After writing the story, I entered it in the 2009 Sean O'Faolain International Short Story Competition. There, in the wilds of Ireland, it fought past its competitor-stories with sufficient bravery and determination to earn a commendation. Since then, it has been enjoying a well-earned retirement. I have disturbed it now in the hope that you will enjoy becoming acquainted with it.
The Fallen Cone
When she was young, she lived near the shore of a very beautiful lake.
It was an almond-shaped lake, longer than the eye could measure, and so wide across that the far shore was barely visible--like a slight thickening or heightening of the horizon. The bottom lay not far down, which made the lake's surface turbulent, a mass of waves which, in the winter, and even into the spring, were a steely grey--to the girl's young eye, a cruel grey.
She felt this cruelty for the first time one cold Saturday or Sunday, when her family went out driving and, as on other drives, stopped for a short spell by the shore. Leaving the warm car, they watched, shuddering and shivering, as the waves pounded the shoreline’s coarse sand and rocks. Their vantage point stood at the edge of a municipal park, some way above the water and sand; while her older siblings pressed their faces over the cold metal railing marking the edge of the higher ground, she, not yet tall enough to do the same, held on from below with her mittened hands, gazing through her frosty glasses, her fair hair blowing in the wind.
To the left, a long wooden stairway led down from the high ground to the beach, its steps sheathed in ice. On milder days, as spring began to peek around corners, and the water turned from grey to green, the family would descend to pick up shells, examine the small, sharp stones and driftwood deposited by yesterday's wilder tides, step over tiny carcasses of dead fish. Always, on these days, on the way down the stairs and again on the way back up, the girl would turn for a moment--all of them would turn, her brother and her sister, too--and look down toward the park’s far end. There, a building stood, tiny, no more than a hut, and for now, shuttered and lifeless.
Then summer came. The parking lot by the park filled up with cars. Teenagers covered the sandy parts of the beach with towels and blankets, and tanned bodies, and played with balls, and frisbees … boys climbed on the rocks till they were halfway out into the lake … genteel older ladies strolled beneath umbrellas. In the middle of the park up above, a magnificent rose garden bloomed, in orange and pink and red, and combinations of these and other colors which resembled stripes-of-tiger and spots-of-leopard and who-knows-what-else. And at the park’s end, the windows of the little hut would one day, after interminable other days, open up, to reveal, and to serve forth unto the world, what had, it stood to reason, lain and languished all through the winter and spring imprisoned within: ice cream cones, and cups of ice cream, and ice cream sandwiches, and even ice cream bars.
Later, in her memory, the light on those days--the summer days--was always glistening brilliantly upon the lake’s waters, transforming the shapes lying on the beach, and those walking along it, changing their consistency, into something more transparent, composed only partly of matter, but partly of light; so that they seemed to move more slowly, and more gradually, or to move only those discontinuous parts of themselves that were matter, which would then mix with the next rays of light along their path; or, in the case of those things that were not moving, to lie unmoving with greater tranquility, and less reality; while the sounds too, of radios and surf and gulls and laughter, were altered, flying quickly away into the air or over the water, and becoming a part of the glittering stillness.
Amidst this stillness, in the foreground of her memories, walked her sister and brother--and sometimes her mother or father, or both--but especially she, herself. On those Saturdays or Sundays, or Tuesdays or Fridays or Mondays--because in the summer each day is the same--she walked along the shore, surrounded by her family, carrying in her two hands, like a crown or like a nightingale's egg, an ice cream cone, or bar or sandwich … some treasure which lent to that day, and to the whole summer, its final perfection.
Now, she is no longer young. Now, she is closer to fifty than to forty, and it is many years since she lived near the lake.
First, there was the suburb she and her husband moved to, further away. And then the city, more than an hour’s plane ride away, where they moved two years ago. For two years, she has not been back to her childhood home.
A week ago, however, she flew there. She got a week off from work, spent it with her father. Now, she is returning. She is at the airport. The airport's sliding doors have opened to her, she's outside, her cell phone rings, it's her husband, he's almost there. She hurries to the curb, pulling her bag behind her, looking down the line of cars for him.
The light glares into her eyes. The day is oppressive, hot, with a whitish sky. Her glasses have already fogged up, it happened the moment she came through the sliding doors. The fog catches the glare, dazzling her. Her permed blonde hair, limp from the dry airplane, droops, damp, against her neck.
And here is her husband, shutting off the car, popping the trunk, opening the door, walking over. Gingerly, in the heat, he half-hugs her. She feels her blouse where his hand touches, her skin there is almost moist. He kisses her cheek, then stands back, wipes his own forehead. "Hot one …"
He's wearing an orange golf shirt, one she bought for him. Even washed out by the white light, it looks garishly bright against the colorless asphalt and concrete. He bends to pick up her bag. She sees a sweat stain down his back. He stands back up. His shirt's front seems to stick out further than it did a week ago.
She wipes her glasses against her sleeve, puts them on again. He is definitely fatter. "Been eating out?" Her voice is deliberately casual.
His pink face breaks into a grin as he lowers his eyes to his stomach. He looks guilty, and slightly foolish. "Every night."
She regrets buying him a shirt that color.
They get into the car, ramble up a ramp to the highway, speed away. Ugly, uninhabited swaths of city, separating the airport from the neighborhood where they live, spread out before them. The quiet noise of the car’s engine is drowned out by the blasting of the air conditioner.
"Good flight?" he asks.
"It was fine," she sighs. The air blasts, but the car is still hot.
"I don't know," she says. She sits quiet a moment. "I'm feeling guilty."
At first he seems not to hear her. Then he repeats, "Guilty?"
She frowns, though he can't see it. Of course she's feeling guilty. "For leaving," she explains the obvious.
He puts a hand on her thigh. "It's all right, honey. I can get by for a--"
"No, for leaving dad."
"Oh." His hand feels stiff on her leg.
"He didn't look good, and I don't think Bob and Jean check in on him enough."
"Sorry …" he pats her thigh. "I'm sure he'll be fine, though."
He removes his hand to steer the car around a bend in the highway.
The air inside the car is impossibly wet, it's as if the air blowing from the vents can't penetrate this other, heavier, wetter air. Her eye drifts to the clock. Five o'clock.
"What's left in the fridge?" she asks.
He clears his throat. "I don’t really know," he says. "I didn't really check, I guess."
"Well, is there anything left for dinner?"
"Oh yeah," he says brightly. "I'm pretty sure there is."
They're halfway home now, driving through an industrial area. Looked at with a fresh eye, she thinks, the city, the part of it they're driving through anyway, really is ugly. Factories, warehouses … not a human in sight. No sign of life.
"It's so hot," she says.
"Yup," he replies. "Been like this every day. Brutal." He tries to turn up the air conditioner. It's already at its highest setting.
"Let's stop for an ice cream," she suddenly exclaims.
He replies just as quickly: "Really?"
"Yeah." She smiles. "We can stop at the place around the corner from the Chinese place."
"Okay." He puts his hand back on her thigh. "Let's do it."
He orders an orange sherbet, two scoops, exactly the color of his shirt. She gets mint chocolate chip. The first taste is perfect, wonderfully refreshing. It's her favorite.
Her father's, too.
They half-lean against the hot car, standing in the little parking lot of the little ice cream shack, about a mile from home.
"I don't think he’s going to be fine," she says.
"Your dad?" He licks his sherbet. "Sure he will."
"I don’t think so." She looks down. "I don't think …"
"I'm worried he's not going to--"
"No … come on , honey, why do you--"
"I wish we still lived closer. Why can't we live closer?"
"Well," he says, "… maybe one of these days."
She looks up. "Really?"
"You know, it just ... depends on the company."
Some teenagers drive into the parking lot, too fast, coming within a few feet of where she is standing. She turns to glare after them, when she hears her husband say, "Oops!" She turns back. There’s a dark orange spot on the stomach of his shirt. He’s spilled his sherbet.
"What did you do?" she clicks her tongue.
"Surprised me," he whines.
She hurries up to the window of the ice cream shack, where the teenagers are standing, taking their time ordering. Now you slow down? she fumes.
When they are done, she gets a cup of water, and dips a napkin into it, walking back to the car. She dabs at the spot on her husband’s shirt. "Cold feels good," he says. He laughs, and squirms.
She hears herself. It sounds as if she’s talking to a child. Which, practically, she is. What kind of grown man gets a big orange stain on the big stomach of his stupid … ice-cream colored shirt? She rubs furiously.
"Ow," he says. Then he laughs again. "Oops."
She looks down. Somehow, she has dropped her own ice cream. She looks accusingly at her open fingers--how could they have let the cone slip?--and then back to the ground. The cone is lying on the asphalt, still intact. A few inches away lies the green ball of ice cream.
Forward springs her husband. He retrieves ice cream and cone from where they lie, not far away from a cigarette butt and a crushed red-and-white Coke cup. In a few seconds, he has shoved the one into the other, stood back up, offered them to her. "Five-second rule," he smiles. "No harm done."
She looks at the ice cream, shakes her head. "I'm done with it."
"Aw, come on."
"I'm done with it," she turns away. Little tears have come to the corners of her eyes.
"Geez," he says, behind her. "You’re welcome."
She takes a few wobbling steps away from the car, puts her open hand over her mouth. She bites down on the skin of one finger. Silently, she is crying.
Why is she crying?
Can you cry from disgust?
But why would he even offer that to her? She doesn’t want any ice cream that's fallen onto the asphalt next to some nasty old cigarette.
She doesn't want to be eating ice cream on the asphalt, period. He really ought to understand that.
Why can't he understand that?
When she lived by the lake, they ate ice cream by the lake. That's where you eat ice cream. Not in a parking lot.
Not like this.
A moment later, she turns back. Her husband is leaning against the car again, licking his lips, a cone in each hand. On his face is a slightly guilty, but entirely happy, expression.