Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ice Cream

Roger walked into the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory looking for something exotic.  He was a bit disappointed by the expected offerings of green tea and lychee sorbet.  Mango and coconut seemed more Caribbean than anything else.  Red bean and black sesame piqued his interest, but still he wanted more.

"Do you have anything special today?" he asked.

The teenage girl behind the counter flipped her bangs and tongued her lip-piercing, striking a food-court pose, and walked to the back end of the counter.  "Grampa!" she yelled, "White guy wants special."

An old Chinese man wearing some sort of fez appeared from behind a curtain at the back of the store.  The old man looked at Roger over a set of filthy reading glasses and beckoned with his hand.

"Good special," he said, laughing and nodding, and disappeared behind the curtain.  Roger followed.

The back room was mostly filled with cardboard cartons of napkins and waffle cones, with a softcore pinup calendar showing Asian beauties.  A grimy chest freezer rumbled away on the far wall underneath a window that had been filled in with glass block.  What looked like tubers and rhizomes floated in murky liquid in a series of jars set on the windowsill.  The old man opened the freezer and scooped out a yellowish ball of ice cream from a cardboard cylinder.

"Scorpion venom.  Make strong!"

Roger took the spoon from the old man and tasted.  His lips went numb and he detected a familiar flavor.  He shook his head at the ruse and said, "This is Szechuan peppercorn ice cream.  I want something special."

The old man nodded in grudging appreciation.  Shooing Roger back a few paces, he reached to the floor and pulled up a trap door.

"Follow me," he said, and disappeared down a steep set of wooden stairs, the treads scalloped from long use.  Roger went down the stairs backward, holding onto the sides to steady himself.

The cellar was low, with rubble walls and a concrete floor.  More cartons of waffle cones were stacked here and there amidst a sea of Tasty Banana glue-traps covered in hair and silverfish.  Hundreds of empty ice cream canisters were crushed into one corner.  In the middle of one wall was a huge sliding fire-door, covered in battered tin.  A stack of concrete disks acted as a counterweight, suspended on a chain that rattled as the old man pulled the door open.

"After you," he said, gesturing into a darkened room.

Roger walked to the edge of the pool of light spilling through the door.  The room stank of some sort of animal.  "Are there any lights?" he asked, just as the old man flicked a switch.  A fluorescent fixture reluctantly flickered overhead, strobing and pulsing.  A cow was tethered to the far wall by a rope tied off to a rusty steel ring set into the mortar.  It barely looked up from the bale of hay it was patiently eating.

"Fresh cream!" cried the old man, clapping his hands softly, walking over to another chest freezer.

This freezer made the one upstairs look positively futuristic.  Where the other rumbled this one wheezed, periodically emitting a puff of refrigerant from an exposed manifold of pipes.  A compressor chugged along, exposed belts frayed and slack.  A thin rivulet of water ran from under the freezer in an algae-slick trough to a rusted drain in the middle of the room.  A hasp with a padlock had been screwed to the freezer door.  The old man quickly dialed the combination and opened the door.  Fog spilled up and out of the compartment, startling a low moan from the cow.

"What flavor is it?" asked Roger.

The old man shook his head and said, "No name."  He produced a long-handled ivory spoon from his sleeve and scooped.

The ice cream was stark white, so much that the spoon looked yolky and foul by contrast.  The walls, the freezer, the concrete floor, the mold-spotted wooden joists of the floor overhead – everything took on a sheen of grime, or rather were revealed to be somehow essentially grubby in the presence of such purity.

The old man slipped the spoon into his mouth, the perfect ice cream disappearing behind nicotine-stained teeth and cracked, bristly lips.  He closed his eyes in appreciation, letting slip a small noise of pleasure in his transcendent moment.

Finally his eyes opened and he asked, "You like to try?"

Roger had already left the room, sprinting for home.  He would have to wash for days to scrub the grime from his skin.  He wondered if he would ever be ready.

--Steve Kilian

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