The jangling of the bells on the ice cream truck proved one of the precious few things in life on which you could depend. The distant chiming wafted through the working-class section of town every weekday at precisely twenty-five minutes past noon. The driver of the Good Humor truck parked his vehicle and sauntered into one of the houses at twelve-thirty and didn’t emerge to sell any frozen edible novelties until one o’clock. By that time there wasn’t any need for him to yank the string attached to the row of shiny silver bells mounted at the top of the vehicle’s windshield. Children from the immediate neighborhood had gathered around the back of the white truck where they waited for him. They gleefully squealed while they read descriptions of cold confections-on-a-stick from a colorful menu affixed to the truck over the right rear tire well.
One of the more elaborate treats, a Chocolate Eclair consisted of vanilla ice cream coated with crunchy golden pellets and copiously dotted with small chocolate nuggets surrounding a chocolate center. Some of the older kids made it a point to order Chocolate Eclairs and place their orders individually. Good Humor Man kept them in the back of the truck’s rear freezer and the he had to precariously balance himself on one leg in order to reach far enough back to nab one.
This particular Good Humor Man’s shoulder-length hair was stringy and unkempt, he was always unshaven, and the condition of his teeth betrayed the fact that he’d never visited a dentist in his life. And he only had one arm: the right. His left appendage had been fashioned from a sawed-off broom handle stuck into the top of the suction cup of a plunger that was duct-taped to his stump. When he reached for a Chocolate Eclair, the broom handle shot up toward the sky and stirred inside the sleeve of his tattered overcoat like a swizzle stick caught in a sluggish tornado.
If one of the children dared ask about his nontraditional garb he would snarl, “It’s nonuh your goddamn business, yuh little cocksucker!” Then with a sweep of the broom handle he would address the small crowd of children en masse: “You’re all friggin’ mistakes, yuh little bastards!” When he had finished informing the rosy-cheeked youngsters of their questionable parentage, he’d take a swig from the flask that he always carried in his coat pocket.
The children paid for their frigid concoctions with paper money when they could. They got a kick out of watching the one-armed man count change: he muttered and cussed while he used the tip of the broom handle to manipulate the coins that had trickled into his right palm like the payoff of a stingy slot machine, from the smudged dispenser on his belt. The ice cream man’s ornery demeanor was genuine but never manifested via physical violence. His young customers experienced it vicariously. Thus they maintained their mental and physical health.
* * *
A middle-aged divorcée lived in the house that he visited daily. On summer evenings she sat on a lawn chair in front of her rickety shack and chain-smoked menthol cigarettes while she guzzled cans of beer. She routinely wore a pair of wildly tight cutoff-jean shorts that made her ass look like a sack of potatoes and squeezed her midsection, which caused abdominal flab to spill over the waistband. Breasts that resembled bottom-heavy sandbags threatened to burst out of a ridiculously snug tube top. The tiny tattoo of a butterfly hovered on the top of the right sandbag.
Every afternoon after he visited her, the Good Humor Man swaggered from her house to his truck, whistled and hiked his pants up while she watched from behind the screen door. She wore fuzzy pink slippers as she leaned against the side of the doorway and clasped together both lapels of a short robe with her right hand. With her free hand she pushed the side of her bouffant and blew him a kiss. She meant to wear an expression of unbridled passion, but her drooping eyelids fluttered as if lint hid behind them and her upper lip curled as though somebody had shoved a hunk of Limburger cheese under her nose.
Occasionally one of the older kids would snigger and ask the ice cream vendor what he did in the house. He would testily answer, “I was having my lunch, as if it’s anyuh your goddamn business yuh fuckin’ nuisance.”
* * *
The mothers in the neighborhood served supper at more or less the same time every night. One evening there was an empty chair at each dinner table for every youngster that had consumed a Chocolate Eclair. These children suffered from debilitating nausea and cramps, and jettisoned streams of puke and watery shit. The Good Humor Man had unknowingly peddled a tainted batch of frozen treats. Word of the calamity quickly spread as mothers compared situations were over backyard fences of the tightly knit neighborhood. Although the shabby Good Humor Man clearly wasn’t at fault, the parents on his route decided to exploit this opportunity to rid the neighborhood of what they, in their simple-minded wisdom considered an undesirable element. They drew up and circulated a petition. Soon everybody in the neighborhood had signed and a woman named Tammy—chosen as a representative because her brother operated out of a strip mall as an ambulance chaser—placed a phone call to the regional offices of the ice cream empire.
The replacement Good Humor Man's blonde hair and blue eyes made him handsome in a nondescript way. The white of his clean and straight teeth matched his crisp and pristine uniform. His teeth gleamed when he smiled, he wore his hat at a jaunty tilt. The reflection of the sun exploded on his hat's black patent-leather visor like it did on the chrome-plated change dispenser that he wore on his black belt. Occasionally he reached up and tugged at the ends of his black bow tie to make sure that it remained secure. Boys were now addressed as “Tiger” or “Champ”; girls became Sweethearts or Princesses. The little ones were unaccustomed to such respectful treatment and the daily encounter that had once been a much-anticipated display of vaudevillian rancor had become a mundane routine. To add to the children's distress, the new Good Humor Man had committed the sacrilege of repositioning the Chocolate Eclairs so that they were within easy reach at the front of the rear freezer.
* * *
The neighborhood bully was a stocky flat-faced gnome the kids called the Chumley. He constantly endeavored to top his most dastardly deed, which involved Old Lady Zanderkopf. Phoebe Zanderkopf, an elderly and sickly widow lived alone. One afternoon when he was bored, Chumley rang Old Lady Zanderkopf’s front doorbell and then hid in the bushes. The frail woman laboriously pulled the door open, looked from side to side and used a sweet weak voice to ask, “Who’s there?” When no one answered she secured the shawl that covered her stooped frame though it was summer, slowly poked the screen door open with her cane and tottered outside. Chumley jumped out, threw his hands above his head and yelled, “Boo!” Old Lady Zanderkopf’s cane flew into the air as she clutched her chest with both hands and fell backward. The paramedics said that she’d died immediately from a heart attack.
* * *
Midweek rolled around and the crowd of bored children that had noticeably diminished in size since the clean-cut neophyte had taken over lifelessly ordered various icy treats. One tiny wide-eyed child timidly requested a Chocolate Eclair. The perpetually grinning Good Humor Man stood firmly on both feet as he pulled the stainless-steel handle on the door to the rear freezer. Icy condensation poured out of the compartment as cold air collided with hot air, he effortlessly reached in and grabbed a Chocolate Eclair. The youngsters heaved a collective sigh of disappointment as the Good Humor Man crouched down and handed it to the urchin. He tousled the youngster’s hair, winked and chuckled: “Here you go, Tiger!” The lad looked up at the Good Humor Man and down at his unwrapped Chocolate Eclair, then remembered how the previous Good Humor Man would have responded. Tears welled in his eyes. He grimaced as if in pain and threw the Chocolate Eclair to the ground. He almost lost his balance as Chumley grabbed him by his scrawny shoulders and roughly set him aside.
The bully now stood in front of the Good Humor Man and pointed at himself with his thumb while he demanded, “Gimme a Bomb Pop!”
The Good Humor Man’s smile abruptly melted. His laughing eyes narrowed into slits as he cupped his left hand behind his ear, leaned toward Chumley and asked in a low intimidating tone, “What did you say?”
Chumley spoke louder and punctuated each syllable by jabbing himself in the chest with his thumb: “I says, GIM-ME-A-BOMB-POP! What’re ya, deef?”
The Good Humor Man clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. His eyes bulged and his cheeks became red. Chumley imagined him as a character in an animated cartoon with smoke shooting out of his ears. The Good Humor Man unexpectedly reached out and grabbed a handful of Chumley’s shirt, then violently yanked him off the ground and pulled the ruffian’s face to his own so that he could bark at the bully as a drill sergeant barks at an inductee.
Chumley’s feet dangled over the pavement. The Good Humor Man’s eyes grew wide as he used the high-pitched voice of an idiot to mockingly repeat, “Gimme a Bomb Pop!” Then he glared and spat, “We don’t sell Bomb Pops, little mister. Plus they have a blue part. Blue food—what the hell is that?”
Suddenly the Good Humor Man’s aggressive scowl relaxed into a friendly smile. He gingerly put Chumley back down, released his grip and brushed off the boy’s shoulders. He reassuringly said, “I’ve got something for you that’s even better than a Bomb Pop.”
He opened the rear freezer, pulled out a large chunk of ice that resembled an Oscar statue and brought it down fast and hard on Chumley’s head. Chumley staggered, threw up and died. Despite several eyewitness testimonies the Good Humor Man was acquitted of murder because the prosecution couldn’t produce a weapon.