by Alessandra Stamper
Many ice cream trucks trolled the streets of Defiance, Ohio, but mine was the only modified 1986 Astro van painted beige with brown spots. My customers liked buying ice cream from a man popping his head out the side of a giraffe. They ran down the street, chasing my bumper, and I kept coasting at seven or eight miles an hour, my boot kissing the gas every now and then. A trail of kids lured more kids, which lured parents screaming for them to get out of the road. That mess made a crowd, and crowds meant business, and business meant I made rent and paid the electric bill, and the gas bill, and maybe even bought a new old movie from Lacy Stacy’s Adult Boutique. But before I paid any of that, I’d drop fifty bucks into Roger and Frida’s bank account. They came first, and they always will. Even if I never see them. Even though I can’t pay child support because their mother ran off with them when they were just learning to wobble on their stubby legs. A father doesn’t stop loving his kids, no matter how long they don’t know who the hell he is.
But as for all of the boys not named Roger and all the girls not named Frida, they’re all just little shits. Sometimes when I had five or six kids chasing the van, weaving in and out of my side-view mirror, I hovered my boot over the brake pedal. The pedal beckoned my foot, and I’d imagine hearing five or six kids pinging against the bumper. They’d get a big bite of steel. That would teach those little shits, who shoved sweaty crumples of money through the window, blocked the line while they jammed sweets down their throats, and then flicked their push-up sticks into my face. Some of them would take their Hippo-sicle and jet without paying. I wasn’t fooled by a big smile missing two front teeth or mussed up golden locks or happy squints pocked with an adorable mess of freckles. There’s no telling who’s going to fuck you over.
My second week of ice cream selling, I was driving down this real prime suburb just after dinner. Usually I’d have a dozen little shits chasing my bumper as I circled the cul-de-sacs, but all was silent. No kids playing on a single one of those sod lawns. Just me and the ice cream and my van tinkling “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Every door was shut tight, every air conditioner humming away. Not an SUV creeping along the fresh blacktop. I was waiting for a goddamn tumbleweed to roll across the road.
Instead, in my side-view, a zebra-striped van appeared in the distance. I stuck my arm out the window, waved hello to my brother in arms, and he sped up, worn-out muffler roaring. The zebra van tinkled out “Camptown Races.” Its tinny notes clashed with mine as it rushed up to my bumper. I pulled my arm back inside, kept driving, wondered if he needed to borrow some Sea Urchin Sammy Cream Pops. Just as I was counting inventory in my head, planning out a real nice gesture of sharing, another van appeared in my mirror, this one painted up like a Dalmatian. It sped past the zebra van and sidled up next to me. It was tinkling some tune, too, but at this point I couldn’t pick out one tune from another. It just sounded like a big pile of tinkles, like a swarm of fairies having an orgy. The Dalmatian stayed tight on my side, and I waved again, but I couldn’t see inside the van, the side window tinted black as a missing tooth in a six-year-old’s smile.
I sped up, tried to break away from these vans closing me in, mucking up my “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The zebra behind accelerated right along with me, closer than ever, and the Dalmatian to my side swerved into me until my rims ground the curb. I thought of Roger and Frida when they were toddlers. If their ball had skidded into the road, well, shit, there’d have been Roger and Frida pancakes. As much as I hated little shits, I couldn’t live with their deaths caused by all us vans filling the street, flying through the suburbs at twenty-three miles per hour.
The subdivision exit appeared, up ahead on my left, and soon I’d be on the main road, and then the freeway, and then back in my studio apartment watching Selma Slams St. Louis on my twenty-one-inch. I was ten yards away, when another van pulled out from behind a house, this one painted up like a cow and barreling straight at me.
They had me. Boxed me in and brought me to a stop, and the next thing I knew, they yanked me out my van and were kicking me in the head, pummeling me in the gut with ice cream scoops. They worked quick and wore Jimmy Carter masks, so I couldn’t get an ID on any of them. And I should’ve been figuring out how I’d survive this, but instead I wondered, just as the shortest Jimmy Carter ground his sneaker against my nose, where the hell they found Jimmy Carter masks. Nixon masks, sure. Reagan mask, no problem. But Jimmy C. didn’t seem like a face that would demand a factory mold. I voted for him the day after Roger was born. We were busy with the new baby and scared as shit because we were just babies, too, nineteen years old. But I made time to vote. Jimmy said he was going to make the country “competent and compassionate.” A sweet baby like Roger needed competence and compassion. He deserved all of that. Frida came a year later, and two years after that, my ex stole them both away to Idaho. All the compassion in the world was sucked away, and I was left with a president who couldn’t get a couple of his boys out of Iran. I was stuck working a shit job at the same go-nowhere freight yard where my father worked until he collapsed on a crate of duck-shaped pacifiers, dead instantly from a blood clot in his brain.
That scrawny Jimmy C. mask-wearer gave me a final kick to the jaw. Of course the smallest guy would have to end things. It made me hope Roger had grown up to be a monstrous man who didn’t need to prove shit, six and a half feet of confidence.
Those Jimmy Carters told me that I was entrepreneurializing on Scream-a-Dream Ice Cream turf, infringing copyrights with my unregistered animal van. They zip-tied my hands behind my back, jammed a map into my pocket. Then they tied me to a mailbox and pulled out knives. I’m not a man who’s easily scared,but I’m also not an idiot who thinks he has a body made of steel and would talk shit to a glinting blade. I knew I bled, so I kept my mouth shut, watched silently when they slashed my tires and spray-painted STAY OFF SCREAM-A-DREAM TURF on the side of my van.
When they left, I tried to wriggle free, but I couldn’t budge the ties, couldn’t snap a tiny width of plastic. So I hung my head, leaned against the mailbox, resigned to stay there until some little shit found me and started pelting me with stones. I didn’t have to wait. The mailbox snapped under my weight. It wasn’t my muscle or my ingenuity that freed me, but all those pounds I’d put on since I stopped working the freight yards.
I called a tow. I got home. Didn’t need no damn emergency room, just a microwave Salisbury steak and a movie. Before I watched, I double- checked the back of the Selma Slams St. Louis box for the date. I didn’t watch anything that came out after 1995. Frida turned eighteen in 1997, and I added two years, just to be safe. Every father prays his daughter doesn’t get into that kind of acting, but I wasn’t around to raise her right. There’s just no telling. Selma donned her heels and G-string in 1985. She made me feel safe, banging dozens of men in a time before Frida would have grown to learn the incompetence and cruelty of this world.
I scrubbed blood out of my shirt while Selma moaned. I’d taken worse beatings. Before a tiny curdle of blood killed my dad, he spent years thrashing me with the rubber insoles of his work boots. I don’t know why he used the insoles. All that matters is he was a cruel asshole, slapping the foot-stink of an eight-hour all over my face.
I spread the map those Scream-a-Dream bastards gave me across my kitchen counter. Every halfway decent suburb in town was highlighted in blood-red ink—Scream-a-Dream turf. They left me freeways and industrial districts and dirt roads on the county line. I took the giraffe van out on the road the next day thinking about all of the places I couldn’t go. A free man in an unfree country, an anchor the size of Toledo tied to my bumper. How was I ever going to make enough money to give Roger and Frida the life they deserved? When I drove to one of my designated work zones, the freight yards over by the Maumee River, I considered spinning the wheel, aiming my van at the bridge guardrails and barreling through. At least Roger and Frida would collect the life-insurance policy. And then they’d know my name, know their real daddy. Only, I didn’t know their names. The ex could’ve remarried. Any name could’ve landed in their laps. Any faceless man could be the one they called Daddy.
I didn’t drive the giraffe over the bridge. The Maumee smelled like shit, and that’s no way to drown, lungs filled with brown water all foamed up by melting ice cream. I drove past the subdivisions where I couldn’t go, my tinkler silent. I listened out the window for the sounds of my competition but heard nothing, and what a damn shame that I couldn’t work the routes they weren’t even using. I was about to say fuck it and drive into a no-no zone called Emerald Pines, when I spotted a subdivision with no name out front.
The blacktop was fresh, smooth and black. Not a house in sight. After a quarter mile of gnarled brush lining the curbs, they finally appeared. But not the clean vinyl and brick facades of the usual subdivision houses. The birth of new construction was an ugly sight. These houses wore siding like scabs that speckled the nakedness of plastic house wrap. Deeper into the subdivision, I watched two-by-four skeletons cast their stringy shadows onto the parched dirt. Or no skeleton at all, only holes in the ground where a house might grow. No families here, no little shits, no place a Scream-a-Dream van would ever stalk. Instead of painted-up tinkling vans, plain white ones littered the curbs, ladders strapped to their roofs. Or half-ton pickup trucks, their beds spilling scaffold and sheets of drywall and copper wires and brass pipes. And all around me, grizzled men stared, aimed their unshaven chins at my van, gripped their shovels and nail guns tighter.
Now, if I was a Scream-a-Dream sucker, I would’ve whipped my van into a U-turn and zipped out of there, dragging my zebra tail between my rear axle. But this challenge of entrepreneurship made my heart race, my teeth itch, fingers tap-tapping the steering wheel. No little shits as far as the eye could see, but there was potential here. I flicked on “Flight of the Bumblebee” and slowed the van to a creep. The men who hadn’t looked before did so now, craning their necks from ladders, hammers halted in mid-swing. I kept my eyes straight ahead, focused on the work of keeping my foot just barely pressed against the gas, tried to forget about my van that could’ve hauled lumber but was painted like a giraffe, tried to forget about my flabby biceps, my soft hands. But I’d put in my time at the freight yards, lifting crates until my arms burned.
I heard a yelp, and when I looked into my side-view, I saw one of the workers following me. He wore a baby blue polo shirt a size too small so that the bare bottom of his belly wiggled brightly as he jogged behind me. His tool belt jangled with the rattle of nails and hammers. I fought the urge to press the brake. One frenzied customer could easily turn into two, two to four, four to a snaking tail of hot and hungry men, dying for my ice cream.
But no one else picked up after the fat man in the polo. The road ended in a cul-de-sac, and I parked. The man jogged up to the side window where I kept the menu. He planted both hands on the van, gasping and studying.
I slid out of my seat, withheld opening the side window as long as I could. A customer waiting to order was the start to a crowd of followers. I opened my coolers, took a quick stock of my Quintuple- Berry Pops, pulled a roll of small bills from my pocket, and then, finally, slowly, slid the window open.
“Christ on a stick, you nearly killed me.” His chest heaved. He licked his lips. “I’m going to need an IV of Fudge-O-Saurus Bars stat.”
I spread ten bars across the counter and smiled.
“How fat do you think I am, asshole?” he said. “They’ll saw off my left foot if I eat all of those.”
I moved to pull them away, and he grabbed my wrist, said, “Shit. I have some hungry boys back at the house. I guess I can put them to use.”
He gave me a fifty, told me to keep the change, and the profits there were ten bucks in the kids’ account and half an Annie Poke-Me video.
After the fat man left, I was alone again. I needed to get rid of my stock soon or it would start to get freezer burn, and then I’d have to eat the loss. Except I couldn’t eat the loss literally. I’m lactose intolerant, ever since I was a kid. When my daddy used to take me to get ice cream after laying into me with his boot insoles, it just meant more punishment. Knots in my belly, welts on my back, a night spent curled over the toilet crying, and that would just get the old man all fired up with the insoles again for my being an ungrateful little shit.
The tinkler ran through a half-dozen more rounds of its tune before I heard a knock at the window. Two men stood outside, picking flakes of drywall mud off their shirts. They asked me if I had any water, and I didn’t, but I told them how refreshing a Weasel Pop could be. They shelled out a couple bucks, and then one of them said, “Now, if you had water in there, you could make a killing.”
The other one, whose baseball cap barely fit over a mess of curly brown hair, said, “Or if you had a shitter we could use, guys around here would pay for that. You get a little tired of shitting in buckets.”
I didn’t have the heart to try and sell them more ice cream after hearing that, especially with my own lactose-intolerant stomach twitching just feet away from freezers full of torture. But they got me thinking. If life hands you lemons, you don’t have to make lemonade. You sell those lemons for better product. Or you carve those lemons into bowls made of rind, or little lemon hats for dogs, or pelt the giver of lemons with his own lemons until he relents and gives you oranges. Life is full of lemon-givers, and a smart man takes his fate and makes more than just complacent lemonade. Those tradesmen, for example, had pockets full of cash, yet no water to drink, no proper pot to piss in. But they had plenty of buckets, and they made that work. They had new sinks and copper pipes to install, but no water. Now they had me, who could provide life’s simple necessities.
Before I went home that night, I stocked up the van. That man with that mess of curls stuck in my head at the store, haunting me through the aisles, tugging at my pant legs, saying, I want this, I need that. And when I showed up the next day, I had ice-cold water and beer and sandwiches and cigarettes and, sorry, though, no solution for the bucket issue. What I did have was barber scissors, and for twenty bucks, they could eat a sandwich, drink a beer, and get their hair cut. I remember working the freight yards; by the time you clocked out, all the barbers were closed. Curly’s paychecks probably went straight to the bartender because no one else was open.
Within a few days, I was banking more than I’d ever made hawking ice cream to little shits. Roger and Frida’s bank account swelled up, and I had a queue of classic videos from Lacy Stacy’s stacked on my VCR.
And the workers, my boys, I was so proud of them. Through the weeks of my visits, those holes in the ground bloomed. Those boys took the materials stacked in their truck beds and built full-fledged homes, easy as Lincoln Logs. They couldn’t have done it so fast without me there to hydrate and feed them, to take care of their every need. They loved me for what I provided them, and I loved them for loving me. We were happy.
One day, a few weeks in, I was trimming Julius’s brown curls, him straddling a sawhorse, me smiling over top of his lush, sawdust-filled locks. It was lunchtime, so a dozen of the other young men lounged around the van, sipping beers, licking Freedom Cones, gnawing my homemade egg salad sandwiches. In the distance, I heard a familiar tinkling. The long-healed bruises on my skull pulsed anew. I tried to hide it from my boys, but my grinding teeth betrayed me, flashed my anxiety like an insole-welt to the forehead. They huddled around me, offered sips from their beers. Julius tipped his head back, stared me right in the eyes, and once he got a look at whatever showed on my face, he reached back and patted my arm, nodded.
The zebra van rolled into view, slowed near the finished houses. Finished but not sold, not yet full of little shits. This was still a place for young working men. My customers. The boys mingling around me crossed their arms, snarled their lips at the van. All except Wilson, the one who’d chased me the first day, the biggest man on site. I couldn’t blame him the hunger he bore deep in his endless gut. He sprinted after that zebra van, yelled, “I scream for ice cream, boys!” And the boys around me shook their heads, said, “Fuck him, Mr. Denning. That stupid fat ass can’t find his own dick, let alone a sense of loyalty.” And I said, “I don’t mind, fellas.” Because I knew he was young. They were grown men but still boys in so many ways, still guided by flitting wants. The long term was eons away.
The zebra van slowed, parked, and Wilson ran up to the side. He spread his thick fingers across the window, peered inside, rapped on the glass. And I thought that was fine, just fine. A man can’t hold onto his customers any more than he can hold onto anything he loves in this world. If you love something, let it go and all that.
The zebra stripes started to quaver, bounced slightly up and down. I wondered if maybe the van was rumbling on a bad engine. The stripes bounced more, and then the tires facing me left the ground for the briefest of seconds. Wilson wasn’t waiting for ice cream; he was pushing the van, rocking it back and forth. Three more boys from Wilson’s framing crew sprinted toward the van, hammers waving above their heads. They pounded against the zebra stripes, the ring of steel on aluminum drowning out the tinkle of “Camptown Races.” Soon, more boys ran toward the truck. The ones who’d stayed by me, who’d crossed their arms and rebuked Wilson, now smiled like children, sprinted toward the van, until it was swarmed by men, swinging their tools, rocking the van with their grime-smeared arms, work boots dug into the hot blacktop.
I thought I heard a squeal, and like to imagine that was my competition inside, shrieking in fear. The van stuttered forward, pushed out of the mob of my boys and out of my subdivision.
Julius leaned back on the sawhorse, pointed at the van. “We only need one ice cream man.”
The men chased the van as far as they could, until it rolled out of sight and the air grew silent. The back of Julius’s head faced me, so he didn’t see the tears I held back. I think he knew how I felt, though, when he said, “A little more off the top, old man.”
But nothing lasts forever. The SALE PENDING signs popped up, and the trucks and white vans drove onward. They didn’t tell me where they were going next, just nodded their trimmed heads and shoved off. Maybe they thought I knew where they were going.
Maybe they figured the world was full of men like me who could take care of them. Providers are just supposed to be there. I tried not to resent them, tried to understand that’s just how it goes.
One crew remained, though. The painting touch-up crew was always the last to leave. They had a final day of work left and two haircutting appointments with me. I was sure one of them would invite me to the next site, tell me how much my van meant to them, beg me to follow them forever. I hopped into the giraffe van, the morning sun gleaming up those glorious last strands of fraying hope. I smiled and turned the key, thinking about Roger and Frida and how they could be as close as a plane ticket, when I got smacked in the temple.
I came to in the back of my van, arms tied behind my back, three Jimmy Carter masks staring at me. A fourth Carter sat in the driver’s seat. It was one thing to knock me around, but quite another to drive another man’s giraffe. So I kicked the closest Carter in the groin and tried to scramble to my feet. They shoved me back on my ass, and the Carter I kicked lay into my back with the ice cream scoop.
Once he tuckered out, I said, “All right, boys, what could possibly be the problem now? I’m off your turf. I did everything you asked, much as it hurt my pride.”
“We’re claiming new turf,” the biggest one said. “We claim all suburbs. There’s no more need for your freezer-burned products.”
That got the heat burning into my face. I’d never sold a bite of freezer- burned ice cream to any customer and never would. But I fought back the anger riling inside me.
“No business there but working men. They hardly buy enough ice cream for me to pay insurance on my van.”
“Been selling more than that.” The Carter I’d kicked picked up my barber shears, snipped twice at the air. “And I don’t remember us giving you permission to sell products outside the ice cream family.”
Those air snips didn’t intimidate me. I gave up asking for permission a long time ago, after my daddy died in a box of pacifiers and after I quit living in his work boots, clocking in and out of the freight yards. I rushed the Carters, slammed headfirst into that bastard snipping my barber shears. We fell to the floor, me on top, him screaming like a little shit who’s just dropped his Super Dipper Cone. I didn’t see what all the screaming was about. I’ve become a husky man, but short, not the kind of frame that could carry scream-inducing weight. A young fellow should be able to take a blow and wear a bruise like a man. My daddy taught me that lesson my whole life.
I rolled free of the screaming Carter and waited for the others to pound on me again. But they stood there, toothy Carter smiles gawking down on us. And the one just kept on whining. The orange handles of my scissors jutted from his gut, made him look like one of those toys you wind up.
The Carters hovering over us wheezed through their breathing holes. Their eyes flitted behind molds of shiny rubber. Finally, one of them nodded and then whispered into the driver’s ear. The van slowed. I stared at the stabbed Carter, writhing on my van’s floor, a trickle of blood streaming toward the freezer. I only looked up once I heard the door slide open. The Carters jumped out, tucked and rolled like they evacuated moving vans every day. The front door popped open, and out went the driver. They all jumped ship, left their little friend to bleed out in my truck.
The van crept along unmanned. Just as I scrambled to the front seat, it smacked into a telephone pole. I sat behind the wheel, staring at the pole, waiting for it to snap and crash down on top of us. The van had stalled out, and I listened to the cooling engine. Tick-tick-tick. The pole didn’t budge. So I had to decide what to do next. And sometimes the world is like that. Sometimes it’s not as easy as getting smashed by a telephone pole.
That bleeding bastard in the back hollered worse. He’d rolled over onto the shears and switched from shrieking to sniffling, moaning for his momma between sucking snot through his mask’s breathing holes. Why didn’t anyone ever call for their daddy when they get stabbed with barber shears?
I started up the van. The hospital was only a few miles away. I could drop him off and still make my appointment with the painting crew, if I hurried. The telephone pole had cracked the windshield, two streaking lines shaped into a Y, two skinny arms reaching out from a center. And the tinkler wouldn’t shut off, kept bleating the same first dozen notes of “Flight of the Bumblebee” over and over again. Each time it restarted, which was every two seconds, the bleeding Carter in the back howled.
I couldn’t just drop moaning, bleeding Carter at the front door of the emergency room. My busted-up giraffe kept spewing an insane flurry of incomprehensible notes. Not much of a getaway vehicle. So I pulled up to the back parking lot, slid open the door, and rolled Carter’s slumped body to the strip of grass between road and parking lot.
Just as his body tumbled out, he got some fight back in him, said, “Fuck you, old man.”
I laughed, standing over him, me safe in my giraffe and him bleeding out in the grass. Just goes to show that the man who seeks his manifest destiny beats the man who stumbles along as a follower, wearing a mask, cowering in the crowd. You see where it got him. Whereas I was free to continue on, making a difference for my working boys and supporting my babies who were no longer babies. No longer babies but full-grown people who probably called some insurance salesman named Bob, Dad.
I drove onward to my appointment with the painting boys, toward—I don’t know. Freedom, money, the American Dream. A giraffe and a broken song and a van full of ice cream. Carter had called me “old man.” If I was old, how old was he? Where did he come from? Anyone could hide behind that mask. And maybe a kid with spunk like his would’ve left Bob the insurance salesman’s home and struck out on his own. Maybe he’d hit the open road, seeking to feel the hot blood of freedom pumping through his rebellious veins, that blood now dripping through blades of hospital sod.
I turned back toward the hospital, left the painting boys wearing their hair long. They’d keep building houses, keep moving, find their own needs. When I got back to the parking lot, no one had found Carter yet. It was me or nobody. I parked, left the engine running, stepped toward the crumpled body in the grass. He was still moaning, but quieter now, a guttural lullaby. He didn’t swear at me when my body cast a shadow over him. I knelt, slid my arm under his neck. He was all Carter from the neck up, but through the rubber eyeholes, brown—like millions of others’ eyes, but like mine, too. I slipped my fingers under Carter’s chin, felt the tight skin of a young man underneath. The sandpaper of two days of stubble, a man who didn’t care about being clean-shaven, about strangling himself with a tie in a cubicle. I pulled back the rubber mask to his lips and then stopped. I would see this man’s face soon, after I took him inside, paid his hospital bill with Roger and Frida’s savings account. And then I’d know. This young man could sit in the passenger seat, learn the true meaning of freedom, see a man run his own business. He could follow my path to freedom, a path that didn’t need a past, only a will to drive down any new road, still soft with fresh blacktop, the tires sticking at first but then pulling free.
Dustin M. Hoffman spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Phoebe, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, Witness, Quarterly West, The Journal, Gargoyle, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Indiana Review, and many other places. “Ice Cream Dream” is a part of his story collection One Hundred-Knuckled Fist, which won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University. Check out his website at http://dustinmhoffman.com/.
David Alvarado is an illustrator and cartoonist. Growing up in the Chicago land suburbs he was always drawn to cartoon imiagry, chicago imagists and hand painted signs. After gradutating from Columbia College Chicago he has worked primarly in edditorial illustration for various magazines and newspapers, as well as creating comics for publications and character designs.For commission and project inquiries, visit hello-david.com.