Cliff checked his phone, saw nothing of interest, then tossed it to the seat. He wiped his forehead and got on his way, only vaguely aware of the warbled Christmas carols blasting from the single horn fastened to the top of the van. The music—holiday tunes because his boss got a deal on the music box—took some getting used to, but after a few hot days, Cliff hardly paid attention.
It was the last street of his route, and the van–a disgruntled 1987 Ford Windstar, was putting up a fight. The engine had stalled twice, once at a stoplight—no rare occurrence there, but this time beside a car full of high school kids who thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. The second time was three minutes ago, just as Fat Larry was hobbling off with his usual three ice cream sandwiches.
So Cliff eyed his phone often, dreaming of getting that call back from UPS, where he’d put in weeks ago but so far hadn’t heard a thing. But the dreaming gave his mind something to do as he groveled on in the heat, imagining driving a van not covered in mailbox stickers, delivering things that wouldn’t melt, and not handling wrinkled bills and sweaty change from grubby little paws of street kids.
A nice breeze cut through the van as he coasted down Hillside, eyeying the gas light that had been on for nearly an hour. He’d become an expert at coaxing the old Ford, but as he eased the thing around it puttered to a stall. He slapped the steering wheel several times, and was in the throes of a searing, heat-induced diatrive when he stopped. And saw it.
Shiny. An old truck that looked new. Or the other way around. Either way it was nice, with glossy paint and clean, smooth stickers that gleamed in the afternoon sun. Cliff, his hands on the keys, about to start pumping the gas and praying, watched as two children hustled outside to the truck. The dufus driver had on a painters cap like it was 1956, and when he glanced down the road he had the nerve to smile. Cliff snatched his phone, called up Rod, and after another battle with the van he got up the road.
They met at the shop. Which happened to be the parking lot behind Nifty Thrifty storage center.
“We got trouble.”
Rod was in the back of the van, tearing into inventory. “Yeah, we do. You’ve got two full boxes of Scooter Crunches back here.”
“No, something else, over on Hillside. There’s another truck.”
Rod was maybe 25, and when Cliff started working for he thought he might learn a thing or two from this young entrepreneur. And he had, he’d learned that Rod was easily the cheapest guy Cliff had ever met. He simply did not upgrade, or even bother with upkeep for that matter. He bought more crappy vans, ripped the seats out and chunked down a freezer in the back. A quick rinse, some stickers, and it was ready to work the parks. Cliff had watched him clear the shelves at Walmart. Popcicles, Nutty Buddy’s, Klondike, Reese’s. A sharp markup in price and boom, inventory. From what Cliff had seen, he paid approximately zero dollars in taxes. It was hardly more than a lemonade stand, the guy’s business model. Only he’d bought thirteen vans.
Now, back at the shop, Rod slammed the lid of the freezer, setting a pair of wild eyes on Cliff.
“What do you mean, another truck? I gave everyone routes. Spread it out all through town.”
“Naw, not that. I mean, a different truck. Someone else. Nice truck too.” Cliff winced when he said it, Rod talked about the Windstars as though they were a fleet of army Black Hawks.
“Nice truck, huh?”
“Yeah, corny guy, all dressed up like a painter. Hat too”
“Yeah, like one of those, you know,” Cliff waving his hands over his head.
Rod was out of the Ford now, his feet wanting to pace but his hands looking like they wanted to strangle something. He leaned against a broken down van that was missing four out of its five windows.
“Hillside, you said?”
Cliff wished he’d kept his mouth shut. It was hot and a shower had been in the plans. “Hillside, yeah. Oh, and the van keeps cutting out. I was going to tell you sooner but—”
Rod waved him off. Plugged a finger to his chin, deep in thought. Then he was done.
“Move over. We’re going to find this other truck. Have a talk with this guy in a hat.”
They spotted him a block down the street, fueling up at the Exxon. Rod yanked the Windstar over two lanes, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer blaring through the speaker as they came screeching into the parking lot.
Cliff shot Rod a look. He was sweating something crazy, acting it too. “Uh, yeah.”
Rod leaped out of the van while it was still rolling but in the process of stalling out, number four by Cliff’s count. Rod made a line for the guy and Cliff glanced around, for authorities, employees, people he knew. Then, reluctantly, he followed.
Rod stormed right up on the guy in the white hat.
“What’s up man?”
“Good day to you sir.”
Rod eyed the truck with a mixture of anger and lust. Old Times Ice Cream, stenciled in all swirly letters across the side. It really was top-notch, and you could feel the chilled, climate controlled air leaking from the window. Meanwhile the Ford sat back there like a heap, belting out Christmas carols in mid-July.
“Look, you’re encroaching on our turf. We need to work something out.”
Encroaching? Cliff shook his head. Rod was maybe five freeze pops high, tops. The guy in the white looked amused. At least until Rod hopped up and into the guys van.
White Hat turned to Cliff, who’d only wanted to squeeze in a discussion about his wages before getting to that shower. He could only shrug. It was obvious that stress and heat had gotten to Rod, whose eyes buldged as he tore into the freezers, scooping armloads of ice cream. All name brand stuff Cliff noticed.
“Frigidaire deluxe model freezer…oscillating fans. GPS….”
In the midst of his delusion, Rod never saw the two police cars cruise up in formation, one blocking the front, the other flanking the rear.
Cliff thought about bolting, but figured he’d see how things played out.
White Hat motioned to the van. The officers looked to the Ford then to the newer van. That’s when someone screamed.
“He’s got a gun.”
Cliff took cover. Then, peeking out, he found Rod with a popsicle pistol in his hands, cherry flavor, judging by the red leak down his arm. He juggled it from his right hand to his left, smiling like a loon before training the gun on White Hat who had taken cover behind behind the pump.
“This guy’s stealing my routes.”
“I don’t think there’s any law that says you own the streets.” White Hat said, stepping out.
“Sir, please drop the pistol pop.”
Things were escalating quickly. Rod turned back to the freezers, then spun around, now with two shaky pistol pops in his hands. Cliff thought it might be a bad time to discuss his wages.
“Rod, put it down man.” Cliff could hardly believe his eyes. Cars were pulling in, people lining up outside of the store, most of them with phones out, recording the possible hostage situation. Cliff tried again. “Let’s go man.”
Rod would have none of it. He put a pistol on white hat. “No, this guy’s cutting into my profits man.” Then, more muttering to himself, talking to his hands. “Pop Pistols, I haven’t these in years.
White had piped up. “Yeah, well, you owe me two bucks, pal.”
Another cruiser whipped into the lot. Cliff knew then that he was done with Rod. With ice cream. All of it. He watched the two officers nod to each other and knew something else, too. That Poor Rod was less than a minute away from getting tased. He gave it one more try.
“Come on Rod. Just do what they say, we can work this out.”
White Hat took a different approach. Arms up, he came out from the pump.
“I’ll tell you what. You hop out and we’ll forget all of this. Here, I’ll toss in a few free Pistol Pop.” Then louder, to the crowd. “One for everybody. On the house.”
Rod, licking his hands and fingers, looked up like an eight-years-old boy. “Yeah? And you’ll stay off my routes?”
White Hat sighed. Rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure, I’ll stay off your routes.”
It was to a mixture of applause and laughter that Rod stepped out of the van. Cliff thought he looked like he’d been talked off a ledge, still clutching his pop pistols, his lips were cherry stained to go along with the red ring around his mouth. The police officers agreed to Klondike Bars soon a line of kids had filled the lot.
Cliff backed off, made his way back to the Windstar, switching off the music box becasue Silent Night was a bit much under the circumstances. When he did he found phone buzzing in the passenger seat. He hustled up to get the call.
Cliff turned his back to the commotion across the lot. “Speaking.
“Hi, I’m Veronica Stuart, with the recruiting office at UPS. We were wondering if you could come in tomorrow morning for an interview.”
Cliff peeked back to the police. The corny man in the white hat. His boss, deranged and sugary, now with a rainbow of stains across his shirt, eyes like moons as he spoke with the officers.