Have you ever noticed when the tar bubbles surface up on hot summer streets? Can you hear the city-slicked children screaming their little lungs out for the ice cream truck – bringing the sluggish white vehicle down like a pack of hyenas on a lame zebra? Do you smell the sugared zeppelins sold by those disheveled Delancey Street vendors? All of that laughter, noise, and color can heal you when medicine can’t.
It’s about 92 degrees out here, and my choice of black t-shirt is twice as heavy as this morning when I first slipped it over my head. The thing clings to my 24-year old skin for dear life, showing off my well-chiseled figure. It’s not what you think – I’m not just exercising to improve my sex life. I do it because my family has a history with diabetes and cancer, and I promised my mom, God bless her soul, that I would not die at an early age.
I can vividly see her, lying on her deathbed, beckoning me to come closer and receive her blessing before she slips away beneath those white sheets that smell like chrysanthemum.
“Patrick, look at me. Are you going to forget me?”
“… Don’t say that mom. Who could ever forget you?”
“Your father… your brother… you’re the only one who understands.”
“Just get some rest mom. You need to get better.”
The window curtains were drawn together to block the light from casting shadow puppets that toyed with my mother’s fragile mind. I remember kissing her good night despite it being three in the afternoon, and pulling the white chrysanthemum-smelling sheets up to her small chin. Her eyelids would flutter involuntarily before shutting down to exhaustion, but not this time. I was the one to close those unblinking eyes, to grant the passage to the afterlife where mothers shouldn’t be allowed to go before their kids have grown up.
Five years have passed, and I feel like a grown man. I live in a modest single apartment, working an editorial job at the New York Tribune. I’m currently writing a piece for the life section about summertime recreation, and here I am in front of the Ice Cream Factory. I can hear the children clamoring for their favorite flavors: peach, strawberry, double chocolate chip, mango, red bean, green tea, spumoni. The line wraps around the corner of the block, and I happen to come across a little boy holding his little sister’s small, coffee hand. His head is completely shaven and round, the only imperfection being a small scar where a barber’s hands must have slipped and nicked the skin. He is wearing a blue tank-top 2 sizes too big, and a pair of orange shorts that almost touch his ankles. Why not interview a child for a change?
“Hey little man, can I ask you a few questions?”
Both the boy and his sister abruptly turn around and size me up in unison. I see him whisper something in his sister’s ear, and she shakes her head in disapproval. She glances at me for one more second, and then fixes her eyes on the ice cream line – she must be shy.
“What kinds of questions?” He smirks at me while rubbing the back of his head.
“What’s in it for me?” He stretches a smile, showing off a set of beautiful white teeth.
“If you answer my questions, you get to cut me in line.”
“That’s dumb. Let’s shake on it.
I shake the small man’s hand; I note that he has a firm handshake.
“It’s a deal then. What’s your sister’s name by the way?”
“Her name is Tiff, and she’s not allowed to talk to strangers until next year.”
“Okay. What’s your name?”
“Is this on the record?” the little black boy asks me hesitantly.
“Jared. I’m 7, and I go to P.S. 118.”
Jared’s professionalism catches me off guard, and I stumble in search for topical questions. I dab my brow with the back of my arm, and I’m embarrassed for the way my black Levi shirt clings to my sweaty body. The line is slowly inching its body upwards.
“Are you getting this down Mr.?”
“Yeah kid. So is this a popular place in the summertime?”
“I’m not stupid man. You better try harder than that.”
“I take that as a yes. How often do you and your sister come here?”
“Once a year.”
“Why just once?”
Jared’s face contorts a little bit, but settles back to its original form. I think he was offended at my question, but my notepad is still lying in my palm, steady as a surgeon’s hands. The edges of the notepad are tattered, and the silk strings are barely holding the yellowed pages in place. The cover is unadorned, red leather with a picture of my mother taped on the inside of the cover for inspiration. It even still smells like the chrysanthemum tea that she used to brew when we had sore throats.
“Hello! Mr., now’s not the time for daydreaming! The line is moving up, and my sister wants to get her cotton candy double-scoop sugar cone this century!”
Behind, I see a couple irritable fathers waving their hands at me to move forward. One guy shouts in a nasally Brooklyn accent, “Come on here! This is New York – move a little faster why don’t ya!” “Oh, sorry about that sir. Why just once Jared?”
“Mama only gives us money for ice cream if we get good report cards at the end of the school year. She’s a tough mama, but I love her anyway. She works real hard for those greenbacks if you know what I’m sayin’.”
“My mom was tough on me too,” I chuckle at the kid’s honesty.
“How so?” Jared presses me for a straight-up answer. He would make a good reporter…
“She never let me out of the house to play with my friends. There was always work to be done.”
“What kind of work?” Jared’s face was filled with interest despite Tiff tugging at his hand to move forward on the Congo line.
“The type of work that little boys hate doing: homework, laundry, dishes.”
“Huh, that’s it?” Jared sneers at me for a moment, probably noticing how smooth my hands were in the broad light of day.
“I’m sure there was more, but she would really hound me about doing well in school, especially in English class. She would say to me, ‘Patrick, English is the only useful subject you’re going to learn in school. It gives you the ability to speak, write, and express yourself. The best part about it is that it grants you the chance to tell stories to other people about your experiences and other’s.'”
“She sounds like a nice lady.”
“Yeah, she was,” I somberly said. The procession had moved its way on up, and it would be just a few minutes before my interview with Jared waved its little chocolate hand goodbye with a fistful of ice cream.
“What’s that you’re writin’ on Pat?”
“Oh this old thing… its my mom’s old notepad. She used to jot down anything she saw that interested her, and compose short stories based on what she saw. Her first story was written in the first few pages of this pad, her chicken scratch painting pictures of city life.” “
Were these stories true?”
“Partly true, partly false. Sometimes life needs to be spruced up a little.”
“I don’t think so. I think I like my life just the way it is.”
“But you can only eat ice cream once a year!”
“And what’s that got to do with life?” Jared’s face looks puzzled as if my words just bounced right off his shaved head.
“Everything little man, everything.”
“So where’s she at?”
“Your mom Pat,” Jared’s eyes narrowed, suspecting murder or something.
My hand starts to tremble, but the notepad stands still regardless of the earthquake beneath it. I see Jared staring at me with conviction in his eyes; I can’t seem to match his gaze with my own. I finally give the reporter what he wants.
“She’s dead Jared. Died of cancer 5 years ago.”
Jared covers his sister’s ears, and says, “Shit happens Pat. Our dad up and left us when I learned how to talk. Said I asked too many questions.”
For the first time in months, I start cracking up with laughter. My abs hurt from the humor that racks my body, and have to bend down to keep breathing. Down below, I see a small lake of vanilla ice cream where flies are swimming around, enjoying life. My mom’s voice chimes in, “The kid is right Patrick. You have to stop living alone and call them up. They need you Patrick.”
“You’re right mom.”
“I’m not your mom, and I think we shook on me and my sis cutting you.”
“Not yet! That big guy is still ordering his peanut butter brittle cone, and he’s probably going to order 3 more for the road,” I slyly grin to my future colleague.
“I still don’t get why you carry that raggedy thing around. Don’t you get the creeps for carrying around your dead mom’s notepad? My mom says that carrying a dead person’s belongings around is bad luck.”
“It’s actually my good luck charm. The Chinese are very superstitious people, and anything that has a meaning and colored red is good luck, and can even bring you great fortune.”
“Sounds dumb to me. But then again you are wearing a tight black tee, which is also dumb to wear in the summertime,” Jared says bluntly.
“Nice observation kid,” I can’t help but smile; in some way this boy knows more about life than I ever will. “I have a question for you… suppose my friend hasn’t talked to his father and brother since his mom passed away; he doesn’t like being around them because they remind him of his mom. What should he do?”
Jared sucks his teeth, and tugs at his sister’s chocolate hand to move on up the line, right behind an elderly Hispanic woman pushing a pink baby carriage with one of those plastic fume hoods. I should tell her that the baby is probably suffocating to death, but Jared beats me to it. He gently lifts the cover off, and explains to the woman in perfect Spanish, why it’s not such a good idea to simulate the green house effect on an infant.
“So what should my friend do Jared?”
“I think you should go visit them. They probably live in the same house as your friend did growing up. Tell them how your friend feels. You know, be honest with yourself.”
“Maybe you’re right Jared.”
“Of course I’m right. I’m seven years old!” Jared places his hands on his narrow hips.
I playfully push Jared backwards, and he pretends to be offended, shaking his fists – preparing to knock me out with one punch.
“Excuse me Sir, what would you like to order?” says the ice cream maker.
“I think these two would like to order first,” I wave my hand to Jared and Tiff to come up and place their ice cream orders.
“Can I please have…uh… raspberry 1 scoop sugar cone please,” Tiff softly asks.
“I think I will have 2 scoops of cookie dough on a waffle cone today, thanks,” says Jared.
I tell the cashier that I’m treating the two children, and Jared and Tiff grin at each other with satisfaction. I even order myself 2 red bean ice cream cones, something I haven’t had since I was a child.
“Thanks for the ice cream Pat. We should hang out sometime!” Jared thanks me with a full mouth of cookie dough. Tiff slowly eats her cone, savoring every bite.
“How about tomorrow? My treat!”
“I’ll hold you to it!” Jared shouts, and tugs at his sister’s hands – time to go home.
I start walking home with one hand holding summer snacks and the other carrying my mom’s old red notepad. I hope the red bean ice cream won’t melt before I return back home.