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Tio Helado

On the stark horizon a gleaming Leschild Galactic craft emerged mildly at first, leaving no tail, its vector mimicking an ordinary airplane’s. Its arc sharpened then, until the vessel aimed straight upward and, with a pop!, shot shimmering into the crisp blue dome of the New Mexico sky.

Crispin Hollough craned his sunburned neck over the steering wheel of the old ice cream truck, his eyes straining to watch. The familiar ship—one of a now mighty fleet—diminished into a white speck, a black speck and then it was gone: a rootless searcher somewhere in the deep that might one day return, if luck went with it.

And still here I sit, Crispin thought, brow creased, peering into the sky where the craft had disappeared. 

He turned the key in the ignition and urged his tired steed forward on their long meander through the dusty streets of Hatch. A few thirsty children yet might heed the bell, which he rang in bursts of three about every half-block—Ting!-ting!-ting!—as was the custom. As he went, he recalled—just as he did every time he saw a launch—his father’s accomplishment all those twenty years ago. The day when the Master Sergeant had managed the first manned deep-space launch made by any private organization on Earth.

***

The morning of that September Monday, grown golden with the passing of two decades, had been set aside for a field trip. It was only a week-and-a-half into the school year, and buses and vans and mud-caked pickup trucks had lined the road beside the village elementary school, waiting to take the children of Hatch those fifteen miles to the outskirts of the spaceport’s airfield.

They burst from the school buildings all together, the kids of spaceport workers, field workers, chile farm owners—and ten-year-old Crispin among them, the newest kid in town, blinking in the unfettered sunlight. The sky was as clear as the Master Sergeant had promised it would be today. Wide-open.

The kids lined up in unruly masses. Most, like Crispin, favored the school buses over the pickups. They filed in, sagging the beltless seats with nervous energy. Those who knew each other, as nearly everyone in Hatch did, chattered excitedly, teased and laughed. Those who knew nobody sat silent, gazed out the windows, found it easier than usual to smile through loneliness.

The day’s event was, after all, more than just the first full-fledged spaceflight by Leschild Galactic (none of that sub-orbital nonsense, no trips to nowhere this time—a trip into deep space and back), but also the reason about half of the kids’ families were living in Hatch to begin with. This was an established spaceport town.

“These families have been living here for years, some of them for decades,” Crispin’s father had told him, “which means most of the children were born here.”

Their parents had performed every task in the decades-long lead up to the big launch. The engineering and construction of the various sub-orbital spaceships, the paving and clearing of the runways, the sweeping of the spaceport’s interior carpets, the emptying of cubicle trash bins.

And then there was Crispin’s father, here to oversee the launch itself.

Crispin felt a hard kernel of pride to be the Master Sergeant’s son this day, a concentration of the feeling he carried with him most days. Even in and among this crowd, which had played its own supporting role in the thirty-year project culminating in this launch, Crispin felt an ownership he knew the others could not. As the bus rumbled into motion, he smiled through the window and allowed his gaze to slip into unfocus on the passing homes, the storefronts, and then the rows of bloated chile peppers, whose deep emeralds and bright crimsons ran all together against the sun-bleached earth.

***

Four months before the launch, Crispin had hovered over his spaghetti dinner at the gingham-shrouded kitchen table in the Hollough family’s quarters, on base in Charleston.

“Son, I’ve something to tell you,” his father said. He had just come home, shed his shoes, and now he stood in the kitchen portal, his brow creased above serious eyes.

The Master Sergeant had served his years of duty to the Air Force, had risen through its ranks. Crispin had been careful to stand tall and quiet at the badging ceremonies. In the ten years since the boy’s birth, his father had accepted promotions and followed orders to move his family five times: Houston, Texas, to Lawton, Oklahoma, to San Francisco, California, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Wichita, Kansas, to Charleston, South Carolina. And now?

“It’s time, now,” the Master Sergeant said, “for us to get out of the military altogether.”

“What does that mean?” Crispin asked. His father had an oblique way of introducing causes and their effects. He could never tell how these talks were going to go.

“Well, what it means is one more move,” his father said, kneeling before Crispin in the sharp blue uniform soon to give way to suit-and-tie. “Just one. And then we’ll really be home, someplace where we can stay.”

The thought was foreign to Crispin. Stay?

Can I choose where we’ll move? Crispin almost asked his father then, looking up from the table. After all, if one thing was changing, might not other things? Might he have some say in this matter? But he was a military brat, and he knew better. He held his tongue.

“The first civilian, manned deep-space flight is gearing up at Leschild Galactic’s spaceport in Anders, New Mexico,” his father continued. “The man who was supposed to supervise the launch and handle the aftermath has died, apparently. And I … well, they’ve hired me to go in and take over management of the project. To finish it out.”

“That launch will be historic,” Crispin’s mother said. She leaned to one side where she had taken his father’s place in the kitchen doorway, her hands cradling her elbows, her eyes intent on her son’s face. “It’s a big deal that your father gets to be such an important part of it.”

Crispin nodded mildly, feeling small in his chair, distantly aware that by now the last trace of warmth was bleeding from his noodles.

“Like I say,” the Master Sergeant said, nodding, “if everything goes well, we’ll be in New Mexico for a good, long time.”

“In … Anders?” said Crispin.

“No, there’s nothing in Anders but the spaceport and a brokedown ranchhouse or two. We’ll be living in a nearby village, one with more amenities. Hatch, it’s called. I’m told the farms around there grow the best chile peppers in the world.” He squeezed Crispin’s knee twice quickly to emphasize his confident grin of reassurance. “And you can see the spaceships rise into orbit from there.”

Outside the open window a lush breeze forced its way through the tall maples, whose leaves rustled at the intrusion.

***

The Master Sergeant and Mrs. Hollough had grown up in civilian homes—Crispin’s grandparents had passed years ago—and they had no experience with what it was to move during childhood. Even after all these years in the military, the two adults kept friendships whose timelines reached back to when they were young, to pre-school even; people with whom they communicated on occasion—usually via Christmas card.

Crispin found this odd, familiar though it was in his life. On the day he first moved to Hatch, Crispin’s own oldest friend was Rusty Johnson. He’d met Rusty only two years before, during their first day of third grade in Mrs. Kendrick’s class in Charleston. He didn’t recall how, other than that it was in the way military brats often meet: each boy’s over-solicitousness eased in the company of another who found it familiar.

When Crispin’s family finished packing away their belongings at the end of those two long years—years filled with alligator hunting and swimming and digging holes in black mud and mad-dashing alongside off-base canals on bicycles—Rusty had pedaled over on the cobbled-together monstrosity he called Franken-bike, shoved his hands into his overall pockets, and sidled up.

Their parting was bloodless. They shook hands stiffly, their mouths straight lines.

“Goodbye,” said each boy in turn. They didn’t bother to say, “for now.”

It was always that way. Rusty understood. You forgot about your friends when you moved. You didn’t even think to call.

The Holloughs piled at last into the family van, and Crispin’s oldest friend pedaled off on Franken-bike toward new adventures of his own.

***

In the Master Sergeant’s fervor to lure his son into excitement for this new opportunity, the man had failed to describe the southern New Mexico landscape. It was a place for which, despite his family’s many uprootings, Crispin was ill-prepared. Except where Hatch’s fields clung to the floodplain of the Rio Grande and produced their glut of vegetal life—plots of cotton, onion, pecan, and, most importantly, the area’s world-famous chile peppers—the land was sere, thirsty, a sagebrush-populated moon. The valley rose on each side to soft-looking mountains which had in the distant past grown as volcanic mounds and bustling coral reefs within a great inland sea, whose teeming life-forms were mere fossils, now, locked in rock and enriching the soil, where there was anything left of them at all.

Crispin’s family had been in Hatch only a few hours—hours of white-hot discovery (“This is going to be your new room!”) tempered by driving-fatigue and the knowledge that their furnishings, particularly the softer ones, were still two days from arriving—when he first heard the bell, close-by.

Ting!-ting!-ting! … ting!-ting!-ting!

It was different than the call made by the ice cream truck on the base in Charleston, which had blared “Up We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder” from its clarion loudspeaker all those long days. It was different from the rough carnival music that had burst like a nightmare from the truck in Wichita. It was nothing at all like the lilting, antique music-box tones which had swirled around the truck in Philadelphia.

It was … crude. The bell was tinny, a cheap cowbell with a string tied to the clapper. For an instant Crispin imagined the sound might in fact be a cow with remarkable rhythm that had slipped its fence to wander into town—for all he knew about cows.

Soon, though, he heard the telltale squeals of other kids outside. He sped to the house’s front picture-window to peer out over the gravel street, where he saw them running into the road, grinning, crisp dollar bills clutched tight. A grey-mustached man stood beside the short, white freezer truck—also unlike those other trucks in that it was smallish, not designed to admit a human being—and he bowed to hand a little towheaded girl something longish, something familiar, which he’d pulled from its rear box…

A rocket-pop!

These popsicles had always been Crispin’s favorite, since as early as he could remember—which was a long time, back to when his family had lived in Lawton, when he was only two or three. And his devotion to them had only grown in tandem with the ten-year-old’s natural love for explosions and projectiles. Even at his age he realized that living in the military had fed that enjoyment—the quiet task toward which all the fierce regimentation he observed, the habits he’d formed to avoid wreaking havoc on his father’s career, all of it was in the service of death-sent-elsewhere. Swift and merciless. The Sunday chapel his family had attended in South Carolina had immortalized in the large window behind the altar a great red nuclear missile rising from a static plume of swirling grey glass, to speak the might of America, the might of God, and to sing their sameness. A big middle finger, once aimed at the godless Communists. And then, after the Soviet Union fell, aimed at nobody in particular, since China was sort of on our side, then. Couldn’t even wag it at the terrorists, because that would have been—what was the word?—disproportionate. Too much collateral damage. God’s might, unmoored.

But rocket-pops were a different story. They were the flipped bird of summer, brandished high at the institution of school, at last year’s teacher, at the hours of math homework that had drained all spirit from late spring evenings. In rigid red, white and blue. Those colors did run, and it was glorious.

“Mom!” shouted Crispin. “Can I get a rocket-pop?”

His parents were inspecting the kitchen, then, deciding what furnishings might belong where and which one of the ancient appliances and cabinets, all of which would need to be replaced before long, simply must be first to go.

“We’ll be going to the commissary—I mean the grocery store!—in a little bit here, sweetie,” called his mother in a sing-song tone, and then, laughingly, “I hope this old fridge can handle it.”

Crispin felt a small swell of panic. “But other kids are getting ice cream from the truck!”

“The truck?” Her voice came back mildly exasperated. “I don’t have any cash, Crispy. Right now we need to get this place ready. They’ll have popsicles at the store, don’t worry!”

“But mom!”

Outside, the ice cream man handed a red popsicle to the last girl in line, who took it, beaming. He stood tall and smiled back at her, then closed shut and locked the freezer door with one swift motion and shuffled over to lurch into the driver’s seat.

“He’s leaving!”

“Boy!” came Crispin’s father’s voice, echoing hard in the empty house. “I don’t want to hear any whining. No ice cream from the truck.”

Crispin shut his mouth and watched. Soon the truck was off again, its bell tinging occasionally, motoring toward the other side of town. The kids dispersed, returned to their homes in groups, slammed the doors behind them, left the sundrenched road empty of all but stone and tumbleweed.

***

Through the bus window Crispin noticed the spaceport’s airfield was girdled by a fence of razor-wire-topped chain link. The school buses were allowed to park single-file along the dirt road at the field’s furthest southwest quadrant. Each stopped in turn, and the streams of children poured from the transports and split off into various eddies, the cluster-groupings of friends, teams, cliques. Crispin waded his way through the thin sea of bodies and faces, some of them becoming familiar by now, to the fence, where he hoped he’d have a clear view.

“Hey, new kid,” said someone behind him in a sharp tone. Crispin turned to find the oldest and biggest kid in his class, Lewis Galloway, regarding him with an expression of malevolent mischief. He was flanked by four other boys who were always with him, who jeered in solidarity.

“What,” said Crispin, wary.

“That’s a stupid shirt.”

Crispin looked down to remind himself which shirt he’d worn today. It was a blue t-shirt with three saucer-shaped UFOs screen-printed on the front. His father had bought it for him in Roswell during their one-night stop there on the way to Hatch.

“Not all that stupid,” he said.

“Your dad doesn’t deserve that job, you know,” said Lewis, his eyes narrowing. “My dad’s been working that spaceport since before I was born. That position shoulda’ been his. Today shoulda’ been his.” Lewis’s lip curled in a snarl. “You shouldn’t even be here. Gypsy.”

Crispin felt a flame of righteous indignation spark to life in his belly. He’d known bullies before. There was always at least one, wherever you went. Still, this was the first time he could recall being picked on for moving a lot.

He returned Lewis’s stare. Lewis didn’t flinch. Other kids, sensing the hazing that was sure to come, moved to encircle the boys. It felt to Crispin like they were on Lewis’s side—they knew him, after all—and that made things more real. Crispin’s courage retreated slightly, and he worried Lewis might see it in his eyes.

Then he heard the bell. Ting-ting-ting!

The crowd’s attention shifted, heads swiveled. The ice cream truck came ambling up the road, a long trail of dust pluming its wake.

Tio!

Do you have any money?

Just my lunch money …

Can you spot me a popsicle? I’ll get you back …

Pockets were searched, and solemn pacts made, in seconds.

The ice cream man’s cheerful face beamed from the driver’s side window, his smile checkered with gold fillings beneath his full, dark grey mustache. He pulled up short, alongside the bus Crispin had arrived in.

Lewis shot Crispin a parting sneer, then turned to dash for the truck, his entourage close behind. Crispin stood stock still for a moment. The crowd around him dissipated like steam.

When he was sure it was safe, Crispin moved to get in line. He was fifteen people back, well behind Lewis Galloway, who’d of course muscled his way to the front.

The stocky old man opened the car door and stood up out of the low-slung truck, held his arms out wide as though to embrace the crowd. In his short-order cook’s hat and his ice cream-spattered apron he resembled a sort of summertime Santa Claus.

“Tio!” shouted a few of the kids at the same time.

“You’re back!” shouted another.

The man waved his arms, beckoning the kids to him, and shouted, “Hey Niños! Who wants a bit of ice cream, eh? On a day like this.”

“Me!” the kids around shouted almost in unison, showing their teeth as if for the dentist. Crispin smiled too, which surprised him. He rifled through his pocket, made sure the two-fifty was still there. He wouldn’t have enough money for lunch. Big deal.

What do they mean, ‘Tio?’” said Crispin to nobody in particular. But the red-haired kid in front of him heard, and turned to peer at Crispin as though he were an idiot.

“Tio Helado,” the boy said.

“Huh?”

“That’s what we call Mister Escovedo.” He pointed. “The ice cream man.”

“Oh.” Crispin nodded. “Okay.” He realized he had not heard the truck’s bell since the day his family had moved in, a month earlier. “He’s back? Back from where? Where did he go?”

“I don’t know. On vacation, I guess.” The boy turned back around.

Lewis Galloway and his gang ran by, fresh rocket pops dripping in hand. Crispin flinched, but they didn’t even glance his way. It was impossible to fight when you were already struggling with a melting popsicle. Crispin’s stomach muscles relaxed a bit. Soon he’d have his rocket pop too, and his dad’s launch would happen, and everything would be fine. For a while at least.

He trained his eyes backward, past the growing tail of kids in line behind him, to the sky—just in case those in the know somehow forgot to announce the launch. Every few seconds he checked in front of him to see how far the line had moved, before returning his attention to the airstrip. Only once did the kid behind him have to clear his throat. Crispin nodded, his face reddening slightly, and then took a step forward. He didn’t lapse again, and soon he was at the front of the line.

Tio Helado turned his benevolent gaze from the redhead kid onto Crispin. For an instant the old man looked slightly confused. His eyes wrinkled at the corners as he grinned. “Hello! Say, you’re new here, eh?”

Crispin nodded. “Yes sir.”

“You a spaceport kid? Your folks got something to do with this launch here today?”

“My dad. He’s the mission’s ground commander.”

“Oh, I see—your dad’s the guy got old Javier Unamuno’s gig.” The ice cream man looked serious for a moment, rocked back on his heels, introspective. “Air Force, wasn’t it?”

Crispin nodded again.

“Well good, you must be proud of him today, huh? This day!”

“Yes sir.”

“Alright, then! What can I get the mission ground commander’s son today? It’s on me. Just this once, eh?” Tio Helado winked.

Crispin grinned, puffed with pride, and stuffed his lunch money back into his pocket. “I’d like a rocket pop, please, sir.”

Tio Helado’s smile fell just slightly. “Oh, I’m sorry, son, I just ran out of those. Something else?”

Crispin’s stomach sank. The corners of his mouth arched downward. Heat hit him full in the face like a jet blast, and his eyes winced beyond his control, then welled with water. Crispin realized with horror that he was—right now—beginning to cry. In public.

Tio Helado regarded him steadily. He opened his mouth to speak.

“SHUTTLE LAUNCH!,” screamed a post-top bullhorn, “IN FIVE…”

Crispin swiveled toward the airstrip, shocked out of his own head. The other kids did too.

“FOUR!…”

Behind him, Tio Helado said, “I came here from far away, myself.”

“THREE!…”

“We lived many different places.”

“TWO!…”

“Moving so often was hard on me.”

“ONE!…”

“Then we came to this valley.”

“LIFTOFFFFFFF!” the bullhorn screamed.

The LSS Moses screamed by overhead like every airplane Crispin had ever seen. But then: that arc, that pop! It strove toward the stratosphere like a porpoise reaches for air. Crispin’s father’s accomplishment, up there—aiming higher, ever higher.

The crowd erupted in cheers, jumping, jubilation. Crispin stood silent.

“This is the valley of the chile pepper,” Tio Helado said to the crown of Crispin’s head. “You know, there’s something about chile plants. Their roots don’t run very deep. Especially not compared to the roots of those giant old cottonwoods by the Rio.” He chuckled. “Those alamos gordos have been there forever.”

Crispin watched the deep-space craft sink into the vast blue sky. Then he turned back to look into Tio Helado’s warm eyes.

“Our little part of this valley, the part that is Hatch,” said Tio, “… the soil out here just suits chile plants perfectly. The weather is just right. The soil has just the right minerals. Makes chiles that grow here the very best on Earth. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, eh?”

Crispin sniffled and lifted his t-shirt tail to wipe the tears from his cheeks. He nodded.

“Well, it’s true.” The old man reached out and put a hand on Crispin’s shoulder, squeezed gently once, twice. “And you know, chiles sort of look like rockets. Don’t you think?”

Crispin nodded again, beginning to understand.

“Now,” said Tio Helado, straightening to stand tall, fists on his hips. “All out of rocket pops. What would you like instead?”

***

That evening Crispin sat at the kitchen table in the new house, eating boxed macaroni and cheese while his parents buzzed around the living space. His father had fit into his best civvie suit, his mother a black velvet dress and pearls. They were leaving in a half-hour for the launch party that Leschild Galactic’s eclectic billionaire owner Anders Leschild—who at the age of eighty still gave off the vibe of a spry fifty-five—was throwing at his mansion in the city of Las Cruces (one of his five homes, purchased purely for its proximity to the spaceport). Children weren’t invited.

The Master Sergeant strode into the kitchen, adjusting a gold cufflink. He stood even taller than usual, a man in his prime enjoying the full bloom of victory.

“Cris,” he said, “while we’re gone I need you to …” He was interrupted by the muffled ring of his mobile phone, which he’d apparently left in the master bedroom. “Hm,” he said. He spun on his patent leathers with ingrained military precision and went to answer it.

“Hello?” he said in the bedroom. Crispin strained to listen.

“This is he.”

There was silence, then a tone of self-confidence when the Master Sergeant spoke at last, in words less familiar. None of it was intelligible, but as Crispin stood to sneak closer, his mother came into the kitchen, pulled a glass from the cupboard, turned the spigot-handle to fill it. Crispin sat back down—he knew how his mother hated for him to eavesdrop. She turned and gazed at him vacantly while she drank the water. She was listening, too, and pretending not to.

“Thank you,” the Master Sergeant said at last, walking into the kitchen himself with a broad smile, his eyes focused on the ceiling, the phone to his ear. “Lexington, eh?” He shot a smile at Crispin’s mother. “Well, given your offer, I don’t need any more time. I’m glad to accept. Yes! Yes, sure. Sure, talk with you soon.”

There was a pause as the Master Sergeant ended the call and ensured the connection had cut. Then he looked up at his wife, his eyes brimming with excitement.

“McDonnell Industries,” he said. “They were watching the launch closely, and they want to bring me in to head-up their new department of aeronautics and space exploration.”

Crispin’s mother chirped and rushed into her smiling husband’s arms.

“Of course,” the Master Sergeant said, “this does mean another move.”

She nodded her coiffed head, eyes wide, every bit on board.

Crispin just stared. Outside, a gust of dry wind urged a low, mournful whistle from the carport.

***

Now Crispin maneuvered the ice cream truck—the very same one Old Man Escovedo had driven all those years ago—into the parking lot by the playground at the northern edge of Hatch, where children teemed like fish over the compound climbing structures and rubber swings.

He reached out the open window and pulled the bell-string back and forth: Ting-ting-ting!

Heads swiveled, eyes widened. Kids dashed to their bench-seated mothers or fathers. Some parents relented, and their children came rushing toward Crispin, dollar bills and coins clutched and brandished outward.

Crispin had left Hatch all those years ago with his family, pursuing the Master Sergeant’s dreams of glory. And then they had left Lexington, moved again for another job, another arc upward. And then again, four more times.

When Crispin was old enough to leave his parents’ household, he’d bucked his father’s wish for him to join the Force and returned to Hatch. He couldn’t quite say why. Things had changed: there was less space between Hatch and Las Cruces now, more sprawl, as the busy spaceport drew the people and the local culture into its orbit. But it was still Hatch. Chiles still ripened in fields, chiles dried on rooftops.

Here he’d settled, allowed his shallow roots to grasp hold as much as they were able. Mister Escovedo, growing physically uncomfortable, had been willing to let him take over driving the truck, a task of which his son wanted no part. When the old man fell ill, Crispin had taken on his duties complete, under the loose direction of the son. Now Crispin was buying the business piece by piece, and before long it would be his. He had no wife yet, no children—but there was a young woman he liked, Belinda Nelson, a farmer’s daughter and a teacher-in-training—and his was a life nonetheless.

He stopped the truck, turned it off, stepped out.

“Tio!” the kids shouted, running up.

“What would you like today?” he said to little Marissa Brindel, who was first to reach him.

“Ummm … a chocolate-covered vanilla bar!”

In the sky above, another Leschild Galactic craft peeled away, shot into the deep. Crispin watched it go, as always—even as he bent to pluck the frozen treat from the bed of the truck, the way a chile plant is pulled from earth.

And still here I stand, he thought.

He smiled to himself, straightened up—tall as a Master Sergeant—and gave the girl her ice cream.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in All Stories, Sci Fi

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