The last ice cream truck operating on the New West Coast began to cough and sputter just as it rolled past the town limit sign for Cave Junction.
Inside the truck’s cabin, Cal and her little sister, Roz, scanned their respective sides of the street for a gas station. This would have been a simple task ten years ago, but for reasons Cal could never fathom, after the nation experienced its first run of catastrophes, people across the country got it in their heads it would be a good idea to tear down the tall gas station signs. Same kind of people who kick in public restroom stall doors. Made no sense.
Cal shot a hand out to kill the A/C, and when her sister opened her mouth to protest, she only shook her head.
“What?” Roz asked.
“Don’t start up with me about the air.”
“But Cal, it’s sooo hot.”
Roz had just turned eleven, and Cal was convinced that with her sister’s latest trip around the sun, her whining capabilities had grown exponentially.
“I know it’s hot,” Cal said. “It’s always hot, and it’s only going to keep getting hotter, but I told you we have to be smart about the A/C. Otherwise, we end up in situations like this. Now roll down your window so we at least get the cross-breeze going.”
Roz rolled her eyes at her big sister, but complied all the same. At 14, Cal had three years experience on her, and as such her words carried a little more weight.
With a final gasp the engine quit.
Cal shifted to neutral, hoping to coast another 1/4 mile out of the old truck. With the motor’s death knell, Cal also heard the freezer in the back shut off, and this concerned her significantly more. Their few remaining gallons of ice cream were no doubt starting to melt already.
“C’mon,” Cal said. “There’s got to be one nearby.”
“There!” Roz shouted pointing to Cal’s side of the street. “Half a block up.”
“Got it,” Cal said.
She swung the ice cream truck into a Shell station, and berthed it at the closest pump.
Roz grinned. “That was close.”
An older man, his hair a swirl of white, emerged from the station in flip flops, shorts, and a tank top. He held a shotgun in his hands.
“What do you have?” he called across the pumps.
“A gallon of pistachio,” Cal said.
At this, the man relaxed, lowered his weapon, and invited the sisters inside.
Roz grabbed the gallon from the freezer with haste, doing her best to keep as much of the cold air trapped inside.
Cal took the knife from her boot and tucked it into the waistband at her back, then picked up her short club.
“You ready?” she asked Roz.
The younger sister nodded and tucked the gallon of ice cream under her arm like a receiver protecting the football.
“Let’s go,” Cal said, and slid the driver’s door open. When she and Roz were through, she checked and double checked to ensure the door was locked.
There were so few items on the shelves inside the store, it was hard for Cal to believe this man was trying to sell anything at all. She and Roz walked back to the restroom together, and when they saw that it was empty, Roz went inside, while Cal took the ice cream to the front to haggle.
She set the gallon on her side of the counter just out of where the man could reach if he tried to make a move.
“When was this made?” the man asked.
“Last week,” Cal said.
The man held up a spoon. “May I?”
Cal nodded and pried the lid off the top, then watched as the man shaved a sliver of the green ice cream from the surface. He closed his eyes and a slight smile touched the corners of his mouth.
“I haven’t had pistachio ice cream in over five years,” the man said, “and it’s probably the best I’ve ever eaten.”
Cal didn’t know if this was really the best pistachio ice cream this gun-toting, flip-flop wearing, gas station proprietor had ever eaten, but in an era where most of the geography could now be classified as a desert wasteland, and the daily average heat index seemed hell-bent on climbing, something as simple as ice cream created an opportunity for relief. In addition to always being able to trade for supplies, Cal enjoyed knowing that the ice cream she and her sister made brought people a small bit of hope and happiness one cone at a time.
“You can have the whole gallon if you’ll let us fill up the Freeze Wagon out there, and throw in some bread, eggs, and one of those gallons of milk in the cold case.”
The man scooped a heaping spoonful into his mouth, and nodded his approval, then flipped the lever to let the petrol flow.
Roz came out of the bathroom, and Cal filled her in on the deal. The two sisters gathered up their supplies.
Before leaving the store, Cal asked, “Were there any kind of restaurant or kitchen supplies stores in town?”
“Yup. Three blocks west, and you’ll see an appliance store. They sold kitchen supplies as well. What do you want with a place like that?”
“We need rock salt for our next batch,” Cal said.
“Uh huh. And what flavor is that?”
“Toffee Coffee Crunch.”
“If there’s any left the next time you pass through, I’d be happy to take some off your hands.”
Cal and Roz thanked the man, and left.
While Cal pumped the gas, Roz stowed the supplies.
When the tank was full, the sisters took off, and Roz flipped the A/C back on. Cal smiled and let her, for a moment.
As Cal navigated through the town’s jumbled and overgrown streets looking for the supply store, she flipped on the Freeze Wagon’s PA, and cued up “All Around the Mulberry Bush.”
And when the last ice cream truck operating on the New West Coast passed by, a flock of people followed.