Published in the Story Week Reader 2006
The ice cream man, paletero, pushes his cart ahead of him. He has dirty white sneakers and hairy legs. His shorts come past his knees. The cotton bunches up around his thin waist. He takes wide steps.
The cart has one wheel that does not turn anymore, so it scrapes on the sidewalk while the others roll. He leans forward as he pushes. His eyes are straight ahead toward the blocks and blocks of neatly cut lawns. He uses one hand to grip the bar and the other to shake a row of bells.
In the old days the children would stop chasing each other under the slide, they would come down from the hot summer stoops and from the playground behind the school. Mamas and tías would watch from the porches with their sleeves rolled up.
The children would have dirty hands, brown knees and red faces. Their breath would catch in their throats. “huh huh huh una fresa por favor, Señor Paletaro.”
The ice cream man would reach elbow deep in the cart. The children would wait patiently with crumpled bills in their sweaty fists. “Un piña, un arroz por favor, yo tambien,” They would say. He would hand them the cool bars wrapped in paper: pineapple, rice, lemon, strawberry and mango. They’d hold them upside down by the sticks. He would close the dented silver top and smile as the children turned away kicking rocks as they walked, tossing the paper into the gutter, pressing their lips into the cold summer treats.
But today is a cold day at the end of the summer. Only a few children huddle under the slide. It’s not cold enough to see their breath but they all wear jackets. The paletero shrugs under his thin sweatshirt. The kid standing under the slide has sharp hair, gelled up. His shoelaces are untied. Turtle-like his small head sticks out of his puffy jacket. As the paletero approaches the playground, the kid swaggers toward the cart.
“Isn’t it kind of late for ice cream, Paletero,” He says smirking, adding to his companion, a younger kid,
“Hey paisano, why don’t you give the ice cream man here some business, probably be his last sale of the season.” The younger kid hurries to join him, dark and small with half his face hidden under a red ball cap. The kid stares perplexed at the selection in the ice.
“Que quieres?” The paletero asks.
“I don’t want to put my hand in the ice, it’s too goddam cold.” The kid wipes snot off his nose with the back of his glove. The older man puts his hand on the outside of his thigh and feels how empty his pocket is.
“Quieres comprar algo, o no?” he asks. Pinche chiquiyos he thinks if I was their papa, I’d…
“Un arroz, hombre,” The kid in the red hat says. The paletero’s hands are cold. He has no gloves. They hurt when he digs through the ice. The kid in the puffy coat rolls his gum out of his mouth and into his hand. He spreads it and shapes it between his thumb and his pointer finger. When the paletero has turned to face the boy handing him the ice cream by the stick, the puffy coated kid spreads the gum across the wood where the row of bells is affixed, exactly where the paletero will place his hand. The kid in the red hat takes his sweet time counting out the dollar, most of which is in pennies. When the older man finishes moving the money to his pocket he closes the lid of the cart and turns to face the handle. His hand touches the gum and as he pulls his hand away from the cart and the gum trails off his middle finger.
“Culeros, no mas me viene a molestar, your padres know how you treat old men?” The kid in the red hat peals the wrapper off slowly letting strips of plastic flutter down on their shoes. “Ya, ya, what ever, stupid viejo,” the kids say. He waves his ice cream in the paletero’s face then the two strut off under the slide and into the field.
The paletero shakes the gum off and places his hands on the handle of his cart and turns to face the blocks and blocks of lawns growing brown from the cold.