It has occurred to me that in these final days of my life, with no spouse or heir to wait at my bedside for my final breath, that I should preserve in writing the few defining moments of my mediocre time on this Earth. While I doubt that anyone will be interested enough to read these entries, it seems wrong that one should pass from this plane of existence without leaving something behind. Unfortunately, as I reflect on my mundane existence, I realize that each defining moment is somehow connected to my late “friend” (for he would, until the end, recognize me as such, though I could not reciprocate the sentiment) Howard Foreman.
The one thing I could never forgive Howard Foreman for is making it impossible for me to eat ice cream without excruciating pain. I loved ice cream, especially a nice scoop of chocolate. Nothing fancy, just plain chocolate was perfect for me. That is, until Howard Foreman took that away in a brief moment, a moment whose impact reverberated through the entirety of my life.
When I was 13, I chipped my tooth. Or rather, Howard Foreman chipped my tooth by slamming me into the asphalt during a game of basketball in junior high school. Howard was my bully. I say my bully instead of a bully because he only seemed to target me. He wasn’t the stereotypical large, ugly, stupid brute that cartoons had taught me to expect. No, he was handsome, athletic, and academically gifted. Universally adored by peers and teachers alike, it seemed as if I was the only one who saw the menace that he truly was.
But that is a digression, unnecessary to understand what makes this the first defining moment of my life. When my face impacted asphalt with what I can only describe as a wet slapping sound followed by a tremendous crack, one of my front teeth chipped in such a way that it exposed the dental pulp, sending tremendous pain radiating throughout my body. This wasn’t a menial pain, no, it was a severe, pulsing pain, that throbbed with each beat of my heart. I never received even a half-hearted apology from Howard, and my parents seemed far more concerned with the cost of dental work than the actual physical and mental state of their son.
Several dental procedures later, I still had a chipped tooth, and it still hurt like a thousand hells. As time passed, I learned to deal with the pain. It never left, not until much later in life, but I found ways to let it fade into the back of my mind. However, I could no longer stand to eat or drink anything that was either too cold or too hot, forever robbing me of the joys of chocolate ice cream. It was because of this that I decided that, no matter what the future may bring, I would despise Howard Foreman with every last molecule of my being.
Meeting Heather was a near religious experience. Her auburn hair, bright green eyes, and radiant smile that I saw in my first glance at her are still imprinted on my mind, like a beautiful painting by one of the old masters such as Da Vinci. She moved to town during our freshman year of high school, and I had the good fortune of sitting beside her in both Algebra and Biology, where I was also her lab partner. I was her first friend in this new environment, and she was the first (and only) person I ever loved romantically.
For the better part of that year we were inseparable. We were together at lunch, on the bus, and between each class. The stage, it seemed to me, was set for my eventual confession of affection. And truly, I feel we would’ve become an item, if it wasn’t for Howard.
It had been years since the incident on the playground, but my tooth still ached tremendously, especially whenever I spotted Howard in the halls. He had long since ceased to be my tormentor and instead took to ignoring my existence outright. Perhaps if I had acted sooner and told Heather how I felt before he set his sights on her then everything that followed could’ve been avoided, and my hate could’ve cooled into apathy.
It in the latter half of the school year, and I had every intention of asking Heather to the Spring Fling dance, when I saw them. As I approached her locker after my second period World History course, as was my custom, I saw Howard leaning against the lockers, locked in discussion with the girl I loved. As I moved closer, I caught the tail end of their conversation. Heather spoke in nervous, shaking voice, “Well, I was kinda waiting for my friend to ask…” “Who, old Chippy? You’re really think he’s going to ask you? I mean, wouldn’t he have done so by now?” Howard replied. “Chippy?” she asked, in a puzzled voice. “Yeah, a little nickname I thought up for him since he’s got that big chip in his front tooth.” It was then that they noticed me. “Just give it some thought, I’ll get your answer later.” Howard said, and, with a wink in my direction, he turned and headed towards his next class. “What was that all about?” I inquired. “Oh, it was nothing…” was her only reply.
After school that day, I asked her to the dance. For a second, I was certain that she would say yes, but then she hesitated. Her gaze shifted to my mouth, and I knew it was over. “Actually…” she began. “Don’t bother. I get it.” I said, making no attempt to hide the poison in my voice. Without a word, I turned and headed, not to the buses, but towards my house, content to walk the hour and a half it would take me to reach my home.
I didn’t go to the Spring Fling dance. Heather did, with Howard. I barely spoke to Heather for the remainder of our time in school.
My third defining moment came after a visit to the orthodontist’s chair. After high school, I had gone to a state university, studied business, and joined a multinational corporation that manufactured and sold dental equipment (and yes, I am quite aware of the irony). Once I had saved a few pay checks, I found a reputable orthodontist and had my offensive chipped tooth removed entirely, and replaced with a false one.
I still remember looking in the mirror once the work was done. The tooth was ever-so-slightly whiter than the others, but that was virtually unnoticeable except through very close observation. The effect on my confidence was tremendous. I walked with a new gait that exuded power and bravado. I was invulnerable.
Shortly after the successful procedure, I decided to do something that had been denied me since boyhood: I was going to go the ice cream shop and finally enjoy a scoop of that delicious, creamy chocolate concoction that I had craved for years. I entered the shop, placed my order, paid, and sat at the corner table facing the door. As I brought the beautiful, perfectly round scoop of frozen perfection to my lips, I caught a glimpse of familiar auburn hair and lifted my eyes to behold, for the first time since high school the siren of my boyhood dreams, Heather. And, of course, holding her hand, which now sported a large diamond ring, was Howard Foreman. My brain processed the image before at the same instant the ball of chocolate ice cream came into contact with my front teeth, and to my shock, a jolt of immense pain shot from the place where my chipped tooth had been and radiated through to the ends of my extremities.
In a state of terror, I dropped the cone and sped to the restroom. Turning to the mirror mounted over the sink, I examined my mouth. My new tooth was in perfect condition, and there was no sign of any damage, yet the pain persisted. It was as if I had never had the procedure in the first place. I had learned to deal with the pain before, but to have it return so violently after a brief respite was simply too much. I cursed my tooth, I cursed my mediocre life, and most of all, I cursed Howard Foreman. I exited the restroom and sped towards the parking lot, avoiding eye contact with the happy couple. My ice cream sat melting on the table where I had dropped it.
As I had before, I learned to deal with the pain, though this time the burning rage I felt never subsided. I masked it well, but beneath the surface a volcanic anger coursed through my body. I focused this excess energy into my work, and quickly rose through the ranks. It was this focus on my work that led me to my fourth defining moment.
The executives at the company were thoroughly impressed with the increase in my productivity, and after successfully pitching a new marketing strategy to the board (focused, of course, on equipment specifically meant for the correction of broken and chipped teeth) I found myself in line for a major promotion, on that would come with a sizable corner office and my own secretary. I was elated that finally, after all my efforts, after years of mediocrity, I would finally receive the recognition I deserved.
The board had only one last candidate to interview, but they assured me it was merely a formality. The position was as good as mine, or so I thought. So when, the following Wednesday, a man walked in and let the receptionist know he was here for an interview, I didn’t even look up from my cubical. It wasn’t until several minutes later, when raucous laughter erupted from the conference room that I lifted my gaze and, with horror and amazement, took in the form of the man who was my sole rival for the position. Howard fucking Foreman sat in the chair opposite the board members, in a pressed, fitted, designer suit, engaged in what looked more like a wildly successful standup comedy routine than an interview. I couldn’t avert my gaze for the remainder of the interview, and as they exited the conference room, Howards eyes found mine, and a wide grin spread across his face. “Well shit, if it isn’t old Chippy!”
It doesn’t take a genius to guess what followed. By the end of the week, Howard had settled comfortably into his new office, and to make matters worse, was given direct control over my division. The man who had been the source of each of my most humiliating moments had returned once more to remind me that, for some of us, mediocrity is the best we can ever hope to attain.
I could’ve left the company. I had performed well enough to find the advancement I sought elsewhere, but it would’ve been too much like an admission of defeat. Howard Foreman had been a towering presence over my miniscule existence, but I couldn’t let his hold on my mind force me out from a company I loved. He couldn’t be allowed to win. But at the same time, I could not continue to stew in the depths of my rage without taking some sort of action. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I acted, and set in motion the fifth and, consequently, sixth defining moments of my life.
It was the annual company cook out, and we had all gathered at the local park to pretend as if our company was a “family” instead of a conglomerate of disgruntled and moderately depressed worker drones. Howard in a circle with the other executives, talking and laughing with those he had wooed in his interview. Seeing an opportunity, I put on my biggest, fakest smile, and silently joined the group. He soon spotted me. “Chippy!” he said in a gleeful voice obviously inspired more by the bottle of light beer in his hand than any true joy at my arrival. “Hey guys, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this, but me and old Chippy here are old schoolmates!” “Chippy?” one of the execs inquired. Howard proceeded to elaborate on his own version of our shared history and the chipping of my tooth, conveniently leaving out that it was his shove that had led to the subsequent chipping. When the execs erupted into laughter at his humorous retelling, I surprised Howard by joining in myself. “Yeah,” I said once the laughter had died, “It was pretty funny, wasn’t it? Now Howard here, he was a special one. Top of the class, talented athlete, truthfully, we all wanted to be him. And look at him now! Still a resounding success.” Howard was clearly puzzled, but smiled at the unexpected flattery.
Conversation continued much the same for the duration of the event, and by the end only Howard and I were left, engaged in an intimate dialogue. We shared details of our lives, the football teams we loved, and, in the course of one long conversation, somehow forged a bond of friendship. In the following weeks, we would eat lunch together, furthering our newfound bond. Before long Howard was inviting me to dinner, and then to his beach house during the summer months to vacation with him. In this way I was reunited with Heather, whose beauty hadn’t faded over the years. I can still see her standing on the landing at the top of the elegant staircase that graced the foyer of their spacious lakeside home. We laughed and shared stories as we dined, and before long they came to see me more as a member of their family than a friend. I was even given a key so that I could water their plants when they went on vacations.
Yes, the three of us became quite close; when the time came for the birth of their first child, I was present in the waiting room, and the first person to hold the child after the parents. They even named me the child’s godfather. And I was an excellent godfather. I showered my godchild with gifts each birthday, though I rarely enjoyed desert, as he had a love of ice cream cake. To him I was his beloved uncle “Chippy.”
My enemy, the object of my utmost enmity, had taken me in as his closest friend.
Howard’s death had been sudden and unexpected, though the manner of his death was unsurprising to those who knew him. Old football injuries had made Howard’s legs prone to random spasms which would cause them to collapse beneath his own weight, and when Heather returned from her tennis lesson to find him at the foot of the great staircase, body unnaturally contorted, mouth agape, it was obvious to her what had occurred. I was the first person she called.
Howard’s funeral was a massive event. There wasn’t a building available in town large enough to accommodate the crowd that had assembled to mourn the man’s death. Therefore, we decided (for I had been helping the poor widow with the arrangements) to conduct the entire funeral at the gravesite, though it would require the use of loudspeakers for the crowd to hear the eulogy. The eulogy, that is, that I was to give. Howard had no siblings, and both the son and widow were too lost in their grief to be counted on. So, as Howard’s closest friend, I was asked to speak.
Standing in front of the crowd of weeping admirers that day was not as daunting for me, as I had been rehearsing my speech for quite some time now. And I delivered it beautifully. People cried and laughed and cried some more, and when it was all over, a sense of calm acceptance fell over the crowd. I won’t bother with the details of my little speech here, just know that it hit all the right cords.
Once the event was over and the crowd had begun to disperse, I made my way over to Heather and my godson, now a man of twenty-five. I wordless offered my shoulder for her to cry upon, and placed my hand upon the young man’s shoulder. I assured them that, in time, it would all be okay, promised that I’d be by for dinner tomorrow, once the remaining affairs were in order, and made my way to my car.
Here on my deathbed, it takes a great effort to remember the many moments of my past, but back then, sitting there in the cemetery, I closed my eyes and allowed memories to flow through my mind as I watch, a passive observer. I saw the asphalt rapidly approaching my face as a child, Heather’s smile the first day we met, a melting ice cream cone sitting alone on a table. Time flowed effortlessly through my consciousness, and the images of things long past were replaced with those more recent: the look of surprise on Howard’s face when I emerged from the shadows, the sickening crack of his head on the marble floor, the rapid beating of my heart as I drove back to my humble house to await the phone call I knew would soon come.
I opened my eyes. Smiling, I reached into my pocket, and pulled out the coffee-stained sliver of tooth that I had taken as a reminder, or rather, as a trophy. In that moment, the pain that had lingered in my mouth for most of my life subsided, and has never returned. My sixth defining moment was certainly the sweetest. I turned on the engine, put the car in gear, and drove towards the ice cream shop. I was in the mood for something cold, something chocolate.
Matthew Alcorn is an educator and aspiring writer from North Carolina. When he isn’t teaching literature or staring at a blank Microsoft Word document waiting for words to magically appear, he enjoys finding new ways to make his daughter laugh. This is his debut publication. His twitter is @MattWritesStuff.