The Good Humor Man, Or, Calorie 3501
By Andrew Fox, Marty Halpern
Tachyon Publications Copyright © 2009 Andrew Fox
All rights reserved.
I remember cheese.
I remember pizza; real pizza. Deep-dish, Chicago-style, four-cheese pizza, fresh from the oven, the cheese steaming and bubbling on top like cooling lava.
We go over a sharp rut in the road. I'm in the Good Humor van, heading for Mex-Town. My balls have shrunk to the size of raisins. Whatever we're about to be faced with, it won't be a cake walk, like this morning was.
Two call-outs in one day. It's almost beyond belief. Our squad hasn't responded to more than one outbreak per quarter in nearly fifteen years. What in God's name is going on? It's almost as if an epidemic of gluttony has broken out in Southern California.
"Hey Lou, you feel comfortable handling one of these?" Mitch, my partner, my best friend, fondles a sawed-off shotgun in his lap like a favorite grandchild.
"No. I don't." The thought of using a gun terrifies me almost as much as the thought of having to make a show of force in Mex-Town.
The van is crowded with twice its normal complement. Mitch called in the San Clemente squad for backup. We've never worked with them before. I glance at their unfamiliar, nervous faces in the rear-view mirror and feel perspiration gather on my palms.
We're all old men. Alex, Jr., at forty, is the baby of the group, a quarter-century younger than most of us; he only suited up this morning because his father passed away two months ago and left us a man short. We belong out on a golf course, playing the back nine ... not in the most anarchic part of the county, hunting for dangerous contraband.
Thousands of pounds of genuine American cheese, left over from before the nutrition laws, before the geneticists got their hands on the food supply, before the Second Great Depression. If they could manage to sell it, those Mex-Town thugs would end up the nation's wealthiest men. They've got a prize worth killing for.
This morning's raid was different. It felt like carnival time, like the old, good times. A couple blocks away from the community gym, our target, Mitch turned on the recorded calliope music, and I'd smiled. I appreciate tradition. We were going to make a show of it. We were going to show the young folks, the ones who'd never seen us pull off a raid, what the Good Humor Men were all about.
Mitch pulled the truck into the parking lot of the Rancho Bernardino Municipal Gymnasium. It felt bizarre that we were about to raid the gym; engaging in gluttony on these premises was like trying to snow ski on the rim of an active volcano. But it was nearly Christmas time, and the holiday season has always been when the weak-willed are most likely to take stupid risks.
We barged through the entrance, "Camptown Races" still blaring behind us. Sweaty faces of all ages turned in our direction, eyes wide. Mitch took the point. Seeing him in front of me, lugging his dragon, his miniature flamethrower, over his shoulder, thrilled me with a shower of memories. For a few seconds, I was a young man again, a commando fueled by delicious resolve. A zealot for a good cause. A believer.
Once the shock began fading from the onlooking faces, it was replaced by hesitant smiles, then a few thumbs-up signs. They were going to get to see a spectacle. Many of them had never seen us on the job; they'd only seen us driving our truck in the Thanksgiving Day parade. One young woman, dressed in gray, shapeless exercise clothes, began clapping. Her smile only accentuated the painful thinness of her face.
As we walked toward the offices in the back, the applause spread. Pour it on, I thought. This was the sound I'd been anticipating even more than the calliope music. Applause, public approbation, the affirmation of the good I do in the world.
Brad bashed in the doors that led to the main office with the butt of his rifle. An old pro, like Mitch, he knew when to play to his audience. We crashed an old-fashioned office Christmas party. Sheet cake, red and green Christmas cookies, and some cloudy liquid substance in a punch bowl, probably a rough analogue of eggnog. Some idiot had opened the rear window and was frantically tossing potato chips, chocolate, and cartons of some sort of ice cream into the lot behind the building. As if that would do him any good.
"Brad, collect their health insurance cards," I said. It felt like reciting words from a script, playing a character. This isn't really me, I wanted to explain to the dozen county employees in the room. Soon to be ex-employees.
One man stared at Brad and me with pleading eyes. "I — I didn't get a chance to eat any of this stuff. I just got here. Ask them —" he gestured to his coworkers "— ask any one of them. They'll tell you. I didn't eat none of this stuff. Can't you, maybe, let me off easy?"
"You know we can't," I said. I despised him, as if he were a cockroach scurrying across the toe of my shoe. Someone always thinks they deserve special treatment. "Down the gullet or not, just being in the same room with this contraband makes you an accessory."
"But my health card — I need it —"
"Stay clean and you'll get it back in five years."
When the man refused to hand over his wallet, Brad dug it out of his pocket. It was as though he'd plucked out the man's heart. "But you don't understand — I get these seizures, and I need my pills — you gotta understand, there's no way I can afford the pills without my health card —"
My contemptuous feelings toward him evaporated. I'd prayed I could dodge the gut blow this one time, but I couldn't. Every damn raid within the past five years, I've hit this damn wall. I'm a physician. A healer. How could I deny a man his meds? But if I weakened, the whole edifice would collapse.
Mitch came to my rescue, as he always does. "Mister, you should've thought of that before you dug your fingers into the sheet cake."
"Everybody lock and load," Brad says from behind the wheel. "Welcome to Cheese City."
I tug on my Kevlar vest, trying to keep it from pinching my neck. It smells musty. They're relics, dusty fossils from the old wild days, from before our raids ossified into run-of-the-mill fire shows.
I glance warily at the three barrels of gasoline stuffed into the back of the van. Whatever happens this afternoon, it sure as hell won't be a run-of-the-mill fire show.
Empty government surplus food cartons litter the street. Dozens of residents loiter in the square surrounding the post office. Four pallets of cartoned cheese sit at one end of the square. Several men are distributing boxes.
"Mitch, you're the man," Brad says. "Do we stop here?"
"Not right now," Mitch answers. "This is penny-ante stuff here. We've gotta see how far this crap has spread. Remember those directions I gave you for the warehouse? Drop me and Lou and the gasoline off there first. If we're lucky, the bulk of the cheese is still down there. Then the rest of you do a recon, sniff out the worst spots. Split up and go to work."
The leader of the San Clemente squad stares out the window, slack-jawed. "Jesus ... I hope like hell we don't have to go house to house. That'd take a month and a day ..."
No one scatters when we drive past. A couple of old-timers scowl and raise middle fingers. The younger residents only shoot us curious stares.
"Doesn't look like they're used to seeing Good Humor Men," I say.
"They aren't," Mitch answers. "We've never screwed with them much. They want to fuck up their own health, that's A- OK by me. Most of 'em aren't real Americans, anyway. But this time, they've crossed the line."
A kind of no man's land separates Rancho Bernardino from what's now called Mex-Town. The whole area used to be part of the same municipality, the city of Rancho Bernardino. But twenty-two years ago, the lighter-skinned, upper-middle-class portion of the city split itself off from the darker-skinned, working-class portion. The no man's land is an empty, late-twentieth-century commercial district of abandoned strip malls and rubbish-strewn gas stations. Sad shells of old Dairy Queens and Taco Bells are tattooed with obscene graffiti.
The retreat of suburbia has emboldened the local wildlife. Two deer block our path. A buck and a doe. They hold their ground, not budging an inch as Brad is forced to slow down and swerve around them. They're starving. The flesh papering their protruding ribs looks thin as cheap aluminum foil. Once they're sure we won't stop to feed them something, they return to their feeble grazing of the tall weeds alongside the road.
"Poor things," Mitch mutters. "If I had my deer rifle with me, I'd put them out of their misery. They'd be my twenty-third and twenty-fourth kills this month. No sport's left in it anymore. They practically beg me to shoot 'em."
"You've shot twenty-two deer so far this month?" I watch the emaciated creatures dwindle behind us and finally disappear into clouds of road dust. "I always thought there were limits on how many deer you could kill in a single season."
"Not this year," he says, his tone forlorn. "Or last year, neither. In fact, hunting season's been extended to practically year round, ever since neighborhoods all over started getting overrun by deer. Deer that look just like those two poor bastards back there. Haven't you had some come begging around your place?"
"I haven't been able to keep flowers or vegetables in the ground in my back garden for months. I thought the problem was rabbits. What's behind this? I wasn't aware that Southern California's been suffering a drought."
"We haven't been. Rainfall's been normal. Ain't been a shortage of any of the vegetation deer normally feed on. They're eating. But from the looks of them, they might as well be eating air."
Eating air ... "Have you asked your friends in Parks and Wildlife about this? Maybe it has something to do with pesticides, or runoff from crops getting into streams?"
Mitch shook his head. "Smart folks have been looking into this for over a year now. They ain't come up with a thing. The deer eat as much as they always have — more, in fact; the poor bastards spend every waking minute eating, but not a bit of it sticks to their bones. These past six months, my kills aren't even worth dragging home."
Would deer eat cheese? That old-fashioned, semi-organic stuff now floating around these parts has to be the highest calorie-per-ounce foodstuff left in North America. "Mitch, what do you know about this ex-government warehouse?"
"Most of it is underground," he answers. "An old federal facility. Hasn't been actively used since the mid 'teens. The old Department of Agriculture built it to store surplus dairy commodities — butter, powdered milk, and cheese."
"You say it's underground?" Brad asks, not looking away from the rutted, dusty road ahead.
"Not all of it. Just the main part. The feds took advantage of a system of natural caves to save some money. The temperature in the caves stays a steady fifty-eight to sixty degrees Fahrenheit, year round. Saved 'em a mint on electricity costs. The only portions they had to cool down were the chambers where they stored the butter and the cheese."
"But Mitch," Alex says from behind me, "you say this place hasn't been actively used in twenty-five years. Wouldn't all that stuff have gone bad years ago?"
"The butter, yes," I interject. "But the cheese ... the cheese wasn't a completely natural product, not even back then. Federal surplus cheese was heavily laced with preservatives. So long as the refrigeration equipment remained functioning, there's no reason why that cheese, sealed in air-tight plastic, wouldn't be perfectly edible, even now."
"So who's been paying the electric bills all this time?" Alex asks.
"The feds have," Mitch answers. "They just haven't been aware of the fact. Four miles from the underground warehouse, there's a military base. The base has its own generating plant. When the warehouse was built, the Army let the Ag Department run an underground line from the base's electrical plant to the cold-storage facility. Lot of water under the bridge since then. The military forgot about the line, but it's been humming along, keepin' all that cheese nice and chilled these past twenty-five years."
"Our tax dollars at work," Brad mutters, speeding through a red light. "So if the feed line and the cheese were so forgotten, how'd they get remembered all of a sudden?"
"A technician uncovered the feed line while he was making repairs on a generator. He and his partner couldn't locate the line on any of their schematics, so they decided to follow the line and see where it led. They followed it right to the warehouse, and eventually it led them into the caves. Where they found the coolers. And the cheese."
"How do you know all this?" I ask.
"If things had gone right for that technician and his partner, I wouldn't know nothin'. Neither would anybody else, except maybe their black-market connection. It didn't take them long to realize they'd stumbled on a gold mine. That cheese — thousands of five-pound bricks of it stacked twenty feet high — was worth millions to the right people. Those two perps started sneaking it out of the warehouse in the middle of the night, a pallet at a time. Only problem was, the warehouse was situated in the wrong kind of neighborhood; pussy-footin' around at three in the A.M. don't help you if half the town sleeps during the day and stays up all night. Real fast, their conspiracy of two started growing; they were having to pay off more and more of the local characters in blocks of cheese. In a situation like that, a secret's got the shelf-life of raw meat at a dog-fighting match."
The lead man of the San Clemente squad speaks up. "So who tipped you off?"
Mitch smirks. "Even in Mex-Town, there're still folks who believe in what us Good Humor Men stand for."
The sun hovers low in the west, a shimmering blood-orange. I tell myself I should be happy Mitch has selected me for his partner. He's definitely the handiest with a firearm. But the notion of going underground with a wagon-load of gasoline isn't comforting at all.
Brad turns off the main thoroughfare onto a side road lined with tiny bungalows the color of mud. "That it ahead, Mitch?" he asks. "Doesn't look like much."
"Yeah. It's like an iceberg. Ninety-nine percent of it's beneath the surface."
We drive through open, rusted gates. I can still make out part of a sign that hangs askew: Property of U.S. Govt. The buildings are unimpressive — a low-lying office complex constructed of cinder blocks, and three taller warehouse structures made of sagging corrugated metal.
There's another truck parked by what looks like a main entrance. A big, unmarked truck with a thirty-foot box on back. Inside the box are five or six pallets of cheese.
I climb out of the van and stare at the contents. Six pallets, with each pallet holding maybe sixty cases of cheese ... I'm looking at close to a half-million dollars of black-market contraband.
"Mitch, what do you want to do with these pallets in the truck?"
"They can wait until we come back out," he says, climbing down. "You got your radio on you?"
I check the box hanging from my belt. It's old and dusty. Who knows whether it still works? "Got it."
"Aren't you missing something else?"
Am I? I've got my medical bag slung over my shoulder. I shake my head.
"This, dummy." Mitch holds up a second shotgun that he's taken from the van. He motions to toss it to me.
"I don't want it, Mitch."
He scowls. "I don't care whether or not you want it, Lou. You're taking it. Everyone carries a gun on this mission. No exceptions."
He hands me the shotgun. I feel like a little boy handling a stick of dynamite. "The shells — they're loaded with plastic buckshot, right?"
Mitch smiles his lop-sided grin. "Heh. Yeah, right, Lou. Right." He turns back to the other men in the van, who've finished unloading the gasoline into the cart I'll be pulling. "Plan to be back here in forty-five minutes to pick us up. I'll radio when we're all done."
"Sure thing, Mitch," Brad answers. "Good luck. And have fun." A minute later the van is generating a dust plume that floats lazily back in our direction. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Good Humor Man, Or, Calorie 3501 by Andrew Fox, Marty Halpern. Copyright © 2009 Andrew Fox. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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