Fred Skolnik

The Iceman


          This was when the iceman still used to come around with blocks of ice. That was because we still used iceboxes. It must have been right after the War. Not long after that we must have gotten our first refrigerator. My father had been doing defense work and making two hundred and fifty dollars a week, so you could say he'd been raking it in. Flush times were coming.

          Ice has a long history. It became a big industry in America in the 19th century when they cut it out of frozen lakes, even Walden Pond, and shipped it off to the tropics. Ice is often used as a metaphor too. They'd talk about this or that thaw in Russia in the political sense because Russia was thought of as a frozen place and of course we learned that poem by Robert Frost in school.

          I don't remember if our iceman came with a horse and wagon or drove a truck. I also don't remember if he used tongs or carried the blocks on his shoulder. We were on the fifth floor so he must have used the elevator. The technicalities escape me. For us, having an icebox was the normal thing, like scrubbing laundry on a washboard. We were simple people and would have been satisfied to go on doing what we were doing for the rest of our lives. Only the visionaries knew what was coming next.

          Our iceman was probably in his late thirties and was generally in a rush because of all the deliveries he had to make. My mother would offer him a cold drink occasionally and once he sat down at the kitchen table and they had a long talk. That was how we found out about his life. He was a widower. His wife had died of cancer not long after their second child was born and he had brought up the two boys himself. I knew the older one. He must have accompanied his father on his rounds because we'd see him in the neighborhood sometimes, even at night. He was a wild boy but he also took care of his younger brother, who we all thought was retarded but might have been what is called autistic today. He'd steal candy for him from the candy store down the street and then sit him down somewhere and go running off but would come back from time to time to check up on him. I don't think either of them went to school.

          The iceman too was sometimes seen in the neighborhood after hours. I'd see him occasionally in the Bar & Grill around the corner from our house, an alien place that was strictly off limits to us. I wondered if I should tell my mother that I'd seen him there. She would have disapproved of his drinking but perhaps understood it in view of how hard his life had been. We didn't know where he lived. He had these two aspects then, of an ordinary delivery man who came to our door like other delivery men and just as quickly was gone and of a somewhat mysterious figure bearing the burden of a tragic past.

          I wondered about his dead wife. I could imagine him as a younger man and the two of them in love. I had a picture of them in my mind holding hands on a spring day. I suppose I got these images from the movies, where everything was romanticized. I had never seen real romance anywhere around me, and certainly not among married people, just the humdrum of everyday life. He'd shown my mother a picture of her and my mother had later said to us: "Such a pretty woman."

          The older boy ran with other wild boys. They had a gang and fought in the park. This was Claremont Park in the Bronx. I got to thinking that the iceman lived down around Webster Avenue, on the other side of the park, because sometimes I'd see the two brothers coming up from there by themselves. I think they had a cache of their stolen candy under the newsstand outside the candy store so that the younger brother might help himself during the day. One time the older brother played ball with us and told us all kinds of stories that we knew he was making up, about how his mother used to ride with his father on the wagon, and it was clear that he was talking about a horse and wagon now in another time and another place, and the mother would buy the candy and then they'd go home and have a big dinner and all of them would be together or about how he'd jumped into a speeding truck and fought with a wild girl screaming like a banshee who rubbed her body against his and scratched his face and how he'd felt his arm being torn from its socket.

          On Friday nights the iceman would take the boys into the Bar & Grill and order a big meal and then I suppose they'd go home but once someone saw him with an ugly neighborhood whore we called the Twister and followed them to her apartment and listened in at the door. Then, for some reason, he ran to tell the older brother, maybe to get his goat, but the older brother said, "That's all right. I've had her myself." He acted much older than he was and apparently had done things that none of us had done. We were a little afraid of him but admired him too.

          The iceman was a little on the lean side and always had an intense look on his face, as if something was pushing against him from inside. In the summer he'd come by just about every other day. Afterwards my mother would do her shopping, picking out a few cuts of meat at the butcher's and getting the dairy in the grocery store. I also remember a fruit and vegetable man coming by on a horse and wagon and all the women in the neighborhood crowding around him.

          It's hard to remember those years. Mostly you're left with an impression without too many details, or certain moments that will always stand out in memory. Of course I remember our street and our apartment because we lived there so long but I only have the vaguest memory of a doorman during the War when our building must have been fairly new and of snow and of being bundled up and having a little shovel and a sled and of air raid sirens and our ration book. When Roosevelt died we heard it on the radio and my mother cried. In school we wrote in the new year at the top of the page in our notebooks: 1945 became 1946 and 1946 became 1947 and it was hard to remember to change it for the next few weeks when we wrote down the date in our childish hands. An entire age was passing, though for us time did not seem to pass at all. It was always up ahead, and we waited for the time that was to come impatiently. With the War over people must have thought they were going to start new lives and everything would be better than it was before. From a certain perspective it was like a new dawn, those years after the War; but for others time was already running out.

          On that fateful day the iceman was in the candy store buying a pack of cigarettes. I heard him say, "You seen my boys?" and Mr. Rappaport said, "Not today."

          The iceman lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and blew the smoke into the air. He smoked Camels like my father. The reason I remember this so clearly is because of what happened next. I was looking through a comic book and my friend Barry was having an egg cream. I had an allowance of ten cents in those days and I'd spend it all on comic books, or maybe on popsicles in the summer. Of course I got extra money for everything else.

          What happened next was that the iceman looked outside and suddenly whistled with two fingers in his mouth. I looked outside too and saw his younger son crossing the street by himself. The iceman must have been whistling to him. It may have been before he saw the car or just after. The car hit the boy head on and sent him flying about twenty feet. We all ran out. The iceman raced into the street and threw himself down beside the boy. An ambulance came about twenty minutes later but the boy was already dead. We all stood around for a couple of hours, too stunned to talk.

          Two days later the iceman showed up at our door again with his block of ice. My mother conveyed our condolences and that was the end of it, except that it was turned into an object lesson by my mother, who always reminded me from then on to be careful when I crossed the street, but of course I wasn't and one time I too almost got hit, I had kind of frozen in the middle of the street not knowing which way to turn as the car bore down on me, but must have guessed right, jumping forward and feeling something brush against my pants. I could have been killed too, and then all these years would not have been mine to live.

          After the death of his brother the older boy got wilder and we did in fact see him jumping into trucks at traffic lights and once we saw him with a girl too in one of these trucks so we got to thinking that maybe his stories weren't all made up. He stole a lot in the neighborhood, from the candy store and the hardware store and the drugstore. My mother knew about all this and convinced herself that it was her duty to have a talk with the iceman, but being somewhat timid she didn't know how to broach the subject other than indirectly, so she asked him how the boy was doing and if he was managing in school and the iceman said that it didn't seem he ever went to school.

          "Oh, that's a shame," my mother said. "He'll need an education."

          "I know," the iceman said. "But go convince him."

          "I could talk to him," my mother said.

          "It won't do any good. I've talked to him myself."

          As I was right there in the kitchen I said, "He can be a ballplayer. Ballplayers don't have to go to school. He's a terrific hitter." I felt obliged to defend him to the adults.

          "Is that so?" the iceman said, and then to my mother, "I played some ball myself before the War," and back to me: "Class A ball with the Scranton Miners in the New York-Pennsylvania League."

          "What position?" I said.

          "Third. I batted three-oh-two one year."

          My mother said to me, "That's enough now," and to the iceman, "I know it's hard to be a single father and I don't mind helping out. Why don't you come to dinner with him."

          I was amazed to hear my mother talk like that. It wasn't like her at all.

          My father was amazed too and not a little upset. You didn't get involved with people who came from different worlds. Besides, we weren't really set up to have dinner guests. We had a very small kitchen. A radiator pipe that always made gurgling sounds ran from the floor to the ceiling in the far corner. That was where my father sat at the kitchen table. My mother sat opposite him and I sat between them with my back to the oven. The icebox occupied a niche just inside the doorway, behind my mother's chair. Therefore we had to pull the table out and get some folding chairs out of the closet to accommodate the iceman and his son. My father couldn't see the point of it.

          They came at seven, neatly dressed and the iceman a little awkward. My mother had gotten dressed up too, wearing high heels, and for the first time I realized that she was a handsome woman. I don't know if my father saw her that way. He always seemed preoccupied. She seated them in our living room where I slept on the daybed and offered the iceman wine. Then she went into the kitchen to check the roast, leaving my father and myself alone with them. Though my father was not particularly sociable he managed to talk for a while about the ice business. My mother came back and said, "It's ready," so we all went into the kitchen and got ourselves seated barely squeezing past one another.

          In those days roasts got "basted," so my mother had spent the last two hours bent over the oven. She thought of herself as a gourmet cook, the equal of the finest chefs in the land, and therefore spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, though our meals were actually quite mundane. The iceman looked at her with interest. "This is good," he said. "Petey, aint this good?" Petey, the boy, said, "Yeah." My mother was self-conscious now. She may have blushed. My father didn't look up. He just shoveled in the food, as he generally did, and washed it down with seltzer.

          After the meal we all went back to the living room. My father got out the schnapps, Canadian Club, and the men had a drink. Petey signaled to me. Somehow he'd gotten ahold of the bottle. I followed him into our bedroom. "Are you going to play?" my mother said. "Why don't you show him your marbles." I waved her away.

          In the bedroom Petey took a long swig from the bottle and handed it to me. I took a little sip and started gagging. "Shut the fuck up," Petey said. When I quieted down, he said, "They got any money in here?" He started looking through the drawers and the cedarwood closet.

          "My father keeps his money in his wallet," I said.

          Petey said, "Shit," and tried to slip one of my mother's nightgowns over my head. I broke away. My mother stuck her head into the bedroom and said, "Are you boys having a good time? Come inside, I have a special treat for you."

          The special treat was ice cream with chocolate syrup and whipped cream and a cherry on top like a sundae. The three adults watched us dig in. I would have been surprised if any of them had had one too because I didn't associate wanting things and enjoying yourself with being an adult. Grown-ups existed mainly to satisfy our needs.

          "Wasn't that good?" my mother said.

          Petey said, "Yeah."

          "If you come upstairs with Robbie after school I'll have milk and cookies for you every day. Would you like that?"

          I was Robbie. Petey looked at his father suspiciously. The iceman nodded and smiled. Now I was a little put out. Who needed this intruder in the house?

          Fortunately, he never came. It's not that I would have minded having a special relationship with him and maybe having some of his aura rub off on me. It was that I felt the enormous distance between us and the impossibility of being friends. In fact, whenever he saw me now in the street he'd make fun of me, saying, "Did you have your cookies today?" and if anyone was with him they'd laugh. There wasn't much I could do about that, just grin and bear it.

          The iceman started hanging around the house a little more than he usually did when he made his deliveries and my mother always wore her high heels when he came. Sometimes he'd sit at the table and sometimes he'd stand in the kitchen doorway, or my mother would stand there hugging herself like those sultry women in the movies and he would be standing in the foyer and they'd be talking in low voices and once I saw her smoking a cigarette which she hardly ever did. She would get pretty flustered when he rang the doorbell and she'd always straighten out her hair and I remember how her tight skirt would be stretched across her round belly.

          The iceman had a lot of work to do. Our building was like a village or an ocean liner, with six floors and over a hundred families. The streets were quiet, except for the noise the children made, though for the most part the children played in the playgrounds, up in Claremont Park or in the schoolyards or "down the alley," which was a parking lot between the buildings on our block. In the alley we played mainly punchball and stickball, but we also played handball against the wall of the Young Israel synagogue, sometimes during services on Saturday morning, which brought out the shamash to chase us away, and of course we played Ringalievio and Johnny-on-the Pony and Cans Up and Land with pocket knives on a patch of ground behind the synagogue and sometimes just hung out there and I remember certain quiet Sunday afternoons in the spring when there were just two or three of us and the shadows began to fall late in the afternoon and there was a feeling of such tranquility in the still, hot air, of a day winding down, of something magical really, that it became for me one of those emblematic still points in memory to which great complexes of feeling adhere.

          The candy store down the street was part of a row of stores that included a Chinese laundry and a luncheonette. The drugstore was across the street, on the corner, the butcher, the baker and the barber on 170th Street, the commercial axis of the neighborhood. Farther up there was a delicatessen, a Chinese restaurant, a movie house, and the bookstore where I bought a Tarzan book occasionally. When you crossed the Grand Concourse you were already in a somewhat unfamiliar environment.

          I collected stamps, hoarded marbles and baseball cards, and even built model planes. The stamps and model planes qualified as genuine hobbies. I bought the model plane kits at a "hobby shop" on Jerome Avenue on the other side of the Concourse, and the stamps from various dealers, as far away as the Crotona Park area, a long bus ride. The marbles and baseball cards, on the other hand, were the currency of street commerce. We pitched and flipped and traded cards and played marbles in the gutter. "Hit the marble and win five!" the hawkers shouted, setting up their stalls at the curb. For everything there was a season. The marble season was relatively brief—I think the spring. I kept my marbles in a cigar box and it got pretty full, so after a while I didn't have to buy any. The feeling was like having money in the bank or a horde of gold coins.

          These were the horizons of my childhood. Those lost years and that lost world seem innocent now but were not so innocent after all. Great fortunes were being made by hard men and people were dying in the gutter and in lonely rooms. It is not the innocence of the times we remember but our own.

          Petey's little brother wasn't the only one who died that year. A high school boy in our building was thrown under a train by four blacks, or Negroes as we called them then, when he was coming home from a date, and a girl was raped in our basement. The boy was an only child so it destroyed the family and I still remember the permanent look of grief on the parents' faces, and the girl's mother was friendly with mine so my mother tried to comfort them. The girl had been to my house more than once, helping me with my homework. She must have been fourteen at the time. I have often wondered how life turned out for her.

          But these were really marginal events in our world. Despite the hope that was in the air, and the occasional fear, there was in fact this sense of things standing still, of solid foundations, of a stable world as the backdrop to our lives. These streets, the buildings where we lived, the sun, the rain, the snow and even the people we knew seemed always to have been there and we thought they always would. All the little shifts in the wind were unperceived, nor could anyone have foreseen his personal fate. It was as if we were in the bottom of a well with only a patch of the sky visible, and that was the future. I can't say what the dreams of the iceman were, or of Petey, if they had any. They both seemed to be stumbling blindly through life, the one driven by need, the other by hatred.

          Petey told us that the mother of the girl he ran around with was a waitress in the luncheonette down the street and that sometimes he'd go home with them and sleep in their bed, between the two of them.

          "What's so great about that?" my friend Barry said. "My sister sleeps with her boyfriend all the time." Her boyfriend was a thug who'd hang Barry out of their sixth-floor window by his feet whenever he got on his nerves.

          "Yeah, but does he fuck her?" Petey said.


          "You don't even know what fucking is," Petey said. "You think babies come from storks."

          "No I don't," Barry said. "I know where they come from. They come from the mommy's stomach."

          "Who puts them there, you little prick? Santa Claus?"

          That got a big laugh. All of us laughed, myself included, though I had no idea what I was laughing at.

          Petey picked on Barry for a few days after that instead of on me and that was a relief. He was pretty vicious. I'd seen him in a fight down the alley and he'd kicked the other boy a few times in the face when he was down. He was like a snake. You never knew when he was going to strike.

          Sometimes he'd seem friendly but suddenly he'd turn on you. It must have been awful lonely to be against the whole world.

          The iceman kept hanging around and it seemed to me that they'd be standing closer and closer together each time he was there, he and my mother, until their bodies were practically touching. Petey came to the house with him a couple of times and I saw him steal some things but I was afraid to say anything. One day when I came home from school for lunch the chain inside was on the latch so I rang the bell a few times and then I saw Petey at the other end of the hall running down the stairs with a couple of other boys. I found my mother in the street and she came up and forced the door in. The house was a mess. They'd come in through the fire escape and must have been running down from the roof when I saw them. All they took was some fake jewelry. Later when the police picked him and his friends up hanging around the neighborhood I was afraid to identify them so they went free. Petey never thanked me for that. He probably hated me even more. I found the chain on the latch a few more times after that but it wasn't Petey inside.

          My mother got pregnant. Petey made fun of that too, saying someone had knocked her up for sure. I didn't know what he was talking about and said she wasn't pregnant and he laughed at me and I started crying. Then her stomach went away and she told me she'd lost the baby, which was the first time she'd ever mentioned it. There was a lot of shouting in the house for a week or two after that and then my father moved out.

          My mother never remarried, though she had a few "boyfriends" over the years, middle-aged men who drank seltzer like my father. I lived with her for a while and then with my father and his new wife and then I struck out on my own, our family dissolved. I imagined my mother would get together with the iceman at some point but I never saw him again. He just vanished after a time and it turned out that he didn't survive either, he didn't cross the line into our half of the century; his life fell apart, for Petey was killed too. Amazingly, he fell out of a speeding truck, fighting with some boys, and a girl had been there too, so it was as if he had foreseen his own death. I remember reading about it in the paper and wasn't sure if it was him. Then, years later, I heard that the iceman had committed suicide shortly afterwards. They found him in his bathtub. The blood, someone said, had run out of his veins like the water dripping into those pans we had kept beneath the blocks of ice he had once brought to our homes.