Seven-year-old Chase Goodman waited all week for that five dollar bill. He had been by Mike’s Card Shop everyday in anticipation of a newly released deck of playing cards. The deck was six dollars but since Mike was a nice guy and Chase was a good customer, Mike agreed Chase could have it for an even five. He had offered to do things for his mom all week, hoping she would throw him a little extra allowance, but it didn’t work. His Mom was a waitress, working at two different restaurants. When she finally found time for Chase, she was far too tired to notice all of the extra chores he had done. As he spread his new deck out in his pudgy fingers, the hard-earned five dollars felt well worth the effort and wait.
Mike took the five dollars from the kid and stuffed it in his cash drawer underneath the tab, on top of the rest of the wrinkled fives. He closed the drawer and ushered Chase out.
“Five o’clock, Buddy. Closing time.”
Chase, never flinching, still smiling and preoccupied with his new deck of cards, left with no objection. The kid had gotten what he came for. Mike couldn’t remember ever being so innocent and found himself a little envious. With a half-hearted chuckle, he locked the door behind Chase and flipped his sign from OPEN to CLOSED. It had been a long day, and he couldn’t wait to have his feet propped up in front of the television, ice-cold beer in hand. He was thirsty just thinking about it.
Mike reached behind the counter, under the register, to his secret drawer. He opened it and felt around for his pint of bourbon. He twisted the lid off and gave a salute to no one in particular. Then, he put the bottle to his lips and felt all his worries wash away as the luke-warm liquid lit up his insides like flames from the bowels of hell. He screwed the lid back on and put the bottle back in its secret place. He locked the drawer with a key that hung on a key chain attached to his belt for safe keeping.
Mike punched a button on the cash register with his index finger, and the cash drawer flew open with a hard thud. He reached in to pull the money tray out, but it was jammed. After several attempts to get it out, he went into the office and came back with a flathead screwdriver. He wedged the flat end of the screwdriver into a tiny space between the front of the drawer and the tray and tried to pry the tray out. The screwdriver slipped, which caused his elbow to slip, breaking off the plastic tab that was holding the stack of five dollar bills. He took the screwdriver and tried to pry the tray out again, from the side this time. The drawer popped up and Mike caught it before it plummeted to the ground. The five dollar bill sitting on top floated out of the tray and halfway across the store, landing beneath one of the display tables. Mike never even noticed.
Satisfied that the day was over, he proceeded to the office so he could count the cash that was made that day. He finally got to prop his feet up in front of the television an hour later, but found himself troubled, wondering why his drawer had been five dollars short.
The next morning, Santos unlocked the card shop at 7 A.M, like he did every Sunday. The card shop was closed on Sundays, but Mike paid Santos to clean it up on the weekends. Santos was grateful for the job. Mike had told him for weeks that he couldn’t afford to hire anyone else, but Santos kept hanging around. He had run out of options in the small city and desperately needed Mike’s help. Mike finally gave in, gave Santos a key, and told him he could do the cleaning on the weekends, but that was all he had to offer. He also showed Santos his .45 and warned him not to steal anything.
Santos entered the card shop and set out to conquer the task at hand. He went into the office and grabbed a broom out of the utility closet. He was sweeping under the display tables when he noticed a five-dollar-bill was wedged under one of the table legs. Assuming it had been a customers and that it wouldn’t be missed, Santos pried the five dollar bill out, folded it in half, and jammed it in his back pocket.
Santos stayed with his mother, Stella, and helped her take care of the house while she took care of his grandmother and worked full-time. Stella had to hire a nurse to take care of his grandmother when she was working, because her son proved to be unreliable in that regard. Between paying the nurse, regular hospital visits, purchasing all the medications, and paying bills, Stella barely had enough to feed her family by the end of the week. Santos wished he could do more. He was twenty-four years old and spoke little English. He had lived with his father in Mexico until he was seventeen years old. He found out his father was lying to him when he had told him his mother died giving birth to him. Santos set out to find her at the age of twenty.
It took him two years to find her. During those two years he learned most of the broken English he spoke. He found his Mother in dire straights. The plumbing wasn’t working correctly in the run-down, one bedroom house Stella and her mother inhabited. Most of the appliances were broken, and the floor looked like it had never seen a broom. Santos immediately began fixing things up. He fixed the plumbing and all of the appliances. He cleaned the house thoroughly, and helped his mother pick things out to sell. He helped organize a yard sale to generate some extra cash to catch up on bills. He divided the living room into two rooms and built a wall between them. He turned the tiny dining room into a new sitting room. He started taking care of his grandmother, but it was a daunting task. Since Santos wasn’t comfortable taking care of his grandmother, they all agreed to get her a nurse. Stella got a second job waiting in an upscale restaurant to help pay for it. There still wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. There was never enough.
Santos reached into his back pocket and fumbled with the five-dollar-bill from Mike’s Card Shop. He had finished his work early and decided to walk home instead of taking the bus like he did most mornings. It was a beautiful day, and it felt good to be outside. All the way home he considered what he was going to do with the five dollars. Should he give it to his mother to help pay a bill? Every bit of hard-earned cash he ever made went to the bills. He wished, for once, he could buy something for himself. Not ever seeing the money he earned made him feel like he was working for nothing.
Santos thought of his grandmother. Every afternoon she would be propped up in her bed, facing the street, looking out through the blinds of the front window. Every afternoon the dormant life inside her would awake to the sound of the ice-cream truck. You could see her eyes light up with all ninety-two years of her life inside as It’s a Small World resounded throughout the neighborhood, passing their house. As quickly as the light inside her was ignited, it was extinguished with the fading sound of the truck’s music.
Sympathy tried to swallow Santos. He walked into his grandmother’s room, still fondling the five-dollar-bill that lay wrinkled in his pocket among the lint and dirt. He kissed his grandmother on the forehead and walked to the front door. He sauntered outside, then down the stairs to the end of their walkway, and sat down on the curb facing the road. He thought about the five-dollar-bill and how good it felt in his pocket. He liked that only he knew about it and that no one would be asking for it. Then, he heard the ice-cream truck, and in his mind’s eye he saw his grandmother’s eyes light up with all ninety-two years of her life. It’s a small world after all…
As the white ice-cream truck, with its tacky stickers and peeling paint, inched closer, Santos stood with the five-dollar-bill still in hand, and raised his arm up to stop the driver. The driver was a short, chubby little man with very rosy cheeks and tufts of silver growing out of both sides of his head.
“What can I get for you today? We have everything except the Nutty Bar. Those always go first! You are what you eat!”
“Orange Drea…,” Santos barely got out before he was abruptly cut off by a boisterous and overly anxious ice-cream man.
“Orange Dream! Excellent choice! Guaranteed to bring a smile to someone’s face! Is this for you or is there a little one inside?”
“It’s for my grandmother,” Santos replied.
“She is one lucky lady! Lucky indeed!” chimed the man as he slid open a cooler door and pulled out a neatly wrapped Orange Dream, “That’ll be a dollar fifty, please sir.”
Santos reluctantly handed the jolly fellow the five dollars, “Two more, please,” he said, trying to disguise his thick accent.
“Two more coming right up!” exclaimed the ice-cream man. He slid the door of the cooler open, once more, and pulled out two more brightly packaged Orange Dream’s. The man took the five dollars that Santos gave him and threw it in the top of a large coffee can. Then, he reached into a smaller coffee can and dug out two quarters for change. He handed the change to Santos and thanked him for his business.
Santos thanked the man and walked toward the house. As he watched his grandmother through the front window, Santos thought he saw a smile on her face to match the smile in her eyes and felt his own smile growing. This time grandma’s smile remained long after the fading music from the ice-cream truck vanished completely.
The ice-cream man reached over and hit the kill switch on the music box as he coasted past the last house in Fox Squirrel Run. His name was Ralph Fizzman, but everyone knew him as the Ice-cream Man or Pops. His family called him Pops, but he didn’t see much of them anymore. His friends called him Pops, too, but he could count those on one hand these days. He really liked driving an ice-cream truck. He liked to watch the faces of the children light up when he greeted them. He didn’t have to drive an ice-cream truck. He was a retired postal worker. Between his retirement check and social security, he earned enough to pay his bills and put food on the table. He didn’t need anything extra. He still took pleasure in the more natural, less expensive gifts that life offered. What he couldn’t handle was all of the idle time he had on his hands. Many days he would find himself pacing back and forth restlessly between the kitchen and the back yard. The feeling that he should be doing something besides waiting around to die kept nagging him. He couldn’t shake the feeling that his life had become empty.
One morning, while reading the classifieds with his coffee, Pops came across an ad with an Ice-cream truck for sale. It was the answer he had been waiting for. He immediately called the owner and paid the man cash from his savings. He stocked the truck, touched up the paint where he could, installed a brand new sound system, and was running his first route within two weeks.
Pops had one more neighborhood he wanted to visit before he headed home for the day. The next neighborhood was made up of low-income housing. Even the poor seemed to be able to scrape up money for ice-cream. He was greeted by the familiar cookie-cutter houses and debris-littered streets. A pair of shoes hung on a telephone wire above the entrance like a Welcome Home sign. He flipped the switch on his sound system. It’s a Small World bellowed from the speakers that stood at attention on the roof of the ice-cream truck. Most of the faces he greeted were familiar. A few of them were new. He exchanged money for ice-cream, and the children scattered.
He made it to the last street and was just about to go home when Clyde finally made an appearance. Most of the time Clyde was there waiting for Pops, like the neighborhood host. When Pops didn’t see him at the entrance that day, he worried that something might have happened to him. Clyde was a local homeless man, and he knew everyone. Sometimes he could be a nuisance, but most people just accepted him as a part of the scenery. From what Pops could understand he was a veteran that the government discarded, like so many others. Pops felt bad for him and fed him an ice-cream the first time he ever met him. From then on, Clyde was a regular. Pops didn’t mind. He liked to watch the broken smile form on his crooked lips as he took the first bite. It seemed to empty the meaning out of the little things that bothered him. Any problems became trivial as he watched Clyde light up at the sight of the neatly wrapped frozen sandwich, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You make Clyde a very happy man today, friend!” he exclaimed. He wiped the dripping vanilla cream from his black chin and made a clean spot. His camouflage overcoat, which it was too hot for, looked like it had been tied behind a truck and drug through a mud hole.
Clyde turned, ice-cream in hand, lips frozen into a smile, and started to walk off. Pops called out behind him and Clyde stopped to face him. Pops reached into the top of his large coffee can and pulled out the five-dollar-bill sitting on top of the pile. He held it out to Clyde, gesticulating reassuringly. Reluctant at first, Clyde took the five and thanked Pops repeatedly before staggering away. Pops hoped he would spend the money on food instead of booze or drugs, but knew that was probably wishful thinking.
Clyde balled the five dollar bill up and crammed it deep into his front jacket pocket, along with the few bits of coins and pretty rocks he picked up off the street earlier that morning. His ice-cream started to melt and drip down his face and chin. His hands were sticky with vanilla. He wiped his face on his sleeve again, this time leaving a bigger clean spot on one side of his face. He was craving a fix. He ached to feel the cold needle pierce his warm veins. The five dollars Pops had given him was already burning a hole in his pocket.
After discarding his ice-cream wrapper onto a stranger’s lawn, he walked toward Pacer Street. He had to find Crazy Eight. His stomach was starting to cramp up now, and the ice-cream he had eaten seemed to be souring. He had to find Eight fast. Eight was in building 2112 on Pacer Street, where he conducted most of his business for the time being. He sold anything from crack rock to kind bud, but most of his customers came to him for coke or crystal meth. That is how he got his nickname, Crazy Eight. Some people called him Eight Ball. To his regulars, he was Eight.
Clyde found him in a room at the top of a flight of dark, rickety stairs. The windows in the room had black plastic bags duct taped over them, and the only light in the room was emitted by a tiny lamp in the corner, opposite from where Clyde stood. There were men brandishing weapons, standing in the shadows of each of the other corners. Clyde told Eight he needed rock but all he had was a five. Eight had warned Clyde on his last visit not to waste his time with anything less than twenty-five. Eight was not happy to see Clyde two days later, waving a five-dollar-bill in his face, begging for another taste. He told Clyde he would give him one last chance to stop waving that bill in his face and escort himself out. Clyde didn’t see the three shadowed figures in the corners tense up and tighten the grips on their pistols.
The shot that lodged itself into Clyde’s skull came from Crazy Eight’s pistol, but empty shells littered the floor at the scene of the crime the following day. They found Clyde laying face-up in a pool of his own blood, his body laden with bullet holes. Saturated with bloody fingerprints, a five dollar bill lay on his chest.