I don’t like children which is unfortunate to my line of work…I call it work, but it’s torture really. If you are working a job that you hate, you always have the option of resigning…of opting out: of just deciding not to show up…
This isn’t like that. I’m not actually an ice cream man…and I have to show up. I don’t have options. It’s not a choice. It’s more like a compulsion. Nobody would choose to be like this.
I probably shouldn’t even describe it as “a job.” Nobody pays me and if I decided to quit, the voice wouldn’t ever stop hounding me. She’s like a twitch or a tick…like an obsessive compulsive pattern, only instead of feeling the need to complete some bizarre ritual, I have to keep picking up these kids or the voice will nag at me until I go completely insane.
Maybe I already have gone insane. What people do this? More importantly, why me?
Have you ever had to clean up after a dozen 4 week old puppies? They’re not potty trained. They’re too young. You’re not really even supposed to handle them when they’re that small, but I’ve found the younger the puppies are, the more effectively they work as lures. Some kids don’t want to come: parents taught them not to talk to strangers…it’s weird what lessons have the lasting power to stick. Candy works too. These things don’t attract every type of kid. That’s why it’s like an attention deficit disorder playground in here. That’s why I constantly have a migraine: puppies yapping, calliope music and the constant pounding of the voice of the GPS, among others…
”Can I have more candy mister?” Or “can I have another ice cream?” I give it to them just to shut them up–and why not? It’s not like it’s going to spoil their dinner.
Oh yes, I know what those people with ticks and compulsions feel like. This is my prison. This is my ice cream truck and it came fully equipped with Tourette’s.
”Red light camera reported ahead. You killed him. Make a left now on Mayberry Park Road. You killed the boy. In 1000 feet turn left on Market Street. Your destination is on the left. You monster. He’s dead because of you…”
The one coming up should be easy. The GPS tells me he’s really disoriented already.
“You have arrived at your destination. His name is Alex Thompson.”
I pull over the sidewalk in a haphazard maneuver, tearing the grass into muddy ruts. The boy looks to be about 7 or 8–sitting on the swing set, gazing through me in a haze.
“Alex? Alex Thompson?” I have to shout to be heard over Pop-Goes-The-Weasle. He doesn’t make any indication that he’s heard me. He doesn’t move or seem afraid. He just stares.
I cut the engine and the music slowly dies, stretching into an ominous groan for the last three notes. I unfasten my belt so I can get out and grab him. Outside of the van, a tension permeates the air like the smell of something awful has been left hanging there. The park was crowded before I arrived, but now the families are beginning to leave. Mothers clutching the small, sticky hands of children with tears in their eyes. Nobody will see this happen but Alex and me.
As I approach, he darts off. “Fuck this,” I mutter under my breath and decide I’m done with this once and for all. Even before I open the door of the van, I can hear the robotic woman commanding me to turn back:
“Make a U-Turn. You are a monster. Make a U-Turn. Monsters don’t stop. Monsters don’t quit. Make a U-Turn. Monsters have to pay. Make a U-Turn.”
“Do it. Now.”
Fucking hell. “Shut up you bitch…I didn’t mean to do–SHIT.” I turn back and shout: “Alex! Get over here! Please!” I add: “I have candy! Do you like candy?!”
The park is cleared out now. He runs a bit further–trips and falls. When he gets up I can see that his forehead is bleeding. Great, he’s probably brain damaged.
In the end I get him in the van by telling him there’s a PlayStation. It’s not a lie. There’s all kinds of shit in there. The puppies, candies and ice creams are just the tip of it.
After I take him where he needs to go, the GPS starts up again. “At the next light, turn right onto Washburn Ave.” And I do as she says, but she still mutters: “you are worthless garbage” quietly. “Your destination is ahead. Her name is Jenny Marsten.”
A little girl stands outside of the entrance to the public pool. Her hair is slick and dripping wet. She’s clutching a pink ring with both of her small hands. It’s the kind you throw into the deep end and dive in to retrieve. I can tell she’s afraid of me already and I’ve just pulled up. She’s the second one I’ve grabbed at this pool this week.
There’s a hesitant nod ‘yes’ in reply.
“Get in. I’ll take you back to your parents.”
She doesn’t seem to want to really, but Jenny is one of the rare ones who I don’t have to convince to listen. It’s like she knows I have to get her…she knows she has to get in. It’s like she knows it even if she’d rather not. She can tell I’d rather not take her but we were both fated for this moment.
The door slides automatically open on it’s hydraulics and she climbs aboard. It slides itself shut too. Some people can see me, but nobody sees any of the grabs. Not ever, so nobody ever makes a move to stop me.
“Buckle up, okay? There’s bubblegum in that tub there,” I tell her, “do you want some?”
“No thanks,” she whispers with sad reservation. Her lips are as blue as her scared eyes and she reeks of chlorine. I can smell it on her breath. Who knows how many kids have pissed in that water? Who knows how much of it she breathed in before she died?
“Hold on tight because I’m going to drive really fast okay?”
“Do you have a siren?” She asks, “the ambulance that just left had a siren.” Around the truck, the pool seems to be sadly clearing out just like the park earlier.
I look at her through the mirror on the windshield: “No honey. Just circus music.”
“Where are we going?” She asks me in a small voice.
“We’re going to the hospital, young lady.” I tell her, “today’s your lucky day. You get a second chance.”
Kaiden didn’t get a second chance. Not like these kids do. It isn’t fair. Who was supposed to be maintaining the route before I took it over?
Fuck that guy.
When we arrive at the hospital, I take her grubby hand and lead her through the doors. Most people here can’t see me either, but there’s a few who can. I’m not dead or a ghost or anything like that, though I wish I were. It might be that grief or guilt is something that people instinctively avoid or it might be that the kind of work I do hovers just out of sight–beyond what most people can see.
Lunes at the registration desk can see me. She can see Jenny too. At this point, Nurse Lunes and I are old friends.
“What’s your name?” Lunes asks with a polite and friendly smile. She always smiles–probably to contrast my endless scowls. After Jenny tells her name, Lunes tells me: “She’s in ICU 4 and you should probably hurry. I don’t think you have much time.”
I lead Jenny to the room. The place is like a maze I’ve solved long ago. Like most kids, she’s confused when she sees herself already in the room–sees herself lying unresponsive in the bed. She’s concerned when she watches the doctor use the paddles on her chest. The machines in the room and the loud jolts are more fodder for my migraine. Every time I bring a kid here, they’re beeping in endless flatlines.
“Go climb back in, kid.” I tell her and I watch her little spirit climb up the railing of the bed and slink back into her body. When she gasps awake, she tells her relieved mother about the man with the ice cream truck.
“There were puppies in the back.”
Her mother doesn’t hear her. When she finally points to where I had been standing, I’ll already have left. Back out on another run–collecting another kid. Saving them from the other side. It’s not their time.
I’m doing a good thing here to work off my debt. It’s absolute misery, because it will never bring him back. Every day is a constant reminder of how I failed–how I’m a shitty dad. How could I back the car into my own kid?
The morning after Kaiden was gone, I woke up the ice cream truck was parked out front and I started working. I don’t know if anyone else on my street could see it. It seemed to shimmer in and out of sight like a preternatural thing. I could hear the voice of the thing–the GPS with Tourette’s–before I even climbed in and began the work.
This is a punishment so I suppose it’s fitting, given the circumstances. I can’t quit even though I want to. Every time I try I wonder who was doing this before me–did they quit? If they hadn’t, would they have ferried Kaiden to the hospital? Would he have lived? Who was supposed to ferry him through the streets and bring his spirit back to his body? What happened to them? Did they opt out of this with the barrel of a gun between their lips?
The thought hasn’t escaped me. Maybe that’s the only way out in the end.
“You are a horrible father. You deserve this.” I sigh, “turn left.”
It was an accident. I’ve told her over and over again but she never listens. I don’t know how long I have to do this until I can be forgiven. I only report to the GPS with Tourette’s Syndrome. She’s in charge of me now.
I don’t know who is in charge of forgiveness.
Sometimes it’s not just her voice sounding off reminders that I’m a monster–that I should have checked my mirrors. Sometimes the reminder is the sound of a memory replaying in my mind: the echos of the tricycle crunching under my tires as I backed over him. It’s louder than the carnival of noise pumped out by this truck. It’s louder than any other agony I’ve ever known.
“In 1000 feet, you will arrive at your destination.”
“You Fucking Shithead.”