THE ICE CREAM MAN COMETH!

By Pete McArdle




Spring has sprung, raise the blinds and throw open the windows, breathe deeply of the warm pungent air, let the glorious spring sun put some color in your cheeks!

Outside, in every crack, nook and crevice, around every corner and behind every wall, both above and below the Earth's fertile surface, life begins anew. As squirrels and robins survey the landscape for food, fledgling flowers reach for the sky and sluggish bears rub sleep from their eyes. High above, buds slowly unfurl on the maple, ash and chestnut trees while far below, tiny insects crawl, buzz and flutter in ever-increasing numbers, insect armies setting out on their oriental circuits.

And as the world is reborn in an orgy of birthings, hatchings and sproutings, I, too, am made new! I leave behind the dull grays and off-whites of winter, the sere chill in my bones, the sad lack of sunshine and most of all, any lingering hint of the bad times.

No, I'll not linger there for more than a moment, choosing instead to focus on what's wonderful in my life: my lovely wife, my darling twins, my sudden success as a novelist and most important, my close personal relationship with God.

You see, the opposite of fear is neither bravery nor bravado but love. For God is love, pure, perfect, limitless love, and God lives within me. Hence, I, too, am love and as long as I remember that, why, there's nothing to fear, nothing at all.

Besides, this is no day for dismay, no sirree, today is a celebration of spring, a time for planting shrubs and raking beds and taking out the patio furniture, a time for cooking burgers and hot dogs on the grill, a perfect day for every kid to run outside and play.

Which is what both of mine are presently doing, their shrill five-year-old voices wafting in with the mild May breeze as I sit in my writing room, a small cozy place containing just a desk, a chair and my handy old Mac.

Anthony and Angelina, our two little angels, were brought forth from a test-tube to brighten our lives – and perhaps even save our marriage. No, let’s not be negative, all relationships go through turbulent times – low periods, shall we say – and Sheila, my hard-working wife, certainly had every right to resent being the sole breadwinner in the family. It seems I'd lost my oneness with God, I'd given in to fear and to a degree, it was reflected in my writing.

But I never stopped praying to our divine Father, or writing, for that matter, and while words of supplication and adoration flew to the heavens, other, more pedestrian words flew onto the pages in front of me, pages that eventually became my modestly popular first novel and my wildly successful follow-up tome. Thank you, thank you, Lord, for making me Your vessel!

God's unexpected bounty put an end to our bickering, our new and improved income paid for this house and the services of a world-class fertility specialist, and with that came the precious gift of children, the same children I now hear through my window as they rumble down the slide, squawk back and forth on the swings, and laugh loudly with an easy and innocent joy.

I listen as my kids make arrhythmic thumping noises – they're kicking a soccer ball back and forth, soccer being the universal starter sport in these parts – and I smile, thinking of how vigorous and healthy the twins are, how stunningly beautiful and perfect. I can't wait to share these insights with my wife, Sheila, who's out showing a house, a beautiful old Colonial with five bedrooms, four baths and a pool.

Now Sheila certainly loves me, no one could argue with that. But her face only truly comes alive when she's with her kids, her fierce maternal instinct casting a glow around her comely visage, like the halo seen in depictions of the Virgin Mary. My wife never leaves the house without kissing and hugging the twins, and then reminding me to keep a close eye on our little darlings, which I now do, taking a peek out my window to see that they're joyously swinging on the monkey bars, a couple of skinny, freckle-faced monkeys.

Who has more fun than five-year-olds? It's almost not fair, they laugh so freely and easily because they have no worries, none at all. They don't yet know about… it doesn't matter, all that's important is that God loves them, just as He loves Sheila and me. And as I said before, love is the antidote to fear.

A smile on my face and a cup of hot tea at the ready, I settle down to write. What shall I write about? Well, of course, silly, write about springtime, the gorgeous re-awakening of the world, all the beauty lying right outside my writing-room window.

How shall I describe the low fluffy clouds, as gauzy balls of cotton rolling eastward like tumbleweeds? And what shade of blue is the sky today? It's neither baby-blue nor Robin's egg, certainly not cobalt or cerulean. Perhaps I'll call it a “royal-blue sky” to honor our Creator. 

And precisely how does the spring air smell? I take a long deep breath through my nose (inspiration!) and try to sort through the various aromas: the tang of freshly-turned dirt, the sweet smell of wild roses, the tartness of pollen from weeds and trees, the slight whiff of decay from rotting leaves still waiting to be raked.

If I tried hard enough, I might detect the exhaust from a neighbor's car or some oily smoke from those ubiquitous and obnoxious leaf-blowers, but why would I do that? For it is I who paint the portrait of my life, I'm the director of my very own movie and the choice is always mine what to think about. And today, I will focus only on beauty – love, rebirth and beauty – and try to ignore the rude neighbor who's always letting his dog poop in my front yard.

How does spring feel, well, that's pretty complicated. Spring represents both a fresh start and another year older, the occasional cool breeze reminding us of winter, the bright sunshine a harbinger of summer, a time for love and a time for lust.

Spring's an invitation to try something new, to reach for the stars, to lunge for the brass ring and take whatever the hell you want.

No, strike that, ha, ha! It's never right to just take what you want (or to curse, ha, ha!). No, it's all about giving; love is about giving not taking, it's important to remember that. Taking is selfish, taking can be hurtful, taking is…

Wait, what's that sound? Beyond my twins' high-pitched glee, the low growl of the Lindbergs' lawn tractor, rap music from some high school kid's radio and the atonal tinkling of wind chimes, lurks a vague musical strain. I can barely hear it, this silvery melody, it seems so far away yet it instantly brings to mind the old, familiar soundtrack of summer, I know it!

It seems to be coming closer, this tintinnabulation, borne on wheels and power-driven, this jaunty, repetitious refrain brings me back to my childhood, a time when I was utterly innocent, a time before…never mind.

My fingers are frozen above the keyboard, my head cocked toward the window, all the better to hear this wonderful (awful?) music from my youth, it's coming closer, growing in volume, why it's the Ice Cream Man!

The Ice Cream Man in his boxy white truck, a tinny, music-box melody playing over and over, causing every kid in earshot to stop and take notice. The Ice Cream Man's coming, bringing icy-cold treats for all, Popsicles, Fudgsicles and Creamsicles, not to mention the icicles hanging from the freezer door's hinges. Ice-cream sandwiches, Italian ices, Strawberry Shortcake, Toasted Almond and Chocolate Eclair, oh, what scrumptious fare! As the Ice Cream Man's jingle grows louder, all the children rush inside for money, Oh, please, Mom and Dad, he's almost here!

And sure enough, here come the twins, their small feet thundering down the hall, their hands outstretched and their eyes shining brightly. (I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!)

I give them each three singles – wasn't a handful of change sufficient when I was a child? – and ponder the disturbing imagery of screaming for ice cream. The kids don't scream, really, they yell, they beg, they've been known to whine, carry on and cajole, but they generally don't scream. “Scream” has a negative connotation that I honestly don't like, it must have been chosen solely for the rhyme.

Funds firmly in hand, Anthony and Angelina burst out the back door and head for the street, no doubt watching out for cars as we've taught them. As the music of Eskimo Pies and ice cream cones draws closer, I imagine small clots of kids on every corner, anxiously awaiting the tall, friendly driver all dressed in white. Picturing him, the Ice Cream Man of my youth, I cringe.

That's odd, my cringing at one of the universally acknowledged joys of childhood. Of course, that was when all the trouble started for me, the terrors, the nightmares, all the strange-colored pills and ultimately, my time away at the hospital. It was a terrible time, a black hole in my life, and I've tried very hard not to think about it.

But the ice cream truck jingle has somehow brought it all rushing back – a “negative auditory association,” as my shrink might say – and I find myself trembling with fear and self-loathing. God is love, I tell myself, and God lives within me. I will not be afraid.

Still, as the ice cream truck rolls to a halt in front of our house and sundry small voices bark out their orders, I try to understand why that endless loop of otherwise-cheery notes should give me the chills. Emotionally, I've grown quite a bit, thanks to endless hours of psychotherapy, yet despite the gay, upbeat nature of the day, I feel compelled to explore these sudden feelings of dread. What happened all those years ago, what was it that scared me half to death?

A floodgate of long-repressed memories opens up, I suddenly recall riding my bike – I called it Black Beauty – all over town, playing baseball with dirty sneaks and skinned knees, swimming and carousing at the town pool and of course, waiting for the Ice Cream Man with my best friend. Y-e-s, now what was his name?

Jim? Jack? No, Jan, that was his name, a strange name, at least to my callow ears. My best friend's name was Jan. How could I have forgotten that?

Did he move away, is that what happened to my best friend, I wonder. Outside, the ice cream truck drives off and as it picks up speed, the familiar melody becomes eerily distorted – the Doppler Effect, I believe it's called.

What happened to my best friend Jan? I must remember, this could be an important breakthrough for me.

Did Jan get sick and die? No.

Did he get run over by a car? No, but I'm getting closer, I can feel it as the ice cream truck travels farther away, the chime-like jingle warping ever more out-of-tune. There's a pain now in the pit of my stomach, my mind wants to go blank but I won't let it, I must remember!

I can hear several kids talking by the curb, probably wearing strawberry and chocolate mustaches, and then it hits me. Jan and I used to wait for the Ice Cream Man, yes, it was just the two of us – the houses in my old neighborhood were fairly far apart – and something terrible happened. I'd gone inside to beg for money from my Mom but she wasn't home, and when I looked out the window, it was just Jan and the man in white, standing by the back of the truck.

A sharp searing pain in my gut doubles me over; I rest my head on my desk and try hard to slow my breathing. (God is love; God watches over us, God protects us.) I'd seen them standing there, Jan and the Ice Cream Man, devastated that there'd be no frozen treats for me that day and by the time I got outside, they were gone. And no one saw either of them again.

The tears flow freely as I recall telling the police what I saw. What did the Ice Cream Man look like, they asked. Was he the regular driver? What was the company name on the truck? 

I didn't know, I was just a kid (God forgives). I only knew that I typically had a Toasted Almond while Jan always ordered an orange Popsicle, Jan with his practically-white hair, pale blue eyes and strange accent. My best friend whom I'd left outside with a monster, never to be seen again. Oh, God!

That's how my descent into madness started, I now realize, a struggle with mental illness that lasted the better part of my youth. My teeth clench together tightly as I remember that awful dream, seeing my pal lying on a bed of Dove bars inside that truck, his skin glacier-blue, his wide-open eyes covered with frost. Night after night, I'd stare into those terrible eyes and then wake the entire house with my screams.

But I'm a new man now, things are so much different. I've found God and been blessed with a wonderful, loving family. Heck, I'm a best-selling author! I am happy, I am peaceful, I am loved. I must call Dr. Stein and advise him of this stunning breakthrough. Who knows, perhaps I don't need him anymore.

After taking a moment to blow my nose, I listen for the twins. After all the sugar they've just consumed, they should be tearing the swing-set apart about now. But I don't hear them, only the long plaintive wail of the ice cream truck, slowly receding in the distance. Why are the twins so quiet, I wonder, my heart starting to hammer in my chest.

Perhaps they're playing hide-and-seek, I tell myself without much conviction. “Anthony? Angelina?” I holler as I leave my writing room and hurry down the back hall. “Kids?” I call out.

Nothing.

“Please, God, no,” I groan as I run out the kitchen door and look around frantically. The back yard's empty.

“No, dear God, no! Not my babies,” I moan as I sprint around to the front of the house, but they're not there either. (God doesn't care. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!)

I'm screaming myself, though not for ice cream, as I run from door-to-door, knowing in my heart that the twins are irrevocably gone, and I feel the thick black curtain closing over me once again, only this time for good. (God is dead.)




Pete McArdle's been blessed with a beautiful wife, three wonderful kids and an active, if somewhat twisted, imagination. When not drilling teeth or trimming azaleas, Pete enjoys torturing words, especially adverbs. His work has somehow found its way into twenty magazines, proving once and for all that there's simply no accounting for taste!

Five of the author's stories have previously been published on the omdb! website; "Bless Me, Father," "The Aged Avenger," "Leap of Faith," "The Great Bear Provideth," and "The Silence of the Rabbits."


Copyright 2014 Pete McArdle. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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