In search of sweetness

A short story from a sweaty summer Sunday

It was a sweltering day yesterday, the kind of brutally-muggy, breezeless-and-grey, ominous-and-murky days that mark a large portion of summer life in the Ohio Valley. We were sleepwalking through our weekend obligations, having shuffled the whole family off for a morning trip to Home Depot, and were working in the yard when a familiar, distant noise cut through the soupy air.

“MOMMY! DADDY! IT’S THE ICE CREAM TRUCK!”

Now, a few things to note here.

I appreciate the ice cream truck. I really do. I’m a man of refined taste and low impulse control, and so I enjoy a King Cone or a Chipwich on a warm summer afternoon as much as anyone. And, of course, I respect the home-delivery-on-spec business model. It brings back fond childhood memories for me, and—not living within walking distance of any ice cream parlors—not having to get in the car and go somewhere is a huge plus during these summer months, when my children are sopping wet roughly 90% of the time. 

Of course, I still have a few petty gripes about the situation.

First of all, the ice cream truck’s arrival raises some questions about the children’s hearing. We take them to their regularly scheduled checkups at the pediatrician, and they’ve had their hearing tested there—raise your hand when you hear the beep, all that. The doctors have noticed nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to their hearing function. I think hearing is much more situational than those tests would lead one to believe, though. If I’ve arrived home from work, say, and I’m trying to ask how their day was while they’re watching Lego Ninjago or My Little Pony, I could be screaming through a bullhorn and not get a reaction. 

Three notes of “Turkey In The Straw” played through a tinny speaker from a half-mile away? Suddenly, they’re as sharp as bats, and I’d better grab my wallet and start running in the direction they’re already flying.

Which leads me to my second issue: money.

I’m not opposed to the cost of the ice cream, even if it is a significant markup from retail, or from the popsicles we already have in the freezer. As I said, I respect the business model. But—perhaps the ice cream trucks where you live are more modern and have Square readers or Venmo or whatever, but the converted animal shelter van that routinely patrols our neighborhood is a strictly-cash operation, which presents a problem for me, someone who stopped carrying cash the moment New York City cabs started accepting credit cards a decade or so ago. I’ve now learned the hard way that, lest I break the hearts of two excited children, as soon as the thermometer crests 70 degrees in the spring, I’d better have a few bills at the ready. I’ve referred to it as my version of mugger money: it’s better to have it than not when the situation arises.

“I gotta remember to stop at the ATM on the way home,” said on the phone to my wife a few days ago, “I spent the ice cream truck money on lunch.” These are actual words that I spoke out loud, and they made sense to the person I said them to.

(I replenished the money.)

We sprinted off in the direction of the sound, my own twisted duathlon of running and managing expectations.

“We’ll go as far as the second stop sign, okay? They may have headed the other direction. I can’t promise you that we’re going to catch up with them, but we’ll try.” 

The last time I said this, we did indeed catch it a half-mile away, and that built an unhealthy level of confidence in my children, an early-reader version of The Secret where they know deep down that, if they just want it enough, the ice cream truck will turn down our street. 

This time, though, we weren’t so lucky. The sound faded in the distance, and their Creamsicle dreams faded with them. A pair of neighborhood tweens running a lemonade stand allowed us to completely avert disaster, converting my pocket cash into at least one form of unnecessary sugar. We trundled back home, and the kids, newly energized, scurried off to some driveway mischief while I went in search of a dry t-shirt. They dragged sticks out of the yard waste pile, drew elaborate chalk mazes in the street, and experimented with capturing ants under their empty lemonade cups. 

It was far from a perfect summer day, but at the same time, it was a real summer day--idle and fussy, exploratory and frustrating, restful and uncomfortable all at once, time moving like beads of condensation rolling down the side of a cold glass.

Many hours later, suitably depleted, we put the kids to bed. A few minutes after that, the tell-tale sound of little feet hitting the floor signaled an imminent restart of the bedtime process. My son appeared, visibly shaken by something that he’d clearly been thinking about in the depth you can only think about things when you’re little and staring up at a faraway ceiling. 

“I’m worried about Ant-y,” he said, using the naming conventions both kids use for virtually every creature. (Squirrely, Owly, Pigeony, and just recently, Cicady, to name a few.) “I hope he’s okay.” He explained that, during their driveway play, a single ant that had been corralled under a cup out of malice-free curiosity appeared to have shriveled up and died.

“Oh, kiddo, I’m sure he’s okay. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

“But I should have known better.”

“I understand you feel bad, but it was an honest accident. You know now, and you won’t do it again, that’s important.”

“I just want him to get back to his ant family.”

Being a parent can be frustrating, exhausting, exasperating at times. Even a lazy summer Sunday is never quite that, because there’s always someone who needs something, wants something, is boooored with something.

It’s the moments like these, though, the moments of genuine, natural, inimitable sweetness that make everything else—the sweat, the headaches, the sugar-craving chases of a distant treat-filled truck—feel worth it. I often find myself torn between a desire to preserve my children in amber now, to have them always be this age, and anticipation of the wonderful people they seem poised to become.

Times like this favor the former: whoever they become, they’ll never be quite the same as this small child losing sleep over the fate of a single ant. We gave him an extra hug and a kiss, and told him we were proud of him, then escorted him back to bed, hopefully to go to sleep for real this time.

We returned to the living room, and after a moment, I broke the silence. 

“I hope he doesn’t realize that the whole reason for that trip to Home Depot was for ant traps.”

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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