Snow and Ice Cubes

William Hawkins

A wedge of purple between two thunderclouds, deep and brilliantly violet, the same color Leon sees when his eyes squeeze out the sun. Coming quick, these thunderclouds, chewing off the sky between. Greedy. Doesn’t surprise Leon. The whole world is greedy. Clouds and grass and men, all of it. Leon has greedy in his reach, not a foot below him, a mop of toilet brown hair on the pudgy body of a kid still in his school uniform. Navy slacks and a red polo shirt with the stitched seal of a school over the heart. One of those Catholic schools with a saint’s name. Leon doesn’t know which, can’t keep them all straight. The saints were never meant for him. He leans over the sill of the open window and speaks. He says, “Do you know what you want, kid?”

“It’s between Tiger’s Blood and Pink Lemonade,” the kid says back, glancing at Leon but only just, and Leon knows why. Because the boy sees an old black man and is finished with that, doesn’t need anymore, no thanks. Maybe might be a brief impression of the red eyes, whiff of cheap whiskey weekends, the sour smell of a bar bathroom. But probably not. The eyes are untroubled in their round face, their fat face, fat from three meals a day with three desserts and an afternoon snowball in the middle. Fat little white face, with eyes that only see faces.

Leon thinks the kid’s name is Henry. Maybe Howard. The other kids call him something like that when they come over, riding on their bikes after school, ever since the first weekend of May when the snowball stand opened. Excited, these kids that come to him, they know the snowball stand is a sign of the coming summer; it’s a way they read time. These damn kids who can’t wait for tomorrow to be yesterday. And Leon is part of that knowing, that way they understand the world. Leon is part of the landscape, he understands this, he’s Mr. Leon who sells snowballs from his brother-in-law’s stand, next to this brother-in-law’s gas station. Cheap plywood shed painted light blue, with a tin roof on top and a white sign hammered next to the window facing front. His sister has a good hand, she’s the one who printed out the flavors in careful block letters. Wedding Cake, Blackberry, Cherry Wild, Bubblegum. Fuzzy Navel, Dreamsicle, Red Hot, Tutti Frutti. Lemon, Lime, and Nectarine. Plum, Spearmint, and Root Beer. Pink Lemonade. Tiger’s Blood. Chocolate syrup on top, fifty cents extra. Condensed milk on top, fifty cents extra. This boy, this probably Henry, maybe Howard, will get condensed milk on top. A snowball isn’t enough for this boy. Leon knows this. But first he has to pick a flavor. First he has to point—go on, boy, point—at the rows of bottles shelved behind Leon, the rainbow line of sugar syrups. Pick a flavor and Leon will make the snowball, he’s waiting, his hand on the machine next to him, what looks like a deli meat slicer except it’s a block of ice fitted inside, to be grinded into tiny snowflakes, each one unique in a giant featureless lump of white.

“Hurry up,” Leon says. “There’s a storm behind you.”

The storm is why probably Henry is alone. The other children have better sense. This one has his school uniform, which is probably the closest thing he’ll ever have to learning. This is what Leon tells himself. How he comforts himself.

“I guess a large Tiger’s Blood. With condensed milk. And chocolate syrup.”

Leon picks out a large Styrofoam cup, sticks it at the appropriate end of the machine, flips the switch. The machine tries to roar, but there’s a block of ice jammed in its throat, so all it does is gargle a pack of razors. Snow fills the cup. White. Unblemished.

When Leon was a kid, he sucked on ice cubes. Mr. Whitaker gave them to him. Mr. John Whitaker who ran the company store in a logging camp, long lost to 1948. They’d go, a whole troop of barefoot children in cotton-sack clothes—they’d get called pickaninnies, that’s how old Leon is—and Mr. Whitaker, white as—sure, why not?—an unblemished snowball, he always gave them ice cubes. Always. Never seemed bothered by their happiness. But then, they said Mr. John Whitaker was strange. They had stories about him, in the logging camp. He was a fairy, he was slow, his dick had been blown off in the war, his head had been scrambled. He gave them ice cubes. He gave Leon ice cubes. All the years between that logging camp and the snowball stand, and all the disappointments and frustrations in them, and Leon remembers how those ice cubes tasted, the sudden cold on the roof of his mouth. The dirty, raggedy world suddenly nothing but cold. But why bother remembering? What good were ice cubes, in the end?

Wind comes through the window, knocks on the back wall. It tastes like the color orange. The styrofoam cup is filled. Leon turns off the machine and sighs into the silence after it.

“Where do you live, kid?”

Probably Henry, Maybe Howard tilts his head at the old face in the window.

“Where do I live?” he repeats.

The clouds are on them.

“How far do you have to ride that bike?”

“A couple blocks,” the kid says slowly, as if he has to count them in his head.

“You’re not going to make it before the storm hits. Why don’t you come in here, wait out the worst? You can put the Tiger’s Blood in yourself. Snowball on the house.” He tries to smile. Didn’t Mr. Whitaker smile? Isn’t that how this goes? “But don’t let the other kids hear about it, capish?”

The boy tilts his head back the other way. He parts his lips. A whisper escapes like steam.

“Are you a pedophile?”

The wind really does taste orange. As if those rainclouds were pouring on a bottle of dreamsicle on the world, only sour, all that sugar gone sour.

“What did you say?”

“You’re a pedophile, aren’t you?” The little boy’s lips curl, but his eyes, Lord, his eyes gleam with—delight. It’s delight. This little boy is delighted. “You’re a dirty old pedophile.”

Something tugs Leon’s shoulder. He looks down to see what. It’s his arm. Small miracles. He follows it, which leads him to the Styrofoam cup, which leads him to the arc of snow, for a moment suspended, paused, as if it, too, is looking around, seeing where it is. And Leon watches it all collapse on the boy’s face. Cold ice, a direct hit, right in the eyes, nose, the lips. So cold it burns. You forget it, living in the land of snowball stands. Cold burns.

The boy screams. Flaps both hands at his face and screams. The scream breaks down into a wail, and he’s crying as he runs to his bike, as he pedals away, sobbing. The whole performance Leon watches carefully. Leon feels something, as the first raindrops splatter the pavement outside the little window of his snowball stand. Leon closes his window, as the storm breaks, to be alone with this feeling. To figure on it, and wait for what comes after.

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William Hawkins is a graduate of the MFA Program in Fiction at UC Irvine. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, the New Madrid Review, and Tinhouse.com, among others. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.