Ice Cream Sunday
“A small vanilla cone, please.” It was finally his turn at the counter. For 20 minutes, Eddie had waited behind irritated parents and excited children, all the while glancing anxiously at his car. She was still there, solid and unmoving, lost in her own world.
Thank God, he thought. He was not up to chasing her today — or any day, for that matter. Once before, when his wife Millie had been ill, he had to go alone to that place to fetch her. But when they stopped for a red light, the girl had escaped. Worried, embarrassed and more than a little angry, he had to pull off and run after her—heart pounding, face sweating. She was very fast. He almost didn’t catch her.
Since then, whenever he had her in the car, Eddie would fasten her seatbelt with the top side turned inwards where her clumsy fingers couldn’t find the release.
“Sugar cone or plain?” The impatient voice of the young clerk brought him back to the present. Sugar cone or plain? Which did Millie choose? She always handled these details. His wife had handled everything concerning the child. All he had to do was drive the car and pay the bills. And listen to Millie cry in the night for her lost daughter.
“Mister, sugar cone or plain?”
“Uh, sugar, I guess,” and he turned back to see her leaning forward now, her stick-straight hair hiding her face. She’s probably playing with the radio buttons, he thought resignedly. She liked to turn the volume up very loud until the sound rattled the windows and crashed against his eardrums.
“You see, Eddie, she likes the music. Could she be as backward as they say if she likes the music?” His wife’s anxious words echoed in his mind. Millie never let go of the hope that the doctors were wrong in their diagnosis—that somewhere, underneath all those layers of unresponsive brain cells, lurked a child ready to learn, able to love.
Eddie knew better. He knew there was nothing there, that her brain was as vacant as the look in her eyes. Their daughter—the one he and Millie longed for—was somewhere else, with some other family. And in her place was this heavy body and empty mind.
“Sir, excuse me. Would you step aside, please?” It was the boy again. He wanted Eddie to move, so he could wait on the mother and father and two giggling golden-haired daughters.
He had never heard her laugh, he realized. The girl would sit for hours, impassive and unreachable, twirling one end of her hair or endlessly stroking the material of her dress. But she rarely made any noise at all.
Except when she was eating. “Then,” he had said with disgust the first and last time they took her to a restaurant, “she sounds like a pig at a trough! I knew it was a mistake!”
At first Millie didn’t answer, but busied herself gently wiping the girl’s face and hands clean of the food. Then she turned to face him, with a look of disappointment in her eyes that shamed him.
“Anna’s our daughter, Eddie. It’s not her fault she was born this way.”
It wasn’t his fault either, he had wanted to answer. But he kept his peace. And it wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t feel a spark of affection for her. He had tried to, God knows, but as she grew older and more out of reach, he found the effort harder to maintain.
Finally, he had left it to Millie to love the girl. If he felt any sorrow at all, it was from watching his wife struggle against the reality that was their child. She was a good woman. She should have had a healthy baby—one with laughing eyes and eager smiles.
But he had done the best he could. When she grew older, he found a place that could keep her. And after Millie died — has it been six months already? — the staff expected little of him in the way of contact. He paid for the girl’s care and bought what little necessities she required, but made no attempt to see her.
“It wasn’t like she would know me anyway,” he had explained to the nurse on duty. “Besides, what if I take her somewhere and she gets, you know, crazy? I’m an old man. I can’t handle her.”
It was different when Millie was alive. Then, every Sunday afternoon, they would drive out to the facility to visit her. (Millie called it “the place.” She hated their daughter living behind locks and bars). And when the weather turned warm, they would take her out for an ice cream cone.
Eddie drove, and Millie and the girl (when had he stopped thinking of her by name?) would sit in the back. Millie would carefully feed her spoonfuls of the white frozen cream, gently wiping her lips and chin after each mouthful.
“A dollar even, sir,” and it was the boy again, holding a cone already dripping in the heat. The outside temperature had risen unexpectedly high for early May. Maybe that was what decided him to go out for ice cream today with the girl. On such a warm day, he knew Millie would have wanted to take her out for a cone.
But there was just the two of them now, no Millie to help. And the ice cream would melt much faster than she could eat it. Even now, as Eddie watched, the drops of cream accumulated on the counter, adding to the sticky mess left by other customers.
How would he manage? he wondered, thinking of how slowly she ate. She would roll each spoonful from one side to the other inside her mouth while dribbles of white escaped from the corners of her closed lips until finally she swallowed.
She would smile, he remembered. Smile, and then open her mouth for another taste.
“Here,” and he handed over the bill. “Could I have a dish? And a spoon,” he added, not caring about the exasperated sigh that escaped the boy. Okay, maybe he should have thought of it before but he couldn’t think of everything! Millie usually went inside and got the treat. Millie usually did it all. All he had to do was drive.
“Here’s your dish. And your spoon. Anything else?” The heavy sarcasm was wasted on Eddie, who saw the girl trying to open the car door. He grabbed the cone and dish, shoved the spoon into the soft cream, and hurried to the door. He had to stop her before she got out. She would run, and he was too old to catch her. She would disappear—and for a split second, he saw a future with no girl to deal with. Just his life and his memories of Millie.
Only for a second, and then he was at the door, holding it closed, telling her to “Sit down! Let go!” feeling ashamed in front of all the other parents—parents with normal children.
Then, for the first time, he looked at her—really looked at her—and saw tears running down her face from her wide-open eyes. Her eyes, he realized, were the same color as Millie’s, blue and clear.
“Here, what’s wrong?” and Eddie set the cone in the dish, placing it carefully on the roof of the car. Gently, he opened the door. He had never seen her cry. If she did, if Millie knew, he was never told. He wouldn’t have wanted to know, he thought. He had shut out all thoughts of the child, and left it to Millie to do what was necessary. Like love her, he understood now. Millie had loved her the way she was, just as she had loved him, despite his faults.
He fumbled awkwardly with the seatbelt and then released the catch, and the girl turned all the way around, bumping her knee against the dashboard. She was a big girl—a woman, Eddie realized. She must be nearly forty by now.
She was staring at the backseat, looking for God knows what, he thought. Then he knew, and his throat tightened.
“Come on,” and not caring what the other people thought, Eddie pulled her gently from the front seat and guided her into the back.
“Sit here,” he said, as though she could understand him. That was how Millie always talked to her—as though someday she would answer.
Then, he picked up the ice cream and climbed in next to her, turning sideways so he could see her face.
“I brought you some ice cream, Anna,” he said now. Dipping the plastic spoon into the sticky sweetness, he brought it to her lips.
“Try some,” and gently, Eddie fed his daughter.
Nancy Christie’s fiction and essays have been published in Full of Crow, Wanderings, The Chaffin Journal, Experience Life, Tai Chi Magazine, and Woman’s Day, among other. She is also the author of The Gifts of Change (Beyond Words Publishing/Atria). Sheis currently seeking representation for her first novel, Finding Fran, while working on her second novel, a short story collection and a book for writers.
To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page