short stories

The Ice Cream Shoppe

neighborhood

The boy always dreaded his walk to work.  Each crack in the sidewalk tallied seconds that could be better spent on a more fruitful task.  Those who could afford the means to drive, he reasoned, were using their time to further accomplishments already much grander than his own.  Every cent he earned was earmarked for a vehicle whose image was always cast at the forefront of his mind.   This chariot, once within his grasp, would hold the honor of taking him away from a place whose utter familiarity now gave rise to claustrophobia.  Days now spent in his childhood home, born of a street unchanged by time or the seasons, felt like missed opportunities.  While not yet in his prime, he often imagined his vitality waning, a neurosis provoked by how unexpectedly a human life can draw to a close. 

A pair of headphones was often his only comforter on these distressing excursions.  He used this time to listen to podcasts by men society held in great esteem, sharing the secrets of success.  Absorbing every word, it consoled him to know he was filling a void in his schedule with productive activity.   Today, however, even this single source of relief lay beyond his grasp.  Rushing through laundry the previous day, he had hastily deposited his work uniform into the machine and neglected to check the pockets.  As a result, his headphones had received an undesired bath, and had not survived the process.  An outsider would likely label the boy’s adversities as mere annoyances, but this didn’t detract from the detestable mood that enveloped him as he stepped out onto the sidewalk.

Unaffected by the turbulence of his internal state, the afternoon proved supremely agreeable.  Birds capitalized on the lightest breeze to carry their serene song gracefully from breast and beak.  The boy passed by a nearby alleyway that in this moment, doubled as a launching pad for a child in pursuit of a rubber ball.  Looking down at his feet, the default posture adopted by those in a sulk, the boy stepped directly into the child’s path.  Fortunately, the child’s attention was fully dedicated to his efforts and he screeched to a halt just short of impact, yet the ball continued its jailbreak over the young man’s head.   This course of events quickly enveloped the young child’s hunt in failure, and the ball soon disappeared into a sewer drain, claimed by the bowels of the earth.  Spilling from the alley, noises of dejection and agony were offered by each of the young child’s friends, provided in no small measure for the boy’s benefit.

The near collision offered a shock to the young man’s system, already consumed  by a storm of brooding.  He offered little in terms of an apology to the child, and continued hurriedly, shifting his gaze upwards slightly from his shoes.  Truthfully, he envied the children, happy to waste time on such a purposeless endeavor, free from feelings of guilt bound to pull their focus away from the ball’s exuberant dance.  To assuage his envy, he convinced himself that in a few year’s time, they too would come face-to-face with stress and responsibility, the rites of passage meant to transform boy into man.  Most of his attention now turned to observing traffic as he moved to cross a busy thoroughfare. However, the part of the mind reserved for nostalgia and daydreaming crept back to recall rules to games he had once played in a previous lifetime.

He continued by windows where his reflection appeared, only to vanish in an instant. Apartment buildings on this side of the street now gave way to a variety of family-owned storefronts.  A coffee shop contained within a brick facade of painted green advertised with wafting smells that tickled nostrils and fueled caffeine cravings.  Though the boy had never indulged in a cup of the frothing goodness responsible for such aromas, he imagined a day, set in the distance, where he would indulge in a latte on a Sunday morning when he returned, sporting an elegant suit jacket, to visit his mother .  But alas, success dare not distinguish weekend from weekday, and neither did the boy.

Outside of the shop were situated two tables, one large, and one small.  Usually a fan of symmetry and efficiency, the boy felt that the choice to utilize this space in such whimsical fashion cultivated a welcoming atmosphere.  At the larger table, college students huddled around a laptop and sipped lattes intently.  One of the students mumbled a joke, the delivery of which suggested a crude nature, and as the boy passed, laughter erupted.  Giggles trailed off at varying paces as attention returned to the task at hand.  Meanwhile, the smaller table played host to two young lovers. They held each other’s gaze intently, content not to speak and risk such a moment being eclipsed by conversation.

Scenes like this were commonplace at the neighborhood java shop, but routinely went unnoticed by the boy.  Yet today, with unoccupied eardrums, the contrast between the laughter of the students and the silence of the lovers made an impression on him, the significance of which he could not quite comprehend.  Despite the prospect of  success sucking him into the future at a continually fervent pace, he had never given much thought to the particulars of how his brand of success was to manifest.  Realizing this now, for the first time, he found himself woefully incapable of picturing his presence adopted at either table.

A car horn in the distance let out a guttural moan, pulling him back into reality. This served him well as he turned a corner, and found his path obscured.  The most recent addition to the neighborhood’s residential areas was a boutique, catering to the needs of newborns and their families. Large wooden displays were being unloaded from a truck and carried into the store, and one of these had been laid across the narrow sidewalk as two employees rearranged their grip. Anxiety welled up within the boy, who quickly looked for a way around, but the only means of escape spilled onto a busy street, and he dared not risk the ire of irate drivers.

Reaching an awkward standstill, his eyes darted beyond the two employees, and he was surprised to discover customers were already milling about the boutique. Among these, a woman dawning a cyan dress whose fabric gently caressed a pregnant belly, nearly bursting at the seams. Her posture demonstrated an annoyance provoked by her husband’s behavior, whose incessant hovering was spawned from an intention to spare her any unnecessary exertion.  She must have become well accustomed to his agitated moods long ago, as she was navigating around him with an agility that appeared well rehearsed.  In the rare moments he turned his back, however, a look of relief curled on the edges of her lips, and revealed a sincere appreciation to have found such an adoring partner for the journey ahead.

Inches opened up on the sidewalk, and the boy twisted his way through, already eyeing the next intersection.  The short distance leading up to this intersection would be occupied with thoughts of parenthood. Sacrifices necessitated by such an endeavor served to create a pit in his stomach.  Unable to support himself financially, the thought of such a helpless creature being dependent on him perfectly embodied his concept of the ultimate burden.  Recalling the father in the boutique, the man’s entire existence being enveloped in worry, seemed strong evidence to support this assertion. 

The boy took a step over a fissure in the sidewalk that has nearly felled him on previous occasions quite gracefully. As the other foot came up to meet the first, thoughts of parenthood began to drift from his mind.  For only an instant, he remembered the look of bliss that had so briefly crept onto the woman’s face when the man had momentarily been bested by distraction.  In a moment of objectivity, the boy acknowledged that there must be must be some upside to nullify all the stress, and wondered what beauty of feeling must dwell within a parent’s soul to deem the prospect worthwhile. Considering himself, on the whole, far too mature for the surroundings he’d grown to detest, it was decidedly peculiar the soaring apartments across the avenue, in this moment, made him feel so small.

Between two of these apartment buildings resided a single story storefront that the boy had rarely taken occasion to notice.  Lodged between such towering structures, it was as if the store, while undoubtedly a predecessor to its neighbors, had long since been left behind by companions with greater ambitions than it heldfor itself.  A neon sign in a tinted window advertised a cigar lounge, and two old men with weathered voices came spilling out onto the street.  They were continuing a heated argument involving sports teams whose players had no doubt retired from athletic pursuits long, long ago.  While the conversation, to onlookers, may have seemed hostile, the boy spent much time with his grandfather and his friends when they still walked the earth.  From these treasured memories, he understood well that friendships forged by decades of sentiment are afforded the luxury of disposing of courtesy, without any threat to the fondness or intimacy contained within.  

The boy’s inability to grapple with the inevitability of death also stemmed from his time with his grandfather.  They had always shared a special connection, kindred spirits exhibiting like demeanor, their distinguishing traits attributable mainly to growing up in different eras.  In his earliest memories, wrinkles enveloped the old man’s skin, yet his body radiated strength and vitality.  Ultimately, death consumed the old man slowly and methodically, and the boy bore witness as his physical body deteriorated first, only to be followed by diminishing mental capacity in his final years. 

While these images lay scarred and vivid in the young boy’s mind, he did not comprehend how strongly they had shaped his perceptions of the world.  From the day of his grandfather’s passing, his subconscious had conspired to take advantage of every moment of health afforded the young boy.  The process of maturing may unfold gradually, but for some poor souls innocence wanes in a single moment.  The boy believed above all else that one day, as his body too failed him, he would look back on life, either content with his sizable achievements , or despairing over his failure to forge a legacy he could be proud of.

Passing into the shade of a giant oak tree, the break in the sunlight caused the boy’s pupils, and his awareness of his surroundings, to expand rapidly.  This oak tree had flourished here for centuries, and first became a presence in the boy’s life when he had used it to balance while he tied his shoes en route to his first day of school.  In recent days,  the tree had begun to serve as a landmark that signaled the end of the boy’s frequent journeys to work.   Attempting to remember the particulars of his trek, he realized with slight apprehension that he was utterly incapable of doing so .  He could, however, recall each face he had seen, and the philosophical trails of reflection spearheaded by them, in more vivid detail than real life could provide.  This strange mood, which lay somewhere between nostalgia and enlightenment, was not within the boy’s vocabulary to describe.  

The door to his workplace was propped open, and was separated from where the boy stood by one final storefront belonging to an ice cream shop. Traversing this final leg of his travels, the boy was stopped in his tracks by a grim discovery- there were no lights, nor voices of satisfied children, pouring forth from the parlor.  Quite literally walking in reverse, he moved to position himself in front of a handwritten sign adhered to the door.  In pink block letters, this sign went on to explain that the shop had been sold, and would soon be repurposed for an alternative venture.  Courteous enough to explain the reason why, the sign revealed that the family that had operated it for so long was moving to begin a long anticipated retirement.  Their children had long since moved on to indulge in new lives, they shared,  and although they would not trade the last 35 years of friendship and bonding with all of the neighborhood’s denizens, whom they had come to know and love, for the world, the time had come to move on.  

The boy, still a minor, lived with his mother.  His father, who made every attempt to see his son whenever possible, had a mind programmed for an occupation that drew him constantly elsewhere.  When the boy had still allowed himself the leisure of having hobbies, baseball had quickly become an obsession. His father took him to every game, and afterwards they would frequently stop to share a scoop at the then operating parlor.  The local fields where leagues took place lay just around the corner, and it was still common for parents to bring their children here to celebrate a hard-fought victory.  Breaking with tradition, the boy and his father had always reserved this treat for the days marked by most bitter defeat.  

The reason for this was simple- the boy demanded perfection of himself from even an early age, and always took the team’s failures squarely on his shoulders.  His perceived failures always put him in a state of seething rage, compounded by his efforts to insulate his emotions – he’d always been the kind to hide what he perceived as weakness from the world.  This meant that his father was reduced, at times, to virtually dragging him into the parlor by the collar of his uniform.  Resenting these moments at the time, he had wished to be left to sulk in peace.  In time, his age, growing concurrently with the frequency of his father’s absence, had revealed to him the foolishness of this desire.  The talks he and his father shared across sticky tables, touching on life and joy and the little things, would later prove to be the most treasured  across the entire span of his life’s experiences.

Perhaps it was that this place offered him the the rare opportunity for an uncommon gratitude, the kind born only of reminiscence, that he so often relied on to help feign a smile during his most hectic shifts. Perhaps the revelations germinating in his mind, operating to commandeer his preconceptions of life during this trip, were the culprit.  Or, perhaps still, it was a combination of the two, that served to fuel the tears now pouring from his eyes. No ordinary tears, these had lain dormant for space in the space just above his cheeks. Knowing that he had to be strong for his mother from the moment he’d first watched her help pack a suitcase, languishing in silent despair, and also knowing that the walls of their apartment were pitifully thin, crying had long ago become a luxury he had determined not to afford himself.  

The boy returned to the oak tree to seek refuge from prying eyes.  Finding relief in the shade, he felt his grief begin to transform.  Frozen in time, a million thoughts burst into a chaotic symphony,  and when he felt his head about to burst, the pressure suddenly dissipated.  Although he had known the world for years now, he fashioned this the first time he had ever truly known himself. 

In an instant, he realized he had never stopped being the boy playing ball in the alley.  He realized that his true passion was waiting patiently to be discovered, just as it had once for the students at the table, and that success for its own sake is a hollow prospect.  He realized that he needed to love, and allow himself to be loved, a lesson imparted to him by the young couple at the coffee shop.  He realized family as the ultimate achievement a man can strive to attain in this life; the responsibilities of which should be worn as a badge of honor.  He realized old age is not something to be feared, a deadline to be outpaced, but an honor reserved only for those who have been blessed to lead long, fulfilling lives. 

And he realized, as he raised his face from his hands to gaze into the unlit ice cream parlor, that a fond memory is the most important currency a boy can ever strive to attain.  The very moments he had conditioned himself to abhor, perpetually dismissed in a race to get somewhere better and brighter, were the moments that some day he would look back on with unbridled emotion, just like those long talks with his father over ice cream.  

Wiping the tears from his face gently, deliberately, he took a deep breath and headed for the doorway.  This time, however, for the first time in his life, he took time to pause as soon as he stepped from the shade of the mighty oak tree, the same tree that had once supported him as an uncoordinated chill. Warmth leant from the spring sun permeated his skin and ignited a spark in a soul that had lain dormant for far too long.  As he crossed the threshold into his workplace, the clock at the far side of the establishment labeled him tardy, but he was not concerned.  He would offer to stay as long as was needed, and would do so without the slightest tinge of anxiety.   After all, he had all the time in the world. 

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