Memoir

The Ice Cream Man in the Summer of Sam

In New York’s sultry summer of ’77, a whiskey-swilling old man befriends three latchkey kids with cartons of ice cream and haunting stories they’ll never forget.

The Ice Cream Man in the Summer of Sam

He came shuffling down the sidewalk every afternoon that summer at 4:30, when the sun began to crest above the buildings, dousing the entire block in a blinding, ethereal light. He wore bright plaid shorts and a lime green bowling shirt; his hair cotton-white, puffed out in giant tufts from beneath an old Yankees cap that seemed permanently affixed to his head. Pulling a small red cooler that rattled and bumped behind him, he walked toward the front stoop, passing the windows of the old widow who sat knitting in her darkened living room and the tall, bald man whose legs were bloated and scabbed. He whistled and hummed songs from another time and another place until he arrived at the stoop and sat on the top step, parking his cooler to the left, beside the dead flowerbeds.

Now settled, he pulled out a silver flask that he carried in his front pocket and took a long, deep swig, setting it down between his feet. He lit a cigarette, a filterless Camel, made smoke rings, big and wide, and waited for us to come.

It was late June of 1977, the beginning of a summer that, for New Yorkers, would eventually become known as the “Summer of Sam,” named after the notorious young serial killer,

Son of Sam, who terrorized the city by hunting and killing young couples nestled in their cars. We were living in a large, depressing, six-story building in Jackson Heights, Queens, where a slow, halting elevator constantly got stuck and a raging garbage incinerator spewed black smoke into the sky. The majority of the tenants were cranky, old and sick, and they loathed us, “the rotten, noisy latchkey kids.” A handful of them spent their days hiding behind their window curtains, their tired, recessed eyes spying on us, occasionally yelling for us to “get the hell off the property.” We just laughed at them.

I remember the three of us — Owen, Abby and I — scrawny and scraggly, our ten-year-old bodies always filthy and sweating and scraped from hours of running in playgrounds strewn with dirt and broken glass, playgrounds where the metal slides and swings got so hot that they burned the backs of our thighs. Our hair was overgrown and needed washing and our clothes were stained and threadbare. But we didn’t care. We were held together by sets of house keys and a quiet emptiness that comes from mothers who spent all day at menial, low-wage jobs and then came home too tired and too late to do anything but sit and weep into cupped hands over deadbeat husbands who had disappeared long ago.

His name was Mr. Lewis, but we called him the “Ice Cream Man” because it sounded better, and to us, that’s what he was. We found him sitting on the stoop one afternoon, about a week after school ended, when the temperatures began to soar. Silhouetted against the brightness of the sun, the smoke rings curling from his mouth, he reminded me of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Shortly after he wandered into our summer, an unbridled panic, bordering on hysteria, settled over the city: Sam had struck again. Our mothers warned us repeatedly to avoid all strangers, building management posted flyers asking people to watch for anyone suspicious and the police cruised the streets and parks, warning couples and kids to “stay inside, close to home.”

“Don’t listen to them,” the Ice Cream man told us.

And so we didn’t.

Instead, we gathered on the stoop and listened to his stories. He told us that he lived alone in a small apartment on the fourth floor of an adjacent building. Some months before, his wife, Ruth, had died. “Just like that, she went to sleep and never woke up,” he said. “But she’s not really dead. She visits me sometimes at night. She sits on the edge of the bed in a blue dress and talks or sings to Little June. Her voice is still beautiful.”

He spoke quietly, his voice raspy and raw; there was a languid quality to his words that came wrapped in the scent of fresh whiskey and smoke. But the smell didn’t bother us; we were used to it.

“The dead can talk?” Abby asked, pushing up her glasses, their lenses etched with scratches.

The author with her brother (left) and cousin (right).
The author with her brother (left) and cousin (right).

“Of course they can talk,” he said.

“How?” I knew she was hoping for an easy answer, one that she could give her mother, who lived in a perpetual state of grief over her father’s sudden death some years before.

“They come to you,” he said, his face unflinching.

“What if they don’t come? Can you call for them?”

“No. It doesn’t work that way,” he said, turning toward the cooler. “Only if the person is a child, like June, then you can call them, and maybe they will come.”

Abby’s face collapsed in disappointment. There would be no instructions she could give her mother, nothing to make her stop taking those “grief pills.”

Owen, his curiosity piqued, looked from Abby to the Ice Cream Man and fixed him with his wild blue eyes: “What about animals?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I never had one.”

“I miss my dog, Barney. He died two months ago.”

“Shut up about your stupid dog,” Abby said, and pinched him on his thigh. “God, can’t you talk about anything else.”

“You shut up,” he said, jabbing her with his elbow.

“Who’s June?” I asked.

“My little girl,” he answered, and opened the cooler.

Owen and Abby stopped fighting.

“Coffee or Vanilla Fudge?”

He liked to use an old aluminum scooper, the kind with no clicker and a curved bed.

“You need to hold the scooper real tight,” he said, placing the handle in his palm, and one by one wrapping his fingers, bent and curled, around it until they clutched it like ancient roots. “A good, strong grip gives you leverage to scoop.”

But, truth is, he clenched the handle tighter not for leverage but to try to stop his hand from shaking — “effects of too much booze,” he joked. It didn’t matter; the tighter he gripped, the more his hand seemed to shake. Yet even with the shaking, there was something captivating in the way he dug the scooper into the ice cream and, with one fluid motion, pulled it toward him, and just like that the ice cream would curl into itself, forming a neat little ball.

“See,” he would say, his face swelling with childlike delight as he held up the scooper, showing us the ball. “It’s perfect,” he would add, placing it on an old-fashioned Keebler sugar cone and drizzling it with colorful sprinkles until it resembled a Fourth of July sparkler. I remember hesitating to take a bite, feeling somewhat guilty about ruining the symmetry and the seamless array of colors adorning the ice cream.

But in that mid-summer heat, my throat and mouth parched, impatience won out and aesthetics fell to the wayside: Nothing compared to the sensation of that first lick, that feeling when the sugary crystals, cool and sweet, melted on my tongue. Once he had served us our cones, he made one more “for June” — whose story we would learn some weeks later — and placed it on the ground beside him. Then, he closed the cooler and opened his flask:

“Story time.”

In the cracked and faded picture that he showed us one stifling day, little June is sitting in the grass holding a teddy bear with a missing eye and smiling at the camera. Her hair, golden and sun-kissed, is parted to the side with a tiny clip in the shape of star. Loose curls dangle, grazing her shoulders and framing her face, which is smeared with chocolate ice cream. Her joy is infectious. But it’s her eyes that command the picture. Almond-shaped, they are dark and piercing, serious, like her father’s, drawing you in, daring you to hold their gaze.

For a long while, I looked at the picture of the little girl, frozen in time, eternalized by the delicately handwritten words on the back: My Junie, Central Park, May, 1935. I found something comforting in seeing that she once existed, whole, with her face unmarred and her body intact. Only when I had seared her image into my memory, did I hand it to him.

He smiled, and before placing it back in his wallet, he brought it to his lips and exhaled deeply, as if his breath might bring her back to life. Then he opened the flask: “She died a few a months after that picture was taken.”

“How?” I licked ice cream off my hand.

Taking four or five long swigs, he set the flask down and lit a cigarette. He dragged hard and began the story of little June who, one glorious September morning, accidentally fell out the window of their fourth-floor apartment. He said that she slipped, probably trying to feed the birds in the tree, “because she liked to do that, feed the birds. She loved birds.” Ruth left her alone for only a minute — “one minute,” he said — to shut the teakettle screeching on the stove; when she came back she didn’t see her. She called to her — “June, June!” — and looked everywhere in the apartment. But she knew she wasn’t there. She knew something bad had happened, “because June was a good girl. She always listened.”

When she couldn’t find June in the house, she leaned on the windowsill in the living room and looked down. And there she was, lying there on the ground, her body soaking in a pool of blood. She opened the door and screamed and screamed, and all the neighbors came out and chased her down the stairs, calling her name: “Ruth, Ruth!” No one knew why she was screaming, until they reached the bottom of the staircase and opened the back door.

Snuffing out the cigarette, he picked up the flask, tilted his head back and guzzled. He waited a few minutes until the liquor hit his bones, then continued. It was a neighbor’s boy who came to get him from the shop where he fixed shoes. “Mr. Lewis,” the young boy said, bursting through the open door. “There’s been an accident. You must come home now.” But the boy didn’t tell him anything else. His mother had told him not to say anything. “He didn’t have to say it. I knew it was June. I just knew.”

Sweat snaked down his brow, and his eyes were blazing. His face, normally placid, suddenly seemed to crumble under the weight of memory, under the burden of a grief that held him for forty-two years. He breathed heavy and hard, and in the alleys of his eyes, I saw the tears: “When she visits me at night, she is not bloody and broken. She is perfect, like the June in the picture, with her golden hair and pretty face.

“She doesn’t always come, but when she does, she sits on the edge of the bed, holding her bear who had a missing eye. But now he has two. Sometimes she tells me about a little boy who swings her on a swing and sometimes she asks me why I told her she could fly. ‘Papa,’ she says, ‘why did you tell me I could be like the birds? And why did you put me in the fire?’ I tell her that we cremated her because we didn’t want anyone to see her like that, because I couldn’t see her like that, because I wanted to carry her in my pocket. But I don’t know why I told her that little girls could fly. They can’t. I know that.”

He drew a breath and made a strange sound, a kind of deep yelp, something barely human and began to twist the hem of his plaid shorts with his crooked fingers. “She is not broken, not broken,” he repeated over and over, his voice a mere whisper. “Little girls can’t fly. They can’t fly. Right Abby? Right?”

Abby recoiled, drawing her knees to her chest and trying to fold into herself. I wondered if that’s how her mother grieved, if that’s how she acted before she took her grief pill.

I turned away from him and began watching a line of ants scurrying up the steps. And that’s when I noticed the cone he made for June. It was lying sideways, the ball of ice cream now melted, the colorful sprinkles dissolving like a dying rainbow into the concrete.

After that day, he never talked about her again; it was like she never existed. Instead he regaled us with wild tales of tiny gnome-like men who had rows and rows of teeth and lived in the walls and liked to hide behind washing machines. Owen liked those stories more than the ones about Ruth and June and other dead people whose shadows roamed this world, but I didn’t. I found them terrifying. At night I would picture the little men running through the walls and the ventilation system, eventually crawling out from the floorboards like hungry roaches.

When I wasn’t thinking about the gnome-men, I was thinking about June. I often imagined her on that mid-September day, hearing the trilling of the birds and looking out the window. I imagine she saw them hopping from branch to branch and wanted to reach them. I could almost picture her tottering on the windowsill, spreading her arms and thinking she would soar through the liquid blue sky and land gently on a branch. I wondered if she had time to realize that she wasn’t flying but falling.

I was haunted by her, and would be for years and years.

By the middle of August, around the time the police finally caught Son of Sam, our once inseparable trio had begun to dissolve. Selma, a pinched-faced busybody of a woman, with saggy ears and chin whiskers, had told our mothers that the Ice Cream Man was “a no-good drunk, a thief, and a liar who smoked cigarettes and told tall tales.”

Of all us, Abby paid most for Selma’s meddling: Her mother grounded her, and she spent the rest of the summer watching us from her window. Owen’s mother, like mine, ignored her; to them, she was a “revolting woman.” For Owen, it really didn’t matter how his mother reacted, because he had grown tired of the Ice Cream man’s stories. “I don’t believe in ghosts or any of that ghost shit,” he told me. “The dead are dead.”

But I know that he spent the rest of the summer staging late-afternoon, one-man séances in an attempt to connect with his late dog, Barney.

Me, I continued to sit with the Ice Cream Man, eating picture-perfect cones while he drank whiskey and meandered through the stories and memories grafted in his mind — his half-blind father who taught him the art of repairing shoes at seven years old, his first girlfriend who loved getting high and listening to Jazz in off-the-beaten-path Harlem speakeasies, and his all-time favorite Yankee, Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. The stories were endless, and only through creating my own mosaic of his life could I remember them.

Then, one hazy evening in late August, after he told me that Ruth had been sick for many years, he stumbled down the stoop and began shuffling up the block, whistling, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” because his beloved Yankees had just moved into first place in the American League East. Midway down the block, by the old widow’s window, he stopped and glanced back at me. He looked tired. I waved at him, and he tipped his hat and turned back around. I stood there watching him and his cooler growing smaller and smaller, until he slipped around the corner and disappeared into the waning sunlight.