Thursday, August 16, 2007

On my 12th birthday, the ice cream man died.

My mother had attempted to throw me a surprise party but, due to the fact that I had few friends coupled with family trips out of town for labor day weekend, it was sort of a flop. She pretended to send me angrily to my room when I came home from the park, and I opened the door to my tiny bedroom to find four girls scattered stiffly on the furniture. Each of them was at the time embroiled in a feud with at least one of the others, including, for one of them, me. (Her mother made her come.)

She shooed us off to the pool and we draped ourselves around the cracked concrete, chatting listlessly, too overwhelmed with the heat to put much effort behind maintaining our pre-teen animosities toward each other. After a while a man rolled up in a golf car--he was one of the guys that did maintenence around the trailer park--parked next to the fence, and honked. He asked what we were doing and I told him it was my birthday party, with a wave that took in the brittle beach chairs and wilting girls around me. He answered, "Well, the ice cream man died this morning, and he owned everything in his truck. So, you know, if you girls want some free ice cream, you should go for it." And then he drove away.

The ice cream man lived in a trailer on the corner by the pool, and he'd been the ice cream man for our neighborhood and the two or three neighboring trailer parks the whole time I had lived there. Nearly every day for 8 years I dashed after him with two dollars clenched in my fist, hoping he still had some screwballs left. We were unsure about looting the dead man's truck, but on the other hand all the free ice cream we could carry was a tempting proposition. Wrapped in towels we crept over to his carport, our long hair leaving a pattern of chlorinated drops behind that evaporated almost immediately. Standing next to the truck was his wife, who was waiting for us.

"Samantha, dear, I hear it's your birthday! Please, help yourselves; it's what he would have wanted. Ha! Do you remember that time, when you were around five, that you ran out to his truck straight out of your bath? He always got a kick out of that, thought it was the funniest thing." Uncomfortable with the damage that the story was doing to my almost-teenaged dignity, I hustled my friends into the truck through a door in the back and we stood there, cramped and a little creeped out. Our eyes shifted around the space, looking to make sure that he was not still in there somewhere. It had only been a day or two since I had bought ice cream from the old man, after all, since he had been standing there handing out his treats himself. We piled what we could into our arms and hurried out into the sunshine--one of the few times the hot Florida sun has ever been something I welcomed.

My mother looked at us funny when we crowded through my front door laden with quickly-melting treats, but she cleared space in the freezer without questions. We all ate cake and I opened presents and then, with a considerable pall cast over the party, we watched a movie on tv until it was time for my friends to go home.

The next ice cream man was a seriously PTSD'd Vietnam vet with a habit of throwing candy when he was riled. I never once ran after him straight out of the bath.

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