Copyright 2020 by David James Poissant. From the forthcoming book Lake Life by David James Poissant to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
In Thad’s memory, Nico’s Ice Cream Parlor stands a turreted wonder on a hill, a citadel rising from the roadside, gabled, rococoed, daffodilled. In memory, Nico’s towers proudly, a beacon in the dark announcing waffles curled to cones before your very eyes. The river below Nico’s crowded with trout—rainbows, browns, brook trout—fish thick as bodybuilders’ arms. On the porch, domed dispensers perch on the deck rails, waiting for your quarter, waiting to drop pellets into your small hand, fish waiting for this food to be flung. Then into the river the sand-tan pellets go, and this is what you’ve come for, this more than ice cream, this cacophony of pops and smacks that roils the water, of gills like bellows, echolalia of fin and scale, and you have done this, you’ve brought the river, writhing, into life.
But Nico’s, like the lake house, is merely what Nico’s has become. Paint-faded, chestnut-pocked, the building on the hill appears to be deflating. The deck rails’ domes are gone, the railing replaced by mismatched two-by-fours. A mistake, Nico having left his empire to Teddy, the man’s perpetually stoned only son who, since inheriting the parlor two years ago, has used it as a front to push merchandise that probably hasn’t hurt his ice cream sales.
Yes, if you’re looking to get high, Nico’s is the place to go. Tubby Teddy, who can work up a sweat just tugging the lid off a canister of rocky road, who has twin cobra tattoos on each forearm, doesn’t just sell weed. No, Teddy sells weed: indica, sativa, hybrids, crossbreeds, loose leaf, pre-rolls, edibles. Anything Thad can get in Brooklyn, he can get cheaper and better from Teddy’s mahogany chest.
Summer evenings, Nico’s is usually packed. But it’s late. The after-dinner crowd has come and gone. Probably the rain’s kept customers away. Everything shines with it: the staircase, the mildew-slicked front stoop, the pink-stenciled Nico’s logo peeling from the windowpane beside the pink front door. Thad holds the door for everyone but Michael, who always nods and waves his brother in.
Tonight, the ice cream parlor’s empty. And Teddy’s not here. Which has Thad quietly freaking out. What if Teddy was arrested? What if he’s dead? Thad’s not sure he’ll sleep tonight without a hit.
Until there descends over the parlor a smell, a body odor composed of perspiration, weed, and chicken soup. The scent’s trailed by a clatter, beyond the counter, of white, saloon-style doors. A stomach passes through the doors, and Teddy follows, opening his arms.
“Thaddeus!” he booms. Teddy’s been peddling to Thad since they were teenagers, when he sold dime bags from the heavily bumper-stickered trunk of his beat-up Corolla. They’re friends, as much as you can be friends with the dealer you see twice a year.
Teddy approaches the counter, but he’s stopped short by the prodigiousness of his own gut. Thad sympathizes. He’s heavier than he’d like to be. What he can’t relate to is Teddy’s general dishevelment. Gone is Nico’s pink-and-white-striped shirt and paper hat. Instead, Teddy wears a turned-back Boston Bruins cap and tea-colored Mossimo tee that Thad remembers being white once upon a time. The shirt is snug as a singlet, Teddy’s nipples like jacket fasteners pricking through the front. From his collar, a tuft of hair uncurls, pubic and obscene. Saddam, Thad thinks, just after capture.
Teddy extends a beefy hand, which Thad shakes. Only Michael and Jake know this man is Thad’s dealer. The rest, let them assume whatever they’d like. Teddy moves to the sink behind the counter, washes his hands, and pulls on plastic gloves.
Jake, Thad’s boyfriend, orders first, a complicated concoction not on the menu. To hear Jake order food, you’d never know he grew up on milk and cornbread, on hens whose heads and feathers he removed himself. At least, that’s how Thad imagines Jake’s childhood from what he’s been given, which isn’t much. “Tell me a story,” Thad will say, and Jake will say, “Once, there was a boy whose parents loved God more than they loved him.”
If only he’d known Jacob the boy. But by the time Thad met him, Frank, Jake’s art dealer, had already traded Jacob the boy for a New York story the rich pay five figures a canvas to hear. Assuming Jake’s popularity endures, it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising journalist makes a Memphis pilgrimage, knocking on doors and taking quotes from neighbors, family, friends. Even then, Frank will find a way to spin it: Country Mouse Makes Good in Big City!
Jake’s order goes on so long Teddy pulls at his cap’s brim. A nervous tic? A mnemonic trick? He appears to have stopped listening some time ago.
“Hold up,” Teddy says, cutting Jake off. “Cup or cone?”
Thad doesn’t have to look to see the expression of anger and dismay that now crowds his boyfriend’s face.
Jake isn’t a bad guy. Thad’s seen him offer his seat to the elderly or infirm on crowded subway cars, seen him break his stride to drop a twenty into a homeless person’s cup, seen him sob during a Sarah McLachlan animal adoption ad. Jake’s never met a stranger or an animal he didn’t like. But people he gets to know get on his nerves. Take Thad’s family. He’s pretty sure Jake dislikes all but Thad’s dad. If this is true, poor Teddy doesn’t stand a chance.
“Cup,” Jake says, then repeats his order, word for word. There’s a please at the end, though the please feels more like an I dare you to get this wrong.
Teddy frowns, wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, then makes Jake’s order so quickly and precisely, Thad’s sure he was fucking with him all along. Teddy serves the rest of them, then rings up Thad’s father, who never lets anyone else pay.
Once the family’s outside, seated in yellow patio chairs or peering past the railing, riverward, for fish, Thad skirts the counter and follows Teddy through the saloon doors. In back sit two upturned buckets, the white, five-gallon tubs ice cream comes in. Between the buckets, a sheet of particle board serves as a makeshift table, with cinderblocks for legs. Teddy’s mahogany box rests on top, and Thad sets his dish of ice cream next to it.
“Your boyfriend’s kind of an asshole,” Teddy says, the way only an old friend who’s also your drug dealer can say.
“I’m sorry,” Thad says. “It’s been a rough weekend.” But he doesn’t want to talk about the drowning earlier today, or wants to talk but doesn’t have the words. Better to get what he came here for and go. “We saw someone hit a deer.”
The lie comes easy as exhalation. Teddy removes his cap. Beneath, white scalp, brown hair, a perfect Friar Tuck.
“Dude,” Teddy says. “That sucks.”
“That’s some heavy shit.”
“Bambi, your mother can’t be with you anymore.” Teddy opens the box, and Thad relaxes into the transaction’s familiarity.
Thad could totally sell weed. More than once, his therapist suggested he find work. Not so much for the money—Jake has plenty—but because this is America. Because here, work equals self-esteem and self-respect. And, if Thad’s honest with himself, being an occasionally published poet doesn’t exactly fill the hours of his days. The best reason, though, is this: He can’t count on Jake forever, and what becomes of him when that day comes?
At the very least, Thad needs routine. The assembly-line satisfaction of fitting lids to miles and miles of shampoo bottles, or the calm familiarity of checking cuffs for stitching, then slipping your tag into a pocket: Inspector #5. Thad could be Inspector #5. No one to hassle Inspector #5. No one to check Needs Improvement under Work Habits, as Thad’s grade school teachers used to do.
Except a pocket can’t converse with you. A shampoo bottle can’t trade its thoughts on the latest Spike Jonze flick. And Thad needs people. When he’s not with Jake, he’s high or he’s asleep. He’s never been good at being alone.
He could get serious about his writing. How does Jake do it, stand for hours, painting the same canvas day after day? Ten lines into a poem, Thad loses focus. Jake—who never smokes— blames Thad’s habit, and maybe he’s right.
Thad should flush his system, go a week un-stoned. Except, without weed, he isn’t sure how best to wrestle with the world. He doesn’t have his father’s brilliance, Jake’s talent, or Diane’s grace. He doesn’t have Michael’s cynicism to keep him warm at night, or his mother’s faith to fold into when things get tough. He wants to be happy. But how to get there without a joint? How to live without the love of someone else? How to be happy, sober and alone?
The bucket under Thad has grown uncomfortable, the back room hot, but what’s in Teddy’s box is beautiful. Each compartment holds a canister, each canister a bud, each bud a promise: The world would miss you if you went. Thad needs to believe this.
His ice cream is softening, but he’s not really here for dessert, so he lets it melt in the bowl.
“This Blueberry’s new,” Teddy says. He holds a canister at eye level, gives it a gentle shake. Through the glass lid, Thad glimpses the blue-green-purple plant matter inside. “It’s an indica, so we’re talking relaxi-taxi. There’s Northern Lights—classic—but you’ve had that before. On the sativa side, I’ve got a K2 and some pretty decent Kiwi Green. Then there are the blends. I’ve got Kushes, OG and Kandy. Some other hybrids over here.”
Teddy touches each canister as he talks. His fingers are long. His hands are huge.
“Now, this,” Teddy says, “this is Blue Cross. Enough sativa to keep you sharp, but not so much you’re checking your back for ghosts.”
“That one,” Thad says.
“Good choice. You want, I’ll roll you one right here.”
“Thanks, but, you know.” Thad hooks a thumb in the direction of the doors. By now, his family’s wondering where he is. Then again, maybe a big fat joint is just what his family needs. He can picture it: his mother laughing, Dad doing a box step with Diane across the deck. Michael snuck hits with Thad in high school, so who knows? He might be down.
Thad produces two hundred-dollar bills from the wallet he holds for Jake, and Teddy drops two baggies in his palm, plus rolling papers and a lighter.
“You run out, you know where to find me.” Teddy smiles; his teeth are yellow. He shuts the mahogany chest, then affixes a combination lock to its latch.
Thad studies the bags. There’s more weed here than he can burn up before heading through airport security. Which means he won’t be back for more. Which means, since the family lake house is for sale, that he may never see Teddy again. He should say something, but he’s bad at goodbyes. Easier to let Teddy believe he’ll be back next summer. Easier, but not kinder.