Mister Ice Cream Man

As a child I always patronized little as opposed to big businesses, and whenever one of these little businesses failed, I took it almost as hard as the owner did. Like the time Elaine's Homemade Ice Cream Parlor failed.

Elaine, a sprightly sixty-four, had the only place in town that recognized the bottomless stomach of a ten-year-old in summertime. Her single cones were twice as big as the double cones sold at Dairy Queen, her competitor.

And could Dairy Queen boast of anything quite like Mister Ice Cream Man? Always on view behind the slightly frosted front window in a refrigerated space called Ice Cream Land, this amazing character caught the attention of many passers-by. Nearly five feet tall, he looked like a snowman, except that he was made entirely of different-flavored ice cream. His top was vanilla, with two of the bluest blueberries I'd ever seen for eyes, a marshmallow nose, and an irresistible bing-cherry smile. His middle was butterscotch and his bottom was peach.

Never did I imagine that Elaine's business would fail, even though as summer wore on she kept losing customers to Dairy Queen and grumbling more openly about ''the little guy'' not being able to compete with ''the big sugar daddies.''

I'd always promise her, ''I'll never desert you, Elaine!'' and order another triple decker.

Then one sultry day when I went to the parlor, I found a padlock on the front door and a sign in the window which said, ''Elaine quits!!!!!'' There was such bitter finality to those five exclamation points that I almost felt as if I were reading not just her closing notice but her epitaph.

And then I saw Mister Ice Cream Man. As if to shock people into realizing what their goopy tastes were doing to ice cream with a personality, Elaine had shut the refrigeration system off and just left him there to melt.

How much he had wasted away already! His peach bottom was buckling. His butterscotch middle was shrinking. And from his vanilla top his marshmallow nose and all but one bing cherry of his smile had fallen.

Only his blueberry eyes remained intact, though slightly cockeyed. Down his cheek, flavor of blueberry and vanilla, and down mine, flavor of summer grime and salt, rolled tears of gladness to say hello again, tears of sorrow to say goodbye.

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