It was hot as hell—New York City-in-the-summer hot—and the world spun at half-speed. We were on that sort of walk you take when you have nowhere to go but you realize that baking in the sun is better than baking in the stale air of your apartment. Our strides were long and lazy, our soles slowly scraping the pavement, when a familiar music sounded in the distance like a jacked-up jack-in-the-box. Matt pricked up his ears. "C'mon!" he shouted, and suddenly we were running, full speed, homing in on that Mr. Softee truck like dogs to downed birds.
Swirling white spires in our hands, ridiculously satisfied, Matt made a grand announcement. Damn near dead broke and a recently decommissioned vegan, he said, "Dudes… soft serve is on me. All summer long."
There were rules: No milkshakes. No toppings, except that delicious, freaky cherry dip that hardens instantly. And we had to order it by its proper name: "Soft serve." But he kept his word, keeping us in cones for months.
One by one, we followed suit. The next year, fried clams and funnel cakes were on me. Raymond put fried chicken on the table for the white-shoe season. We lit up; this is a serious offer. "No sides," he said, gravely. "I don't buy sides." Molly staked new seasonal ground by making hot chocolate on her all winter long.
Maybe we were getting a little competitive… or conniving. A year later, Chuck declared rather imperiously that rack of lamb was on him, but on the condition that he had to choose, buy, cook, and serve the lamb himself. He was inexplicably living in a sweltering attic in Philadelphia, 100 miles from the rest of us, and I grew suspicious of his magnanimity. "Hey man," I said, "If you're lonely and want visitors, you can just come out and say it."
It's been years since that first, historic Mr. Softee cone. Since then, we've refined our offers. Matt, ever the showman, declared that soft serve would be on him all life long. Raymond has been known to pick up the occasional biscuit, as long as it comes in the same basket as the chicken. Molly will buy you a hot chocolate in July, if you're in that sort of mood. Chuck moved even further away to Boston, further ensuring that no one will savor his lamb. This year, as a tribute to the southern heritage I wish I had, I'm thinking about throwing banana puddin' in the mix. Or maybe peaches. I love me some peaches.
But whatever form the offers take, year after year, when the heat comes, we find ourselves saying those words to one another: "On me, all summer long." There's no ritual to it, no date we set, it's just a promise between friends that's constant like the seasons.