Dear Readers: Another short story for your vacation entertainment.
Happy Holidays! xoxo LB
By Lisa Barr
The gleaming white mini-truck played the familiar jingle repeatedly as it rounded the block toward Turtle Park. The kids at the playground froze in mid-action, then chaos broke out: “Ice Cream! Ice Cream! Money, Mommy! Hurry, before he leaves!”
The mothers groaned collectively. Somebody wondered, “Why does he always come right before lunch?” They reluctantly reached into their wallets, handing over crisp dollars and loose change.
Anna Farrelli extracted a dollar bill from her shorts and gave it to her son Jakey, who ran off with the stampede of kids as the singing truck sidled up to the curb.
Within a minute, Jakey called out to her, “Mommy, I need 26 more cents now!” He was fifth in line of about 20 kids and was not about to lose his prime spot.
When Anna arrived alongside the truck, she handed her son the extra change. She stood there for a moment, half-wishing she were Jakey’s age again, so she could experience the pure joy of this moment. Then she noticed the ice cream man. He was extremely attractive, as ice cream men go. He had a shock of wavy black hair and large thick-lashed hazel eyes. He was tall and lanky, and his shoulders were strong. When he spoke to the excited children, his voice was surprisingly deep and patient. He seemed to be saying something special to each child before handing over the treat:
Be true to yourself. Here’s your Rainbow Pop, kiddo.
Live, love, laugh – give your life a hug. Enjoy the Chocolate Éclair.
Money means nothing – happiness cannot be bought. Your Chipwich is still frozen. Let it melt a minute, then take a bite.
Anna thought his words were endearing, though strange coming from an ice cream man – better suited for a self-help guru. When it was Jakey’s turn, the man took the $1.26, then handed him a Firecracker Popsicle and said, with one eye on Anna, “Keep your head high and your feet firmly on the ground. Enjoy the Popsicle.”
Anna leaned forward. “Excuse me, what did you say to my son?”
“A Schwartzism.” The man’s lips curled into a peaceful smile, the kind she’d seen on the faces of airport Hari Krishnas.
He handed an ice cream to Anna. “You look like you could use a Toasted Almond.”
The kids behind Jakey began to shout, “Hey, that Mom cut! It’s my turn!”
The ice cream man held up his open palm, reminding Anna of Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea. “Respect,” he told the children, wagging a finger, “is not a demand but an honor.”
Anna smiled and paid for the ice cream, the man’s long, calloused fingers grazed hers against the bills, and she couldn’t keep herself from blushing.
But as she walked Jakey back to the park, she silently scolded herself. What was she thinking? An ice cream man. He was certainly good-looking, but a vendor – a nothing, a nobody. She shook her head. She had waited too long to meet the right guy. She must always remember to keep her expectations high, for Jakey’s sake.
But hours later, long after her son had fallen asleep, she couldn’t get the ice cream man’s smile out of her mind. She imagined it emerging from between her thighs covered with crumbs of toasted almond.
* * *
Larry Schwartz loved his job. After almost five years, he could still not get enough of the annoying tape-recorded bells announcing his imminent arrival, and the kids running up to him from far and wide, as though he were the Pied Piper.
And Larry did not just distribute the ice cream like other vendors, taking a cut from the sales and trying to get rid of the boxes as fast as possible. He would savor the moment, handing each child an icy treat with a tidbit of wisdom.
“Life,” Larry would tell his young disciples as they licked the drip off their fingers, “should always taste like ice cream.”
But Larry had not always been so enlightened. His teenage years, according to his mother, were wasted away on a skateboard. Every day after school, he would grab his prized board from his room, then fly out of the apartment building. His mother would yell down to him from the second floor window: “Lar-ryyyyyyy. Don’t forget your homework!” But once he’d turn the street corner, it was just him with the wind, the nagging voice of Hannah Schwartz having all but evaporated.
Larry barely studied and skipped classes, but he seemed to grasp concepts immediately and managed to pull off good grades despite himself. His mother would complain daily about the skateboard, but the A’s and B’s on Larry’s report card would temporarily shut her up, which had been his goal all along.
Larry’s college years had been one continuous Bong Fest. He sent his mother copies of his test scores, which amazingly, were as high as he was. But once he had graduated and was out in the real world, he fell from his perpetual state of flight to an all-time low. His mother was pushing law school. His older brother Stuart was a cardiologist, his younger brother Barry was studying to be an accountant. The family, Hannah said, needed a good lawyer.
His first year at Loyola University Chicago School of Law was slow and mind-numbing, and Larry, lazy to the bone, hated writing papers, reading Legalese, and listening to the pompous drone of his professors. Most of all, he couldn’t stand the endless rows of burnished leather books in the overly air-conditioned library that had become his home, his igloo. Law was cold and dreary and precise, and Larry needed something hot and fast and nebulous to get his blood moving.
He would sit through countless lectures, falling deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of tedium. He yearned to stand on top of his desk and scream at the droning professor: “I’M GOING TO SUE YOUR ASS OFF FOR BEING SO FUCKING BORING!”
Midway through his first year, Larry was studying at his usual café, his mountain of books spread over the length of the counter, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Larry, immersed in the rigid world of Torts, did a double-take.
“No way – Ricky Levin?” Larry’s mouth fell agape with wonder. Levin had been on his high school basketball team. But unlike Larry who had started all four years, Levin had never left the bench. Now Levin looked like an NBA first round draft choice. He wore shiny black surfer shorts, a tight gray T-shirt, mirrored wraparound shades, and loafers. His pecs, which had once been less than inspiring, were now visibly pumped. Next to Larry’s sickly indoors complexion, Levin seemed deeply, evenly, unfairly tanned.
“Larry Schwartz?” Levin raised an eyebrow. “I thought that was you – I’ll be damned.”
Larry was so envious that he could barely push out the words. “So … how ya doing?”
“Too fucking good. Is there such a thing?” Levin gestured out the window, where a sparkling red Ferrari was parked right in front of the café in a tow zone.
“Wow. Is that yours?”
Levin let out a hearty laugh, as if still surprised by his own fortune. “And, it has a little sister back home – a sweet baby blue convertible.”
Larry was in shock. He’d thought a guy like Ricky Levin would have been benched for life. “How, man – I mean – how did you do it?”
Levin leaned forward conspiratorially, his strong hand gripping Larry’s studiously bony shoulder, his breath a mix of Crest and coffee. “Commodities. A few years ago I could barely get my car to start. Now look at me – living like a goddamn king. But you, man. Never thought I’d see the Schwartzmeister lugging books around.” He laughed again. Larry cringed, staring with disdain at the mountain of law books.
“Hey,” Levin’s voice softened. “Wanna go for a ride and a beer?”
It was Larry’s turn to laugh. “In my dreams. It’s not even ten-thirty. And I’ve got an eleven o’clock Torts lecture.”
“And I’ve got a massage. Fuck ‘em all. You look like you need it.”
So Larry went for a ride in the Ferrari, and five beers. At some point during the drinking spree, he chucked his Torts textbook out of the car window, watching with satisfaction as the flapping pages blew down the street, like a bird gone permanently south. Drunk as he was, Larry knew that his first year was officially over. He was once again flying: Bong Fest, The Sequel.
Larry made a killing as a commodities trader. Within eight months of landing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, under Ricky’s guidance, he owned a black Porsche. He traded pork belly futures, buying low, selling high, knowing when to call it short or to go long. He managed to stay on the right side of every trade. He was a natural. Larry felt as if his whole life had been leading up to this.
At times, he would feel a pang of guilt over the pork bellies, imagining the repercussions of this mother, an Orthodox Jew, ever finding out that he was getting rich off swine. He’d break out into cold night sweats dreaming that Hannah Schwartz had discovered that the new fur coat he’d bought her for Mother’s Day, the Sub-Zero refrigerator, and the Sorry-I’m-Not-A-Lawyer consolation cruise to the Bahamas were bought off the fat of the forbidden pig. So Larry lied. He told his mother that he was trading currency futures, yen and pounds.
Hannah Schwartz, tanned and relaxed from six straight days of shuffle board and Mah-Jongg, easily got over the fact that her son would never be a lawyer. She told her neighbors and family that there were too many lawyers anyway, and that her son was a man of the future.
Larry moved from his run-down suburban walk-up to a sprawling Downtown loft with a wall-sized aquarium, and a gigantic S-shaped Jacuzzi. Not only was Larry rich and good-looking, stylish and athletic, he was also incredibly generous. He threw great parties for the Beautiful People as well as the Moochers, providing his guests with gourmet appetizers as they snorted his unlimited supply of cocaine.
And Larry had a way with women. Ricky often bragged that Schwartzmeister had a motor on his tongue that women found irresistible. But Larry, ever the chivalrous playboy, always made sure that no woman left his black satin sheets empty-handed. His walk-in closet was stocked top to bottom with wine and chocolates for his overnight guests.
Larry lived fast and furious. For nine years, he rode out his life like the Indy. Until New Year’s Day, winter of ’95, which was particularly biting even by Chicago standards. He woke up at his usual weekend two p.m. Hung over, he stared into his bathroom mirror and began to shave in slow motion. He seemed to be nicking himself everywhere. But he didn’t stop shaving. He shaved and nicked, sticking wads of Kleenex to his face to clot the blood, when he noticed a thick stream of blood oozing from his left nostril.
He gazed intently at his tired, worn reflection – the bloodshot eyes, the new lines around his eyes and mouth, the skin tinged orange from the tanning salon, and the dark hair sticking straight up on one side of his head. With a finger, he traced the path of purple hickeys along his neck, and the line of blood from his nose. He looked monstrous. He’d seen it happen to dozens of friends. Even his pal Ricky Levin, who had nearly gone bankrupt six months ago in order to keep up his drug habit, was now camped out in rehab.
Larry Schwartz knew that a great era had come to an end. It was time to start packing.
He sold his seat on the Exchange and got rid of all his Junk Bonds. He invested in a few good high-tech stocks, and added generously to his Blue Chip portfolio. The rest, he stowed away in the Caymans. He stopped returning phone calls and donated his remaining stash of wine and chocolates to the homeless.
He began reading The Classics, and after finishing every book by John Steinbeck, he did something that no Jewish boy before him had ever accomplished successfully – he moved to Downstate Illinois, bought a hundred acres and became a farmer. He believed the only way to root himself again was to burrow his feet into the earth. His mother threw up her hands when she realized she could not dissuade her son from trading in his custom-made Italian loafers for shit-kickers. She did make one demand: No pigs, or else.
For four years, Larry felt grounded. He enjoyed the solitude, experiencing something akin to happiness. He had a sprawling porch with a wooden rocking chair, a spare refrigerator devoted to beer for his guests, and a wall full of ribbons won at the State Fair for his prized cows. He became affectionately known around town as “The Moo Jew,” and he loved it.
At night, Larry would sit by himself, smoking a Cuban, and taking in the rich aroma of his land. It was during these moments that Larry did his best thinking. He began formulating idioms in his head, calling them Schwartzisms. He recorded them in a burnished leather book not unlike those he’d so despised in law school.
One ominous April evening, a strong thunderstorm erupted, followed by bolts of lightning. Larry did not mind the inclement weather. He liked the feel of the rain and the sound of thunder. He sat on his porch, doing double-time in his rocking chair, working diligently on his Schwartzisms, when a strong wind yanked the book from his hands and hurled it out into the fields.
As he ran after it, he heard a loud clap of thunder overhead and watched as lightning ignited the sky, temporarily blinding him. Almost instantly, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. The cool air embraced him and then he felt an intense heat wave. He saw the book about fifty yards away, and as he approached it, he stepped back with shock. The lightning had scorched the land around the book. An enormous S the size of his old Jacuzzi was branded into the soil.
Larry leaned over the S and scooped up the book, then quickly dropped it, having burned his hand. He then knelt next to the book, and saw that the pages were singed, browned to the color of onion, almost like a Torah scroll. He then removed his Chicago Cubs baseball cap from his head, and placed it over his heart. Gazing up at the clear, inky sky dotted with stars, he understood:
The Schwartzmeister had been summoned. He had taken from the land and prospered. Now it was his turn to give back.
Anna Farrelli’s most distinctive childhood memory took place on her tenth birthday. As she leaned over her cake to blow out the candles, her father Salvador whispered in her ear, “Wish for a husband, Anna, and on your twenty-first birthday – it will come true.” Anna smiled and secretly wished for a dog. When she turned twenty-one, she got neither. On her thirty-first birthday, she wished for a husband but ended up buying herself a Cocker Spaniel.
Anna was smart. Smarter than her friends. In elementary school, her poems had been published in the school yearbook. In high school, she was editor of the yearbook and president of the Current Events club. She was a South Side girl with big dreams.
“Papa, I want to be a writer,” she mustered the courage to tell her father after she’d completed her junior year in high school. “My teachers all tell me I have talent.”
But Salvador took a swig of beer and laughed. “Anna, Anna. Don’t let your dreams go to your head. There’s only one woman with talent, and that’s Sophia Loren.”
Anna thought of all the college applications piled high on her desk. Her grades were at the top of her class, and her advisor said she would not have a problem getting a scholarship to a good school out East. She looked hopefully at her father. “But Papa, it’s what I want.”
“Don’t But Papa me,” her father shouted over the television. “Pretty girls don’t waste time with their heads stuck in books. Only a husband will make you happy. Ask your mother. You’re still the prettiest girl in the neighborhood. In a few years, no one will want you.” He tossed the empty can toward the large garbage in the kitchen, and didn’t make it.
Anna quietly walked over to the bin and placed the can inside. “But I want to work. I want to become someone.”
“Your job is to be groomed for a groom.” He gazed hard at his only daughter. Anna could see by the way he heaved a deep breath and chewed down on his bottom lip that he was softening up. “You insist on working? Then be a secretary or a teacher – both respectable professions. There – I’m giving you a choice. Consider yourself someone.”
Anna’s S.A.T. scores had been up to Ivy League standards. Instead of heading out East, she took secretarial courses at a community college in the neighborhood. In the margins of her typing paper, she’d write haikus and long, run-on sentences, brimming with adjectives –a kaleidoscope of description to a world she did not know. After graduation, she landed the first job she had applied for, as a receptionist for a high-tech firm in the Sears Tower. The money was decent – better than babysitting – but the building itself was leaps and bounds away from The Neighborhood, and that was all that mattered.
The Tower itself was spectacular, a giant skyscraper where money, power and possibility filled the vast interior like oxygen. Anna would take great pleasure in arriving to work a half hour early and sit on a bench next to the escalator just to inhale from the building’s core.
She would observe the morning rush with intense concentration, as though it were a theater. She’d study the men and women as they ascended single file, with their buttery briefcases and their determined focused expressions. She imagined them all getting together after work. They would have cocktails, go out for a late dinner at a fancy restaurant, then make passionate love all night. Their weekends were filled with parties and good wine and laughter and boats and tennis.
Anna would sit there on the bench, picturing the life she did not have. “Please let me in,” she would plead inside her head, her voice knocking silently at their pinstriped backs.
Rising slowly from the black leather cushion at three minutes to nine, she would wrap her canvas tote bag over her shoulder, dreaming of one day being buzzed by her own assistant – Coffee, Ms. Farrelli? Scone?
Anna wore a slim gold wedding band to the office because she did not want anyone to think that she was lonely in addition to being a secretary. She didn’t want the other employees to know that she lived with her parents, her brother and her grandmother in a middle-class neighborhood near the airport.
Though her boss was kind and caring, and the office employees never failed to compliment her work, Anna was always aware of the vast difference between she and them. As she took dictation, typed letters, licked envelopes, answered incoming calls, refilled the coffee pot, and replenished the popcorn machine, Anna’s mind drifted away, dreaming of Elsewhere.
One muggy summer day, Elsewhere appeared out of nowhere, bright and new, like a crustless bottle of Wite-Out. Against her father’s advice to never sign anything before he had seen it first, Anna secretly signed a one-page contract for a stock option in her boss’s fledging company. It was betting on the future, and Anna, who had seen all the office paperwork, knew it was a gamble. But Anna’s life had always been a sure thing. Good girls didn’t go to Vegas, her father would tell her as he headed off to the casinos four times a year with her uncles. That day, she crossed her A and looped her F on the dotted line under her boss’s name, Anna knew that if this paid off, she – not her father – would hit the jackpot.
And then it came.
The big merger, and Anna’s crossed A and looped F earned her over a million dollars. Elsewhere had arrived with flowers and wine, and Anna knew it was time to pack up her trusty Smith Corona and change the course of her life.
After she deposited the check in the bank, Anna finally felt worthy enough to join her fellow employees for an after-work celebration. Jagermeisters kicked off the festivities, and Anna played drinking games, giddily losing all of the quarters from the change purse she had knitted herself. Anna was suddenly the life of a party that she had never before been invited to. So this is how the other side lives, she told herself as she tipsily reapplied her lipstick in the bathroom mirror. She was so drunk that when she returned to the table, one of the company’s sales reps volunteered to drive her home.
As they got off the highway, Anna slid over to him, her lips breathing alcoholic vapor into his ear, “Jordan, let’s make this night worth every cent of our stock option.” She flashed him a glimpse of her untouched breast and, with her other inexperienced hand, she stroked his thigh the way she had seen on Days of Our Lives.
Instead of driving to her home, Jordan made a U-turn toward the lakeshore. They parked and stumbled along the sand, carrying an old towel from his trunk. Once they found a private spot on the beach, Anna kicked off her shoes and wasted no time. She lay down on the towel and pulled the young man on top of her.
“I thought you were married.” Jordan touched the ring on her hand. But before she could respond, he began to feel his way up her dress.
Anna gazed at his mussed, sandy-colored hair, the rounded chin, which looked as if it rarely needed a shave, the sleepy blue eyes, and said quietly, “I’m a virgin.”
“A married virgin. Awesome.” He began to kiss her.
Anna, who had almost no kissing experience, having been French-kissed once by a distant cousin at a wedding, thought the kissing part was not all that great. Jordan’s tongue seemed too big for his mouth, and his saliva was all over her chin. Recalling a particular episode of her soap opera, she began to slowly suck his fingers.
“Hmm, nice,” Jordan moaned, tearing off his jeans and pulling her on top of him. He was surprisingly tender as he entered her. Before Anna could say something witty and sensual that she’d read somewhere, he ejaculated all over her, then passed out.
Anna, who was more awake than ever, stroked his smooth chin, thinking how lucky he was. One day, she was certain, Jordan would brag that he had been Anna Farrelli’s first.
Little did Anna know that the last thing Jordan would be doing in five weeks, three pregnancy tests later, was brag.
An abortion was out of the question. So was staying in the neighborhood.
“Take yourself and that bastard out of my house now!” Salvador Farrelli’s raised voice could be heard down the block after Anna had broken the news. He slapped his daughter for the first time, despite her mother’s and grandmother’s pleas to control himself.
As her father ranted and raved about girls like Anna giving good Catholic girls a bad name, she locked herself in her bedroom and quickly packed a small overnight bag. She caught a taxi next to the grocery store, leaving her father’s home with one million in the bank and nowhere to go.
The loneliness, at times, was unbearable – especially on Sundays, when Anna knew that her whole family was getting together for a lavish lunch that ran well into dinner. It had been Anna’s favorite day of the week, filled with jokes, stories of Sicily, and boisterous laughter. But now, after more than four years of spending Sundays alone, she almost got used to living without them.
In the beginning, Anna’s mother would sneak calls, send her cards, but never did Rosa Farrelli defy her husband and visit her daughter and grandson. Jordan called once a month to check in, but never once asked to visit. Even Anna’s close girlfriends from The Neighborhood had disappeared. In the beginning, they visited her new home in the ritzy suburbs. But Anna saw right away that they were green with envy, and was not surprised when the excuses began and the visits whittled away to nothing.
Within two years of her move, Anna and her son had no one in the world but each other. In time, she made some new friends, but they were through her son’s Mommy & Me group, and later, with the preschool mothers. These superficial friendships worked for Anna. She kept everyone at a distance, too afraid to forge real relationships, fearful that her new friends would see the secretary in her. She worried that once they knew that she had gotten rich on a stock option fluke, they would turn their backs on her like her old friends, like her family.
She preferred the loneliness.
At night she would stand nude in front of her full-length mirror. She was tall, lean, strong calved and firm breasted. She knew that she was attractive. But Anna was brutally honest with herself – no matter how hard she tried, she still looked like The Neighborhood, a pretty coffee shop waitress. North Shore suburban women didn’t look like Anna. Who would want to go out with the girl from the other side of the tracks?
Ding-Dong, Ding-Dong, Ding-a-lingo-Ding-Dong.
When Larry Schwartz saw the woman approach her son in line, handing him more money for his Popsicle, he knew immediately that she was not from the area, and thought that perhaps she was from out of town. She had nice legs, curvy hips and chiseled cheekbones. The woman’s hair was a thick black helmet, calling to mind a young Jackie Kennedy, and her eyeliner was much too dark, kind of like Cat Woman, whom he still found incredibly sexy.
Larry always had women hitting on him, and that didn’t change when he became an ice cream man. He saw the way the mothers would eye him and smile flirtatiously. Larry would take it all in stride, smiling back, enjoying making both mother and child feel good. But that woman earlier today had been different, an outsider. They had shared only a few words but he kept hearing the sweet, kittenish sound of her voice in his head. It was not a come-on – her voice was shy and warm. It surprised him that he had even mentioned the word Schwartzism. He had never told anybody that.
He also noticed she wore a wedding ring. But something was not right about the ring. It was the way she had concealed it behind her purse when she looked at him – with yearning, as though a cloud of loneliness was hanging over her head.
It was no surprise that the next day, Anna found herself back at Turtle Park. She tried to stop herself from repeatedly checking her watch. But when the hands finally landed on eleven forty-five, she felt her pulse race, beads of sweat forming over her body. She drew in heavy breaths of anticipation. And then like church bells, she heard the ice cream truck rounding the corner toward the park.
Jakey, at the top of the slide, belted out “Ice Creeeeeeam!” in sync with the other children. Anna had her dollar ready in her skirt pocket since earlier that morning. Landing at the bottom of the slide, Jakey grabbed the waiting dollar and held it high, as though Anna were passing on an Olympic torch. He charged out of the park with the masses toward the curb.
Anna hovered behind the link fence, watching him, waiting for Jakey to call out to her. She told herself that she had not purposely short-changed her son –it just happened. Jakey was ninth in line. When she looked up, trying to make eye contact with her son, the ice cream man caught her gaze, and she quickly turned away. She focused blankly on the orange slide in front of her. Her son finally shrieked, “Mommy, I need twenty-six cents more!”
“Coming.” Anna walked slowly toward him. She wore her good beige miniskirt, a black sleeveless top, and sling-backs with a slight heel that was snagging the mulch, giving her a slightly klutzy walk. Her sunglasses were perched on her head, holding back her hair. She wore dangling earrings embedded with little red rhinestones that always managed to catch the light. She had put them on because she felt good in them, she’d told herself as she peeled them out of the box, not because there was anyone to impress.
“Twenty-six cents.” She handed her son the change, and once again met Larry’s soulful, hopeful gaze.
“I saved you a Toasted Almond,” he whispered as he handed her son a Firecracker Pop. “On the house.” He glanced at Jakey and said, “How about one for your father?”
Before Anna could cut her son off, Jakey blurted, “I don’t have one.”
She felt her cheeks burn brightly as Larry leaned close to Jakey. “A good mother is gold. Enjoy the popsicle.”
Under the barrage of “Hurry up! My turn! Get that Mom out of the line!” Larry held up his hand, and his devotees obeyed his call for silence. He whispered to Anna, “Have dinner with me.”
No one had ever asked her to dinner, except for Jakey. She was about to say something smooth, that she’d be delighted, but then she saw some of the other mothers approaching the ice cream truck with their kids. Anna’s mouth snapped shut. What would they say? A secretary and an ice cream man –naturally. The perfect couple. Anna shook her head no. An ice cream man would not do for her son. “I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
She grabbed Jakey by the hand. With the other, she held onto his scooter. They scurried away from the playground with Jakey crying loudly, “But I want to play, Mommy. We just got here,” as his red, white and blue popsicle dripped a patriotic trail behind him.
Larry watched with disappointment Anna’s hasty departure from the window of his truck. He sold the rest of the ice cream, then hurriedly parked the truck at a nearby convenient store. He ran back to where the boy’s Popsicle had dripped and followed the faint impressions to a large white brick house with bright blue shutters, adorned with matching boxes of geraniums. A silver Volvo station wagon was parked in the driveway and the kid’s scooter leaned against the front door. She lived there.
He walked back to the truck and locked himself inside.
Larry Schwartz had never been rejected. He knew why she had said no. The woman who wore a ring, but according to her son had no husband, did not want to settle for an ice cream man. He had spent years with gold-diggers, but something about this woman told him that she wasn’t a digger. She was an old-fashioned girl with big dreams.
There was the possessive way she curved her arm around her son’s shoulders, as though he were the only real thing in her life. She wore a pearl bracelet with a dangling little cameo, not the diamond tennis bracelet that was a staple accessory for suburban women. Pearls and cameos recalled another world, the Old Country. That’s the kind of woman she was.
But Larry knew that she liked him. It was the way she blushed, how she had turned sideways so that the sun could catch the light in her fancy earrings –too fancy for a day at the playground. She had deliberately short-changed her son, when the day before the kid had ordered the very same thing. As Larry pondered the mysterious workings of this woman, a hungry-looking boy waving a couple of bills was rushing toward the truck. Larry got off his seat and opened the sliding door.
He would win her over.
But Anna did not come to the park the next day, as he predicted, nor the day after, or the one after that. For the first time since he had become a vendor, Larry did not hand out Schwartzisms with the ice cream. The kids eyed him inquisitively. He patted their small shoulders and said distractedly, “Let it melt a minute and then eat it. Next.”
One night, he spied on Anna’s house, observing the silhouettes moving past the windows, upstairs and downstairs, from the street. He had discovered that her name was Anna Farrelli by reading the label on a newspaper she had forgotten to pick up off the stoop. The following night, Larry boldly hid out in the woman’s backyard, but the dog was barking like crazy, and she came out with a flashlight and a baseball bat. He ran off and hid in an opened garage. The next night, he peeked in the window and saw Anna sitting on a Lazyboy, her feet kicked up, staring at nothing. She seemed so sad and lonely, beautiful and frozen in time, like the cameo dangling from her wrist. Anna Farrelli was a woman who needed to be courted.
And Larry Schwartz, once a frat boy, then a playboy, then a farmer and now a vendor, had always been a gentleman.
Every day at half past six, he would ring the ice cream truck mantra in front of Anna’s house, jump out and quickly leave a Toasted Almond bar and a Firecracker Pop on the doorstep, and wait five minutes to see if Anna would come out of her house and talk to him. On the sixteenth day of no-shows, Jakey ran out the opened garage door, and Larry could hear Anna screaming, “Jakey, get in here now!”
The boy waved vigorously. “Hi, Ice Cream Man.”
“Hey there, Big Guy. Where’s you mom?”
“Watching you from her window, like always.”
Larry smiled. “Can you bring her this?” He handed Jakey the long-stemmed white rose that was ready and waiting inside a slim Tiffany’s vase. It was the sixteenth such rose – the rest had ended up in his mother’s kitchen.
Larry then handed the kid a Chipwich. He leaned over and whispered, “There are moments when life is as good as ice cream. Let it melt a minute, and then eat it.”
The next morning, after Anna had dropped Jakey off at school, Larry decided to make a daytime appearance. He knew Wednesday was Anna’s gardening day. She had put the white rose in her kitchen window. The night before, he’d seen her lean in and smell the flower, closing her eyes for a moment as she washed the dishes, and he knew that he had the unspoken go-ahead.
At ten-thirty, Anna was bent over in the yard pulling weeds with thick pink rubber gloves. Larry lingered on the street a few seconds, watching her. She was barefoot and wearing a large, straw hat. She wore a tank top and she was bra-less. He had taken extra care dressing that morning, wearing khakis, a light green T-shirt which, according to his mother, brought out the color of his eyes, and some expensive gel to calm down his wavy hair – a look he had resurrected from his days spent impressing models.
He cleared his throat and Anna turned around, stunned, clearly not placing him right away.
“Hi,” she said, slowly removing her gloves.
“Uh yes.” She glanced around the yard.
“I’m so sorry to bother you. It’s just that, well, since I’m off, I thought that maybe you would like to have lunch.” He followed her nervous gaze. “Are you expecting someone?”
She shook her head and dropped her bucket nervously, and the collection of weeds scattered over the grass. Larry helped her gather the mess back into the bucket. When they finished, Anna stood, wiping her hands repeatedly in the air. Finally, she gestured toward her front door. “Would you like to … have a glass of lemonade?”
He nodded, then gently touched her arm.
Her swaying shorts moved slowly toward the door. Larry stood still, knowing better than to follower her inside. A gentleman always waits for a second invitation.
Anna knew that she could have told him to leave, to get off her property and stop stalking her or she would call the police. Yet his smile, this time, was not at all strange and serene. And his clothes. Those loafers. He looked expensive. It was as if he were the ice cream man’s rich, well-dressed identical twin. When he’d got down on the grass to pick up the weeds, he had smelled so good that Anna realized that she was not only thirsty, but starving.
Once she had crossed the threshold into her home and saw the handsome ice cream man waiting for her out her kitchen window, Anna suddenly didn’t care about anything, except that she was wearing her old grandma-style cotton underwear. When she came out to her front yard with the fresh-squeezed lemonade and her Victoria’s Secret bikini-cut panties beneath her shorts, he took the tray away from her, and lightly kissed her hand.
Jakey had gone to sleep early, and Anna could hardly wait to get her son into bed and make love to Larry for the second time that day – which definitely brought down their average. For nearly six months they had been going at it at least three times a day. Mornings, when Jakey was in school, in between Larry’s ice cream runs, and at nights.
In bed, Larry Schwartz was insatiable. He was also funny, smart, and Jakey was clearly in love with him. But Anna would sometimes lie inside the hairy hook of his arm and think, yet he is still an ice cream man. People would never take her seriously. Sadly Anna knew that one day, Larry Schwartz would have to go.
What started off as an affair evolved into a committed relationship. Larry, who would park the truck in the back of the house behind the shed, had all but moved in. And Anna, stimulated like never before, began to write a book. It was her thinly-disguised life story. Over the top of her laptop screen she would watch Larry play board games or assemble puzzles with Jakey. And if the evening was still pleasant after dinner, he would take her son out to the nearby basketball court and teach him how to shoot hoops. Anna, who felt loved and appreciated and sexy and stirred, began to write zealously.
But there was a wedge that stood between them. On Sundays, Larry would visit his mother and Anna would never join him. She always made sure that she had something else to do that day. Many times Larry asked himself why? But he left it alone. He figured Monday through Saturday was wonderful, so why spoil it.
But Hannah Schwartz was relentless, and it was unbearable: So she is a single mother, Larry? What’s wrong with her that the father never married her? Why can’t I meet her?
And always with a nagging, wagging finger, Hannah Schwartz would say – Perhaps she is not visiting me because she thinks she is too good for an ice cream man’s mother.
In just under a year, the book was finished. Larry helped Anna organize the dozen copies to send out to potential agents. While she was stamping a pile of envelopes, she saw Larry skimming the pages.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, getting up from the dining room table with her hands clasped to her hips.
“Who is Anna Loren?” he asked.
“You’re Anna Farrelli.”
“My book is by Anna Loren.”
“What’s wrong with your name?”
She was too embarrassed to tell Larry that according to her father there was only one famous woman worth mentioning – Sophia Loren. She was determined to show Salvador that Anna Loren would make it too. Instead, she lied. “The name is for Jakey’s protection, of course.”
“Well, I’d at least like to know what you or Anna Loren is writing.”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, Larry, it’s personal.”
“For Crissake, Anna, a diary is personal.” His voice rose. “You are sending a dozen copies of the book out to people you don’t even know, and you won’t let me read it?”
“Watch your language,” Anna hissed, nodding her head in Jakey’s direction. She said in a steely voice, “It’s about a young woman trapped in her life.” Her eyes lowered to the parquet floor.
Larry heaved a heavy sigh, sat down on the Lazyboy and kicked up his feet. “Let me read it, please.”
She shook her head adamantly. “Let me get an agent, then a publisher, and then you can read it.”
Anna took back the manuscript and Larry watched with dismay as she pressed it possessively to her chest.
“And by the way, who is Jordan Shore?” he asked.
“What?” Anna’s eyes became unnaturally wide. She tried to busy herself, picking up Jakey’s trucks and slowly putting them inside the toy box.
“Yeah, all the agents in the pile were from New York. He’s the only one from Chicago, and there’s no agency name, like the others.”
Anna walked over to where Jakey was sitting, her back facing Larry, and she picked up a book and began to read to her son. She was not ready to get into the subject of Jakey’s biological father.
Larry could feel the tide of a fight coming on. “I said, who is Jordan Shore?”
“It’s my Daddy,” Jakey piped in, as he peered up at Larry through the pair of blue plastic binoculars that he’d bought for him.
Larry met Anna’s anxious gaze across the room, and he stood. “So the kid’s father gets his own personal copy and you won’t even let me read a few pages?”
“It’s not like that,” she said firmly. “Drop it, okay.”
“Oh I see. You have some stupid insecure need to impress some guy who has never even set foot in this house – who never once took Jakey out to play ball or tuck him in at night.” Larry could not stop himself now.
“Shut up, Larry, please.” She turned on the television and cranked the volume.
Larry stared at Anna’s frosty profile, and felt sick. This was not about Jordan Shore. It was not even that she would not let him read the manuscript. It was the other things that he knew to be true but pushed under the carpet for far too long. The faraway glaze in Anna’s eyes after they’d make love, her face taut, unreachable. He knew deep down that the reason she did not want to meet his mother was that she didn’t want to commit to him. She was embarrassed.
That’s why he never told Anna about his past – the commodities, the fancy cars, the swank parties, the models, the stash in the Caymans – he wanted Anna to fall in love with Larry Schwartz of today – NOT with the Schwartzmeister.
He now knew that she had been biding time, and it hurt like hell. He tried to think of a Schwartzism that applied to the situation, but he was in too much pain. It was time to get out before he crashed.
He grabbed his things from Anna’s closet, and heard her coming up behind him.
“Where are you going?” Her voice was shaky.
He let the clothes drop into a heap on the floor and took Anna by the shoulders. “Tell me right now, Anna. Do you want me to stay?”
Anna’s lips quivered, but she kept her mouth closed and said nothing. Larry slammed his fist against the wall, charged down the hallway and out the front door. He hopped inside the truck and blasted the chimes as he tore down the tree-lined street.
Ding-Dong, Ding-Dong, Dinga-a-linga-Ding-Dong.
Then Larry Schwartz was gone.
On the skid marks of Larry’s departure, fame hovered over Anna’s head like a hot air balloon. The first, second and third agents who had read her novel passed on it. The fourth, a junior agent at a small agency, read it all night long and in the morning begged her boss to let her take on Anna’s manuscript as her first project. It was the smartest move of the twenty-three year old’s six-month literary career. Within four months of its printing, Anna Loren’s coming-of-age novel had become all the rage. The phone rang off the hook with incessant demands: magazine interviews, radio shows, a book tour. There were clothes to buy, places to go, people to meet. Overnight, Anna became what she had always wanted: Famous.
One night, Anna’s father, who had cut her off like the fat on his steak, called to remind Anna Farrelli who had made Anna Loren in the first place. She stared at the receiver as the heavy Sicilian accent escaped through the tiny holes. She could actually feel her father’s thick breath, the vapor of her grandmother’s sauce, cigars and red wine seeping through. She had needed her father for so long, craved him, her mother and her grandmother – but they had rejected her. Now that the world suddenly found her worthy, her father had declared her banishment officially over.
“No Papa,” she told him through her tears. “I can’t make it on Sunday. Tell Aunt Mary that I’m sorry.”
A few days later, Jordan Shore called. “You know,” he said slowly. “I never read the manuscript you sent, but I bought the book. Great stuff, Anna.” His voice turned seductive. “I can’t stop thinking about you. At the beach, in the sand, remember?” He paused waiting for her to respond, but she said nothing. “I was thinking, how ‘bout if you, me, and Jakey get together for some quality family time?”
Anna had waited so long for those words, but now they sounded empty, hollow and as phony as her father’s. “Screw you! Screw all of you,” she screamed into the receiver and then hung up. After that call, Anna unplugged her phone.
At night, long after Jakey had fallen asleep, she curled up in her bed and cried silently. Fame had betrayed her – it was supposed to have been perfect. But she missed him.
She tried to find Larry. She contacted the Good Humor human resources, and was told that Larry Schwartz had quit suddenly, moved, leaving no forwarding address. There must have been a hundred Larry Schwartzes in the Chicago area alone, and Anna called them all.
If only she had met his mother. If only she had not been so foolish.
While she had no luck finding Larry, Anna did discover one H. Schwartz in the phone book. It had to be her.
Hannah Schwartz was sitting on a lawn chair in front of her apartment building when Anna pulled up to the curb. Anna thought that Larry’s mother looked like a has-been movie star. She wore huge black sunglasses shaped like owl eyes, and a floppy purple and white polka-dotted hat that matched her dress. A large gold Jewish star dangled from a thick rope chain. Her browned wrinkled skin was visible, and the tanned arms and ankles, reminded Anna of sausages. There was an empty plastic chair next to hers, clearly meant for Anna.
The call earlier in the week had been quick and curt. When Anna asked to meet her, Hannah told her to be in front of the apartment building at one-fifteen, and not one minute later, or she would leave.
“Hello, Mrs. Schwartz.” Anna extended her hand as she got out of her car.
Hannah stood with her arms crossed, straightening to her shrunken four foot eleven. Her diminutive stature surprised not only Anna, but also everyone else who met Hannah Schwartz and then met her three sons, who were all well over six feet.
“You’re on time.” Hannah ignored the hand.
Anna’s palm fell limply at her side. She wondered if Larry was inside the building. She couldn’t help it. She looked up and scanned the windows facing the street.
Hannah shook her head and gestured to the chair, then sat down herself. “Sit. My son isn’t here. Tell me, Anna Farrelli or is it Anna Loren, what did I do to finally deserve this visit?”
Anna was prepared for this. She knew through Larry’s description of his mother that Hannah Schwartz did not miss a beat. She cleared her throat nervously. “I’m here because I’m trying to find your son. I’m truly sorry I never came to visit you before.”
Hannah took off her sunglasses, and Anna gasped. She looked exactly like Larry – just shriveled – as if Larry had been baked too long. “Why should I tell you where my son is?” Hannah leaned forward. “You broke his heart.”
Anna’s eyes welled up. “I made a big mistake. I want to see him and apologize.”
“I see.” Hannah touched Anna’s pearl bracelet and lifted the cameo. Her voice softened. “You are prettier in person.”
“Um, thank you.”
“I saw you on Oprah. Too much makeup. I told Larry that too.”
Anna pictured Larry seeing her on that show, and she lost it. She began to sob uncontrollably.
Hannah patted Anna’s bobbing shoulder. “Let me tell you a story.” She handed Anna a handkerchief. “My son used to have a skateboard – and that’s all he did day and night. I can still hear those wheels screeching down the sidewalk. It drove the whole neighborhood crazy. And he never did his homework. But Larry would still score the highest marks in the class.”
Hannah was no longer looking at Anna as she gazed out into the street as if waiting for Larry to glide by. “My son was once so rich that he sent me on a cruise to the Bahamas. Then he bought me a refrigerator the size of a Golem. I told him to save his money but he liked to buy me things. How could I refuse?” Hannah swiped her hands against her lap. Anna thought those hands were enormous for such a tiny woman. “My Larry was a very unhappy rich man. Always searching. For what? Who knew? Tell me, Anna, who do you know that is so rich and so unhappy?”
Me, Anna thought, then shook her head, angry at herself. She had not known about Larry’s skateboard. She had not known about the money. She knew nothing of Larry’s life that was not theirs together.
She had been so absorbed in NOT committing to an ice cream man that she never thought to find out who Larry really was.
She followed Hannah’s intense gaze. She, too, wished for Larry to skate by.
“Larry’s problem is that he thinks too much for his own good,” Hannah explained. “His thoughts become too deep and suddenly, without warning, he has to change his life. But an ice cream man? At first I was too ashamed to tell my neighbors. Then one day he took me for a ride with him.”
Anna wanted to laugh through her tears as she imagined Hannah Schwartz with her giant sunglasses riding around on the ice cream truck.
“Those bells drove me crazy. But those kids’ faces. Now that was something.” Hannah sighed. She lifted Anna’s face to hers. “My son was never satisfied with anything he did, changing jobs and women so fast that it made me dizzy. Until he met you. That was the first time I had ever seen him stop moving.” Larry’s mother studied Anna’s face intently. Anna desperately wanted to look away, but she knew better. The woman was making her final judgment.
Hannah smacked her lips then reached inside the large pocket of her house dress. She handed Anna a tiny sack filled with chocolate coins wrapped in shimmering gold foil and a small piece of stained paper that had one of those long pharmaceutical names printed across the top. She explained that her eldest son Stuart, the cardiologist, always brought her pads of paper from the office whenever he would visit. “Here’s the address, Anna. Give two chocolate coins to your son and the rest to Larry.”
Anna cranked up the country music station. Tapping her hand against the steering wheel in time with the Dixie Chicks, she drove past cornfields and picket fences, cows and manure, dogs and John Deeres that were parked alongside the vast fields. She drove as Jakey sang with her, pressing the plastic blue binoculars to his chest.
As she approached the address, she stared out the passenger window and saw the fattest cows she had ever seen. She borrowed Jakey’s binoculars and looking past the cows, she spotted a man sitting alone on a sprawling porch wrapped around a beautiful brick house. She felt simultaneously sick to her stomach and deliriously excited.
It was him.
Anna’s hands trembled against the wheel as she pressed down on the gas. Within minutes, Larry’s bare muscles were clearly visible under the thick straps of his overalls. As she drove slowly up the gravel driveway and parked, the ice cream man stood. Raw emotion – relief, joy and love – melded, seeming to thaw his face when his gaze met hers.
Drawing in a deep breath of the intoxicating country air as she walked toward him, Anna Loren knew that Anna Farrelli had finally arrived.