Here’s a short poem I wrote about the shift of seasons, as we transition from late summer to fall.
Farewell Summer (Apologies to Bradbury)
The death of summer—
as the season wanes.
No more soft-serve
ice cream cones,
baseball games and
giving way to the
birth of autumn.
And you know
what comes next.
pulls Old Man Winter
down from the attic,
sharpens his dentures
and deprives him of food—
until she’s ready
to set him loose
on the world again.
The Defiled Ice Cream Cone, a creative nonfiction story, was published in the Fall 2013 issue of New Plains Review. Since the magazine does not have online version, I thought I would post the story here, along with some relevant photos from the neighborhood described in the piece. The text follows:
Before my family moved to a rural stretch of land in south Rome, New York, in the late 1970s, we lived in a duplex at 126 Stanwix Street in the heart of the city, a block away from the Oneida County Courthouse, a red brick building with white columns and a dome top. Stanwix Street connects two of Rome’s main thoroughfares, Black River Boulevard and James Street. And the neighborhood’s appeal was limited to its proximity to downtown, the post office, city hall, gas stations and stores; otherwise, it offered residents a rough, neglected setting where potholes often went unfilled and you could find smashed beer bottles and other trash scattered on the sidewalks following summer weekends.
Our house, much like the neighborhood, needed some work. The unstable porch steps creaked whenever someone walked on them, the white paint and emerald trim were cracked and the whole structure seemed to tilt slightly to the left.
But the house did have a working washer and dryer in the cellar and a sewing machine for my mother, and Dad could grow tomato plants in a small garden area on our property near a sloping chain-link fence.
I spent hours tossing a basketball toward the rusted, netless hoop already attached to the garage and turned the small backyard into my personal Wiffle ball domain. My sister and I could also play on a swing set in the backyard, and I remember picking dandelions when they popped up on the lawn in the spring after the blanket of winter snow receded.
Linda and Robbie Blackwood (names changed) lived across the street in an apartment building covered with cedar shake shingles. The building was often ensconced in shade and I remember Linda and Robbie spending a lot of time at our house. They were poor and their mother may have been on welfare. They wore frayed clothes and I heard other people refer to them as “wellies.”
But their financial situation had no bearing on our friendship; they lived nearby and we just had fun playing together.
Linda and I were about the same age. She was short and wiry and had blond hair. As an athlete, she could rival any boy in the neighborhood. She could beat me from home plate to first base in a sprint and her mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches usually left me dizzy in the backyard batter’s box.
I think Robbie was older than Linda, but only by a year or two; he was stocky and also had blond hair. I don’t think I ever saw their mother, not even once, but she would often yell at Robbie and Linda from her window and tell them “to get their asses inside.”
Robbie and Linda never mentioned their father, but it seemed like he was away and may have left them. They did not discuss his absence from their lives and so I did not ask them about it. But I always wondered if he would show up one day. Or was he already dead?
Routine ruled our summer months. In the mornings, after breakfast, Linda and Robbie would stop at my house. We would run through the neighborhood, exploring whatever caught our attention. We would build forts, jump rope, play hopscotch or hide-and-seek, shoot hoops and play kickball or Wiffle ball.
I also remember digging for musket balls and arrows in a plot of land near the site of Fort Stanwix, which had been reconstructed as a national monument in Rome. We had learned in school that many historians considered the siege of Fort Stanwix a turning point in the Revolutionary War because the Continental Army, under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort, repelled a lengthy British assault led by General Barry St. Leger and thus helped to thwart a three-pronged plan by the British to divide the colonies.
But we didn’t care about the historical significance of Fort Stanwix; we just wanted to find some artifacts that we could trade with each other or use in our “war games.”
We would eat lunch, separately, and then meet again in early afternoon and play Wiffle ball or some other game the rest of the day, taking brief breaks to chug a few glasses of cherry or grape Kool-Aid, which I would grab from inside the house. And it seemed like Robbie never washed off the red or purple Kool-Aid stain that circled his mouth the entire summer.
We would split up at about five in the afternoon, as Mrs. Blackwood made her kids eat an early supper at a fast food restaurant. Throughout the summer months they rotated between McDonald’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast food spots in Rome.
Linda said her mom refused to cook in the summer because their apartment lacked air conditioning. I was envious of their diet of burgers, chicken, fries and shakes, and I asked my mom why we couldn’t eat out every night like the Blackwoods. She gave me some explanation about the importance of home-cooked meals, but as a kid I didn’t understand her reasoning.
Dad would come home from his job at the Sears store at about 6:15 p.m. every weekday, and I would shovel down whatever Mom placed on my plate, before excusing myself and racing out to meet Linda and Robbie for a few games of kickball or hide-and-seek before I had to come inside for the night.
But one July day our playtime schedule was altered by a selfish act I would regret for years to come. The Blackwoods had returned home from their fast food dinner, and Linda and Robbie were playing outside. I was inside the house at the time, most likely watching “The Electric Company” or another PBS show, when I heard the sound of the ice cream truck luring me away from the television.
“Not before dinner,” Mom said after I jumped out of the reclining chair and begged her for money.
“Please Mom, just a small twist cone.”
“I said no.”
I threw my arms up in protest and ran to the window. I focused my gaze on the “Ice Cream Man” as he distributed the frozen treats at the curb. Clad in his clean, white uniform, he appeared like a modern-day knight, rushing to the succor of the Stanwix Street children, bringing cooling relief to the kids and quenching the heat that rose from the asphalt.
“Mom, I’ll be outside until Dad gets home.”
“Stay inside the yard,” she hollered from the kitchen.
“OK,” I said on my way out the door.
I pushed open the screen door and let it slam behind me, and the porch groaned as I leapt off the top step. Linda and Robbie were standing on the other side of the chain-link fence that separated our backyard from an adjacent lot. They were both holding ice cream cones and they were licking them quickly because the sun was still bright and the heat was melting the ice cream.
I walked up to my side of the fence and Linda came toward me on the other side.
“We got ice cream,” Linda said.
“Yeah,” I said.
Robbie followed his sister and approached the fence. His flavor was chocolate and I noticed a trickle of brown liquid rolling down his forearm. He then started taunting me because he had ice cream and I did not.
I have replayed this incident in my head more times than I would like to admit. And no matter how much I want to, I can’t stop myself, or more accurately, the memory of myself, from doing what I did that day.
“You want a lick?” Robbie asked me.
“Sure,” I said, my eyes fixed on his cone.
I think Linda may have told her brother they needed to get home before their ice cream melted. But Robbie ignored her. Instead, he extended his arm and held the cone over the top of the fence. He may have said something like, “Here, try it.”
Yet when I reached up to take the cone, he yanked it away and I clutched a handful of air.
“Madge ya [Made you] look, now suck my dick,” squealed Robbie. He indulged in a long, satisfying lick of the cone and then opened his mouth, revealing a brown froth swishing around inside.
I think Linda laughed at her brother, and then she tried again to make him go inside, but he wouldn’t listen.
His laughter seemed to ricochet off the facade of a nearby tan brick building and then resonate inside my ears. And he kept repeating the little phrase: “Made you look, now suck my dick.” He also alternated the wording, saying, “Wanna lick … suck my dick.”
I could feel sweat bubbling on my face and neck as an internal rage started to swell and demanded a release. I was standing near Dad’s tomato plants. And so after Robbie repeated his mocking phrase, I bent down, scooped up some of Dad’s fertilized soil and threw it across the fence at Robbie. The dirt covered almost the entire surface of his ice cream and also smacked him square in the face before settling in his eyes and hair. I rejoiced when his laughter ceased and a frown appeared on his face; he also looked liked he was going to start crying. He dropped his dirt-sprinkled cone on the ground and ran away screaming, “I’m gonna tell my mom.”
Linda was still standing near the fence. I shrugged my shoulders and said something like “sorry, I guess” or “well, he was asking for it.” But she just looked at me with a blank expression and then turned her back and followed her brother across the street to their apartment building.
I must admit I felt proud of my actions. I convinced myself Robbie had provoked me to a point where a response was needed.
I awaited repercussions from Mrs. Blackwood. I was nervous all through dinner that night, as I expected her to come marching across the street at any moment, bang on our screen door and start swearing at me and demanding repayment for the ice cream cone. But it never happened; no retaliation came.
I thought I got away with it. Or did I?
I think I may have told my parents about the incident later that night, just before bed, when the guilt had started weaving its way through me. I don’t remember what they said, but most likely they told me to go to bed and apologize to Robbie the following day. They may have also suggested I give him some money to make up for the ice cream.
But I don’t think they meted out any punishment. And as for Linda, Robbie and I, we remained friends and continued to play together the rest of that summer.
The ice cream event did not ruin their lives. They forgot about it in a couple of days. I think that’s because childhood is all about living in the present. You’re not thinking about yesterday because you’re always looking forward to what’s next; you’re always searching for the next fun thing to do.
So then why does it stay with me? Why does this scene still haunt me? Maybe it’s because the image of the dirt covering the cone remains so vivid in my mind. I can close my eyes and feel the hot sun on my neck. I can see a rivulet of chocolate ice cream sliding down Robbie’s forearm. I can picture the hurt and disappointment on his face when the dirt hit the cone and he realized it was ruined, that he wouldn’t be able to take another lick. I can see the cone lying on the ground at the base of the fence. I can see Robbie’s squat body running away.
But there’s something else. I think the reason I threw the dirt on the cone was because I thought I was better than the Blackwoods. I was getting angry as Robbie was teasing me and in that moment—right before I reached down to grab the dirt—I thought of him like other people did, as a nothing but a “wellie,” just white trash. And I was also jealous. They had something I didn’t and some sickness in me wanted to take it away. I thought, “If I can’t have ice cream, then you shouldn’t either.”
My family wasn’t rich, but we could have had ice cream just about anytime we wanted. All my sister and I had to do was ask our mother or father to buy some at the store. The Blackwoods were different. How much did it set Mrs. Blackwood back to give Linda and Robbie some change for the ice cream man? Where else would she have to save to make up for it? This was a special treat for them and I wrecked it.
Of course I was only about nine years old at the time. I was irrational and immature—a stupid selfish kid. But if I start to think about the incident and relive the memory again, I feel ashamed when I see myself stealing Robbie’s joy.
I think we moved away from the neighborhood around 1978 or ’79 and I never saw Robbie or Linda again. Our house at 126 Stanwix Street is no longer standing. It was demolished by the city several years ago.
In 2011 when I was visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, I went for a long walk on a clear summer evening. I walked southbound on James Street, heading toward Gansevoort Park and St. Peter’s Church. When I got near the police station and the courthouse, I crossed the street and started walking on Stanwix Street.
As I scanned the block, I realized not much had changed in the neighborhood. It still looked ragged. Some of the small front lawns needed mowing, a tan cat was crossing the street and a kid’s bike was lying on its side in a driveway. And if you can believe this, a white Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck was parked at the curb and the man inside was selling ice cream treats to customers.
I thought about Linda and Robbie; I wondered where they were and what they had done with their lives. Were they still in Rome? Were they both married? Did they have kids of their own? Was their mother still around? And what happened with their father?
Of course I had no way of finding out the answers to the questions that came flooding to me as I stood on Stanwix Street.
I wished Linda and Robbie would have appeared on the block at that moment, walking westbound on Stanwix Street toward James Street. I wanted to see them again and offer to buy them both ice cream cones to make up for what I had done and what was lost as a result.
I spent last week in Rome, New York, as I recovered from Gamma Knife radiation treatment intended to eradicate leftover pituitary tumor cells. And I was once again overcome by the spectacular beauty of summer in my hometown.
Now that we have skipped past the Fourth of July, summer is ripe, bursting open in color, sounds and scents, but soon it will wane. Soon autumn will overtake it.
But now near perfection reigns in central New York with warm days, flowers in full bloom, vegetable gardens producing their bounty and children riding bikes and playing outside. We need rain here so it’s not quite perfect.
As I went for an evening walk heading toward Vogel Park in Rome, sunlight filtered through the lush maple trees lining North George Street, casting a greenish-yellow glow. Along the way I dodged hissing sprinkler streams dancing over burnt lawns and spilling over on the sidewalk. I saw teenage boys playing Frisbee in a front yard. A basketball bounced on a driveway and screen doors smacked against doorjambs. The smells of freshly-cut lawns and grilling meat entered my nose.
I also heard the voices of summer as I walked past the houses.
“Let’s go Randall.”
“All right, I’m coming.”
“Come on Meg, time to eat.”
Summer is such an intense sensual experience words and images alone cannot do it justice. Ray Bradbury came as close as possible with his fictional Green Town.
I think these days of splendor in central New York are God’s way of making amends for all the lake-effect snow days of December, January, February and March when darkness comes at 4 p.m. and the cold air bites your face. But you can’t contain summer. You can’t bottle it up and preserve it like dandelion wine, store it in Mason jars and open it up on a February night when your bones ache and the snow melts inside your boots while you shovel the driveway.
Summer is also a nostalgic time, as we remember our youth spent at the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, doing cartwheels to show off for grandparents, running around the neighborhood with sparklers and chasing the ice cream truck down the street.
I also consider the math when looking at my life. How many more summers do I have left? And then I think only one, right now. That’s it.
While driving with my brother one afternoon last week I spotted a white banner stretching across Black River Boulevard. It announced the Drums Along the Mohawk drum and bugle corps competition would be coming on Aug. 2. “Oh no,” I said to my brother, “that means summer’s ending soon.”
The competition has always been one of the last big events of the summer in Rome, signaling cooler weather, moms checking off their school supply purchase lists and the Rome Free Academy football team practicing in two-a-day sessions. My stepfather also says Drums Along the Mohawk sometimes coincides with bats sneaking into the house and circling the kitchen or family room.
So before summer is gone again, make a point to leave the house, walk around the block and look at the stars, eat your share of ice cream cones, race to finish nine holes of golf in the gloaming, attend a minor league baseball game and go for a night drive in the country to hear the whoosh of the tires against the asphalt.
Summer is indeed fleeting, but we still have half a cup left to enjoy.