Vermont’s infamous black flies buzzed around Joseph Beck, and the July heat beat down on his thick black hair as he pushed the rusty lawn mower around the church. He felt like Sisyphus rolling the neverending boulder up the mountain. The dull blades barely touched the tall grass, so he had to put his whole back into it. He could have left it to grow taller, but he took pride in keeping the grounds neat. Sweat ran down his brow and he had to stop frequently to mop his face with one muscular forearm. His mouth tasted like dust, and he decided to treat himself to ice cream when he was done.
As he finished the last corner of grass, a trio of teenaged girls came down the sidewalk. They spotted Joseph and halted. He couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying but he’d grown adept at lip reading. It was the usual “Look at the Apeman,” and monkey hoots. They pointed at his oversized shoes and baggy pants held up with a length of rope.
"Hi Handsome," said the girl with blond braids, smirking, and they all burst out
Joseph hadn’t always looked like a sad clown. Once he’d been a top student and rising artist. It almost made up for his poor hearing from untreated childhood ear infections. But then at seventeen he'd been forced to drop out of school when his uncle died. Now it seemed he would be stuck in this sexton job forever, living in the church basement and wearing whatever showed up in the charity bin.
He turned away but felt something hard hitting his back. A clump of dirt and grass lay at his feet. The girls stared back, all innocence. Pigtails taunted, "Big scary guy. Whatcha gonna do to us?"
He picked up the handful of earth and lobbed it in their general direction. It fell harmlessly on the sidewalk.
"Ooh, I'm so scared," said the girl with waist-length brown curls.
Evidently Pigtails had grown tired of tormenting Joseph. "C'mon everyone, leave the Apeman in his jungle. Let's go get a Kreamy Kone."
Damn! Joseph didn't want to subject himself to more taunting, but his parched throat craved the cold sweetness of ice cream. Plain water wouldn't do on a day like this.
He shuffled back into the church, wiping his face on his damp Bruins T-shirt. It was rather pungent, so he pulled it off and went down to the men’s room to wash up. In his room, he changed into a clean Red Sox shirt. It was two sizes too small and barely fit across his broad chest. The baggy tan pants completed his stylish ensemble.
As he headed out, Joseph paused to look in his mirror. Bushy black eyebrows overshadowed his deep brown eyes. A wide jutting jaw and a five o'clock shadow at noon completed the picture. No wonder they called him Apeman.
He ran his fingers through his shaggy hair, wishing he could afford to go to Wally's Barber Shop on Main Street. Instead, he had to fend for himself with comb and scissors. The result made him look like a cartoon caveman.
He curled his lip and growled in frustration. Then he shoved his wallet into his back pocket and set out for the Kreamy Kone. All along Main Street he was keenly aware of the whispers and stares, but held his head high. Being the Apeman was a job in itself.
At the ice cream stand, a long line of tourists snaked around the cars parked on the hot pavement. Joseph waited patiently, but when it was finally his turn, he was so parched he could barely talk.
He croaked, “Chocolate twist,” but Mike, the owner, shook his head impatiently.
“C’mon, speak up. I ain’t got all day.”
Joseph tried again. Finally he pointed to the brown and white cone on the sign above Mike’s head.
“Sheesh, why didn’t ya say so?” As Mike swirled the ice cream into a cone, Joseph fished for his wallet to pay.
It was gone. He ran his hand through all his pockets but they were all empty.
He heard distant laughter and turned. The girls clustered around a table like flies, and Pigtails waved his wallet.
“Looking for something, Apeman?” The girls giggled and high-fived each other.
Joseph lurched towards them, roaring, “Give it back!” but they only laughed louder.
Mike poked his head out of the window. “Cut the crap, girls. Give the guy his wallet and get outta here.”
Pigtails threw the wallet on the ground, still laughing. Joseph picked up it but found it empty. He showed it to Mike.
“Sorry, kid. No ice cream for you.”
“But – but-“
“Move aside.” Mike held up the cone, which was starting to drip. “Anyone want a chocolate twist?”
“I do,” a woman's voice said loudly. Joseph turned. Joanna Fang, the church's new organist, stepped out of the line and came up to the window. Mike grinned at her as she paid for the cone.
In one smooth move she pocketed her change, pivoted and handed the cone to Joseph. Stunned, he almost dropped it. She bought a vanilla cone for herself and sat down at a table in the shade to eat it.
The girls began to jeer from a safe distance. “Apeman’s got a lo-ver! Apeman's got a lo-ver!”
Joanna ignored them. She finished her cone and pulled out a thick paperback from a Beethoven tote bag. As she bent her head over its pages, her shiny black ponytail spilled down her back.
Joseph hastily ate his cone and wiped his sticky hands on his pants. He stood awkwardly among the tables, trying to work up the courage to approach her.
She kept reading, apparently in deep concentration, turning a page now and then. He shifted from one foot to the other, his mind swirling with indecision. Should he thank her for buying his cone or simply say hello?
The girls' chant changed to "Go get her, Apeman! Go get her!"
The people in line stared at Joseph, muttering among themselves.
Mike leaned out the window again. “Beat it, girls! I’m not gonna say it again.”
"Oh boo hoo." They collected their purses and sashayed away, clutching each other's shoulders and bending over in hysterical laughter.
Joseph swallowed. It was now or never. Wiping his sweaty palms on his pants again, he edged closer until his shadow fell across Joanna's book.
She started, then looked up. “Oh hi, Joseph,” she said calmly, as if he had just arrived. “Could you move a little? You’re blocking my light.”
He stepped aside hastily, nearly tripping over his feet. She went back to reading, but he caught her glancing up at him. Finally she marked the page with a straw wrapper and closed the book. He peeked at the title. "The Joy Luck Club," by Amy Tan.
“Can I help you?” She sounded like a sales clerk.
Joseph cleared his dry throat and forced out the words. “Thank you.”
“Buying my cone.”
Joanna waved her hand casually, the silver frame of her glasses glinting at him. “You’re welcome. I hope you liked it.”
Joseph nodded. She smiled vaguely, then went back to her reading. Silence fell, and he didn’t know what to do next. Finally he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a faded old photograph he’d found while cleaning the pastor’s office. It showed the church with its steeple rising over a much wider street than the present, with a few old Fords parked on one side. He held it out to Joanna and she looked up, puzzled.
“For you. A bookmark.”
She took it, frowning. “That’s not a bookmark.” Then she looked up at him with amazement.
“It’s the church, isn’t it! When was this taken?” She studied the photograph closely. He gestured for her to turn it over, and she read, “”First Church, July 1917.’ How neat!” She held it out, but he backed away.
“It’s for you.”
“Oh, but it’s historic.”
“That’s okay. There’s lots more,” he lied. Just as he was hoping, Joanna carefully slid the treasure into her book and closed it.
“Well, thanks, Joseph.” It was the first time she had called him by name, and his heart beat little faster.
She placed the book back into her tote bag and stood up. “I’m done here. Want to walk back together?”
Would he ever! Joseph smoothed down his unruly hair and shuffled onto the sidewalk, trying not to lurch like Tarzan following Jane.
They moved towards the street, and Joanna smiled at Joseph as if he were a real human being.
Was it love or cold ice cream refreshing his soul? He wasn't sure, but it was enough for him.