Please don’t laugh. I understand that, on the long list of things which most people would notice following them home, an ice-cream truck would be high on that list. If nothing else, you would think the relentless metallic jingle playing on an endless loop would alert someone to the fact that they’re being tailed. I have no excuse. Maybe I’m just remarkably unobservant.
Regardless of what I should or should not have done, regardless of what happened after and what will happen next, however, the fact remains that I DIDN’T notice right away. The fact remains that it wasn’t until nearly dusk, when I had just completed a run consisting of a few measly miles, when I was faced, sadly, with the long trek home, that I became aware of the truck on the very edge of my peripheral vision. It was a Jack and Jill truck, I can tell you that much; the same popsicles on the side that have been advertised since I was a frequent long-ago customer of the mobile confectioner, the same transmission wheezing and spitting its way down a suburban cul-de-sac as it narrowly misses (yet again) running down its forty-inch patrons.
There’s something both ironic and completely understandable about craving ice cream while running. My exciting journey into the world of masochism that is jogging was born of a need to eliminate the cottage cheese into which my rear end had turned since the end of college. We all have body image issues, of course, but mine had ballooned over the past five years, having discovered hard alcohol, mini bagel pizzas, and the munchies. Come to think of it, there’s probably some correlation between that last nasty habit that I’ve picked up and have yet to break, and the physical fitness hiatus under which I’ve been operating for the past few years. Nevertheless, exercise always makes me yearn for sugar and fat, absolutely belying the whole purpose of running in the first place.
I reveal this horrible dark side of my appetite to explain why I was originally somewhat tickled to learn that the portable ice cream truck, my childhood friend and adult nemesis, had returned to my neighborhood. Maybe I would wait on my front stoop after my run, an eager child marking the onslaught of summer by the familiar sight of that most anachronistic object – particularly in the face of our current obsession with all things frozen yogurt. Even better, maybe I would make my husband do it.
I had been listening to Jesus Christ Superstar on my iPod while I attempted to sprint the last incline of my route – something about upbeat musicals illustrating the persecution of our Lord and Savior really motivate me towards greater speed. Given that I am not now, nor have I ever been, much of a runner, it is somewhat understandable that I was focused more on my own extreme physical discomfort than my surroundings; usually by the time I’ve reached this gradual upward slope spanning the half mile between the highway and the train station, I am doing everything in my power not to vomit from exertion. The remainder of my energy is usually wasted for vanity’s sake, as I attempt to look reasonably fit and not winded to the point of cardiac arrest for the viewing pleasure of the evening commuters driving past my pathetically slow pace.
They say running is supposed to get easier with time – stamina increases, metabolism stabilizes, muscles grow more streamlined and efficient. I find that to be utterly absurd. If anything, it gets harder and harder each day. The first day, you’re so out of shape that you can barely make it around the block. The second day, you’re in such pain from the first that you cover even less distance. The third day, you’re incapacitated from running on the second day’s sore muscles, and so on and so on. Moral of the story, don’t let yourself get so unfit that you’re winded descending the stairs in your building before you even start the entire process.
In retrospect, I think I was subconsciously aware of the truck for quite some time, but the crude loudspeaker version of Pop Goes the Weasel had been mixing with Andrew Lloyd Weber so precisely that nothing appeared out of the ordinary from an auditory perspective. It was only after I reached the top of the hill, only after I had slowed to a walk and could barely hear the music through my headphones over the sound of my own panting, that I was struck by the length of time this ice cream truck had been in my range of hearing. I wasn’t alarmed, though, until I had completed my cool-down circumnavigation of the block.
It was at that point, once my breathing had slowed and the adrenaline was gradually draining from my system, once there was no other stimulus to divert my attention, that the instincts responsible for my personal safety began to mutter with increasing levels of volume. If I wasn’t mistaken, the truck had actually followed me around the perimeter of the block in its entirety, and it was the realization of this fact that set off the first explosions of panic. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle as I attempted to glance nonchalantly over my shoulder; it was still there, trailing me at a distance of three or four car lengths, matching the leisurely pace to which I had slowed. The setting sun reflected off the windshield in such a way that it appeared tinted, like the windows of a Cadillac transporting a drug boss between his various clandestine appointments. I could see nothing of the truck’s interior – but, as I turned back, the cheerful jingle was abruptly cut and a deafening silence filled the rapidly darkening and abandoned neighborhood.
The very first thought to rebound through my skull was that humanity’s sense of preservation is an amazing byproduct of evolution. I’m of the school of thought that extrasensory perception is complete bunk, the idea of which is up there with astrology, phrenology and alien visitors brandishing anal probes. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice that the human race possesses something which alerts us to danger, which allows us to perceive a threat, however small, and automatically react defensively. I guess this is the definition of intuition, the absolute knowledge in the face of a dearth of empirical data that something is nonetheless amiss.
All this was running through my head in the split second between the cessation of the ice cream truck’s tinny soundtrack and my decision to make haste. Images of abducted children on milk cartons flooded my brain, stories of Ted Bundy’s contrived injuries to lure civic-minded college girls into a terrible demise, search crews recovering pieces of prostitutes in sodden garbage bags dumped into dry river beds. I decided it would be wise to forsake all hope of a relaxing walk back to my apartment and pick up the pace.
Abandoning all pretense of ignorance, I cut across a well-manicured lawn between two identical multi-story boxes – we are all the children of the last great World War, after all, and the legacy of the American Dream in upscale Levittowns is the same in every suburb across the country – and trespassed across backyards decorated with plastic swingsets and lawn furniture as surreptitiously as possible. I could see the blue illumination that is immediately recognizable as the glow from a television through windows on either side of my vision, and felt the absurd desire to enter one of these houses as if it were my own, settling down on the couch with the happy family to watch Jeopardy. At that moment, the false security offered by the external wall separating their living room from my precarious position out-of-doors was tempting enough to risk breaking and entering charges.
Instead, I hurried down a driveway onto a poorly-lit street running parallel to the path which would lead me home. I heard only vague engine sounds from automobiles on the distant highway. Despite the darkness, I felt safer than I had since first noticing the truck in the waning sunlight. It’s amazing how thin the illusion of safety is, even when you DON’T suspect you’re being followed. All the seatbelts and vaccines in the world can’t really protect us when the chips are down, but we prefer to live in a shrink-wrapped bubble of contrived security. I was drawing closer to my apartment, though still further than I would have preferred, when I heard the revving of an engine directly behind me.
I didn’t wait to see if it was the truck I feared it to be, nor to confirm that it was once again following me. I just ran. I had been jogging earlier, attempting not to strain my already painful knees and ankles, but I didn’t even bother conserving energy this time. I galloped as fast as I possibly could, vaulting over cracks in the sidewalk and recycling bins left to lie on their sides by the curb. I dodged a child’s tricycle abandoned on the grassy median, an ominous sigil that childhood, like life – like MY life – can, does, and will come to an end. I noticed my shoelace had come untied, and, even through my fear, managed to mentally chuckle at my own misfortune. Only I would find myself in a situation successfully outrunning mortal danger, just to be felled by a ten-inch long piece of fabric.
I could hear from the downshifts in the transmission that the truck was no longer leisurely patrolling the neighborhood like an elderly Irish cop who views the safety of all the local children as his personal responsibility; it was, instead, actively giving chase, the engine grinding in an attempt to close the distance I had gained with my landscaped detour. I had thought when I finished jogging the first time that I was at the limits of my endurance – that I wouldn’t be able to do much more than collapse supine in front of the new Netflix while the aches and pains of my body diminished to a dull roar.
I was mistaken; it turns out I had energy reserves that I was not even aware existed. I found myself running at full speed for longer than I have ever been able to sprint, the increasing pain in my joints pushed back to the furthest corner of my concern. My chest was on fire, my legs were on fire, my throat was on fire and the air I barely had time to exhale felt roughly the temperature of the interior of a closed car at noon in the dead of July. There didn’t appear to be any oxygen whatsoever in that which I was struggling to inhale through a wide open mouth – a very bad running habit, indeed. I could feel the lactic acid building in my muscles as quickly as bubbles in a sink of suds when the faucet is turned on. And, still, it was right behind me; I could hear it; I could feel it. I imagined I felt the exhaust on the backs of my aching calves, the carbon monoxide surrounding my head like a cloud. A vision came to me of my body crushed under the wheels of a two-ton vehicle, my bones ground to dust and my internal organs squeezed like blood oranges before a homemade breakfast.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to run for your life? Not the treadmill, not a footrace with an arrogant opponent, but running to salvage your very being? The adrenaline is like heroin, an all-encompassing chemical whirlwind filling all the crevices of your little toes and intestines and amygdala, suffocating the natural instinct to stop in the face of pain. It’s running for your future children, the promotion you’ll get if you can just put up with your boss for another year, ice cream sundaes and Sunday Night Football and all the cumulative sex you’ll have for the rest of your life. It’s the most literal interpretation of Survival of the Fittest, Darwin running at your heels letting you know that you’re done for unless you can outpace all the species gunning for your demise.
I never thought I would be in that situation, and, being in that situation, I never would have believed I could keep up such a desperate dash as fear licked at my brain like waves over a levee. You learn that you have the ability to be surprised by yourself. You learn that you’re stronger than you ever imagined, even as you’re overcome by a bone-weary weakness unrivaled in your personal history. You run, and, through the agony, there’s almost an exhilaration – the knowledge that whatever else might be out of your control, you have the power to determine your own destiny.
I was vaguely aware of a blackness at the outskirts of vision as I finally reached the street on which the entrance to my apartment is located; my brain was literally starving for oxygen. I knew I had only seconds to reach the safety of my apartment if I wasn’t to keel over on the sidewalk, at the mercy (or lack thereof) of whomever it was trying to run me down. There are eight steps leading to my front porch and the door with its heavy steel bolt; I took them two at a time, tripping on the sixth as the strength in my legs failed me and my knees broke my fall against the wooden slats. My brain was screaming at me to get up, to get my feet back under myself and run the few lengths into the safety of the foyer, but I had lost both the energy and the will to run any further. I examined the scraped skin of my kneecaps without sparing a glance at the street behind, streams of blood beginning to run down my shins and onto the pinkening dam of my white socks, patiently waiting for my pursuer to finally, successfully, capture its prey. A full second passed, and then another, without the touch of the calloused hands I fully expected to be closing on my throat; and still I heard the truck, heard the emphysemic idling of its engine directly behind me. Finally, in a moment of courage born of a desire to end the suspense of mortal fear, I struggled to my feet and turned around to face that from which I had been running.
The driver’s seat was empty. The doors remained closed, the engine continued to run, but there was no one in the truck.
It’s still out there now, even an hour later. It has, for the most part, remained immobile in front of my apartment, blocking the occasional bit of traffic that is consequently forced to drive into the opposing lane in order to get around it. About fifteen minutes ago, I watched it drive slowly down the street and away from my window, only to circle the block and pull back into the same position of patient observation. I’m reminded of a cat lounging by the mouse’s hole in the wall, presumably under the guise of napping in the sunlight, with the actual intention of ripping the poor rodent limb from limb the second it ventures out for much-needed sustenance. Occasionally, the chimes will begin to play again or the headlights will flicker before the truck lapses back into a sensory deprived state of silence and ominous gloom.
For the most part, though, it seems completely abandoned, like the temporary parking job of a thoughtless neighbor who needs only to run into his home for a moment at the expense of the drivers behind him. I wonder if that’s why no one has noticed my current predicament – why no one has come to help me yet. I’m scared to even consider rescue, to be honest. Who am I to wish someone into the precarious position in which I found myself during my desperate escape to the relative shelter of my unprotected home? Does it want anyone, or is it just me? What could I possibly have done to attract the malice of a man-made, supernaturally possessed, self-refrigerating ice cream truck?
I hope my husband comes home soon. I hope he sees the text I left telling him to use the back door.
Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her son and her soulmate, who keep things from descending into cat-lady territory. She is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy who now writes fiction and has no use for a philosophy degree. Shannon harbors an unhealthy interest in Game of Thrones, Nietzsche, Mount Everest, and the Summer Olympics. Her work can be found on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Scary Mommy, Spelk Fiction, Vagabond City Lit, and a variety of other publications. Connect with her on Twitter: @mrsgreenstein