Julian pushes the supermarket brand hotdogs around the grill growing impatient at the fact that they are not yet ready to eat. He wishes they would spit and sizzle and flare up the way they do in the hotdog commercials, but they languish on the not-nearly-hot-enough-to-cook-anything grate. Once there was grass around his cousin Lester’s forlorn little grill, but the battle against the grease and ash from these summer cookouts has been lost, revealing the dry dirt beneath. Julian turns a hot dog over to check if it somehow had achieved doneness while he had stopped paying it attention for a moment—it had not. He throws the barbeque tongs on the table beside the grill and contemplates the cooler filled with beer before recalling Dawn sitting directly behind him, feeding their toddler applesauce. She doesn’t like when he drinks and fear of her has kept Julian sober many nights he’d rather have drunk away.
The relationship started when he was still a drinking man, before the kid. He met her somewhere he can’t remember at some time that must be a few years ago, but the details will remain lost forever in the drunken fog of history. She was sweet and she liked him right away, and who was Julian to turn down some feminine affection? Dawn’s titanic mass or not, he wouldn’t say no. Julian knew what he was—he definitely knew what he wasn’t—and he knew better than to reject a woman who was giving him unsolicited attention but wouldn’t request money at the end of the interaction. Now she is the mother of his only child and, at times, he has felt something akin to a paternal instinct toward her two older children fathered by other men. Somewhere below all that fat and mothering and stress is wonderful woman, he suspects. It’s just that he has never met her.
Julian stands and stares at Dawn for a moment as he ponders exchanging the two year chip in his pocket for one of the frosty cold beers floating serenely in ice water inside the cooler. Instead he returns to his watery lemonade.
“What are you staring at?” Dawn asks.
“What? Nothing. What are you staring at?”
“Are the hot dogs ready?”
Julian turns around and gives the hot dogs a perfunctory poke. He shrugs, “I don’t know. You can eat one if you want.”
“I’m not hopeless. You’re hopeless. I’m fine.”
She rolls her eyes at Julian and says, “Put a bun on the grill for me,” as the child in her lap squirms indicating that he’s all done eating applesauce for the moment and would like to get down and run around if she doesn’t mind too much thank you. He gets his answer as she sets him down on the ground to let him go, but not before wiping the detritus of his snack off his cheek. He does not approve of this step, struggles, and makes his exit as hastily as he can manage.
“Julian, are the hot dogs ready?” calls Dawn’s eldest, a 10 year old girl named Cynthia, from across the backyard. Julian can’t stand kids that age. They remind him of work.
“Don’t call me that! No, they’re not,” he yells back at her.
“Oh, give up. The more you say one thing, the more they do the other,” Dawn says.
“She should respect me.”
“Give her something to respect then.”
“I do. I put food on the table, don’t I? Don’t I deserve some respect for that? Those damn kids eat a lot.”
“Are you going to keep deserving that respect when you get yourself fired from your job?”
“What are you talking about? I’m not going to get fired.”
“Yeah? That’s not what I heard. I heard Benny called you in to his office and told you he was going to fire you if you don’t sell more ice cream from your truck. I heard that he was ready to fire you right then and there.”
“Who told you that?”
“A little birdie.”
“That bird is a liar. He wanted to tell me how good a job I do there. I’m the best ice cream man he has. Doesn’t sound like I’m going to get fired to me. Because I’m not going to get fired. I do a good job. I sell a lot of ice cream from that truck.”
“All the time.”
“I’m just telling you what I heard.”
“Yeah, well, you heard wrong. And I don’t want to hear nothing else about it, all right?” Dawn does not respond to him immediately. She screws the cap back onto the bottle of applesauce. “All right?” he asks.
“Sure, yeah, whatever you say, Julian.”
“Good,” he says under the impression that he has won this argument. He turns around to check the hotdogs and discovers that they now look more like six-inch charcoal tubes than the juicy meat treats he had imagined when he bought them this morning. He slams the lid back on the grill. “Shit. The hotdogs are done. I’m going to get something to drink.”
In the kitchen, Julian opens the fridge to see what Lester has that he can drink. Pickles? No. Some gray, fuzzy leftovers? No. A half-drunk bottle of flat diet orange soda? Maybe, but only as a last resort. His disappointment with Lester’s epicurean deficiencies grows with each option and each subsequent rejection. Pudding cups? No. Some mystery purple liquid? No. The fridge is hopeless, a dead zone filled with the half-eaten corpses of fallen heroes, scents of putrefaction lingering in the damp air. Water it is; he just hopes that the ice trays are filled. A quick check reveals that they are not.
He fills his Taco Bell branded Batman commemorative glass in the sink and wishes he had some ice. Where could he get some ice? Before stumbling onto the obvious answer to his internal query, inelegant footsteps pounding down the stairwell interrupt him.
“Cuz!” Lester yells. “I been looking for you. You’re a hard man to find, you know?”
“No. What’s up?” Julian asks, looking at the floating materials in his glass and trying to decide if he cares enough to dump the water and refill it. He takes a sip. He doesn’t die. Fine.
“You want to see the surprise?”
“You know! The one I told you about? The surprise! You want to see it?”
Julian looks out the kitchen door into the backyard and sees Dawn wrangling the children who look like they might have been fighting or whatever it is that children do. He weighs his options. Endure Lester or deal with the children? “Yeah, sure, where is it?”
“We got to go upstairs, but you got to close your eyes.”
“Yeah! No funny stuff, I promise. Come on. You’ll like it.”
Julian pokes his head toward the door again to make sure that Dawn is still deep in the backyard, tangled in the children’s death match. Feeling confident that she is well out of earshot, he leans in toward his cousin.
“You didn’t say anything to Dawn about Benny, did you?”
“Uh-uh. Why? What did Benny say?”
“He told me he was going to fire me if I don’t sell more product.”
“Oh that’s bad, Jules. Real bad. What did you say?”
“What could I say? I told him I’d do better. I can’t lose my job, man. I can’t.”
“You won’t. He won’t fire you.”
“He was serious. He told me that he was going to fire me in the past, but this was different. He was serious. You didn’t tell Dawn, did you?”
“No no, I didn’t know nothing about it. I swear.”
“I can’t lose my job, man. I can’t.”
“Don’t worry. Let me show you what I got upstairs. It’ll take your mind off things.”
The bedroom reeks of the bitter funk that develops when someone spends too much time alone with the doors closed, curtains drawn, and piles of filthy clothing fermenting on grungy carpet of uncertain vintage. Lester leads Julian in by the hand, leaving the other hand covering his eyes to protect the sanctity of the surprise. Julian curses as he nearly trips over some invisible obstacle on the floor.
“Sorry. The room’s a little messy,” Lester says. “All right, stay there. Don’t open your eyes.” He walks around Julian and shuts and locks the door. “Ok, open your eyes.”
Julian removes his hand from his eyes and takes in the full scope of the chaotic mess in Lester’s bedroom. But the mess is no surprise.
“I don’t see a surprise,” Julian says.
Lester’s eyes light up and he points to a sheet thrown across the bed with a dark bulge beneath it. At a cursory glance it could just be bunched up sheets with a pillow beneath them, but the universe is hinting to Julian that the answer is more sinister. Lester whips back the sheet to reveal a menacing assault rifle that looks more like something an American soldier in Iraq should be carrying than something Lester have hidden under a dirty sheet.
“What the fuck? What is that thing?”
“I bought a gun! Isn’t it cool?” Lester says.
“Holy shit, Lester. Holy shit. Why did you buy a gun?”
“To protect my house, man!”
“Who are you protecting it from? Robocop?”
“The guy at the gun store told me that it was perfect for taking down deer. Wearing bulletproof vests. Who had just robbed me. Fucking deer,” Lester says with a smirk as he lifts the gun, bouncing it in his hands like someone weighing a Christmas ham or a newborn. “Check it out.”
“Put it down! Is it loaded?”
“No, man, there’s kids here. What am I, crazy?”
Julian ignores the obvious retort and asks, “What kind of gun is it?”
“It’s a Colt M4 carbine. You want to hold it?”
“No, no, hell no,” Julian says. “Yeah, give it here. Don’t tell Dawn.” Lester zips the invisible zipper that binds his lips and then hands him the rifle.
Julian examines the strange new object in his hands, pulling levers and flicking switches. “What’s this on top? A telescope?” he asks.
“That’s a sight. Cool, right?”
Julian steps to the window, gets on one knee and puts the sight up to his eye. Lester’s bedroom faces the street, so Julian has an unobstructed view of all kinds of potential targets. He brings the rifle down and spies a little fat boy and his gaggle of compatriot lard asses gathered on the sidewalk, probably up to no good. He knows there are no bullets in the gun, but he still feels like a grade-A sicko for pointing it at their cute, little heads. One by one he aligns the crosshairs with each child and makes a “bang” sound under his breath. Just as he is about to imaginarily blow the fluffy little imaginary head off the leader boy with his imaginary round of 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition, a non-imaginary truck drives directly into his field of view. Removing his eye from the eye piece, he recognizes the truck as an ice cream truck, but does not recognize it as one of his ice cream trucks.
“Who the fuck is that guy?” Julian says.
“What guy? Where?”
“That fucking guy! Who the fuck is that guy?”
“Who? What? Where?”
Julian points at the ice cream truck parked in front of Lester’s house. “That guy! Who the fuck is that guy? What company is that?”
“I don’t know,” Lester says. “Maybe he’s new?”
Julian tosses the gun onto the bed and storms out of the bedroom. Lester throws the sheet back over the rifle and goes to follow Julian downstairs, but stops, thinks better of leaving the gun on the bed barely hidden under a sheet and stashes it under the bed. There. Nice and safe. Kids never look under the bed.
Down in the street, Julian rushes the service window of the ice cream truck, pushing half of the patiently waiting kids out of the way. He bangs his fist on the still closed service window.
“Open up! Open up this god damn window!”
“Hey mister, we’re waiting in line,” the fat leader boy says.
“Shut up, kid. This is important.” Julian continues banging on the window until the driver comes into the back section of the truck. The driver slides the glass back.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Yeah, you can tell me who the fuck you are!”
“My name is Clive. Can I help you?” he asks and holds his hand out to Julian.
“I don’t give a fuck who you are! Who the fuck are you? And what are you doing here?”
“My name is Clive. I’m selling ice cream from my truck? What’s up?”
“Mister, we want to buy some ice cream!” the little boy behind Julian says.
Julian ignores the boy’s protests and looks for something to be angry about. The truck is neat and clean. The chrome handles are polished and gleaming. The stickers advertising the types of ice cream bars he sells are new and intact, not ripped and buried beneath strata of other stickers. His menu is clear. His prices are low.
“What? A dollar for a rocket pop? That’s crazy! What are you trying to do, undersell the rest of us?”
“Yeah,” Clive responds with an undeniable air of coolness. “I mean, that’s business, right?”
“Hey, let’s go back in the house,” Lester says.
“Shut the fuck up, Lester,” Julian spits. He turns back to Clive, “No, that is not fucking business. There is one price and everybody sticks to that price. That’s how it works. I’ve been driving a truck for a long time. How old are you? Who do you work for?”
“I work for myself. Hey, uh, I’ve got some kids in line.”
Boiling with unfocused rage, Julian lets curses flow freely and undirected at anyone or anything in particular. He bemoans the sorry state of the world and the ice cream truck trade. He gripes about his inability to meet his sales quota. He bitches and complains about myriad minor or imagined slights. Embarrassed, Lester drags him back to the house. The Julian shaped hole on the sidewalk is quickly filled by rotund children desperately seeking treats to shove into their gaping, insatiable maws.
Lester sits Julian down on a stool in the kitchen and waits for him to run out of bad things to say about Creation. Dawn runs into the kitchen to investigate the source of the limitless profanity pouring forth from the house.
“What are you yelling about? Is something wrong?” she asks Julian, but he crosses his arms and sulks in silence. “What’s going on?” she asks Lester.
“Don’t know. He was cursing up a storm. Yelling, yelling, about…I don’t know. He wasn’t making sense. Just yelling.”
“Yes, ma’am. In front of some kids and that ice cream truck.”
“In front of kids? Great. Real grown up, Julian,” but he just scowls.
“You look nice today, Dawn.”
“Be quiet, Lester.”
“Come on, Jules. What’s going on?” she asks as she sits down beside him. She places her hand on his forearm to soothe him. “You can tell me.”
He sighs. “Nothing, nothing. I’m sorry. I just got a little worked up.”
“Are you ok? Do I need to be worried?” she asks.
“Yeah, no, I’m fine. I didn’t mean to worry you. Let’s go home. I got a headache.”
Rain falls heavy and fat on the roof of Julian’s ice cream truck pounding out its primal, driving rhythm with the howling wind providing harmony and counterpoint, the swells reaching such soaring, bombastic peaks that Julian cranks up the volume on the ELO tape playing on the cheap, aging stereo. He is stationed along the park where he is almost sure that most kids hang out, but he has yet to find one this afternoon, most likely because of the sudden, violent summer storm. The white plastic wrapper comes off another piece of merchandise he has no intention of paying for as he stares out the service window at rain beating on the concrete path splitting the grassy areas of the park. Lights are on in the automotive high school across the street and he wonders if anyone in there might want to buy ice cream, but decides his current location is too sweet to just give up on the mere prospect of selling a few frozen treats. Besides, as soon as he moves the clouds will clear and some kids are going to run up demanding ice cream and he will make his quota and won’t be fired. Better to just stick it out here for now. The rain will let up.
The finale of “Eldorado” drifts into outer space and he does not realize the album has ended until the tape automatically reverses itself and the overture begins again. He digs around the glove box for a new tape, but only finds one other. Shit, he thinks. Fucking Billy Joel. God damn, Dawn. Against his better judgment, he places the Billy Joel tape into the player. It starts up smack in the middle of “Uptown Girl”. Behind him a different pounding draws his attention toward the back of the truck. He pokes his head back there and sees nothing alarming, so he turns the music up further. In the lull between songs, he hears another, louder banging.
“Who’s there?” he asks the back of the truck.
“Mister! Mister! You open?”
Julian peers out the service window to see the little chubby boy from Lester’s house soaked to the bone, his oversized hand-me-down Power Rangers t-shirt sticking obscenely to his hefty little boy boobs. Julian wants to throw up. “Oh. It’s you. What do you want? I’m busy.”
“I want an ice cream, please.”
“I got lots of kinds, kid. What do you want?”
“Uh… um… I want….”
“Come on, come on. Spit it out.”
“Can I have a chocolate—” the little boy says, but the rest of his words are lost as Julian’s focus is stolen by the sudden appearance of Clive’s truck rounding the opposite corner of the park. He slams the window shut in the portly boy’s face, starts the truck and drives off after Clive.
Screaming, “Mister! Mister! What about my ice cream cone!” the boy chases Julian’s escaping truck until he becomes too winded to carry on, even with the lure of two ice cream trucks to spend his money at, a dangling carrot in front of his fleshy nose.
Julian trails Clive cautiously, staying a few cars behind him all the time. He silences the off-key rendition of “Do Your Ears Hang Low” pumped out by his truck so he doesn’t alert Clive to his sneaky sneaking. Billy Joel is in the middle of the “Oh oh woo oh” part of “The Longest Time” when Julian notices that Clive is not stopping anywhere to sell. Afraid that Clive has noticed him, Julian drops back another truck-length to maintain his clandestine trailing of the man who is out to ruin him and his chances to make a living.
After a seemingly aimless maze of sudden turns and disregarded stop signs, Clive stops on a residential block Julian recognizes to be only a few blocks from his own home. He pulls up a block behind Clive to stay inconspicuous, shuts off his engine, and sits in the Billy Joel-free silence, kept company by the slapping of grapefruit sized raindrops against his windshield. Clive’s driver’s side door opens. He steps into the rain with his jacket held over his head, runs around the front of his truck and disappears. Looking through his rain obscured windshield in the direction that Clive disappeared, Julian doesn’t notice the latch on the passenger side disengage. As the door swings wide, Julian slaps at the lock but misses, allowing Clive to get in. He shakes the rain from his hair and crumples his jacket, putting it onto his lap.
“Woo! Some rain, huh?” he says, but Julian does not answer, his eyes fixed on some invisible target in the distance. “Hey, you’re that guy from the other day, right? I thought it might be you. Why are you following me?”
“I’m not following you.”
“Sure you are.”
“No I’m not.”
“Man, I drove all over the place trying to shake you, but you stuck behind me the whole time. Pretty impressive.”
“I’m not following you, just sometimes two truck routes overlap. You don’t work for my company, so you wouldn’t know the routes. We just overlapped. I’m not following you.”
“Ok, ok,” Clive says. He looks around the cab and then picks up the Billy Joel case. “Oh wow, An Innocent Man. I haven’t heard this one in a long time. This is horrible. Are you listening to this?”
“My ELO tape ended.”
“Yeah, I feel that,” he says. “You know, I never got your name, man. I think I introduced myself a couple times, but anyway, I’m Clive. That right there,” he points to a row of town houses, “is where I live. Maybe you want to come in and have a beer or something? Let bygones be bygones, right? Besides, no one’s selling any ice cream out here today. Man, this rain is crazy!”
“I don’t drink anymore,” Julian says and leans over Clive and opens the passenger side door. “You have to go now. I’m busy. I got work to do.”
Clive sits looking a little stupefied by Julian’s coldness, but pushes the look off his face with a smile. “All right. No problem. You know where I live. I got some Cokes and things in there too, if beer is no good. Ok, uh, stay dry,” he says, lifts his jacket back over his head and makes a run for his front door, as if a minor increase in pace would keep him dryer in this brutal summer downpour.
Julian starts the engine. Billy Joel begins to sing again. He presses eject on the tape deck, rolls his window down and throws the god damn fucking tape out onto the street. He rolls his window up, turns on “Do Your Ears Hang Low” and speeds off, cursing.
Julian parks his truck a couple blocks from the school where the kids get breakfast during summer break. The TV told him that the high for the day would be nearly 100 before he left the house and already at midmorning he believes it. He plans to get the kids as they come out of the school building even though city regulation prevents ice cream trucks from parking within 150 feet of a school zone. It’s part of their crusade for “healthy kids” and to fight “childhood diabetes”; to Julian that sounds like a whole load of shit. If a few kids had to get diabetes so that he could keep his job, well, then it’s not really his fault is it? They’ll get better.
The school lets the children out and he kicks the musicbox of the ice cream truck into high volume, alerting all the little wastes that he’s here to contribute to their obesity before their parents arrive to whisk them away from his truck of treats. He has popsicles and soft serve and a bunch of other goodies. Just come over here and buy something.
The little fat boy who seems to be everywhere and his entourage of portly hangers-on emerge from the cafeteria. Most other children have left and in the quiet his unconscious mind recognizes something in the distance, a glimmer of hope. A musical portent of great things. The siren call of ice cream. Stirred, he points in the direction of the angel’s whisper and seven petite butterballs gallop off toward Julian’s truck. He groans as he recognizes their leader, but he has a job to do and he won’t let his disdain for the kid get him fired. That’s just dumb. The boy saunters up to the service window, gasping for air, the heat and fat surrounding his throat preventing him from taking sufficient air into his lungs. “Can I have…”
“Nope. All out of those.”
“But I didn’t…”
“All I got is creamsicles and chipwiches. You want one? 5 bucks.”
“I only got 2 bucks…”
“Hard times, kid,” he says. He imagines the boy’s greasy little palms molesting the George Washingtons wadded in his pocket and feels suddenly ill. The disgusting way the sweat on his hands makes everything he touches sticky and foul and smelling of unwashed child. The sickening beads of sweat forming on the kid’s brow. The hideous adult this boy will become. “You know what, kid? Now that I think about it, I got nothing left at all. Silly me.”
“But you said…”
“I take it back. You and your friends get out of here.” “But…”
“I’m closed. Go away,” Julian says and slams the window shut. He turns the volume of his Yes tape up, sits down in the floor of his truck, and waits for the kids to leave. A cone of vanilla soft serve helps ease his boredom and he wonders what Clive is doing, is he’s selling ice cream by the barrel, filling his cash box with clean, new bills from smart, handsome children. He curses his luck for only ever coming across disgusting fat kids. The soft serve melts and runs down his hand.
Summertime stretches on. It is a hot one, hotter than anyone can recall in recent years, and though the days grow shorter, the heat grows no less intense. The streets are filled with restless children with pockets holding diligently scrounged bits of change, dreams latent in every cent, ripe for plundering by a resourceful adult. The sidewalks become great swarming masses of life and activity, the hot climate stirring the primal recesses of the human brain. Air conditioning is the only savior indoors; outdoors only the wares of the ice cream man can provide salvation.
Julian’s truck sits untended as he wanders through the park yet again. Another day passes and he sells nearly nothing to the hot, sweaty people in the streets seeking cold, sweet respite. He spends long hours on a bench in the park watching young people playing baseball. He lounges in the shade at the public pools watching young mothers splashing with their children. But he sells nothing.
Weeks pass and, while other ice cream men can barely keep their freezers filled, Julian takes to walking back and forth in front of Clive’s home to see when he is and isn’t out working. He steals Clive’s mail. He spreads rumors about Clive’s alleged misdeeds, about his supposed shady past. He spends his days off driving around Clive’s block, imagining all the ways he could take him out with his car. He grows listless and uncommunicative at home, ignoring Dawn and the kids.
The city boils and Julian watches it all pass in front of him, waiting for the coolness of autumn to come once again. Waiting for a time when no one wants to buy ice cream and Clive will finally be out of work. Waiting for the day when he can sit and laugh as his nemesis struggles and falls, a casualty of the inexorable change of seasons.
Benny’s office does not reflect the sort of joy and youthful exuberance one might expect the office of the general manager of the city’s largest ice cream truck fleet to reflect. Julian notices that the stacks of wild paper he is used to seeing here on his boss’s desk perched precariously atop each other are gone. The selling season is slowing down with the onset of cooler days and longer nights, and that means less paperwork.
“Julian, do you know why you’re here?”
“Nope, sure don’t, boss.”
“Don’t call me boss. I hate that.”
“How much ice cream did you sell this summer?”
“I don’t know. A lot?”
“No, not a lot.”
“More than a lot?”
“No. Almost none. During a fucking heatwave.”
“You’re fired, Julian.”
“What? No! Someone is setting me up.”
“Get the fuck out of here, Julian. The only person setting you up is you.”
“You can’t do this, Benny. We’re friends. I got a family.”
“I warned you, but you didn’t listen. I can’t believe I’m paying you anything at all,” Benny says and turns his eyes back to the work waiting for him on his desk.
“You know what? Fuck you. I don’t need this shitty job. I never liked being an ice cream truck driver. That’s a job for fucking idiots like you. Fuck you and fuck this place. You can keep your fucking stupid job. I’m leaving,” Julian says, knocking his chair over and then storming out of the office.
Dawn is setting the table for the children’s dinner when Julian comes in with a case of beer in hand and a small bottle of whiskey tucked under his armpit.
“What are you doing?” she asks, but he does not answer.
He walks straight through the kitchen, opens the back door, and goes into the back yard. He sits down in a folding lawn chair, untwists the cap on the bottle of whiskey, throws the cap into the bushes at the far end of the yard, and in a single flexing of his biceps throws away two years of hard won sobriety. It tastes like failure, but there is comfort in knowing you can’t win. Why try?
Dawn slides the door open behind Julian. “What the hell are you doing?” She yanks the bottle from his hand, but he just reaches into the case of beer and pops a can.
“Why are you drinking? What’s going on, Julian? What happened?” The tears well in her eyes and in the beat of a heart they overflow down her cheeks.
“Julian, stop! What happened?” She pulls the beer from his hand and throws it across the yard. He does not look up at her.
“Did you lose your job? Is that what this is about? Julian! Talk to me!” The tears cascade down her face as all the old hurt comes flooding back to her. The fights, the vicious words, the uncertainty; in half a bottle of whiskey and Julian’s icy silence, a barely forgotten wound is reopened. She worries about their children. She worries about Julian. She sucks at the air, emitting a low, droning wail.
“Stop it! Why won’t you talk to me? Julian!” When she realizes that he’s shut her out completely and there’s nothing she can do, she drops the bottle, turns around and goes directly back into the house. He may be able to check out, but she has children to feed.
He reaches for the bottle of whiskey and, in one ferocious gulp, pulls the remainder of the unspilled booze directly into his stomach, and from there into his blood, and from there into his brain. Whatever it takes to quiet the storm inside him. He still has ten and a half beers left which, coupled with the pint of whiskey now inside him, should do the trick.
Julian fumbles for the light switch by the sliding glass door on the back of the house that he has lived in for 13 years. Once he was better at this, but he is out of practice and the light switch is a nimble bastard, slyly avoiding his hand with surprising dexterity. After a series of failures, his hand swipes the correct air space in front of the switch, but he immediately regrets it as he is blinded by harsh overhead lighting. He covers his eyes with the hand that had been propping him up on the door frame and stumbles, grasping for something to hold, but finds nothing and hits the floor. He lays still hoping he didn’t wake anyone. It would be bad news and he is just not prepared to deal with any more bad news today. Besides, the floor is good and cool right now, for some reason incredibly soothing. At least, briefly, he has this one good thing.
He wakes a short time later, a puddle of drool delicately bridging the gap between floor and face. Using the kitchen counter for support, he pulls himself up and walks to the bathroom. He rinses the sour stench of metabolizing beer and whiskey from his mouth with a bottle of Sesame Street brand mouth wash bearing the image of some muppet that he did not recognize from the show of his youth. He recalls that he came into the house for some specific purpose and that washing his mouth was not it. Then the sleep clears from his head a bit and he recognizes the powerful urge he feels to dive between Dawn’s meaty thighs and take her like he did in the old days, when life was exciting and unpredictable, when birds sang, chipmunks did whatever they do and beauty was everywhere. He ascends the stairs as quietly as possible to surprise her with his wanton amorous advances. She is going to love it. She needs him. She can’t wait to have him. He feels powerful, filled to the brim with sperm needing to be delivered to its proper place. It’s his duty. It’s his right as a man.
Gently he opens the door to the bedroom, strips, and slips under the covers. He places his hand on Dawn’s substantial rear end which is, as usual, cool to the touch. It is strange that something built of so much flesh could be cold all the time, but the evidence does not lie. He begins to caress her and scoots up closer, nestling his semi-erect manhood into the small of her back. He kisses her back and she stirs. “Hey baby,” he says.
“You stink like booze,” she says.
“I washed my mouth out.”
“Don’t touch me.”
“Come on, baby. I love you. I need you.”
“No,” she says, shifting her considerable heft to the edge of the mattress.
“What the fuck, Dawn? Come on. I’m horny.”
“No. Just leave me alone.”
“Come on, baby. Don’t you want me?”
“You’re pathetic, Julian.”
“Fine,” he says. He sits up on the edge of the bed, puts his pants back on and stands. “You make me fucking sick anyway, you disgusting fucking cow. Fuck you. No one will ever love you.” He slams the door behind him. In the stairwell he punches the cheap drywall, leaving a grapefruit sized indentation but not quite making it all the way through. He curses his now throbbing hand and his inability to make the hole in the wall he thinks ought to be there.
Night settles on the city streets. It is the first cold night of autumn and Julian ambles through the streets with half a fifth of cheap tequila in one hand and a paint can sloshing with gasoline in the other. The tequila is mixing with the emptiness in his stomach and heart, filling him with a fire in that special way only tequila can. He walks through the night without a clear path to his destination and no money left. He kicks the fender of a parked Hyundai hatchback. Misjudging the weight of the tiny car, Julian throws his whole body into the kick. The car proves to be highly immovable and Julian’s foot proves not up to the challenge of moving it. It hurts. With his hand still throbbing from the fight he lost with the wall, Julian now curses his foot for losing the fight with the hatchback.
He walks on, limping and swigging from his tequila bottle. He starts to hum “Tell Her About It” and then mumble the words. He is overcome with a startling sense of déjà vu, so he looks up to figure out where he is. There in front of him is the ice cream truck he’d followed, part of what seems like another life. He realizes he has found what he was looking for though he is barely able to see through the alcohol. Maybe things would be looking up for old Julian now, huh?
He approaches the driver’s side door and gently lowers his bottle and paint can. He wraps his shirt around his elbow, gives a cursory glance in both directions, and slams his elbow into the window. Unlike a depiction of the dashing hero smashing a car window while fleeing from pursuing bad guys in movies, the window is strong enough not to break despite the underwhelming blow from his elbow. Now having been beaten up by two different automobiles and one wall, Julian is pissed. He drives his elbow repeatedly into the window, but only succeeds in making faint, hairline cracks before the pain becomes unbearable. He curses the strength of the glass while reaching for his booze, but knocks it over and shatters the cheap glass. He curses gravity.
Julian picks up a loose brick lining a planter on the sidewalk, wraps it up in his shirt and finally breaks the window. He pops the lock, opens the door. and steps into the back of the truck. Everything is perfectly clean and tidy, that asshole. He takes out an orange creamsicle, rips off the wrapper and shoves it into his mouth. He smashes the service window, then the ice cream taps, the soft serve machines and anything else the brick will destroy. Nothing is spared his rage. Then he remembers the mouthful of gasoline he endured to fill the paint can. Gasoline saturates the garbage and broken equipment littering the floor of the truck. A flash and the inside of the truck roars with flame, the cab filling with smoke. His lungs burn before his alcohol-addled mind processes that it is probably a good idea to get the hell out of there unless he wants to die inside his enemy’s truck. How could he revel in the destruction of his Clive’s truck if he was dead?
Light-headed with smoke inhalation and liquor and rapture, he scrambles for an exit, but cannot find his way. He uses his shirt to swat at the flames in a vain attempt to make a path for himself. Orange and cream run down the sides of his mouth in a sticky stream of goo, making spots of glue on his bare chest for burning ash and embers to affix themselves. Every time he coughs, he shoots little shotgun blasts of liquified orange creamsicle in front of him, but they are powerless to stop the flames. With a fateful swipe of his shirt, he finds a path to the front of the truck and barrels through it. He throws himself out the driver’s side door of the truck onto the concrete. He convulses in a violent spasm of coughing, his lungs seared by the caustic, burning smoke. The creamisicle falls to the street in a goopy puddle of spit and dessert.
Behind Julian glass shatters. He turns around to see the entire truck engulfed in flames. Mouth agape, eyes glazed, breathing short, racked with coughing, he lays on the street and stares at his handiwork.
The windshield explodes and a thousand flickering diamonds become lost amidst the stars as great, wrathful tentacles of flame writhe and thrash in the night sky.
Julian lays and stares.
He cannot breathe.
He cannot speak.
The burning night sky fades into the blackness of dreamless sleep.
Prison food disagrees with Julian and he has had diarrhea for days, unpleasant at home, but acutely so when everyone else can see you sitting on the shitter. He is poised just so when the guard comes over to his cell. Catching a glimpse of the situation Julian is in, the guard gives him the common courtesy of turning his eyes away.
“You got a visitor,” he says.
“Oh.” Julian is nearly positive that it isn’t Dawn. After the words she had for him when he was first arrested, he is pretty sure he’s not going to see her or the kids for some time. He figures that this visitor could not possibly make his life any worse, so, what the hell, bring him on. “What the hell. Bring him on.”
“Nope. Get dressed. We got him in a conference room.”
Julian finishes his business on the prison toilet and pulls up the uniform he’s been living in. The guard opens the cell and Julian holds his hands out to be cuffed.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” the guard says.
Julian looks at him with cautious bewilderment, but shrugs off the strangeness of the exchange and tacks it up as reward for good behavior. The guard leads Julian down the hallway to a door. Julian steps into the room and sees Clive sitting at a table looking chipper, wearing that god-awful smile on his face. Rage erupts inside Julian. He hesitates, trying to judge the look of serenity in Clive’s face, but cannot make any sense of it, so he sits. He drums his fingers on the table and avoids eye contact.
“How’s it going in here, Julian? I hope you don’t mind I call you that. The police told me your name.”
“What do you want? I’m a busy man.”
“You’re looking all right. It’s good you didn’t get hurt when the truck exploded.”
“How’s the food?”
“This is why you came here? To ask about the food? I don’t need to listen to this shit,” Julian says and stands to leave.
Clive holds his hands up to halt Julian. “I’m dropping the charges.”
“What?” Julian says, disbelieving.
“I’m dropping the charges. In the end, this has worked out for me pretty good, and, well, no one got hurt really, and you have probably suffered enough by now, so, yeah.”
“But I destroyed your truck.”
“Insurance. I was a bad ice cream man, man.”
“You’re kidding me,” Julian responds through gritted teeth.
“Nope. I’m a turn the other cheek kind of guy. There’s a big black spot on my sidewalk that reminds me of what happened. I think that’s enough.”
Shock racks Julian’s fragile mind. Flashes of imagery burn their way through his head—he and Dawn embraced lovingly, grown old and gray; his truck, the pride of the fleet, bringing joy to everyone; his children educated and beautiful and strong; that fucking hotdog so supple and delicious. Where did it all go wrong? Why has Clive done this to him? He stands and turns to the guard.
“Take me back to my cell, please.”