My children begged me all summer to stop at the old convenience store near my parent’s house, and I finally gave in.
It took me a long time to understand why they even wanted to visit a run-down old gas station that barely stands on a corner of the old highway. But eventually, I understood. This little store had shown up in many of the stories I had told them about my youth, and their imaginations had turned this one pump gas station into a time machine to their father’s past. I had told them about how I would ride my bike there to buy Toosie Pops when I was ten-years-old and how we would peddle home with them in our pockets and sit on the dark orange carpet to play Nintendo with our faces too close to the screen, leaning forward so the static would tickle our noses and our Tootsie Pops would slowly dissolve over our back molars which decades later would need to be crowned. I had told them about lying in the grass in the front yard, listening to the roar of drag racers echoing off the mountain on hot summer afternoons, and how we would overturn large stones until we found an ant mound which we would relocate into a Mason jar and then we would drop in spiders and beetles and small firecrackers, just to see what would happen, cheering on our favorites while the other ants shriveled and died. Then, I told them, I would listen to cassette tapes of Billy Joel on my Sony walkman and I would ride down the washboard humped gravel path along the highway to “the store”, leaving my fixed wheel BMX in the dust, the back tire still spinning as I darted in with a dollar bill and out again with a bottle of soda or a pack of Hostess Sno-balls.
I told them these stories, and only later realized how often the little shack on the corner next to the blinking light factored into them. It was just a place, like every other place in my childhood, that I had taken for granted. But the little store had become a shrine of my youth that they desperately wanted to visit. They wanted to take me on a pilgrimage that I myself had no interest in going on.
The store was now painted bright green (no doubt indicating its real nature of business) and it seemed to lean slightly like a boxy wooden trap waiting to go off the moment you stepped inside the door. But the children were persistent and finally, I gave in one long-shadowed evening when the sun was golden enough to make the place glow in a way that was impossible for them to resist.
Three screaming voices forced me into the parking lot (if you can call the dusty shoulder of the highway a parking lot), and three sets of hands dragged me through the dirt, over the entry grate, and through the front door. Then three tiny pairs of feet immediately scattered inside the dark strange interior of the store and I chased after them through the dimly lit corridors of chips and bubble gum. I stumbled over the uneven wooden floorboards and grabbed at the sweat-covered foreheads as they darted by.
Everything inside the store was exactly how I remembered it being, just older. This is a recent realization of mine. When I was young, I had fallen prey to the thinking that the future would be sleek and clean, covered in colorful blinking lights and reflective white plastic panels. Hovercars would drift soundlessly above the magnetic roads and people would wear clothes made of self-cleaning paper, folded into uncommon shapes that shifted and changed as we moved. None of this was real. I have since come to the terms with the truth: The future is just the past, only older and dirtier. It’s the same carpet, just worn down and threadbare. It’s the same shop windows just with grime on the windows and different junk hanging inside, blanched by the sun.
I looked around at the store. I looked down at myself. We had aged the same. I felt for a moment like I was standing in my own dimly lit ribcage, dirt hanging in the air in harsh sunbeams, bubble gum I was warned not to swallow piled in a rusty rack still waiting to be digested, a stack of Hostess Sno-balls. Perhaps a few too many Hostess Sno-balls, if I’m being completely honest. Yes, this store was the future, and the future was a crumbling tomb. I was a crumbling tomb. I regret walking through the door.
My children didn’t seem to notice. They were gathered around a box of Bubble Tape, touching it delicately and looking at it from every angle as if it were the wrappings of a long-dead mummy.
In an effort to get them out the door, I motioned them to an old chest freezer that was humming by the front counter and offered to buy them ice cream for the ride home. One Pushpop, a Good Humor Bar and an ice cream sandwich later and we were back in the car. The store was fading into my rearview mirror in a cloud of smoke as I continued contemplating what had happened and how the future I was driving into was just going to continue to be an ever-deteriorating version of the past until it all came crashing to the ground one final time. My back ached and I sat up taller in my seat and smiled reassuringly to my children. That’s when I noticed Gideon wasn’t eating his ice cream sandwich.
“Gideon, why are you not eating your ice cream?”
His treat was resting on the seat beside him, partially unwrapped with just two bites out of it. He smiled down at it and then back up at me. “I’m saving it. I wanted to wait until we got home so I can share it.”
“Share it with who? With mom? That’s sweet of you, but mom doesn’t eat ice cream sandwiches, and it’s going to end up melting all over my seat.”
He frowned slightly and folded the wrapper closed to prevent it from leaking out, then gave a worried look back at me to see if it was alright.
I sighed and drove on. It wasn’t worth arguing to figure out why this strange little boy wasn’t eating his ice cream.
I didn’t think much about what had happened until later that evening when I was walking through the living room and I looked out the front window and saw something odd in front of our house. The sandwich was melting into a puddle on the walkway. It hadn’t even made it ten feet out of the car before it was thrown on the ground. Then I got angry. I called the boy to me and had him climb up onto the couch while I pointed out the window at the problem. “Do you see that?” I asked.
“Yes. It is my ice cream.”
“Okay, then why is it melting onto my front walk?”
He squinted back and forth between me and the window, “Because… I’m sharing it?”
I spun in a circle in shock. “Sharing it?! You’re sharing it? With who?”
He pointed, as if I were not seeing the whole picture. “With the ants, Dad.”
I blinked at him, and then blinked out the window. “What?”
“See? The ants are eating it.” He smiled dreamily. “They LOVE it.”
I leaned my forehead against the window. Sure enough, I could see something crawling all over the little puddle of sugar. I swallowed my anger and took a deep breath. “Gideon… Gideon… My little boy…” I took another breath. “Why? Why in the world? Why would you share your ice cream sandwich, that I paid good money for, with ants?”
He looked a bit ashamed and glanced back out the window. “Well, you used to be so mean to the ants. I thought they might like some ice cream. To say sorry.”
I touched the boy on the top of his head and I could feel a humming. Something amazing was happening in there. I took his hand and the two of us carefully walked out into the front yard and crouched together on the walkway to observe some ants.
“See? They like it,” he said. “It’s better this way.”
“Yeah. Okay. It’s better this way.”
The next morning on my way out to the car, I stepped over a messy melted sandwich in front of my house. I tipped my hat, and said good morning to some ants and then drove to work. And as I drove I considered how the future we live in is just an older and dustier version of the past, all worn out and threadbare, falling down. And I had to laugh at my own foolishness. The future really is a brighter, cleaner, and more innocent place. You just have to know where to look for it.