I took a re-visit to this one as well. Looking at writing from my college years makes me look forward to comparing my writing from then to my writing now. I’m confident it will have changed. For better or worse, I’m not sure.
Ice Cream Sundaes
Max squeezed his younger sister’s hand as sweat collected at his collar. At the age of twenty-two, he never thought they’d be burying his mother before they buried his grandmother.
“Kathleen was loved by many,” the minister was saying. Max drew his breath in. “Leaving behind her children,” he continued, “they will surely struggle, but through their struggles they will realize the strength their mother carried through hers…” Max looked down at his sister’s blonde ponytail. Staring at her round chin and blue eyes and china skin, he could have been looking at a younger version of their mother. She looked back up at him, narrowing her eyes as if telling him to pay attention. He looked back toward the preacher, who was continuing, “Losing her husband at a younger age, such a sudden loss, with two children, she is an example to us all for making the best of what you have…”
Max’s grandmother shifted in her seat, fanning herself with her leaflet. She glanced over at Max. He scratched his neck. This was all going incredibly slowly, he thought; best to get it over with. Everyone else seemed incredibly patient. But they weren’t the ones who had found her in the garage, they weren’t the ones who had tried to pull her out to fresh air when it was already too late. If they had been, they wouldn’t want to be sitting here either, being suffocated by her selfishness while the minister went on and on about how strong and great she was. If these people believed her death had been an accident, they were fools. And if they looked to her for how strong she was, they were fools twice over, Max thought. He didn’t believe for one second that his mother could have been looked to as an example for anybody, at least not after his father died.
It seemed to Max that the last time his mother had shown any genuine kindness had been on a family trip to the beach when Max was five. Max could remember staring at the wood of the boardwalk as another kid walked by with untied shoelaces and a droopy smile. The boy walked between the ice cream shop and t-shirt store, staring into each before spinning one complete circle and walking towards the other. Max’s mom had watched this boy for five minutes, and then marched towards him.
“Excuse me,” she said, kneeling to the boy’s level. “Where’s your family? Your friends? Do you know where they are?”
The boy had shaken his head, scrunching his eyes and cheeks and bursting into tears. Max scurried after his mother as she led the boy inside the ice cream shop. The boy was in Max’s mother’s arms, her hand stroking his hair while she spoke softly to him, “It’s okay, we’ll find them, we’ll find them for you, they can’t be far. And while we wait, we’ll eat hot fudge sundaes!” The boy rubbed his hands across his eyes and swept the tears off his cheeks. Max huddled up beside his mother at the counter and she had put her arm across his shoulders while he tipped his chin up to rest on the counter.
“Three hot fudge sundaes, please!” She had called to the server. “With extra toppings!” Max had smiled in spite of the fact that his mother was holding a strange boy and not him, since she was buying all of them ice cream, and they had sat down to eat. Within minutes, a woman with frazzled red hair spun through the door, clutching her purse and calling for Caleb. The small boy had jumped up, leaping towards the woman and grasping on to her leg. The woman had bent down, frizzed hair flipping upside down, and grabbed the boy under the armpits, pulling him up and tossing him up and down like a toddler. “My baby!” she cried, cuddling him close. Max’s mother had watched this from their table twenty feet away. The red-haired woman gave her a glance and a small wave, as if to say thank you, before hurrying out the door to greet a man with equally frizzy brown hair and show him her prize.
Max carefully spooned ice cream and fudge and sprinkles and brownie pieces into his mouth as he watched his mother toss her ice cream and the boy’s in the trash. She sat across from Max patiently as he finished, licking every last drop in the blue plastic blue. When he looked up at her she reached across and messed his hair, giving him a smile.
When Max was done they had headed toward the designated family meeting spot. His father and sister weren’t there yet, and so his mother sat on a bench while Max hummed and ran with his arms spread, pretending to be an airplane.
Max had spotted lights flashing and heard sirens at the end of the boardwalk. He poked his mother, who said “what, honey? Let’s not be nosy,” so he hopped up himself and made his way down toward the sirens. An ambulance with flashing lights skidded into the scene, stopping just at the bottom of the ramp to the boardwalk. Max’s mother had begun running after him, calling him back, but it was his turn for excitement.
He came to a stop, panting.
“MAX!” His mother came up beside him, stopping short as she saw the scene in front of her eyes: Her husband, laid out on a stretcher, their four year old daughter at his side, gripping his hand, and her mother speaking with a man in a dark blue outfit, a silver badge shining off his chest as the sun hit him.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he was saying, “you’ll need to contact the immediate family members. We can let you ride to the hospital, but maybe they’ll want to hear this from you.”
At that moment the grandmother looked up, spotting Max’s mother, her purse flung to the ground, Max left standing in the crowd of people that was quickly gathering on the boardwalk, on the sand, and in the street.
“No!” his mom yelled, “NO!”
“Kathleen,” his grandmother started, “I’m sorry, Kathleen, it’s okay, it will be alright. We need to ride to the hospital…”
“No!” she screamed again. She knew her husband was gone just by looking at him: the frozen face, the limp arms, the pale lips. She knew his bad heart and poor eating habits had gotten the best of him.
Max felt a tug on his hand, and his eyes snapped back to his sister, his mind once again at the funeral. It looked like his mother was looking up at him, with those blue eyes. Since his sister had gone to boarding school, she had escaped the last years of his mother’s “struggle,” the anxiety attacks, the depression, the crash into bed that brought almost every night to a close.
“Let’s join in prayer for Kathleen, and the loved ones she has left behind,” the minister pressed on.
Max lowered his head as his sister lowered hers, suddenly angry at his father. If he had taken care of himself, he wouldn’t have had a heart attack, and his mother would have been fine, and none of this would have ever happened.
For months after his father’s death, his mother had slept in till noon, snacked on peanut butter and chocolate all day, and neglected to check her children’s homework or make them a proper dinner. Max would roll out of bed every morning, pour cereal for himself and his sister, and make them sandwiches for school. At promptly 8:45 am their grandmother would show up, and carry them off to school. While they were gone their grandmother returned, and put their cereal bowls in the dishwasher and made their beds. She would fix lunch for their mother, who spent most of her time watching soap operas and pretending to go through their father’s belongings to package them or give them away. Yet the piles in the attic remained the same day in and day out.
At 3:30 their grandmother would pick them up at school, sign them out in the office’s login book and take them home to prepackaged dinner. “Kathleen, aren’t you going to the PTA meeting tonight?” their grandmother would remind their mom every Thursday, but the answer was always a resounding “no, it’s been too long of a day.”
The woman behind Max tapped him on the shoulder. It was a friend of his grandmother’s.
“Are you okay, son?” she asked. Max shrugged her off and nodded, turning back to the hymnal. They were about to play his father’s favorite song, which had been used at his funeral too.
“Son,” she continued whispering, “It’s okay. It’s your mother’s funeral, you know, you can get upset.” Max shrugged her off again, turning back around. He had been to a funeral for a parent before, but last time he hadn’t understood it; he had been too young.
“Daddy’s in a better place,” his mom had said. “Angels took him to heaven.” Max and his sister had nodded, confused at the emptiness in the household, confused at their mother’s tears if their father was in such a better place.
The best place for them had been in the backyard, tossing around a baseball or a Frisbee. “Having a catch,” his dad called it. Max would wait for him every day to get home from work, so he could invite his dad out to the yard to have a catch. His dad never declined. After his dad was gone he invited his mother out for a catch sometimes, but she would only throw the ball twice before throwing down her glove and announcing she needed to go inside. One time, he had been practicing his batting, and hit a ball right into her shin.
“Max!” she had screamed, “THAT’S IT!” She had thrown down her glove and soaked in the bath the rest of the night; Max made cereal for dinner.
As Max had gotten older he had started cooking dinner for the three of them, moving from cereal to toast to salad to pasta. He no longer needed to worry about breakfast; his mother had finally started waking an hour before he did, and when he walked downstairs in the morning there would be toast and orange sitting on the counter. But by 6:30 at night, his mother could only stumble down for dinner, sitting at the table to eat and have another drink before stumbling into the family room to watch the 7pm news, at the end of which she always commented, “Depressing,” with a final click of the remote.
Max could remember in high school when his mother had finally gotten a part time job as a receptionist at the local hair salon, she would return home at 7pm with a cheery “What would you kids like for dinner?” but Max would already have food on the table. While his friends were out playing hockey in the street or basketball in their driveways, Max was checking his sister’s homework and making her a salad. When his mother got home, everything was done, and though she would offer food, she usually disappeared into her bedroom after saying hello.
When Max brought her ice cream later she would be stretched out on her bed, the TV blaring. Sometimes she would be on the phone with her mom, sniffling “I miss him” or stressing about which days she needed to work next week. By the time she got off the phone, or turned off the TV, she would be crying gently and breathing heavily, fearful of the upcoming days for what seemed to Max to be no reason at all. Max would set out her pajamas and her robe, fluff her pillows, and tuck back her covers. His sister, at school, was oblivious to this daily routine. When Max would talk to her on the phone she would ask, “How is she today?” and Max would simply reply “fine.”
There was another tug on Max’s hand, and he looked down to see his sister glaring at him again. What was her problem? He shook off her hand and stared down at his hymnal. The song wasn’t quite over yet. Max squinted at his sister and his grandmother, wondering if they thought his mother deserved this. They had always taken care of her, and this was the final act in that play. Once it was over, Max was free to go. Free to finish school far from home, free to play basketball with his friends instead of cook for the family. As soon as this hymn was finished, as soon as this day was done. Max shifted his grip on the hymnal and scratched his head. This was all going incredibly slowly.