Working for the Ice King
When Royal came back from California, his uncle Randall arranged a job for him working at an ice factory in Atlanta for Elijah Barkley, who called himself the Ice King. It wasn’t much of a factory, really, just one machine that was loud and took up most of the room. Royal and another man, named Michaux, worked eight-hour shifts breaking up the giant blocks of ice the machine produced, one at a time, each one bigger than a pick-up truck. They hacked at the block with pickaxes and then hatchets that dulled in a week till they were more like hammers. They worked themselves into a sweat even though the machine made it cold enough that they could see their breath when they worked. A delivery truck came every day at four pm to collect Royal and Michaux’s work, and the next hour, they cleaned up, pushing a broom around the floor. The only thing to sweep up was the wrappers they brought their lunch to work in; the machine pulled ice from the air, and whatever they didn’t load into the truck melted down the drain in the concrete floor.
It was loud when the machine was turned on, so when it was turned off, Royal would have liked to talk a bit with Michaux since he didn’t know anyone in the city. But Mr Barkley told him Michaux didn’t talk. Royal figured him for some kind of Indian, from his looks, but with a name like that he could’ve been French, which would have been just Royals’ luck, since he didn’t speak anything but English. Since Michaux didn’t speak, Royal sang, mostly old church songs or what he remembered from the radio, while they closed up shop every night. Then he walked to his apartment where the landlady was always asking him to be more quiet, even though he barely talked.
One day Mr. Barkley came in and told them he was closing down the factory for two weeks to bring in a new and bigger machine. To keep the two of them busy, Barkley offered Royal and Michaux 500 dollars to paint the pitched roof of the ice factory bright blue. “I want it to look like heaven,” Barkley said. “A cool, arctic heaven, where the ice in your drink comes from the Ice King of Atlanta. You boys are going to make that happen for me.”
The roof’s pitch was just steep enough that Royal didn’t care to try walking on it, but he bought two extending ladders with the 500 dollars at the same hardware store where they bought gallons of robin’s egg blue paint. Royal bought a hundred feet of rope, too, and tied a knot around the top step of one of the ladders and spent the hour after the delivery truck came trying to throw the rope over the roof. He pulled the ladder up till it was at the top of the roof’s pitch, and the next day he repeated the feat with the other ladder, so the two ladders braced each other at the roof’s peak. Painting would be easy; Royal could climb up and down the steps safely to reach any part of the roof. When he finished a section, he shimmied the ladder down to a part of the roof he hadn’t painted yet. Michaux stayed on the ground and raised up cans of paint when Royal needed them; the rest of the time he smoked Indian tobacco.
When he needed a break from painting, Royal would roll over on his back, brace his feet on the ladder’s rungs, and watch the cars go by on the highway below. It wasn’t Route 20 yet, though it traced the route that 20 would one day cover. Back then, it was known as Old 44 and it curved around the ice factory the way a mother’s arm would hold her baby, and you could drive it all the way down to Jacksonville. The road was full at all times of day, it seemed like, with holiday makers and people in a hurry to get somewhere. Royal had never owned his own car and he didn’t really have any place in particular he wanted to go, but he liked to lay back and daydream about driving like anyone else.
The third day on the ladder, Royal was almost done painting one side of the factory roof and thinking about what he was going to do with his half of the 500 dollars that was left. Maybe he’d get a car and a TV set. Maybe he’d go up north and lord it over his relatives who always said he was nothing and no one. He was taking a break, rolled on his back, and watching the cars go by when he saw the slickest car he’d ever laid eyes on, a lightning blue Dodge Charger convertible. “Hoo-boy,” he hollered down to Michaux. “That’s a car, all right.”
It pulled around the other cars on the freeway the way his Uncle Early passed slower cars at the racetrack in Canton, cutting them off and then roaring away, almost colliding with another car before pulling into another lane at the last second. Royal raised his hand and waved at the trio of young men carried in that car. The driver lifted his hand from the steering wheel to wave back at Royal, opening his mouth so wide Royal could almost hear his laugh, and then the car crashed off the roadway in a straight line toward the ice factory. It stopped short when it collided with a power pole that rocked back on impact and then settled again, the car’s front end bent around it. Royal flinched and nearly rolled off the ladder. Two boys wearing college sweatshirts tumbled out of the car onto the roadway. The driver was trapped behind the wheel, and he was screaming now. The two boys whooped and ran off into the midday sun. Royal called down to Michaux, who was standing below. “You’ve got to help me down,” he shouted. “We’ve got to call the ambulance. Help me down.”
“I’ll be licked!” Michaux shouted in surprise from the ground below, his tongue knocked loose by the shock.
“That boy needs an ambulance,” Royal shouted, shaken up and trying to hold himself steady on the ladder. It was important to remain calm. “Call an ambulance.”
“I’ll be licked and tarred,” Michaux said, like he was talking to himself. “I’ll be licked and tarred.” He shook his head and walked off into the ice factory. Royal hoped Michaux was calling an ambulance. He wanted to do the right thing but he was stuck. On this roof, against this field of blue. They’d been painting it to look like Heaven, for all the cars that passed below. That boy was screaming, other cars slowing down and rubbernecking. How long till the one accident pulled another to it? How did it look to God, up there in the real Heaven, to see Royal up on the roof, cowering on his belly. He didn’t think he could stand to see something like that again. He felt a blast of cold coming up through the roof of the ice factory, and on his body it felt like a burn.