The Ice Cream Man

I answered the ad in the paper. I had been unemployed for
nine months and was desperate. At the interview, the man said,
“Do you have much experience climbing tall mountains?” “Absolutely.
I climb them all the time. If I see a tall mountain, I have to
climb it immediately,” I said. “What about swimming long distances
in rough ocean waters, perhaps in a storm?” he said. “I’m like
a fish, you can’t stop me. I just keep going in all kinds of
weather,” I said. “Could you fly a glider at night and land in
a wheat field, possibly under enemy fire?” he said. “Nothing
could come more naturally to me,” I said. “How are you with
explosives? Would a large building, say, twenty stories high
present you with much difficulty?” he said. “Certainly not. I
pride myself on a certain expertise,” I said. “And I take it you
are fully acquainted with the latest in rocket launchers and land-
mines?” he said. “I even own a few myself for personal use. They’re
definitely no problem for me,” I said. “Now, Mr. Strafford, or may
I call you Stephen, what you’ll be doing is driving one of our ice
cream trucks, selling ice cream to all the little kids in the
neighborhood, but sometimes things get tricky and we like all our
drivers to be well-trained and well-equipped to face any eventu-
ality, you know, some fathers can get quite irate if you are out
of their kid’s favorite flavor or if the kid drops the cone,” he
said. “I understand, I won’t hesitate to take appropriate action,”
I said. “And there are certain neighborhoods where you’re under
advisement to expect the worst, sneak attacks, gang tactics,
bodies dropping from trees or rising out of manholes, blockades,
machine gun fire, launched explosives, flamethrowers and that kind
of thing. You can still do a little business there if you are on
your toes. Do you see what I’m saying?” he said. “No problem. I
know those kinds of neighborhoods, but, as you say, kids still want
their ice cream and I won’t let them down,” I said. “Good, Stephen,
I think you’re going to like this job. It’s exciting and challenging.
We’ve, of course, lost a few drivers over the years, but mostly it
was because they weren’t paying attention. It’s what I call the Santa
Claus complex. They thought they were there just to make the kids
happy. But there’s a lot more to it than that. One of our best
drivers had to level half the city once. Of course, that was an
extreme case, but he did what needed to be done. We’ll count on you
to be able to make that kind of decision. You’ll have to have all
your weapons loaded and ready to go in a moment’s notice. You’ll
have your escape plans with you at all times,” he said. “Yes, sir,
I’ll be ready at all times,” I said. “And, as you know, some of
the ice cream is lethal, so that will require a quick judgment call
on your part as well. Mistakes will inevitably be made, but try
to keep them at a minimum, otherwise the front office becomes
flooded with paperwork,” he said. “I can assure you I will use it
only when I deem it absolutely necessary,” I said. “Well, Stephen,
I look forward to your joining our team. They’re mostly crack
professionals, ex–Green Berets and Navy Seals and that kind of
thing. At the end of the day you’ve made all those kids happy,
but you’ve also thinned out the bad seeds and made our city a
safer place to be,” he said. He sat there smiling with immense
pride. “How will I know which flavor is lethal?” I said. “Experiment,”
he said. I looked stunned, then we both started laughing.

“The Ice Cream Man,” from The Ghost Soldiers, published by Ecco, 2008. Copyright © 2008 by James Tate. Reprinted with permission.