The Ice Man

Photo by Trenton Kelley.

Nothing else about that day was particularly stand-out. If it hadn’t been for the ice man, I doubt my memory would have been so lucid. Intact, you might say.

Clarity is very rarely a blessing. At least, it hasn’t been for me.

Mom and Diego unfolded their chairs, staking them into the clumpy ground. Boldly striped beach towels were shaken open in ways that made me shield my eyes from the sting of yesterday’s sand.

I watched a tendon in Mom’s leg tighten as she stood facing the water. Her bulging bottom was packed tightly into her swimsuit, the cellulite on her thighs falling in layers. Diego rummaged in her bag for the sunblock, absurd swim trunks inflated around his knees, not yet converted to their opposite, equally absurd form: soaked and clinging to everything in ways that made me reflect on the purpose of clothing–to cover a damn person up.

I gazed out on the dispersion of multicolored umbrellas and sunbathers on the shore: the men who splayed their pasty legs over their towels like drowned frogs. The women who wore only their tan lines.

The ice man set up his kiosk at the soft back shoulders of the beach, where the sand dunes looked as if they’d been dumped out of a giant’s toy bucket. I noticed the struggle he went through every day to plant his commercial umbrella, how he’d steady it in a kind of wrestler’s hold between his legs that glowed with white hairs, the salty breeze ruffling the back of his Martha’s Vineyard t-shirt.

He’d announce the two flavors of the day in plastic tubs, heavy like propane tanks. They made a thunderous clattering sound as he loaded them into the cart’s circular openings.

Rainbow and Watermelon. Coconut and Honeydew. Chocolate and Lemon.

Those Italian ices gave my drowsy days at the southern tip of New Jersey their sweet, pointed end. They were the answer to hours of lying in the sun until I was nauseous, to sinking myself into the ocean’s cold, salty broth, feeling the waves warp around me as they passed, to treading on slimy things I assumed were half-decomposed jellyfish. They helped me to feel less grouchy about the sand that got under my fingernails, the sand that got everywhere.

I never really understood people’s devotion to the beach, to this ocean with its constant sighing. There was no coherent beginning or end to it, which made me feel both here and not. I needed those ices, or my mind would overheat like a parked car in an unshaded spot.

The best part of vacation was always the food, anyway. My mind wandered to the basket of chicken fingers I’d eaten last night at that dockside restaurant, the red-and-white checked paper I’d decimated one corner of with ketchup. I’d watched the seagulls sail away with french fries in their mouths while Mom and Diego talked to each other and not to me, drunk 7-UP’s in a tall glass through a bendy straw that had come wrapped in paper.

The restaurant food always tasted better than the food we ate at home. That was because it was high in fat, Mom said, more than once that summer, as if she were waiting for the meaning to catch in the sun-washed netting of my vacation brain. Only on vacation, she said, though I wished we could live the good life all year ‘round. I didn’t see why we couldn’t.

“I’m going for an ice Mom, ok?” I said as I got to my feet. The Night She Disappeared lay open across Mom’s face. She had been using it to cover her eyes while she sunbathed.

She lifted the paperback, with its cracked spine and gold relief lettering, to squint at me. She looked vaguely purple in the shadow I cast over her.

“Now? You just had breakfast!” Her upper lip scrunched unevenly to show her long front teeth that faced towards each other. It was that displeased look that she did with her entire face, and it made her look like a hopelessly human impression of a squirrel.

I wanted to tell her that.

“Mhmmm…” I vocalized, my eyes already drifting to the line forming a few paces away, made up of children mostly, dancing, hopping up and down on one foot. The ice man’s cart looked like some kind of magnet that drew in short people.

I was aware of being the tallest kid in line. I didn’t like how it made me feel: big. Not the good kind. Was there such a thing?

A girl trekked through the sand to get in line behind me, veins of ocean water trickling down her mocha-latte-colored thighs. She wore a one-piece shot through with a lightning pattern. It was the kind of suit worn by competitive swimmers. I stared dumbly at her. Under the filmy white sheet of this direct sunlight, that shot invisible flames across the seraphic gradients of the sky, I felt another disorientation coming on. The loose friendship bracelet around her brown ankle was soft and ready to break, the sign of a summer well-spent. Sand stuck to it, glittering.

The sun glinted hot off of the metal of the ice man’s cart as he scooped up the last of the Mango. The force of his scooper against the nearly empty barrel made a hard slishing sound.

“Cherry, please.” I said once my turn arrived. He didn’t look at me, just began the effort again. The muscles in his deeply tanned forearm twitched as he reached down into the Cherry tub. It was fuller than the Mango, and the sound as he scooped was softer, like tires cruising through wet snow.

“I see you here every day.” The ice man looked up at me. He smiled, and I noticed a flesh-colored mole just above his upper lip, almost encroaching on it. “Are those your folks?” He pointed to my mom and her boyfriend, who, at that point, looked very far away.

I nodded.

“How old are you, anyway?” His head cocked to one side in a movement that I barely noticed. I considered the pinch of wrinkles at the corner of his eyes that drew his skin tight against his temples. The sun hit underneath the umbrella, making a halo out of the thinning hair at the back of his domed head. The shape of his skull was visible as slight depressions under the skin.

We had never spoken before this. His eyes, I quickly saw now, were little camera lenses. Behind their stillness, I became aware of another more rapid movement: click, click, click, click.

Meeting his gaze gave me the sensation of holding my breath underwater. I looked away from him, and onto the thin, dry tops of the grass that sprouted from the sloping dunes, like the ingrown hairs at my bikini line.

 “Thirteen” I said, turning back to him.

“I wish was I was thirteen.” He said, cheeks lifted in an amicable smile.

“Why?” I asked him.

“So we could go out.”

I felt my face blaze with heat. Two traffic lights flashing on each cheek. STOP. STOP.

I thought of my bike ride yesterday. The sting of my thighs chaffing in those cut-off shorts hurt more the harder I peddled, and peddled. A tornado of thought raced in parellel to my bike, egged on by a stern voice that had announced itself a couple of days prior, telling me to go faster, peddle harder, go faster, peddle harder. Harder-faster-harder-faster-harder-faster! I wasn’t accustomed to obeying orders like this, but I was surprised by how comforting it was to do what she said. I did hate the way the button above the zipper cut into the donut of fat around my navel. I’d pinch and fondle it in any passing mirror or window in ways that were almost pleasurable in the self-disgust that they inspired. Peddling harder, I recalled in roaming detail the sausages we grilled for dinner the night before, and that second helping of pasta I’d had the night before that, fully lubricated with liquid butter, topped with heaping spoonfuls of parmesan cheese. The connection between what I’d eaten and how my body looked was starting to become more traceable. I was learning a new language that spoke only in calories, grams, ounces and serving sizes, and evoked a certain feeling in me that had no length and breadth, no set duration or depth, or name yet. I couldn’t measure it at all.

Guilt. I’d learn that summer what that feeling was called. I’d also learn and that it was as effortless to being a girl as sparkle nail polish.

I saw out of the corner of my eye the ice man reaching out to me. Every muscle I had seemed to know how these next few moments of my life would go. My heart didn’t appear to be beating anymore. It took on an alarming high buzz, the way I imagined a rabbits’ heart would when retreating into a bush to escape the cat, or the four-by-four.

I felt my hand close around the white paper cup, cold with the lush, icy mass inside it. I felt my heart rate drop and lower.

I looked down at my scoop of Cherry. The color was so bright, an unnatural maraschino. There were rifts in the top where the ice was hardest. The fast-melting bottom lip on that hefty scoop was just begging for that easy sweep with my tongue I always did, to catch the drips before they fell. I reached my tongue out instinctively, but feeling his eyes still on me, pulled it back. With a regret that I remember to this day, I watched the red drops from the melting ice roll down the sides of my hand.

I looked up at the ice man. His eyes popped in an almost goofy way as he smiled at me, like he had just produced a coin from my ear. The few tufts of white hair still on his head waved in the surrounding breeze, turning from right to left at the top of his scalp, that was dappled with sun-spots.

He smiled down at me like he wanted to regress me further in his mind, like I was even younger than I already was, like I was just a baby with my legs splayed blissfully apart, blinking my eyes up at the impossibly bright sun of him. I saw him then, in his boxy, oversized t-shirt and cargo pants. I saw myself in my bikini. The difference then felt unbreakable. Fixed. Permanent.

There were two singles rolled tightly in my other hand, damp and fragrant with the smell of money.

“Thanks.” I said, shoving them into his. I took off then, almost stumbling as I ran on the uneven pockets of the beach. I felt the sand, the warm, granular weight of it, sifting through my toes as I picked up my pace, cherry ice dripping faster over my hand. Drops of neon red splashed and scattered as I ran, dying the bleached ground where they fell a fleshy coral.

I thought briefly about sitting in the palm-tree-printed chair that had been  opened for me. The sight of Diego smearing sunblock where Mom’s suit dipped lowest at the back was vast motivation to not. The Igloo coolers and the shrieking kids, the waders and the wave-jumpers, the sand-castle-makers and the boogie-boarders, all thinned out as my walk turned into a run.

The dry sand on my toes combined in a batter with the wet sand as I reached the part of the beach where the waves sighed the loudest. I could still hear the squeals of children off in the distance, but I was alone now. The footprints I made here were messy, like my feet were lead shovels turning up the ground. They looked too large and disruptive to be mine.

I spun around like I was the star of my own private MTV music video. There was no one here except me and my footprints.

A wave came rushing over my toes. Shhhhhhh, the waves kept saying as they broke in thin foamy layers, rich as egg-whites, before being sucked back in ways that made the sand bed shimmer like mirrored glass. Here it was like walking on firmly packed clay. My feet barely left a mark.

I feared that my manners, the same ones that had been cemented in me by all of the adults—“Katie? What do you say to the nice man?”— had been broken in that exchange with the ice man, like a digital clock that flashed the wrong time all day long.

I knew that the people who spoke poetically of this ocean I was ankle-deep in all wanted things from me. And I didn’t know, in that moment, that I wouldn’t give it to them. Ms. Costello, our P.E. teacher, said that morning we were all packed into the gym, “It takes a very strong person to resist drugs”. Well, what about the strength to resist doing what my family taught me, what society taught me? What kind of strength does that take? How do you stop winding up in situations where all you know how to say, all you feel that you are allowed to say, is “Thank you”?

I hadn’t been trying to contain the drippy mess of my ice. It was almost entirely liquid now. I held the soggy paper firmly and tipped what was left down my throat. That cherry taste was almost medicinal. Its flavor and the cold that threatened to turn to brain freeze dissolved the haze that still hung around me, made the blue of the sky sharper.

“Hey!” My eyes zig-zagged a path towards the flurry of red in my periphery.

A boy much older than me, hair slicked wet, hip bones like shark fins rising out of red swim trunks, was performing a gesture of some kind. His hand looked so mechanical just waving at me like that, like it was about to fall off that bony arm of his.

Where had he come from?! My thoughts shrieked, incredulous. I had been alone. I had been alone!

And I suspected then that I didn’t have what it took. I didn’t have the strength to resist this. Because with my lame-ass wallflower wave back, with my decorous, “yes, I will have this dance” wave back, I was letting it happen all over again. I was volunteering myself as the rabbit.

And I saw then too, in a way I couldn’t un-see, that it would take more than one man to break my manners.

I’m thirty-one now, and I can tell you, they’re still intact.

Jane Ainslie

Jane Ainslie is a fiction writer and practicing psychotherapist living in New York. Her literary criticism has appeared in Rain Taxi and American Book Review. She is currently at work on her first novel, Cianalas, set in modern-day Scotland.

Jane Ainslie is a fiction writer and practicing psychotherapist living in New York. Her literary criticism has appeared in Rain Taxi and American Book Review. She is currently at work on her first novel, Cianalas, set in modern-day Scotland.

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