Here is the final installment of the novella. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top with excerpts from the short stories here.
The crowd started to thin out after A-Pop left, mostly because it was getting late, but DJGomes and VJBDJ didn’t let that deter them, and the place was flooded with pumping EDM from the end of A-Pop until the end of the party, at four o’clock Monday morning. Toby and Adrian had stayed until the end of that show, at which point both of them looked at each other, and both of them felt some kind of dread that the other wanted to leave.
But Adrian broke the silence. “So… we don’t have to hang out together, boss,” he said, “But if we’re either off tomorrow or you have a business call in a couple of hours — ”
“Off tomorrow,” Toby cut him off to answer. “So hang around as long as you want.”
“It’s totally innocent,” Adrian replied. “I mean, whether I’m on the clock or not.”
“I don’t care,” Toby said. “Do what or whom you want to, whenever you want to.”
“I would,” Adrian finally replied nervously, “But that’s okay. It’s all ace.”
“Ooh. You feel like ice cream?” Toby suddenly said excitedly.
Adrian just smiled. “Sure. But what’s open at this hour?”
“Follow me,” Toby nodded, and led him to the top of the middle of the park,where they went to the station to wait for whichever train came first, the B or the D line. Their routes overlapped briefly so either would get them to where they were going. The D line won, so they hopped on and headed back up two stations, past Pershing Square and then getting off at the 7th Street Metro. Once above ground, they walked a block down 7th from Flower to Hope and came to a Walgreens. Toby still remembered that infamous night there at about this time of day on the early morning before the earthquake, and he noticed by Adrian’s expression that he probably remembered the story, too.
“Is this…?” he trailed off and glanced up.
“Yep,” Toby replied, and they walked in.
There wasn’t a crowd this morning. The place was practically deserted. They went back to the freezer case and were confronted by what Toby knew as The Paradox of Choice. There were so many flavors that it would be hard to decide for someone who didn’t have a favorite, but Toby didn’t have that problem. He used to be a fan of rocky road, but after the quake he had drifted toward butter pecan. While it had similar qualities when it came to “mouth feel,” the flavors and aromas were far more relaxing and sophisticated.
As for Adrian, he kept wavering back and forth between all of the varieties that only involved chocolate —chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough, chocolate fudge brownie, chocolate fudge swirl, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate peppermint, chocolate trio, chocolate vanilla swirl, chocolate with OREO bits, chocolate with ‘Smores, mint chocolate chip, red velvet, and, of course, rocky road.
And then there were the brands, each of which had most of those flavors, or their own variations: Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Dreyer’s, Häagen-Dazs, Halo Top, Nice (the Walgreens house brand), and Tillamook.
That all worked out to 91 possible predominantly chocolate-based variations.. Never mind all of the other main flavor bases — vanilla and all of the fruits. And don’t forget to give some room for sorbet and frozen yogurt and non-dairy. Or sizes. Pint, quart, half gallon, gallon? “Fun cup?”
Have you ever wondered why the ice-cream aisle in a store’s frozen section takes up so much room? Well, there’s your answer. And don’t forget all of the “frozen novelties” — ice cream sandwiches and bars, popsicles, fudgesicles, Otter Pops, Klondike Bars, ice bombs, and even Frosty Paws dog “ice cream.”
This was one crowded department. Now, Walgreens did tone it down by including only the brands that gave them the best margins and least complicated ordering process, so… Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s, and Tillamook. If the manager had had her druthers, she wouldn’t have carried Nice, but she had no choice, for reasons that should be obvious from three paragraphs back. In order to cram it all into the space she had, she only stocked pints and quarts, and allowed in Häagen-Dazs pints of the three most popular flavors in the area, but those were only available in a so-called “coffin cooler” near the front of the store.
If you’re not getting that term… it’s a top-loading freezer with, usually, glass doors on top that either slide or lift, and all of the product is displayed stacked underneath. Retailers since time immemorial took to calling it a “coffin cooler” because you had to lift the lid to get to the cold, hard stuff.
But, Adrian and Toby don’t know any of this, and by this point it’s about a quarter past four in the morning. They’d made good time hiking up Grand Park and also lucked out in hitting the station right as a train arrived, so overall it had only taken them about ten minutes to get here.
Toby could see Adrian’s brain practically melting over the options and he really felt sorry for him, so he finally just said, matter-off-factly, “By the way, I gave you another bonus after we convinced the mayor to screw with Wendy, and it should be in your account by now. Buy yourself something nice, but the docking or hangar fees are all going to be on you.”
Adrian just turned to Toby, gawked for an instant, then opened the cooler and quietly pulled out two pints: Tillamook chocolate peanut butter, and Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie.
“Good man,” Toby said, and they headed for the checkout, where the manager that Toby had once thought of as a tiny transwoman had now become a person in his mind, because he’d gotten to know her over the last couple of months. Her name was Ramona, and she was working her way through law school at Loyola downtown. Yes, she was transgender, but Toby had long since stopped thinking of her as anything other than her preferred pronouns and gender. Or, as he liked to think of them, her real ones. She’d taught him a lot.
He also knew that most people of his class would find it very weird that he loved walking down here, often in the middle of the night, to buy things that he could have (in their minds, should have) ordered from the best names in the world: toiletries from Bolin Webb, Clinique, DIOR, Erno Lazlo, Foreo, Kiehl’s, Tom Ford, Truefitt & Hill, and on and on. “Prove your worth by having them sent next day a.m. from Harrods. Don’t cheap out by ordering American!”
“Or, for god’s sake, order your ice cream from the Langham Hotel in Chicago, Maubossin in Manhattan, or Serendipity 3 in New York, so you can at least say that you’ve paid a respectable $1,000 for a pint, minus express shipping by private jet on dry ice. Otherwise, you’re embarrassing your class!”
God, Toby hated rich people, himself most of all. He noticed that Adrian hadn’t checked yet, but this latest bonus to him would probably also be the last one — not because Toby would be inclined to cut them off, but because he had finally realized that Adrian was worthy of elevation, since he wasn’t like the others who would insist on dropping a grand into another billionaire’s pocket for ice cream just to brag about it. The last one Adrian had gotten was six digits. This one is eight. In fact, Toby had looked it up. Adrian is 27, so he made it for a gross of $27,000,000, but then structured it as a dividend payout, rather than income, so he wouldn’t get fucked on the taxes like the little people do. He’d net about $23,000,000, and Toby knew that Adrian would know what to do with that kind of money and not become an asshole.
They got into line with their ice cream in hand behind four other people, and Toby noted that two of them were “Karens.” Great. And those two were followed by a bathtub. And then Toby looked at the guy ahead of him in line and thought, “Oh, holy fuck. What are the odds of this?”
He couldn’t forget the face he’d studied so intently just over five months ago, the man he’d spoken to, and the literal shitshow that had happened. Although something seemed different about him today. He wasn’t buying toilet paper, and he didn’t have the same hollow-eyed desperation. Instead, he had a couple of greeting cards in his hand, which seemed totally anachronistic in this day and age, although medical science was getting better at keeping centenarians around, so who knew?
The transformation Toby saw was amazing. This man seemed totally together. And it was definitely the same guy, so Toby leaned forward and said, “Perdóneme… ¿nos hemos conocidos anteriormente?”
The man turned, took one look at Toby, and just stared in amazement.
“Oh my god,” he muttered. “I remember you.”
“You speak English?” Toby asked.
“Of course I speak English.”
“But that night…”
“I speak both. Oh… I guess you do too. Yeah, I just tend to go to my native language when I’m feeling distressed, which I obviously was. But here’s the thing I never forgot. You were the one person who didn’t look at me with disgust or hate when… well… you know. ‘It’ happened. And I’ve always felt like you would have helped if I hadn’t run because I felt so goddamn ashamed.”
“Wait,” Toby said. “What? Oh my god… you have just forgiven me such a huge sin… Oh. My name’s Toby. Toby Arnott. And you are…?”
“Winford,” the man replies. “Well, to friends. Dr. Quintana to my patients.”
“You’re an MD?” Toby asks, seeming flustered.
“Yes,” Dr. Winford Quintana replies, “And that was why what you saw happen happen.”
“My god, I totally misread you,” Toby said.
“Yeah, I guessed that.”
“Holy crap,” Adrian suddenly piped up. Is he…”
“Yes, and shut up,” Toby shot back tersely.
“Oh, it’s okay,” Winford said.
“How did all of that happen, though?” Toby asked, feeling very awkward, but the doctor seemed very inclined to explain.
“Pardon my French, but goddamn dumbass anti-vax parents. Our ER was jammed about a week before with tons of kids having symptoms, and tons of idiot parents trying to get the staff to only use homeopathic or “holistic” treatments, and god, I wish that I could ban people like that from the campus in a heartbeat. But… no.
“Now, I’m not working ER that night, but I am working intake with the actual urgent non-measles cases getting passed through. The problem is, the volume in ER is so high that people are getting sloppy, especially with hygiene, and somewhere along the way, somebody with giardia comes in dirty, but I don’t know it. Hospital intake isn’t a sterile environment because it’s just assumed that all precautions have been taken on the way. So… I’m not absolutely sure who, but pretty sure that the intake exam I did on this fourteen-year-old soccer player from City of Angels High School blasted me with the parasite and I didn’t know it.
“Why would I? He presented with a broken leg, compound fracture. What I didn’t know is that he’d just come back from a team trip to Guatemala. Also, he had a minor case of diarrhea, and didn’t mention (until much later to his mother when the hospital asked) that he’d basically had an aerosol shart on the way from ER to my exam. And, since I’d assumed procedures had happened, well, kind of my fault, too, for not dipping the entire room in alcohol.
“By the time I was almost home and this shit, pardon the expression, caught up with me a week later, I realized that I’d need some heavy-lifting, and, how do the kids say it? An attempt was made. And you saw it fail.”
“Anyway, since that night, I’ve always imagined that I’ve turned into a case of ‘The Fortunate Fart’ around here.”
“Oh my god, you know that?” Adrian suddenly spoke up. Toby was about to rebuke him, but Winford smiled back and said, “Yes. You’re a fan of folklore?”
“For sure, doc. Did you know Abraham Lincoln used to love to tell a version of that story, mostly as a way of figuring out whether — ”
“—whether to trust politicians or lobbyists?” they finished together, and Winford gushed. “Yes!”
“Oh, wow,” Adrian added.
“Okay,” Toby said. “So… Oh what’s that old line from the movie? I have a feeling that — ”
“— this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Adrian and Winford chimed in in unison.
“Fuck this ice cream,” Toby announced. “You, buy your cards, but I have a fantastic idea.”
“What’s that?” Adrian asked.
“Breakfast?” Toby said. “The Pantry isn’t that far away, and I feel like that place fits the theme of now.”
“What?” Winford asked. “Hungry people?”
“No,” Toby replied. “Forgiveness. You don’t know the story, do you?”
Winford and Adrian both shrugged, and Adrian sighed, then went on. “It’s a total bullshit legend, of course,” he said. “But the rumor is that this place used to only hire ex-convicts and felons in order to rehabilitate them.”
“Is that true?” Adrian asked.
Winford and Toby looked at each other, smiled, and said, “Nah.”
“But who cares?” Toby added. “Sometimes, the sentiment is far more important than the truth.”
And so the three of them walked out of Walgreens, ice cream put back into the coolers but Winford’s greeting cards safely in his suit-coat pocket, and they turned the corner and walked from 7th to 9th, taking Hope all the way.
* * *