Billy sat in his cloister trying very hard not to hear his mother’s screams. It was impossible. He had work to do, spreadsheets to fill out before Monday morning, or he wouldn’t get paid and if he didn’t get paid, his mother would have to do without her two staples: Butter brickle ice cream and bonded bourbon. So he tried to concentrate. The humming of the window unit air conditioner usually helped, but today it did not help. Not one bit.
“Billy!” she shrieked. “Billy!”
She hadn’t left the two-flat in five years—not since his father had passed away—unless she was visiting one of her many doctors. His father died on the Red Line L somewhere between Morse and Loyola on the far north side, standing up to allow a lady passenger to sit, and then falling down flat on his face, dead before he hit the ground, a stray bullet zipping through the L car and through his occipital and temporal lobes before settling in the bottom of his frontal lobe.
Billy was an accountant, just like his father. Or approximately like his father.
A coroner dug the bullet out of his father’s head, back to front. The funeral was a closed casket affair. His mother shooed everyone out of the room so she could take one last look at his poor dead dad. The shooed included Billy and his older-by-two-years sister Ellen, who’d arrived from Connecticut for the funeral and left immediately afterward. Ellen advised Billy to do the same, to leave as quickly as humanly possible. “You’ve done enough for the two of them,” she said. “It’s time to start thinking about yourself.”
“Ma needs me,” Billy said.
“She only needs you because you’re here,” Ellen said, taking his hand. “Come to Connecticut with me. Plenty of jobs for accountants there.”
The brother and sister shared a face. On Billy it looked too feminine. On Ellen, it looked slightly off, like it had been slapped onto the front of her skull haphazardly.
“Billy!” his mother shrieked at the funeral home. “It’s not him! It’s not him!”
Ellen let go of his hand, let it fall.
There was nothing physically wrong with his mother, as far as Billy was concerned. But in the past five years there was the endless drill of doctor after doctor. And pills. She maintained three separate pill cases and a clock that was dedicated to telling her when to take her pills. It seemingly went off at all times of the day and night. Beep-beep-beep. Then there was her diet. He tried to make her eat real food, but she’d pick and pick at it and instead would say, “It’s time for dessert,” and would stare expectantly at Billy, who would go into the kitchen and pour her a tumbler of bourbon over a few ice cubes and scoop a sphere of ice cream into a coffee mug for her. She’d click on the True Crime Channel, or watch an episode of Nancy Grace on the DVR. This was her life, and his.
“Billy! Billy! Billy!” she shrieked. He couldn’t take it anymore. He saved his work and opened the door of his tiny bedroom, the only contents therein being a twin bed (with sheets, comforter and pillow), his computer desk, his computer chair, and his laptop. “What?”
“Billy, get out here!” she shrieked. He walked into the living room. She’d gotten drunk, she was always drunk, and had dropped one of her pill containers on the floor. A rainbow of pills lay scattered on the tatty rug in the middle of the room. Nancy Grace was frozen in a rictus of rage on the TV screen. “They’re all dirty now!” she shouted. “I hope you’re happy.” She was crawling on the floor on her hands and knees.
He crossed his arms across his chest, involuntarily hugging himself. He wanted nothing more than to die at that moment. He heard a tinkling song playing outside, “The Entertainer,” an ice cream truck, probably.
“Dirty,” his mother muttered, weeping now. She wasn’t that old. How old was she? Billy tried out some math in his head. Forty-eight or forty-nine? Forty-eight. She looked impossibly older, like a seventy-year-old, her hair all white and uncombed, her translucent skin gone slack across her poking bones. Liver spots penetrated her hands and face, and her eyes contained a milky goo swimming in the corners and oozing out of her tear ducts, drying in hard crusts alongside her bent nose. The insurance settlement had left her well off, but it was all being spent on one quack after another. The pills for one month alone cost as much as he made in a week. “Why aren’t you helping me?” she asked pitifully. “Why won’t anyone help me?” She pushed herself to a sitting position and brought the heels of her hands up to her eyes to massage them.
He walked over to the window and parted the drapes. It was noon, and it was a hot one out there. The ice cream truck was parked on the corner, dispensing to the neighborhood children, who screamed and ran in circles, hopping and leaping like it was the Fourth of July and the sky was filled with fireworks. “The Entertainer” continued playing as the truck sat there. The tune began to curdle in Billy’s brain, going from sweet and sentimental, to sickeningly sweet, to feeling like an electric wire was heating up and pulsing inside his brain. “I have to go,” Billy said suddenly.
“Fine!” his mother cried out. “Go!”
He found his wallet and keys by the door. He looked around for a baseball cap, there was usually one there, but when it didn’t pop out at him, he left. He left his cellphone behind, too. If he took it, she’d text him over and over with demands until he returned. He didn’t want to hate his mother, but he could feel the moment approaching. He trotted down the steps and found no ice cream truck. It had departed. Instead, he saw a man and a woman standing on the corner, each looking off in different directions. The man was dressed formally, too formally for the time of day and the oppressive heat. The woman was dressed in a pair of white short-shorts, or the bottom half of a swimsuit. She wore flip-flops and a blue tank top. Underneath she wore a bikini top, which was laced at her neck. Her blonde hair was tied in a too-tight bun. A pair of oversized sunglasses obscured most of her face. She turned and smiled at him, or at least he thought she smiled at him. He turned around and looked behind him to make sure that she wasn’t smiling at someone behind him. In that instant, he heard the sound of change clinking onto the pavement. He turned his head back around and saw the well-dressed man crossing the street determinedly, as if leaning into the wind. What Billy would have given for some wind. Already the sun was soaking into his body, and a slimy sweat was pouring across his skin. A single drip ran down the back of his leg and ended at his sweat sock. He was wearing cargo shorts and a gray pocket t-shirt. His eyes weren’t adjusting well to the sunlight. The woman was picking up coins off the pavement he noticed. She looked at him. “They’re just pennies,” she said. Her voice was familiar. She was familiar. He didn’t understand it. Who was she? Did he know her? Before he could ask, she was on her feet and heading away in another direction. Why was Billy outside? He had no idea. He followed the woman from a respectful distance down the sidewalk. The grass along the sidewalk was burnt brown in most places. Some people had taken the time to water. Billy thought, “I should water.” But then he’d have to mow the lawn, which was a pain. The sweat! It accumulated on his back and chest and itched. The woman made a right turn up ahead. He slowed down. He wasn’t sure he wanted to keep up with her. He continued following her. Trees blocked the sun partly. A cool lake breeze was trying to whisper through, but the sun was partially heating it, causing a whirl of cold and hot to circle round him as he walked. City sounds obscured the sound of the woman’s flip-flops slapping against her feet and the sidewalk but Billy thought he could hear it anyway. She turned a blind corner ahead. He slowed down again. Should he continue? His feet kept moving despite the deliberation in his head. He turned the corner and she was standing there waiting for him.
“Billy,” she said. She took off her sunglasses. It was his girlfriend from high school. Annie.
“Um,” Billy went. He stood and stared at her.
“Listen,” Annie said. “I, um, don’t want to seem presumptuous—”
“Of course not,” Billy said.
“You’re following me,” she said.
“Hi,” he said.
“Billy,” she said, and there was something like anger in her voice, and tenderness, too. She knew what happened to his father. She knew his living situation, probably. Everyone seemed to know. “I…” he went, and looked down at her feet. Her feet looked like she’d gone to some expense to maintain them just so she could show them off at this time of the year. He looked at her hands and there was a ring. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he turned and walked away.
“Billy!” she shouted after him. Her voice was filled with sadness, or pity. It was pity. Billy was certain of that. He trotted away. “Billy!”
He tried to get lost. He’d lived in the city his whole life and it was impossible, but he wandered around aimlessly anyway, trying to chase the sound of his former girlfriend’s voice out of his head. The memory of her was one of his good things—the taste of her mouth, her breath on his cheek. Her pale blue eyes staring into his. The sweet little mole beside her eye. But now there was that voice and it was crowding all of that goodness out. He had his hands in his pockets, he didn’t know what to do with them, and was staring down at the pavement just ahead of him as he half-trotted along when he came upon the pennies. The pennies were all in a heap as if someone had taken a bucket and dumped them there. He stopped and crouched down. How many pennies can make you care? It was some sort of savage experiment. There must have been ten dollars worth on the ground, in a big copper puddle of currency. Behind him, the tinkling music was playing. “Grr!” Billy went. “Ice cream truck!” He looked up from the pile of pennies and saw the truck heading toward him, violently running over the curb and coming to a stop inches from where he crouched. He did not move.
“Hey, buddy!” the proprietor shouted. He was wearing a white uniform. “Sandy” was stitched on one breast and “Good Humor” was stitched on the other. He had a black bow tie cinched around his throat. A paper hat soaked through with sweat was perched atop his head. He exited the truck. “Whatcha got there?” he asked. The music kept playing.
“Can’t you shut off that music?” Billy growled. He stood up. There was nothing threatening about Billy. Nothing at all. The feminine face, the gaunt body, his mien—it all added up to a man who could not, and would not, kick anyone’s ass no matter how angry he became. Billy knew this about himself. Men who kicked ass knew this about him, too.
Sandy the Good Humor man knew this instantly about Billy, and forgave him for the bit of anger. “No can do,” Sandy said, smiling mischievously. He giggled. Then he reached inside the truck and flipped a switch and the music disappeared.
The agony inside Billy’s head evaporated immediately, replaced by relief. He looked up at Sandy and decided that he liked him. “Pennies,” Billy said, waving at the mess of coins on the ground. “Lots of pennies.”
“Are they yours?” Sandy asked.
“No,” Billy said. “Unless it’s suddenly finders-keepers around here.”
“Finders-keepers probably applies in this situation,” Sandy said.
Billy realized that Sandy was huge, maybe six-foot-six. “That was the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ you were playing, wasn’t it?” Billy said.
“God, is that what it’s called? I call it the soundtrack of my nightmares,” Sandy said. “What do you want?” Sandy asked, stepping inside the truck. He appeared in a little window on the side of the truck, leaning uncomfortably.
“I don’t know,” Billy said. He looked at the little pictures on the outside of the truck. A red, white, and blue popsicle was named, “The Atomic Bomb Pop.” A sun-faded grayish-green popsicle was named, “Endless Summer.” Billy felt miserably hot. He was going to have to buy something.
“I can sell you everything but forgiveness,” Sandy said, laughing. “Or maybe that, too.” He smiled at Billy. “Do you need forgiveness?”
“No,” Billy said, a bit defensively. “I don’t think so, anyway.”
“I have frozen burritos made of chocolate and vanilla ice cream wrapped in a frozen crêpe,” he said. “Four-ninety-nine and worth every cent.”
“That does sound good,” Billy said, wiping sweat out of his eyes with the back of a hand. “Do you have butter brickle?”
“Not even sure what that is, Chief.”
“That’s all right,” Billy said. “I’ll take the burrito.”
“Good choice,” Sandy said.
Billy reached into his wallet and handed him a five. Sandy did not give him the penny. Instead, he pointed down at the ground. “There’s your change,” he said. He handed Billy the burrito, wrapped in waxed paper.
Billy opened the wrapper and took a bite. The “Maple Leaf Rag” started up again, and so did the truck. It couldn’t be the same truck that parked in front of his house, he thought. That one played “The Entertainer.” Same composer, different song. The burrito tasted like nothing. It had almost no flavor. Billy sat down next to the pile of pennies and ate it anyway. It was cold. That was enough.