The man before me is gaunt, as though he hadn’t eaten for a week or more - not what I expected from an ice-cream truck operator. Sunken cheeks make his face seem long, but not taught. Skin hangs in folds like molten wax dripping down the sides of a candle. His teeth struggle to push apart those flaps as he exposes what must be a smile, showing the only part of him that seems consistent with the mental image I’d developed. Those teeth are yellow and brown and black, which are way too many colors for someone’s mouth unless that person spends all day gorging on dairy products.
However, I have to admit an uncanny resemblance between the bags beneath his eyes and the red half-circles on the face of a pathetic-looking clown’s painted on the side of the truck. The white make-up was clean and even held firmly to what little shine was left, but below the chin and left eye, flecks of paint were poised to make their escapes.
His breath slaps me back into now. It’s sharp like rotting oranges and smoke and bad dental hygiene. The one problem with such authentic experiences like ice-cream breath is that my appetite has been obliterated. I scan the list of possibilities, starting at the top and working my way down slowly, realizing with horror in the dull clown’s reflection that a line has begun to form behind me.
It’s an old-time truck, carrying vintage flavors. The Mint Choc is a color that anything proclaiming to be chocolate should never be. If I had to pick, I think vomit-green is the tone that it best expresses - like that scene from the exorcist, only a little browner. Now the Chunky Choc - that’s the right color, but it’s in loaf form, and I refuse to describe what that reminds me of. The Cornette trio stare at me, three sisters, each more alluring than the next. There’s promise there - my appetite is beginning to return.
“Haven’t got all day, mister,” the man says to me. Another waft of breath, and this time crusty around the edges like moldy blue cheese, but the sisters seduce me still with their greens and reds and vanilla ice-creams sitting above a waffle cone. But here’s the thing - sometimes those cones have chocolate in the very bottom, a secret treasure. I can’t remember which.
“Those cones,” I motion to the sign over his shoulder. “Do they have chocolate in the tips?”
“I don’t know. I don’t eat ice cream.”
This reveal blows my mind.
It more than blows my mind, because now I have to figure out why his breath smelled now of… sour milk? No, that’s not it.
I notice in the clown's reflection that another child has joined the line. The back of my neck heats and I’m certain it’s turning red. Although, with my complexion, nobody is likely to notice.
“Not a clue. But if you want, buy it and see. $3.50 is all it is, and you look like you can afford it.”
I’m forty-three, and I am in this line because this ice cream truck holds the heart of my son, Tommy, in its clutches. I back away a bit, making way for the child behind me to squeeze in while I look over the list again.
The skinny man is wrong. I have exactly $4.00 in my pocket and one chance to get this right. Unless…
“Do you take credit cards?” I ask the question on a long shot, seeing the man’s face screw up as he collects the kid’s money in front of me.
“Do I look like I take credit cards?”
My field of vision slowly expands as I take in the rest of the truck and notice that the wheel on the front-left tire, the one closest to me, is half-flat. The speaker on the top is not actually connected to the mount and just kind of lays there, wires protruding, ambivalent to living or dying. I’m amazed that it works at all. I shake my head in defeat.
The boy grabs something from the counter, almost too fast for me to see what it is, but I can figure it out from the plastic sticking from the bottom of his hand. It’s one of the Funny Feet, but the way he’s clutching it is amateur hour. Wrapping his fingers around it like that will make it melt so quickly that there won’t be anything left by the time he gets home - wherever that is. In fact…
I look at the faces in the line. None of them look familiar. I’d hoped to see one of Tommy’s friends from the neighborhood, but these all look like they’re from that trailer park at the bottom of the hill. The ice cream truck doesn’t stop down there, though if one did, the one in front of me would match the character of the community. I don’t let Tommy go down there, though right now, it seems.
Well, I’d let him go down there. If he could pull out of this thing, and clear the rattle from his tiny lungs, we could spend all day down there picking blackberries from the bushes that grow among the trailers. Whatever friend he wants to make, I’ll let him. He can pick.
I don’t care.
I exhale in a slow and controlled way, gritting my teeth at the same time. I’m not ready yet. I let the next child go, a little girl with a fistful of coins.
“Wibbly Wobbly Wonder, please,” she says, smiling the smile that I want for Tommy. Maybe that’s the one? It looks like a Neapolitan on a stick, and the way she smiles and actually skips away with it, holding it properly from the stick, almost sells me on it, until I get a flash of the morning’s conversation with Tommy, when he woke up with a fit of coughing, screaming “DAD!” in between gasps that would never bring enough air.
I hugged him close then, listening to the rasp as the fit eventually subsided. His frail body felt like it might break any moment into a thousand pieces that I could never stitch back together. A lump formed in my throat then, blocking my air.
“I love you, Tommy,” I told him. He didn’t say anything at first.
“Am I dying?” He whispered it at me after a moment’s silence, in that tiny high-pitched voice that he still has, though it is changing.
I didn’t know what to tell him then, because I couldn’t say yes. Not to a five-year-old, and not when there was a slim chance, barely 14%, that he might make it, and giving him the truth just then might make it come true. Instead, I asked him what kind of breakfast he wanted, but I could tell from his silence that he knew what the no-answer meant, and his little arms squeezed me so tightly the last of my breath left my body. So, despite all that I’ve ever taught him, and all that I’d ever vowed to do as a parent, and that I’d ever promised my former wife, who couldn’t handle the burden of a sick child, I lied to him.
“Of course you’re not dying.”
“Waffles,” he told me, pulling back and grinning. His cheeks were flushed from all of the coughing, and he breathed easy then, just recovered from his fit.
“Vanilla Cone,” I mutter. That’s my son, Tommy. He likes the classics, like waffles, and a waffle cone would be exactly what he wants. Chocolate in the bottom, or not, he would love it.
“It’s not your turn.”
Now his breath smells like ripe avocados, and I can’t imagine it ever smelled like anything else, until I see that he’s begun working on a sandwich, hiding just out of sight behind the counter. I look at him and make eye contact, and for the first time since our conversation started, he sees me.
“Vanilla Cone,” I repeat, willing the tears to stay put and not explode down my face. His features change then, and the folds peel back just a few centimeters and reveal blue eyes connecting with my brown ones - one human to another.
“Here,” he says, and pushes one across the counter at me. When I try to pay, he shakes his head.
“No, take this one too.”
One Strawberry Cornetto slides across the countertop, and now I can feel my face light up. Suddenly, just for a second, I’m twelve again, putting my chore savings to good use on junk. I can already taste the strawberry chocolate swirls merging on my tongue.
I turn quickly and take quick steps toward my house. Looking up at the window, I can see Tommy’s face plastered against his bedroom window, eyebrows furrowed in concern. I wonder how long he’s been there. On instinct, I hoist the spoils up so he can see, and there is my reward.
From ear to ear, his face splits into a smile that exposes every single one of his 20 teeth, and I know without needing a mirror that smile is almost as big as his.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Thank you Juliet!
Thank you so much!