. He said that I needed two scoops then.
“Yes sir, I do,” I said.
He smiled and went to the cart. He was a lanky gentleman. He wore a gold chain that clinked as he moved. He opened a sliding door on top of the cart, and as heat was sucked into the cooler, steam formed in the air above it. The man invited me to look in the cart and choose my flavors. I waved away the steam and saw six cylindrical containers, each a different color. Red, orange, yellow, green, white, and brown. The brown was chocolate, the white vanilla, and the red strawberry; that much I knew. There was more chocolate gone than anything else; next was vanilla. I was not an adventurous boy by nature, but before this gentleman I could not order chocolate and vanilla. For some reason, I did not wish to appear just another imbecilic boy. I wished to make an impression. I chose orange and green, the surfaces of which were smooth and untouched.
“You’re a boy with some spirit, aren’t you?” he said. “Bet you causing mom and dad all sorts of grief aren’t you? That’s the kind of boy I was too.”
“I don’t have a father,” I said confidently.
He took a scoop from a homemade holster and bent over the ice cream cart. His right arm dipped into the cooler to the elbow as he scooped a scoop and brought it out, green first, and pressed it into the sugar cone in his left hand. He said that was all right, that a long time ago he had a boy, but not anymore, so maybe we weren’t so different. He scooped the orange, sweat dripping from his nose and chin into the cooler, and pressed it atop the green. I said he should meet my mother. He gave a deep laugh, wrapping a napkin around the cone and handing it to me by the wider top part of the cone, so that I could take it by the narrow point. That was the first time I realized an ice cream cone is like a sword hilt. He said he wasn’t opposed to the idea, and asked if I thought she was his type. I gave him two dollars and said, “Yes sir, she is rather fond of ice cream.” He laughed louder this time, pocketing my money and closing the cooler. It occurs to me now that there must have been blocks of ice in the bottom of the cart, or I suppose something more complicated such as a compressor, though I did not think of how to make cold then. He said he was here every Saturday without fail through the month of October, after which he’d be heading south. But he would be happy to make her acquaintance, because if there’s one thing he had to give, it’s ice cream. Holding the cone near my face, I noticed that there were chocolate flecks in the green and white swirls in the orange. That was fine, another fact necessitating neither joy nor consternation. As I looked at the ice cream though, I apparently unwittingly began to tip the structure towards the horizontal. The ball of orange rolled off and plopped on the ground. A twig stuck through it and some of the dirt it had tossed in the air when it landed settled, dirtying its orange surface. I looked at the dirty ball of orange and wanted to kick it. I noticed then that the ice cream man also wore white shoes, immaculately white shoes. I could not kick the orange ball; I might dirty his shoes. I could not look up from the orange ball. I had no money, and I was old enough to know what it meant when my mother told me that nothing in life was free. I had had no special attachment to the orange ice cream, but now that it was gone, I felt its absence like a weight on my eyeballs. The ice cream began to melt almost instantly, losing its spherical shape. I could not look at the ice cream man. I stared at the orange blob I had lost.
Then I felt his hand, a scratchy hand, on mine, rotating it. “Hold it up son, straight up and down. Like it’s a torch, so you don’t get burned. Or like a sword. Never let your sword down.” He pulled me a step closer to the cooler and, all while firmly holding my hand holding my cone, slid open the cooler again, scooped up another scoop of orange, and pressed it down firmly on the green.
Even though I knew it was really he holding my hand holding the cone, it felt good to feel like I was holding the cone steady while he pressed down on it.
He said, “There you go,” and let go and began to close up shop again. I admitted as how I had no more money. “Ain’t no thing son. I don’t want what you ain’t got anyhow.”
I asked if he was going to be here tomorrow. He said yes, he was here Sundays too. I said maybe I’d see him then, tomorrow.
“Maybe so,” he said. “That’d suit me just fine. Meantime, keep your sword up, all right?”
“Yes sir,” I said as he got on his bike.
Then he said, “And don’t forget to eat it too, son.” He rode off, bouncing and jangling, and I took a bite of orange ice cream, having caught on to what he was implying.
My first observation was that it was cold. Second, it tasted orange. Third, I liked it. I was just a boy you know; I didn’t yet have the refined palate to comment upon the body or the tannins or the earthy hints of coffee or chocolate or the fruity insinuations of blueberry or cherry. I didn’t even know the nature of the white swirls. (I have since learned that, in ice cream, such white swirls are typically marshmallow, and that marshmallow typically adds very little flavor to ice cream. I understand that I am blurring the line between subjective opinion and objective fact, but the tastelessness of marshmallow in ice cream does seem, from my investigations, to be a widely held belief.) I do not know as I had ever had orange ice cream prior to that moment. Now I had. Orange was clearly suited to ice cream. I licked a protrusion of the green. Mint chocolate chip I recognized immediately. A favorite of my mother. Also quite delicious. I have rarely, let me say never, met an ice cream I did not enjoy on some level.
Ice cream on an Indian summer day in the park, what could be better? I was the type of boy who had such thoughts. I whittled the ice cream down to what I felt was safe to walk with before I began to walk. The ice cream man was out of sight, in some more profitable realm I hoped. Tomorrow, perhaps my mother would join me. I began to make my way back to my bike. I was satisfied with how my afternoon had passed. Surely it was time to return home.
The sunlight was landing at more of a slant. The young men threw their Frisbee incessantly. The toddler, likely weary now, let himself plop down on his butt, using his diaper to pad his fall, though in truth he fell from no great height. His mother looked at her watch, a sparkly thing about her wrist, and without delay scooped him up and purposefully strode in a northwesterly direction. The thin crowd thinned further. I heard a fearful sound and looked over my shoulder: a phalanx of children approached my peaceful realm. A ball of some sort was tossed in the air. I could hear guffaws and quacks and ear-piercing screams and honks and snatches of song, but they were not yet near enough for visual confirmation of the gaggle’s composition. Voice is an unreliable tool for identifying the age, gender, or race of children, as their voices have yet to crack. In actuality the nature of these children was irrelevant; they were just children horsing around. I did not assume their intent was malevolent, but even if their pursuit was naught but innocent amusement (and that would be assuming children do not have the holes in their hearts which plague adults), it would not be easy for a child like me to remain unnoticed on the sidelines. They had no discernable supervision. I picked up the pace, in the interest of self-preservation. It was without a doubt high time for leave-taking.
And yet, when I arrived at my bike and my root and my dented grass and my familiar shards of leaves and discarded butts, I was given pause. For one thing, having left my spot and returned, I found that I was fond of it. Now that I had known it, I felt some ownership. It was like the end of a novel whose details and inner workings you have become intimate with. You know it must end, but you wish it wouldn’t. And yet, while you wish it wouldn’t end (because, by freely giving yourself over to the author’s sure hands, hands that turn your attention to certain details, hands that juggle all the details you have a hard time holding onto, hands that thus manipulate you in a way that you secretly enjoy being manipulated, you have found a degree of repose in that world’s logic), you derive some satisfaction from finishing it, because it is another thing done. (You can proceed to the next item on the list, even if it be only another story. The sediment of all these stories does produce a significant quantity of aggregate.) So it was under my tree. I was loath to leave it, yet I wanted to finish my ice cream cone and go home. (My mother and I were scheduled to watch a movie that night.)
At some point I was clearly going to leave, and the rising clamor of the quacking children was tipping the scale. But I wanted something that would give finality to my time there, some act that would provide a measure of closure. I was only half-finished with my ice cream, and it was melting fast. Honestly, I was only a one scoop kind of boy. I had a low tolerance of sweets, but this was a truth I conveniently forgot every time I bought ice cream. At any rate, I did not want more. (There were some orange smears, but primarily what was left was mint chocolate chip.) The homeless woman gave a mighty honk of a snore, after which her breathing stopped for a moment before she began snoring again. I went over to her. Her face was round and riddled with pockmarks. It was something out of an old book of photographs. It looked stoic. Her hair was black. I said “Hey” several times, but she did not respond. This woman, surely, would appreciate some mint chocolate chip ice cream in a cone. For some reason I felt a kinship to her, though it was readily apparent that of kinship there was none. With my foot I shook her foot; it rotated, but the rest of her was unresponsive. I put my foot on her thigh and jostled it. I put my toe in her side and jiggled her stomach; her entire body jiggled, her head even rocking back and forth, but still nothing. My ice cream was melting and beginning to seep through the bottom of the cone and drip onto my hand, from whence it traced a path down the inside of my wrist. I would be sticky. I knelt beside her and put a hand on her shoulder and shook, saying, “Miss, miss.” The children were approaching, and I did not want to draw attention to myself or this woman. She would surely be a lummox to them, but she was a hillock to me. Her mighty chest rose and fell. She yet breathed.
I put my thumb on one of her cheeks and my fingers on the other and massaged. I slapped her cheeks slightly, as I had seen done in movies. All my efforts were fruitless. I could not bring her back to consciousness to give her my ice cream. With a sense of desperation, I held the cone over her ajar mouth as several drips dripped from it. One landed on her lower lip, which appeared to have an open sore on it, two entered her mouth, and one plunked on her cheek and settled into the divot of an old scar. It was all I could do for her. The children were nearly upon me, the ice cream was no longer viable, and I was scheduled to watch a movie with my mother. Sunlight was slicing from a very obtuse (or acute, depending on your reference angle) angle now, that angle when the light golds. I was the kind of boy who felt remorse for littering, but I set the ice cream cone next to her and walked back to my bike. (Needless to say, I never saw her again.) I was ready to go home.
I rode my bike home. I worked up a sweat. Houses, trees, cars flew by; I paid no attention to them. It felt good to go fast and feel my muscles. I pulled up winded at the corner of our street. Like so many children of that era, I had asthma, and my mother did not like to see me out of breath. As soon as the wind of my ride stopped, I streamed sweat. I dismounted in order to walk the half-block home and catch my breath before presenting myself to my mother. I had a ten-speed bike, red. I was the only boy my age I had seen with a ten-speed bike. Brakes on the handles. It was a gift from my mother, who often joked that for Christmas she’d give me a leash for it. (I took the bike everywhere, but rarely rode it, not due to incapability. I may have mentioned this.) I don’t know what it cost her.
As I approached the house, a man left it. I did not know who he was. He turned the opposite direction from me and walked into the sun, which was low, so I could not see his clothes or hair color or any features at all, except that he was tall and wore a hat and carried a bag over his shoulder. I could only see his silhouette. I stopped and waited for him to turn the corner and pass out of sight before I continued to the house. It gave me a moment to fully catch my breath. He could have been a salesman, or an evangelist. They roamed the streets on weekends, when people were likely to be home, and knocked on doors. They never lingered long at our house; we hadn’t much money. In retrospect though, he was likely our plumber. Our plumbing was rather poor in that house. I walked my bike around back, leaned it against the house, and entered the kitchen.
My mother sat at the table, staring off into space, looking like she was waiting for me. She jumped up, gave me a hug, and asked how my afternoon had been. I said that lunch was good (I did not mention that she had forgotten to pack me a drink) and that I had begun to think about being an ice cream man when I grew up. I would begin an investigation of the requisite schooling presently. She laughed. Her eyes were wet. I laughed too. I’m not sure why, except that she was laughing. I could see the numerous crowns on her teeth. (We both had bad teeth.) Her laugh reminded me of another occasion, when a man stopped by and said certain things could not be gotten but by fasting and praying. She said she agreed, and that right then she was praying that he would leave fast. He left in a huff and we laughed. That is a different story, though we laughed on both occasions. I asked if we were going to church tomorrow. She said she hadn’t decided. It was warmer inside than it was outside. I asked if, either way, in the afternoon, we could go together, just for a little while, it was so nice today, and this could be the last nice weekend, and we didn’t have to do anything but sit, and perhaps buy some ice cream… (I had trouble saying exactly what I was asking for, for some reason.) She gave me a peck on the top of my head and said yes, she’d love to go to the park together tomorrow.
If people want a more final line (again, you can tell in their eyes if they are satisfied), I tell them that I thought this story might help explain some things that have happened since.