Day of the Creamsicles
by Don Raymond
The wheel turned twice before it stuck again, and the bell went <gronkle> <gronkle> with every frustrated shake of the handlebars. No matter how many times she hit it with a hammer, the damned thing wouldn't stop making noise.
She stomped on the pedal again, and the chain broke. Her foot shot downward, and the gripping teeth raked her leg before lodging in the shin guards she wore for precisely that reason. Shin guards weren't part of the official Ice Cream Girl™ uniform, but keeping her leg bones intact, Susan felt, was more important than the dress code.
At this point, according to the Manual™, she would sing out happily: "Ice Cream! Ice Cream! Come get some ice cream!" In the actual world, she muttered it through clenched teeth: "Ice. Cream. Come and get it. I dare you. You bastards."
If she'd known what was in store for her as the Assistant Residence Manager at Shady Oaks Villa and Apartments, she'd... well, she'd probably have done it anyway, sadly. It was this, or the night shift at the Squeegee Mart™, and there were only so many armed robberies you could buy off with free chili cheese dogs.
Still, being forced daily to climb into a black and white 1950's soda fountain costume and pedal the Ice Cream Cycle around the complex was, by any stretch of the imagination, above and beyond the call of duty.
She'd accepted with a sigh of resignation that her job did in fact require her to bake cookies. When she'd first read the ad, she'd thought it was a joke, something they'd thrown in to show what a fun and exciting place it was.
After her third day and fourth blister from the never-ending trays, she'd realized with horror that management did not have a sense of humor. Her boss, Ms. Conley, had either been born without one or had had it surgically removed in a traumatic childhood operation. It wasn't that Ms. Conley was serious; she smiled occasionally, the predatory smile of a gila monster, and sometimes even laughed, although no one could ever tell what she was laughing at. In fact, that's what made it so horrible: she moved to some strange pattern of her own devising, one which could not be cracked by anyone in the office. You never knew what each day held in store for you, like a roulette game where the ball bounced between not-so-bad and worse-than-you-could-ever-imagine. Only one thing was constant: cookies. At Shady Oaks Villa and Apartments, cookies were king.
Not that Susan objected to cookies in a general sense, or even making them, or at least buying a pack at the Squeegee Mart™, throwing them in the microwave and telling people she'd made them. No, the real problem was the people. People like Mrs. McRooney, who demanded macadamia nut cookies without the macadamia nuts, or like Mr. Wong, who every day at 7 AM tottered into the office, ate precisely half an oatmeal cookie, put the slobber-encrusted remnants back on the plate with the other fresh cookies, filled the pockets of his bathrobe with bottles of orange juice, and wandered back to his apartment, not to be seen again until the next morning, when another cookie would meet its doom in his dentured maw.
People, she reflected. People could really make you hate cookies.
But even the insanity of the Cookie People couldn't hold a candle next to the Ice Cream Cycle.
She should have known. After three months Behind The Desk, she really should have known. Should have known that Ms. Conley wasn't joking, that she was actually suggesting that they sell ice cream from a bicycle, that she somehow didn't perceive the homicidal rage that filled the room when she suggested this, didn't see how close she was coming to an "accidental" fall through a second story window.
And laughing out loud. That was guaranteed to bring swift and horrible retribution. In this case, Ms. Conley's revenge was to make Susan the first one on the contraption. That had been last week, and so far she'd shown no signs of mercy.
She really wished she knew where they'd found the bicycle, if only so she could burn the place down, to spare others the same fate. It had been molded from what appeared to be one piece of monolithic block iron. The wheels were warped in some way that defied modern physics; no matter how they bent or whacked or reshaped it, the front wheel would constantly jam against the fork, throwing her half over the handlebars and knocking the breath out of her in mid-curse. There was no hope for it at that point; trying to pedal harder would only cause the chain to break, spinning the axle and dropping her leg down into the meat grinder of the pedals, whose edges were lined with tiny, rounded bits of metal, the theoretical purpose of which was to allow the rider better traction on the pedal, and whose true purpose was to cause massive bodily trauma to any shins that came within reach.
The only answer was to get off, straighten the handlebars, and push the whole 70 pound monstrosity backwards until the wheel jerked free, pushing her forward over the handlebars and knocking the breath out of her, again mid-curse. And all the while the bell would jingle merrily in the summer sun, a constant sonic poke in the eyeball, at least until she snuck out to the garage one night and pounded it with a hammer. But the bell had been made from the same metal as the bike; she'd pounded it nearly flat and still couldn't get it to silence completely. She'd settled for its current hollow plomping noise, like a cowbell; it suited her mood.
She cursed under her breath, and snarled, "Ice cream, you rotten bastards. Here it is." She waited the required 3 1/3 minutes for a customer to appear before dismounting and stomping around to the front of the machine.
She murmured her mantra of hatred as the forced the handlebars into place. "We have lemon pops. Creamsicles. Popsicles. Fudge bars. Bastards. Ice cream sandwiches. Vanilla, chocolate..." sweating and cursing as she pushed. What had they greased the thing with? she wondered. Rust?
A shadow fell over her. Oh please tell me, she thought, it's the Grim Reaper, come to take me from this.
"Do ya got any chocolate eclair ice creams?" a voice asked.
She turned around. Her first thought was that a giraffe had broken loose from a local zoo. On second consideration, she realized that the thing standing in front of her had to be classified, however reluctantly, as human. It was Mrs. Walsh. Of course. Of all the Ice Cream Cycles in all the world, Mrs. Walsh had to pick mine.
"Do ya got any chocolate eclair ice creams?" the voice asked again. It seemed to be coming from the woman's stomach. For a moment Susan panicked, until she realized that the voice belonged the woman's child, who had somehow managed to completely eclipse himself behind her skeletal frame.
At last the apparition spoke. "He asked you if you have any Good Humour Chocolate Eclair ice cream bars, young lady." She seemed to be speaking from her nose, in a tone of voice which suggested that the world would be a much better place if only she could be put in charge of it for five minutes.
Her mantra broken, Susan came to her senses. "No," she replied. "We have lemon pops. Popsicles. Fudge bars. Ice cream sandwiches. Vanilla, chocolate..." She remembered, at the last second, to leave out the "bastards" part, although she took a moment to mentally insert it in the proper place.
"I want a chocolate eclair!" wailed Scotty.
Mrs. Walsh snorted. "I distinctly remember asking that Good Humor Chocolate Eclair bars be added to the menu," she said. "I fail to see how the committee ignored my recommendations. And frankly, I think you are rather rude. You haven't even checked the basket."
"I'm sorry, we don't have any..."
"Young lady, I have been a member of this residential association for ten years. I hardly feel my request would go ignored. If you would check your basket, as I am sure you have been trained, I think you will find one."
Scotty's sobbing cry pried into her ears like a rusty file. Desperate to stop his wailing before the cicadas took it for a mating cry, she opened the basket. The cold air brought a moment of relief, but Mrs. Walsh's hovering shadow didn't give her any time to savor it.
She scanned her eyes quickly... orange and white creamsicles... empty wrappers... orange and white cat... cat... cat?!?... Tabby raised his face to look at her. His head was matted with ice cream, and his fur had smeared to some demented kaleidescope of fruity popsicle colors. There was nothing else left in the basket but empty wrappers and, for some reason, the creamsicles he hadn't eaten.
"Meow," he said, as she slammed the basket's cover back over him. She whirled around. "I'm sorry," she began, when Mrs. Walsh brought forth another of her dreaded harrumphs.
"You didn't check. Don't patronize me, Miss Harryman. If you cannot make a proper show of customer service, then I will speak to the management about finding alternate employment for you."
Visions of armed robbers eating chili dogs swirled in her head. She turned back to the cart. Trying to conceal the basket with her body, she opened the lid again.
"Tabby, what are you doing?" she hissed. "How did you get in there? Get out, now."
"Hiss. Spit," he replied. He huddled assertively in the corner. She knew, when he took that pose, that nothing short of construction equipment was going to move him.
She reached in and rustled the empty wrappers for show. Tabby curled around her hand, and for a moment the weight of him made her fingers numb, until she was able to pry him off.
She closed the lid again.
"How about a creamsicle?" she asked.
"Don't wanna creamsicle," sniffed Scotty. "I want a chocolate eclair."
"We don't have any. But I've got creamsicles." And a cat, she added to herself.
"No! Chocolate eclair!"
"We really don't have any..."
"I wanna check!" yelled Scotty.
"Please, I checked, and we don't have any."
Scotty tugged on his mother's shirt sleeve. "I don't believe her!"
She reached down and petted his hair, a mother spider brooding over her young. "I don't believe her either, honey." She glared daggers. "Why don't you let him check. Perhaps he might manage to find one, since it seems beyond your powers."
"Haven't you ever heard, miss, that the customer is always right?"
She opened her purse, and waved a dollar bill like a propitiating sacrifice. "Here, I'll give him the money, he can go to the Squeegee Mart™..."
"If you cannot accommodate my request, I am afraid I will have to take that up with management."
The thought of Ms. Conley's flapping arms was too much. Deflating, she gave in to the inevitable. "Here," she muttered, moving aside, "have fun."
With a gleeful shout, Scotty ran to the cart and threw the top aside. He plunged his arm in, his eyes rolling back in his head as his fingers sent a mental inventory to his brain.
"Hey, what's this? It feels like fur..."
There was a frozen moment of silence, followed by a startled meow. Scotty's face grew an O of surprise. He began to shout, but was pulled into the basket before he could get the sound out. There was a brief growl, followed by a hiss; then silence.
Mrs. Walsh's hands flew to her face.
"Scotty! What have you done to my Scotty?!?" She ran to the cart and poked her head inside. There was another angry howl as she was pulled from her feet and into the box.
The Ice Cream Cycle shook for a moment.
Susan walked over and looked inside. The basket was empty, except for the orange and white creamsicles, and Tabby, looking ever so slightly plumper than he had a moment ago. He blinked at her through sleepy eyes.
"Meow. Hiss," he said, before settling back to sleep.
Well, that was that, she decided. She freed the front wheel and began the long walk back to the office. She wondered how she was going to explain this to Ms. Conley. Maybe, Susan thought with an evil smile, she would just have to see for herself.
Copyright © 2012 by Don Raymond