Marta walked alone that evening. She had none of her male companions to put their hand on the small of her back and guide her through the dim and yellowy streets. Without this guidance, Marta felt that she would walk into the middle of traffic. She feared she might sing something aloud or begin feeding pigeons with the plump woman on Market St. She felt that these male companions were the only true judges of grace, charm and attractiveness who helped her reason and behave acceptably. On nights like this when nothing had been planned, she did things that she felt were lowbrow and pathetic. She did these things because she longed to do them and felt she could not do them in the company of others. She sucked candies and drank heavily flavored coffee. She listened to songs that induced a watershed of tears in the eyes of lonely women. On this particular evening she had ended up at the drugstore on South St. near her apartment, carrying the innocent hope that a ninety-nine cent stick of eyeliner would improve her life in some small but necessary way. It was around nine when she exited the store and she was reluctant to head home at such an awkward, undefined hour. The drugstore stood next to the playground and dog park. Marta thought this to be an ingenious combination. All playgrounds should be children and dog park combinations. There was no sense separating two things that served similar purposes. It kept germs and noise relatively quarantined to one block of the neighborhood. Her apartment was a half block up from the park and when she kept her windows open on hot nights, the creaking swings kept her awake.
She stopped to observe the group of children gathered around the play structures. The park was unusually crowded considering the lateness of the hour. Marta watched with smugness the throng of mothers chained to benches. She had escaped all of this. The shrill bells of an ice cream truck pierced the dusk. They sang the pastoral nursery rhymes that no one who had lived in the city ever believed. Marta was shocked to witness such innocent gaiety at this hour. It was summer, when children were unruly, and frightening. She was sure that the glint in their eyes meant that they would grow to break into apartments and memorize other people's credit card numbers. Dusk had arrived and one could no longer see the things that gave them hope. People became dependent upon electric bulbs and electric entertainment. It unsettled her to see children walking alone in the dark and looking pleased. Marta had always been more frightened by Philadelphia's dim nights, than by true darkness. The streetlights overhead suggested energy and hidden things, letting you know that you were alone while keeping your head buzzing with activity and emotion. It was a state fit only for the intoxicated and the aggressive. The children should have been resting. They should have remained unaware that days came to an end and unveiled a great danger. These children were hardly reminiscent of the original children that roamed the earth. They had more hunger than any of the children that Marta had ever known. The world could not have contained enough sugar and freshness to sustain them. They were unable to stop themselves. They were vaccinated, fortified, and invincible. They would become the thirty something whirling dervishes that Marta battled each day. They would devour boyfriends and bottles of moisturizer and cell phone minutes. They would become a little bit better at hiding their selfishness. Marta would always be breathless running after them.
The line to the ice cream truck formed rapidly, like cells dividing. She looked down at the corpses of cracked gingko nuts that lay at her feet. The sour smell of their innards always seemed to be in the air. The voices of various male companions told her to continue walking home, that she was unnecessary to the progress of this event. But her body, dull and desperate, was firmly invested in gawking and seeing it through to the end. The line of children contained few adults. The children held their parents' money awkwardly, not bearing the weight of each bill. They had not said thank you and were more often rude than kind to each other. A boy was forcibly kissing the little girl ahead of him in line. She wriggled and yelped while the boy let out a girlish laugh that was incongruous with the pain the girl expressed. Another girl relentlessly hit her mother's behind. The mother looked on, bored, neither amused nor offended. One girl did not carry money. She didn't seem to be buying ice cream. She was standing there because the mass of other children had migrated there. Marta felt close to the girl in that instant. She left bills unpaid, but continued to buy junk at the drugstore because she saw so many people leaving with plastic bags. Even if you did not want any ice cream, you had to migrate towards the line. You could not remain inside the playground. You were at risk of being associated with many subcultures of atypical children. They were children whose sugar intake was highly restricted. They were children whose parents led them around the city on nylon leashes.
Most of the children had collected their ice cream and gone back into the playground. They discarded the plastic wrappers among the wood chips. They ate their cones and popsicles without self-consciousness, letting the melted dairy form streams down their chins. They ridiculed each other's flavor choices. Marta entered the playground with trepidation and sat on a wooden bench among a nest of admiring, gossiping mothers. She tried smiling as they did. She fixed her gaze upon a particular girl. She told herself that the girl was precious and beautiful. The girl was clumsy. She imposed her limbs onto objects without grace. She had only eaten half of her ice cream and left the rest around the edges of her mouth and down the front of her dress. She was not sweet to the others. She stood behind a girl at the top of the highest slide. The other girl was scared and hesitated a bit too long. The first girl pushed her before she was ready. The girl screamed the whole way down. This first girl had not lost any of her baby teeth yet. They were on display quite often. They reminded Marta of dogteeth, sharp, jagged and carelessly placed. Marta could not look at the girl any longer. She simply couldn't force her heart to stir at the sight of the girl. The moms were unconvinced of her maternity and had not included her in their wise observations and witticisms about motherhood and the behavioral patterns of children. She picked up her large plastic bag containing a small stick of eyeliner and left the playground, intent on going home.
The line had not thinned out at all. It seemed that the ice cream man would stay parked outside the entrance until the children had their fill. Marta pitied him without reason. He appeared content. He did not seem to possess the unnatural and total disdain for children that Marta did. It was as though the only thing he had ever done in his life was dole out ice cream from the back of a truck. He had no wives, girlfriends, or best friends or bosses or cats. He liked being alone. He was born fully formed, from a freezer or cash box perhaps. He was a constant, put in the world only to serve children and be kind to them. Children were entitled to constants in the world. Marta wanted constants. She felt she deserved the dignity of going through life intact. She deserved the dignity of faithful boyfriends, healthy mothers and reliable appliances. Marta decided that she wanted ice cream in funny shapes and excessive packaging. She stood in line and waited her turn.
The playground was a constantly working organ. There was never a shortage of children to tug on it, scream at it, and hurl their bodies against it. The playground was a tired old mother who could never give the children enough. Marta recalled her own mother. She and her sister were constantly jumping into her lap, tugging on her hair and rearranging her glasses in amusing positions. They would hang off of her legs or draw things on her arm. They had delighted in humiliating their mother.
When the ice cream man finally turned his attention toward her, he asked, "What can I get for you miss?" Marta knew this was exactly what he said to all the little girls in line. He could no longer distinguish between girls and women, men and boys. "What do you have?" Marta replied. "Well, we've got pinwheels, sky blues, fudge dreams, sugar clouds, clown bars, turtle bars, moose heads…" He continued rattling off the names of every delicious frozen confection that had ever been conceived of. Marta did not care about any of the names after awhile. When he was done, Marta told him that it had all sounded delicious. "I would like to buy all of the ice cream." The man was somewhat flustered. "Well, I don't know. I mean I wouldn't even know how to charge you for all of that; I've never done that big a sale. How are you going to get it all home?" Marta was poised to handle her apprehension. "Well I can write you a check for whatever the amount is. Maybe you could call your boss and find out what all of your inventory is worth. And as far as getting all of the ice cream home, I was planning on calling two cabs." It was clear to the ice cream man that there was nothing about Marta's request that he could refuse to honor. He hated to send those kids away. "Alright, I'll give John a call. If you don't mind waiting a few minutes I'll have everything ready for you." Marta smiled and thanked the man. While waiting around for the costs to be calculated, she fished a cigarette out of her purse and removed the nicotine patch from her arm. The children were standing very near to her, and inhaling the smoke. They did not understand that a bitter, childless woman had just stolen their ice cream. The children stood there for a long while. They finally left, one by one. They had all come at once, but disappointment had not been as infectious as excitement. Most of the children could not figure it out on their own; many of their mothers had led them away from the line while shooting Marta dirty looks. The man came out of the truck looking less like an ice cream man from the waist down. When he stood in the truck he looked clean and dignified. He wore a starched white paper cap, shirt and apron. Out of the truck they could see his dirty tennis shoes, and the rips in his jeans. He joined Marta now in smoking a cigarette. Marta had divested him of his identity as the ice cream man. He spoke in a gruffer tone, and no longer called her miss or engaged in small talk.
Marta hailed a cab and then another cab. She motioned for the ice cream man to unload the contents into the trunks. He heaved the boxes over his shoulder carelessly, assuming the posture of a warehouse employee. She instructed both cabs to go to the nursing home on 6th and Rittner. Her best friend Shelly was the activities director there. Marta sometimes attended the movie nights and square dances that Shelly organized on Friday nights for the residents. When Marta arrived at the nursing home Shelly seemed slightly flustered at the thought of having to organize an Ice Cream Social on such short notice. One of the residents had died that afternoon and the mood was slightly dour. Many had gone to their rooms for the night. The rest were in the common room in their robes and slippers, watching crime dramas or doing needle crafts. "I do have some of the paper bowls left from the last ice cream social. We could serve some for the residents who are still awake. A few of them are lactose intolerant so it might be hard to separate them." Shelly went in and told the residents that they were invited to have an ice cream bar generously donated by Marta. They migrated all at once to the main kitchen where Shelly had set up a card table with the ice cream. They formed a line less rapidly than the children had but with the same zeal. Marge asked if her doll might have a serving too. Stephanie reminded her that the nurse said the doll was lactose intolerant. Marge remembered and dutifully took the doll back to her bed so she wouldn't be jealous. Stephanie told the residents that Marta was the one who had brought all the ice cream. They turned towards her smiling and thanked her in a kind of singsong. A man named Patrick told her she could have the string of beads he had just finished making. They were beads with large holes for easier stringing. They were plastic and simple. They were toy beads. The beads had been placed randomly, with no evidence of any thoughtful composition. There were three brown beads next to one purple and then another brown followed by white, neon pink, two lemon another white, four black another purple. Marta wore it immediately. Patrick told her she looked beautiful. The line had grown long and was snaking out to the lobby. Nurses wheeled many of the patients in. Many of the men had been coaxed out of the common area away from their favorite late night talk show hosts. They had all wanted some because they were accustomed to the soft serve ice cream that some food distribution giant sent to the nursing home. It was served on one plate with the rest of the dinner and sometimes leaked onto the green beans. A group of ladies sat in a circle. One of them had chosen a chocolate grasshopper pop while two of them had chosen a sky blue pink. The sky blue pink ladies told the chocolate grasshopper that she heard one of the aides say that she was allergic to chocolate besides the sky blue pink pops were prettier. The grasshopper disputed this bitterly. She said that she had eaten chocolate all of her life and never had a problem. They squawked wildly and left their popsicles unattended. The bottoms melted and dripped onto their fleece bathrobes. An Alzheimer's patient became disoriented and started yelling at Stephanie, thinking she was his first wife, Bernice. He asked her where she had hidden his gun and accused her of burning one of his dress shirts with the iron. Stephanie was accustomed to these kinds of outbursts, Marta wasn't. Marta's mother was in her mid sixties and was of hearty immigrant stock. She washed all of her clothes in the bathtub and boiled coffee on the stovetop for her and Marta's father every single morning by six thirty. She would not have use for a place like this for a few years yet. Marta worried for her mother, they would not know how to care for her in this place, they would serve her instant coffee, or maybe they would not serve coffee at all. Her mother would lose her teeth and forget who Marta was. She would spend her days in a mechanized bed, wearing the same fleece bathrobes in different pastel shades. Marta would visit her every weekend and bring her a plant or a magazine to look at. She would die there one day and the mood at the nursing home would be slightly dour for a day or so and then that would be it. She watched Patrick happily stringing beads stopping only to lick his clown bar every now and then. Patrick's wife sat next to him in a plastic chair. She was considerably younger than him, and it seemed that their age gap was finally starting to matter. She kept going to yoga classes and having their friends over for dinner while he stayed here eating scheduled meals from plastic dividers and attending the chair aerobics class once every week. He looked like a boy Marta had babysat as a teenager and hated. She thought of teenage girls who had once babysat her mother, and she thought of the cruel indifference they had probably felt towards her. Her mother would one day become childlike as Patrick had and she wanted to be able to care for her with compassion, not caring if her mother was grateful. She sat down next to Patrick and helped him string beads and occasionally wiped ice cream from his chin. When she rose to leave, she told him she might come back to see him the following week. He didn't seem to care much when she said this, so she returned anyway and hoped that maybe he did enjoy her visits.
BIO: Jenny Day is a writing student in Ithaca, NY. She has no publishing credits to speak of. She can be found in a vegetable garden on the side of her house waiting for the tomatoes to ripen. If she could have dinner with any person living or dead, she would choose Dorothy Parker.