The Ice Cream Man
I am constitutionally incapable of dealing with heat. In the summer months my apartment stays at a cozy 68 degrees, enough to keep the crisp in the air and the chill in my skin long enough to tolerate the brief sojourns into the outside world of heavy humidity that are my drives to and from work and other such obligations. On the weekends I’m grateful to be able to stay within the comfortable walls of my personal icebox and watch the rest of the world swelter on the asphalt outside.
The children, above all others, escape my comprehension. There’s so much energy in the haphazard movement of their limbs that I can’t help but admire them for their seeming invulnerability to the heat. I watch them from behind the glass door that leads out to my balcony, running and biking and throwing things around, being altogether more active than I could imagine being with the air as heavy as it is outside. I can hear them laughing from the second floor, and I can’t help but smile a little at their glee.
Today there’s something else that catches my attention. Big and boxy, heralded by a cheap and cheery jingle, the neighborhood ice cream truck makes its way down the street, stopping at the sidewalk in front of our complex to gather the little balls of energy bouncing off the concrete into a single mass in front of its window. I’ve never paid much attention to it before, but today I make a special point to study it in detail.
There is a little window in its side that swings open, propping up to let the vendor hand out his treats and collect the crumpled bills and jingling coins from their grabby little hands. I wonder at how little the children are bothered by its perturbing ambiguity - the rusting white panels, the worn plates, the disturbing lack of contact information for a company that might own this metal beast and the lonely soul that drives it. There’s nothing to assuage my growing worry, and it is with rapidly increasing anxiety that I seek out the driver in the hopes of finding a kindly old woman with a friendly smile.
The crooked thing that fills the window is anything but. He has hair to just below his ears, scraggly and greying, slick with sweat or some other liquid I don’t care to consider. It barely covers the expanse of his head, and finds little help from the sparse tufts of eyebrow and mustache that otherwise adorn his face. His teeth are yellow, his fingernails cracked and long, and I can spy something grimy on his clothing as he turns back and forth to deliver the sticky treats to the children outside.
I press my face into the glass and watch them, wanting more than anything to pull them away from the revolting creature, but they ignore the widened eyes and quivering fingers behind my window and accept his ice cream with wide smiles. Sticky fingers and chocolate-covered grins filter back into the apartment complex, clutching at their treats with possessive glee. I, on the other hand, decide that something must be done.
The next day I brave the weather to park myself outside, loitering under the shade of a nearby tree while kids puddle around with their summer toys. It doesn’t take long for the musical warning to reach my ears, and I ready myself to approach the curb as he moves to park his ramshackle monstrosity of a vehicle.
It’s the smell that hits me first. Sickly sweet and pungent, it leaks from the rusting white panels and permeates the air around the truck. I wonder that the kids don’t seem bothered by it. They gather around me, careful not to tuck themselves too close to the strange adult who’s cropped up to disrupt their routine. The little window swings open and I have to take a reeling step back - the smell comes at me in a wave, overtaking my nostrils, stinging my eyes. It’s hard to tell if it comes from the man himself or the air kept festering in the truck’s interior.
"Excuse me," I say once I’ve managed to catch a breath. The ice cream truck man seems alarmed by my presence. He avoids my gaze, scrambling his fingernails around the tops of his coolers in search of something to distract himself.
"Excuse me," I say again, much louder this time. He waves his hand at me dismissively and puts out a little hand-made menu that lists his wares.
"What - what ice cream," he fumbles.
"No, I’m not going to buy one, thanks. I just want to know what company you’re from," I say. I’m very polite about the whole affair. He shakes his head vehemently and shoves the menu towards me across the small counter.
"Ice cream! What - what ice cream?" he asks, a small glob of anxious spittle sailing through the opening towards my shirtfront.
The children seem to teem with agitation around my waist. The look from me to the ice cream man, unable to understand why I’m not simply giving him my money and walking away.
"No," I say clearly. "Company. What company. Who do you work for?" I jab an impatient finger at truck, hazarding a lean closer into the window to see if I can force him to pay attention. The proximity makes him panic - he throws the menu at me and backs into the truck, waving his hands and shaking his head.
"No ice cream! No ice cream today!" he screams at me. The window cover comes clattering down in my face and I’m forced to take a step away as he revs the motor and speeds off to the dismay of the little urchins nearby. They filter away in disappointment after a few moments of irritated protest, hanging their sad little heads all the way into the complex.
The police find neither the man nor the truck, but I am comforted by their promise to keep a closer watch on the neighborhood should he return. In the days that follow our little confrontation, I watch through my window and smile at the pools of children outside, glad that I played some minor role in their safety. I sleep well and soundly until the night the air conditioning decides to fail, and the building heat wakes me up in a sweat.
3:30 AM, and it should be much cooler than it is. I open all my doors and windows in the hopes that the night air might be refreshing, but it’s as heavy and sticky outside as it is in my sheets. I peel myself away from them and march to the refrigerator, planning to borrow brief respite from the chill inside my freezer. There is only a brief annoyance when I realize the freezer door is cracked. I sigh to myself and move to close it. In my sleep-adled haze I don’t see it until I’m steps away from the door.
It stares at me, wild and yellowed as his teeth, an unblinking eye seated in the crack of the freezer door, watching my movements. The clatter of lengthened nails sounds on the inside of the freezer compartment, growing louder, louder until the twisted growths appear alongside the round and staring orb. I stand transfixed as gnarled fingers slip from the crack and grasp either side of the opening, pushing it wider, wider in the dark of the kitchen, wide enough for me to take in the wisps of greased hair and that awful, pungent sweetness that emanated from his truck.
He says nothing. He doesn’t shriek when I plunge my kitchen knife into his eye and shove him back inside. I wrestle with the door for some time, stabbing when he pushes it open until the fight bleeds out of him and I can rest against the still white of its front in peace.
I spend the evening with my tools, nails and drills and screws - anything to keep it latched. I’ll buy a lock for it in the morning.
The maintenance men never come to fix my air conditioning. I’m forced to shower frequently to keep myself cool, and take frequent trips to the refrigerator to cool my heated skin against its outer surface. I don’t dare open its doors. Before long I move it closer to the window so I can sit against it, and feel the chill as I watch the children playing in the street and remember that despite the discomfort, I have done something for their benefit.