About a year before the summer of ice cream began, my father called Tayo and me into the living room and told us that he would be leaving his job at the Kodak plant in Salt Lake City. He asked us to sit on the couch and he sat down next to us, and then he stood up and sat down again. With tears in his eyes, he told us that he had walked into his office, laughing with a coworker about something or other, and then he saw it: a crude drawing hanging by a red thread from the side of his cubicle. Someone had drawn a picture of my father with his facial features greatly exaggerated and blood dripping from the extra-wide nose. The drawing was meant to be a representation of my father, an effigy, but he said the thing actually resembled an evil monkey.
Tayo and I glanced at each other as Dad spoke, and then Tayo stared down at the yellowing carpet. I could not help but shake my head. Though we were both scared, and angry, we weren’t really surprised: We had heard different versions of this speech before. This was just the latest in a long series of job disappointments for him.
We knew that things had been easier for Dad once. At other times, in other settings, Dad had regaled Tayo and me with stories about happier moments in his life. He would tell us how, as a young student in Nigeria almost fifteen years before, he had applied to a college in Utah on a whim, a school no one in his family had heard of, and how he’d learned shortly afterward that he’d been awarded a full scholarship. How his new school, Davis State University, had sponsored his trip to Utah, and covered the airfare for his new bride as well. How—unlike his siblings, his friends, and almost everyone he knew—he had received a visa to travel to the United States on his first visit to the American Embassy in Lagos. How he had arrived in America with the belief that his American dream was already coming true.
But my father often says that his life began to unravel the moment his feet touched American soil. In relatively quick succession, his wife became pregnant, and then she became ill. Mom began to see things that weren’t there, to speak with people who did not exist. Dad had to drop out of school to take care of her and his newborn son. Another son soon followed. At this point, Dad found work wherever he could: He worked as a janitor at an amusement park, and then as a street sweeper, and then as a security guard. At first, each job seemed to present him with a host of possibilities, a chance to move up and make his mark in America, but then, inevitably, disappointment would follow. Sometimes he was laid off without explanation, and other times he quit because he was tired of being bullied. A threatening note left on his desk. An ugly word flung at his face. My mother returned to Nigeria somewhere in the middle of this, to rest and recover, and she promised Tayo and me that when she returned she would be back to her old self. We never saw her again.
I still remember the day when Dad came home, so excited that it seemed like he was blushing, and told us that he had been hired by Kodak. Dad told us that the job didn’t pay very much, but that he would get to wear a suit and tie every day. I remember being in awe of the idea that my father would actually have to dress up to go to work, instead of wearing one of the gray, drab jumpsuits that lined his musty closet. I helped Dad iron his favorite brown suit the night before his first day, the one with the missing top button and the small tear in the middle of the right sleeve. The next morning, I felt so proud of him that I lingered in the car after he pulled up in front of my school, and I smiled at him like my face could do nothing else. Even though I’d spent my entire life in America, at that moment I felt as if we had all just arrived and that everything was about to change.
After leaving Kodak, my father quickly found another job at a shop in Layton called Layton Rental. The place was filled with an assortment of machines that could be rented for varying periods of time. Dad seemed happy there, and he always answered the phone when I called:
“Hello, Layton Rental. Wale speaking!”
Sometimes I called just to hear his voice. He always sounded cheerful, even if he’d left home carrying sorrow in his eyes:
“Hello, Daddy! Can I have a lawn mower please?”
“Yes, for how long?”
“I only need it for a couple minutes.”
“Okay, that’s fourteen million dollars.”
“Daddy! I only have seven cents!”
“Okay, I will give you the Akinola discount. We will hold it for you. When are you coming?”
Tayo and I loved talking with Dad’s coworkers whenever he took us to the shop, and we loved staring at the machines. Lawn mowers, riding lawn mowers, chain saws, all sputtering, oil-filled contraptions. They all seemed exotic at the time, even when my father turned a key or pulled a string or pressed a button to summon them to life. He always had a fun story when he came home, sometimes about an especially boorish customer, other times about a power drill he had repaired against all odds.
After a few months, though, my father began to come home angry. He told us he had decided that his accent was preventing him from getting ahead.
I had never heard him complain about his accent before. I didn’t really know what an accent was. I knew Dad’s voice was different—he didn’t speak like my teachers or the social workers who occasionally stopped by our house to check up on Tayo and me after Mom returned to Nigeria—but in my mind the difference was a positive one. His voice sounded royal to me; I thought he had the kind of voice that everyone wanted, that through effort or fate, or perhaps a combination of both, he’d been blessed with a deep, forceful voice that instantly marked him as someone who was important.
Dad felt otherwise. At home he began to slam the phone down after repeating the same word four or five times to the person—always an American—on the other end. And then there was his charge to Tayo and me as we sat around the dinner table with him one evening:
“Look here, be proud that you have an American accent,” he said, calmly, icily. “People can say anything they want about the way you look, about your skin. But if you learn to speak better than them, there is nothing they can do. They cannot prevent you from moving ahead. Remember, everyone in this country is a racist. Even me. But if you learn to speak good, no one can hold you back.”
Dad began to make us watch the evening news every night so we’d learn how to speak what he called “professional English.” I began to notice the differences.
My father said “chumorrow,” and the white, well-coifed hosts said “tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, negotiations begin.”
“Tomorrow, the president will meet with the grieving families.”
“Tomorrow, the cease-fire goes into effect.”
My father said “haboh” instead of “harbor.” He said “biro” instead of “pen.” He said “paloh” instead of “living room.” My second-grade teacher asked me where my homework was the day I forgot to bring it to school.
“I left it in my paloh, on the couch.”
I looked, confused, at my classmates, who tittered around me.
“My paloh. With the TV, couch, rug…”
My teacher smiled in recognition.
“Oh. You mean your ‘living room.’ Okay, that’s fine. Don’t forget to bring it in tomorrow. And try to remember, when you’re at school, it’s a ‘living room.’ ”
I burned with shame, then anger. Years later, I finally figured out that my father was saying “parlor.”
Over time, I realized that an American would have to pass through two rooms before reaching my father’s living room. First she would have to walk through a room of accent, a room brimming with thickets of syllables that were being twisted against their natural purpose. Then she would have to walk through a room crammed with old-world British terms. Weighty, abstracted words that my father had learned as a student in Nigeria in the 1950s, words that mean almost nothing in Britain today, and mean even less in America. And if she was patient enough to pass through both rooms, without even knowing what she was searching for, there was a chance she would happen upon the destination, the place my father had mentioned many moments before. Was it worth the effort? For some, yes. To others, though, my father didn’t know what he was talking about. He was to be ignored.
On a warm fall Saturday in 1991, just a few months after he started working at Layton Rental, my father asked Tayo and me to put on our church clothes and get in the car. We drove swiftly down the shining highway with our windows open, as if through a corridor of wind and gold, and arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport an hour later. Dad smiled sadly as he left the car, and he told me to move to the backseat. That evening we returned home with a new mother, a tall, beautiful, stately woman we had never seen before. Her two sons came with us. They smelled of old luggage. Femi looked to be a bit younger than Tayo, about seven or so. Ade was all of two or three.
Just like that we were a family. The rest of our lives began to happen so quickly that Tayo and I didn’t have much of a chance to ask Dad who our new mom was, or how he had met her. We never got to ask him why things had to change.
After resting for a week, my stepmother—Tayo and I called her Mom because Dad insisted—began to leave the house every morning in order to find work. She had a nursing degree from a college in Lagos, and she was concerned that she would have a hard time securing a job in America because of her foreign academic credentials. She needn’t have worried. She found a job in less than two weeks, at St. Paul’s Hospital—the biggest in town—and Femi, Tayo, and I soon discovered (by huddling near our parents’ bedroom door as they argued quite loudly one evening) that Mom’s salary was substantially higher than Dad’s. In the days following their argument my father began to complain even more about Layton Rental, about how his accent scared everyone because he sounded like the popular stereotype of the modern, male African. I didn’t know what a stereotype was, and when I asked him he told me to be quiet and go read my books.
Dad began to deliver rousing pep talks to himself at all hours of the day, even when he was driving us to school:
“…that is the promise of this country! I must become an entrepreneur! That is my fate in this world! That is why God put me here! I am wasting my talents giving all my skill to these people! That’s why I’m not getting ahead! I must take the horn by the bulls!”
He spoke this way for many weeks, but nothing really changed.
A few months later, in the spring of ’92, when I was ten, my father woke me up early on a rainy Saturday morning and told me we had somewhere special to go. He took me to the post-office headquarters in Salt Lake City. We drove around the place until we saw the massive parking lot filled with dozens of gleaming white mail trucks; from afar they looked almost like large immobile sheep.
“My truck is there,” he said, pointing toward the lot. “Trust me, Tunde, our lives will be changing very soon.”
At the time I had no idea what he was talking about. When I asked him if he planned on becoming a mailman, he smiled but he wouldn’t answer. I thought his smile meant that I was right, and I tried to imagine him dropping letters off at the houses in our neighborhood instead of Mr. Peters, the kindly old man with the white, wispy mustache who’d been delivering our mail for years. I was suddenly scared for Mr. Peters because I didn’t want him to lose his job because of my father.
Dad told us his plan a few days later, on the Friday before our last week of school, after waking my brothers and me up and asking us to gather in the paloh.
“Today, I am beginning my life again,” he said. “I’ve quit my job at Layton Rental. I’ve purchased an old post-office truck from the government. I will turn it into an ice-cream truck. All of us will have to work together. Since you guys will be out of school in a few days, I expect that all of you will come with me when I start. We will have to work hard. If we honor what God has given us, God will honor us even more. Okay? Any questions?”
We shook our heads.
Dad smiled. He looked taller than usual, somehow, and his wide forehead was gleaming. A thin mustache sat delicately atop his upper lip.
“Okay! That’s all.”
The next morning, on Saturday, my father woke us up in his customary way. He stood in the doorway of our bedroom while the sun was still asleep and began to sing.
“Good morning, good morning, it’s time to wake up! Good morning, good morning, it’s time to wake up! Good morning, good morning, it’s time to wake up! Doo doo doo! Doo doo doo! Doo doo doo!”
We groaned as loudly as we could when we heard the opening notes, but Dad simply sang over our complaints. The song had become a permanent fixture of our mornings by then, like deep yawns and bad breath. I didn’t understand how someone could be so cheery in the morning. It was almost as if he were intentionally torturing us. When he finished singing, Tayo, Femi, and I rolled out of our beds and quickly got ready in the bathroom, all of us in the shower at the same time. Then we dried ourselves, put on our clothes, and we stood in a line in the living room, as we did every Saturday morning. Dad emerged from his room a few moments later, and he paced up and down the line. Tayo and I stood straight and tall, but we giggled under our breath—we knew Dad was harmless, that he wouldn’t punish us if it came to it. Femi stared ahead with a nervous expression, as if he were auditioning for the army. Right then I remembered how tense he’d seemed when I met him for the first time at the airport, and the way his eyes wouldn’t stop moving, as if he’d expected more than he saw, or as if what he saw was more than he could comprehend.
“Are you guys ready?”
“What are we doing today?”
“And how long will we work?”
“As long as it takes, sir!”
Satisfied, my father strode to the door and walked out, and we followed him. Outside, we saw an old postal truck and another car he hadn’t told us about. Our ancient Chrysler station wagon was gone.
We rushed to the car and huddled around it. It was a light-blue Chevy sedan. The paint shimmered in the sunlight; the car looked brand new. We danced around it, and Dad nodded.
“I bet you can’t guess how much it was,” he said, pointing at the car.
We laughed with incomprehension.
“Only five hundred dollars! The government gave me a discounted price because I bought it with the truck. Your daddy knows how to drive a bargain!”
But we were already inside the Chevy by then. I was doing some great imaginary driving on an imaginary road, Tayo and Femi pointing out imaginary landmarks as we passed. Dad allowed us to play for a few minutes but then he called us back to the mail truck. He pointed to the truck and we gathered solemnly before it.
“This is our future,” he said. “We must respect it.”
We knew what he was actually saying; “respect” had mysteriously become a synonym for “clean like crazy” since our stepmother and stepbrothers had arrived from Nigeria. So we trudged into the garage and grabbed a few pails and sponges and followed Dad to the back of the truck. He turned a handle on the bottom of the back door and pushed the door up with both hands. Inside it looked much as I thought it would—big and empty and dirty—except for the steering column, which was positioned on the right-hand side of the truck. There were a few grimy shelves my brothers and I had to take apart and cart into the garage, and a couple registration stickers on the windshield that we couldn’t remove despite our best efforts, but we had fun cleaning the floor and walls, occasionally blasting one another with the hose as Dad shouted directions outside. He inspected the truck when we finished, and after pointing out a few spots that we had supposedly missed, he called us into the Chevy. We drove for about fifteen minutes, past the houses of our neighborhood, then the shuttered neighborhood stores, with their broken windows and façades of peeling paint, and then past Walmart and the colossal Sam’s Club that had opened only a few weeks before. He parked in front of a large warehouse with a few trailers outside.
“Tunde, follow me inside. The rest of you behave while we’re gone.”
A youngish-looking man with red hair and porcelain skin smiled nervously as we walked in, and ushered us to a room in the back.
“I’ve been waiting for you guys! Glad you could finally make it…”
Dad ignored his unspoken question and the man shrugged and led us to an imposing door at the back of the room. He turned a wheel where a doorknob should have been and opened the door. The room exhaled frosty bursts of air all over us. We walked inside, shivering, and saw dozens of boxes piled atop one another. The man gestured to a pile of boxes off to one side.
“There’s your order, sir. All the ice cream you asked for should be there.”
My ears perked up. Ice cream?
“Thank you, sah.”
Dad pointed to the boxes and I picked up a couple and carried them back to the car. “There’s more inside,” I told my brothers, and they tumbled out of the car to help. By the time we were finished we had filled the trunk and part of the backseat with boxes of ice cream. Dad jumped in and we sped back home. Once there, we carried the boxes to the freezer in the garage. It was an old 1960s-era freezer that made a great deal of noise, sometimes a hacking cough, other times a strangling sound, but it was very cold inside. We stacked the boxes neatly without opening them, and we called Dad when we were done.
“Good job,” he said. Then he reached into the freezer and pulled a box from the middle. We gathered around him as he opened it, and we saw the tidy packages of ice cream stacked in perfect rows. Dad selected a package from the top, and we read the label aloud.
“Choco Taco,” we said, in awed unison.
Dad smiled at us. Then he lifted the package to the ceiling and blessed it. He passed a package to each of us, and we sat down in the middle of the garage to consume our treats.
Tayo and I learned early on that all junkyards are basically the same. Dad had been taking us to junkyards all over Utah since we were toddlers, and we’d grown accustomed to the sights. At the front of the entire mess is a shack that’s supposed to serve as an entryway, checkout counter, and, depending on the whims of the owner, a bar as well. Inside the shack there are car parts strewn all over the place: exhaust pipes on the counter, alternators and radiators spread across the floor, license plates everywhere. At the back of the shack there’s a door that leads to the junkyard, a gate to another land.
For each junkyard is like an unexplored planet. The terrain is always unfamiliar, the air barely breathable. There are craters everywhere, and my father moves forward carefully, scouting the path ahead before calling back and telling us it’s okay to follow. Every junkyard looks like the site of a massive industrial explosion, the secret innards of various contraptions laid out for us to see, while we roam about like post-apocalyptic scavengers searching for the parts that will make our dying car go.
There wasn’t much scavenging on this visit, though. Dad woke Tayo and me up before dawn on the first day of our summer vacation and we drove to the Middleton Junkyard in our new ice-cream truck. He asked the man behind the desk to follow us, and we walked through the industrial rubble until we came upon a long, sleek-looking freezer. Dad pointed at it.
“This is the one I want. How much?”
The man wheezed in response.
“For this? This is top of the line, yes sir. This’ll probably run you about … oh, I’d say about two hundred fifty dollars.”
“But it doesn’t work,” my father replied flatly.
“Don’t matter. She’s a looker. I could get someone to come out here and pay three hundred for her.”
Back and forth they went until they settled on a price. One hundred eighty-five dollars, and the man threw in a carburetor for free. Dad laughed long and hard after the man left to draw up our receipt.
“See? What did I tell you? I drive the best bargains in all of Utah!”
We returned home with the freezer in the back of the truck and Femi joined us in cleaning it. Femi still had a thick Nigerian accent then, and I couldn’t decide if I liked him or not. This was the era when Tayo and I were basically the same person—same speech patterns (a solid middle-American accent spackled with the occasional Nigerian-accented phrase), same walk (a loping, confident gait that we’d adapted from our father’s), and we each possessed a similar propensity for attracting occasional trouble (for various things, but we both excelled at watching television when there were dishes that needed washing). Femi’s younger than Tayo and me, but he’s our stepmother’s oldest, almost as tall as me, and back then he carried himself like a kid with responsibility. I couldn’t tell if he was acting perfect on purpose.
When we finished, Dad told us to transfer a few boxes of ice cream from the freezer in the garage to the freezer in the truck. We did as we were told, and then Femi asked him how the ice cream would stay cold since the freezer didn’t work. Dad turned around in his seat.
“Why don’t you guys trust me? I have everything covered. Are you finished?”
We nodded and Dad immediately put the truck into reverse. We drove only a few minutes, to a small house across the street from Middleton High School. Yellow paint was peeling from the exterior, and the wooden steps leading up to the porch were cracked, but the house still had a solid, dependable aura about it.
“Femi and Tunde, follow me.”
Dad knocked on the door and an older man with shoulder-length gray hair opened it. He was wearing a thin, plaid shirt and the top two buttons were undone. His gray chest hairs peeked out at us. Dad smiled and the man smiled back.
“You’re … ”
“Mr. Akinola,” Dad said.
“Ah! Nice to meet you. So just one block then?”
“Okay then, follow me.”
“Can my children watch?”
“Of course they can. Come on down here, guys!”
We followed Dad and the old man to the basement. It was dim in there, but I could see a small freezer against the far wall, and an ancient-looking upright saw with rust on the blades resting beside it. The room was otherwise bare, save for a few movie posters on the wall. I didn’t recognize any of the titles. The old man put on a pair of gloves that were resting on top of the freezer and pulled a steaming block of clouded ice from inside. He placed the ice on a tray that was attached to the saw and pressed a button at the base of it. Then he slid the ice back and forth before the screeching blade; solid slices separated themselves from the block until the block disappeared. The old man deftly wrapped each slice of clouded ice in brown paper, and he placed each slice in a large cardboard box.
“Here you go, sir,” he said, handing the box over to Dad. “Remember what I said on the phone. This’ll last you a couple days. Gotta treat it carefully. It’ll burn you.”
Dad turned to us.
“Are you listening to him? Did you hear what he said? I know you guys sometimes like to learn with your hands instead of your ears. If you don’t listen, it will be a very painful lesson!”
I had no idea why we were being reprimanded in front of a man we’d never met before. In the truck, Dad tore the paper off two of the packages and dropped the ice on the boxes in the freezer.
“What’s that?” Femi asked.
“Dry ice,” Dad said.
“But it will melt all over the ice cream, and the ice cream will get soggy,” I said.
“No. It won’t melt,” Dad said. “It will only evaporate.”
I thought he was playing a trick on us. When he turned away, I looked again at the ice in the freezer. Already the entire freezer was filling up with a thick fog. I pressed my finger to the mysterious ice, and a few seconds later I felt a stinging fire flow from the tip of my finger to the top of my arm.
I screamed. Dad whirled around and caught me with my finger on the ice. I couldn’t pull it away. He quickly opened a bottle of water that was near the gearshift and poured it over the ice until my finger came loose. I looked at my quivering finger and noticed that my skin had burned away, leaving only a red pulsating sketch of the skin that had once been there.
“What did I tell you about touching that ice, Tunde? What did I tell you?”
I hung my head in shame and Dad started laughing, booming his voice in my direction. I knew what was coming next.
“Gooooooood for yooooooou!”
My brothers laughed along with him.
Dad put the rest of the dry ice into the old freezer in the garage when we got home. Then he went inside and emerged a few moments later with a small cardboard box.
“The final step,” he said.
He opened the box and pulled out a rectangular device that had two switches on the top and a mess of wires on the bottom. I couldn’t read what was written beneath the switches because Dad took the device inside the truck and started working. We saw him battling with wires and pliers; we heard him curse occasionally under his breath. We eventually grew tired of watching him and went inside to watch TV. Dad strolled into the living room an hour later and told us to come outside. He went in on the driver’s side of the truck and clicked something, and we heard a familiar song flowing out of the horn-shaped speaker he’d placed at the front of the truck, just above the windshield.
“That’s the ice-cream music!” Tayo cried. We recognized the tune from the ice-cream trucks that we’d seen on TV. We’d never seen an ice-cream truck in Middleton, though.
Dad nodded excitedly. Then we linked arms and listened together.
The following morning Dad woke us up with his good-morning song, and when we reached the garage we saw an old, thin, beat-up mattress on the floor.
“Put it in the back of the truck,” he said. “That’s where you guys will relax between your shifts.”
We placed the mattress where he told us, right up against the freezer, and we brought along a couple of pillows so the bed would be even more comfortable. As we were reclining on it, Dad appeared and stared at us.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Tayo, Femi, and I looked at each other, and then we looked around. Dad shook his head slowly.
“What about your books? What do you think this is? A time to rest? If you aren’t working then you’re reading! Go bring your books!”
We ran back inside and brought out a couple books and placed them on the mattress. Dad surveyed the titles and shook his head again.
“Bring more. I expect each of you to finish one book each day.”
We brought more books and piled them high against the freezer. Dad nodded, then he settled in the driver’s seat and started the engine. He flipped on the music and began to back out, but then Mom stepped into the garage and called him. Dad switched off the engine and left the truck.
We stared out of the windshield as Dad approached Mom. They stood looking at each other for a moment. Mom said something. Dad shook his head and stared at the ground. Mom said something else. Dad threw his hands in the air and stepped back. Mom looked up at the ceiling. They just stood there. Then Mom stepped forward and hugged Dad. After standing there with his arms at his sides for a few moments, Dad hugged her back.
Dad returned to the truck with a smile on his face, and Mom went back inside and closed the door. Dad began humming to himself as he turned the ignition. He drove down the length of our street, took a right onto Jones Place, and then he slowed down. We knew better than to ask Dad what he and Mom had discussed, so we tried to ask him with our eyes. He continued humming as if he couldn’t see us, so we stared out of the windows instead as we crawled down one street after another.
Tayo, Femi, and I were familiar with these streets; we’d spent hours walking around our neighborhood in search of kids our age or older who might be interested in playing basketball with us, but our neighborhood looked different, somehow, from the windows of our ice-cream truck. The houses looked the same, like precise replicas of our own house, with their small front lawns and brown-tiled roofs, but now the people we saw walking their dogs and kicking soccer balls were no longer friends, or even neighbors—they were all potential customers. A few people simply stared at our truck as we passed, but from the way they looked we might as well have been foreigners engaged in an inspection tour of newly conquered territory, or a single-car parade drifting by. Most of the people we saw ignored us completely. On two occasions we saw a child looking expectantly in our direction, and we yelled at Dad to stop. Dad listened and pulled the truck over to the curb, but both times the child shyly waved at us and ran away. We continued searching for customers, but after we’d been on the road for an hour or so my brothers settled down in the back to read. Dad asked me to sit on the chair he’d placed in front of the freezer, right behind his chair. I sat there reading while Dad hummed along with the music.
A few moments later the truck jarred to a stop. I rose from my seat and looked out the driver’s side window. There was a young man with short blond hair and pimply skin standing on the sidewalk, holding a small child to his chest. When Dad extended his hand, the man pulled his child away, but Dad kept his hand in the air and smiled at him. I’d never seen this particular smile on my father’s face before. It was so kind, without a trace of malice or hurt or sarcasm or shame. The man looked at Dad’s extended hand, and then at Dad’s smile, and he slowly pushed his child’s body in the direction of Dad’s hand. Dad stroked the child’s head.
The man laughed nervously. “It’s sure nice to see you here. Certainly hot enough for ice cream. How much do you charge?”
Dad started, and then he turned to his right to peer at the stickers we’d affixed to the side of the truck the night before. The stickers featured artistic renderings of the ice cream bars we’d stacked in our freezer beneath islands of dry ice. As Dad stared at the stickers, I realized that we’d neglected to indicate how much each kind of ice cream would cost.
“Well, since you’re our first sale, tell me what you want and how much you want to pay for it,” Dad said confidently.
The man scrunched up his face and shook his head. “What did you say?”
Dad enunciated: “Choose something and pay what you want.”
The man whispered into the ear of his child and leaned forward slightly so the child could whisper back. He whispered again, listened, then looked up.
“How about a Creamsicle for a dollar?”
Dad motioned to me and I opened the freezer and reached into the upper left corner, where I’d carefully placed a box of Creamsicles the night before. I pulled one free from the pack and handed it to Dad. Dad handed the bar to the child, who wrapped its little fingers around it and smiled at us in appreciation.
“Don’t worry about paying. I hope to see you soon.”
When they left, I grabbed the permanent marker from the desk at the front of the truck and waved it near Dad’s face.
“Daddy, we need to mark the prices on the stickers!”
“No, let’s wait. Let’s see what happens.”
My father continued to drive around the city without any plan. Sometimes we passed down the same street twice, and whenever someone called to us we’d stop and let them decide the price. Dad spoke in short, declarative sentences, and he asked me to speak if our customers had more questions. We gave some ice cream away, and we sold some for a couple dollars apiece. As darkness came on, we drove back home a few dollars richer.
Tayo, Femi, and I were already out of the truck when Dad reminded us that we had to move the boxes of ice cream from the dead freezer in the truck to the grunting freezer in the garage. We quickly emptied the freezer in the truck, and when we saw the mess inside the freezer in the garage we called Dad. He ran to us, and when he saw it he stepped back and cursed loudly.
The freezer was lukewarm and the ice on the sides had melted. A congealed multi-colored mass of melted ice cream had pooled on the bottom. The freezer had failed.
Dad stood staring at the ground and we waited because we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. He turned around and began walking back to the truck.
“Help me put all the ice cream back into the truck,” he called.
We did as we were told, and just as we were finishing Dad started up the engine.
“Tunde, follow me.”
I bounded into the truck, and we went off to buy more dry ice.
Tayo, Femi, and I felt Dad’s heat when he entered our bedroom the following morning, so we woke up before he could shout at us. We dressed quickly and ran to the truck. I opened the freezer and saw the evaporating islands of dry ice atop the boxes. I pressed the packages of ice cream with my index finger; they felt firm and cold. We were already prepared—sitting in the back of the truck, reading studiously—by the time Dad climbed into the driver’s seat. He looked back at us without saying a word, and then he started the engine.
“Daddy, what about the prices?” I asked tentatively.
Dad switched off the ignition and left the truck with the permanent marker. I went out with him and he looked down at me.
“So what should we do?”
I’d been thinking about it all night and I’d prepared an answer: “Why don’t we make everything fifty cents?”
Dad smiled for the first time.
“Do you know how much each ice cream cost me? And I have to pay for gas, dry ice, and make enough for us to eat.”
“Okay, how about fifty-five cents?”
“Who are you trying to help? Your family? Or the strangers who will be buying from us? You must learn that there are times to be nice, and there are times to be mean.” With that Dad handed me the marker, and he called out the prices as I pointed to each of the stickers. I copied down the prices in neat blocky script.
Our second day on the road was quite different from our first. Dad drove with purpose this time, and we passed by more schools and playgrounds. He didn’t laugh with us as he had the day before; he kept his eyes on the side of the road, searching for anyone with even the smallest quantity of desire in their eyes. Our first sale came much more quickly. After about ten minutes on the road, we were flagged down by three teenagers on a playground.
“Hey, man! We didn’t know anyone sold ice cream around here! Whaddya got?”
Dad pointed to the side of the truck.
“Pick whatever you like, I have a full freezer today, gentlemen.”
I peered at each of them, hoping I’d recognize a friend, or at least an acquaintance. I wanted desperately to meet someone I knew, someone who would return to school and tell everyone that my father sold ice cream. I knew it was my only chance at the kind of popularity I’d coveted my entire life. Once word got out, people would want to know more about my father, more about my family, and—most importantly—more about me. I had all my answers ready.
(I stopped caring by the middle of the summer. The few times I saw anybody I knew, I could tell from the way they looked at me that they still thought I was a loser. I mean, who was I trying to kid? My parents were still from Africa, I still had a weird name, and we still weren’t Mormons. A little ice-cream selling wasn’t going to change any of that.)
We stayed on the road past sundown, and by the time we pulled onto our street Femi was sleeping on the bed in the back, and I’d already exchanged places with Tayo at least twice. When I opened the freezer I noticed that it was half-empty, and our makeshift cash register at the front of the truck was filled with one-dollar bills. Dad rubbed his eyes after parking, and he cleared his throat the way he always did when he had an announcement.
“We did okay today, guys. We’ll do better tomorrow.”
Then he stepped out of the driver’s seat, and we packed more dry ice into the freezer.
By the end of our first week on the road, we’d developed a system. Dad insisted that I accompany him each day while Tayo and Femi rotated during weekdays (someone had to stay home and look after Ade). Mom would rise before us each day to prepare our meals for the road, which she placed in used Styrofoam packaging that had formerly held Chinese food or hamburgers. At midday Dad would stop at a parking lot somewhere and we would swallow our cold fufu or jollof rice or fried plantain, and then we’d start out again.
We did better as it got hotter. By the middle of the summer, as word spread about our ice-cream truck, we’d drive onto certain streets and a hungry crowd would have already gathered. Tayo, Femi, or I would hustle at the freezer while the kids and adults called out their orders. Some days we woke up well before dawn to buy more ice cream from the wholesalers downtown.
Occasionally on the road Dad would tell us stories about Nigeria. He made the place sound like a wonderful party that was always happening. He told us stories about each of his brothers—he has dozens, my grandfather married six women—and he wistfully spoke of the time he’d spent traveling from city to city as a semi-professional soccer player. He also told us stories about the mistakes he’d made as a younger man: the women he’d chased just because he could, the jobs he hadn’t taken seriously enough. Each story he told ended abruptly, or at least it seemed so to me. I was always waiting to hear about the day his apartment had been stormed by corrupt policemen, the time he’d been incarcerated for something he hadn’t done. I was waiting to hear that he was a refugee—back then I thought this was the only legitimate reason for leaving a place you called home. I knew nothing about ambition then, how it wakes you up and won’t let you sleep at night, how it’ll fling you across an ocean or three if you let it. I would learn soon enough.
As I look back on those days now, I often think of all the fun that Tayo, Femi, and I had in the back of the truck, the way we would pull out a deck of cards whenever Dad was occupied with a sale and toss the cards under a pillow the moment he was done, and also our fights, our screaming and clawing and shoving and snarling, the way Dad would shout at us, all of us angry with him at the same time, the secrets we shared with one another, the stories we made up about our favorite customers, the many silent hours of reading and contemplation, the deep, sunny stillness of those late afternoons when the sun was drifting toward the western horizon, and all of us were drunk on happiness and light.
The only unpleasant aspect of all those mornings, afternoons, and late evenings on the road was the fact that Dad didn’t allow us to eat as much ice cream as we would have liked. Initially, of course, we’d been excited about Dad’s ice-cream business because we’d envisioned days and days of gorging ourselves on sumptuous cream-filled treats. Dad thought differently. He rarely allowed us to eat more than one ice-cream bar a day, and he was hesitant to allow us to eat any ice cream that was in perfect condition.
After we’d been on the road for a week or so, Dad drafted an “ice-cream consumption hierarchy chart” and pasted it to the wall just behind the freezer. On the bottom of the paper, he’d written, in all caps, bad ice cream. By this he meant ice cream that was ill-formed or otherwise imperfect because of some manufacturing defect; sometimes an errant stick, sometimes a crumbled cone. Above, he’d written melted ice cream. This was the ice cream that had melted during transport and had refrozen in odd, unsellable shapes. And then there was the cheap ice cream—the Fudgsicles and Creamsicles, for example. Above the cheap ice cream was the ok ice cream —ice-cream sandwiches and premium ice pops—and shining above everything else was the supreme ice cream (he drew a circle of stars around the word “supreme”); the aforementioned Choco Taco, the large ice-cream sandwiches, the super deluxe ice-cream cones. Dad expected us to start at the bottom of the chart when we were selecting our ice cream for the day, and so on most days the best we could hope for was an “ok” ice cream; usually, though, my brothers and I would chomp on our bad or melted ice-cream bars with frowns on our faces to emphasize to Dad how unhappy we were. He never seemed to notice.
Dad tried very hard to sell each of the supreme ice-cream bars, even the bad and melted ones. He’d brandish them about after completing a large sale—“are you sure you guys don’t want any more? I am selling these at half-price!”—and he usually ended up selling most of them. If, at the end, a few of these melted masterpieces went unsold, he would grudgingly allow us to eat them, but only if there were enough for each of us. Otherwise we’d take them home, and he and Mom would divvy up the bounty.
My brothers and I came up with a few tricks to increase our chances of eating those supreme ice-cream bars. Sometimes we’d forget to place the dry ice on the parts of the freezer that held the most expensive ice cream, and they would melt as a result. We’d present the spoiled goods to my father with sad eyes and sad tales to match:
“I don’t know what’s wrong, Daddy. The ice doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe we need to get something that’s stronger?”
Dad soon caught on, so we tried other tricks. We’d slam the expensive boxes of ice cream on the hard floor of the freezer while we were packing the truck, in hopes that a few of the precious bars would break. We’d bang the ice cream against the side of the freezer during an especially hectic sale and present it to Dad. He’d return the bars to us—“This one is broken”—and we’d smilingly place the ice cream in the empty box near the back of the freezer that we reserved for spoiled ice cream.
Dad caught on to these tricks as well, but he never became upset. Usually our plans failed, because we were rarely able to produce the four spoiled ice cream bars that we needed in order to be successful. As the summer passed, Dad’s stomach became bigger for our failures.
Sometime during the middle of summer, maybe late July or early August, one of our regular customers—he lived three streets down from us, quite near my elementary school—suggested that we park our truck on Main Street during the annual Middleton City Fair.
“You’ll make a killing!” the man said, smiling as ice cream dripped from his buckteeth. “There’s never any ice cream around—you should jump on it before someone else gets the same idea!”
Dad asked for more information and the man told him everything—that the fair took place on the Friday and Saturday of Labor Day weekend, just before school started; how the fairgrounds extended all the way down Main Street, right through the middle of town; how there were kiosks for everything: cotton candy, caramel apples, and popcorn; how there were games and a few rides; how there were even a few people who sold snow cones from small coolers, but no ice-cream trucks. We’d never heard of the fair even though we’d been living in Middleton for two years then, and as the man described one spectacle after another I wondered how something so wonderful had escaped our attention for so long. We were partly to blame, I knew—we mostly stayed to ourselves. We hadn’t really traveled much around the city, and my parents didn’t have any friends. Our house was a miniature Nigeria, with its own customs and culture, and I didn’t know much about the world outside. I interpreted our ignorance of the Middleton City Fair as just another sign that we would never truly fit in Utah, that the various mysteries of the place would forever remain closed to us, because we weren’t Mormon, because we were black.
Dad suddenly became infatuated with the fair, and for the rest of the day he spoke of nothing else. He talked himself into the idea that the Middleton City Fair was the reason he’d started selling ice cream in the first place, that God’s will had been revealed to him through the words of one of his favorite customers. By the time we returned home that evening the Middleton City Fair had become something we’d been waiting for all our lives. Dad went to City Hall first thing the following morning and applied for a vendor’s license. He returned disappointed; he told us that they’d asked him to fill out a few forms, that they’d said they would contact him in a few days. We didn’t hear anything from them in the following weeks, though, despite the fact that Dad pestered them continually. He even drafted Tayo and me into the cause of calling the city council to plead our case. “These people always respond better to an American accent,” he said. So he called, and we called. We even assumed bland American names and bland American accents on the phone, but we garnered no response.
Meanwhile, our ice-cream business was going so well that Dad decided to purchase another US Postal Service truck. He left with Mom early one morning in August for Salt Lake City and they both returned driving trucks, Dad behind the wheel of our ice cream truck, and Mom driving a retired mail truck. We quickly converted the mail truck into an ice cream truck; we scrubbed the inside and outside, removed the various shelves and boxes that had once held countless letters, removed the red and blue stripes from the exterior, and we placed stickers featuring perfect versions of the imperfect ice cream that we sold each day on both sides of the truck. After we finished, Dad helped us pull the dead freezer out of our first truck and into the garage, and then he drove off again. He beeped loudly when he returned, and we saw a U-Haul trailer attached to the truck. We opened the trailer to a new freezer, and as we laughed Dad said, “And this one works!” He opened the back of the truck to reveal another new freezer.
We helped Dad carry the new freezer out of the trailer and into the new truck, and then we went inside to rest. Dad came into the living room shortly afterward and asked us what we were doing. He’d already changed into his customary ice-cream-selling outfit—a loose-fitting dark-blue short-sleeve dress shirt, and dark-blue slacks. Femi and I ran outside and hopped into the new truck as Dad was starting it, and we went off for a half-day of selling.
Dad spent a week trying to find someone to drive the second truck. He placed an ad in the paper and a few people stopped by our house quite early in the morning, before we started our day, and a few came late at night, after we’d come back. He finally settled on a twenty-four-year-old named Jerry whom he liked because Jerry had referred to him as “sir.” Jerry claimed he was trying to save enough money to return to college, and Dad liked that story, too. Tayo and I didn’t tell Dad about the time we caught Jerry smoking in the backyard while he was waiting for Dad to return from the wholesale ice-cream warehouse with ice cream for his truck.
To this day I don’t know what kind of arrangement my father worked out with Jerry regarding the sharing of revenue, but after only a week of working together Jerry simply stopped showing up. When Tayo asked Dad at dinner what had happened, he told us not to worry. “I will find someone better,” he said.
Dad eventually found someone else to drive the second ice cream truck, and then someone else when that person quit, and then someone after that. They all eventually left because Dad drove them too hard, and because he demanded a quota of ice cream sold each day.
Dad began to push himself harder as well. He woke up at four in the morning every day so he could peer at the big map of Middleton he’d purchased a couple weeks into summer. Sometimes he’d wake me up as well, and I would try to keep my eyes open as he traced new paths of ice-cream dominance in red ink on the map. He’d bite the tip of his pen while concentrating on a particular quadrant of the map, mumbling incoherently to himself, scribbling red lines next to other red lines, crossing out some routes completely, like he was planning his takeover of the city. When he was done he’d leave the map on the table for one of us to fold up, and he’d walk whistling out the door, his new route inscribed in his brain. We drove for longer hours each day, and Dad became adept at ingratiating himself with every person he met on the road. I’d never known him to be such a flirt, such a politician. If he saw an old woman crossing the street he’d lower the music and speak coolly to her, his voice like a blast of cold air from an oscillating fan:
“Madame! You look so lovely! How are you this afternoon? Can I interest you in a Creamsicle to help ease you on your way?’
And even if she rejected his advances, even if she ignored him completely, Dad would continue smiling.
“Well, God bless you! And I expect you to buy something the next time I see you!”
At night, after I’d put on my pajamas and before I fell asleep, Dad would ask me to sit next to him at the kitchen table, and together we would read passages from my favorite books. I would read a few paragraphs and then Dad would repeat them, mimicking my tone, my accent, the way my lips wrapped themselves around each word. As I fell asleep each night I’d hear my father’s voice in my head narrating passages from books by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Over time, he began to sound like me.
August suddenly became September. We were stopped more often as we drove down the streets of Middleton, and the crowds that gathered to meet us at our high-traffic areas grew larger. But the entire time I couldn’t stop thinking about the fair. I wondered if we’d be able to sell ice cream there. I wondered how our lives would change if they allowed us to participate; if, at the end, I would finally understand what it meant to be a part of a community.
We finally heard from the city council a few days before the fair, and it was good news. Dad immediately went to the ice cream wholesalers and placed his largest order of the summer.
“Business must be going well,” the man said as he handed over box after box of ice cream.
“You have no idea,” Dad said as he handed the boxes to me. “I might be putting you out of business soon.”
They both laughed too loudly.
On the first day of the fair we all woke up at 4 a.m. and began to make preparations. Mom brewed two big pots of stew and pulled the moin moin she’d prepared the night before from the fridge. While she fried up some plantains, the rest of us packed each freezer as full of ice cream as we could, and Dad and Freddy—Dad had hired him the day before; he looked just like Jerry, maybe shorter, maybe younger, but basically the same—left with both trucks to buy dry ice. When they returned, we stashed the food in the back of the trucks and stepped in so Dad and Freddy could drive us to Main Street. Mom and Ade followed in our Chevy.
When we arrived, we saw other vendors preparing for the day and policemen going from stand to stand, asking to see vendor passes. The policemen came to our trucks and Dad proudly showed them ours. They nodded and continued on. Dad asked us to gather in a circle and hold hands. We prayed together under the rising sun.
“God, we thank you for your blessings. We thank you that we are the first ice-cream vendors who have been allowed to participate in this festival, Oh Lord. We didn’t know about this festival before now, but we thank you that we learned in time, and that we were blessed with an opportunity to be here. God, please bless us today, so that the line of people who ask us for ice cream will not stop. We want them to continue to come and ask for ice cream as if they have never tasted ice cream in their lives. God, you have finally given us an opportunity to make it in this country. This is our chance. Help us to make the most of it.”
We said a loud “Amen” together, and my father became a different person. He peeled off his smile.
He pointed at Freddy. “Go and park where I told you to park last night. Stay there. Tayo will go with you. If anything happens, send him down to this truck with a message. Do not mess around today. I am not playing with you. This is the day that can make the rest of our lives.”
Freddy slinked away, scowling, and Tayo and Ade followed him. Dad turned to the rest of us.
“I chose this part of the street for a reason. According to my sources in city hall, the busiest part of the festival will be here. That means we’ll be working nonstop. Mom already knows that she’ll have to go back home if we need more food, or if we need more ice cream. Tunde, Femi, I need everything you have today. You cannot let up. Keep moving forward, no matter what.”
We both nodded.
We sat in the truck and waited as the sun continued its upward path. The chaos around our truck began slowly. Outside, jugglers threw bright balls into the air, and loud music began pumping from large speakers on either side of us. The music was so loud that I could almost see the musical notes curling up out of the speakers. A man came walking by with a card deck, and he flashed a few cards at Femi and me as we peered out of the driver’s side window. Our eyes flashed in response, but we felt Dad’s hard gaze knocking on our backs, so we turned away from him.
People of all kinds began to walk around, and a few of them stopped by our truck. I stood ready at the freezer and passed Dad the ice cream they were asking for before their tongues had formed the second syllable, so practiced was I. As the day grew hotter more people stopped by, and soon a line snaked around our truck and down the length of the street for many feet. Femi and I worked together, huffing and puffing into the freezer, developing a rhythm of delivery while Dad worked complex figures in his head and passed the ice cream to our customers. By eleven we were on the verge of running out of a few items, and Dad sent me to the other truck to see if we could get any more supplies from them.
I saw the long line as I approached the other truck, and I had to apologize many times because a few people thought I was trying to cut in front of them. I knocked on the back of the truck and Tayo opened it for me, and then he rushed back to Freddy with a package of ice cream in his hand. Ade was playing with a ball on the bed, and he giggled at me when I waved. I asked Tayo if they had any extra boxes of snow cones or Fudgsicles, and he shook his head.
I sprinted back and told Dad the news, and he dispatched Mom to the house to pick up more ice cream. We were already out of a few items by the time she returned, and a great cheer rose up as she walked through the crowd carrying boxes of ice cream above her head.
I placed my hand on my father’s shoulder, and he turned around and smiled at me. His smile was wide and wondrous. Suddenly I wanted to hug him and tell him it would always be like this. I wanted to tell him that he would always be a star. I wanted to live in this moment for the rest of my life, to forget what I had seen while I was out trying to get more ice cream for the truck.
Just before I reached Freddy’s truck, I noticed a few men standing in a circle a few feet down the street. One of them was licking a Firecracker Popsicle. The Firecracker looked delicious; its red, white, and blue segments sparkled in the sun. The man pulled the Firecracker from his mouth and oinked loudly, and then he began to speak in a melodramatic, garbled manner. Spittle flew from his lips. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. In the midst of his performance I heard him say “Creamsicle”; the other men laughed and slapped their thighs. That’s when I realized they were making fun of my father. I ignored them and kept walking.
I already knew that the weather was growing colder, and that my brothers and I would soon be returning to school. I knew that in a few days my father would park his trucks for the winter, that the moment he did so he would just be an immigrant again.
But I also knew that my father was content. I knew he was calm and proud. I knew that—for the first time in a long time—he was in control. He had achieved everything he set out to achieve.
And besides—our day was just beginning. We had more ice cream to sell. And the weather was perfect. I knew that we were going to sell more ice cream than we’d ever sold before.
Tomorrow was coming, but I was happy. My father still had a few hours left in the sun.