A few years ago, I published two collections of short stories. A few people purchased them. Most didn’t. I’m going to start randomly posting some of those stories here. Just for the heck of it. I’m thinking that the stories I’ve written over the last few years have reached the threshold to put together in another collection, but I don’t know if I’ll do that. People don’t seem much interested in short stories. Or at least spending money on them. I’m also thinking that re-reading and posting some of these stories here may give me something to write. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll decided to turn one of these short stories into something longer.
What follows is one of the first short stories I wrote. It may just be the first. And it was published by Toasted Cheese. It’s been a long time since I read it last. If my memory serves me correctly, I wrote it in connection with the first writing conference I went to. I remember sitting in the room where the conference was held and imagining an older hispanic man walking by outside, pushing an ice cream cart, the bell jingling. So, I wrote a story about the ice cream man.
The Ice Cream Man
When there’s nothing to harvest, Pedro pushes his ice cream cart through the streets of Watsonville. It is a meticulously planned route that begins around 10:00 in the dusty neighborhoods on the eastern edge of town. Even though it’s early, he hopes that kids playing in the street will want a cold treat. As the lunch hour approaches, the route takes Pedro through the small downtown and the surrounding commercial areas. Once he has sold a few popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to workers taking a mid-day break, he makes his way back through more residential streets.
Kids playing with hoses. Kids playing tag. Kids playing baseball in the street. They can hear the little bell on the cart jingle from a block or two away. Doors slam. Kids yell for money and come running with coins dancing in their hands.
The smiles and laughs from the children should make Pedro happy, but there is too much sadness in his life. So, he plasters a fake smile on his face as he hands out his frozen treats and the children snatch them and run away.
As the afternoon turns to evening, Pedro pushes the cart back towards home. Over the course of a day, he will push the cart through more than ten miles of the town’s streets. He has made a few more dollars to send back to his parents in Mexico and to keep food on the table for Miguel, his own happy little boy.
When Pedro gets home, he gets Miguel from the neighbor who watches him during the day.
“Gracias, senorita,” he mumbles as he takes Miguel by the hand.
“De nada,” Maria replies. Pedro doesn’t notice how Maria’s hand lingers on his as he passes a few of the precious dollars he has earned to her.
* * *
Miguel, having just turned three, is a ball of fire. Non-stop movement. Non-stop chatter. Pedro can’t help but laugh and smile watching Miguel. The hour or two Pedro has with his son before he puts him down to sleep is the only time Pedro allows himself to be happy. He has to for the little boy’s sake.
They play. They wrestle. When Miguel goes to bed, Pedro lies next to him and tells him stories about Mexico. About home. About his grandparents. He has not been able to tell Miguel stories about his mother. Not yet. Those memories are still too painful.
Once Miguel’s eyes have closed and he is sleeping peacefully, Pedro gets up, kisses him lightly on the cheek and goes out to the kitchen. He gets his dinner and a cerveza and sits down at the small, worn kitchen table. As he eats his meal – rice, beans and a couple of tortillas made by the neighbor who watches his little boy and whose hand lingers on his own – Pedro does what he has done every night for the last year and a half. He relives the night he lost Isabella, his wife.
* * *
They grew up together in a small town in Mexico, surrounded by family and friends. Everybody knew everybody and everybody knew Pedro and Isabella would marry some day. As early as sixth grade, other kids would make fun of them because of how close they had grown.
A few years after the couple proved everybody right and married, Miguel was born. Shortly after his first birthday, they decided to cross the border to California. Pedro and Isabella dreamed of a better life, a life they didn’t think possible in their desolate corner of Mexico. The dream was crushed before it began.
On their journey to California, after they had crossed the Rio Grande and crouched their way through a small tunnel that funneled illegal immigrants into the country, they were packed into a van with its seats taken out. Fifteen people packed into the back, sitting side by side on the floor of the van. Packed like sardines. The air was stifling and the aroma of sweat and fear filled the van.
Without warning, the driver slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed. The van veered to the left and began to tip over. It seemed as though it took forever, but in reality it was over in a second or two. In that time, Pedro curled into a protective ball around his son and tried to reach for Isabella. He didn’t reach her in time. As the van crashed over onto its side, he could feel her slide past him and slam into the wall.
The back doors burst open and the occupants stumbled out. Pedro carried Miguel out and turned to look for his wife. She didn’t follow him, so he went back to the doors and peered in.
Three bodies were scattered in the corner, jumbled up with each other. One of them was the girl Pedro had known for years. The girl he had loved since the beginning of his time. The girl who had grown into a woman and become his wife and who bore his child. He could see the features on her face, frozen in place. He could see that her head was bent awkwardly to the left. Her eyes stared blankly into space. Pedro lost her while in search of a dream.
* * *
Every night, over a plate of rice and beans, he relives that night. He can still feel her slip from his grasp and hear the thud as she hit the side of the van. He no longer remembers the feel of his wife in his arms. He only remembers his hand reaching for her that night. He no longer remembers her laugh. He only remembers the sound of the thud. He no longer remembers the smile that used to light up her face. He remembers only the sight of her eyes staring into space.
That night Pedro had to run with Miguel in his arms to avoid being arrested. He ran and ran and left Isabella behind. He wasn’t able to bury her or properly mourn her. Now he remembers her the only way he can. Every night. Alone. Reliving that night. Tears running down his cheeks. At some point, he rises from the kitchen table, rinses off his plate, and goes to bed. To do it all over again the next night.
I think that’s rather heartbreaking, but I think you need to do two things with it: a) don’t tell us he’s sad at the beginning, it’s way more evocative the way you describe his situation going forward, much sadder, and we feel more for him and b) come to a resolution on this story, I don’t think it ends – it needs, after that sadness, a way to bring us out of that dark place. Maybe it’s just the optimist in me, but I want to see Pedro or Miguel or both come to a happier spot somehow.
That’s what I think of when I ponder whether there is more story to tell.
Regarding your other comment, back when I wrote this little story, I viewed writing short stories as experiments, opportunities to learn how to tell stories. I still think that about everything I write … it’s all a grand experiment in the best way to write the idea in my head. When to reveal the sadness for example. It’s all part of the advanced calculus that goes into this stuff.
It is calculus, A complicated kind, so involved that you don’t even see it coming or how it’s formed, you just have to feel it I suppose.
Beautiful little piece, and to me it reads almost like a folk tale. There’s something very empathetic about the need to put stories to people we see out there in the world. You packed such pathos into a small, poignant package.
Thank you. That’s one of the things that has motivated me to write. To give stories to the people we see in every day life.
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