That week we hung the sign outside: Scoops. It seemed a little hipster for my taste, but Kenneth had his heart set on it. This had been his goal for more years than I’d known him. He wept when the workman bolted it in place. I teased him pretty hard about it, but he didn’t flinch or even get defensive. The tears just flowed. I hugged him.
Rather than simply replace the big picture window, Kenneth spent the last of our building fund on an artist from up town. She put two stained glass ornamental ice cream scoops in the center of the window with large stretches of clear glass all around it and an alternating stained glass border around the edges. I know it sounds gaudy. Heaven knows I thought it would be, and, I was right, it truly was gaudy, but somehow it worked. It set just the right tone.
On a Saturday in July, three months before my due date, we opened. They trickled in at first in two’s and threes, but soon they began to swarm. Oscar had brought the whole block.
People laughed and talked and sat out on the stoop with their free cones. Kenneth took orders at the counter while I waited on tables and Kenny practiced his soccer kicks. Free ice cream is always a draw.
At about the height of the noontime rush they suddenly vanished. Kenneth looked up from the ice cream buckets to find not a soul in the place. I walked out of the back room to find an empty house. It’s like someone came in and told people they could get paid to eat ice cream down the street. Then we heard footsteps on the stoop.
A tall, thin man in a pristinely white suit and a red tie pushed open the door with his cane. He was in his early fifties, with graying black hair he’d unsuccessfully attempted to die and a well-oiled mustache. Two gruff men flanked him.
“No one invited me to the party?” he asked. He placed his cane on the counter and crossed his arms.
“You didn’t get your invitation?” Kenneth asked. Kenneth leaned back, scoop still in hand, and crossed his own arms. “Rock mail just isn’t what it used to be.”
“Oh, so you did receive my letter,” the Duke said. “Here I thought that we might not be having this conversation if you had received it.”
Kenneth turned his most charming smile on the man before him. “I felt it would be worse to rob you,” Kenneth said.
In one swift motion the Duke’s hand shot to Kenneth’s throat and pulled him over the counter. I screamed, but it did little good.
“And what is it that you think you’re doing now?” he asked. “This is my neighborhood. These are my people. I own this place.”
“Not,” Kenneth said in a choked voice, “according to the dee-”
The Duke squeezed harder. “There is more to ownership than paper,” he said.
“Forgive me, good sir,” replied Kenneth through a strained voice box. “Might I offer you the best ice cream you’ve ever had?”
The Duke let out a laugh and relaxed his grip just a little. “You’ve got cahones, friend.”
“May I?” Kenneth asked. He pointed with the scoop.
The Duke released him. Kenneth righted his shirt and apron and began scooping.
The Duke took off his jacket and laid it on the stool next to him. Next he undid his cufflinks and rolled back his sleeves. His arms seemed small and spindly without the cover of fabric.
Kenneth set a bowl of our finest work on the counter and slid it over to the Duke. For the final flair Kenneth added a spoon and a maraschino cherry.
“What? No whipped cream?” the Duke asked with a chuckle. To this day I have no idea whether he was joking or serious.
“I don’t believe in it,” Kenneth replied. He grabbed the rag and wiped the counter clean of drippings. He finished and threw it over his shoulder. “It dilutes the flavor.”
The Duke smiled and filled his spoon. “Now you realize, my friend, that if this is not the best ice cream I have ever had there will be… Well, let’s just use the word: consequences. You sure you want to take that chance?”
Kenneth squared his shoulders and looked him in the eye. “If it’s not the best ice cream you’ve ever had,” he said, “I don’t deserve to own this shop.”
“Good,” the Duke said, “because I’m not only going to reclaim this rat hole, I’m also going to make your wife a widow just for lying to me.” He smiled. My blood ran cold.
Before Kenneth could reply the Duke put the spoonful in his mouth.
He rolled it around with his tongue. He smiled and spat it on the counter.
“You’re a good liar. I hate chocolate but this was almost palatable.” He patted Kenneth’s cheek. “For your courage: Today, you live.” He grabbed Kenneth by the back of the neck and slammed Kenneth’s face down on the counter and held it there. I screamed and jumped towards him, but one of the Duke’s bodyguards put up a hand and I froze.
The Duke leaned in close to Kenneth’s ear as he held him down on the counter. “Tomorrow, well…” he said. “Tomorrow may be different.”
He let Kenneth go, then stood up, fixed his shirtsleeves, and put his coat on. As he walked toward the door he said, “Dan will be by tomorrow to collect the rent. I guess we’ll see then how different it is.”
The Duke and his goons walked out. The door whispered shut.
I slapped a pack of ice on Kenneth’s face. Luckily he’d turned his head as the Duke threw him down. It saved his nose, but his face looked like a bear had slapped him around.
“We never should have moved here,” I said.
“Nonsense,” he said.