by John Whittier Treat
Michael remembered watching his mother Betty from a distance, as if she wasn’t his mother at all but somehow a stranger to him. It was summer, a hot day, and Michael was no more than four or five. The two of them were at the public beach on the big lake in their small New Hampshire town. His mother was sitting, legs folded underneath her, on a towel next to him.
A Good Humor truck arrived with its familiar jingle and stopped along the busy road at the edge of the park. Michael ignored it at first. He knew there was little chance of his mother agreeing to buy him something. He’d gotten the message early in life, without it ever being said in so many words, that there wasn’t much money to spare in their family. Michael played with his pail and shovel. The sun was high in the sky and hurt his eyes when he looked out over the water, where older boys were playing with a beach ball. Their bodies were big, and Michael already wished he had one like theirs.
“Mommy, can I have some ice cream?” he asked, defeated by his desire. She adjusted her sunglasses and said nothing.
Where was his brother back then? He must have been with him and his mother, but Michael could not remember him being there.
“Mommy, I really want some ice cream.”
“Be quiet, you just had your sandwich. We’re not having any ice cream.”
Two of the older boys ran past them, kicking up sand that flew into Michael’s face.
His mother didn’t notice. She looked deep in thought. Michael didn’t think he should nag her again, so he went back to playing. That’s when his mother got up, bent over to pick up her woven straw beach bag, turned, and started to run up the hill. She was headed in the direction of the ice cream truck. She was halfway to the road when Michael stood up as well and started after her, as if she were running away from him never to return.
She was nearly to the road, her flip-flops making a slapping noise on the asphalt pathway, when her feet reached concrete sidewalk. The little jingle resumed flowing out of the loudspeaker on the ice cream truck’s roof. Michael’s mother ran faster and raised her right arm to wave, trying to attract the driver’s attention. But the driver stepped on the gas and started to ease out into traffic. Michael could hear his mother shout, “Wait, wait!” She was going to get him ice cream. Maybe for herself, too. “Wait, wait!” But the truck found a space between two moving cars and sped onto the road leading away from the lake and into town. Michael stood in place but his mother kept running. He realized the truck wasn’t going to stop before she did. His mother wanted to spend her money on a special treat for them, but they weren’t going to get it.
Life is unfair, Michael would think to himself years later whenever he remembered this. If only his mother had moved faster, or the truck slower.
Michael swung his red pail back and forth with his left arm and went back to the sand. By the time his mother had walked back to her towel, his eyes were fixed once more on the big sturdy boys in the water tossing their beach ball. A few minutes later, his mother fished a last stick of spearmint gum out of her bag and asked if he wanted to share it with her.
Years later he was in a windowless basement room with a dozen folding chairs arranged in a circle. On each chair sat a man. No one was young and no one was old. They were here because they had been recently diagnosed and had come to talk about it. Talking would help, they had been told. But there wasn’t much talk, except from the Latino guy who coped with his terror by drowning it out with noise from his mouth. But Michael could only think, there are twelve of us here inside and a South End world of healthy people outside. Walking home from work. Going to movies with friends. Rushing to catch the bus. Buying detergent to do laundry. Or standing in line for an ice cream cone which, if only they were patient, they would certainly get.
Life is unfair. What had he done that others hadn’t? Nothing. Everything he ever did with other men, maybe they had too. Every one of us had wanted the touch of another. We convinced ourselves we deserved it because it had taken so long to find one another. Maybe everyone considered, if only for a moment, being cautious; but caution hadn’t a chance in hell. And so we shared.
Now it was time to share with eleven strangers. The Latino was babbling on, first about Kurt Cobain’s suicide yesterday and then about the impossibility of telling his family about his test results. You have a family? Michael thought. Be grateful. I am alone, Michael wanted to say. Life is not fair. I shared and now will never share anything that comes out of me again. Michael stayed silent.
An hour later they stacked the chairs in the corner and climbed the stairs out of the basement. Michael stood shoulder to shoulder with two of the other men on the sidewalk in the late evening dusk, as if none of them had anywhere to go next.
“Do you ever think how life is unfair?” Michael said to neither of the men in particular. Michael was staring at the traffic driving by on busy Tremont Street, all these people in cars with destinations. He turned to face the two men, whose names he had already forgotten, and added, “Let’s go get some ice cream. My treat.” They both mumbled, no, not really in the mood. Thanks anyway. Looks like rain.
A week later, when they assembled again in the windowless room, Michael would think again that life was unfair, but with the recent realization that an unfair life is better than none at all. Progress, he would say, trying to humor himself. The Latino wouldn’t show up that night. His chair would be taken by someone new, someone who would tell the group about the bad news he gotten two days ago. The new guy might also be thinking life is unfair. He’s right, Michael would agree. It isn’t. Michael would decide to offer to buy the new guy some ice cream when their meeting was over. For the next hour, every tortured minute of it one fewer minute of the reduced number allotted him, he would do little but hope that that damned Baskin-Robbins would still be open when they got there.
John Whittier Treat is the author of the award-nominated novel, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House. His short story, “The Pond,” was published in the August 2018 issue of A&U, and received the Christopher Hewitt Award in fiction.