“The Ice Cream Truck” by Brianne Sandorf
Every afternoon, Simon puts Leigh in the red wagon and pulls him to the bottom of the driveway to wait for the ice cream truck. And every afternoon, Allie lets him.
She doesn’t leave them unsupervised, of course. She still remembers the story of the girl who vanished while waiting for the truck, many years before. They found her quarters in the street and her bike tipped on its side. The back wheel was still spinning.
While Allie’s sons wait, she sits at the card table by the window and watches them to be sure they don’t disappear into the ether. When she dares, she glances at her savings account balance once more.
There’s the $1,000 from her last job, March 13th. The bride and groom canceled the reception. The catered wedding dinner, too. The whole thing moved to the front lawn of a house that had seen better days. A rusted-out truck sat smack in the middle of the grass. Dandelions grew where the tires should’ve been.
Allie offered a partial refund that she couldn’t afford, but the bride’s parents wouldn’t hear of it. So Allie snapped shots of the bride and groom and the small wedding party standing before the minister. She tried to keep the truck out of frame.
The bride wept openly. She and the groom smiled bravely at each other over their clasped hands, but it was clear that they were thinking of the prosciutto-wrapped chicken and chocolate mousse cake the guests would never taste. Or the dozens of lilies and white roses that were supposed to decorate the church during the bridal procession. Or the honeymoon to Fiji they were scrambling to reschedule. Maybe all of them.
Allie knew how she felt. At least, she could imagine. She had a church wedding with a handmade gown, a carving station, and greenery everywhere, followed by a four-day trip to Boston. Her parents scrimped and saved to make all her wedding dreams come true. A cancellation would have crushed her. That’s why she offered the refund. But the couple insisted. They filled her account with what Allie almost thinks of as blood money.
She looks over at her sons as they wait patiently at the edge of the driveway. There are no trees to shade them. When she and Rick bought the brick rambler-style house, they said they would plant trees. One for each child. But when Simon came along, trees were the last thing on their minds. They were too focused on the big, hungry baby and his lusty lungs.
A movement catches her eye. There’s another boy on the other side of the street. The new subdivision, as Allie thinks of it, although the subdivision has been here almost as long as Allie has. Its houses are all big and boxy. They look the same except for the garage placement and varying tones of gray, blue, and mustard.
The boy across the street shouts and waves at Simon and Leigh. Allie recognizes him now. It’s the Cummings kid. Last fall, he talked her boys into giving him the 1990s Radio Flyer wagon from her childhood. His parents could afford to buy him a hundred new ones, yet he wanted that one. And Allie, whose budget didn’t have room for a new wagon even in the best of times, had to initiate a frazzling conversation with his parents to get it back.
Before the boy can cross the street, she raps on the glass. Simon turns. His face lights up, and he shouts, “Mommy! Get your money ready for the ice cream truck!”
She gives him a thumbs-up and the biggest smile she can muster. She knows the ice cream truck isn’t coming. Not with the pandemic. She also knows that if it did, she couldn’t spare the money.
What does it cost in 2020? $5 a treat? $6? That’s money she could spend on other things, needs to spend on other things. $5 is a ten-pound bag of rice, two gallons of gas, a whole pizza at Little Caesar’s.
Allie sneaks another glance at her bank account. $200 left of the ill-gotten $1,000. She’s been careful, but the mortgage and the car payment sucked up most of it. At least there’s the Social Security, which goes to a separate account. It came two weeks ago, and in another two weeks, it’ll come again. She only needs to hold out until then.
The front door bangs shut. Simon runs in, Leigh on his heels. “We got bored,” Simon announces. He looks up at her with big, brown eyes. “Can we wait in here?”
“Of course,” Allie says. She pulls them onto her lap. Together, they wait.
The next day. Thursday, Allie realizes with a start. It’s a Thursday. And on that Thursday, the bill for a doctor’s visit arrives in the mail.
She feels the color drain from her face as she looks at it. She forgot. How could she forget? Leigh had the croup in January. She tried everything she knew, but she had to bring him in. Poor baby, barking uncontrollably from the car seat as they drove to the pediatrician.
Allie tries to think as she looks at the bill. It’s over a hundred dollars. A hundred dollars out. No money coming in until the Social Security arrives.
Where can she get a hundred-plus dollars?
There’s her dad. He’d help her in a heartbeat. But she knows he can’t afford it. He already paid for most of the funeral last year, and that wasn’t cheap.
“Hi, Mom!” Simon bounces into the kitchen.
“Hi, Mom!” Leigh copies Simon. He’s not as big or as boisterous as his brother. He’s in the 10th percentile for both height and weight, and his reserved manners would make Dear Abby proud. But he looks at Simon like his big brother hung the moon. Or the Sesame Street sign.
“Can we go wait for the ice cream truck?”
“Can we, Mom?” Leigh jumps up and down in imitation.
“Of course!” Allie warbles. She clears her throat. “Just don’t leave the front yard.”
“Except to get the ice cream,” Simon presses.
“Except to get the ice cream.” She watches them run down the driveway, Leigh trailing after Simon.
There’s always the boys’ college funds.
No. Allie pushes that thought away as soon as it appears. She would never. She couldn’t. Rick would be so disappointed.
Rick’s not here, says a small voice in her head.
She pushes back again. She must find another way.
The next day (Friday, says the calendar), it’s raining. To keep the boys occupied for the afternoon, Allie pulls an old bottle of men’s shaving cream from the bathroom. She mixes it with food coloring and fills her Tupperware to the brim with the frothing mixture.
“I have a pink beard!” Simon cries as he pats it on his face.
“I have a blue beard!” Leigh says, though it’s more of a blue goatee.
While they play, Allie updates her business’s Instagram. Normally, at this time of year, she’d be rolling in deposits from couples who either had their dream photographer cancel on them or simply waited till the last minute to book services for their summer weddings.
This year, she has no new bookings. She doesn’t even have the balance for the weddings she was supposed to do during this time. Most of her clients emailed her to reschedule for fall. They won’t pay the rest of her fee until the week of their weddings.
“Mommy, can Jorby come over to play?”
“No, Simon,” Allie says absently. “I told you that we can’t have any friends over until people stop getting sick.” She swipes through her portfolio. After years of any and every photography job, she finally got to a point where she could specialize. Now she has to broaden up again.
Allie selects three pictures for her post: a stylized photoshoot of a bride in a champagne gown standing by a lake, a shot of a young family frolicking in a local park, and a portrait of a beaming high school senior sitting on the steps of the capitol building. She writes, “Quarantine specials! Porch photos $25 for 30 minutes. Senior photos $50 for 45 minutes.”
With the mortgage in mind, she adds, “$200 for 90 minutes of engagement, bridal, or wedding photos.”
“Mom!” Simon says. He now has a purple mustache. “What kind of ice cream does the ice cream truck have?”
“Oh, you know,” says Allie. “Mangum bars. Drumsticks. Those ice cream sandwiches made of cookies.”
“Cookies!” cheers Leigh.
“Drumsticks?” Simon’s forehead crinkles.
She smiles. “Not chicken drumsticks. It’s a kind of ice cream cone.”
“Yummy,” he sighs. “That’s what I’m gonna get when the ice cream truck comes.”
Allie feels her smile stick. “Let’s clean up and have lunch.”
As the boys wash their hands, she hits Post and says a silent prayer.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. Allie microwaves two and a half hot dogs (one for each boy; half for her). She puts Leigh down for a nap, then reads Zach’s Alligator to Simon three times. She cleans the tub and the many tub toys, does a load of laundry, and puts on Paw Patrol while she makes a mostly meatless lasagna. The last quarter pound of ground beef doesn’t stretch very far.
The boys are tired and grumpy after staying inside all day. Allie coaxes them into bed and sits with them until they fall asleep. She plants kisses on their sweaty foreheads before making her exit.
She plans to tidy up the post-dinner mess in the kitchen, maybe paint her nails if she’s not too tired. Instead, she finds herself mindlessly refreshing Instagram over and over, willing a red number to appear on the messages icon.
After one refresh, a picture of her friend’s daughter catches Allie’s eye. Her gut twists ruefully. She and Rick planned on a third child. She simultaneously mourns and feels guilty whenever she remembers this. The mourning is for the little girl she longs for and may never have. The guilt comes from knowing that she’s better off with two kids. The gravestone isn’t cutting it as a co-parent.
Still no DMs. Allie goes to bed defeated and alone. She sprawls out so that she takes up as much of the mattress as possible.
While the boys wait for the Saturday ice cream truck, Allie prepares what’s left of the hot dogs. There’s still a little lasagna left, but they’re out of milk, eggs, cheese, bread, and peanut butter. Allie must go to the store.
How, though? She’s dreaded this day, put it off as long as she can. She can’t get a babysitter. Even if someone were willing to watch Simon and Leigh during the lockdown, she couldn’t pay them. And taking them with her is out of the question. Shopping bores them in the best of times. They’ve broken down wailing in the middle of an aisle more times than she cares to count.
Allie taps the glass and waves her boys inside. She wonders, not for the first time, if she’s a bad mother for letting them wait for a truck that’s not coming. But they need the outdoor time, and she needs the minutes to unspool her thoughts.
After they eat, she herds them into the minivan. They wiggle and squirm with excitement as she straps them in. Simon and Leigh haven’t been farther than the end of the driveway in over two weeks.
“Are we going to the movies?” Simon asks, elated. Allie’s surprised by the question. They haven’t gone to the movies since Rick died.
“The library? The park?” His eyes shine with hope.
“We’re going on a drive,” Allie says with all the cheerfulness she can muster. “Mommy needs to go into Gilroy’s for a few minutes, okay? You and Leigh will stay in the car.” It’s not hot outside. She can lock the doors. Just for a few minutes. It’ll be fine.
But it takes longer than expected. Only two lanes are open, and though she has her food in seven minutes, she’s in line for fifteen. By the time she rushes back to the car, groceries in hand, a police officer is talking to Simon through the window.
“These your kids?” the officer says.
Allie nods. She fumbles for her car keys, avoiding eye contact.
“You shouldn’t leave them out here alone.”
She says nothing. There doesn’t seem to be anything to say.
The officer sighs. “Don’t let it happen again.”
“I won’t.” With trembling fingers, Allie unlocks the door. She relaxes only when she hears the officer walking away.
“That police lady was nice,” Simon says. “Why was she wearing a mask?”
Allie tells him that the officer doesn’t want to get sick. Simon asks why they don’t have masks, and Allie starts to tell him, but she stops talking mid-sentence.
Her Instagram icon shows a red notification.
“I am so sorry,” Allie says to Jorby Cummings’s parents. “They’re usually better behaved.”
To her everlasting surprise, her first booking is the wealthy Cummingses. She feels awkward since the last time she saw them, she roundly criticized their son for the wagon incident. But that’s not what she’s apologizing for.
“You have to sit in the car now,” she snaps at her boys as they scream and run in circles on the lawn of the mustard-yellow house.
“Noooo,” moans Simon. “We want to play!”
“I told you we aren’t playing! Mommy’s here to work.” Allie feels herself redden with frustration. If she were a child, she’d be on the verge of an epic tantrum.
Jorby’s mother, Donna, touches Allie’s shoulder. “Let me try. Simon! Leigh.”
They stop and look at Donna in curiosity.
“If you listen to your mommy while you’re here, you can borrow our Switch.”
Allie’s not even sure what a Switch is, but based on the screams of joy, it must be something good. “You have to sit down and be quiet, though,” she shouts over the din. The boys immediately plop onto the grass.
“That ought to do it.”
“Thank you. I guess they should take a page out of Jorby’s book.” It’s bitter to say. But the little swindler has waited patiently on the porch swing this whole time, wearing pristine khakis and a bowtie.
“I wish. You don’t even want to know what we had to bribe him with,” Donna says with a wink. She smooths out her slacks and takes her place next to her husband and son.
Allie exhales and gets to work. The Cummingses are closer in age to her parents than to her, but their salt-and-pepper look photographs surprisingly well. At the end of the session, she’s looking forward to editing the photos, and not just because she misses her craft.
After the Cummings porch photos, Allie books shoots with three more families. She also gets a senior photo session, two engagements, and an intimate wedding ceremony.
The boys get better at going with her. While Allie snaps photos of the families on their porches, Simon plays quietly on the grass with Leigh. At the wedding, the bride gives them cupcakes that they eat while squatting on the patio corner.
By the end of the week, Allie’s brought in $400. She wants to burst with pride until she remembers what she usually makes during wedding season.
She’s thinking wistfully of the $3,000 Rick brought home every month when her phone rings. It’s Laura, her sister-in-law.
Allie swears. She almost forgot she had in-laws. She can’t remember the last time she spoke to them. Maybe Christmas? Or before? The days haze together, not just during the pandemic but in the year since Rick passed.
She thinks about letting it go to voicemail. Instead, she puts the phone to her ear. “Laura! Hi!” She tries to sound casual. “What’s up?”
Laura bubbles over with excitement as she tells Allie about the activities she and her kids are doing on the family farm. Allie tries to sound enthusiastic, but it’s almost lunchtime, and she can’t think what Laura wants. Laura never calls without a reason.
Allie’s about to make excuses to hang up when Laura says, “Did you get my Easter package yet?”
“Um,” Allie says. She feels like that confused math lady meme as she tries to figure out how and when Easter is coming.
Laura laughs softly. “A week from tomorrow. I would have forgotten, too, if Steve didn’t do those baby animal days every year.”
That tickles a memory in the back of Allie’s brain. “The ducklings sure were cute the year Rick and I came out for Easter. And those lambs.”
“Come next year,” Laura urges. “We miss all three of you.”
Allie’s throat tightens. “We will.” She calculates the cost of driving to Montana in her head. If the late summer weddings aren’t canceled, she might be able to swing it.
“Sounds like a plan. And Allie? I know you have a lot on your plate, but please remember to call my parents. They were pretty hurt when they didn’t hear from you after the earthquake.”
“Earthquake?” Allie echoes. She gets that math lady feeling again.
“Hit central Idaho on Tuesday. Scared them quite a bit. Just check in with them if you can. When you can.”
The next week flies by in a blur. Allie edits and delivers client photos. She books two more graduation sessions and one more engagement. She keeps the boys waiting for the ice cream truck like clockwork and encourages them to fly their kites on the lawn. Allie’s even grateful when they linger in the driveway to talk to Jorby.
She snatches every spare minute for work. And as she does, she feels lighter. More fulfilled. They have money coming in (not a lot, but enough), and she’s working again. It feels good to create and to do something besides cook and clean and be Mom. And she doesn’t have to dip into the boys’ college savings.
I’m making it, Rick, she thinks triumphantly. I’m making it work. Maybe she’ll buy a rotisserie chicken for Easter, which is (she realizes with shock) tomorrow.
But on Easter morning, the Cummingses come over with cinnamon rolls, a ham, and a coconut cake decorated to look like a bunny.
“You shouldn’t have,” Allie says.
Jorby’s dad shrugs. “We’re neighbors,” he says, as if that settles it. Allie flushes. She knows her attitude has been less than neighborly.
Simon and Leigh jump and shout when they see the cake. They eat cinnamon rolls until they’re sugar drunk. Then Laura’s package arrives, and they shout again.
Their aunt sent a small Easter basket for each of them with jellybeans and Easter-themed Pezes. There’s also a set of sidewalk chalk, a puzzle, and a box of homemade caramels. At the bottom of the package, Allie finds a few gift cards tucked in an envelope.
Allie counts the bounty of the gift cards. It’s enough for her sons’ birthdays, maybe even Christmas. She tells the boys to go outside and share the chalk with Jorby.
Simon asks, “Does the truck come on Easter?”
It takes Allie a minute to realize what he’s talking about. She almost tells him the truth, but she needs time to prepare the ham. A meltdown could cost her hours. “Maybe,” she hazards. “But I think we have enough sweet stuff for today, don’t you?”
“Okay.” Simon doesn’t sound too disappointed. He pulls Jorby out the door.
Allie skims over her bookings on Instagram. Still going strong. She opens the cupboards and pulls out the fixings for a brown sugar mustard glaze. She thinks she can make homemade rolls, too, if she can find some butter in the freezer.
The screen door slams open. “Mom!” There’s a triumphant edge to Simon’s voice. “Guess what?”
“The ice cream truck came?” Allie hazards, even though she knows that’s not the case. She opens the freezer to look for butter.
“Jorby’s dad is gonna walk us to Gilroy’s tomorrow!”
“But Mom!” Simon’s tone is rapturous. “They have ice cream! That you can buy without waiting outside for a truck! Jorby says you just pick out what you want and take it to the store people. Can we have the ice cream truck money so we can use it at Gilroy’s?”
“Yeah, Mom!” Leigh chimes in. “Can we have it?”
Allie gazes into the depths of the freezer, her mind in overdrive. She suddenly sees two paths unfurl before her eyes.
One path is what happens if she gives the boys four, five, six dollars for ice cream. They’ll be ecstatic, but that ecstasy will last just one day. The next day, they’ll want more ice cream. Or pizza. New toys. Something else. They’ll want and want and want, and Allie will run herself ragged trying to satiate their innocent but never-ending whims.
The other path is what happens if she stops bearing this burden alone.
Allie swallows. “Let’s sit down,” she says. Her sons look up at her with big eyes.
She pulls them onto the couch and holds them close. “We aren’t like other families,” she begins.
When she tucks them into bed, Leigh is chattering and cheerful. But Simon is quiet and still. He doesn’t ask her for another story or a glass of water when she kisses him goodnight. He rolls over and stares at the Donald Duck nightlight.
“Sleep well.” He doesn’t say a word.
“Guess what? We’re going to talk to Grandma and Grandpa tomorrow after dinner.”
Simon makes a face.
Allie gives up. She goes back to the kitchen to wash dishes and calculate how long the leftover slices of ham will last. When she finally goes to bed, the empty space looms even larger than usual.
In the morning, Jorby and his dad pick up Simon and Leigh for their trip to Gilroy’s. Simon is still subdued, but he insists on going even without ice cream money. He sits Leigh in the wagon and sets off purposefully with Mr. Cummings and Jorby meandering behind.
Allie puts in a load of laundry and dusts all the pictures in the living room. She slices the ham thin to make sandwiches for lunch. She gets done before the boys return. She thinks again of painting her nails, but she’s too tired. Allie lays down on the couch for a nap.
She awakes when the screen door bangs open.
“Gently, Simon, gently,” she says groggily. “You’re going to break it if you aren’t careful.”
“Sorry.” But Simon doesn’t sound sorry. He seems ... excited? “Wake up, wake up!”
She rolls over and sees her sons standing there, beaming. Simon’s holding an individually-wrapped drumstick.
“Jorby’s dad bought you ice cream?” She feels both grateful and annoyed. She was trying to teach her boys an important lesson about living within their budget. Now they might expect to be fairy godmothered out of their disappointments.
“No! We bought it!” Leigh shouts. He waves a fistful of cash.
“I sold the wagon to Jorby.” Simon looks at her defiantly.
Allie shakes her sleep-addled head, trying to process what he’s saying. “For how much?”
“Forty dollars.” He takes the money from Leigh and thrusts it at her. “For you! Now you don’t have to worry anymore.”
“Simon,” she says. “I didn’t say you could sell anything.”
“It’s our wagon.”
Allie feels that’s technically not true. But she can’t bring herself to scold him. “I’m glad you were able to get yourselves ice cream.”
“We didn’t get any ice cream for us.” Simon puts his arm around Leigh and proudly hands her the drumstick. “This is for you, Mommy.”
“For you,” Leigh chirps.
Allie cries. But for the first time in a year, it’s not because she’s sad.