by Shane Inman
Buddy and I drove to the park near my apartment first because I liked the kids who lived around there the best. Down-to-earth sorts I could picture driving an ice cream truck like mine one day, or maybe building castles like my great-grandfather. Negotiations with their parents began while I was still a few blocks away, the moment they heard that tin-can jingle. Just one, just enough for one, please, just the one, and I promise I won’t ask for anything else all week. You know, savvy kids. The kind whose folks didn’t turn me into a cautionary tale the moment I was out of earshot, a bogeyman intended to keep straight-A report cards coming in. I liked the way these kids watched me with a sort of awe, as if owning a truck full of ice cream was a greater aspiration than becoming an astronaut. When they looked at me that way, I felt like I really did own the truck and didn’t have to worry about the rising tide of those increasingly aggressive letters piling up on my kitchen table.
The park wasn’t much to look at—a triangle of fume-wilted grass stretched between the road to the docks and the road to the waste transfer facility. Creaky basketball hoops hunched over a rectangle of broken blacktop, but the court was totally empty. It was already a very hot day. Across from the hoops a couple dozen kids huddled under the shade of a single maple that had long ago caught whatever disease maples catch and never grew leaves on its eastern side, even during the summer. I don’t think it was dying, but it wasn’t not dying either. Just sort of holding on, snatching up whatever scraps of photosynthetic currency it could find in the latter hours of the day and using those not to grow or heal but simply to remain. It probably needed a companion tree to shield it from the world’s harsher currents, but I’m not a treeologist, so what do I know.
Anyway, like I said, the kids knew I was coming and had already squeezed whatever coins and crumpled bills they could from reluctant parents. About half rushed toward me as I pulled up to the curb, while the other half either ratcheted up their pleas and pulled out all the stops or kicked forlornly at the dirt because their parents were at work and they had nobody to ask in the first place. I’ll admit that as much as I liked these kids, I always felt a little tug of guilt about coming here. A day at the park was free. That was basically the whole point. Maybe you bring a couple sandwiches and a bottle of water, but otherwise you could mark it down on your budget as a big ol’ zero. My presence changed that, a fact written all too clearly on the faces of a few moms and dads, pleased that their child was pleased but already doing calculations about how that money might have been better spent. But that’s just how it goes. I didn’t have the breathing room to get all tangled up about it.
“Hi.” A real skinny kid had been the first to reach the truck and he wasn’t even out of breath. Little champion, that one.
“Morning,” I said. “What’ll it be, sir?”
He counted the quarters in his hand, scrunched his lips against his cheek, and pointed. “Rocket Pop, please.”
“Original or cherry?”
“Coming right up.”
I took his coins, tossed them into the cash drawer, and went to fetch his popsicle from the freezer. I had to push Buddy aside because he was lying right on the plastic packets I needed, rigid as anything. It was probably a health code violation of some kind, but I figured he couldn’t do any harm while he was frozen, and besides I couldn’t leave him out in the heat all day. God, can you imagine? So I fished out the popsicle and handed it to the kid and sent him off happy as can be and took my next diminutive customer’s order.
I launched a lot of Rocket Pops there. American classics, multicolored missiles which dye lips red and white before concluding with a tasteful asphyxiation blue. A few ice cream sandwiches and orange Dreamsicles went too, but none of the kids sprang for the big-ticket items, the cartoon character pops or the Choco Tacos. When the last customer ambled away, vanilla droplets plopping onto his T-shirt, I counted my meager earnings. I could already hear the water sloshing against my truck, rising fast, waiting for one good riptide to yank the whole thing away from me. I’d have to hit the shore today, no two ways about it.
As I left, I almost stopped for this one kid who hadn’t succeeded in securing any capital. He was so pitiful, mopey and breathing too hard—probably asthma, like lots of kids around here have—and I nearly handed him a free popsicle just for the trouble of being alive. I really did want to.
• • •
Buddy was a cat, before you get the wrong idea. I didn’t have a dead man in my freezer. Just a dead cat called Buddy, named after my city’s most beloved felon. I don’t know exactly how old he was, having found him meowing and mean-looking outside my apartment one drizzly Tuesday, but I kept him for almost fifteen years and he was the closest thing I had to anything. Buddy was never an affectionate cat, not one of those who snakes around your arms while you’re reading and covers you in hair and little trills. But he always let me know he was around. I’d get home from another long day, back all fucked up from hunching over the freezer for hours, and he wouldn’t greet me, exactly, but I could see the shimmer of his eyes watching from the next room, where he’d stay just long enough to reassure me I wasn’t alone before he disappeared again into whatever space he existed in most of the time. So when I found him—a week or so before the very hot day—stiff on his side under my bed, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have time to take him anywhere and I didn’t actually know what one was supposed to do with a dead pet so I put him in the freezer and decided I’d deal with him later. But at the end of the day I was so tired, and looking at the little tortoiseshell body in my freezer only added to my exhaustion, so I left him there and told myself I’d give him a proper burial the next day, or the next. Except I’d need to do research on what a proper burial looked like for an animal. The last thing I wanted was to do it wrong, after Buddy had been so good to me. And I didn’t have a yard, which posed another problem. You might be thinking cremation, but I didn’t think he would want to be erased like that. No, whatever I was going to do, it was going to take a long time to figure out. In the meantime I could just keep him frozen, looking more or less like he did in life. Sometimes at night I’d crack open the freezer and stroke him behind his rock-solid ear—just for a moment and only with one finger to avoid any chance of a thaw.
So he’d still been in the freezer on the morning of the very hot day when I decided to put him in my truck instead. My landlord had been threatening to kick me out for the past couple weeks, and I had a feeling this time he really meant it. I didn’t want to come home to see Buddy discarded on the sidewalk with all my belongings and being devoured by hungry carnivores. Here I could protect him from that, just like he’d always protected me from how still everything got at night. It was actually kind of nice, knowing he was right there with me as I lurched onto the highway. I’d never taken Buddy on the job before, scared he might leap out the window someplace far from home and I’d never see him again. But he was safe now. It was just the two of us and he wasn’t going anywhere.
You only have to go so far south on a hot Sunday before the highway really starts to clot. Brake lights congealing, flow halting, pressure spiking. Every minute I spent idling was another minute’s worth of gas money I’d never get back and another minute of losing sales to a rival driver. I was getting pretty antsy by the half-hour mark, but at least I had company, even if he was in the back and couldn’t speak English and was also dead.
“You seeing this guy?” I said, loud enough to be heard through the freezer’s heavy lid. I nodded toward a gleaming black Mercedes with a Coexist bumper sticker. “What an asshole. I hope someone steals his car.”
Nobody would, but it was nice to dream.
As I continued south, the composition of the traffic changed. Hondas and Fords and Toyotas made way for Cadillacs, BMWs, and the occasional Tesla operating on autopilot while a white-haired white guy in a white button-down folded his hands behind his head and stretched his legs, his right foot nowhere near the brake pedal—trusting not so much the machine itself as the status it conveyed. As I willed those lithium batteries to combust in the way they often liked to do, I realized the traffic might have been getting to me more than I’d anticipated.
Well, fuck it. I muscled my way over a couple lanes and took the next exit. I wasn’t even sure where it led but the sign said Beach Access so it seemed as good an option as any. What waited for me was the most lifeless beach I’d ever seen. It met the minimum requirements—there was the sand, there was the water—and aspired to nothing else. Still, a small crowd had set up blankets and umbrellas and parking was plentiful so I flipped on the jingle and found a good spot by the curb. The people my tinny song drew in were, like the beach they’d chosen for their sweltering leisure day, thoroughly ordinary. Paper people. That guy there was probably a middle manager in a nearby office park. The woman after him had almost certainly dedicated her life to a mildly successful hair salon a few miles inland. This kid likely had a dog named Spot or Sparky. The couple next in line stood neither too close nor too far apart but maintained that just-right distance of people who aren’t exactly in love anymore but, you know, also don’t hate each other yet. It was like everyone had been drained of something. Or had given it up willingly in exchange for something else. I handed over cold crinkly packages and dropped coins and bills into the register.
The line dwindled and I was about to call it quits on that place when I saw an old woman lying face down in the sand. Not on a towel or under an umbrella but sprawled there like she’d fallen and simply accepted her fate. She could’ve been someone’s grandmother but neither children nor grandchildren appeared to check on her. I pointed while handing my last customer a Drumstick.
“Oh.” He shaded his eyes and looked her over. “No, I don’t think so. It’s too hot for some folks.”
I was about to ask him if someone ought to help but he, uninterested in the conversation, wandered back to his family, staring fixedly at the Drumstick wrapper as he wrestled it open. I wanted to help the lady. Honest. But the longer I stayed there the worse the traffic was going to get, and I really needed to reach the islands if I hoped to so much as break even. I took a quarter from the drawer and pelted it at the motionless form. I don’t know why I did that except that it was the only thing I could think to do for her. I’m a pretty good thrower and the coin bounced off her head and landed in the blazing sand beside her. She didn’t move. I turned off the jingle and left.
I had to crank the A/C up all the way by the time I reached the big suspension bridge, something I really try not to do on account of that extra gas usage and the fact that everything eventually fails if pushed too hard for too long. But the heat was too thick, like the sun was boiling over and all that hot foam had settled on top of us. It wasn’t even noon. Atop the bridge’s tower, where the great sweeping arms of cable intersected, a man was suspended horizontally by a harness, feet braced against the tower and shoulders hovering over nothing. He sprayed something across the metal surface, added slack to his harness, and took a step backward toward the sea.
“Do you think I could do a job like that?” I asked Buddy. “You’d catch me if I slipped, wouldn’t you?”
• • •
The thing about the biggest island is that it’s full of castles and people actually live in them. Technically they’re called cottages, but I know a castle when I see one—seventy rooms overlooking a sprawling rose garden which itself overlooks a two-hundred-foot drop to the foaming waves. Eventually those waves will eat so much of the rock face that the rose garden and the mansion will tumble into the surf, but I’ll be long dead by then and there’ll be no one to go to my grave and say hey, guess what just fucking happened. Buddy might’ve done it if he’d outlived me. Ah, well.
These castles are also why the island is the best place to set up on a very hot day. If I could track down the kings or dukes or whatever they called themselves, I’d be set. Those people would buy anything in any quantity and I could even charge extra without them noticing. No price was too high.
I never felt bad about overcharging those assholes because my great-grandfather built one of their castles, or so I’m told. My grandmother told me he worked a night shift, slathering mortar and hauling immense pillars by lantern light because a Vanderbilt’s brother had just completed the most expensive mansion on the bluffs—a work of art chiseled from blocks of Italian marble heavy enough to kill—and that simply wouldn’t do. So the Vanderbilt sent word from New York that his own mansion needed to be even bigger and needed to be completed faster than humanly possible or else he’d be struck from The Mrs. Astor’s party roster and his entire life would be ruined.
Each time I glimpse that castle I see not the finished product (marvel though it is) but a skeletal thing bathed in the uncertain light of gas lamps like some Roman ruin uncovered by 19th century archaeologists. And there, atop the unfinished walls, stands my great-grandfather. Except he died as a young man so he’s never more than a silhouette, too dark to see.
The A/C started grumbling after we crossed the bridge and I pleaded with it to hold on for one more day, though I actually needed it to hold on forever because where the hell was I going to get a spare fifteen hundred dollars for a new compressor? Just the thought of it choked me, saltwater pooling in my lungs. I punched the dash once, twice, three times, and I must’ve made a pretty good case for myself because it kept on chugging as we made for the island’s biggest beach.
God that place was packed. Fucking unbelievably so. Bumper to bumper two miles out, nearly a standstill closer in. The sign outside a Citizens Bank branch cheerily declared the temperature had broken 100 degrees. All I could do was sit there, sweating, losing money I didn’t have.
“You okay back there, Bud?” I said over my shoulder.
He didn’t answer, but that was just par for the course with him. A real contrary cat. You couldn’t so much as hint at what you wanted from him or else he’d do the opposite. After a while I learned not to look for Buddy when I needed him. When I’d come home early that spring with a cardboard box full of my mother, I just sat at the kitchen table and stared at the dark and didn’t move and after a long time Buddy came and lay down in the far corner of the room. His eyes glimmered in the shadows like they knew me. There was no comfort there, exactly, but it made me feel like I had someone.
My mother used to tell me there was no secret to life. No answer to the questions it posed. You just had to put your head down and bear all the trouble it heaped on you and count yourself lucky if you had somebody by your side when the heat became too much and you melted into a sticky puddle of goo. She told me this a lot, a mantra she repeated more for her own benefit than mine. But I was working when she got sick and working when the sick got her so I wasn’t by her side at all, just like she wasn’t there for her own parents and no one was there for my great-grandfather. I guess that’s why I never bothered with a family of my own. We’re just not lucky like that. Though if my great-grandfather, sweat-drenched, asks me on my deathbed why the line is ending, why all his labor has amounted to nothing, I’m not sure I’ll be able to give him a satisfactory answer. I had a cat, I’ll tell him. A cat who cared whether I lived or died.
I finally reached the beach parking just as the attendant put out a “Lot Full” sign. An F-350 snapped it in half and drove right in but the attendant didn’t seem too fazed and just got a new sign from his booth and put that one out instead, then watched as another big, muscly car bowled that one over too while the kids in the back seats fought over some device and their parents threatened to take everything from them. These people were going to have their fucking relaxing beach day even if they had to kill someone for it. They had put in their time, they had sold off their best years, and now this—this one annihilatingly hot day—was what they were owed, and no one would take it from them. I’ll admit I was a little jealous of those red, shouting families. They were so unhappy, but they were other things too.
I blew past the attendant like the others. He’d probably lose his job, but I couldn’t worry about that right then. I’d taken too long in getting there and the beachside curb was already lined with my competitors, folks just like me who I felt intensely violent toward in that moment. Whatever goodwill I’d felt at the park in the city had by then entirely evaporated, joining the thick oceanic haze where all the good of society went when it got too hot out. I screeched into an illegal spot on the sidewalk behind the other trucks and threw on my jingle. Every truck blared its music at full volume. All together, it sounded like Hades. None of the kids in line seemed remotely bothered and I kind of resented them for that. They were so oblivious to this awful thing that the rest of us had to deal with. Those at the back of the existing queues dashed over to me to cut short that excruciating period between wanting something and receiving it. Some of them even bought the Banana Bars, so they must’ve been pretty desperate.
I started to realize something was wrong as I handed a Dora the Explorer pop to some giddy six-year-old. I felt it first as a bead sliding down the groove beside my right nostril. It meandered along the bow above my upper lip then dripped and landed noiselessly on the truck’s sill.
“Hot one, isn’t it?” said a dad-aged dad as he flicked open his wallet.
“Sure is,” I said. It was the third time I’d had this exchange in the last ten minutes, but the words actually meant something this time. Because it was a hot one. God it was a hot one. I waved a hand over the dashboard vents and felt only hot air. Something inside had broken. That explained why the freezer was chugging louder than usual, struggling pitifully against that giant fusion engine in the sky. I stroked Buddy’s ear and his fur was soft and damp, slowly thawing. I poked a Rocket Pop and it gave just a little. Inside that wrapper it must have been bleeding all over itself, red white and blue dissolving into a sticky disgusting mess. If I didn’t offload all this shit before it melted, I’d end the day so far in the red I’d drown in it. Forget the compressor, I’d lose the whole damn truck. The apartment. The only things besides my dear dead cat I could still call my own. But there was no way I’d sell everything that quick. Not here, not with all those other trucks lined up in front of me. I needed to outsmart the market.
I abandoned the families in my line, hopped into the driver’s seat, and threw the truck into drive. The main road was still backed up all to shit and it looked like there’d just been an accident in the parking lot, because two women were punching the hell out of each other while their husbands and kids cheered them on. No getting out that way. So I just edged the rest of the way off the curb in the other direction, onto the sand, asking Buddy to cross his toes and pray the wheels wouldn’t stick.
It’s easy enough once you get the hang of it. Driving on sand, I mean. It’s not too different from driving on snow. You go a little slower than usual, try not to turn too sharply, and do your best to ignore the expletives hurled by people diving out of your way. It wasn’t that I enjoyed plowing through picnics and snapping umbrellas and popping big inflatable balls—I just didn’t have the luxury of caring at that particular moment. I swear I’m not a callous person.
Eventually the crowds thinned out and then disappeared behind me and the drive was pretty nice after that. Just the ocean on my left and shiny wet sand stretching out in front of me. Sort of romantic except for how sweaty I was getting. That part was really gross. I kept punching the dashboard but nothing came out, even as bloody cuts opened on my knuckles. I yelled some really nasty stuff at the truck and apologized to Buddy for my language and then yelled some more.
By the time I got to where I was going, I must’ve looked like an absolute wreck, because when the security SUV stopped me the guy inside already had a hand on his gun.
“You can’t be here,” he said, stepping out of the car with his fingers wrapped around the pistol grip. Big beefy guy, neck like a tree trunk. I thought I recognized him from my own neighborhood. “This is a private beach.”
Past him, people stared. Pale, stylishly dressed, sun hats all over the place. I swear to god some of them were playing croquet on the sand.
“Oh, I didn’t know,” I said, even though I did.
“You’re gonna have to pay.”
I squinted up at the bluffs, and there they were, the castles. I had this feeling they were watching me. They didn’t know who I was, couldn’t feel my great-grandfather’s bones fertilizing their gardens. They just knew I didn’t belong. Which was weird, because it wasn’t like this was a different beach than the one I’d just left. It was all the same coast.
“There’s been a misunderstanding,” I said. “I have ice cream. I’m here to sell ice cream.”
“Oh,” the guard said, and for the first time seemed to register the bright colors of the menu plastered on my truck. He let go of his gun. “I’ll have a Big Dipper.”
It’s that easy sometimes. You just need something to offer.
Pretty soon, a whole crowd had gathered around me and I was handing out every sort of treat I had. For the first time since that morning it started to feel like a good day. Maybe it would all work out. No one ever said “keep the change” but it was all right because I upcharged them outrageously. And god, those kids were hungry. Like I’ve never seen. Some would buy an ice cream sandwich, devour it in front of me, then order another. I didn’t know how the hell they got so ravenous, but I wasn’t about to stop serving them. It did start to make me uneasy though, the way they never seemed to fill up, kept coming back for more even as my supply dwindled. I looked to their parents for some sort of backup but the adults had gotten over their initial shock at my intrusion and returned to their natural state of being unable to register my existence.
Very slowly, I handed out the last crinkly package I had. A dozen kids waited expectantly for more.
“That’s all I have,” I said. “Sorry.”
They begged, then, and when that didn’t work they started demanding. I told them I’d be back tomorrow but they weren’t having it. A couple of them stood in front of the truck so I couldn’t leave.
“More,” they said. “More.”
I went to the freezer to double check. Nothing. Only Buddy.
The security guard came up to me and said, in a low voice, that I’d better give them what they wanted. Said they were still hungry.
I spread my hands and told him I had nothing left except for one thing which wasn’t for sale.
“Give them that, then.”
“I can’t. He’s mine.” Sweat rivered down my back. The gas needle inched closer to E. I opened the cash drawer and did a quick count and came up with Not Enough. Even after all this I was going to sink because of course I was—I’d been too far out to sea long before the day began. How had I managed to convince myself otherwise?
And there were those kids, innocent little fuckers, all-American grins and outstretched dollar bills and the beginnings of sunburns blooming on their necks.
“It’s very expensive,” I said. I had to say it twice because the first time the words just sort of croaked out and didn’t sound like words at all. The kids ran back to their parents and returned with more money, held tight in their fists so the sea breeze wouldn’t steal it. I could already feel how still my apartment would be once I returned, how loud every step would become with no one left to hear it.
I took the money. Put it in the drawer one bill at a time, counting them. How much is anything worth, really? Then I pulled Buddy from the freezer. I meant to say something to him, some kind of meaningful goodbye, but the next thing I knew I was handing him over and I hadn’t said even one word. The kids cheered. They grabbed Buddy’s legs, his tail, his head. With a little effort they pulled him limb from limb. Decapitated him. Wrenched his spine in two. I stood there and watched them dig their little canines into his frozen tendons, slurp at dangling arteries, crunch down on exposed ribs and gnaw chunks of yellow fat with glee. Their lips and teeth turned Rocket Pop red. The melting juices dribbled down their chins and onto their chests and little dots of it speckled the sand.
Past them the water sparkled under the sun. Gentle waves repeated themselves. I thought about what it all must look like from the castle on the bluffs that my great-grandfather built. I bet it looks so pretty.
Copyright © 2023 by Shane Inman