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a small, small world

She waits here every day, across the street from the elementary school, in her barely blue ice cream truck with its peeling paint and rusting fender. The clown painted on the side is still trying to smile, but he's almost worn away.

She burns incense from the health food store to hide the smell of exhaust and cheap cigarettes, to try to set a good example.

"Come on kids," she says to herself, stashing a butt behind some plants and holiday decorations. "I'm ready."

She has been a hitchhiker, a go-go dancer, a hairdresser. She tended bar in New Orleans, where she learned to clean her nails with a straight razor, listen to people and mix a drink. These coconut Popsicles, the ice cream lady can't help but point out, make a fine pina colada.

Now she's Miss Nikki. Everybody here knows her _ in the neighborhoods around Anona Elementary, in the businesses up and down Walsingham Road, in the subdivisions and mobile home parks from Belleair Road to the beaches.

In these few square miles, people are connected in tiny ways. Their kids play together. Their dogs sniff each other. And they buy ice cream from a woman who dyes her hair a shade called Manic Panic, lines her eyes in thick aqua, decorates her truck for every holiday, and wants to matter.

In four years, she's learned almost every face, most of the names, some of the dogs' names, many of the birthdays, a few of the ballet schedules and lots of the stories, piece by piece, every day, to the tune of the same song. It's a small world, after all. She doesn't even hear it anymore, but she knows it's true.

She has one eye on the school doors, her first stop. She can't wait to see them. She carries their pictures in the truck, and lets them write their names on the door: Tay Tay, Bianca, Brittany, Sarah, Lance, Elroy, Marquis, Felicia and Sean.

Sean.

She knew something was wrong as soon as she turned into the neighborhood that day. A little boy stopped her. I wouldn't go down that street, he said. Something's happened to Sean.

My Sean?

She gets attached. She can't help it. She doesn't make as much as the other trucks, she has to work seven days a week lately, because she can't stop talking, because she wants to know them, look out for them. And here they come.

"Heeeeeyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy kids!"

They trickle out, join waiting parents, take quick short steps past George the crossing guard, and then they skip and scamper into the grass and onto the sidewalks toward Nikki Jones. Toward her Sour Water Ice, her Cotton Candy Cyclones, her Double Fudge Bananas, Bomb Pop Tongue Splashers, Maui Wowies, Cherry Collisions, Supertwin Champ Cherrys and Choco Tacos. Toward every imaginable flavor of Popsicle. Toward her special recipe James Bond hot chocolate _ shaken, not stirred.

Here's blond and pigtailed Kaylee gripping her pink bunny. Her father was one of the first to go to Iraq, and when he got home, Miss Nikki watched on television and choked up. Here's Brenden, missing two front teeth, who was a hockey player for Halloween, and Katie, who won a savings bond in an art contest.

And Andrew Nerney, so much calmer and taller than the others because he's 15, just stopping through on his way home from Lakewood High. Such a nice kid. She knows his grandfather and his grandfather's two white bichons. She knows his house. It's beautiful and has a neat lawn.

Andrew wakes up to a quiet house, moving softly to not wake his parents. At 5:26 a.m., exactly, he crosses the dark street to his grandfather's house.

Pretty soon he'll be driving and he probably won't need the company. But for now, his grandfather fills a coffee mug and drives him to the bus stop every morning so he won't have to walk alone. It's two blocks, just five minutes.

Inside the Suburban, they wonder aloud what's going on with the kid on the bus who yelled at the driver. They talk about the woman who sells ice cream on the corner, wonder what kind of life she's had.

Andrew's grandfather, a second-grade teacher, often has a lesson for him. Don't judge people by appearances. Remember not everyone has it as easy as you. Notice how that disruptive boy's mother cares about him, too.

Then the bus pulls in and Andrew gets on for another long ride. His grandfather watches it roll away, the boy's face hidden behind the dark window.

"I miss you on Mondays," Andrew says to Miss Nikki. She smiles.

She grew up around here, too, but when she was Andrew's age she had a strict mom and couldn't wait to get loose. She ran away, as far as the tree across the street, and watched from the upper branches as her mom cried in the front yard. She sneaked back inside and stayed until 11th grade, when she went to beauty school, started cutting hair at JCPenney and got married, the first time.

Her husband went to jail for dodging the war, so at 21 she stuck out her thumb and waited for a car that gave off a good vibe. She hitched to Mexico and bought a guitar, to Monterey where she met Janis Joplin, to Miami to see Steppenwolf, to the Atlanta Pop Festival, to Woodstock.

She did hair on the road, even danced in a bikini, to make enough money to keep moving.

"Never had more than $12 in my pocket, but never needed more," she said. It was just a different world, then. "Wouldn't hitchhike to my mailbox now."

Now in these neighborhoods people try to buy drugs from ice cream trucks. They ask for pills with slang she doesn't recognize. "How dare you," she will say, "in front of a child?"

She grabs kids by the shirt collar and pulls them toward her window when the cars pass too fast on the right. She yells "Slow down, jerk!" at speeders, puts her truck in their path and drives slowly.

She makes the kids say thank you before she'll hand over the ice cream. She makes them clean up when they litter. She talks to them about doing well in school. She takes their abandoned toys to other kids on her route who need them. She does what she can.

The ice cream lady pulls away from the school, leaves boys wrestling in the grass, leaves Roland Singson to clean up the Big Apple Bomb Snappers he spilled on the sidewalk, leaves him with his disappointment that all the snappers snapped at once, and it was all over too fast.

She waves to a guy she waves to every day who never waves back, and then she turns on her song _ it's a small, small world.

She started driving the truck after the decades of cutting hair wrecked her back and numbed her hands. The odometer froze at 94,956 a few hundred thousand miles ago. There's a tiny homemade seat belt on the wheel well by the window, but nobody sits there anymore.

She passes another crossing guard. She waves. He just stares.

"Wave!" she screams out the window. Shakes her head. "George is the only nice one."

She wipes her face. It's December, nearly 80 degrees. She's 55 and the hot flashes are maddening.

At EuroForge, a guy named Jaromir who looks like he could wrestle for a living buys two Reese's peanut butter bars _ one for himself, one for his son.

She thinks they're Russian. They've been working on the same job for more than two years _ massive gates and fencing for a mansion for some ballplayer, or sports team owner, something like that. He doesn't talk about it much, and his accent is so thick sometimes she misses what he says. But she's seen his work and it astounds her, the perfect scrolls all bent by hand, the old way, just hammer and heat.

Jaromir Dub's little boys had brand-new bicycles. In Czechoslovakia in 1987, that was a miraculous thing.

On his way out of town with his wife and three boys, wondering what prison must be like, he pulled the car over and sold the bikes to a cyclist on the side of the road.

"Where are you going?" the man asked.

Vacation, Jaromir told him. Yugoslavia.

The man smiled. "Send me a postcard from America."

It took him 10 years to talk his wife into leaving. He was too scared to tell even his mother what he had planned. He'd forced himself to talk like a commie by reading newspapers and parroting the propaganda. Only when they made it to the refugee camp in Austria did they tell the kids they were not going home.

He had no money and no idea how to make a living. In Czechoslovakia he had made $50 a month as an electrician. There, you decide what you're going to be at 14 and you don't get to change your mind.

He was driving past a blacksmith shop when he saw a giant metal Jesus on a crucifix. The owner asked if he could make something like that.

He'd never worked as a blacksmith, but faking it had gotten him this far.

Oh, sure, he said.

Even on the days he doesn't buy anything, he's always smiling and he always waves when he walks back into his shop, where there are bald eagles everywhere, and a couple of pictures from home in a desk drawer.

Bbbboooooiiiiinnngggg! says the ice cream truck, in its chipper electronic voice.

"That's the sound of my brain snapping," Miss Nikki says, steering the truck out of the lot.

Next stop is Indian Rocks Mobile Home Park off of Walsingham, home to an assortment of dogs that launch into a frenzied chorus at the first notes of the ice cream lady's song.

She's shouting out the window: "Hey, you got a haircut. . . . I thought you were going to play Santa. . . . Catch me a snook."

"Hey! Here are some bubble gum beggars."

Gumballs are free, and out the window they go, into outstretched fingers. She tells the kids that every now and then, they ought to consider buying some ice cream.

"Whattya say? . . . You're welcome."

The park manager, Carl Craig, is flagging her down. He goes to the driver's window and gets to the point.

"Someone told me you're selling drugs," he says.

"That's ridiculous," Miss Nikki says.

She's not surprised. This kind of thing has happened before.

The truth is, there isn't much she hasn't seen or done. She's never turned tricks. Never had any major trouble with the law. But there was a time when there was so much pot in her house it made her young son sick. There were times she had to sit him down, after a fight with one alcoholic or drug-abusing husband or another, and tell him this is not the way things are supposed to be.

But she says she straightened that out. Her son was 6 then. He's 33 now, and he doesn't drink or smoke or make the mistakes she did.

He has made Miss Nikki a grandma. She tries to be a good one.

"I love the way you come right up and tell me," Miss Nikki says.

"That's why I have to come up and ask, straight out," Carl says.

"It's totally absurd."

She's the only ice cream truck allowed in this park. Carl likes the way Miss Nikki keeps the kids in line. And he liked how eager she was to let him run a background check on her. He sends her on her way.

When she leaves the park, having settled the Milk Bone cravings of Dixie, Copper, Ahgeema and Oengus, Nikki is still thinking about what Carl said.

"I love my people too much to hurt them," she says.

She slips on her flip-flops to deliver two Dr Peppers and a bottle of water to Danielle, Bob and Richard at the hair salon. They have a 50-cent Coke machine, but that doesn't stop them from buying $1 drinks from Miss Nikki.

Back in the truck, it's still on her mind. "One girl, she's always trying to sell me jewelry she shoplifts," she says. "I've got kids running up to me with weirdos following them and stalking them. They know I'm a haven. They know they can jump right in the truck.

"I mean, I've got people thinking I'm a pimp, they want me to fix them up with women.

"Give me a break."

She hits an at-home day care, skips Emily's house because she's still at ballet, and goes to see Autumn's Unchained Melody, who posed as Miss October in a national chow breed calendar. Miss Nikki leans out the window, way out.

"She won't jump up," she says. "She's a lady."

On another street, Sunny the collie creeps gingerly up to the truck. It took her three years to coax him down the driveway. He was raised in a cage and is terrified of strangers, but she's not a stranger anymore.

Around the next corner, there is a girl with a wild shock of hair, hopping on one foot.

"Hi, baby girl."

Mikaila is 3. She ran out of the house in her socks.

"She's been waiting on you," her mother says.

"Can I have Aladdin ice cream?" Mikaila says, her voice a soft squeak.

But the ice cream lady doesn't sell that.

"And you need to get away from the $2 stuff," says her mother, Jaime Utterback.

Mikaila gets Dora the Explorer. Her mom scans the street for Josh, who is around here somewhere.

"Cookies and cream," she says. "That's what my son gets, right?"

Joshua got his wish last year.

He was 7. He could have asked for anything.

"I want my family," he said.

Now they are crowded into a three-bedroom house with his sister, mother, grandparents and great aunt, two to a bed. His mom is looking for work, trying to replace all the clothes and toys that wouldn't fit in the Daewoo when they drove here from Ohio so they could be together.

Josh heard his mom on the phone, talking to churches and charities and the fire department, asking for help with Christmas. She's never had to do that before. He asked if Santa was real.

In Ohio there had been snow. But here there is sand and lighted lawn flamingos.

His sister Mikaila asked, "Is there Christmas in Florida?"

"Of course," her mother said.

"Will Santa be able to find me?" Mikaila asked.

"Of course," her mother told her, hoping it was true.

"See you next Wednesday, right?"

Right.

"If I don't run out, I don't have money," the mother says. "So keep going."

When Miss Nikki's granddaughter was little, she used to ride with her by the window, strapped into the little homemade seat belt.

When school was in session, Rebekka would eat one cherry screwball each afternoon while they talked. In the summers, Miss Nikki would say to her, "You're with me now, kid," and together they would eat five or six screwballs and a couple of sprinklers.

They played punchbuggy until Rebekka declared that there was too much violence in the world, and after that they played hugbuggy. Every time they spotted a PT Cruiser, they'd hug.

They talked about school and ice skating and everything else. By the end of the route, Miss Nikki was always hoarse.

Then, a couple of years ago, her son went looking for his father.

Miss Nikki hadn't seen Big George in years. He had walked into her bar in New Orleans one day when she was 21. She scanned all 6 feet 5 inches of him and determined that he should father her child. Not long after, on the back of his motorcycle on a bridge over the Mississippi River, she told him so. The bike swerved, but Big George recovered, and three months later Nikki was headed back to Florida, pregnant.

Three decades later her son found Big George in Melbourne, restoring cars. Pretty soon he moved there, and took Rebekka with him.

Miss Nikki is glad he found his dad. She hand-picked Big George, after all, and she believes she chose well.

But it's too quiet in the ice cream truck now.

There's a pack of kids at the end of the street. Josh Utterback is riding his bike around, making so many friends he actually keeps a running count of them. His total is higher now than it was in Ohio.

Kelzy Kent and Brittany Hall, best friends and neighbors, are bragging about their friend Katie, who won an art contest.

Brittany buys an ice cream for her brother, and then her eyes wander to the poem Miss Nikki posted on the truck's door, decorated with butterflies.

It's a poem for Sean Caroline. He was a friend of hers.

His birthday was a few days ago. Miss Nikki played Happy Birthday when she went down his street that day. But most days, she turns the music off so his parents won't have to hear.

He would have been 13, if he hadn't gone to a friend's house where someone left a loaded .357 under the couch.

The boy who shot him was one of her regulars too. The day it happened, she saw Sean's grandmother at the house, hugging a tennis shoe. She took peach cobbler to the family and cried for two days.

"What did you do to your poem?" Brittany asks.

"Made it pretty with flutter-bys," the ice cream lady says. "Sean's mom likes flutter-bys."

She had forgotten her glasses, and the words were hard to read. In front of her the church was filled with faces she knew, but she wasn't used to seeing them so sad.

She wrote the poem for Sean that morning, then she drove the ice cream truck to his funeral. She thought people wouldn't know who she was, without the blue truck.

"I'm the ice cream lady, and I love what I do," she read. "I wish all my kids were as polite as you."

Sean hardly ever bought ice cream. But he was so funny, so sweet. He never begged like some kids do.

"I always looked forward to seeing you on the days I came by,

"You would come out to see me and just to say hi."

She was always giving the kid ice cream for free. She couldn't help it.

She felt a knot in her throat. The words kept getting blurrier and blurrier.

"So listen up kids to the ice cream lady's plea.

"To always do good, and be the best you can be."

She drove away in the ice cream truck, and when she couldn't avoid it any longer, she turned on the happy music, crying behind the wheel.

Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 893-8848 or benhamsptimes.com.

Nikki Jones loves the kids. She knows their faces and most of their names, their stories and what kind of ice cream they like. She has driven an ice cream truck for four years, a truck she decorates for all the holidays. Her T-shirt honors a special customer, a 12-year-old named Sean Caroline.

Across the street from their school, Anona Elementary, Nikki Cline, 9, left, shares an orange Popsicle with her sister, Kyla Cline, 10. Behind them, Stephanie Grote, 9, has one of her own.

Costan Balgobin, 6, discusses his options with Miss Nikki after chasing her down the street to get her attention. "Me! (gasp) Run! (gasp) And my house! (gasp) Is back there!" he panted.

Jaime Utterback chats with her daughter Mikaila, 3, after Mikaila cut her foot while playing. Mikaila and her brother Josh are regular customers of Miss Nikki's ice cream truck on Wednesdays. "If I don't run out, I don't have money," the mother tells Miss Nikki. "So keep going."

Blacksmith Jaromir Dub touches up a Mediterranean-style gate at a home in Tampa. His Largo business, EuroForge, is on Miss Nikki's ice cream route, and he always finds time for a warm greeting, if not an icy treat.

Cherry and blue-raspberry screwballs and a Fruti Holanda are moments away from eager fingers. Nicky Lefebvre, 4, left, and Andrew Kanaan, 3, can hardly wait.

Canine customers get doggy treats from the ice cream lady. Copper, left, and Dixie wait impatiently as their owner, Marti York, tries to hold them back at Indian Rocks Mobile Home Park.

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