Sal hadn’t planned to tell his sons he’d just been fired on the day he drove home in an ice cream truck. He’d traded his final paycheck for it with a regular from Ricky’s Gas and Tire, the only place he’d been able to hold down a job for more than six months. He’d never liked taking orders. The truck was used, spray-painted like a scoop of rainbow sherbet with rust spots freckling the back bumper. Sensing serendipity in the truck’s flashing break lights, Sal prayed for his luck to change. It was about time, he thought, to quit answering to someone else and go into business for himself.
After swapping March’s entire paycheck for the keys, he strapped in and turned the ignition. The truck awoke with a grumble and Sal headed for home, wielding all his strength to handle the wide turns. As the truck tittered at a red light, Sal pictured himself in younger years, watching the ice cream truck pass him by with nothing in his pocket but a piece of lint. Even now, he longed for the sweet taste of a Good Humor Bar, to feel the sugary burn of crumbs dissolving behind his teeth and sliding down his throat.
Just before dusk on a Friday evening, Sal hung a right on Donlon Road, a small street that stuck out against the rest of the town’s cookie-cutter houses with owners who could afford professional landscapers and patio furniture. The truck rasped to a stop in front of Sal’s slender house, and his sons’ blanched faces, like two bowls of navy beans, appeared through the truck’s tangerine and lime reflections in the living room window.
“What the hell is this?”
The screen door flapped open and Lenny, Sal’s eldest, spit the shell of a sunflower seed onto the sidewalk. Lenny had grown three inches after starting high school last year, now standing a half foot taller than his father. Unfortunately for Leonard, there was no mistaking the resemblance. His brow held a sly curve, his gait a slight quiver, just like Sal.
“Boys,” Sal said, tapping the truck’s dwarfed hood. “This is what I call a ticket to freedom.”
“Ice cream!” Skidley, Sal’s youngest, bumbled through the yard until he fell to the ground, wheezing and gulping the frigid air by the chunk. A stunted child, Skidley favored Sal in appearance rather than features-a crew cut, mismatched shirt buttons, and Levi’s denim cut below the knee.
“Skidley, get inside and find your inhaler. “ Lenny popped his sunflower seed wad from one cheek to the other.
“What a steal I got on this beauty, Leonard,” Sal said as Skidley climbed the front steps. “And look here.”
Grinning, Sal presented a burnished piece of plastic shaped like a shiny black bow tie. “It’s an economy power horn, priced at twenty-four-ninety-five. “ He pressed a gray button, releasing “Skip To My Lou” into the dusky chill. “It also plays Yankee Doodle.” He smacked the horn. “Tell me I don’t know how to work a bargain!”
Lenny spit a slew of shells into the grass. “You don’t know how to work a bargain.”
“Look at this, Leonard. “ Sal ambled toward the truck’s rear. He cranked the door handle with a sinewy grip, revealing frozen sugar skyscrapers stacked in the bay of the truck.
“Help me load this into the freezer. We need to take this puppy out for a spin and sell some of this before it gets dark. We’ve got no place to store it overnight.”
Sal heaved his wiry frame into the back, moving aside a stack of Bomb Pops to reach the Italian Ices. “Here,” he said. “These melt the fastest.”
Lenny pulled himself into the back of the truck and hoisted the pile of boxes. “Where’d you get the money for this?” he asked.
“I told you, Leonard. I got a good deal.”
“I had some money saved, okay?” Sal said. “Now can you quit talking so we can get on the road?”
“Gonna rain tonight,” Lenny said. The Italian Ices flopped into the freezer chest. “Nobody’s gonna want your ice cream.”
Sal sneered as he jumped out of the truck and headed for the house. Lenny followed, easily matching strides with his father.
“This won’t get mom to come back,” he said.
Sal’s wife had been on an extended Florida vacation since the previous November. Every two weeks she sent a letter addressed to her oldest son with a $50 check folded inside that Lenny never let his father see. He used it to buy Skidley’s asthma medication and then spent the leftovers at the arcade.
Sal turned to face Leonard, who was splitting seeds between his front teeth. “Just get your brother and meet me at the truck,” he said. “Time is money.”
By early dusk, the truck sputtered off Donlon Road with Sal and Lenny in the front and Skidley sandwiched between the door and the freezer. Cars honked and heads snapped, curious who would take out an ice cream truck in an imminent rain storm.
Their first prospects appeared in the housing development off of Forsythia Avenue. Two boys bearing thick cotton jackets and a foam football stood in the cul-de-sac, blankly tossing the ball back and forth. Sal swung around so the truck’s broad torso faced the two boys. Lenny slumped in his seat, and Sal stomped his foot.
“Do you want to make some money or not?” Sal’s eyes bulged.
Still crouched, Lenny rolled down his window. “You guys want some ice cream?”
Leaning over, Sal slapped his arm. “Play the horn!” he hissed.
“Too cold,” the blond one said, spiraling the ball to his companion.
“Thought so.” Up rolled Leonard’s window, and the truck began its crawl to the stop sign at the end of the street.
Sal jostled behind the wheel. “You have to play the horn, Leonard.” Leonard stared at his father while he pressed a button and “Skip to My Lou” filled the cab.
“Happy?” he said.
Before Sal could retort, rain drops started to pelt the windshield. It started with a few jagged pings, but within minutes they were caught in a downpour.
“Great,” Leonard said. “Now what?”
Behind him, Skidley had started to root around in the freezer, a trail of open wrappers circling his feet. At first, no one heard the knocking. It sounded just like rain drops. But when Sal turned his head, he saw the blond boy with the football at his window, holding an umbrella over his head.
Sal squeaked his window open, and water sprayed him in the face.
“Hey,” the kid yelled through the rain. “I want to buy ice cream.”
“What kind do you want?” Sal shouted back.
“I don’t want some of it. I want all of it. Fifty bucks for your entire inventory.”
Sal started to roll up the window.
“Come on,” the kid said. “I got a freezer in my garage. You won’t sell all this tonight.”
Wincing, Sal eyed the stocky, handsome kid. “All right,” he said. “You have a deal.”
Sal backed the truck into the driveway and helped the boy unload the boxes.
“Wipe your muddy boots on the rug,” the boy said.
The following morning, Sal got a late start. He’d planned to boost his inventory at the grocery store early in the morning, but he and his sons didn’t pull away from the curb until mid-afternoon.
“There’s still plenty of time to make a few sales,” Sal reasoned as Leonard shook his head.
On their way to the store, they passed a mob of girls in the same spot the two boys had tossed the football the night before.
Sal rubbed his palms together. “Customers,” he said.
He was right; they were customers, just not his. In the center of the pack, the blond boy was hawking Sal’s ice cream for three bucks a pop while adoring, fresh-faced pre-teens lined up around the block to flash their smiles and surrender their allowance. Sal punched the steering wheel, sending the musical horn toppling from the dashboard to the floor. “Yankee Doodle” piped out of the truck, but no one bothered to turn around. A twelve-year-old had beaten Sal at his own game.
Later that evening, Sal sat on his front stoop, strategizing his comeback. When a man in a polo shirt, khakis, and new loafers rounded the corner, Sal squinted. That kind of man didn’t live on this kind of street. Sal stood when the man paused in front of his house.
“My son tells me he bought fifty bucks’ worth of ice cream from you yesterday. “ The man’s solid face was freshly shaven.
“Hey, now,” Sal lifted his hands and retreated a step. “We made a deal, fair and square.”
The man laughed as if the joke was on Sal. “I don’t care about the money,” he said. “I want the truck.”
“The truck?” Sal cocked his head.”Why?”
The man shrugged. “Figured it would be a good side hobby for my son. I’ll park in the street, let him open up shop when he wants. “ He gestured towards Lenny. “Start `em young. Am I right?”
Sal frowned. “The truck’s not for sale.”
Undaunted, the man countered. “I’ll give you cash for it.” Sal’s lips formed a firm line as he put his hands on his thin hips.
“Dad,” Lenny hissed. “Come on.”
“Think of it this way,” the man said, fingering the buttons along the length of his shirt. “I’m saving you a lot of trouble.”
“Is that so?” Sal tried to broaden his shoulders.
“Have you thought about registration papers? Commercial permits? Licenses? Insurance?”
Sal deflated. He hadn’t.
“You aren’t ready to own your own business. Sell me the truck.” Before Sal could respond, the man pulled out a fat wad of cash. Sal ended up with half of what his final paycheck would have been if he’d never bought the truck at all.
As Sal relinquished the keys, the man leaned toward him.
“You know,” he said, his meaty palm swallowing the keys. “You and I might be able to go into business together. I need someone trustworthy.”
Sal lifted his head. There was hope yet. “How’s that?”
“I’ve been looking for a new landscaper. It’s not much –– maybe every other week or so. My wife likes the grass to be mown on a diagonal. You interested?”
Sal wanted to let his fist answer for him, but Lenny grabbed his elbow and squeezed.
“No, sir.” Sal arched his back. “I’m not interested.”
The man shrugged again. “Suit yourself.”
Sal drooped on the front steps and trained his eyes on the man’s back as he walked away. Leonard stood beside him, but Sal couldn’t look him in the eye. He’d grown weary of the disappointment he found there as he continued to diminish in his son’s estimation.
Rather than sit with his failure, Sal creaked to his feet. “Headed to bed,” he said without looking at Leonard. “Been a long day.”
Lenny nodded but didn’t follow. After stepping through the screen door, Sal held it open for his son. When he didn’t come, Sal turned around. Lenny had disappeared. Sal stuck his head back out into the cold to see Lenny running down the street after the man.
“Hey,” Leonard said, panting. “Wait up.”
The man turned.
“Is the landscaping gig still available?”
“Sure is.” The man clasped Lenny’s shoulder. “You can start next Saturday.”
Kandathil is a Cornell University graduate and holds an MFA in creative writing from Hunter College. Her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize last fall, and it has appeared in Burner Magazine, Precipitate Journal, The Quotable, and Ruminate. She teaches fiction and memoir workshops at the Arts Council of Princeton.