Gus arrives early, so he goes into the ice-cream shop across the street. He eyes the help—one is Sturdy, the other Smiley—and lets an old lady step in line before him. “Go right ahead, ma’am,” he says. “I just can’t seem to decide.”
“It’s awful hard sometimes, isn’t it,” the woman says, and shuffles in front of him.
He wants Smiley. She is new, so new she hasn’t figured out how to put on enough, but not too many, jimmies so that they aren’t clumps of wax. This also means she won’t know who he is.
She blows a wisp of hair out of her eye and asks how she can help him. He wants to tell Smiley any number of ways she can help him, the thought of which gives a little life to his dick, but he tells her he’d like a hot-fudge sundae, whipped cream and marshmallow, and nuts.
“Cherry?” she asks.
He can barely stand it. He shrugs his shoulders and asks if he can possibly ask for two.
She smiles. “Here or to go?”
“Oh, it’ll be to go. It’s for my wife. She’s at the hospital up the street. They said she could have an ice cream after her surgery.”
“Aw,” she says as she digs out the ice cream and curls it into the cup. He can see down her blouse. She’s putting her whole body into it, which causes her breasts to bump up against each other like hogs in a crowded pen. “Aren’t you nice,” she says. “Sure hope I can find a husband who will bring me ice cream when I’m sick.” When she turns to put on the whipped cream, he admires her behind—it’s ample, it’s got bounce. By the time she seals the cover, presses it flat, and gives it a swift pat, he’s nearly ready to blow his wad.
Now it’s time to deliver. He acts uninterested in the ice cream. Doesn’t even look at it. Then he pats down his jacket and feels around in his back pockets. “You know what,” he says, and lets out a little snort. “I feel like a real jackass.” He pats more frantically. “I must’ve left my wallet up at the hospital.” He goes through the interior pockets. “Ha!” he says. “That’s a real laugh. Might as well leave my wallet up there for how much those goddamn doctors are milking me for each night.”
The girl looks over her shoulder toward the back, where Sturdy is safely out of sight.
“I’ll just shoot up the street and I’ll be right back down. I can leave the ice cream right here. Don’t let anyone take it, OK?”
She pushes the ice cream across the counter. “Just take it to her now and bring the money on your way home.”
“Aw, thanks, doll. I’ll be back in a flash. Thank you. Bless you.”
He turns to leave, and a woman behind him in line is shooting needles at him from her eyes. He wonders how he knows her. He wonders why she clearly doesn’t like him. Must have been something he said.
He walks out the door, takes a deep breath, and sits down on the closest bench around the corner. He licks the ice cream all the way around the rim of the cup. He feels the whipped cream melt against his upper lip and lets out a sigh. His sugar level is going to shoot through the roof, but he doesn’t care. By ice cream, not by fire, would be an acceptable way to go.
When he checks in at Dr. Fador’s office, he remembers how he knows the lady who’d been giving him the dirty look in the ice-cream parlor. She is the doctor’s secretary, and her head and her perm, visible through the reception window, remind him of a Muppet in a picture frame. She slides the glass pane open.
“Surprised you could make it here so quickly after bringing your wife an ice-cream sundae.”
“What can I say? If a man needs an ice cream, a man needs an ice cream.” He doesn’t tell her that he legitimately thought he was going to die last night, and he figures if he’s going to die soon, he might as well get a free ice cream.
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Shame is not in my vocabulary.”
“Is that the problem?”
He is relieved when his turn finally comes. Dr. Fador looks tired. He is the smartest and kindest person Gus knows. After all these years, the doctor still talks to him, still takes care of him. That, he knows, says a lot about his character.
“Doc,” he says, “I’m not well.”
The doctor sniffs the air. “Is it smoke inhalation?”
“Yes, that’s part of it,” Gus says. He tells him about the fire.
“How did it start?”
“I think it may have been a cigarette,” he says sheepishly.
“I thought you quit.” Dr. Fador warms the stethoscope by rubbing it on his palm and places it on Gus’s back.
Gus doesn’t miss that small act of kindness. If he were to write Dr. Fador’s obituary, he’d add that small compelling detail, something he’d done out of pure thoughtfulness for another human being.
“Well, your lungs seem okay to me. How has your blood-sugar level been?”
“Actually, thanks for reminding me. I need some more of that fast-acting insulin. Seems I’ve used the stuff up.”
“I just prescribed you some insulin, Gus. Where’s it going?” The doctor snaps his folder shut and shakes his finger at Gus. “You’ve known me too long for this. I don’t know what you’re doing with it, but I can’t overprescribe. Take another doctor for a ride. Not me.”
“All right, Doc. You caught me. I’ve been giving it to my dog.” He thinks the doctor will appreciate his generosity.
Dr. Fador isn’t amused. “Then you’ll have to see a vet.” He snaps a glove onto each hand and tells him to stand up.
Gus coughs on cue. He feels the pressure, and it’s over.
Gloves off and in the trash, Dr. Fador is back to taking notes. Back to business. “How has your recovery been from the implant?” he asks.
“Life has never been better, Doc.” The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. So far, things had only gotten worse.