“Ride on an Ice Cream Truck”–James P. Hanley

Danny, barely thirteen, was grinning as he stood on the running board of the Good Flavor ice cream truck, one hand clinging to the passenger side door, the other waving widely until another boy ran to the side of the vehicle and grabbed Danny’s hand to pull himself up. Instead, he yanked Danny from his hold on the door handle and both fell off. The boy who had tried to climb on rolled slightly and stood up quickly; Danny lay moaning while the unaware ice cream truck driver, dressed in white coat and matching trousers, cuffs smeared with multi-colored ice cream, continued slowly up Forty-Eighth Street, jangling tarnished bells. When Danny tried to stand, his leg gave out and he fell back down. The other boy stared back at him and said, “Your teeth are broken.” A man lifted Danny gently and carried him from the middle of the street, waving gratefully at the stopped traffic. Danny’s mother was talking to a woman across the street, both gesturing for inflection. The man called to her, and turning to see her son carried by a familiar neighbor, she shrieked and ran to where they were.

“He fell from the ice cream truck, Fay. Another boy pulled him off, unintentionally I think,” the neighbor explained.

“What hurts,” she asked Danny as she stood on her toes to be level with his face.

“My leg,” he said.

Reaching into her housedress, she took out a tissue to wipe the blood around his mouth.

“I’ll put him inside your place and get my car to take you both to the hospital. It’ll be quicker than waiting for an ambulance,” the man said as they neared the two-level Brooklyn brownstone.

Fay rushed toward the house and pushed the door open; a small black dog ran out, and she called to him. As the man put Danny on the couch, the dog ran back in and barked at the tall neighbor. Fay sat on the edge of the couch, rubbing her son’s head, her eyes tearing. In a few minutes, she saw the car pull up in front of the fire hydrant at the end of their sidewalk. The man came in, picked up the boy and walked swiftly to the car, Fay following. The drive to Maimonides Hospital on Tenth Avenue took only fifteen minutes; there, a gurney was rolled out, and Danny was placed on the starched sheets.

* * *

Later, the neighbor left and Danny’s father arrived in a cab. The parents spoke to the doctor who told them that the leg was fractured and a cast had been applied. “Keep the boy off that leg and come see me in my office in about two weeks.”

“What about his teeth?” Fay asked.

“That’s not my expertise; you’ll have to see a dentist.”

In the time it took to get the boy checked out, his father had gone home, retrieved the family car, and pulled in front of the circular driveway at the main entrance of the hospital. Danny hopped on one leg and settled into the back seat as they drove home.

At night, Fay came to her son’s room and gave him a pill along with a large glass of cream soda.

“What about school?” the boy asked, lisping.

“We’ll make arrangements. Sharon from next door can bring the assignments home. Remember, I’m a whiz at math,” she said with a forced chuckle, “I can teach you.”

“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Danny said, his voice cracking.

“I know,” she said, stroking his face

While the boy slept, Fay and her husband, Gary, sat in the kitchen at the chrome-rimmed table, which was pressed against the wall leaving a thin path between the table and the stove.

“This will be expensive,” he said, “My medical plan at work won’t cover all the costs. The dental bill will be totally out of our pocket.”

“What can we do?” she asked.

“Sue the ice cream truck company. They shouldn’t let kids ride on the edge of the truck.”

“We’ve never sued anyone before.”

“Let’s see what happens, what the cost of everything will be. Hey,” he added jokingly, “since you’re likely not up for—you know, we can add loss of services.”

In the morning, the boy’s upper lip was swollen, as were the gums above the broken front teeth. Gary stayed home and drove them both to the dentist, arriving for an early morning appointment. “They have to come out,” the dentist said. “I’ll fit him for a bridge after the swelling goes down.”

After Danny woke from the anesthesia, wads of bloody gauze pressed between the bordering teeth, they drove back to the house, the boy sobbing softly in the back seat.

Settling her son on the living room couch and turning on the black and white television, Fay ushered her husband into the kitchen. “Did you pay the dentist the whole amount?”

“No, half. I said to his receptionist that I’d send fifty dollars a month. That doesn’t include the cost of the bridge. False teeth at his age, my god!”

That evening, while he undressed, Gary looked over to his wife who was toweling off cold cream. Her blouse was off, and her bra, unhooked in the back, hung loose over her breast.

“How was Danny when he went to bed?”

“Sore, dreading seeing others, blaming everyone but not meaning it.”

“Why did he do such a foolish thing?”

“You never say that to him, you understand,” she said.

“Well, it was that driver’s fault too for letting them ride on. I’m going to write a letter to that ice cream company. Tell them I’m not happy over what they did to my son, and the expenses.”

“Don’t ever mention expenses to the boy either; he feels badly and you don’t need to add that worry.”

“Will you stop telling me what not to do.”

Fay woke before her husband and looking in her son’s room, smiled as she saw he was sleeping soundly. Later, she brought him thin slices of toast but he shook off the meal. “I’m not hungry.” He said the words slowly as if a test of his shaped breath through the space in the front of his mouth.

By mid-afternoon, he’d recovered enough to hobble into the living room. Shortly after, the doorbell rang and Fay, opening the door slightly, saw a man lean over to peer in the crack between the door and jam. “I’m the driver of the ice cream truck. I wanted to see how your son is.”

She let him in. He was wearing a snug suit with ineptly sown patches on the trouser legs, and a green striped tie on a white shirt. Beads of sweat were lined up below his thinning hair, and he was squinting as if in sunlight.

“How you feeling, boy?” he asked when he saw Danny on the couch.

“I’m…”

“He has trouble talking,” Fay interrupted, “had two front teeth yanked.”

“Oh god. I’m so sorry.”

“Well, I appreciate your stopping by to see how he is.”

“I came also to ask you what you plan to do.”

“I don’t know what you mean?”

“I’m in deep trouble with the company, and they told me if you sue, I’m fired. I can’t lose this job, I have a family—a little girl.”

“You shouldn’t have let kids on your truck,” Fay said.

“It was a mistake, ma’am, but it shouldn’t cost me my job.”

At night, she explained the ice cream man’s visit to her husband, and he responded angrily, “He’s got some nerves, coming around here asking you to do nothing.”

“I sensed he was frightened.”

* * *

Over the next few weeks, Danny’s mouth had healed and he was able to get around the house with crutches. One warm evening, he sat on the front steps watching a group of boys playing stickball. One of the players pointed toward Danny. When a neighborhood boy came over to talk, Danny cupped his mouth while he spoke.

After dinner one night, Danny went into the living room to watch television while his parents stayed at the table. Gary leaned over and said to his wife, “I contacted a lawyer today. I’ve been calling Good Flavor, and I got the runaround until they transferred me to their legal department where I spoke to some rude bastard who said to send a letter. Send a letter, like I’m asking for my money back on an uneaten ice cream cone, not because my kid is busted up and I got big bills.”

“I’ve been watching, and I don’t see the driver that came to see our son. Somebody else is driving the ice cream truck.”

“People just can’t talk, be reasonable,” he said, oblivious of her remark.

In a few weeks, Danny returned to school, having learned to maneuver with crutches. A letter arrived on Good Flavor letterhead, signed by legal counsel, acknowledging receipt of Gary’s letter. The final paragraph stated that the company was not at fault for “the boy’s unapproved and unwise actions.”

“The bastards,” Gary said angrily when he read the letter. “Probably think our son’s a delinquent and we’re uninvolved parents.”

“Don’t let it upset you so. Just talk to the lawyer.”

They were interrupted by the sound of the front door closing. Their son stood in the hallway and tossed his bookbag on the floor near the radiator. When Fay left the kitchen to greet him, the boy moved quickly toward the stairs.

“Danny,” she called after him, “come down and tell me about your day. Your Dad’s home early; I’m sure he’d like to hear, too.”

“What’s the matter?” Gary asked as he stood beside her.

“We need to get those front teeth taken care of. We can’t wait.”

“We will; I don’t think much will happen with that ice cream company for a while.”

They took the boy to the dentist. After visits in which Danny bit down on plaster molds, he was fitted with a bridge of two teeth. When Danny smiled, the metal wires were visible over his side teeth.

“It’s the best I can do for now. A boy his age will outgrow the bridge, so there’s no sense in paying more,” the dentist said.

* * *

Near dusk, Fay finished washing the dishes and went outside. Sitting on the concrete steps, and staring at the sun’s disappearing edge, she was lost in thought, not seeing the pink rubber ball sailing toward her house after being hit by a broom-handle bat. The ball bounced on the sidewalk and lifted high until it rested near a distant tree. She turned toward the faint sound of jingling bells from far down the street, growing louder, drowning out street sounds. The boys playing in the center of the roadway stopped and leaned against the parked cars along the curb while the ice cream truck moved slowly up the street. The jangling stopped when the truck pulled in front of a hydrant and a small line of children clutching coins in their hand, parents watching from a distance, shuffled to the curb edge. She thought that this was a ritual—the white truck, the bells, ice cream pulled from the freezer and given to stretched hands— a pleasant part of the warm months, something these children would recall in adulthood, except for her son who would have a different recollection. In a few minutes, the bell sound restarted as the truck pulled to the center of the street and moved toward the avenue. Fay watched the truck pass, her moist eyes blinking.

The next morning, Fay flipped eggs on to her husband’s plate. He said nothing as she sat across from him.

“You ok?” she asked.

“I’m going to have to work more overtime to pay for everything. This whole lawyer thing is going to take a while and we have bills.”

“From the accident?”

“It wasn’t an accident,” he yelled. “I mean it wasn’t on purpose but it wasn’t, well, just something that happened, no one’s fault. It was that driver’s fault and even Danny’s fault.”

“An accident means no one intended it.”

“I don’t want to argue words with you. I can see you sticking up for our son, but I don’t know why you’re taking that driver’s side.”

Later that day, while in the supermarket, Fay turned into an aisle and a voice startled her.

“Mrs. Minafo,” the man said tentatively.

“Yes.”

“I’m Elliot Brennan, the ice—”

“I know who you are, Mr. Brennan,” she said coldly.

“Please call me Elliot, and can I call you by your first name?”

“It’s Fay; now what do you want?”

“To apologize. I know I said I was sorry last time—”

“When you were trying to talk me out of suing.”

“I know that was wrong. I was upset. For now I’m on suspension—with pay, thanks to the union, but I don’t know what’s going to happen after.”

“We have to protect ourselves, financially, I mean.”

“Oh, I understand completely. Don’t worry about me. You should sue the other boy’s family, the one that yanked him off. If he hadn’t done that,” he didn’t finish the sentence.

“We just want to meet expenses.”

“It would be so simple, but those guys in corporate make things complicated. They don’t give a shit.” He blushed and quickly added, “Excuse my language.”

“Is there anything else, Mr. Brennan?” she asked while reaching for a package of rice.

“I have this hobby—promise you won’t laugh—I make things out of ice cream sticks. I clean them good and I make things.” He was carrying a soiled paper bag and reached inside to pull out a boat formed from bent sticks and a cut square of cotton cloth. This is for your son. I hope he likes it,” he said as he handed the wooden boat to her.

She accepted it cautiously; “I don’t know what you’re trying to do.”

“Make amends, Fay. Make amends.”

After that, as she walked through the neighborhood on chores, she sensed a stare, of being followed at times, but when she turned, sometimes quickly like a child cheating at hide-and-seek, she saw no one. He was like a vapor Fay explained to her husband, transparent but a presence.

Stopping to buy a cup of coffee another day, she saw the ice cream truck driver. He was coming out of a bookstore carrying a small package under his arm. Rushing out, not putting sugar in the dark coffee as was her custom, she watched as he ambled down the street. After hesitating a moment, she walked toward the corner and saw him in the distance. For several blocks she stayed far enough away to follow his steps without being noticed. Finally, he stopped before a gray house with a dark front porch, circled by uncut grass and unopposed weeds. There were shingles missing from the roof, leaving patches of tarpaper visible between the green squares. Fay wondered if he had a wife and child as he’d said—there were no toys on the lawn or driveway. The house was dim as if lit by scattered bulbs; when he took a key from his pocket and opened the door, Fay saw a sparsely furnished room and the edge of a small kitchen. He turned and looked toward her or past her, she couldn’t tell, and a brief grimace formed on his face.

Since that time, she saw him more often—in the supermarket, the drug store—all coincidence, she told her skeptical husband. “He’s probably always been there, in the background, but I never noticed, never had reason to.”

“Does he talk to you?”

“No, and most times he doesn’t even acknowledge me. I think he watches as if to pick up something in the way I look that will tell him what’s happening about the accident.”

“If he’s frightening you—”

“He’s not,” she interrupted. “I feel sorry for him, not afraid.”

“Just be careful about saying something to him that he can run to those corporate lawyers with, like, you wish you’d seen our son get on the truck instead of yakking with a neighbor.”

“Why would I say that,” she said indignantly, “this wasn’t my fault. That’s why I hate all this—the lawsuit and things. Everybody’s blaming, including you.”

“I’m not blaming you but you know how you are, saying things to make people feel better, even when it’s not totally true.”

“You used to think that was a good thing,” she said as she got up and left the room.

While her husband watched Gunsmoke on television in the living room, Fay sat in the kitchen placing playing cards on the table for solitaire. A light breeze pushed the short curtains away from the window over the sink; the dishes and pots were drying on a rack. Humming as if straining, the refrigerator made the only sound in the room. As Fay turned over cards, she thought about the ice cream truck driver— what he did in the winter months, what he was doing then as he waited for a decision on his job. He was, she thought, pleasant looking, the kind of man who would exchange greetings, smile and maybe even ask, how are you, to people he rarely knew. But she realized she was speculating; she knew nothing of the man. Leaving the cards on the table, she went into the living room, still distracted, still with wandering thoughts.

In a few weeks their lawyer called and said Good Flavor was being unreasonable, so he’d filed for a court hearing. Fay wondered how that would impact Elliot Brennan. Dropping a soiled coat at the cleaners later that week, she was startled when Elliot rushed to her and standing close, said, “Fay, I was fired. You have to help me. Tell them you want them to pay your medical bills and give me my job back. Then you’ll drop the suit. I have a record: I was young, stupid and stole a car. But I have a wife and kid now. No one else will hire me, Fay: a record, fired, no one.”

“I can’t change things; it’s gone too far. Lawyers are involved, they’ve filed in court, fees are getting bigger. It’s more than medical bills.”

“And more than my job,” he said sardonically.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry; I’m sorry; your son’s sorry. He gets forgiven, not me. He jumped on my truck and starts all this, but he goes back to school, and my life is screwed up.”

“Don’t you dare blame Danny!” Fay flinched at the expectation of an angry retort but none came. Looking at his face she could see the coloring from the fervor had drained to a pale resolve. Her ire dissolved by his defeated countenance, she wanted to touch his arm, to tell him that everything would be all right—the deliberate lie she’d been using too often lately.

After that, she never saw him again, even as she wandered along the avenue where most stores were. After a few weeks, she drove to his house.

When Gary came home from work, he went into the kitchen and saw that Fay was staring out the kitchen window.

“What’s wrong?”

“I drove by that ice cream truck driver’s house.”

“Why did you do that?”

“He’s gone. There was a for sale sign on the lawn; the house was dark.”

“It’s not our fault, damn it, it’s not our fault,” he said to no one.

JAMES P. HANLEY has had work published in such places as Center, South Dakota Review, Foliate Oak, Wisconsin Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and Macguffin, among others.

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