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Afternoons and Ice Creams
written by: A Stump
A million billion golden sundrops danced on the surface of the lake like so many pyrite flakes teasing the eyes of a gold-fevered prospector from the puddle of his pan. Glinting quartz crystals speckled the burning sandy beach, massaging Mike’s feet toward the cooling waters of Mexico Bay. Ontario might be just a lake, but to a boy or anyone living hundreds of miles from the coast, it was an enormous sea. A sea filled with fish and shipwrecks and tentacled monsters as yet undiscovered. But all that terror was trapped—locked below the glittering surface. That placid surface was adorned with a handful of sailboats and a few fishermen on smaller boats, all nestled safely above the fathoms-deep treachery of the nautical unknown.
From his vantage point on the beach, Mike could easily see over the rock jetty at the mouth of the Salmon River and take in the vastness of that great lake. His imagination carried him further down the coastline to the giant stone and earthen ramparts of Fort Ontario that he had climbed countless times, sitting on cannons and marching around like a revolutionary war hero. However, this stretch of beach seemed more like Robinson Crusoe territory, nevermind the small marina behind him or the peaks of house roofs peering over the treetops at him. A piece of driftwood, gray and sandy, lay before him. A paleontologist to the petrified remains, he studied it, prodding and poking and rolling it in the sand to see different angles. Surely, this was the jaw bone of a sperm whale or the figurehead of a pirate’s wrecked schooner.
Most Fridays in July were spent on this beach, building castles, swimming in the lake, exploring the wooded shoreline. Mike’s mom worked part-time at a school for troubled youth a few miles away and his dad would bring him here for the day while she worked. He tenderly peeled the burnt pink skin off of his shoulders all week long, anticipating a fresh blister or two each Friday. The itching and burning was no bother because Mike, like most upstate residents, worshipped the sun when it was present. The summer simply wouldn’t be complete until he had accumulated exactly fifty-seven freckles on his nose and a permanent rouge to his cheekbones that would stay put until at least the third week of September.
Squinting, he sat on a pile of rocks, digging his toes into the molten sand, tsking with his teeth until his feet were buried far below the surface. Deep in the distance, almost farther than eyes could see, he saw the vague outline of a cargo ship. It had to be massive. Perhaps eight or even nine hundred feet long. He had seen ships like that before, with giant forecastles four stories tall and belching smokestacks in the rear. This one wavered in the refraction of light and water, transfixing the voyeur until his eyes burned and began to water and the ship was no more.
“Mike!” the spell broken by either blurred vision or the call of his father, Mike turned to see his father on the grassy slope behind him. “Let’s go get some ice cream before we pick your mom up!”
Mike leaped from his rock pile and jaunted up the shore, stopping at the edge of the grass to pick up his flip flops. They hurried over to a plywood shack further down the grassy bank. As they approached the window, the strong smell of grease traps and salt-filled their noses so thoroughly, they could taste the French fries. After ordering, the two sat at a picnic table across from Abby Cochran. She was in Mike’s grade at school. The sun played with the golden strands hidden in her auburn hair. Her light brown eyes danced as she contemplated her strawberry-dipped vanilla soft serve. The summer freckles on her nose could give Mike a run for their money. Her mouth hadn’t quite grown to fit her adult front teeth, which accentuated a small, round chicken pox scar above her lip.
“Mint chocolate chip?” she asked Mike.
“That’s an old man flavor. Gross!” she scrunched her nose.
“Aw, shut up! What do you know, anyway? You’re not even eating real ice cream! That junk comes out of a machine.”
Abby started talking but, but Mike didn’t hear. He looked down at his hand. A tiny green drip had formed on the knuckle of his index finger. He bent his head down to lick it, careful not to tilt his ice cream and cause another lost drop. He did an “around the world” lick to catch all the warm July drips from the scoop settled on top, feeling each bump of pistachio nut with his tongue. Thirteen nuts on the surface of that scoop. He had never gotten so many before. He did one more lick just for good measure before he began performing surgery.
He lifted his cone up to eye level and gingerly began peeling the surrounding paper cone at its seam. Delicately removing it from the sugar cone like a geisha’s silk kimono, he suddenly crumpled it into a ball and dropped it beside his feet. Tilting his head down with his mouth up in a way that defied anatomy and physics, he bit into the very tip of the cone, crunching it and mashing it into the crevices of his molars. Now, the race was on. Most of Mike’s friends knew their way around an ice cream cone, but few had Mike’s precision and sense of timing to perfectly lick and bite the scoop on top and alternately suck the liquid from the bottom without letting a drop hit the ground.
This race inevitably left Mike with a stomach ache and brain freeze, but it was worth it. The pace could be slowed when the sugar cone was reached. The cone was always Mike’s favorite part, and one of the reasons he ate the ice cream so fast was because he hated a soggy cone. Crunch, nibble, munch; he worked like a chipmunk on a nut against the cone, savoring every morsel, not letting even a crumb go to waste.
Mike could read an ice cream cone like a book. After gnawing down two tiny rows from the top, it was time for the finisher. He tilted the cone up at an angle and took a huge bite out of the bottom point of the cone just as it started to sog. The hole left at the bottom revealed a perfect cylinder of ice cream that had been jammed in the cone by the scooper. Without hesitation, Mike sucked the entire lump of mint green ice cream into his mouth, chomping down on the pistachios within and immediately scrunching his eyes shut as he swallowed hard. His temples ached, and his green lips parted, baring clenched teeth. As quickly as the freeze had seized his head, it subsided. He popped the remaining cone in his mouth and crunched away as he bent down to pick up the crumpled paper at his feet.
He took one last look at the smooth surface of the lake. The angle of the sun had changed and where golden pirate doubloons once glinted on the surface of the lake, a hoard of treasured jewels now greeted him—ruby, amethyst, sapphire. The big ship out in the distance was long gone, but some of the sailboats were still gliding across the lightly tossing surface. As Mike stood up to leave, Abby called to him.
“Hey, Mike! I’ll see you at school after summer’s gone.”
“This will never be gone.”