Oscar never expected to make it to fifty. Neither one of us did. It wasn’t the violence in our neighborhood or even some of the things we got mixed up in as kids; we just couldn’t imagine ourselves with gray hair playing checkers on the stoop like my father and Oscar’s uncle did every evening.
I think we thought that the world would have changed by then. That science and medicine would’ve progressed to the point that people didn’t get old anymore or that the world would be so messed up that no one would be living at all. The future is strange that way. Hope and dread carry equal weight when you can’t see beyond the curve in the road.
What I remember most about that age was wanting to hold on to the good moments. Sometimes I’d catch myself in the middle of one of our midnight revelries, after we’d scored a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of booze, thinking about how good everything felt in that moment and knowing that it wouldn’t be that way forever. People assume that kids aren’t aware of stuff like that until they’re older, but I was and it always made me a little sad.
The best thing that Oscar and I ever did back then was also the worst trouble we ever got into. It was the reason Oscar went to juvy and my father put me in a military academy, and the reason we stayed friends when we both finally got out.
That July had been unbearably hot. It was the kind of heat that leeched into your skin and followed you around even after you’d gotten out from under its blistering rays. We spent the first half of that month indoors, searching out shade along with whatever scarce pockets of air conditioning we could find and only venturing out after the sun had gone down.
Everything felt subdued that summer. There were almost none of the normally ubiquitous pick-up games at Vargas Park and even the hustlers hanging out on the street corners seemed sapped of their energy. We were all just wandering around in a daze trying to think of some way to keep cool. The movie theaters were so jammed that there was even a line for the kids sneaking in the back. Oscar and I saw the same sappy romance movie five times in a row until the usher finally got wise and kicked us out.
We spent hours walking around department stores pretending to look at shoes, jeans, watches, even cologne, though the girl at the makeup counter usually gave us the stink-eye if we loitered there too long. We went through every fast-food joint and late-night diner in town getting endless soda refills until they insisted we order something else. By the middle of the month we’d been kicked out or run off of every place we could think of and there was still no end to the heat.
That’s when we got the idea.
“What we need is a way to take the cold with us.” Oscar said.
“You know, something portable so we don’t have to keep running from place to place.”
“We could wear ice packs around our necks; you know those ones with that blue gel stuff?”
“That ain’t gonna work man. Those things would be luke-warm sacks of slime ten minutes after we got out the door.”
“Well maybe we could recharge them?”
“Huh?” Oscar said. He was looking at a pair of girls in cutoff jean shorts walking up the other side of the street.
“I was saying that we could refreeze the packs at like 7-11 and stuff. In those cases where they keep the ice cream.”
Oscar looked at me for a moment and then a smile slowly spread across his face.
“Now that’s an idea.”
“I think my mom has some in our fridge.”
“Forget that ice pack shit Benny. You just came up with something a whole lot better.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A truck man. We’re gonna hijack an ice cream truck.”
I started laughing, but Oscar wasn’t. He just stood there with that same big grin on his face.
“Are you serious?”
“Hey, it was your idea.”
“No it wasn’t.”
“Jesus Benny, first good idea you get and you’re not even smart enough to take credit for it.”
“We can’t steal a fucking ice cream truck Oscar.”
“Have you seen the lard assess that drive those things? All we have to do is get him out of the driver’s seat and it’s ours. Besides, it’s not like we’d really be stealing it, just borrowing it for a while.”
“You’re nuts man. I just got over being grounded and my Dad said if I get busted again he’s gonna send me to military school.”
“Then we better make sure we don’t get busted.”
“I’m not doing this. No way.”
“We’re gonna be Seniors next year. Do you wanna walk into school as the losers we are now or as legends?”
“Even if we managed to pull it off, who the hell’s gonna believe us?”
“That’s the easy part. Now follow me and keep your ears open for Turkey In the Straw.”
“Turkey in the what?”
“The ice cream truck song. Jeez dude, don’t you know anything?”
We spent the better part of two hours combing neighborhoods, looking for packs of kids gathered at curbs and listening for the telltale musical notes. The sun had gone down almost an hour ago, and we knew that only a few drivers stayed out after dark. Oscar asked around and tried to get a bead on where any trucks had last been seen, but all we came up with were a bunch of false leads and misinformation from kids who either didn’t know what they were talking about or just felt like messing with us for the fun of it. It was the same kind of thing that Oscar and I did whenever someone pulled over and asked us for directions.
“We’ve been all over everywhere man. When are we gonna call this?” I said.
“How the hell do you ever expect to do anything if you just give up all the time?”
“It’s a dumb idea.”
“It’s your dumb idea.”
“How does that make it better? Besides it wasn’t really my idea.”
“Sure it was, and it’s a good one. We just have to stick with it.”
“I just don’t think we’re gonna find one.”
“You got something better to do right now?”
“Well then how about you quit whining and we keep looking.”
“Whatever.” I said and kicked a can off the curb into a storm drain on the other side of the street.
We’d gone another four blocks and crossed back through the basketball courts at Vargas Park when Oscar suddenly stopped.
“Hold up.” Oscar said and put his arm in the air. “You hear it?”
Trees were rustling in the humid breeze and there was the rattle and creak of chains from the swings as they swayed lazily from side to side.
I closed my eyes and strained to hear, but there were still only the sounds of the park in my ears. Then, off in the distance, I heard the faint whisper of those familiar musical notes that always sounded to me like they belonged in a nursery rhyme or a campfire sing-a-long.
“That way!” Oscar pointed and we sprinted back across the park as fast as we could.
We rounded the corner at Kensington and nearly ran smack into the back of the truck. There was a knot of kids all standing next to it happily licking and munching at bars and cones as the last girl in the group stood by the window, impatiently scuffing the toe of her sneaker on the sidewalk while she waited.
I turned to Oscar. “So what now?”
“Quick, act sick.”
“Just bend over and start moaning.”
I doubled over and began clutching at my stomach as Oscar led me around to the side of the truck.
“Hey Mister, my friend is real sick.” Oscar said just as the driver finished handing the girl her Chips Galore ice cream cookie sandwich. I let out a low moan and kept my face pointed at the ground.
“What’s wrong with him?” the driver asked.
“I dunno?” Oscar said. “He was fine a minute ago and then he just started grabbing at his guts.”
“Did he eat something recently?”
“He had a hot dog from that cart over by the park.”
“Christ kid, don’t you know anything?” the driver said and started to climb out of the truck. “That guy’s been chased off by the cops three times already. Nothin’ but rat parts and newspaper in those dogs.”
I moaned again, louder this time, and sunk to my knees. The driver came around to where Oscar and I were and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Can you stand son?”
I glanced up at him and shook my head slowly. This man was the antithesis of a lard ass. He had a hard, angular face, blonde hair that was so light it was almost white and bright blue eyes. He looked like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. Oscar and I had seen it in the theater six times during one of our marathon sessions.
“I think I better phone for an ambulance.” the driver said.
“It usually takes them a while to get here, especially in this neighborhood. I don’t know if he can wait that long.” Oscar said.
The driver looked at me for a long moment and then turned back to Oscar.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Help me get him into the truck.”
I felt the man lift me up under my left shoulder while Oscar got under my right. The driver had to hunch down to match Oscar’s height and they staggered me over to the truck like a drunk after last call.
“I gotta phone my boss and let him know what’s going on. I’ll be back in a second.” The driver said and jogged over to a payphone on the corner.
“Quick, shut the door.” Oscar said and climbed behind the wheel.
“I don’t think we should do this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He’s a nice guy. I don’t wanna get him in trouble.”
“He’s not gonna get in trouble.”
“You wanna go to the hospital and explain to a bunch of doctors that you’re not really sick?”
I shook my head.
“Then shut the damn door already.”
I closed the door.
“Hang on.” Oscar said as he put the truck into drive and floored it.
I heard the driver screaming at us as we pulled away, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I thought again of Rutger Hauer and an involuntary shiver shot up my spine.
We drove for blocks, neither of us speaking. I wasn’t sure if Oscar knew where he was going, or if he only wanted to put as much distance as he could between us and the scene of the crime.
“So…what now?” I asked.
“Well for starters we’ve got us some portable refrigeration; so soak in that cold my man.”
Until Oscar pointed it out, I hadn’t really noticed the pleasant chill surrounding us. I was still thinking about the driver, expecting him to pop up at any moment and rip us to pieces with his murderous android arms.
“It’s great and all.” I said. “But what are we gonna do; just drive around ‘till we run out of gas?”
“Oh no, I’ve got much bigger plans.”
“You’ll see. We need to get this puppy back home first.”
“Back home?! Are you insane?!”
“Not right outside our houses dumbass. Just in the general neighborhood.”
“I thought we were trying not to be noticed?”
“It’s not like the driver knows who we are or where we live.”
“Yeah, but someone else might see us and call it in to the cops.”
“No one is gonna do that, especially not after what I’ve got planned.”
It took us nearly half an hour to get back to our neighborhood with Oscar going down out of the way side streets and through adjacent alleyways trying to keep off the radar. Even avoiding the populated areas with the music turned off didn’t stop some kids from trying to flag us down, but we just kept our heads low and accelerated away before they could get close.
Eventually we made it over to Seventh Street and Oscar pulled over, parking the truck underneath a tall, yellow streetlight.
“This is still pretty close to home man.” I said.
“That’s the point.” Oscar said and switched on Turkey In the Straw.
“What are you doing?”
I watched as kids from Seventh and the block over and our block started making their way towards us.
Oscar picked up the C.B. microphone and flipped a small silver toggle switch.
“Welcome Vargas Heights!” Oscar’s voice came booming out from the truck over the music.
“We are Los Hermanos Congelados here to welcome you to the first ever Vargas Heights free ice cream night!”
For a moment it was silent and then suddenly there was a loud whistle from somewhere followed by a teenage kid yelling “Fuck Yeah!” at the top of his lungs.
This sparked a barrage of hoots and hollers from the gathering crowd as kids from every direction started piling up against the truck.
I grabbed the mic out of Oscar’s hand. “Have you lost your mind dude?”
“C’mon man, look.” Oscar said and pointed to the swarm of people outside the truck.
He put an arm around my shoulder and grinned at me. I tried to say something, but when I looked out at the sea of people I became silent and my face broke into a smile.
“We better hurry before they tip us over.” Oscar said.
There was a barrage of voices calling out orders as Oscar and I dove into the freezers in back.
‘Bomb Pop!’, ‘Push-Up!’, ‘Strawberry Shortcake!’, ‘Candy Crunch!’, ‘Drumstick!’, ‘Chocotaco!’, ‘Toasted Almond!’
We pointed to people and tossed them their ice cream as others surged in to take their place. It was loud and crazy, but no one got in anyone’s face, there was no shoving or fighting and some of the bigger kids even made sure the younger ones got what they ordered before getting their own.
‘Lemon Squeeze!’, ‘Mouskiteer Bar!’, ‘Dreamsicle!’ ‘Malt Cup!’
Oscar and I kept diving into the chests, quickly sorting through the boxes for the next order. By the time everyone had been served the truck was nearly half empty.
“Now who wants seconds?” Oscar shouted and the crowd responded in-kind.
I arched an eyebrow at Oscar. “Seconds?”
“When are we ever gonna get another chance to play Robin Hood?”
I grabbed an armful of ice cream sandwiches from one of the chests and flung them at the mass of out-stretched hands.
Oscar high-fived me and sent out a wave of snow cones.
We kept on throwing until every bar, cup, cone and sandwich was gone. By that time I was laughing so hard that I thought I might throw up or pass out.
Oscar got back on the C.B.
“Thank you Vargas Heights for letting us treat you tonight! It has truly been our pleasure!”
We were just about to pull away when we heard someone start to chant.
‘Hermanos Congelados! Hermanos Congelados!’
Soon the chant was picked up by the rest of the crowd.
‘Hermanos Congelados!, Hermanos Congelados!, Hermanos Congelados!, Hermanos Congelados!’
“Good night Vargas Heights!” Oscar and I yelled over the loud speaker as we peeled out from the block and sped down the street with Turkey In the Straw blaring from the roof.
We returned the truck to the same corner where we had taken it. We thought that way the driver would be sure to find it, but we didn’t think about the fact that the cops would be watching the area.
By the time Oscar and I got off the truck we were surrounded by flashing lights and loud voices telling us to get on the ground.
Oscar told them that he had stolen the truck by himself and picked me up after. The driver had already said that I was there from the beginning, but the cops still put the primary blame on Oscar, maybe because he said that it had been his idea or maybe because my father was friendly with one of the sergeants at the station.
That’s how Oscar ended up spending the next year in Juvenile Detention while I spent my senior year at Oakhurst Military Academy.
We both came out of it changed and neither one of us spent much time with our old crew from high school after that.
I thought it would be the same for us too, and at first it was, but then one day I was sitting on the stoop in front of my building and Oscar came by with this big, stupid grin on his face.
“What’s with you?” I asked, it coming out harder than I’d intended.
“I was just over by Seventh Street.”
“Oh yeah.” I said without looking up from the magazine I was reading.
“They still say it. Whenever they hear Turkey In the Straw they start chanting.”
I started to ask Oscar what he meant, but then I remembered.
“Los Hermanos Congelados.” I whispered.
“Los Hermanos Congelados.” Oscar repeated and we exchanged a sly smile.
Oscar made it ten years longer than either of us ever thought we would. He was killed by the same heart condition that had taken his father two decades sooner than it claimed Oscar.
At his funeral I saw a lot of people from the old neighborhood. They had all come out to pay their respects, even the ones who barely knew him. Neighborhood folks are always good that way.
I only stayed for a few minutes. Just long enough to pray for my friend and slip a small piece of paper into the lining of his casket.
It contained only three words.