He was having second thoughts, but even so, he yanked his keys from his belt clip. Herbert Abbots’ long, thin, fingers fumbled frenziedly as they pressed the fob button. The front car door locks clicked open. He gave it one more press and the back doors obediently followed suit. He stood still for a bit and studied the door handle as if to wonder at what its purpose was.
Herb was a tall lanky fellow in his mid-fifties. On this day he wore his favorite dark blue polo shirt, the one with the gator embroidered on the chest, and tan carpenter shorts. Today would be special, so he traded his usual open-toed sandals for his new Sketchers and ankle socks that his wife bought him last Sunday after church. He threw an old, battered suitcase onto the back seat of the Jeep and leaned in to adjust it, as if carefully buckling up a toddler in a car seat. The memory of his son, Jimmy, had for such a great length of time already been swimming wildly in his head. He rested an elbow on the top edge of the door, drew out his wallet, and stared at the faded, scuffed, and creased photo, not for the first time, but for the millionth time. The photo had, some twenty years ago, locked this joyful memory in time. He stared at Jimmy, who was shown seated in his blue Graco booster seat. We still have that in the garage. His fingers were wrapped tightly around an ice cream cone—strawberry, his favorite flavor—in his left hand and the grin he was wearing that sunny afternoon was as wide as the world. Jimmy’s left eye, squinted by the merciless sunlight, highlighted his long, black lashes. Herb shook the photo as if he had just found that he had the winning lottery ticket and carefully slid the photo back into his wallet and into his left rear pocket as if he were packaging the last piece of food that existed in the world. It had to last. It must. He took care of that photo as if that was the only one he had of his little boy. Indeed, it wasn’t, but it was by far his most prized one.
The separation from his wife had been hard on Herb but it was almost fatally devastating to Jimmy. Herb attempted more than once to apologize for messing around with the lady from the dollar store, but Jimmy understood it, even at his age. There was no good reason for what his father did, no, not one.
“I really do love your mom, son.”
“Right. You said that already.”
“I made a mistake. How long are you going to be ticked off at me?”
Jimmy shook his head. “Dad. Please don’t call me anymore. Alright? I need more time.”
It was the last time he had heard his son’s voice. That was a year and a half ago.
Jimmy had seen how his mother, a short, thin woman, suffered through the ordeal and all the while she tried to please her husband—even though she knew what her husband was doing behind her back—but her efforts failed, at least in the beginning. Jimmy had watched helplessly as his mother crumbled to the kitchen floor, weeping as her husband stomped out through the front door. The door made an alarming, shotgun-like crash that seemed to shake the living room. Jimmy was twenty years old then.
Herb pulled his door shut and set off on his five-hour interstate trek to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Jimmy was attending university and majoring in linguistics. Herb’s arms jerked at the sound of his cell phone ringing and put the phone on speaker.
“Are you actually going?” Ann said in a lovely telephonic voice.
“I have to try. I’m glad you finally forgave me, but Jimmy, he just…”
“I know. I know. But if you just show up, without calling him he probably won’t even answer the door. You know how he is.”
“I know he won’t answer my call. But he would answer the door, right? How can he resist ol’ daddy-o?”
“Herb,” she scoffed. “Call him. Text him. Let him know that you’re on your way. Do something.” Ann’s voice was rattled and worn. “Please.”
“Honey, I have to try. I gotta see him. I gotta make things right.” Herb pleaded. “Then call him.”
“Okay,” he said stubbornly.
She meant well, but Herb was not about to make another rejected call. He turned up the air conditioner and his phone made a slapping sound as he stuck it onto the magnet that clung onto the air vent. He adjusted the vent and half of the cool air swirled against his forehead. The other half fought against the cell phone that was blocking its path. Using an index finger, Herb wiped away the sweat from his upper lip and pondered the photo in his wallet.
The smell of strawberry ice cream filled his memory’s nose. He swore he could feel the hot plastic of the booster seat and the stainless-steel buckle of the seat belt reflecting the sunlight into his eyes as he pulled it across the child’s ice cream-splattered shirt.
“I love you daddy,” the tyke beamed. “But I looooooove straw-baby ice cream even more!” Jimmy tittered when his daddy shook a finger at him, spittle splashing daddy’s big hairy arm.
“Is that right, little punk?” Herb said in a spot-on Australian accent.
“Yeah. That’s right!” Jimmy blurted out in his own muddled version.
I taught him that. He liked doing foreign accents. I taught him how to say that.
Herb yanked his phone off the vent. The iPhone’s aluminum back casing now felt as cold as Jimmy’s strawberry ice cream in his trembly hand. He dug around on his phone for the texting app and clicked on the word-bubble icon. He typed in “Jimmy,” tapped in a few words, and added an attachment. He hesitated before pushing the arrow that would force it through cyberspace. What the hell, he thought, He doesn’t have to answer but he’ll see the message for sure. And with his lips pursed up in half-regret, he pressed the arrow anyway.
It was almost three o’clock. Jimmy was in his Italian class when he received the text. He sat slightly slumped at his desk in his Greta Van Fleet tee-shirt, blue jeans and unlaced Nike sneakers. He was blowing the strand of dark brown hair away from his eyes when he felt the phone vibrating in his front pocket. But he had to ignore it, for he knew that Professor Ossi would not tolerate one of his students veering off the rails of his explanation of the Rete Tranviaria di Firenze, even if only to check one tiny message. Jimmy was sure it was nothing anyway, probably just Bobby wanting to meet him at the batting cages again.
Hey, language nerd. Meet me at the BCs at 5. Gonna show you how it’s done.
But he couldn’t check his phone. Jimmy would not disrespect Mr. Ossi like that. He’d wait until class was over. Okay, yeah. He’d just wait.
And he did exactly that. Class soon ended and he hurried out the door. He eyeballed his father’s text and he turned off his phone, looking up at the ceiling as if searching for an answer to a question that he hadn’t asked. Bobby spotted him just outside the door and jostled him with an elbow. He asked Jimbo what he was smiling about. But the smile on his face transformed into a scrunched-up mass of wrinkled skin, twisted in thought. He shook his head vaguely.
“Oh, hey. Nothing. I’ll see you at five.”
“Cool. How did you know I was gonna ask?” said Bobby. “Doesn’t matter. Gonna kick your ass this time, nerdy-pants.”
Jimmy sighed and patted Bobby on the back. “On second thought, dude, I’ve got that group thing at the library today. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Don’t want to get your ass kicked again, huh? Okay. Whatever man.” Bobby walked away swinging an invisible bat, then stopped and turned around.
“Hey, nerdy-pants” he yelled.
Jimmy looked at him over his shoulder. “Yeah. What?”
“You gonna practice Italian with Big Bertha again? Watch out. I think she’s into you.”
“Shut your face, man!” Jimmy shook his head, more pronounced this time. Big Bertha. This dude cracks me up. Jimmy raised a middle finger behind his back as he sped away. His speed-walk slowed down to an ambled walk as he spotted a girl in the hallway that was nibbling sensually, at least in Jimmy’s mind, on a strawberry. No, it wasn’t Bertha. This girl wasn’t Hollywood’s definition of beautiful, but she was amazingly striking. She had hair the color of butterscotch that seemed to dance on her shoulder tops with each light step that she took. She winked with curled lashes and pursed her lips at him as she floated by, apparently delighting in the attention.
Jimmy’s smile grew even bigger. He clicked his phone back on and read the message again, immediately forgetting about the girl.
It was four thirty-two, and he was almost in Albuquerque. He clicked his phone on, cringed, and called himself an idiot as he re-read the message he had texted to his little boy.
I’ll be there at your place by 5-ish. If you don’t want to see me, just let me know. Just leave me a sign and I’ll leave. I’ll understand, son. -Photo attached. Yeah, that’s right!!!!! (Aussie accent) :)
The driveway that led up to Jimmy’s rental was aged and stricken by the sun. Eager desert weeds shot out from the cracks and a lizard darted across it, barely missing the Jeep’s front tires and the end of its life. Herb fought the door open and stumbled out of the car on his seemingly frozen legs. He stretched and turned his torso to the left. The crackle of his back surprised him. Damn, I’m too old for this crap.
He pushed the door shut, took a step, and heard a crunch under his shoe. An image of a giant cockroach sprung up from the basement of his mind. What the heck is this? He lifted his foot and whatever it was crackled and dripped under his Sketcher. Roach guts? But it was not a roach or even a lizard but rather something tan and pink and within the pink part there existed several red lumps.
Is that ice cream?
The tears came down Herb’s face. His eyes blurred and his knees grew weak when he saw them. Cones had been strategically placed in the yard. Small sugar cones. Large waffle cones. One in each of the planters. One balancing in the wind chimes. One on each side of the door jamb. Each of them was filled with strawbaby ice cream and each of them was littered with bumpy little chunks that glistened in the western sunlight.. And there, on the front door, was a sheet of notebook paper held up by a cut of Scotch tape. The sign was scribbled in blue crayon,
YEAH. THAT’S RIGHT! :)