The Ice Cream Man

The Ice Cream Man

(for Ray Bradbury)

The houses stood like antennaed armadillos, dead in the heat.  The dark garages slumbered with graveyard relics of picnic hampers, damp with mold.  There, tangled fishing rods lay beside wicker baskets, lids open, empty, collecting dust.  There, the past lay buried, and all but forgotten.
       Then, round a corner of endless suburban road, black with new tar, came the ice cream truck, its familiar jingle tracing the tranquil air around it from its giant vanilla-white four-funneled loudspeaker.  It was the color of cool waxen oranges and chocolate ice cream bars under the blazing summer sun, and moved deliberately along the lonesome, childless street, passing the neglected bats and roller skates to roll over the now covered and invisible hopscotch lines.  Inside the truck’s shadowed cab, the driver’s callused hands turned the chrome-capped wheels right and left, habitually evading bumps that had once been in the road.  When he heard a screen door flap and saw three kids appear under the shade of a cool, green veranda, he touched the brake, and leaned his head out.  “Hey!”
       And Kelly and Andy and Mary came running across sun-scorched grass to stand on the edge of the lawn, where they watched Mr. Andrews climb out of his cool-breathing ice cream truck to circle and open the shiny silver door in back, out of which all of Antarctica breathed.  The old man’s arm thrust briefly into the polar recess, and as the thick door swung quickly shut, withdrew amid a puff of frosty vapor clutching two smoky lime Popsicles and an ice cream sandwich.  He passed out the delicacies, giving Kelly the ice cream sandwich.
       “You always were my friends, kids, so these are on me today, free of charge.”  Watching the youthful trio quickly unwrapping their already dripping treats, he added gravely:  “Enjoy’em, now, ’cause this is my last round.  Retiring, I am.”
       Kelly’s teeth stopped halfway into the chocolate coating, and left an impression.  Her mouth dropped open, and she stared as if for the first time at Mr. Andrews and at the cool orange lettering behind him, which read proudly: ICE CREAM!  “Why,” said the little face framed with blond curls, amazed, “you just can’t do that, Mr. Andrews.  We won’t let you.”
       “I wish I didn’t have to,” the old man replied, hesitantly.
       “But why?” said Mary.
       “Why?”  Mr. Andrews touched his wrinkled cheek.  “I could show you…but you have to ask your mom.”
Mrs. Peters waved from the front porch.  “Bring’em right back, Mr. Andrews,” she called.
    They climbed into the cab as Mr. Andrews held the door, and they licked at their dripping refreshments all the while the singing truck swam up the river of heat, like a giant metal salmon, past the sun-drenched lawns.
       “You don’t really mean it…do you?” laughed Kelly, not seeing where the old man kept his fingers on the wheel, his face attentive as they approached Timmons Park, with its child-empty baseball diamond and rickety, paint-blistered bleachers.
       “I know we go to the drugstore sometimes,” conceded Andy. “And I know we buy those fancy gourmet ice creams out of the grocery store freezer sometimes too, but it ain’t the same.  You KNOW that, don’t you?”
       Mr. Andrews stopped the ice cream truck to the side of the road and in reply pointed at the playing field where the grass was steadily filling in the bald spots, and he flipped a switch and turned a key, and the music around them died and the engine subsided.  “Do I?” he said sadly. “Look….”
       They looked where he’d pointed, and in the fiery air there was not a sound except the faint sweep of traffic along a distant superhighway, and the flapping of a solitary pigeon across the windless sky.
       “No one,” said Mr. Andrews tonelessly.  “Once whole families came here, not just the occasional company team.  Family and friends laughed, played together.  They shared something, then.  They had a real life to live because they took the time to make it real.  But now?  Now, on a day like this, there is no one.  Now mostly it’s only the cold light of television touches their faces, but it never really touches THEM, kids, it never does.”
       Andy made his own face sad.  “You’re…going broke, is that it, Mr. Andrews?”  
       “I guess you could say that,” Mr. Andrews reflected, opening the door.  “I guess we all are.”
       “Where are you going?” said Mary, seeing him get out.
       “To sit on the bleachers one last time,” Mr. Andrews replied.
       And so they sat on the ancient, buckling park bleachers behind the baseball diamond in the torrid afternoon, nibbling at ribbons of chocolate and licking at the cool whiteness of Eskimo pies as Mr. Andrews told them how it had been there when he was young: the shirt-sleeved men munching at ripe red watermelon slices, the ladies in their flowered dresses chatting about recipes under the shade of posted silk umbrellas, the Saturday afternoon baseball games that began with a prayer of thanksgiving and a pledge of allegiance to the Stars and Stripes hoisted aloft by veterans of WW II, the children wading in the creek with rolled up buck-fifty blue jeans, poking sticks at crayfish and flinging water on each other.  And of course there was the binging of a bell as a horse-drawn wagon arrived with homemade ice cream, while the dragonflies hovered in purple glints out over the field.
       There was the field now, threatened by weeds, an abandoned theater of ghosts.
       As they listened to Mr. Andrews’ voice droning peacefully on in the stillness of the afternoon Kelly had visions of swimming holes and tranquil lakes, the long oars dipping down to vanish under cool, shadowed liquid green.  Of gobbled cotton candy at fairs, and high-vaulting Ferris wheels.  Of horse-hooves beating a wood-winding path before late stories told around campfires.  Things that seemed almost like an old movie.  And all the time the ice cream truck waited for them, the reality of it here, now, all cool white and orange and brown enamel, its glistening silver door reflecting sunlight into Kelly’s eyes so she moved in her seat.
       “Well, I guess that’s that.”  The old man stood on the long, warped bleacher plank, and, putting one foot out, stepped carefully down to earth.  Then they walked toward it, it’s chocolate scent on their hands, and as they squeezed inside again the ice cream truck was silent, quiet as a hearse, and Mr. Andrews didn’t bother to turn on the loudspeaker.
       They sailed solemnly back down the long, boiling graveyard streets, past rows of brick homes with barren, wilting yards.
       “You just can’t do it,” said Mary as Mr. Andrews stopped to let them out.  She ran her hand along the dark brown images of Eskimo pies, and the handsome lettering, painted lovingly within a citrus-colored border.  
    Mr. Andrews avoided their eyes as the ice cream truck coughed, idling.
       “Mary’s right,” said Andy.  “We won’t let you.”
       “It’s not the same,” said Mr. Andrews, shaking his head.  “Things have changed.  The kids out now are forming street gangs, disfiguring the neighborhoods.  You wouldn’t understand.”
       “I understand,” said Kelly, carefully, “that you’re still our friend.  Even mom trusts you.”
       A smile, something of hope, came and went in the old man’s wrinkled face.  Then a gear ground into place, and the ice cream truck began to drift from the curb.
       “We’ll be waiting,” Kelly said.  “Tomorrow we’ll be waiting.”
       “Will you?” said Mr. Andrews.  “Tomorrow?”
When he was gone, Andy yelled.  “Come on!  We can trim hedges and lug bottles from gutters and with the money we can keep Mr. Andrews in business!  We’ll tell every kid on our block, and the next, and then Mr. Andrews can come back all the rest of the summer, and he won’t have to retire!  THINK about it!”
       And Kelly thought as if for the first time of how it might be that next day toward noon under a blazing sky, with a simple melody that swelled nearer and nearer as the captured glacier approached, beckoning with all of winter’s relief in the oven of summer:
    The enchanted sound that stayed with you somehow, though deeply buried.
       The tune that surfaced again and again amid the tidepool flotsam of dreams.
       The calliope music of Mr. Andrews’ ice cream truck.
       For if she closed her eyes she knew she would see the prison doors beginning to open, with the young prisoners begging change from smiling mothers in order to save what was left of summers past–when parents weren’t so afraid of every passing car.  She would see the things that must had made Mr. Andrews smile in his sleep, a memory of days fast faded.  She would see Mr. Andrews too, like a pied piper, reaching into his magical Siberian blizzard to pull forth miracles for parched throats.  And then?  Then she could imagine the warped Frisbees that would be fished free of gutters to be thrown across backyard greens to grinning kids…the dusty picnic hampers that would be pulled from attics and garages to be filled with fried chicken and potato salad for an afternoon of fellowship in the park….
       “Wait a minute–how about a baseball game?” shouted Andy, suddenly.  “Like Mr. Andrews had, with everybody there.  Kelly–what do you think?”
       “Kelly?” said Mary. “…What are you doing?”
        “Imagining it,” Kelly replied, closing her eyes.  “Just. . .imagining it.”   


©1994 by Jonathan Lowe

Ray Bradbury Poem

Poem sent to me in 1995 by Ray Bradbury


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