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At about 6 o’clock yesterday evening Peanut decided he wanted some ice cream from McDonald’s. Since it was hot and I was feeling magnanimous I decided to oblige him. A traffic jam had already formed in the drive-thru lanes so I opted for the lobby.
I’m sure we looked like quite the pair; me, still dressed in my Sunday seersucker suit, and Peanut wearing his canine smile and strawberry red leash.
The black girl tending the counter smiled at us and said, “Awww. How cute.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I clean up ok.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “I meant the dog.”
“Yeah. He’s a ladykiller.”
“Is he your service animal?”
“No. I’m his.”
She giggled. “What can I get for y’all?”
“I’ll have an Oreo McFlurry. He’ll take two vanilla cones in a bowl.”
After a minute or two we got our ice cream and I sat down in a booth. Peanut sat at my feet lapping up his frozen treat so fast it was apparent that dogs don’t have to worry about things like brain freeze.
In the booth behind me sat a man with a little girl who couldn’t have been a day over 5. She was having ice cream too.
A couple tables over were four or five boys laughing and carrying on. Their clothes looked like they had crawled out of a cow pond. I reckoned they belonged to the two four-wheelers I’d seen parked outside. No doubt they’d spent the afternoon engaged in the time-honored tradition of mud riding.
The bigger boys dug out the smallest fries from those little red boxes and were tossing them across the table as the runt of the litter attempted to catch them in his mouth. He showed remarkable skill. “He will go far in life,” I thought to myself.
An elderly man came out from the restroom and paused beside my booth. “Is he friendly,” he asked me, looking down at Peanut crunching one of the sugar cones.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Never seen that dog before in my life.”
The old man laughed and stooped over to offer his ear-scratches and “good boys.” Peanut never acknowledged him.
“I’ve got one at home that would take your arm off clean up to the elbow if you fooled with him while he’s eating,” the man said.
“Lucky for us this one doesn’t even know we exist right now.”
I heard the man in the booth behind me say softly to the little girl, “your mother’s here.” She began sniffling into her hot fudge sundae. “But I don’t wanna go. I want to stay with you,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “But I will see you again in just a couple weeks. Promise me you will be a good girl.”
“I promise,” she said. And I’d wager that the world’s most disillusioned cynic would have been hard pressed to doubt the sincerity of that wee one’s vow.
The retinue of muddy boys cut a noisy path toward the door. A tall, slender woman passed them on their way out. One of the boys tried to whistle in her direction, but his lips kept getting in the way so it sounded like an angry cat hissing. But it didn’t matter. She paid him no attention as she headed straight to the booth behind me.
There was no small talk. “Are you ready to go?” she said. “Come on.”
I watched the three of them make their way to the parking lot without speaking, the little girl clutching fistfuls of her daddy’s britches legs as he walked. He reached into the backseat of his old truck and handed the woman a pink backpack, a small suitcase with flowers on it, and a bright purple blanket.
He knelt down and hugged the girl and kissed her on the forehead. Then he just stood there for a long minute with his head down as the minivan pulled out onto the highway.
When I was a kid I used to think I would understand the world when I grew up. Why moms and dads can’t just tough it out and make it work. Why good dogs die and why drunk drivers always seem to walk away without a scratch. Even though I am all grown up now, the questions remain.
But there are a few things I do know. I know that good dogs pass away only because they have worn their little hearts out loving us to death. I know that going mudding with friends on a Sunday afternoon is not the kind of thing a man has ever looked back on with regret. I know that grandmas and grandpas have the ability to concentrate a lifetime of love into a hug and a handshake. I know that memories are worth more than money. I know that we should always make the most of the time we have with those we love–even if it's just every other weekend.
And even though I know that what they sell at McDonald’s isn’t good for me, an Oreo McFlurry enjoyed in the presence of laughter and love is.