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When Caleb stops the van on the corner of West 125th and Frederick Douglas Boulevard, old Mr Dabrowski looks out of the window of his shop and turns to his wife, Anya.
'Lots of crazy people on this street these days,' he says, pointing across the road, the thimble dangling from his fingertip. 'But that's one strange looking Mister Softee.'
‘Where?’ says Anya, not looking up, more interested in the line of her stitching than the comings and goings of the street outside.
It’s been years since an ice-cream van has stopped near the cross-street, what with the shootings and crackheads and muggings. But it’s where Caleb wants to be. From where he’s parked, with the window slid open, he can hear the sounds from the Apollo Theatre, just up along the way on 125th Street. It’s Wednesday, so it’s Amateur Night.
Not that anyone has come up to the van to buy ice-creams, cones or wafers, with chocolate sprinkles or raspberry sauce. But Caleb stands there, long enough to listen, long enough to remember. And soon enough the music comes to an abrupt halt: a sure sign that the Sandman is tap-dancing his way across the stage, hook outstretched.
'What you trying to sing Mister Softee man?’
Caleb sits in the driver’s seat and turns on the engine. The jingle jangles as he drives off down the boulevard.
‘Blue Moon,’ says Mr Dabrowski.
‘What?’ says his wife, pricking her finger, sucking the blood.
‘Now look what you made me do,’ she says, a single droplet of ruby red staining the edge of the dress she’s sewing.
Next Wednesday and there’s the Mister Softee van. And there he is. Looks the same. Stands the same.
‘I think he’s staring at us?’ says Anya, glancing up at the man in the white shirt, illuminated by the fluorescent light from within the van. ‘How things have changed,’ she adds with a sigh.
‘No,’ says her husband, ‘he’s just looking out. Waiting for business.’
‘Just like us,’ she says.
‘Yes, just like us,’ says Mr Dabrowski.
Caleb opens the glass door at the front of the van to let the night air and the sounds drift in. It’s windy and the music and singing from the Apollo swirl around with the ebbs and flow of the breeze.
Mister Softee strains to hear.
All the while, offstage, in the wings, looms the Sandman: judge, jury and chief executioner.
“Who ever told you you had a voice?”
It’s the next Wednesday night and there's no sign of the Mister Softee van. Mr and Mrs Dabrowski are working late, busily finishing off the ball gown for Mrs Hindhurst and adjusting the tuxedo for her husband. From time to time one or the other looks up, not quite knowingly, but noticing what’s absent from the street.
‘Blue moon,’ sings Mr Dabrowski in little more than a whisper, ‘you saw me standing alone …’
‘… without a dream in my heart …’ joins in his wife.
‘Without a love of my own …’ they both sing together, both smiling as they carry on with their tasks.
Caleb stands on the roof of the building where he’s been staying. It is dawn, but he hasn't slept. He's been looking up at the sky for hours. There's something strangely comforting about the way it changes yet stays the same. Sometimes being alone is all he can manage. He tries to think a bit, as if thoughts might help. There’s a yellowing and reddening in the sky. There’s a hint of a breeze. Maybe tomorrow he’ll get back in the ice-cream van. Maybe tomorrow he’ll be Mister Softee again.
"Mister Softee at the Apollo" (sent to New York artist Max Ferguson as a thank you for the use of his painting on the cover of my collection of short stories)
Thoughts on upcoming events, new book ideas, and the agonies and ecstasies of the creative process.