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"Soft Serve" by Rico Cleffi

Note from author: Soft Serve is a little piece voiced by two narrators, one a young girl full of enthusiasm and just making her way into the world. The other narrator is a middle-aged man engaged in a futile battle against the increasing flood of dog waste taking over city sidewalks. HEADS-UP: this piece has some icky bits, mainly references to dogshit and melted ice cream. It's nothing gratuitous. I hope you have fun reading Soft Serve. I sure had fun writing it.

Ice cream drips, first in a trickle down their faces, then into the parking lot. Soon it’s dripping off the scoop before I can get the cones packed.

Today is the day we were supposed to help people forget their problems for a while and unite the town through the magic of ice cream. The whole walk here, I could see the cars driving down to get a good spot alongside the hill. The crowd stretches off, snaking a bit past where I can see, quite a big deal with the heat and all. Mr. Tibbetts is sweating quite a bit. He isn’t his usual self. Last year took a lot out of him. He’s polite and stuff, but not much beyond the formalities. “We’re going to have to get everybody served quickly as we can. The power’s out. Radio says the grid’s blown.”

I hand a family their cones, watch the son’s chin goateed in drippy liquid.

“Ruined,” Mr. Tibbetts says. “An American tradition completely destroyed. “

Like most losing armies, we knew we were doomed from the get-go. Deborah and I pry nuggets of shit with a shovel, depositing them into a contractor bag. The stuff seems to be everywhere: all over the sidewalk, laid in chunks on the strip of dirt abutting the curb, logs of shit scattered among the mini-garden. This is the same little garden a group of volunteers arduously cultivated in the dumping site by the wall overlooking the train. For a brief while, the presence of the garden led to a cessation of dumping. Occasionally someone leaves a discarded toilet or tub, which we repurpose and use as planters. Deborah, one of the strongest people I know, cries silently. “This is horrible,” she points out a tomato plant, shit smeared down the sides of the planter.

Someone must have picked up a dog, squeezing its belly like a ketchup dispenser, spraying the shit everywhere.

As I squeeze the chocolate syrup on top of a vanilla cup, the very sweaty customer lets out a groan. “That syrup is probably the most solid thing in that cup,” he says. I feel terrible and I tell him as much. It’s not like this should be a surprise. All the way up the line people are pointing out the melty ice cream in astonishment. What are they going to do, go somewhere else? Everywhere, the same blown grid. The same tragic situation. I hand the man his change, avoiding eye contact as he stiffs me on the tip. His sweat drips onto his side of the takeout window, just as the ice cream will soon follow the same trajectory.

I’m getting good at recognizing the different types, the taxonomies. Little dog, medium dog, big dog. Human. The horrors of the smells.

Hector has been driven a bit crazy by all of this. He’s taken to staying up all night, perched with coffee and lawn chair, inside the community garden entrance. He’s on stakeout, he calls it. When I arrive at the garden to get the supplies for my cleanup shift, Hector’s got some guy by the neck. He’s on top of the dude pushing his head towards a pile of dogshit on the sidewalk. “Motherfucker, this is payback.”

“Hector! That’s not the mad shitter, that’s Ephraim,” Deborah yells, running up from around the corner. “He’s a garden volunteer.”

“Look, I’ve got my dog’s poop in a bag,” the guy says, waving a gushy blue bag.

“Sorry,” Hector says. “I see a dog walker near the garden, I flip out.” With his foot, he sweeps away some of the garbage away from the bodega candles by the garden entrance. He brushes a leaf off a picture of a young man fastened to the fence with zip ties. Ephraim, the garden volunteer says something, but I’m taken by the candles, the stoic assertion of the flames. I know the face in the picture. Part of the group of guys who drink on the sidewalk outside the garden. Could’ve sworn I just saw him the other day.

One customer, a nice old women from the church where we used to have girl scouts, gives me very detailed directions on her ice cream sundae. “Just another scoop, here. Now lay the banana across, nice, good.” Who am I to begrudge anyone their futilities, I who have been assiduously scooping liquid all afternoon. She tips me two dollars as her banana sinks into the ice cream.

Mr. Tibbetts sits, head in hands, face possibly covered in tears, but it could be sweat. “Finished, I’m finished,” he says. “You are a good girl. It is up to your generation to come up with a solution. We crawled out of the sea, evolved from apes, all that we’ve weathered. The transition from feudalism to capitalism, we made it so far. It’s just too hot, humans can’t live like this.”

He says more, but I don’t follow, I’m thinking of humans crawling back into the sea, an all-consuming, biblical sea of melted ice cream.

“Flee. We must flee.” Mr. Tibbetts still carrying on. His bowtie uncharacteristically rumpled. “This place is an institution. Built it up from the ground. We made people happy. We were there for them when they lined up after little league games. We were there for their birthdays. We employed people. You are good girl. You must survive this, work for a future worth living. Flee!”

Where will we flee to?

I scoop more liquid onto a customer’s cone. “There you go, rocky road, sprinkles on top.”

Young Maggie accompanied me yesterday. Sweet, young Maggie, absolutely the most pleasant, upbeat human, not an ounce of cruelty in her. Together we sang joyous songs. She sculpts common experience into song the way I sculpt the scoops into cones. With purpose, unashamedly. Walking to the ice cream parlor, woo hoo! Everyone will be so happy, woo hoo! The boys hurl epithets and handfuls of muddy gravel. The gravel muddies our Cream Beacon uniforms a bit, but we keep our chins high.

Today, Maggie doesn’t have the energy to come help me. She says it’s the heat, but I wonder if it was the boys. If I have ever felt something so resembling hate, I feel it for them. “She’s not well, mother says, she needs to stay home and rest. The heat just too much. I wish it would rain and take the edge off. Cool things off some.” It hasn’t rained in forever.

It’s been raining so long I can’t remember what it was like in the days before. Will the rain ever stop? Will the shitting ever stop? No one person, no one dog can be behind this. It’s got to be some kind of concerted campaign. I’m sure of this.

Hector scoops a tremendous shit that looks like it came from a moose into a contractor bag. He’s got knee high fisherman’s boots on.

Running for the bus through Poop Alley, that’s what the kids call it, the strip of street that crosses over the surface line, where the train ravines the neighborhood, making the rows of drab apartment blocks look like a badly assembled montage. We’re running for the bus in the rain, first my daughter, then me. The bus barely moves among the truck traffic, but it’s dry. Through the resentful stares they register their olfactory displeasure. My boots and hers have brought the shit with us. “Papa, I don’t think this is dog poop.” The halitosis tinge, reek of rotting innards and humanity rendered something interminably foul. We leave the bus, make our way home in the rain. No way can she go to school like this.

A group of kids pass by, cartoon characters on their umbrellas. Hector’s on some bullshit about the youth, “…their fresh faces, fresh smells…so clean, like that new car smell…”

Deborah stares out at the traffic, forever clogged, never moving. “Cars, the highest stage of civilization,” she says.

Mr. Chablis, that’s what they called him. The latest local memorialized on the fence around the garden. Where they got the picture zip tied to the chain link I have no idea. Must’ve come from a family member. This Mr. Chablis is from another era, younger, with a smiley glow, in a tuxedo. Where could the photo have been taken? A wedding? I only knew him as someone drinking wine from a paper bag, engaged in screaming matches with some of the other street characters. The carboard box shielding the bodega candles is getting soaked, the flames still flicker hopefully. Someone has smeared shit on the inside of the box and the base of the candles.

I have no strength left to fight this. If only there was somewhere to flee to.

Rico Cleffi’s work has been published the Brooklyn Rail, Flatbush Review, Urban Omnibus, the Village Voice and elsewhere. He edits the radio-issues website, Frequency and Amplitude ( He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his days attempting to traverse the sidewalk without messy encounters with man’s best friend’s chief export.


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