Updated: Nov 16
East 89th, 1968:
“The Good Humor Man”
Matthew, the Good Humor Man, had been down in Florida for East 89th Street’s dark months of 1968. By the time he was back in his truck the week after Memorial Day, the black cloud that had hung over the block that winter had already passed by. He didn’t learn about the tragedies until later, when he asked Mrs. Darvin why he hadn’t seen Josie lately. The cheerful young woman with Downs Syndrome lived in the very first house he drove past on the street and could be found most days sitting happily on the porch, waving and calling out “Hello hello hello!” to all passersby, people and cars.
“Oh, you didn’t hear?” Mrs. Darvin clucked, handing over three 25 cent pieces for her children’s ice creams.
He heard now, the details of the serial tragedy floating over the heads of the kids while he continued to dispense his sweet treats and collect their quarters, dimes, and nickels.
First it was Dottie, one moment fine, the next dropped from a stroke doing laundry in her kitchen just after the New Year. Then Bubbie in February, sad, although at her age hardly a shock. March followed with a double blow, Mrs. Kroger the victim of a hit and run on Church Avenue in the first week, and poor Josie, from complications from her “condition,” as Mrs. Darvin called it, at the end of the month. April came in like a lion, pouncing on Mr. Silverstein and felling him with a heart attack while he was washing his car in the driveway behind his house on that first warm Saturday afternoon.
“Thank God, it ended there,” Mrs. Darvin said, wiping dripping strawberry ice cream from her youngest’s face with a handful of paper napkins.
The entire block had held its breath for May and didn’t begin breathing again until June, after there had been no new casualties.
Matthew shook his head in sadness and disbelief. He and Constance split their year between Miami and Brooklyn, but life didn’t stop in one place while he was in the other.
Memorial Day to Labor Day was his busy season in the east. He did enough business through September and sometimes even into October to keep driving, but come Columbus Day, no matter how much ice cream he was selling, the gleaming white freezer truck was parked in the factory lot on Empire Boulevard and he and his wife were in Miami. Brooklyn was still home, even if home these days was a one-bedroom rental in Park Slope. Brooklyn was where he had been born, where he had met and married Constance, and where they had spent their lives until deciding five years ago that they’d had enough of the New York winters and became snowbirds.
East 89th Street between Avenue B and Ditmas Avenue was in the middle of his route, a polygon carved from the northeastern edge of East Flatbush. He would start the day on Ralph Avenue outside the playground of Mayer Levin Junior High around noon, ringing the bells on his truck to announce his arrival. During the summer, the school hosted a day camp and the bells would bring a rush of kids pouring through the gate, waving quarters and shouting their orders.
“Gimme a Toasted Almond!”
“Matthew, Matthew, lemme get a Strawberry Shortcake!”
“I wanna chocolate covered bar!”
“A vanilla Dixie cup, Matthew!”
Matthew loved the chaos. He loved the kids. It didn’t matter what neighborhood they came from or what their race or religion, they were all just kids. The little ones would clamber up onto the front seat and take turns yanking the cord to sound the bells on the roof and every Friday he would award an ice cream sandwich to the best ringer. The older ones would stand around eating their ice cream and exchanging corny jokes and small talk with him. Some of them he’d known since they were toddlers licking ice cream from the lids of their Dixie cups. After a dozen years on the route he knew their older brothers and sisters too, even some of their parents.
Next, it was over to Avenue A to begin the slow back and forth, up and down a lopsided grid of one-way residential streets. The neighborhood was a mix of old, not-so-old, and newly built blocks of attached and detached single and multi-family row houses. East 89th between Ditmas and B was one of the last to go up, less than five years ago. The east side of the block sported a uniform wall of three-family homes, the upper apartments with little terraces jutting from the façade. Behind them, between the street and the backyards of the homes on adjoining Remsen Avenue was a service alley, accessible by a driveway mid-block. Across the narrow street were two different styles of brick two-families, both varieties with porches and large upper two-story so-called landlord’s apartments over smaller rentals. The houses on the Ditmas end of the block had driveways, while those on the Avenue B end also had garages. Altogether, there were almost 90 families on that block.
The Good Humor Man liked this street. It was loud and raw with young, growing families and kids, who knew how many, and they all loved ice cream and Matthew for bringing it to them. He had to admit he had his favorites on every block; the 16 month old boy on Avenue A who squealed with delight when his mother held him up to ring the truck’s bells, or the kindergartener on 86th who always had a new drawing of him or his truck for him when she got her Chocolate Éclair. And, he would also have to admit, but only if pushed, there were kids he didn’t like. Little pishers who pushed ahead of the other children, snapped their orders, never said please or thank you, threw their coins at him like he was a beggar.... What sort of people raised children like that?
But this street was a delight, a relief from some of the others, right in the middle of his route. Not a stinker in the lot and even a handful of gems.
Matthew looked forward to Josie’s daily greeting, waving vigorously from the porch, “Hello hello hello!” responding with a triple ring of his bells and a tip of his white cap as he drove by. Her tiny, wisp of a mother would walk the shuffling young woman over to the truck to buy her vanilla Dixie cup along with the rest of the children and Josie would accept her ice cream with a quiet, “Fank you, Maffew,” and hurry back to the porch to savor her treat.
So, his heart fell when Mrs. Darvin told him “poor Josie” was dead. “A blessing,” she said with a world of weariness in her voice, as though her healthy child qualified her to understand. Matthew never pitied Josie. Sometimes he even envied her simplicity and happiness, supposing that God had plans for each of them and knowing it wasn’t for him to judge, not God and not Josie.
Matthew and Constance could never have children of their own.
Would he have been able to love a child like Josie? He wanted to believe he could, even after seeing what that love had cost Josie’s mother. The poor woman couldn’t have been more than 49 or 50, but the strain of her burden had drained her, sapping her of the vitality a woman her age should still possess. And yet, when he looked into her tired eyes when she watched her daughter, he didn’t see fatigue or resentment. He just saw the light of her love.
Further down the street was another young lady who made him smile. Last year, nine-year old Donna had been a tiara-wearing, scepter-waving royal princess, dressing in sequins and sparkles that her indulgent mother sewed onto her t-shirts and blouses. This summer, she greeted him in a cowboy hat and holstered six-guns. America didn’t have princesses, she told the Good Humor Man, so she wanted to be a cowboy. Her father, a mailman with a route in Midwood, chuckled and told Matthew in a whisper, “Also, the kid’s got a crush on that Little Joe on Bonanza. Guess I oughta be glad it ain’t Hoss, huh?”
But his favorite by far on 89th Street, on any street on the route, was Davey. The slight blond boy with thick black horn-rimmed glasses had turned seven between last summer and this one but didn’t look to have grown much in the interim. Matthew didn’t know exactly what was wrong with the child. He had always been small for his age, frail and physically awkward, but whatever may have been deficient in his body was more than made up for in heart. Little Davey’s was huge and bursting with love and joy for everyone and everything. The Good Humor man had never seen anyone take such unbridled joy in something so momentary as a Rainbow ice pop, a frozen concoction of colored sugar water on a stick he consumed with a happiness that dripped from him like the rivulets of melting red, white, and blue ices down his arm.
June drifted into July, the summer sun baking the concrete sidewalks and asphalt roadways with heat that simmered the street through the evening and long into the night. Several evenings a week, on the hottest days, Matthew would take his truck out again, after dinner, and stop along his favorite streets.
In daylight, those streets belonged to the children, but as dusk settled the adults would begin to wander outside. The dishes done, the kids finished with their homework, it was time for the grown-ups to relax, bringing out lawn chairs or bridge chairs and gathering in small clusters in driveways and stoops. Dads would sport cold beers or Scotches on the rocks, smoldering Camels or Marlboros between their fingers, exchanging the racy jokes they had picked up at work to the screeching mock disapproval of their wives. It was the dog days, too hot to stay inside to watch television or sleep. After dark, in the glow of the streetlights and porch lights, the youngsters played on, but quieter now, subdued games of hit-the-penny or stoop ball, hopscotch and catch. Even they knew this quiet time belonged to their parents and to break that peace was to risk banishment inside or, worse, being sent inside to bed.
Not that the summer didn’t bring its headaches. Constance’s mother, in a nursing home on Long Island, was in failing health. Then the company started talking about raising its wholesale prices to the drivers, threatening the thin margins of their pennies per piece profits. Recently, the least of his worries but a worry nonetheless, Tony, his mechanic had warned Matthew that his 1954 Rambler was fast approaching the point where even his expertise would no longer be able to keep it running. The muscular little man in greasy overalls man strongly advised against attempting the return trip to Florida in the fall in the old car.
It was in the final week of July, on the hottest day so far of the summer, that the trouble started with the Greek who drove the Half Moon. The Half Moon was another amusement vying for the children’s coins, a flatbed truck on which was mounted a steel frame supporting a large free swinging semi-circular cage hung between A-frames. After paying their 25 cents, the kids would climb aboard the triple row of facing seats and the operator would release the brake and begin to manually swing the cage back and forth. It only took the well-balanced contraption a few moments to build momentum, going faster and faster, higher and higher, as the kids squealed and screamed, demanding to be sent hurtling eve “Faster!” ever “Higher!”
The whole dizzying ride lasted three minutes, timed to the second. For the Greek, time and children were money, and each three minute ride was just another load, worth just twelve quarters. “De more de money-er,” the Greek had pronounced without a trace of humor the first time the competitors had met years ago to work out a mutually agreeable schedule. It was a disaster for them both when they showed up on a block at the same time. The kids didn’t know which way to turn or how to spend their money. Three giddy minutes of simulated terror or ice cream? Whichever a child picked, when the ride was over or the popsicle consumed they would regret they hadn’t chosen the other. So, Matthew and the Greek made a deal, and for years the only time they ever saw one another was when their trucks passed traveling in opposite directions.
But the Greek had retired and sold the business to the cousin who used to fill in for him when he was ill or on vacation. A man, Matthew learned when he tried to discuss the situation, who had no intention of honoring his predecessor’s agreement.
“Don’t bother me, okay? You mind your business, I mind mine,” the new Greek snapped, annoyed at Matthew for wasting his time. He was directing the kids off the ride so the waiting group could climb aboard, his mind on the next three minutes and the twelve new quarters about to drop into the change apron cinched around his waist.
Matthew had little customers of his own clamoring for attention, so he left the Greek to his labors. He made a mental note of the new telephone number painted on the door of the truck so he could call later that day to work out a compromise with the man. And for the sake of the children, he didn’t let his annoyance show through his smile as he went about his own business, but the delighted screams of the children being flung through the air grated on his nerves. He corrected himself. He was happy the kids were having fun but was resentful of the man providing it to them.
His smile faltered only once, when he glanced over at the Half Moon and saw Little Davey being helped up the steel steps onto the ride by his big brother Eddie. The little boy’s face was flushed with excitement and Matthew thought he could hear his delighted squeal of anticipation through the din, but he was sure he only imagined that. He knew he shouldn’t be hurt by the child’s decision, but in the moment, he experienced a small feeling of betrayal. But then Donna came galloping up to the truck, hollering, “Giddy up, Good Humor!” and he started to laugh. He was being ridiculous. Today, Davey wanted to ride the Half Moon. Tomorrow, he would be back to being flushed and squealing with excitement over a Rainbow pop.
That day in competition with the Half Moon, Matthew’s receipts were down by over 20 per cent. He reasoned the ride would have experienced a similar loss. He couldn’t think of a better argument in favor of the new Greek resuming the agreement he’d had with the old Greek, so he dialed the telephone number with confidence of a happy resolution.
The Greek met Matthew’s introduction with a surly, “What you want?” The Good Humor man quickly laid out his proposition, pointing out the ridiculousness of their both losing money when the solution was so simple. The Greek laughed harshly in his ear. “Yeah? So how come I do better today than other days, eh? I got no reason to change nothin’.” Matthew tried appealing to the man’s humanity, but the ride operator appeared to be lacking even its most basic components.
So, the Good Humor truck was forced to alter its daily routine, going where the Half Moon wasn’t. The Greek maintained no fixed schedule of his own, going where he wanted whenever he wanted, and he soon started following the ice cream man around the neighborhood, waiting for Matthew’s bells to draw the kids outside before swooping in and scooping them up in his swinging cage.
The Half Moon started to hand out small prizes to his riders on their way off the truck, junk he picked up in bulk in Chinatown that probably cost him four or five to the penny but made his customers feel like they were getting something more than just a passing toss into the sky. The favorite prize was a “punk,” what the kids called sticks of incense. They would wander by his truck after their rides, pretending the smoking incense were cigars or fuses to bombs. He came to hate the slightly sweet, smoky odor that wafted through the East Flatbush streets in the wake of the Half Moon.
While unable to resist an occasional ride, Donna remained grounded and as loyal to Matthew as a nine year old asked to choose between sweets and exhilaration could be. But he had lost Davey. His little friend had become addicted to the rise and fall of the Half Moon. He had graduated from sitting in the low row of seats where the arc of the ride was much gentler, to the top row, which rode every millimeter of the arc and sent the wind streaming against his face as he screamed in ecstatic horror. How could a lump of frozen sugar water on a stick hope to compete with that?
It didn’t make a difference to the little boy that the Greek never smiled or said anything other than to bark instructions to make sure their safety bars were in place across their laps and to keep their hands inside the car. Matthew thought he understood Davey’s love of the ride, reveling in the freedom to fly, even if just for a few minutes, free and unencumbered by his imperfect little body.
At least he hoped that was true.
Even on the days he and the Greek avoided contact, Davey rarely bought ice cream anymore. He saved his quarters, clutched in his little fist, for the ride. More than once, Matthew had watched the boy hop down from the Half Moon only to race back around to the end of the line so he could ride again.
Matthew had once asked himself if he could have loved a damaged child like Josie or Davey. The answer to that question had made him ashamed of himself. All he could see were the responsibilities and burdens of that sort of parenthood, waking up every day knowing there was so much to carry for one who couldn’t carry anything for themselves. But now, watching the breathless and beaming youngster in the euphoric afterglow of one of his rides into the sky, the Good Humor man knew he had been wrong. The answer was, after all, yes. He had never had to question Constance’s hypothetical love for their imperfect baby. “Any child would have been a gift,” she once said, sad but resigned to what was.
Seeing what the Half Moon meant to Davey, he wondered if he had been any better than the Greek, fretting over the loss of a few pennies at the expense of a child’s happiness?
So, what if the boy spent his money elsewhere? His little face would still light up and he would wave and yell hello to the Good Humor man when he saw him coming. Davey lived with his family in one of the three-flats close to Ditmas Avenue on the west side of the block, which was usually lined solid with parked cars, leaving Matthew no place to stop that didn’t block traffic. Because all the homes on the other side had driveways, parking wasn’t permitted along most of its length, but no one ever objected to the Good Humor truck spending a few minutes in front of their house.
As excited as may have been to greet his friend, Davey always waited for one of his big brothers or an older kid to shepherd him safely to the other side. This wasn’t a rule only for Davey. Adults and bigger kids were constantly ferrying the younger ones back and forth across the street to play with friends or to go home. Seven years old was the standard for being allowed to cross on one’s own, but only after proving the responsibility was taken seriously. Crossing the busier avenues with their two lanes of opposing traffic was a later privilege that had to be earned.
Business continued its slow dip into August. Constance said it was because the children were all off to sleep-away camp now and that things would pick up next week. But Matthew knew the reality. It was the Half Moon. For reasons the ice cream man couldn’t understand or even begin to guess at, he seemed determined to run him out of the neighborhood. Malice? Spite? Greed? What motive could one man have to ruin another he doesn’t even know, who had never shown him anything but courtesy and respect? Lately, Matthew would catch the Greek watching him with a knowing malicious smile on his lips. The man wouldn’t even pretend and look away when their gazes met, as if he knew a secret to which Matthew wasn’t privvy.
One afternoon, the Greek stopped alongside the polished white Good Humor truck and honked his horn for Matthew’s attention. Matthew looked up, surprised. The man hadn’t bothered to speak a word to him all summer. All he did was watch him with dark, mocking eyes, but now he had something to say:
“Hey, ice cream man. How you business, eh? Gonna be better next summer. Me an’ my brother, we buy a truck together, another ride, you understand? The Whip. Me an’ him, we gonna split the neighborhood, you know.”
Matthew understood. The Greek was declaring war and the Whip was the weapon he would use to crush the Good Humor man. What he didn’t understand was why the other man considered him his enemy. The ice cream man and the previous ride driver had peacefully coexisted for more than a decade. Now, without a word or provocation, Matthew was being attacked and his livelihood threatened. He didn’t know how to fight back. He sought advice from some of his fellow drivers, but none of them had ever encountered a competitor as ferocious as the Greek and had little to offer. He spoke with his supervisor, but the man was another dead end, only interested in reminding Matthew that his sales were down by almost one quarter.
The Good Humor man began to wonder if his troubles were a sign of some sort. Maybe it was time to retire from driving a truck for nickels and dimes and leave New York for good. He always loved his work, being outdoors, on the move, mingling with hundreds of people and children every day, but now, and even more important than the lost income, the Greek had robbed him of his contentment, a thing more precious to Matthew than money.
On the second Thursday of that August, Constance received a telephone call from the Long Island nursing home informing her that her mother had passed away quietly in her sleep the previous night. Though they’d known for a while this was coming, Constance was devastated by the reality of her loss. They sat shiva at her sister’s on the Island beginning the Sunday after the Friday funeral, seven days in a house where the mirrors were kept covered and the immediate family sat on low, hard stools, all to remind them that this time was to remember and reflect on the deceased, not be concerned with themselves or their comfort.
And for seven days all Matthew did think about was death. His mother-in-law’s, of course, but also his own. Not the big death. He was in no rush to embrace that, but it didn’t hold much fear for him. He had been through the war, a 29 year old private when he shipped out to Europe in early 1943, and had seen enough of death to know that it was hard but over in an instant. A medic with his squad would turn away from the man he had just tried unsuccessfully to save with a simple, “Lights out.” That was it. One second your light was on, the next, it was extinguished. The medic’s light was put out by a sniper’s bullet the day before Christmas, 1944 in the Ardennes forest of Belgium.
It was the thought of a long, empty slide to the moment his light went out that scared Matthew. To be idle, to be useless, to be a burden to himself, much less his family, that was his horror. To stop being the Good Humor man would be a surrender, a deliberate step onto that slippery slope towards the darkness. But to continue like this, his stomach twisted into knots, his thoughts consumed with the Greek and his irrational, unexplained hatred that sapped all joy from Matthew’s days...? He was left to choose between misery or sadness, as if that were any choice at all.
By the time he returned to work the Monday after the shiva, Matthew’s mind was made up. He would hand in his notice to the Good Humor company at the end of the month. He briefly considered requesting a different route, but the thought of starting over at his age on new streets with new children made him weary. He was too young to retire and too old to begin anew. Or to have to fight every day. So, he chose retreat. Let someone else do battle with the Greeks in the streets of Brooklyn. Matthew would be far from the fray, in Florida year round. He and Constance had always planned on one day moving there full time, the only thing really binding them to the northeast having been her mother. Now the old lady was gone, and it was time he moved on as well.
The day camp at the junior high school was finished for the season, so Matthew began his day on the residential streets. He drove cautiously along Avenue B, his bells silent, glancing both ways up and down the cross streets, on the lookout for the Half Moon. The Good Humor man hoped to see as little as possible of the Greek in his final weeks, no matter what it cost him in business. He couldn’t bear the thought of being in the same city as the other man, much less the same streets where he would have to look at that obnoxious, gloating face. All Matthew wanted was to exit on his own terms, quietly, and without giving the Greek the satisfaction of knowing he’d succeeded in running him off until after Matthew was gone. He wouldn’t have been able to endure the sound of the Greek’s laughter and derision that the ice cream man was sure his announcement would elicit. How was he supposed to continue to pretend he had any self-respect left in the face of that?
It was early in the afternoon when he turned onto East 89th, the kids just returning to the streets from lunch in the dim cool of their apartments. He had beat the Half Moon into the neighborhood and would, for a while at least, have his favorite block to himself. Matthew missed the children while he was sitting shiva in Long Island, especially his cowgirl Donna and little Davey. He wondered if they had missed him. A replacement driver had taken over his route while he was gone, but had it made any difference to the little ones who they bought their ice cream from?
One of the D’Agostino twins saw him first and began shouting out his name, a cry quickly picked up by some of the other children. Matthew laughed and waved, ringing the bell in answer. The youngsters ran back to their houses, calling, “Mom, lemme get a quarter for Good Humor, please!” Donna came flying through her front door, shooting off her cap pistols and joining the rest of the kids at the curb where he stopped the truck.
“We missed you, Matthew!”
“Hi, Matthew! Where you been?”
“I didn’t like that other new Good Humor man so much!”
Their happiness at seeing him made Matthew momentarily forget his decision and when he did remember, it made him sadder than before. This wasn’t how it really was anymore. Any moment, maybe not till tomorrow or the day after, but soon, the Half Moon would come rumbling around the corner to run over and crush him.
Mrs. Darvin wandered over behind her three children to offer condolences on Matthew’s loss. His first thought was how had she learned he was leaving, but then he realized she was talking about Constance’s mother and thanked her for her kind words.
“It was quite the week, last week when you was gone,” Mrs. Darvin said with a mournful shake of her head. She clucked her tongue. “Those poor children.”
Matthew’s breath caught in throat. Mrs. Darvin was a nice woman, a good mother, but she gauged her life and happiness in direct opposition to the tragedies of others, as though their misery or loss meant more happiness for her to absorb. Yet she never really seemed very happy, her brow usually creased with the weight of the misfortunes of others that she collected. Maybe that was why she was always so eager to shed the load and share the bad news.
“Oh, nobody you know,” the woman said when she saw the stricken look on his face, as if that should make any difference. “It happened in East New York. Terrible, terrible accident. That ride, the Half Moon that comes around here all the time? It flew right off the truck, the whole thing, crashed to the street. What’d you think of that?” She was leaning into the window now, whispering so the children didn’t overhear the gruesome details. “Two kids killed, one lost a leg, another’s in a coma with a broken back, God help her. The rest are lucky just to be alive.” More clucking. “They arrested that man who owns it, what’s his name? That Greek guy. Negligent homicide, they booked him on. Son of a bitch, never even had that junk heap of his inspected. Imagine! That could have been our kids, on this block he killed.”
Matthew was imagining it. A silent picture in his mind of the violently rocking Half Moon reaching its apex, little Davey, Donna, the Darvin children and all the other little ones of East 89th Street holding tight to the lap bars, their mouths open with unheard screams of ecstatic terror, then their screams becoming real as something in the A-frame structure gives way and instead of the swinging steel cage hitting the stops and reversing it continues to roll over on its axis until the kids, little Davey at the top, are almost upside down but before its momentum is spent the A-frame begins bending, tipping the cage over to one side, suspended briefly at an angle over its flatbed base before gravity caught up with the moment and slammed it to the ground in a twisted pile of metal and flesh, crushing them all.
Then he imagined hearing their screams of fear and cries of pain and a cold, black hand squeezed his heart.
The Good Humor man was dizzy.
Two children dead but just like that, his troubles were over. He felt a surge of relief before the gravity of this moment brought him back down to earth. Were his troubles so bad they were worth the lives and health of those children? No, no, of course not. And Matthew knew the world didn’t work that way, that one man’s misery wasn’t traded for another man’s happiness, but some small part of him would never stop believing that his prayers to be rid of the Greek had been answered with the deaths of those children.
The Half Moon hadn’t been down East 89th since the previous Tuesday and the kids had already fallen back into the old routine of spending their quarters on ice cream. He wouldn’t know until he got home and counted the receipts, but it seemed to him like the old days, before the Greek had driven into his life. The only thing missing was Davey. He felt for sure that with the Half Moon out of the picture, the little boy would have been one of the first in line for his ice cream.
“My heart goes out to that family,” Mrs. Darvin said when Matthew asked about him. “That little David is such a sweetheart though.” She shook her head, clucking as she gazed gratefully at her own healthy babies scattered around her, another tragedy she believed might make her happier for her own blessings.
“That poor thing, he was heartbroken when he found out the ride wouldn’t be coming around no more. You know how much he loved to go on it, remember? And then when you didn’t show up, too, well! You’d think the world had ended.”
But it had ended, he wanted to tell the woman. Davey was a sickly, awkward little boy who couldn’t play alongside his friends, who could only dream of running and jumping and throwing like his big, strong, healthy brothers. Despite that, the crippled little bird had found a way to fly free, at least in his mind, only to have it taken from him. But he didn’t think Mrs. Darvin would understand. Her children had never had to suffer the loss of anything that precious.
“Oh, he’s fine,” Mrs. Darvin said when Matthew expressed his concern for the boy’s welfare. “He just got so riled up over that stinkin’ ride, he made himself sick. You know delicate he is.”
Matthew had been holding his breath, waiting for that confirmation but too scared of the answer to dare ask the question.
But he began breathing again. The children, his children, were well. As horrible as the Half Moon accident had been, Matthew had nothing to be guilty about. Events were what events were and they happened the way they happened. What blame there was for that tragedy was for the Greek to own, if it was even in him to feel for his victims.
The last of his customers served, Matthew waved good-bye, promising to see them later. He was laughing and ringing his bells with all the vigor of one of his young Friday prize winners as he put the truck in gear and drove slowly down. He wanted to celebrate, to sing out loud. It had been less than a month since the trouble with the Greek had started but, in his misery, it felt like an eternity. But the veil was lifted and his planned slow fade to oblivion was forgotten.
The Good Humor man had his streets back, had his children again.
It would be several days before Matthew pieced together what happened next. At first, every time he tried thinking about it, his mind just shut down, as though his light was dimming almost to the point of being extinguished, but not quite. No, he could never quite make it to total darkness and peaceful oblivion. There was always just enough light left to read his pain by.
Matthew’s celebratory bell ringing had awoken Davey, who was napping on the sofa in his living room. He must have looked out the window and saw it was Matthew, behind the wheel again where he belonged. Davey was a good boy and he knew the rules about going outside without supervision, but who could blame him for getting so excited to see his friend back that he forgot himself and ran out of the apartment? His mother, in a bedroom folding laundry, and had no idea that he was awake and didn’t hear him go.
Barefoot and in his pajamas, Davey ran outside, yelling, “Matthew! Stop, Matthew! Please stop!”
He scampered down the short walk, across the sidewalk, and charged onto the street from between two parked cars just as the shining white truck passed slowly by. The little boy must have tried to stop, but either he was going too fast or he simply lost control of his limbs and ran into the moving ice cream truck. He spun off it and was thrown backwards, slamming into the fender of a parked car with enough force to leave a dent before crashing to the ground, his head bouncing off the asphalt, never to move again.
Matthew heard the dull thud of the impact and at first couldn’t image what it was. He was driving at a slow ten miles an hour, a precaution he always took on streets crowded with children. His first thought was that a rubber ball had hit the truck, but then some of the kids started screaming and running out into the street behind him. He hit the brakes and jumped from the cab.
He saw Davey. A tiny crumbled shape in the gutter wearing pajamas decorated with airplanes and rocket ships, his head laying in a spreading pool of blood beside his mother’s parked Chevy Impala station wagon. His thick black horn rimmed glasses were sitting, undamaged, on the hood of the car where they had landed.
Matthew staggered like he had been struck. Blood pounded in his ears and the whole world turned a greasy gray around the image of the child. The dead child. He knew Davey was dead as sure as he hoped, wished, prayed that he would be allowed to join the little boy, to just die himself, drop dead here and now, before the truth of what happened could really sink in.
But Matthew wasn’t granted that mercy. And knowing he would have to live he sank to his knees and began to sob. The screams and wails of the parents and children echoed around inside his skull and he imagined he felt every bit of their pain filling him up like a balloon, stretching him thinner and thinner until he would have to burst. But not yet. No one blamed Matthew for what happened. It was an accident. All the witnesses, young and old, agreed. Yes, things happened because they happened. Bad people put greed over the concerns of others. People, good and bad, young and old, died. Metal rusted or grew weak with fatigue and broke.
Little boys ran out into streets without looking where they were going.
But these things didn’t happen to Matthew. He treated everyone the way he wished to be treated. He took joy from his wife and his work and the children who bought his ice cream. He was a good man who made people happy.
It shouldn’t have been his lot to recall the black cloud of death back to East 89th Street.
He was the Good Humor man.