The Ice Cream Man


Don’t think of me as a bad guy.

That’s my mantra. That’s what I tell them when their sweet tooth breaks on a cone so unforgiving, and the cold cream begins to crystallize over their pleasure center. Making them less than human, and so much more.

But you mustn’t, you mustn’t believe I mean any harm. Good is my best friend, my middle name, the air I breathe, my cup of tea. I don’t prefer tea. I like my wet cold. But of course I understand the appeal of cheerful warmth.

Okay, cut. Let’s run through that again, everyone.

You know I’m a decent guy because I drive an ice cream truck. I am the master of pathways in the city of angels. Mastering the roads is the key to mastering the city—here most of all, the roads are the city—and so I set my mind upon it when first I started this business. It was around that time that I bought this van and painted it with all the garish icons of joy and happiness. That was only one step in a bigger scheme, but I won’t reveal my plans just yet, nefarious or otherwise.

All you must know is my next objective. Somewhere in this city there is a woman.

Have you seen her? She wanders here and there as a beggar, hidden from me. She is the only one who can bring an end to the scheme. First I must find her. Then we will stand and conquer together.

Ah, so you hear the GPS chirping at me. Don’t question my mastery: I cannot be enslaved by cheap technology. The trick is to ignore it. Yet it’s true, there are many secrets in this place, too many for one man to uncover in a lifetime, so I will obey this once and turn left onto Pico here. In this dreadful traffic, I will have an hour to contemplate mortality beside that crimson octagon there.

If you’re an outsider here, you might believe that the angels are the bejeweled stars who rule on blood-colored carpet, who claim their golden scepters from the academy every year, whose giant faces smirk upon the lower classes from billboards, and you’d be wrong. Everyone comes thinking they’ll be the next big one, and they end up by the roadside with a heap of ulcers and rotting teeth. Then they escape, they die, or they eke out a shadow of a life. The stars don’t care about you. The execs don’t. Not even the lowly gofer. And if you do break in, you’ll be stabbed in the back, your face ground into the asphalt, your dreams splattered over a windshield.

So the real angels of this city? We’re the faceless ones with clipped wings. We represent the people. We protect them from the true evil. We’ll undermine the empire of Hollywood, and then seize it from the inside to bring a new order to the worlds.

Yes, that’s better.


We come in peace, they said.

No, excuse me, that’s a cliché.

Cue ethereal music. They ought to start with something creepy, to set the tone. 

They said we know your weakness.

Still not good enough. I hate beginnings.

They told me sugar is the first craving.

And I said that’s debatable.

They said no, we’re not arguing about this. Sugar is the first craving.

And I said, I’m open to that possibility, but I’d like more proof than your word. Besides, there’s a lot of people in the world, and some of them don’t even like sweet foods too much.

This is not a discussion. We bring the incontrovertible truth. Defeat sugar, and you have the ultimate victory.

Is that plausible? I don’t want to get trivial. I do not endorse the views expressed here, some sort of disclaimer.

But I really said, “Now you’re speaking my language. Except I’ve heard that idea before. I’ve spent at least four days of my life on a diet, and it was misery. I don’t need petty regimens designed by skinny science nerds. My soul hungers for real meat!”

They conferred for a moment and came back to say, “We understand that you are a noble earth specimen…”

“Oh, you’re aliens. Extraterrestrials.”

“We are, yes. Now—”

“Okay, if you’re extras and you’ve contacted me here on my planet, you must have powers we only dream of. I accept your authority.” I understood the scenario because I know the myths of my culture, the prophecies of entertainment. The aliens wanted to exploit us, and I would become a critical ally in their plans to conquer the city. They thought to flatter me into submission, and I’d give them what they wanted, if only to play them as they were playing me.

“Perfect,” they said. “You understand the natural order of things. Your seers in the entertainment industry have foreseen our inevitable existence and superiority, but they have also shown that your species is prone to resist the direction of higher powers. We come to you with a dire situation. We have intercepted transmissions from your civilization and absorbed many of your stories. We have been so enthralled by them that our interplanetary conflicts have nearly ceased. Your kind are the key. With a four-hundred-ten percent increase in film and television production, all our wars would end. For the sake of intergalactic peace, we must intervene to encourage this increase. Our sources indicate that the source of creativity is Los Angeles, your village.”

I saw many reasons to believe that these aliens were real. Since we were talking in realtime across what, millions of lightyears?, they must have FTL technology. Also, they looked like ugly human insects, which is logical. Everyone knows that aliens must be humanoid because we humans are evolution’s best work, but aliens would have destroyed us long since if they were truly superior (whatever they might claim)—so their disgusting anatomy proves that they are actually vermin inside and out.

Also, it was cute that they thought L.A. was a village. But out of the warmness of my heart, I felt that I should update them about the state of the industry. “There’s studios everywhere these days. You can stream original content online for a few bucks a month, and it’s winning all the awards too.”

“We have studied the trends, and we know that Hollywood will weather the storm. In fact, with our efforts, the whole entertainment industry will be concentrated there once more, to outlive ten thousand generations, and this is where you come in.”

I liked their ambition, and I could already imagine how powerful I would become by allying with these extras, so I listened as they laid out the plan.

“You will join a growing network of operatives in all the necessary sectors of earth society. We will send you shipments of special pellets that transform your nervous system. You will disperse these pellets throughout your village.”

Again with the village, but I had a bigger question. “Um…transform our anatomy? I’m sure your devious plan is better than mind control. So what is it?”

“We are benign,” they said. “The pellets eliminate the sugar craving, which is the foundation for all other cravings. The effects will cascade through the body systems until every form of craving is dead. No more addiction, indulgence, laziness, burnout.”

Wow, this was so much more ambitious than a diet. I could invest in a real cause like this.

“In consequence,” they continued, “you earth creatures can focus all your energies on producing entertainment, which is the only thing of value that your kind has ever produced.”

“Ouch,” I said.

“We expect side effects too. Be assured the pellets are not dangerous, but they will make you sick at first. There will be a small pandemic. You may also witness a loss of xenophobia or aggression from the drug. None of these effects are consistent, or intentional, or important.”

“Of course not,” I said, cackling to myself. I could see how it would transform society into a real utopia.

“Now, this drug targets only the young, as their organs are still developing. It can be dangerous to the mature members of your species. So you’ll set up an ice cream truck, equipped with a special song that we provide, to appeal to the children.”

I was flabbergasted. “An ice cream truck! What an outrage! You yourselves called me noble. Dignity is my best friend, my middle name, my superpower.”

“The ice cream truck will be most efficient. Think of this: your dignity is too great to be expressed by any vehicle, proud or simple. Consider it a contrast to highlight your dignity.”

“Yes… I like how you think. But what about yourselves, coming in all this hush-hush?” I wondered. “Don’t you want fair representation in the movies? You’re so beautiful, but you’re portrayed all wrong in our media.”

“No, we quite enjoy the bumbling caricatures that you earth creatures make of us. It’s obvious you’ve never met an outsider, and we want to keep it so. That’s why we’re targeting specific recruits like you rather than broadcasting ourselves to the planet all at once. We don’t want our true images leaked to the media. That would make it boring.”

“Sure. Compliments on the suits too. You’ve mastered nineties fashion.”
“Ah, yes. There’s an earth term for it, something…cosmic, costly, costume…”

“Cosplay?” I gestured at my vintage black leather boots, which I’m rarely without.

“Yes, like your hideous boots! Now, scuttle over to the fridge.”

The vision faded behind the molding walls of my dingy apartment. Instead of disgusting extras, I saw the dartboards on the wall at the foot of my bed, painted with the smug likenesses of actors. Once I, too, had loved these false angels. In the kitchen, more of those faces grinning on chipped mugs. They should have been my face, and they almost were.

Don’t linger on these details. Pan to the right. Like the extras promised, my fridge was loaded top to bottom with cases of bottles of bright pink tablets swimming in fluid. All the food had been piled into a rickety tower on the floor.

And you wondered if I was hallucinating.


The first visit I’ve described, that was a few years back. I used to extort victims for an insurance company, so the ice cream truck was an upgrade—it gave me the power to extort on my terms.

Because I have to earn money, when I ought to give away my frozen treats for free. The kids are getting a tremendous bargain. Addiction immunity for a few dollars. Did you catch that? Our dialogue blazed over it, maybe it needs another pass, but that’s why I drive this big old joy machine. I grind up those pellets, mix and package the ice creams myself. The kids get sick once, and they’re safe from a life on the streets, a life of torment and self-hating. I give them all that for as little as I can afford to charge.

It helps that I’m alone, haunting an empty nest. I don’t have to feed anyone else anymore, yet. But I will find her.

Look, I’ve lured a few little buyers now.


The moon is low in a browning sky and I’m driving home after a long, empty day. The truck is an oversized ghost, the lights and music dead.

Traffic is backed up as usual, and I’m rethinking my angle on life, what with being a professional driver inside the world’s most notorious road system. Then I see her sitting on the sidewalk. The one. The woman.

It’s not the first time I’ve mistaken someone else for her, but I lose nothing by investigating, so I check my mirrors, squeeze into the turn gap, and wheel into a side street. We’re in L.A., so I don’t even kid myself about finding parking. I flip on the hazards and park the van in the street, boxing in the nearest car. This will be quick.

I seize a fistful of safe treats, rush outside, and round the corner with boots clomping. She might know the feet, if not the face.

I pause before charging at this poor woman, because I expect even Melia wouldn’t recognize me, and there’s no need to alarm a stranger. Her face lights up as I approach, and she reaches out with withered hands. “Anything helps,” she mutters. I glimpse the gaps in her teeth and smell the unwashed aura. This is how I always imagined finding my Melia, despite her best efforts. I will take her home and give her to feast and sleep under a roof for the first night in years, earning her trust again, the start of a new story. In it, she doesn’t think of me as the bad guy.

But in this weatherbeaten face, I see only a stranger. It’s not her.

Forcing a smile, I stoop and press the small bounty into her hands. Does she know Melia? I ask without hope. Asking may invite a desperate person to string me along with false promises, but I can read a lie.

She doesn’t know her.

I leave her with the gift that was meant for Melia, and I return to my hulking, blank-eyed ghost.


All this sunshine makes me sick. I can sell ice cream year round, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the conditions. The fake mustache itches worse the hotter it gets. If not for my vital mission here, I’d have found a quiet place up north years ago. Someday when I have the riches of other planets. I’ll die a hero, maybe tragic, maybe ruthless in some eyes, but redeemed by the prosperity I give the universe. One of those ambiguous endings, arthouse style. I’ve seen it already. There’s a whole world outside Hollywood.

As you’d expect, the hot days boost my sales, but the heat leaks into people’s brains and cooks up a mighty temper. Once in a while, an adult comes along, failing to be warded off by the childish aura of my van. I keep a stash of unimproved ice cream for adult customers, since the extras told me the pellets would hurt adults.

I hand out the last ice cream bar on this block of La Salle, and the kid gallops away. “Wish I still had energy like that,” I mutter, and pack up to move on.

Then I catch sight of the plump woman in sweatpants stalking over to the vehicle, and brace myself. “Hi, what can I get for you?” I say, a little distracted while I hunt for my stash. I’ve been so fixated on sparing the kids their problems that I forgot to replace those reserves.

“Sir,” she barks, “your ungodly tune has assaulted my ears for three years now, and today I finally decided to come down here and let you know what I think.” 

Dumbfounded, I turn to meet her eyes. Yep. The eyes tell the truth. She’s the woman who can thwart or fulfill my machinations, whom I am pursuing behind the scenes.


I assumed she would be decaying by the side of the road somewhere, a beggar. But the impossible stands before me. Her scent is fresh, her clothes clean, her pupils full, her skin unmarked. No obvious missing teeth. I’d rather not reveal myself while she’s yelling at me. What am I to her? Does she suspect?

The mustache is thick and greasy, like a dead rodent hanging over my lip. The key to a good disguise is misdirection. People see this thing and they can’t take their eyes off it long enough to see the rest of my face. The other key is my performance. A convincing personality is more vivid than the most sublime makeup or costume. The ice cream man is just another role to me.

Cut back to the lady; she’s still ranting. “…the tune. It seemed a bit quirky, cheap and sugary like the trash you sell. I was too busy trying to place it to be annoyed in the beginning. But then you decided to park, day after day, outside my apartment building every time I plan a yoga session. I’ve changed the routine from morning to evening to morning to afternoon and back again, and still. Still! Did you know that’s a tactic of war?”
“I’m an agent of peace, lady.”

She thrusts a fist toward me, and I cork my mouth. She says, “The loop is 14 seconds long. Do you know how many times I’ve heard it now?”

“I don’t read minds,” I say.

“Two thousand, three hundred, eighty…four!” She jabs a finger in the air as the last note sounds and the loop begins again. “You’ve attacked me from Inglewood to East L.A., and I’m starting to think you’re some kind of sick poltergeist. You are a menace to society. You’re the source of my heart problems. You tempt our children with your poison apples. You are the most crooked, ugly, godless, contemptible villain to ever crawl out of the sewers of this city.”

“I don’t sell apples, but I am charmed.”

“I’ll charm you out of a job,” she says.

“Now please, let’s not make a feud of it,” I implore. I don’t know what power she has, but I don’t want any more of a ruckus.

But she isn’t finished. She lashes me with several more choice barbs. I’m content to stand there and take it, watching her without looking like I’m doing that, you know what I’m saying? All this time and I’m just not ready. Besides, I can’t be blamed for a tune I didn’t choose.

“I am really very sorry,” I deadpan. 

She stops, panting, and flashes me a savage smile. “You like that? I’ve been brewing it since the moment this…this…garbage truck first appeared around here.”

“Ma’am, that’s offensive to anyone who works with the sanitation and disposal industry.”

“I don’t care. I’m half-dead with heat and I’m treating myself to a cone. You have any rainbow sherbet in this little shack on wheels?”

There’s a few of those in my supply for kids, but I put on a sober expression and shake my head like the bell just tolled for my old mother, may she rest in piss. “I regret, ma’am, that I do not.” I hope she doesn’t see me all quivering. It’s a trained reflex designed to shake off fear. Which is misleading, because I’m not afraid of what’s happening here. I’m in control, backed by a powerful force, a crusader with a great cause, and I am a strong independent man.

“What do you have then?” she says.

“I’m fresh out of ice cream,” I say. “But I can offer…half a pack of cigarettes.”

“You smoke? While selling ice creams? No wonder—”

“Not in the van, lady! I have all the permits. I do this right.”

“I don’t smoke anyhow.” She’s smug about it, like she just rejected the serpent’s offer.

“I’m sorry,” I say, shrugging.

She says, “I thought to myself, he might be decent, he might be deaf, he might be a jolly man who just wants to brighten up the neighborhood, but I see now that I was right all the time. You’re an ice cream truck that won’t sell me ice cream. What are you really, a stalker? A drug dealer? I’m filing a complaint. I’ll dig up all the dirt on this box of sleaze, and I’ll have you banned from my neighborhood. See if I don’t.”

“Wait, ma’am, I can be here tomorrow with all the rainbow sherbet! I have whole tubs at home. Come back!”

But she’s already slammed her door, and I ponder how to repair the damage of this first encounter. A bristling cactus, with a red ribbon tied around one arm, towers like a sentry in front of the white stucco of the Spanish-style house. Hers? Must be. She’s fierce, but I count on dark powers from another dimension. Dark here meaning the shadow cast by a bright light. Shadow’s really the evidence of light, if you think about it.

The street is quiet except for my terrible tune. A flock of parrots stirs up a cacophony overhead, and I chuckle to myself to imagine her shaking a fist at their noise while she’s settling into her yoga.

As brutal as her tirade was, it felt impersonal. She didn’t seem to realize the cruel truth of her words. I know how to hide my real voice, and I can fake pleasant as well as anything. So I guess she didn’t know me yet.

Now a flicker catches my eye at the window of her house. Her middle finger. Message received: I’ve waited too long.

Let her steam. Let her drive out the joy of the neighborhood. I know exactly how to take vengeance. I’ll steer clear of the area for the next few weeks, let her cool down, but I will be back.


My confession is prepared, if the time comes. It was the aliens, they came to me and took my body away, and they gave me these pellets, and they said I’d have to spread them somehow, my responsibility, no other options. They said the younger ones have to consume them. They were eggs, alien eggs, but they promised they’d be harmless. It was like an experiment, some alien scientists wanted to grow up inside some kids. The eggs were like clones of them, so they would just live the child’s life, and that was it. The kid would be happy, carefree, grow up, get a job, make a family, live and die. The kid wouldn’t know the difference.

That comes from an early draft. Side question. Why must the extras always pretend to be benevolent? They must be an extension of my good persona.

I expect espionage in my line of work. Loyalty and complete honesty are precious. To be sure of either one, you have to understand, deeper than my surface motivations, what I really value and where I devote my energy. Consider my first contact with the extras, the first time.

They said you need our help and we need yours. We’ll give you anything you want.

And I said, can you give me dark powers? Can I be like king of the USA?

And they said, we will give you anything, as long as you do what we’re asking. It’s very important. The survival of your kind depends on it.

And I was like, whoa, back up. I’m not opposed to my kind surviving, I believe we have a few positive qualities and we’re worth saving, why would I think anything different, but uh, those are big stakes. Are you giving me the responsibility to decide the fate of my whole species?

They said yeah, what did you think, we’d ask you to sell timeshares?

I pointed out that’s a morally ambiguous venture too.

So they said look. Just get out there and sell ice cream.


“Hi there, critter,” I say. “What can I—”

“I want the blue rocket,” the girl says.

I pick it out and lean down to her. My back will never forgive me for the hundreds of times I’m forced to reach out and interact with the smaller kids. “One blue rocket. Have a good day.”

She takes the popsicle from me and peels off the wrapper like she’s in a commercial undressing a bar of luxury chocolate. I turn to the boy behind her, clutching a dollar in his grubby hands. 

“When will you be back to my house?” the girl interrupts, sweeping back a loose strand of hair. I glance at the ribboned cactus, the white stucco.

“Soon, maybe.” I keep it noncommittal, since I don’t expect to see her again. The pellets are very potent.

“I wanna see you here tomorrow,” she says.


“Pinky promise.”

“I said maybe, kid.”

“If you want me to buy your stuff again,” she threatens.

I think, wow, she’s cunning. I look closer. She does remind me of Melia, they live in the same house—if I don’t get another chance to talk to that woman, then at least I’ll have cured her girl. As I watch, the kid is just holding the popsicle to one side, and now she kneels down and starts drawing with it on the sidewalk. I swallow my gasp. What is this? She’s turned my precious ice cream into a hostage, and now it’s a game of torture to force my hand?

I won’t give this girl that kind of power. My eyes are twitching as I finish up the line of other kids, I’m almost snorting steam, watching this little brat treat my popsicle like I’d treat a stray puppy when I was growing up.

A parade of ants starts to flock to the carrion of melted blue, but I roar away in the van before I have to watch another moment of the barbarity.

But that’s not the end of it, oh no. I have to spite her, so I wait two days before I go back. She buys a cone from me, cute and prim-like as if she never threatened to boycott my goods, and just when I’m feeling smug she throws it under a passing car. No demands for me this time, just the cold-blooded murder of a perfectly good ice cream cone. My eyes roll back into my head in rage, but I take my deep breaths and drive away again. I notice there are no other repeats in the neighborhood except her, because all the other kids gobbled down their medicine. They’ll have perfect boring townhomes and happy families, because they’ve been cured of all addiction.

I’d enjoy watching her kill anything but my stuff. She doesn’t know she’s sacrificed the future of some other kid somewhere, because he’ll never get this cone, and he’ll get hooked on heroin, and spend the rest of his life in the gutter. But I absolve myself of that, and all the other fifteen ice creams she successively buries, tramples, and otherwise destroys in a montage before my disbelieving eyes. This girl is the devil’s granddaughter.


So next chance I have, I tell the extras about this ruthless kid.

And they’re like, but she doesn’t matter.

And I say no, she means everything. If she doesn’t eat this, she’ll be on drugs by the time she’s twelve.

They say but she clearly has all the discipline she needs. She has no sugar craving to eliminate. Like you said, some earth creatures are that way.

I shake my head at them. I’m like, you don’t understand human nature, you live in a different galaxy and you wear suits for cosplay. They’re not even in style today.

They’re like, you need to get your focus back and all that, cover the whole village, don’t obsess—as if that’s what I’m doing. When this girl has always been the reason for the operation, because she’s a chink in Melia’s armor.

I tell them I need to rethink my approach. If she doesn’t eat the ice cream, everything we’re doing is in vain. Your civilization and mine both collapse. There won’t be any place or people to rule over.

They say but don’t you realize how melodramatic you are. You’re passing up kids every day and you can’t get to all of them. That was never the goal. We only need a certain increase in production rates and you’re on target to make it happen. We’ve been tracking your progress.

But I say I’m just thinking about us, you and me, business partners for the future of intergalactic relations! My motives are pure. And she’s the key to this operation. Why do some take the risk when others never will. Some fall prey and others prey on the prey. Some escape but others are trapped forever. We should take a closer look at this one.

And they’re like, you’re getting sidetracked. We will take you off this project. No more shipments.

So I clam up, but I’m already planning to disobey them. The blind fools. They’re just minions to me. They exist to advance my plans to reach my destiny.


The extras come to me during my meditation sessions, when I am communing with the high powers beyond. I go into these Lucid Space Dreams by taking an elixir that opens my mind to connect with the powers, who always appear to me as bug-eyed aliens in suits. They show me futures and send me messages from another galaxy. I assume it’s because they detect my charisma, determination, and affinity for power.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re smart enough to see through the acronym, and you think I’m just another addict myself. 

Now would I lie? If I present to you a different persona that is dear to my heart, would you say I’m lying to you? No. We celebrate actors who really immerse themselves in a role. They may be charlatans in their private lives, but that doesn’t make the performance a lie.

My drug days are past. I burned them with the old career. I’m smart; I’m careful. I know I can’t endure more than one of these sessions every couple of months, so I shut them out at all other times. I don’t have the money for huge supplies of elixir, and I don’t spend more than I have. Though I am an angel in this world, I am still beholden to utility bills and dental checkups.


The girl’s name, I learn, is Liz.

I have tried bribing her with cash, twenty bucks to eat one little peanut butter ball, but she said she wouldn’t take gifts from strangers. I pointed out that I wasn’t a stranger if she saw me once a week, and I tried modifying the terms, but in vain. The girl is unbreakable.

Except I refuse to accept that. The other day I finally managed to convince a kid to try the peanut butter balls. He was the last of a line of brothers to taste my goods, and wouldn’t you know it, he didn’t even finish the bag before he was cured of all craving forever. I watched him toss it in the garbage before he’d turned the corner.

By now some of these neighborhoods are slim pickings, and I’ve heard complaints from other drivers. They aren’t working for the extras, that’s clear enough.

“Liz, I want to make you a deal,” I say, propping my chin on a cupped hand.

“Mom says you’re just a creepy old putty fire,” she tells me. She’s wearing sunglasses and sitting cross-legged on a plastic lawn chair, flipping through a magazine that she holds upside-down. The shadow of the cactus falls over her. The ribbon flutters in a soft breeze.

“A what?”

“Mommy doesn’t like strangers,” she says.

“She is so right,” I say. “Anyone else could be a bad person. But I’m good. I’m on your side. I don’t care if you smash my ice creams without a lick of guilt. I don’t get mad.”

She giggles at me.

Of all the impunity— But I am cool, cool is my last name, the air I drink, excuse me, cool is my cone of cream, you get the idea.

“I don’t get mad,” I repeat. “You still think I’m a stranger. I can work with that. I will make you anything you want. Whatever you can dream up, hot or cold, crunchy or soft, green or purple, I can make it special for you. What’s your favorite thing to eat in the world?”

“I like cake,” she says.

“What kind of cake?”

“Chocolate. With strawberries, and green frosting, and fairy dust, and toasty peanuts!”

I don’t stymie her enthusiasm. “I’ll make you a cake as big as your face for one dollar. And you can eat it all by yourself and you don’t even have to tell your mom about it.”

And when I bring back a beautiful cake the next week, mixed and baked with ten pellets so it will take effect with just one bite, she takes one sniff and tells me that there’s no fairy dust in it. I point at the glittering sprinkles and say it’s right there! Sparkly! I caught the fairies in my backyard and they danced over the cake until it was covered in magical dust. Also notice the strawberries, the green, the chocolate, the toasty peanuts. But she sticks out her tongue.

“I hate strawberries,” she says.

I force all my self-control into a broad grin. “Just have a lick of the frosting. You’ll be happy forever. The fairies did it for you, Liz. Think of the fairies.”

“I don’t smell any fairy dust,” she insists.

“That’s fine,” I tell her, and I go before she can desecrate my baked creation. 

I am peace incarnate, the definition of peace, my middle name, I tell myself as I rumble through traffic. I am an angel.


“You changed your tune,” says the lady, with narrowed eyes and crossed arms.

“I have to find new customers somehow,” I say. “You’re back for sherbet?”

She dips her head, moves in close, and passes the money to me. It’s this gesture that I recognize most of all. A habit. Money used to mean nothing to her, but it’s meaningful now, but she still doesn’t like letting people around see the exchange. Even if it’s only ice cream, so innocent.

“You shouldn’t indulge my daughter,” she says, stripping off the paper and wolfing down the treat inside. She barely cares what she’s eating. I see where the daughter gets it.

“I don’t give her the money,” I say. 

“She earns it. She can choose how to spend it.”

“So she grinds it into the asphalt for fun.”

“Well, she’s been throwing food since she was a baby. Never grew out of it. I wish she wouldn’t, but if that’s her pleasure, then it’s the same as eating it, don’t you think? I’ve noticed she’s your only loyal customer on this street.”

“The girl’s thrown my ice cream at other cars twice. She’ll cause a crash.”

Your ice cream? I’m sorry, you can’t call something yours after you’ve sold it.”

“I think she hasn’t been raised right.” The accusation slips from my mouth before I can censor it.
Melia is about to retort, but her eyes widen and she pulls back. I’m a bit unnerved myself, and I also pull back, into the shadow, away from the harsh summer sun. But I see it’s too late. She knows she knows me.

“Don’t come back,” she says, clipping the words. She’s furious and aching and afraid. My fault. “After all this time! You won’t poison her too.”

The door slams again, so hard the cactus shivers, and I slump to the floor, defeated.


Weeks pass, the days darkening. The extras don’t say anything about the different tune, which might mean anything. I am facing the low point, and my choice now will decide the outcome. Finally I make up my mind. One way or another, I will hurt. I call an unscheduled conference and tell the extras point blank, “You’re not welcome here anymore.”

“Excuse you?”

“You don’t belong,” I insist. “We’ve been together for years making this plot come alive, but now I’ve met with destiny, and you didn’t get the role. I have other people in my life.”

“Other people,” they sneer. “Are you delusional?”

“I have been, but they are now the most real thing I have. Had. Still have. This is my chance to bring them back, but to do that I have to let you go. They’re worth more than empires to me.”

“What do you think this is, a romance?” they say. “You think you’ve reached the third-act crisis? ‘It’s not you, it’s me. I have to leave you for both our sakes.’ Yes, we know the formulas.”

“My old career is dead. I’ve clung to ideas like you as if I could resurrect the glory days. So yes, we are breaking up. Our work has rescued hundreds of kids from themselves and I bet you’ll see them writing scripts and filming movies to keep the peace way out yonder. That’s all you ever wanted, but for me you were always an excuse. A piece of nostalgia to encourage my quest.”

They are quiet, their eyes glowing, and I snap the curtains shut to block their image, beamed in from outside. But their voice persists: “Consider again your decision. We have power and influence you don’t even imagine.”

“You can’t control me across the universe,” I say.

“Can’t we?”

I shake my head. They will disappear as always, and I will not contact them again. 

Fading to an echo, they warn me, “You haven’t seen the last of us. Watch your back. This is just the beginning.”

“You’re not real! You’re just static on the radio and shadows on the wall. I made you into characters and I can unmake you just the same. You’re scattered sequences in a draft without options. I won’t spend the rest of my life in development hell. I choose my family.”

Only a murmur from them, and I catch just one word.


We’ll see.


A few weeks later, I come out with the truth.

“Liz, the aliens visited me. Do you know about aliens?”

“Where’s your stupid mustache?” she says.

“I’m not wearing it today. So Liz, the aliens.”

Her mouth pops wide into an O. “Do they make pizza?”

I’m used to kid logic, so I don’t miss a beat. “Yeah, and you know what else?”

“I don’t like the mushrooms,” she stage-whispers.

“That’s okay, there’s no mushrooms. Or strawberries. Instead of pizza, the aliens brought ice cream from outer space. It has special powers. Do you want powers?”

She nods slowly, her eyes sliding from side to side. “Mom said no more talking to you. She knows you’re a bad guy now.”

And like the devil, the woman appears at the gate, her eyes blazing with legendary fury.

I hit my head on the top of the customer window in my retreat. “Why, hello, ma’am,” I say, acting casual. The sweat prickling my scalp is an effect of the summer heat, nothing more.

“Liz, come inside,” the woman said. “Come on. Let’s go.”

The strong walls of my van have been a defense from the beginning. I decide they will also be my downfall unless I step out and confront my daughter directly. She’ll have my head, but I can’t leave my work unfinished. I switch off the cartoon music and unbolt the door. “Ma’am, where is your father?” I say, striking the pavement with my heavy leather boots.

She whirls on me and, catching sight of the boots, stops cold. We stare at each other, daring the other to draw first. Each of us has a dagger up the sleeve. We don’t know if the other will strike to kill.

“Mommy?” Liz says, clutching her hand.

“Go inside, Liz,” the woman says. Liz can sense the tension humming through the air. The extras themselves could be standing at my back, the way she looks at me. “Go!” her mom tells her. The little girl dashes away and shuts and locks the door.

“I was wrong when I said you didn’t raise her right,” I said.

The woman wrenches her gaze away from the boots to meet my eyes, my very dry, calm, emotionless eyeballs.

“You think a few tears will heal all the hurts?” she snaps, her voice catching.

I wipe away a sting of sweat. “I have no tears for you, madam. You are the offender between us.”

“My dad, always playing the villain,” she groans. But I see the sad smile hiding inside her mouth.

“It’s an act, Melia.”

“Is it?”

“Of course!” I jut my chin towards the door where my granddaughter has gone. “I didn’t want her scared. I just wanted her safe. I didn’t want to scare you either, letting you think I was some creepy old…whatever fire.”


“Ah…that makes sense.”

“You never could give up your losses. Me, your career, everything.”

“Yes, I know I’m a deadbeat and a failure. I’d hardly even call myself an actor these days. But I’ve made myself the star of my own screenplay, with the role I always wanted. The dark lord Titanius, ruler of forty stars, crusher of worlds.” I strike a dramatic pose. 

“Titanius died in the last movie,” Melia reminds me.

“This one’s a prequel. I make contact with aliens who give me the technology to enslave millions, and they send me on a mission to rove the city rescuing children from addictions. The catch is…” I falter. “I don’t know what the catch is. I don’t know the climax. I’m still hammering out the details. Titanius was an evil character, but I was thinking… I wouldn’t mind seeing a reboot, all these years later. Titanius could start over as a different person.”

“What about his dark past? Will people forget that so quickly?” She raises an eyebrow. I can see that she’s beginning to relax her defensive posture.

It’s been almost twenty years since I drove Melia out. I don’t know her anymore. My story keeps tumbling out in a rush, because I don’t know how else to handle this moment. So long I searched the streets, and my daughter’s been living in a house. She’s cleaned herself up. She has a kid.

“I’m reinventing him,” I say, “telling a new story. It’s a comedy space opera political action thriller with some horror and possible romance worked in, made in a documentary style. I want it to be convincing. I practice the part all the time. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane under the hot sun with only chilled treats and spoiled children for company. In the story I’m filling the treats with an antidote for addiction. The extras—the aliens—have their reasons, and I have mine. The real reason for the operation—” I hesitate. Can I tell her this? Will she believe it?

I never wanted to hurt people. The only way to become big, bad, and powerful was onscreen, as a villain. Titanius is me, but not me. The extras are a device, part of the theatrics. You just have to suspend your disbelief.

Let’s revisit the promise they made to me, one more time. The secret wish in my dark, dark heart. What do you wager it was? Riches, lordship, power over death? Those would be fair guesses. But no. If you paid attention, I gave you my real motivations.

Melia is my daughter. My partner used to abuse her and that was the root of our breakup years ago. But that’s not important. What is important, this daughter was hooked on sugar last I knew, out on the streets because of heroin. She was a hole in the plot, a loose end. I knew she was alive because she’d send me postcards once in a while. I didn’t want to be the bad guy. I wished I could break her addiction, every addiction, forever. That can’t happen in real life, but I was an actor and in the movies it’s all possible. It feels real. So real I hardly know how to disentangle Titanius or the extras from my life. I’ve played Titanius for so long, I almost am Titanius. But all the time, I was driving towards my daughter. Remember what I said when I introduced myself? She alone can end my story. Together we stand and conquer the problems of the past.

I find the words again, and tell her. “Driving the ice cream truck, I’m anonymous. Untraceable. An angel who comes and disappears. It pays the bills, but Melia…from the beginning, I was searching for my daughter and hers. The ice cream truck was my way to find you.”

“Did you consider I might not want to see you again?” she demands.

I hang my head. “I figured. I thought you were ashamed.”

“Of you,” she says. “Both of you.”

“You should be,” I say. “I sent you away because you were shooting up after I told you it would wreck your life, and I’ve learned now that it was the worst thing I could have done. For two years I thought you were dead. I was terrified.”

“I almost was,” she whispers.

“Then you sent me the postcard from Hawaii. It told me nothing except you were out there, and I started hoping. A few months later, another one from Egypt. Then Japan, New York, Panama.”

“Chicago and Tahiti,” she adds.

“I figured you either won the lottery or lived on the streets, probably in L.A. I knew my acting had flopped. You mentioned a pregnancy in one of your postcards. So I bought the van, I disguised myself as the ice cream truck man, and for four terrible years I drove all around L.A. to find you. At first I couldn’t believe it when I saw you again here, with this good house and a job and yoga and your adorable brat of a girl. You beat the craving. I’d done it twice before, and I knew how hard that was. But I kept coming back, until now.”

She gives me a long, measured glare—more of a welcome than I’d hoped for.

At that point the speaker perched over my van screeches to life. We both grit our teeth and clamp hands over our ears. It passes in a moment. As the van quiets, we lower our hands.

I swallow. “Did I explain my inspiration for that screenplay?”

“I know all about Titanius.”

I shake my head. I’m not superstitious, but that timing has me unnerved. It’s just a fluke of the sound system. Of course. I turn to her. “There’s a little more to the story. Melia, please, don’t think of me as the bad guy.”