2 Short Stories: ‘Are You Okay?’ and ‘No Thank You,’ by Alan Rice

Here are TWO short stories by Alan Rice. Alan teaches Advanced Placement Literature and Composition and has had several publication successes. Learn more at the end in the ‘About the Author’ section.

Are You Okay?

by Alan Rice

The bus turned into its space in the garage and hissed to a stop.  The boy was already awake; he hadn’t really slept since about two that morning, despite his intentions.  He had his phone and camera bag; that was it.  The other passengers, mostly middle-aged, were up at once and pulling on their coats, smiling and chatting.  He couldn’t tell if they were all of one group; they seemed to know each other, but then maybe they had just become acquainted on the ride down from Connecticut.  He was the only teenager and didn’t know anyone. They smiled at him, and he smiled back, trying to look friendly.  The mood was cheerful.

Once outside, the driver opened up the side panel for the luggage.  Except there wasn’t any luggage; one of the women—a rather round, particularly enthusiastic woman—was handing out large cardboard signs stapled to strips of lumber.  “End Gun Violence,” some read.  “Stop the Insanity.” “Listen to the Kids.” “March for Our Lives.”  Most looked hand-made, but many were obviously printed.  The boy felt a little sad that he hadn’t thought to bring something, but then that he had his camera.  He couldn’t hold a sign and take pictures at the same time.  Besides. He wasn’t a protester.  He was . . .  

“And where are you from?” a woman asked him.  She looked to be about sixty, her gray hair tied back and covered with a bandana. “We didn’t see you get on.” She smiled at him. He felt momentarily angry; he didn’t want to talk to anyone, explain who he was or why he was there, but he didn’t want to be rude.  

“Hartford,” he said.  “Near Hartford.” 

“Are you with a group?  From your school?”

“Uh—” He hesitated. She was only trying to be friendly, not nosy, but there weren’t any other students. Say something that would keep her happy, he thought.  She’ll want to know why.  Or why not?  “No, not exactly.  I just wanted to come.  I . . .” He couldn’t finish; instead, he tried to think of a way to answer her question without telling her anything.  

“Well, we’re here.” A tall man, also gray-haired and wearing an LL Bean jacket and grinning, was standing beside the woman.  Her husband. 

“Well, where’d you think?” she answered, which seemed kind of rude but she said it with a smile, so the boy assumed that it was some kind of inside joke.  Turning to the boy, she said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”  Again, she was friendly, but not too pushy. Or condescending. He liked that. He’d forgotten his anger.

“Steve,” he said.

 “I’m Marjorie,” said the woman. and she put out her hand. Then, over her shoulder to her husband, “Steve’s from Hartford.” 

“Hi, Steve.  I’m John,” and he shook Steve’s hand.  “Are you here alone?” 

“Well, yeah. I’m . . .”

“You’re a photographer?” John asked.

“Uh, yeah.  Sort of.”

“On assignment?” Why would he say that? Did he look like, what, a reporter?

“Well, sort of.  I’m. . .” He swallowed. “I’m taking some pictures for the paper. The school paper.”

The man nodded. “It’s nice to see someone using a real camera, not just a cell phone.”

“Yeah, well.  Thanks.” His camera was in the bag, the one his mom had given him for Christmas that year, with “Sony” conspicuously on the flap.  He almost made a move to conceal it or put his hand over the logo.

“Didn’t anyone else from your school come down?” Marjorie asked. 

Anger flared up in him again, and he had to beat it down, “Well, they were going to charter a bus, but not enough signed up, I guess.” 

What bullshit.  There was no charter. A couple of kids in Student Council had made some noise about doing it, but without the administration’s backing nothing came of it.  Steve had talked to a couple of his friends about going down together, but they backed out.  Or gave the usual “Sure” and then didn’t do anything. 

“I just found out about this one by accident, sort of.”

“Well, it was good of you to come,” said John. “You know, just being here, just your presence, is important. That’s what I always say.”

“Yes,” Marjorie chimed in. “The more of us, the better!” 

She meant well, Steve thought, but her enthusiasm set his teeth on edge. 

“Do you know where you’re going?” she asked.

“Well, not exactly, no.  I have an app on my phone, though. For directions.” 

“Well, that’s OK,” said John. “We’re going to try to meet up with our daughter.  She’s at Georgetown, and said she’d try to meet us near the FDR monument.”

“Do you want to come with us?” asked Marjorie, a little too eagerly.

“Gee, well, thanks, but . . .” Don’t be rude. Don’t be rude, he thought. But he couldn’t deal with the company now. “I don’t want to impose.”

“Look, tell you what,” John broke in. “Here’s my number.” He was already writing on the back of a business card. “You don’t have to use it, but here it is. Send us a text if you want.  I guess we’ll be going back on the same bus, but maybe my daughter will want us to stay, I don’t know. Anyway, here it is,” and he handed Steve the card.

“Thanks, maybe I will. Do you want…”

“Just send us some of your better pics.  We’d love to see them. We’ll catch up later.” John was smiling, and Steve felt relieved.  Maybe it was OK. He slipped the card into his jacket pocket and waved. “See you later,” he said, then he headed off in the direction of the staging area.

He thought angrily of the debacle of trying to get a group from the school to come down.  One, Marcy, who was always sincere about everything, had looked up at him with moist eyes and told him what a wonderful person he was to go to the march and that she’d be there, too. But her parents killed that in a hurry. If there was an explanation, Steve never heard it and didn’t really want to.  Sean and Robbie had said they would, too, but couldn’t afford it.  Then the rector at Steve’s church, Fr. Walter, came up with the money for the bus fare, a charter that some groups were using, and Sean and Robbie said they wanted to come but had to study, which Steve figured would be the first time that year.  So he had accepted Fr. Walter’s money and got on the bus by himself, camera bag slung over his shoulder. About three in the morning.  He took the camera thinking that he’d document the march and see if he could get the paper to publish it.  Mr. Rogers, the advisor, was pretty sympathetic but everything had to go past the administration and the new principal was a royal bitch. No other way to put it.  Terrified of upsetting anyone. A bitch and a coward. For sure.

His mom had not said much; he couldn’t tell if she didn’t want him to go but was allowing him to do what he wanted, or if it was something else. She was very quiet and gave him extra money and wrapped up a sandwich and some snacks for the trip, tucking them into the camera bag. And she drove him to the bus terminal.  And she hugged him goodbye.  She’s gotten so thin, he thought; and he was sure that he felt a suppressed sob as she held him just a moment longer than you might expect a mom to hold her nearly-grown son. He wanted to break free but couldn’t without somehow disappointing her, so he just kissed her cheek, which felt old and soft instead of merely smooth.

“Bye, Mom.  I’ll call.  Or text.”

“Do you know when you’ll be back?”

“About midnight. Maybe later.  I’ll call when we get close.”

“OK.”  Then another pause.  “Stevie, please be careful. Stay out of trouble.”

“Mom, it’s a march, not a riot. I’ll be OK.”

“I know.  It’s just . . . “

“It’s OK, Mom.  I’ll be careful.  I’ll call you.”

“Do you think you’ll be alright?”

There was a chill.  She tried to catch his eye, but he shuddered and tried to ease out of her embrace.

“I’ll be OK, Mom.  Really.”

She smiled the smile of the unconvinced and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“OK, then. Just—check in from time to time.  OK?”

“Sure. Mom.  Try not to worry.”

And he boarded the bus.

He had tried to sleep but hardly dozed.  He had tried to recognize landmarks along the way, but against the reflection in the windows, everything looked pretty much the same.  He tried to stay off his phone to save the battery; he didn’t know when he’d be able to charge it again.  

Then it was sunrise.  It almost felt as if they were driving into the morning, instead of the world lightening around him.  He sent a text to his mom, and when there was no immediate reply he turned off the phone. Two of the women on board were organizers of some sort; they brought out bags of various goodies and drinks and distributed them. When one of them, the one who seemed almost aggressively buoyant, came to Steve, he at first refused, but she softened a bit and said “Go on. It’s OK. Have a donut. And there’s some coffee, too. How do you take it? Black-no-sugar, I’ll bet.  Am I right?” By this time he was holding a large paper cup of decent coffee and there was a donut on a paper napkin on his lap, and he was almost smiling in spite of himself.  “You know,” the organizer woman said, “I have a boy about your age.  He’s away in college now, but you know, the first year he was there, there was a shooting at the local high school. Just a couple of blocks away. Only one person was killed, thank God, I mean it could have been much, much worse, but one is bad enough, and it upset him terribly. Well. I didn’t mean to upset you. Enjoy your coffee.  We’ll be there pretty soon.”

Where was her son at school? he wondered.  What shooting?  There had been so many.  He remembered reading somewhere that there had been about a hundred in the past ten years.  There had been one in Texas just a week or so ago; ten dead. It had become almost routine. He felt oddly unmoved, and that surprised him.  Why was he doing this?  His donut was thoughtlessly eaten; he swallowed his coffee.  They’d be there pretty soon. There was a carnival atmosphere on the bus with people as old as his mom and as enthusiastic as kids going to an away game, and he couldn’t wait to get off. He swallowed some more coffee.


And now, remembering how he had felt, it was again hard to think why he was here.  It was very crowded.  He found a quiet spot and quickly took out his camera and fitted it with the 18-200 mm zoom lens he thought might be most useful; not so good for long-distance shots, but OK for capturing the faces in the crowd. He looked around; it seemed that there were as many adults as students there, carrying signs and craning their necks, looking for street signs.  Some were taking pictures on their phones. The teenagers, the people his age, were texting or laughing with each other.  They were mostly white, he noticed, though not all.  One Black guy had his son—Steve assumed it was his son—perched high on his shoulders. The stream of people moved steadily in the direction of the supposed staging area, the starting point. That stream was joined by another from one of the side streets. He snapped a couple of pictures, then tried to put them in context with a few of the buildings and the magnolia trees, which were in full bloom.

The air was chilly. He had been afraid that he’d be too hot in his jacket, but he was thankful for it now. It was as though winter had lingered just long enough to remind the crowd of something, and here was the odd juxtaposition of winter air and startling pink blossoms; precise, cold government buildings and the happy, friendly marchers. He followed the sweep of the crowd, keeping more-or-less to the periphery, as it lumbered towards what he assumed would be the staging area for the start of the march.  But he realized after a bit that he was going in the wrong direction.  The main stage was behind him, with the Capitol as a backdrop.  And Pennsylvania Avenue was completely packed with people. Nobody could have marched anywhere. Instead, the crowd was just filling up the street in front of the speakers’ platform, stretching down practically as far as the White House. At least, that’s what it seemed like. How would he be able to see?

He came to an intersection where there was some sort of monument; he couldn’t see the marker. But by standing on its base he was able to get enough elevation so that he could look out over the crowd.  He saw a Jumbotron, set up against one of the anonymous Georgian-style government buildings.  Well, it was better than nothing.

It was a little before twelve.  Some anonymous male voice announced through the speakers that the march would begin in ten minutes; then, about ten minutes later, that the march would begin in ten minutes. He raised his camera.

There were thousands, he was sure.  Signs, mostly done by hand, called for an end to school shootings, and a ban on assault weapons. It looked amateurish, he thought; and yet that was its power; unorganized, spontaneous, and honest. There didn’t appear to be any actual groups, and among the signs, there were only a couple of overtly political messages.  He avoided photographing them.  One guy had got himself up as Abraham Lincoln, and though the likeness was remarkable the message wasn’t very clear. Steve continued taking pictures as the speakers began, names he knew from watching the news, repeating the same messages but with a passion and sincerity that he found moving.  He forgot his sense of isolation and estrangement. He had drifted back into being involved with the scene through his camera, trying to capture the faces of the crowd, trying to assemble a collage of the movement, a portrait of the urgency of the message. The sense of anticipation, of eager earnestness in the crowd. He swung his camera to his left and suddenly was focused on the profile of a Black girl just a few feet from him.

He had taken her picture almost before he realized what he was doing.

Steve caught his breath.  She was incredible. Beautiful. At first glance, she looked really young, but maybe not. Her swept-back, oversized afro set off the smallness of her face and the intensity of her stare.  She frowned a little as she watched the Jumbotron.  Around her neck was a red camera strap with Nikon blazing prominently from it. His hands trembled slightly. He clicked the shutter again. Then again.

Then he froze. He lowered the camera. She had turned and was looking straight at him.

Something flashed through his mind about not taking pictures of people without asking their permission first, and he wondered if somebody—the Abraham Lincoln guy, for instance—would be pissed at being photographed without Steve’s getting legal consent, but then about half the people there would be guilty of some kind of privacy violation if that were the case. But anyway, it wasn’t the photograph. He had been staring at her. He’d been staring at her through the viewfinder. He looked down, trying to think of something to say. He looked up and realized that she had trained her camera directly at him.  He heard a series of rapid clicks, and then he was looking at her face again.  She smiled.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have asked first.”

“It’s OK, I don’t mind,” she said. “Besides, I took your picture, too.”

Someone was speaking on the Jumbotron, and they both turned to look.  Steve again saw the girl’s profile, the perfect smoothness of her skin, the angry half-frown that furrowed her brow.  She abruptly brought her camera up, focused on the screen, and again there was a rapid series of clicks. It was the single, graceful, expert movement of a practiced photographer.  He followed, though he took more time to compose his shot. The shaking in his hands had stopped.

“She’s fabulous, isn’t she?” the girl said, looking at him.


“That’s Emma Gonzalez.”


Gonzalez wore an olive drab flak jacket, covered with badges and pins. Her shaved head and soft features gave her a sort of strangely innocent look while her jacket suggested something aggressively military. She stared at the camera as she spoke with simple, pent-up fury, rage that the adults who had made her world, their world, the world of the march, would never understand, never understand as she read out the names of classmates who would never live the simple and all-embracing joys of youth, would never, would never, would never. . . and then she stopped.  Her features froze. There was a long pause which turned into a silence. The crowd, at first quiet, still trying to be respectful, didn’t know what to do.  Some started to chant “Never again, never again,” but when Gonzalez remained silent, looking as if she were holding back tears, they stopped. There were murmurs, then here and there, a smattering of hesitant applause, and then gradually the crowd seemed to understand what the silence symbolized. Steve continued to stare. There was a rushing in his ears. He felt his chest tighten in panic. The silence went on and on and on. He was terrified.

There was a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you OK?” It was the girl next to him, whispering.

“What?” He was whispering. He wasn’t sure if he had made any sound.

“Are you OK?  You’re shaking. What’s. . .” She had turned to him.


He was breathless, and he realized that he was sweating, even in the cool March air. Was he crying? He struggled to slow his breathing, to will his heart to stop pounding, to get control again. He opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t. He felt the pressure of the girl’s hand.

Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” he said at last.  “I’m OK.  I just . . .” 

Then Gonzalez started speaking again. The speech, she explained, had been just as long as it had taken the shooter to kill seventeen people and wound fifteen others. He got that. Having a reason for his reaction calmed him. 

Now people applauded, but the girl took hold of his hand.

“I’m OK now.” He tried to smile. She smiled back, and their eyes met.

“I’m Robin,” she said.  “Are you here with a group?” 

“No. Just me.  I’m just taking some pictures for the paper. I’m . . .”

“Shh.” They were quiet again as the next speaker appeared on the giant screen.  She didn’t release his hand though; not right away.  Then, as if they had decided beforehand, they raised their cameras.

He continued to photograph as many of the different faces as he could.  He switched to a longer-range telephoto lens and captured kids his age swinging from lamp posts and hanging off of statues.  He got middle-aged mothers and little school kids, trendy-looking twenty-somethings, mirror-shaded high school boys and tousled girls, young men with closely-cropped hair, and middle-aged men with closely-cropped beards. Then it was over. 

The audience started to move away.  There wasn’t any march; there was nowhere to go.  Robin was still beside him as he began to drift over towards the mall.

“Are you hungry? Do you want to get something to eat?” She was looking up at him, and again he felt breathless.

“Yeah, well. . . Do you have to meet someone?”

“No.  My mom is here somewhere, I think, but I told her I’d just see her when I got home.”

“Oh.  You live here?”

“Near.  I can take the train. Do you want to eat?”

“Yeah, I guess. . .”

“There’s a cool Mexican place near here. Or there’s a Starbucks.”

“I guess Starbucks would be OK.”

“OK.” Again she took his hand and began to lead him down a side street.  No one seemed to pay any particular attention to them, this small, confident girl showing this out-of-town boy around as if she did it every day. When they had gotten their sandwiches, they sat down across from each other in a booth off to the side, their camera gear beside them.

“I’m Steve,” he said, and she nodded. He didn’t seem to be able to take his eyes off her. He wanted to say something about how pretty she was, but she spoke first.

“Where are you from?” she asked him.

“Hartford.  Near Hartford. We moved there . . . a couple of years ago.” He fumbled for a way to keep the conversation going. “Do you do a lot—I mean, that’s a nice camera.”

“It’s my mom’s. Well, it was. She sort of gave it to me.”

People from the march came in. A few took seats; most ordered take-out. No one seemed to notice the two teenagers with their cameras.

He found it hard not to stare at her. When still, her face had that intense concentration he had seen at the rally, as if she were holding something in, joy or outrage, and then, as if it were suddenly released, her features became mobile, dynamic. He was captivated. It was absurd, and he felt foolish, but he had never seen anyone so beautiful. Again he wanted to tell her. Instead, he looked down at his grilled cheese and shook his head.

“So what about your camera?” he asked. “Do you take pictures for your paper, too?”

“Well, Mom works for a paper.  She’s really old school.  There’s an online edition, but she works mostly on the print side. She got this camera, digital, ’cause everything in the paper was going digital, but she never liked it.  She has an old Leica. No shit. Shoots Kodak Tri-X, grainy as shit, develops her own film, the works. But no good for the paper. So she gave the Nikon to me and she kept the Leica. And anyway, that’s kind of how I got into it. She writes, and I take pictures.”

“And your school—they’re OK with your being here?”

“I should guess,” she said and laughed. “The principal’s husband is a cop, and two of the state rep’s kids go there. We called an assembly the day after, and the flags were at half-staff before the Governor gave the order. We had a bus but most of us live close, so I just came in on the train, it’s easier.”  She paused.  “How come—how come no one else came. . . from your school, I mean, was it your principal . . .”

“No, nothing like that,” he said. “I don’t know. I think it may be because it was so far. And the money and everything. Besides, there was going to be a demonstration in Hartford. A bunch of people said they were going to be going there.” He paused; his explanation sounded lame in his ears. “I think so, anyway.”

“See, someone was killed from my school. Just one –it wasn’t like Parkland. Not a friend, really, but someone I knew. They didn’t mean to kill her, but it was still murder. Two guys in a car. They were looking for someone, and they fired and they missed. Just outside the school, as they were getting out to go home.  So she died.” She paused.  “That was two years ago.”

“Did you see it happen?”

She shook her head.  “I wasn’t at my school when it happened. She went to a magnet school across town.  But it doesn’t matter. I knew her, and she got killed.  If they hadn’t had guns she’d be alive.”

“And that’s why you came?”

“Yeah. Partly. I just felt like I had to be here.”

There was a pause, and then he said, “So did I.” 

They looked at each other again, and she was so serious and they were both so quiet that he was afraid that one of his moments might come on, but nothing happened.

“What’s the matter?” she was saying.

“Nothing.  It’s just . . .”

“You never finish your sentences, you know that?”

“Sorry. It’s just . . . I don’t really know why I came here.”

“Didn’t you say you were taking pictures for your paper?”

“They never asked me. I tried to . . .  I wanted a bunch of us to go down, and I thought they would but then at the last minute . . .  So I came by myself.  A minister—the priest at my church—he got me the ticket, the bus ticket, some charter company, he really wanted me to go, and then I brought the camera. . . I don’t know if they’ll print the pictures or not. The principal has to approve it and she’s . . .”


“Not really. But she doesn’t want to upset anyone. Make them uncomfortable. So I don’t know.”

“But you came anyway.”

He nodded. 

“Because of the priest?”

“Not only.”

She paused. “So why did you come? Really.”

Now she was staring at him, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t have a placard to carry, if no one else knew he was here; he really did know. But he still couldn’t explain. They were both quiet, and then she spoke again.

“What happened to you back there? When Emma was speaking? Tell me.”

It took a long time for him to answer.  

“We moved to Hartford a few years ago. Near Hartford.”

“I know. You told me.”

“And before that we lived in Newtown.”

“Oh.” Then, “Jesus.”

He nodded.  “I was in elementary when it happened.  Fourth grade. I was. . .” His voice trailed off.  She continued to stare, then she took his free hand in both of hers. 

“You can tell me.”

“I was in another part of the building.  I don’t remember a lot; it was like a fire drill, but we knew it wasn’t.  It was . . . very confused. They tried to tell us not to look, but there wasn’t much to see. Police cars, I remember. An ambulance. We walked out with our hands—one hand—on the shoulder of whoever was in front of us. Like when you . . . when you . . .” He took an uneven, shaky breath, remembering how it felt when she had first touched him, then shook his head as if to clear it. “There must have been a lot of noise, sirens, I guess, people crying, sometimes I imagine I heard. . .  Shit, I don’t remember. Maybe I was in shock, I don’t know. Anyway, I just don’t remember any noise. Nothing. It was just . . . I don’t know.  It was the end of something, everything went silent, and then when she went silent, I mean . . .   Nothing.  Just . . .” 

The girl squeezed his hand.

“I mean . . . When she stopped talking—Emma—then it came back.  It was. . .that silence. I just. . . It all came back, and I . . . I couldn’t take it, I just . . .”

He stopped, and she looked down at the table. 

“Did you know anyone? I mean . . .”

He nodded. “The adults, of course. The principal. A couple of others.  And one of the kids lived just a few houses away. I knew him a little. I used to see him around.  And he’ll never . . .”

Time passed, and he would have said something really important, really profound, maybe even personal, but couldn’t. Instead, he reached for her hand across the table, and she took it. “Listen, it was nice of you. I mean . . .”

She frowned. “What?”

He wasn’t thinking about the shock when he felt her hand on his shoulder, but how she had taken his hand that first time, but how could he say it without sounding like a fool? Or like he was hitting on her? Would it seem sketchy, because she was Black and he was white? Besides, how old was she, really? She looked about fourteen maybe, but she sounded like a college student. No, she was in high school, about his age. He charged ahead. “I mean, back during the speech, Emma Gonzalez’s speech.” 

She squeezed his hand a little.  “I saw you looking at me.  And taking my picture.  No, it’s OK.  And that’s why I took yours.  I thought it was kind of a joke, see, sort of tit-for-tat.  I saw you, see, and I just . . .  You don’t mind?”

He stammered. “That’s not what I meant.  I meant—”

“’S’OK. I know.” She paused.  “I do. I know what you meant.” She was suddenly very serious. She gathered herself. “I didn’t know what was happening. With you. I didn’t want anything . . .” She swallowed, looking down, for the first time seeming to be at a loss for words. “It didn’t matter, I mean I was—scared, I guess.  I didn’t want anything to happen.  To you.”

“I didn’t . . . I mean, I don’t think I really knew . . . what was happening.”

“You were shaking.”  She smiled and looked down. “Really, I was . . .”

He smiled back. “Well. Thanks. I’m OK now. That’s what I wanted to say.”

For a couple of seconds, neither spoke, and then she said, “Give me your number.”


“Your number.  So I can send you the picture.”

Of course, he couldn’t find anything to write with until he had rummaged through his camera bag and dug out a ballpoint pen. He carefully printed his number on a Starbucks napkin, tearing it only once. As he wrote, he thought of their encounter: how she had reached out to him, assumed the role of guide and helper, and demanded he give up his phone number. Girls didn’t do that with him.

He handed her the napkin and stood up. “Maybe I’d better get back to the station.”

“You’ve got time, haven’t you? Do you want to walk around a little?”

“I guess so, OK. Where do you want to go?”

The crowds were dispersing.  In the mall, they saw one young man, clean-shaven and wearing a jacket and tie, arguing passionately about his Second Amendment rights. At another spot, an older woman, sitting on a bench, glared at them without saying anything though her look made the boy first embarrassed and then defiant. He realized that they had been holding hands.  Some people were walking dogs as if what had happened a few hours before had never occurred, or maybe never mattered.  They wandered into the National Gallery of Art and in the sculpture garden paused in front of the Robert Indiana sculpture AMOR. He looked over to the girl, wondering if she knew the word; she grinned at him. 

Without any real plan, they wandered back in the direction of the Capitol, then up towards Columbus Circle and, behind it, Union Station. It was getting cold; a few hawkers were desperately trying to unload knock-off March-For-Our-Lives tee shirts and buttons. On impulse, he stopped in front of one of them.

“How much?”

“Ten dollars.” The skinny, scruffy-looking seller beamed.  He was missing a couple of teeth and his hair was graying; Steve guessed that he didn’t do this for a living.

“Really?” It was after 4:00, and there was a substantial stack of unsold merchandise behind him; cheap white tees with an image of the Capitol, fronted by silhouettes of supposed youth gyrating as if at a rock concert. A bulletin board with a couple of dozen unsold buttons.  “You think you’re going to sell all those at ten dollars each?” He glanced at Robin. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Wait, wait,” the guy protested.  “Don’t go yet. Tell you what.  I’ll let you have—two. Two for fifteen.  How about it?” 

Robin was trying to hide a smirk.

“I don’t know,” Steve said.  “Two for fifteen, that’s seven-fifty each . . .”

“No sales tax,” the man added confidentially. “Two for just . . .”

“I’ll take one,” Steve said. He pulled out his wallet; there was a ten and a wad of singles. 

“That’s OK, you’re supporting the cause.” the guy said and slipped the ten out of Steve’s fingers.  “Here.”  He handed over a couple of shirts. “Two for ten. That OK? And here,” he said, gesturing to the buttons, “Take a couple these, too. Take any ones you like. You two, you such a sweet couple. You look real sweet together. You wear them at school, now, they all know you belong together. Am I right? Am I right? Here,” and he pulled half a dozen of the buttons of his display and thrust them at Steve. “You a sweet couple.” 

Steve dropped a couple of the buttons into his camera bag and handed Robin one of the shirts; she took it, and put her arm through his. 

“If you’d held out a little longer, he’s probably have given them to you,” she said.

“Yeah, what the hell.  He’s gonna lose money on them anyway, probably.” They started up the steps toward the station.

At the entrance to the Metro, Robin suddenly turned to Steve. With the same seamless movement with which she had snapped her photos, she grasped his face with both hands and held it tight for a second, or two, her eyes locked on his, and then she kissed him. Then she was gone.

Steve’s eyes burned.  She was gone. The day was over, and he was still unsure what it had all been about. The speeches had been powerful, yes, and it was great to see that kids his age had been able to put together such an incredible, such a . . .  And he’d gotten some good photos, too.  He’d run through the playback on the bus ride home, and post them to Facebook or something, and then . . .  And then there was the girl, what was that all about, he knew better, or should, falling in love at first sight which we all know never happens. . .  He shook his head, then made his way to the food court next to the bus depot.  He picked up a sandwich and a coffee to go, then added a chocolaty brownie thing, something that hadn’t been wrapped in cellophane for a vending machine, and headed for the bus.

* * *

He was asleep on the bus when he suddenly woke up to the sound of his own voice struggling to speak. In his pocket, his phone was buzzing. The bus was very quiet, just the monotone hum of tires on the highway pavement, but it was as if he could still hear gunshots and screams. It was pitch dark, and he had that cold, sweaty, panicky feeling that he knew so well and dreaded. He tried to slow his breathing. Then there was a voice beside him.

“Are you alright? Steve, is everything alright?” It was Marjorie, the woman he had met that morning.  Now she was in the seat next to him, though she had been sitting next to her husband when they first boarded.

“Are you alright? I think you must have been having a nightmare.”

“Oh. Yeah. God.  That was . . .”  He couldn’t possibly say what it was, though he knew. “That was weird.  Where are we?”

“We’re just going through Waterbury.  There was a truck just now, it backfired, it sounded like a machine gun or something, so noisy it would wake the dead, did you hear it? I jumped out of my skin. Do you think that might have been. . . “

Maybe that was it. A truck that sounded like gunfire. That must have been it. 

“Yeah, probably.  I’m a pretty light . . .  Sometimes I have trouble sleeping.” He was going to say that sometimes he had dreams.  “A truck?”

“Yes, it was downshifting just as we were under the overpass. I jumped! My lord! The echoes.  I don’t think anyone could sleep through that.  Well, John could. But then, we’re on the other side of the bus.  Will you be able to sleep now?”

“Well, maybe I’d better try to stay awake. I’ve got to call my mom to pick me up.”

“Well OK, you do that. Wasn’t it a great march?”

“Yeah.  Great.”

Marjorie returned to her seat.  He pulled out his phone; 12:07.  He glanced outside.  Waterbury was about half an hour away from Hartford; well, less, really, but close enough.  He’d have Mom meet him at 12:30.  

He remembered that the phone had been buzzing.  He checked; there was a message from a number he didn’t recognize. He opened it. It was only about one minute old. One line.

“R u OK? Robin”


No, Thank You

by Alan Rice

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:JIPI was eight years old when I first became truly—seriously—aware of my mother’s illness. I could never remember her not being ill, but that’s not quite the same thing.  The handkerchief she always carried with her, into which she coughed discreetly, and then quickly, almost surreptitiously, checked for blood before tucking it away out of sight, if never out of mind, was a fact of her existence. As ordinary as lipstick.  We never mentioned it.

And she never kissed me. But this did not seem terribly odd to me, as we were not a demonstrative family. That’s not to say we were unloving; that is certainly not true. We loved each other deeply, but we regarded love rather in the same way we regarded money: something never to be hoarded (Scripture, as well as society, disapproved of that), but to be conserved, to be spent judiciously, whose value must be appreciated, and therefore love was not to be regarded casually lest it be cheapened.  Therefore, kisses were dispensed sparingly, as a special reward, on the top of my head, sometimes accompanied by a quick hug. It grieves me now to think how much those moments of affection must have cost her, the ache she must have felt inside, wishing it could be more, that the moment could be prolonged. The longing to feel the smoothness of my little girl’s cheek on her lips. 

The fear of passing on the disease. 

I’m sure I must have wondered why we couldn’t be more openly loving towards each other, but I don’t seem to be able to remember.  I do recall how she would deftly avoid a kiss, and how she seemed to scowl when she saw people kissing in public. 

“That’s the Scots in her,” my father once told me. “They think that kind of thing’s not proper.” 

“Really? Why?”

This innocent question had him stumped, had drawn him up short as if he questioned for the first time why such a thing should be improper, and what impropriety was, anyway, and what was the harm in proudly being able to kiss the ones he loved out there in the open, for all to see? He was never ashamed of anything, and of course, he never had a thing to be ashamed of. Ever. 

“Kissing’s special,” he finally said. We were walking together down the lane that led to the house, between the fields of field corn and alfalfa. It was July, and hot and dry; Dad worried about rain, whether there would be too much or too little, the price of feed, and what hog prices would be in the fall, to find out if he’d break even on the farm. I held his hand, thinking in some childish way that my presence was a comfort to him, a bulwark against his worries. “If you give away all your kisses, they won’t— any of them— be worth much. So you’ve got to treasure them. Hold ’em dear.” 

We had reached the porch, but instead of going inside he sat down on the swing, and I sat beside him.

“Aren’t you goin’ in?”

“Just a minute.” His big, weathered, grown-up hand took mine. He took a long, familiar pause, and I waited for him to gather his thoughts. “You’re going with your mother out to Colorado on the train in a few days.”

“Yes, we’re all going, right?”

There was a long pause. “I can’t go with you. I can’t get away just now. I’m going to have to come later.”

This sank in. Mother and I would be traveling alone on the train, a trip that would take days. 

“You know your mother isn’t well.”

The fact of Mother’s illness was a constant, and so Dad’s mention of it signaled something significant. 

“This place in Colorado will help her get better. We hope.  A sanitorium.”

It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the word; surely it meant a hospital. Another hospital. I had thought, I suppose, that the main reason for the trip was to visit relatives: my uncle, Dad’s younger brother, and his family. His long pauses, the interjection of a big, grown-up word suggested another, more serious, possibly sinister, reason for the trip, and perhaps an uncertain duration.

“How come you’re not coming too?”

“I’ve got things to do here.” He fell silent and then looked over to me. “You’ll be alright, won’t you.” Not a question, but a statement.  “Look after Mom.” 

I remember sitting next to Dad on that porch swing and nodding, solemnly, I suppose.  I’d be alright. I was a farm girl, after all, like the boy in Frost’s poem, “too far from town to learn baseball, whose only play was what he found himself, winter or summer, and could play alone,” and used to having to take on myself tasks that ordinarily would have been relegated to a child much older. And I had been on trains before. Of course,  my father didn’t mean that I was to be responsible for Mother, but that was his way of telling me not to get into any trouble. Though I was not a mischievous child,  I was, of necessity, independent; I knew no boundaries. He was concerned, perhaps, that I might forget to tell her where I was going, or some such thing, and somehow cause her to worry. Or, more likely, that it would me feel more grown-up to assume such serious responsibility, for I modeled my behavior on the dignified, courteous, and somewhat taciturn adults I saw around me, and I had a standard to live up to. 

Then, too, was the fact that Mother was often away. Her illness didn’t seem to get worse, but neither did it improve. Her face—so perfectly formed, so serene—seemed drawn, and the once-round cheeks hollow. She had the family’s deep-set eyes, and the sickness only exaggerated their dark sockets. She never raised her voice; looking back, it seems as if our family—Dad, Mother, the various aunts and cousins—all spoke in carefully modulated tones, as if saving breath, or speech. And, as I said, mother was often away, at this clinic or that, so her absences were something I got used to.  My time on the train with her would, of course, be precious, and covered with a pall of seriousness. I knew she was going to a sort of hospital—again—but didn’t understand at the time that Dad was staying behind to wrap up the sale of the farm that would cover the expense of the sanitorium. 

That was how I happened to be on the train with her, and how the trip became less adventurous than I had hoped.  It had started so promising, the bustle of loading baggage, the constant movement of people at the station, porters and conductors in their uniforms, and all the shouting and goodbyes.  I stood by my parents, as they pressed cheeks together, and murmured things I couldn’t hear. Dad wore his gray suit and a broad-brimmed hat and Mother had a pale shawl thrown over her shoulder. The faces around us were either joyous or sorrowful, but Mother and Dad were solemn.  As they faced each other, I saw Mother take Dad’s hand, and squeeze it.  

They separated, and Dad stepped over to me, He crouched and gave me a quick, dry kiss on the cheek. 

“Look after your mother,” he said. She looked at me and smiled kindly, and together we made our way to our car.

Our compartment fascinated me.  It was cramped, of course, but I was delighted by the efficient use of space. There was a little fold-down table, where we had some sandwiches from a wicker hamper. I was to have the upper berth, which folded down from the ceiling; Mother would have the porter convert our settees into the lower. There was space for our handbags, and little reading lights that were operated by a button on the wall. Of course, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to make too much ado of the marvels of all this technology; but neither could we appear to be blasé, either; that would have shown an equally poor lack of taste. We settled down for the long journey.

After a while, I was tired of looking out the window as the landscape of the Midwest seemed to pass by us.  I remember thinking it was odd to realize that it was we, and not the landscape, that were moving, and realized, too, how often I had stood in the cornfields and watched the trains pass by and that now, I was the one being watched by some child taking a break from her chores or play to watch the passing locomotive, and it’s long line of rumbling cars. I resorted to a book that I had brought, but tired of that, too.  Not surprisingly, what with the gentle rhythmic lullaby of the train, I fell asleep.

When I awoke, I was hungry. I looked expectantly at Mother; her eyes were closed, but she coughed and looked away. She lifted her handkerchief to her lips, discreetly glanced at it, then carefully folded it up. She smiled at me.

“Mom, what shall we do about supper?” I asked. “Is it time yet? Is the dining car open?”

“Yes, I believe so,” she said. Nothing more. When she was ready, she’d sit up, perhaps take out her compact (as she sometimes, but rarely did) and adjust her makeup, and perhaps hand in hand we’d go through the car to the diner.  But she seemed distracted; she kept looking out at the scenery—what there was of it—and said nothing.

“Mom, are we going to be late?”

“Oh, Darling, sorry.  I was thinking.” And she smiled weakly.  “I’m not feeling very well. I don’t think I’m going to want any.”

This was a problem. If Mother wasn’t well, what would that mean? What would I have to do? Should I get someone? Did the train have an on-board doctor? And what to do about supper?

“Mom,” was all I could manage. I suppose my anxiety showed through my attempt at stoic calm

She smiled at me and took my hand to squeeze it a little. “It’s alright, Darling, I’m not ill. I’m just tired, that’s all. Perhaps I can have the porter bring me something from the kitchen later.  But you need to have something.  Tell me.”  She looked at me with that expression that signaled an important message.  “Do you think you can go to the dining car by yourself?  Do you think you can do that?”

It would be an adventure, surely, an expedition into the unknown, the untried. I nodded as bravely as I was able. The most important thing was, of course, not to disappoint—or even more important, not to worry—Mother.

“Of course you can,” she reassured me. “I’ll give you money. Do you know where the dining car is? How to get there?” I nodded. “It’s two or three cars down, you’ll know it, I’m sure.  You’ll have to pass between the cars, you know, but you can do that, can’t you?” I wasn’t sure, but I nodded anyway. She squeezed my hand a little tighter. “I don’t want you to worry about me. I’m alright, just tired.”

“What should I . . .” I was worried about money. Surely the food on a train would be expensive.

“What is it, honey?”

“What should I get?”

She smiled patiently. “Well, you look and see what they have. Whatever you like.  But don’t get pork chops, they’ll probably be dried out. Maybe they’ll have chicken.”  I frowned, thinking over the choices that would have to be made, not wanting to look foolish.  Mother seemed to read my look.  “Don’t worry, Sweetheart. You know, many of the cooks on these trains are quite good.”

“Do you think they might have chicken and dumplings?”

“They might very well.  That would be a good choice. But you choose what you want. Now,” and she reached into her purse. “Here’s your money,” handing me three quarters. Then, hesitating, as if aware that she was contradicting herself, “Try not to spend it all, alright?”  But then, feeling guilty, perhaps, “But you order what looks good to you.” She put on her best, most reassuring smile, and squeezed my hand.

We touched cheeks, as was our custom, and I made my way to the end of the car, to the sliding door that separated the two carriages. I was near sick with dread. But the thought of returning, unable to complete this special mission was, of course, utterly unbearable. The shame would be overwhelming.  But so, too, would be the unthinkable error of being careless with those three quarters. On the other hand, I had faced far more intimidating things on the farm; the beheadings of countless chickens, the birthing of calves, and the sundry messy tasks that accompanied an agricultural life. Surely ordering dinner off a menu couldn’t be that awful. 

I balanced my way between the rocking cars, and two cars later found myself in the diner. I was about to seat myself when I hesitated.  Should I wait?  How did one proceed? There was no one to ask, and I couldn’t go back. But my question was answered by a tall Black man in a white jacket, wearing white gloves, and holding several menus in his hand. He approached me, nodded slightly, and smiled.

I wasn’t afraid, but this was an unusual situation for me.  I had been raised without any overt prejudice, and certainly, there were Blacks who worked on my father’s farm from time to time. I was taught to be courteous and respectful to all people, no matter their age or race or station in life.  That’s what good people, people who had earned respect in our town, always did.  They showed respect for others. But here I was, a little girl, and this tall—very tall—Black man was waiting on me. Perhaps he sensed my awkwardness, for his face assumed a kindliness, and his manner softened so that I realized that he was not so much my servant as my helper. He would guide me, and show me—without telling me—what to do.

“Good evening, Miss,” he said, almost softly, I thought.  He had kindly eyes that crinkled in the corners, a thin face with a high brow, and his close-cropped hair was flecked with white.  He looked around, his head tilted slightly to one side. “Are you here by yourself?”

I nodded.

“You’re just in time for dinner,” he said, with a trace of a Southern drawl. “Won’t you come this way, please?”  He nodded in the direction of the car and led me to one of the booths. Then, before I could slide in, quickly brushed off the seat with a napkin.  “Let me get you a glass of water,” he said, “and you can look over the menu.” Again he smiled, and with a slight bow placed the folded faux-leather menu before me. He smiled and slipped away.

I glanced around to see how other people, grown-ups, were doing it. Some had been served already and were just beginning their meals.  Others studied the menu. I opened mine up and looked at the dinner selections. It appeared that my choices were somewhat limited. 

Number One

Table D’Hote Dinner

the first section read. I didn’t know what “Table D’Hote” meant, but considering that the cost was $1.25 my guess was that it had to mean “expensive.” Besides, it looked like something that involved multiple courses; olives and celery sticks, consommé, roast leg of veal . . . chicken fricassee . . . Russet potato . . . garden fresh vegetables . . . and ice cream. Or “homemade” pie. Cream cheese with sherried dates. Far from the country fare I was used to on the farm.

The next set of offerings looked more promising. There were fewer options, but the price was less “hote” than the Number One.  But it was 75c. That would leave nothing, and Mother had asked me to try to not spend it all.  

Number Three “Chef’s Selection Dinner Plate” was obviously an option, but it carried risk.  One was offered only a choice of meat or fish without specifying what kind, potato, and green vegetable, served “family style” on a single plate. There was some risk, I reasoned, but the price was right: 50c. 

I set down the menu, and as if on cue my water was there with a glass and a pitcher of ice water. 

“Well, Miss,” he said, again smiling.  His voice was satin, his inflection kind, his movements graceful and gentle.  I was immediately thankful for him.  “Have you decided what you would like?”  

“What’s this?” I asked, as politely as I could, not wanting to sound suspicious. “The ‘Chef’s Selection’?”

He knew what I was asking. He leaned forward, as if giving an air of confidence. “Tonight? The selection is the Chicken Fricassee. With dumplings. And the potatoes are mashed. And there’s green beans as well; fresh, not canned.  Would you like that?”

I had seen chicken fricassee as one of the offerings on the Number One choice.  “Isn’t that one of the other . . . the other . . .”   My voice trailed off. I was afraid I’d made a mistake and would end up ordering the expensive dinner that we couldn’t afford. But my waiter rescued me.

“No, miss. That’s the chef’s choice for tonight. You see,” and he lowered his voice, “It’s really all the same. That first selection just gives you more options. It’s the same recipe. And you can trust me, it’s really very good! The chef is a friend of mine!” and he grinned conspiratorially. “Does that sound alright? I wouldn’t want to disappoint you!”

He had completely won me over. It was his gentleness, grace and charm that had allayed my fears. There was none of the obsequiousness that perhaps I would have received had I been a little older, or had my mother been with us, though I doubt that she would have tolerated any kowtowing or unctuous servility. No. He saw a somewhat plain little white girl, on her own, needing a little help, and he was there to help, perhaps as he would have hoped his own child might have been had she been in that situation. I nodded. “Thank you,” I said.

He straightened and smiled, and with something just shy of a flourish pulled out his pad and wrote out down my order. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “You just let me know if you want anything else,” and he was gone.  But then, a moment later, he appeared with a tall glass of cold milk. I was about to protest, but he just smiled and continued down the car, stopping here and there to inquire if the other diners needed anything.

As I watched him, it seemed to me that he was treating me exactly as he did any of the other customers. That made me feel important; I was being treated as an adult.  I was used to that at home; we always treated each other with an almost formal courtesy. But here, in public, in—to me—a strange place, it was exhilarating. But at the same instant, almost, I realized that I, like all the other passengers in the dining car, was white. He could not possibly behave any differently towards me and hope to keep his job.  I had a sense of outrage; he was nice to me because he had to be. That was all. 

Or was it?

I couldn’t believe it. I was quite sure that I had seen something else in his look, or heard something else in his voice, that inspired my trust. 

The milk was delicious. I was careful not to drink it off all at once; it would have to last me the whole meal. And I was proud of how I had ordered the least expensive dinner option on the menu; Mother would be pleased when I brought back a whole quarter.

When he came back, he bore a tray on which was a heavy white plate with an aluminum cover. Steam rose from the hole in the center of the cover, and the aroma of poached chicken and savory herbs was luxurious. I unfolded my napkin onto my lap, and the waiter arranged my plate before me. He saw my hunger, my restraint notwithstanding, and smiled broadly.

“There now,” he said. “Enjoy. You be sure to tell me if you need anything else.” And he left.

The food was indeed delicious; I had expected at best something soggy and tasteless, but the waiter was right. The dumpling was light and tender, and the chicken fell from the bone. I tried to eat slowly, partly out of a desire to make the enjoyment of the meal last as long as possible, and partly, of course, because it was bad manners to rush or wolf down your dinner. I glanced around, but the other passengers seemed far less appreciative of their dinners than I did. Had any of them looked in my direction, I told myself, they would see how one was supposed to eat in a railroad dining car, with small bites, chewing slowly, and a delicate sip of one’s drink to wash it down.

I was finishing my meal and contemplating these things when my waiter appeared at my table.

“Is everything alright?” he asked. “Can I get you anything?”

I set my fork down. “It was delicious,” I said, and I meant it. “Thank you.”

“I’m glad you liked it, Miss,” he replied, and then, with his head cocked slightly to one side, “If I may ask, Miss, are you traveling alone?”

It would never have occurred to me to be suspicious of his question; in fact, I had expected to be interrogated about the whereabouts of my grown-ups from the moment I entered the dining car. He didn’t appear curious, either, but perhaps concerned about how I was going to manage all by myself.  I sought to reassure him.

“My mother is here, too. But she said she was tired and didn’t want any super.”

“Oh, now, that’s too bad.  I hope she’s not unwell.”

I couldn’t, of course, tell him.  

“No,” I answered. “Just tired.  Maybe she’ll get a sandwich later.”

“If you like, Miss, I could bring a sandwich to your compartment.”

That would cost something. But I still had my quarter. Surely that would cover the cost of a sandwich, and Dad had told me to look after Mother. I took a breath. 

“How much is a sandwich?” 

The waiter smiled. “I can make you a nice bacon and tomato sandwich on toast for twenty-five cents. Do you think your mama would like that?”

I thought of my one unspoken-for quarter. Would Mother think me wasteful? Surely not, since I had saved money on my own dinner. “Yes, thank you, I think she’d like that,” I said.

“I’d be happy to get that for her. Now tell me, Miss, would you like some ice cream?”

From his look, from his tone of voice, I knew that he knew that all little white girls traveling alone on the train would like a dish of ice cream. What he didn’t know, of course, was that I had committed my last quarter to Mother’s bacon-and-tomato sandwich. I lowered my eyes and murmured, “No, thank you.”

The waiter, so studied in his discretion, almost slipped.  His eyebrows lifted in surprise, and he seemed about to protest, but instead, he only asked, “Are you sure?” and accepted my silent nod.  “I’ll bring you your check,” he said.  “And I’ll do up that sandwich for you to take to your mother. That way you won’t have to pay a service charge.” He collected my plate and glass and slipped away to the kitchen.

I had really wanted that ice cream. The meal had been so much better than expected, the anticipated taste of vanilla, the smooth creaminess was almost palpable in my imagination. But my quarter was spoken for.  I wanted ice cream, but I had the consolation of my sacrifice. 

The waiter returned with the bill; fifty cents for my dinner, and twenty-five for Mother’s sandwich, which had been wrapped in waxed paper. “You have a good night now,” said the waiter. “You can just leave your money on the plate,” he added in an undertone, so as not to embarrass me.  “Will you be needing any change?”

“No, thank you,” I answered, and then, remembering my manners, “It was very good.  Thank you.”

“Why, you’re very welcome.  It was my pleasure.” He smiled again and went off to collect the dining fares from the other passengers.

I left my three quarters on the plate, and picked up the sandwich.  Then I remembered.  People in restaurants left tips.  I was momentarily panic-stricken.  I fished in the pocket of my dress and with what I’m sure was an audible sigh of relief found a nickel.  Would that be enough?  It didn’t matter; it would have to do. I added it to the coins on the plate. 

A few of the other passengers looked up at me from their dinners or their conversation, and I was unused to being looked at. I suppose I scowled somewhat, quite unbecoming of a young girl; had mother been with me, no doubt I would have behaved the young lady she had brought me up to be.  Perhaps it was my disappointment over the missing desert; that unfulfilled desire for some sort of formal conclusion to my dinner left an unfillable emptiness in my stomach. Oh, I knew that by the standards of fine dining it had been a very ordinary meal, but we ate at restaurants so rarely and I suppose I had wanted this to be some kind of festive occasion.  Or, perhaps more than that, it was my own sense of independence; I had found my way to the dining car and ordered my own dinner.  And if I passed up the ice cream, I could console myself with my economy, as well as my thoughtfulness in remembering to bring something for Mother. 

And so it was with mixed feelings that I made my way through the narrow aisle back to our compartment.

Mother was sitting up.  It was still early evening; the sun was low on the long midwestern horizon, and she gazed out at the passing landscape. She turned away from the window and smiled at me as I came in.

“How was your dinner?” she asked.

“It was good.”

“What did you have?”

“Chicken and dumplings. And I brought you a sandwich,” and I handed it to her.

“That was very thoughtful of you.” She was clearly pleased, and it made me proud. “You had enough money?” 

“Yes. I decided not to get dessert.”

“Well.” She paused. The sandwich lay on the table between us. “Perhaps I should try to eat some,” and she unwrapped her supper. It was much bigger than I had expected, but it had been sliced into two neat triangles. I knew from experience that Mother would eat half, and wrap up the remains for later. 

We didn’t talk much that evening. I told her about the waiter who had been so thoughtful, and she nodded in approval. I mentioned my leaving him a tip, and she smiled and told me I had done the right thing.  Then we fell silent, as if by mutual consent until a porter came in and made up our beds. 

In the morning, we dressed as best we could in our cramped little compartment, and made our way to the dining car. My waiter from the night before was not there; his substitute seated us unceremoniously and paid us no more attention than he did to the other diners. He placed menus before us; the same leatherette cover as before, but with a loose, single-page insert with the breakfast fare had been slipped inside. We looked it over, and as I did I noticed that the dinner menu was still there. There was the fifty-cent “Chef’s Selection Plate”: Meat-or-fish, potato, vegetable. Ice cream.

Ice cream.

Ice cream had been included in the meal. My sacrifice had been for nothing. I could have capped my adventure, crowned my dinner, satisfied my desire, enjoyed the perfect ending to my little adventure which I had undertaken all by myself. . . But there was nothing to be done. The moment had passed. I couldn’t go back and reconstruct my dinner, reproduce the gentlemanly courtesy of the waiter or the sense of accomplishment, or taste the luscious, creamy reward that I had forgone unnecessarily. 

Something must have shown in my expression because my mother asked me if something was the matter. I couldn’t tell her, of course, so I muttered “Nothing” and flipped back to the offerings of eggs, sausages, and pancakes. She quickly forgot, and we moved on.

But I never forgot. It’s one of those things, I suppose, that affects you during childhood, a scar from a skinned knee that changes from sore and visible to a mere unsightly blotch, and eventually to only a memory, and yet it is a memory that you hold with that same sense of pain as when the wound was fresh. And in this case, it’s so silly. I’ve eaten gallons of ice cream since, and in college, with my girlfriends, we would buy a whole half-gallon and sneak it into the dormitory and sit around, three spoons and a single tub, and gossip gleefully about classes and sports and boys. But not even then, not years and years later, when I could have eaten enough ice cream to send me into some kind of dietetic shock, have I ever had quite enough. I am always lacking that one scoop in its aluminum serving dish that I passed up on the train to Colorado. An empty space that can never be filled.

Several years later my mother passed away. It was not the tuberculosis that took her, but a tumor that developed quickly and unexpectedly so that, being at college, I could not be with her at the end. Her funeral was quiet, and solemn, on a beautiful day in August. Dad was stoic, as usual, and my aunts, uncles and cousins were discreet in their grief. I held up pretty well, until the end, when I heard the sound of earth hitting the coffin. I was struck by that awful sense not only of loss but of that which I had never had. Her presence. Conversations. Confidences. Even her kiss, the marvelous, ancient, sacred gesture of affection that she had withheld from me out of fear. I collapsed in tears with uncontrollable sobs and my legs seemed to buckle under me, and my aunt had to hold me up as I staggered away from the grave.

That was long ago. I am too old now for it to matter much, but perhaps that is why I call to mind so many things that no matter how long I live, I shall always feel in their absence. A hearty laugh. A hand to hold. A mother’s kiss.  A dish of vanilla ice cream.

About the Author:

Alan Rice teaches Advanced Placement Literature and Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School in rural Connecticut. He holds degrees in English and dramatic arts from Earlham College and the University of Connecticut; he has spent much of his career directing plays and teaching acting and directing. His essays and short stories have appeared in “Celestial Timepieces,” “Change Seven Magazine,” and “Night Picnic Journal.”




Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:JIP