Yesterday, I promised you an example of a marketable vignette. This one has setting and characters, but only three words of dialogue. It has no plot, for a story problem is absent — though it does contain a kind of plot curve. See if you can find where the high point of the action is. It also has a flashback, which is common in vignettes. I believe what made it sell was the mood (which is captured in the title) and the memory-invoking details. Women’s Circle Home Cooking bought it the first time out. Can you believe it?
Yesterday afternoon I was popping ice cubes out of the tray when one of them caught my eye. At first I thought it was dirty. Closer inspection showed that it contained a small piece of wood — light brown and thin, almost a splinter — frozen tightly to the outer edge of the cube.
I stared at it, amazed, then raised the cube to my lips and tasted the ice. I was once again seven years old and standing at the curb in front of my mother’s house. The sprinkler tossed water across thirsty Bermuda grass. A trickle of sweat ran down between my shoulder blades. It was a Saturday in August, and the iceman was coming.
If he had a name, I never heard it. I’m not sure that he was even a human being. A legend would be more like it: something right up there with Paul Bunyan. One thing we knew for sure . . . he was a miracle worker. What other explanation could there be for someone who kept eggs and meat from spoiling and brought instant relief from the heat of summer?
My children don’t understand the heroics of the ice truck, but they grew up in the generation of refrigerators and air-conditioned houses and will have to be excused. Perhaps, pitied. How sad to be able to flip a switch or turn a dial for almost anything you want, but not to be able to remember the days when happiness was a stolen chunk of ice, covered with wood splinters, but cool on the tongue, delightfully rubbed inside the elbow, and squealingly horrible when dropped down the back.
Ralph Peabody was best at ice thieving. He was the minister’s son, which made him champion of lots of things, all forbidden by his father. He had the ability to steal an icy sliver and get it down an unsuspecting neck without taking his hands out of his pockets. Or so it seemed.
It was easy to tell where the ice truck would stop because of the four-cornered signs hung in conspicuous places in neighborhood windows. The squares were large, with 10, 25, 50, and 100 printed in the corners and Union Ice Company in fancy letters down the middle. Whatever number was up was what you got. That kind of thing appealed to Ralph right off the bat. It was too great a challenge to pass up. A quick flick of the Peabody wrist, and Mrs. Morganthau served warm cocktails at her Saturday night dinner party, while, next door, Elmira Browne’s milk froze solid on the top shelf.
At least, that’s what we hoped would happen. In reality, I suspect that the iceman had eyes in the back of his head and a lot of wisdom besides. He let us have our fun and made his deliveries as usual. Otherwise, Ralph Peabody would have been on permanent restriction.
The ice truck itself was nothing fancy. It couldn’t compete with those earlier horse-drawn wagons with colorful signs, as gaily decorated as Gypsy carts. But even without the artistry, there was something magic about the canvas-covered truck that clattered down Main Street, leaving a dotted trail of cold water trailing behind. In those post-depression years, it was the high point of childhood mornings. Two beeps on his horn, and the iceman became the Pied Piper of Hamlin with a dancing string of children following him down the dusty street.
Excitement grew as he pulled up to the curb with a squeal of Model-T brakes. We stood in a ring and watched him throw back the canvas and reach for the long ice pick that he carried in a holster. Deftly he drove the point, again and again, jabbing with quick, crisp resonance into prescored lines until the block separated, breaking clean, with a surface that caught the sunlight and glimmered like polished glass.
Out came the thick crab-claw tongs. With our mouths opened wide, we watched him grasp the block, and, in one smooth movement, hoist the ice over his shoulder and onto the leather apron that protected his back. As soon as he was out of sight, the fun began. Like locusts, we swarmed. Stolen fruit being the sweetest, we robbed the wet, wooden floor of anything shiny and cold. We sucked the sweet juice, tasting summer goodness, clean and fragrant, better than ripe melons and more satisfying than spring water.
We had to move fast, for he was never gone long. “Here he comes!” our lookout cried, and we guiltily wiped our cold mouths on the backs of dirty hands and tried to look casual by twisting ankles around legs and draping arms around shoulders. To smile was considered a give-a-way, so we were a somber group. Innocent. Appealing. We needn’t have bothered, for I’m sure he knew. And we needn’t have stolen, for he always gave us a chip or two, free for the asking. But the iceman understood the excitement of the game. So he returned the ice pick to his holster, hung the tongs on a hook, then stood back and sternly looked us up and down. The shiver that went down my back was almost as good as the one caused by Ralph Peabody’s ice chips. It was hard not to smile, for, as often asI could, I held in my closed fist a rapidly melting, once-thick sliver of ice, to be savored for as long as I could make it last.
Ice was different in those days. Now it comes in convenient shapes from sanitary trays. It’s cool and clean, even mildly refreshing. It is frozen water. . . I’ll give it that. But there was a time when a single, stolen sliver, melting precious drops down the side of a dirt-streaked arm, reflected warm sunshine and smelled of summer roses. It eased the pain of bare feet on hot asphalt. It had the distinct, sweet taste of fresh -mown grass. It held in its wet reflection all the memories of childhood.
Reason and logic show that it couldn’t have been so. But I remember it that way. Some say ice was always better then because of the sliver of wood from the iceman’s truck. But I think it must have been a miracle. What other explanation can there be?