ICE CREAM FOR THE SAD TIMES
A Short Story About A Small Moment
On Thursdays I pick Katie up from middle school in my mom’s old station wagon then head south towards Sand Point Way where we like to stop for ice cream.
Katie is my niece but kids at her school think I’m her dad and I understand, without asking, that Katie never bothers to correct them.
As we enter the shop, the door makes a ‘ding-dong’ sound, but the boy in the pink and blue uniform doesn’t hear it. There is the gentle hum of a fan overhead, a familiar gloss on the old tiles, and the sweet malted scent of waffle cones. We have the shop to ourselves. We often do.
Nothing much, or nothing at all, has changed in this particular shop since I was a boy. Same four wood-veneered tables with gum stuck all over their undersides. Same big clean windows letting in the vague gray Seattle light. Same slowly rotating fan wobbling feebly over our cold heads. Same thirty-one tubs of ice cream.
The boy is up on top of the counter behind the ice cream with his eyes closed and head phones stuck in his ears. He isn’t expecting anyone. We stand in front of him and I read his nametag.
“His name’s Patrick,” I tell Katie.
“I can read.”
“Do you want to wake him or should I?”
“We should pick what we want first.”
She’s deciding between mint chip and bubble gum. I suggest a banana split.
“What’s that?” Katie asked.
“He’ll split a banana like a hot dog bun and put scoops of ice cream inside.”
“Can he put the toppings on it too?”
“He’ll do whatever you ask him to.”
Patrick gets down from the counter to endure our inconvenient visit. He takes one of his earphones out and lets it hang over his dark blue apron. His hair is a mess on his head beneath his blue visor and he’s thin as a stray dog. His body is a small city of sharp turns and long flat straight-aways. He stands behind the counter now and looks at Katie and I without a trace of emotion.
I feel myself smiling at his reluctance to deal with us. I’ve been in his shoes before and didn’t enjoy it any more than he does.
Katie asks him for a banana split with mint chip ice cream and whip cream and lots of sprinkles. I pay for it and take a dollar from my change and put it in the empty tip cup. I think I see surprise on his face but I probably invented it. Katie chooses a table and climbs up onto a chair by the window and sits on her knees. I sit down across from her. We both keep our coats on. It’s November; the beginning of a cold that will last through mid June.
We’re lucky that an early winter sun cracks the clouds and reaches sideways through the trees across the street and through the window. It warms me up, relaxes my shoulders, and makes me feel calm and optimistic. Katie has her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands. Last week her newborn hair was hanging just below her waist and then yesterday it was neatly cut to shoulder length. The new haircut meant that she was growing up and that I was getting older.
Katie squeezes her cheeks together, purses her lips, and begins making fish sounds. I look at her and raise one eyebrow as high as it can go.
“Guess what type of fish I am.”
“A Katie Fish?”
“You have to guess real fish uncle Ryan.”
“A Scary Fish?”
“A Baby Fish?”
“Real fish uncle Ryan! And I’m not a baby.” She’s seven. Still a baby.
“Okay.” I pause and shape a thinking pose followed by an exaggerated moment of recognition. With a raised finger I announce, “You look like a Rainbow Trout.”
She thinks that sounds fake too but she isn’t sure. When Katie’s lost in thought you can see it all over her face. When we grow up we learn to hide our efforts a little better and hope that nobody can see how hard we try for what little we understand.
“You give up?” she asks (dismissing my previous guess).
“I give up.”
“I’m a Perch,” she says and then makes a few more fish sounds as if those were all the clues I needed.
Patrick brings out the banana split and puts it down on the table between us and leans two pink plastic spoons against the dish. He’s proud of the creation. He had set it down with a little flourish that might have been accidental because he looks embarrassed right away and speeds back behind the counter and puts his head phones in without acknowledging Katie’s thank you or mine.
It’s a marvelous spectacle. We pause in admiration before Katie picks up her pink spoon and looks at me and lets out a little giggle. She wants me to get my spoon too so we can ‘cheers’ our spoons together and then take bites at the same time. I torture her a bit, reaching for the spoon in slow motion before finally picking it up. Katie laughs hard at her own excitement, then hums in pleasure, and sneeks a guilty peak at me while she eats the first bite; a big clean scoop of whip cream.
“Your dad brought me here one time and we ordered a banana split,” I said.
“When you were little?”
“Did it have sprinkles?”
“Lots of sprinkles and lots of whip cream. I ordered it just like you.”
“He only brought you here once?” She couldn’t possibly remember him. But she looks for ways to love him anyways.
“He probably brought me here lots, but I only remember the one time.”
“I’m not going to forget any of our times,” she says. And she probably won’t.
“You’re much smarter than I was at your age,” I tell her.
She looks me square in the eyes then and I know she’s trying to see me at her age. She wants to calculate the value of my compliment. I don’t know if I was very smart as a kid, but I remember being happy.
She finishes her calculations of my compliment and finds her way back to the ice cream. Her spoon is loaded to max capacity and she holds it up high to make a show of it. I smile my approval and then a chunk falls back to the bowl making both of us laugh. I laugh a lot with Katie. We could giggle at anything. A child’s kind of laughter, I decide, and then I wonder if that laughter leaves us when we grow up or if it just gets buried by stuff and becomes harder to find.
The ding-dong of the door fills the shop and this time Patrick hears it and gets down from the counter. I watch him suffer a brief paralysis as he is struck by the beauty that enters.
Without looking at her I can tell that she had entered carefully by the hesitant clicks and pauses of her heels. I look up at her and can see that she’s beautiful and that she’s conflicted; as if coming here had been a great idea that suddenly didn’t feel right anymore.
The girl appears to be in her late twenties, about my own age, and is dressed in professional clothing. High heels, black slacks, white blouse, and a long black coat with a golden buckle. Her profile is all I could get while she eyes the ice cream. It’s a lean and smooth slope from her forehead down to the tip of her nose. Her lips and chin are small, pretty, carefully shaped features. With her left hand she reaches up and pushes some dark brown hair behind her left ear, then leans over her purse to find enough money for her cup of ice cream. She pays, drops her change in the tip cup, turns her whole frame towards me, and walks self-consciously and somehow sweetly to a table once removed from us. She is behind me. I can’t see her. But I saw her. And I was impressed.
Katie’s impressed too. Like most little girls she’s fascinated by older girls. Especially the pretty ones. Katie’s gaze is securely anchored on this new beauty.
‘Katie,’ I said.
‘Katie,’ I say it a little sharper and my niece pulls anchor with absent obedience. She looks at me and smiles thoughtfully and digs her spoon back into the ice cream but doesn’t scoop anything out. She’s deep in transparent thought. The sideways sun lights up her brown eyes and olive skin; a perfect combination of mother and father. I wait patiently for her thought to percolate and then trickle down to her lips.
“She shouldn’t have ice-cream by herself,” Katie says.
“Do you want to ask her over?”
“I want you to do it.”
I’m not nearly as okay with this as I try to sound. But having a cute little smiling niece gives a boy a certain social license that he does not otherwise have. I turn in my chair and open my body as much as the chair would allow. My chronic neck pain flares up and I hope I don’t look as awkward and terrible as I feel.
It works. She looks up. I think about what she sees when she looks at me in my big plaid coat and my unshaven face. I’m tall, and healthy, and not unliked by most girls; but I’m obviously not a professional kind of person (read: poor) and that can scare a certain kind of girl.
“My niece and I thought that you might come and eat your ice-cream with us if you’d like?” I put a high pitched question mark sound on my last word and it sounded like a bad British accent. Talking is impossible sometimes.
“Oh,” she says. I assume she’s brewing a refusal and I feel a mixture of pain and relief.
“Are you sure?” she continues.
“Of course,” I say and smile, then turn around to let her walk towards us without having to endure my stare.
Our table has four seats. She takes the one beside me, diagonal from Katie. She still has her coat on but she unbuckles it when she sits and it opens up and I look her over without getting caught.
“Ice-cream is for fun so you should always get to eat it with other people.” Katie says. She has a suprising knack for these ancient sounding wisdoms.
“My name is Ryan and this is my niece Katie.”
She smiles at Katie and offers her name, “I’m Jess.”
“Are you having ice cream to celebrate a good day or to try and fix a bad one?” I ask. The question entered my head and exited my mouth before I could stop it. It hung heavily in the air now like a rain cloud.
“Don’t ask serious things uncle Ryan!” Katie scolds me and relieves the silence. For Katie, any moment spent with a beautiful older girl is an important learning opportunity. She doesn’t want me screwing it up. I don’t want me screwing it up either.
“I’m fixing a bad one uncle Ryan,” Jess concedes. She seems relieved and a little sad when she says it. Her eyes relax. They’re round and warm and light brown like Katie’s.
“Uncle Ryan thinks you’re pretty,” Katie says, and then looks at me. I grin back at my niece, determined to take this comment in stride.
“Well thank you uncle Ryan.” This is not the first compliment Jess has ever heard.
There is the briefest of pauses before Katie continues, “I think you’re pretty too,” which is what Katie wanted to say the first time, but she needed to test it first.
“You’re the prettiest girl I’ve seen all day Katie.”
Katie melts into her chair now and smiles. The compliment is too much for her to take sitting up. Then it gets quiet while we all sense that the greeting has been successful and there is enough comfort to take a bite of ice cream.
I concentrate hard on my spoon to take a normal and successful bite. I feel like I’ve never used a spoon before. Once the bite is in my mouth I work it slowly and cook up seven or eight safe and pleasant questions. Then I swallow and let myself ask something dangerous.
“Do you mind if I ask what kind of problem the ice cream is meant to fix?”
Katie sits up again. She had no idea how dumb I could be. Somehow she manages to glare at me without changing the expression on her face. I can’t believe she’s only seven.
I try to save myself, “Of course you don’t have to if-“
Jess cuts me off, “I don’t mind. A few things I guess. Nothing original. Life.” She says it and then smiles politely.
“Oh,” was all I could muster. I don’t know what I wanted to hear or how I planned to handle her response; but when she said ‘life’ it sounded big and familiar and I felt the word go straight to my stomach like a punch. It was the way she said it. She sounded somewhere between getting better and giving up. Which is a big, dark and fragile place to be. I knew that place. I knew that bad things happened, and that they could be hard to explain, and that explaining them didn’t make them go away.
I change the subject.
“Katie, you should tell Jess what you want to be when you grow up.”
Katie is suddenly shy but Jess is interested.
“What do you want to be Katie?” Jess asks.
“A unicorn,” Katie says, utterly serious.
“Wow Katie. That’s ambitious,” Jess responds, equally serious. I could see Katie repeating the word ‘ambitious’ in her head so that later she could ask me what it means.
“And if the unicorn thing doesn’t work out for some reason what will you be?” Jess asks.
“A doctor,” Katie says, as if it weren’t important. How could she not be a unicorn?
“That’s a good back up plan,”
Katie looks satisfied and we all get back into our ice cream.
Jess is a beautiful girl by anyone’s standards. And she’s easily the most beautiful girl to sit down with Katie and talk about unicorns. It suddenly occurs to me that sometime between the moment she walked in, and the moment in which I am presently taking breath, I have become overwhelmingly smitten with her. The feeling scares me. I see my heart in pieces on the floor.
I look up from my thoughts and think I see Jess crying. I’m looking hard at her and Katie’s looking soft at her and Jess looks up at us both and says “Sorry.” Then she puts a hand over her eyes, leans over her ice cream, and gives in to the tears. I feel, in my stomach, a responsibility to say something that will make everything better and maybe make her love me at the same time.
“You shouldn’t be sorry,” I say, and know, immediately, that it isn’t enough, isn’t close to being enough, that being sorry or not being sorry isn’t important at all.
Now we’re all sitting here in a silence barely fractured by the soft sound of her tears. I’m looking at Katie because that seems like the safest place to wait this thing out. Waiting it out, is what I I am resolved to do, figuring that the next thing I say will probably make everything worse. Katie’s eyes are big and a little confused but unworried. Tears are still an everyday thing for her.
While we sit in the waffle scented silence I don’t think about times that I had cried, times when bad things made life feel like too much, but I feel myself knowing what those times were like because they have become a part of my fabric. My personality was forged in bad-luck tragedies. A lot of personalities are. People had been there for me. I know what that feels like. I know how important it is. And it occurs to me now how simple it can be.
I reach my hand over and I put it tenderly on the back of Jess’s neck. I push my thumb down and massage a little on the place where I guess the stress is building.
Gently, but without whispering, I say to Jess, “You cry as long as you want. We want to stay if you want us to stay. But we’ll go if that sounds better to you.”
Without pausing to think or speak Jess leans the small distance towards me and pushes her face hard into my chest and sobs. I wrap my arm around her and hold the side of her face with my hand and push my cheek down on top of her head.
We sit there like that while our ice cream melts. There are Jess’ sobs and in between her sobs there is the wobbly hum of the fan. The boy behind the counter watches us for a while and then walks down to the end of the counter and through a door marked ‘employees only.’
Katie sits still and watches Jess with the young shameless eyes of a child, eyes that are always learning. I smile at her with my tired, cloudy, older eyes. I want my smile to tell her that this is what life will be like sometimes and that it isn’t that bad. That life can be hard but there is beauty in it and there is closeness; and that the most important things we do are often small and simple. Katie smiles back at me with such ease and understanding. She’s so young, but she already knows so much.