On the ride through the Bronx they passed Co-Op City, where his grandparents had almost moved before his Nana got sick. It was impossible to imagine his grandfather living in this diorama of a world, not that it was easy to imagine him in Florida either. To him, Florida was a big parking lot where people sat around watching their cars, as vigilant as the kids he had once paid to do so in the City.
“Ugh,” Melanie said. “Can we please take the Whitestone? I hate the name ‘Throggs Neck.’ It sounds like a strangler.”
“Sorry,” Leo said. “We’re a Throggs Neck family. My father, grandfather and all of my uncles and aunts would have a fit if we took the Whitestone.”
“They won’t know.”
“Oh, they’d know.”
“Remember that fight your neighbor and grandpa got into at the barbecue when you came back from camp? It was like a Miller Lite commercial. ‘Throggs Neck!’ ‘Whitestone!’ ‘Throggs Neck!’ ‘Whitestone!’”
They went out onto the truck-banned Throggs Neck Bridge, curving out over the dirty Bronx water and back onto the highway, en route to see the Grateful Dead, the third of their three nights at the Coliseum. Karl’s brother had gotten him and Leo a gig working security, so they were getting to attend for free. “My treat,” Karl had said, but it was a strange treat because Leo hated the Dead, and he ended up being the one who drove anyway.
“Not that I want to, but I still don’t get why I can’t work security.”
“You’re too small.”
“It’s male chauvinist bullshit.”
“To be honest, Mel, you’d probably be better security than Leo and me.”
“Rude, ugly and stupid is no way to go through life, fuck-nut!” Leo said, repeating a line Melanie once told a guy.
Melanie, who was on shrooms, kept putting in a bootleg cassette and then pulling it out after like ten seconds. “That’s not it. Damn,” Melanie said, rolling down the window and whipping the tape out onto the highway. “It was in the wrong box.” She wheeled back to face Leo. “You’re going to love ‘Space Dancing.’”
“Why can’t you accept the fact that I hate the Dead?”
“Because it’s impossible.”
But as they pulled into the parking lot, Leo caught sight of his first Dead show scene, and immediately his contempt softened a bit. They slowly rolled through the lot, which looked like a cross between a Civil War battleground and a flea market. Bodies lay sprawled all over, some on blankets, some not, as if felled by Confederate bullets.
Melanie stuck her head out the window. “Oh my God,” she said. “It’s so fucking beautiful.” Leo looked out and took it all in. Cars were seemingly stitched together by blue tarps that connected one to the next, these shoeless guys making giant soap bubbles that wobbled Caspar the Ghost-like through the air. People wandered through them with their hair and clothes flowing, as grinning and blissful as the dogs with their own heads out car windows, jaws agape. People were lying on the roofs of beat-up old junkers and hanging out of the half-open doors of bumper-sticker-laden VW vans. The trunks of some of the cars had jewelry laid out on them, or bootleg cassettes, which no one seemed to be buying. “Just imagine if life was always like this,” Melanie said.
A frisbee hit the side of the car. “Sorry!” a couple of guys yelled.
“We couldn’t care less!” Melanie said, and Leo thought about how that wasn’t exactly true. An old pickup had a grill in the bed and, according to the words painted on its side, sold veggie burgers for $5 “or whatever.”
They drove past a bus cranking “Friend of the Devil,” and a bunch of people danced around the space in front of it. Tie-dyed and hair flowing, they snaked in and around each other, their arms rubbery and boneless. “I thought the ‘60s were dead,” Leo said.
“Look around, Leo. The ‘60s aren’t dead. The Grateful Dead, out of the purity of their hearts, keep it alive for all of us.”
Leo pulled into the back of the parking lot, where the people who wanted to be far away from the scene had created their own scene, leaning against a rickety chain-link fence that sagged against their weight like an old Three Stooges mattress. “What’s up?” Leo asked a nonresponsive guy who was sitting on a curb, digging in the dirt with a stick.
“I want to be in the middle of everything,” Melanie said, sliding out of the car window onto her hands.
People sat on every flat surface, passing joints and bottles, clustered over sewer pipe-sized bongs. Boom boxes blared the now too familiar frail sounds of their favorite bootlegs, and before Leo even knew it, he was in it. A black-haired, smooth-skinned girl, wearing a loose shirt covered by a denim jacket with the American Beauty cover airbrushed on the back, came up to them. “You guys have an extra ticket?” she asked. Leo was stunned to be talking to such a beautiful girl, the kind he had imagined in his fevered dreams so many times. He wished he was an artist, so he could paint her the way Bev had painted Jackson Browne.
“Sorry. We’re working security so we get to go in for free.”
“Oh, narcs? Too bad. I was going to offer to smoke some hash with you.”
“We’re not that kind of security,” Leo clarified.
Melanie laid down on her back on the asphalt. “It’s so warm,” she said. “I think I can feel the center of the Earth.
“They call me Rose,” she said, pulling a small wooden box out of her jacket. “You know, like Ramblin’ Rose. She looked at Leo in a way he hadn’t been looked at since camp. “But my real name is Diana.”
“Like it? My mom got it for me,” she explained, breaking a raisin-sized piece of hash from a brick. Leo looked over at Karl, who caught his glance and nodded back, newly impressed. It took some unmitigated independence to admit you were wearing clothes your mom bought you. “Do you think they’ll play ‘Sugar Magnolia?’ They haven’t played it in weeks. It’s such a bummer. At the last show, this guy who knows a roadie told me that Jerry and Bob were fighting, and so Bob wouldn’t play it just to make Jerry mad.”
Leo tried to wrap his mind around this world she was describing. “Have they played ‘Truckin’?’” which was one of the only Dead songs he could name.
“Oh yeah, they always play that,” she said, firing up the hash in a square onyx pipe, sizzling beneath the light and heat of her white Bic lighter. “I’ve been following the Dead since October. This will be my 52nd show and I still haven’t bought a ticket.”
“Do you really have no money?” Karl asked her.
“Nope, nothing. I took a vow to subsist off nothing but bartering and kindness.”
“We’re going to join the tour full-time this summer.”
“Oh, summer Deadheads? That’s cool,” she said, in a slightly condescending tone that Karl and Melanie would end up having to deal with all summer. “Oh my God. Uncle John’s ice cream van is here. He has the best ice cream. Do you think you could get me one?”
“Sure,” Leo said, following her gaze to where it landed, a yellow VW pop-top bus with an ice cream cone-shaped sandwich board in front of the open sliding door, and a line stretching for a block. He and Diana walked to the end of the line and stood quietly, comfortably.
“Uncle John’s the best,” Diana said. “I’ve traveled with him on the west coast but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on the east coast before.”
The line moved quickly. As they got closer they could see a guy inside, barefoot, with a big bouncing shock of black hair and an even bigger bushy beard, wearing denim cutoffs and a deerskin vest. He moved so quickly he was like a pinwheeling octopus, first reaching into the freezer and pulling out ice cream sandwiches then pivoting to a big cooler he opened with a groaning snap, pulling out generic Key Food sodas. When they got up to the front, the guy gave them a big smile and said, “My fair flower Rose. How are you?”
“Do you have anything other than ice cream sandwiches?” Leo asked him.
Uncle John stopped and looked at him strangely. “Don’t worry, he’s cool,” Diana said.
“Oh, I know Leo’s cool,” the man said.
Leo was confused for a moment, until taking a much harder and longer look at Uncle John before Leo’s mind blew like an aerosol can in a campfire. “Holy shit, Roy?!”
“You guys know each other?” Diana asked.
“I was once this kid’s boss at summer camp,” Roy replied. “He broke my favorite camper’s heart. Hop in.”
“She broke up with me.”
“Okay. Here, grab some.” Roy slid open the freezer top and Leo peered down into a box packed full of ice cream sandwiches, stacked up like Legos. “I take them out of the boxes before I load them in,” he explained. “Hey, Kraft, I gotta work right now, but why don’t you come back after the show? Oh, and it’s four bucks.”
“Oh yeah, sure,” Leo said, taking out his wallet.
Roy laughed. “Jesus, Kraft, I’m just fucking with you! Wow, gullible as ever. It really is you.”
Leo and Diana made their way back to the spot where Melanie had laid down and Karl now lay next to her. He handed them each an already melting ice cream sandwich. “Oh, my god,” Melanie said. “This is so good.”
“See? I told you. Uncle John has the best ice cream.”
Leo looked at the Hood wrapper and said, “I know Uncle John. He’s my old boss, Roy, from Camp Wel-Met.”
“Oh yeah,” Melanie said. “You used to talk about him all the time. What happened to him anyway?”
“Apparently he sells ice cream at Dead Shows. Hey, what time is it?”
Karl suddenly sat up. “Oh shit, we’re late. My brother’s going to kill me.”
“Will you meet me at Roy’s van after the show?” Leo asked Diana.
As they were walking through the campground/flea market, they passed hula-hoopers, jugglers and people on unicycles. Leo half-expected to see trapeze artists and maybe elephants or bears on motorcycles go by. Karl surprised him by saying, “You know, I’ve been listening to Ted Nugent again. He was really good.”
“I never told you about the first time I heard ‘Cat Scratch Fever,’” Leo said.
“Yeah, you were pissed at me that day.”
“I was pissed at everybody,” Leo said, officially letting Karl off the hook, maybe because it felt small to be mad at someone at a Dead show.
They went to the loading dock entrance as instructed. “We’re working security,” Karl said to a burly guy moving around equipment, and the man pointed over to a guy with a big fro on top of a box, talking to a group of teens wearing bright purple pullover security shirts. They went over and the guy handed them shirts for themselves, which they hastily put on.
Karl’s brother, Donnie, came over to them. “Hey fucknuts, you’re late. Don’t fuck this up, shit for brains.”
“Okay,” the guy said in a loud voice to them all. “First off, there can’t be any dancing in the aisles or else the fire marshal will shut us down. Second, if you see people smoking weed, you have to tell them to put it out.” Everybody laughed and he continued, “I’m not joking. This is a non-smoking arena. You guys have two jobs—tell people they can’t smoke and get sick people to the medical tent.” He pointed to a tent at the back of the arena, on the far side of the stage.
“What if we see a fight?” someone asked.
“Get the real security,” he said, pointing to a massive guy in a yellow jacket who was talking into a walkie-talkie. “Let’s be clear. You are not real security. You’re not to go anywhere near the band and stay the fuck away from backstage. Understand?” Everyone nodded. “And seriously, don’t let me or anyone else catch you smoking. You won’t be asked to put it out, you’ll be asked to get out. Got it?” They all murmured their assent. “Alright. That assignment chart tells you where to go. So find your stations and get to them.”
The chart assigned Leo and Karl to the 2nd Deck Mezzanine, above the medical tent, as far from the stage as you could get. “Fuck that,” Karl said when he saw it. “I’m not watching the show from all the way back there.”
“I mean, let’s go back there now, but I’m not staying there.”
They started walking. “They must have opened the gates early,” Leo said, as they watched people streaming in, hair and clothes trailing. The general admission people on the floor breezed up to the front of the stage and Karl and Leo walked upstream against their flow, finding the correct stairs and heading up to the mezzanine.
“Dude, look,” Leo said, pointing to the first people who had arrived in their section, who were firing up a three-foot bong. “How did they get that in here?”
“Just look away,” Karl instructed. Leo swiveled slowly away and peered down at the floor of the stadium, which was slowly filling in. Ever since that Who concert in Ohio, getting into general admission shows was now a much slower but much more peaceful process. The guys all tended to have hillbilly beards seemingly longer than the endless hair on their head, and they wore the jewelry he had seen displayed on so many car trunks. The girls wore long skirts with hairy legs sticking out beneath. They floated through the entrance tunnels unfettered, defying gravity, like wind-driven clouds drifting intently through the space, to join the mass pressed up front. They all seemed to have long, almost detachable limbs, like a GI Joe. It was so different than the Summer of Nugent show, where the guys had these combative cannonball bodies, and the few girls huffed angrily on their cigarettes.
“Can you believe Diana’s mother bought her that Dead jacket?” Leo asked Karl.
“I’m telling you, Kraft, that chick is into you.”
“Maybe you and Melanie can hang out with her when you go on tour. Bev and I will be broken up by then. Fitch told me she’s going to break up with me after Prom.”
“You got it.”
As the crowd filled in, Leo and Karl were careful not to look behind them, where the smell of weed only grew stronger. After twenty minutes Karl said, “Dude, it’s getting jammed up in there. We’ll never make it to the front. Let’s go.”
“What’s your brother going to say?”
“Fuck my officious brother,” he said, using a recent new vocabulary word from their English class.
Follow me,” Karl said, and they walked up the stairs in the section to the entry, passing a guy who was sitting by himself smoking a Cheech and Chong joint, big as a mini-Nerf football. Karl held up one wait-a-minute finger, turned around and went back to him. Leo followed. “Dude, we have to confiscate that,” Karl said to him. The guy just looked at them, huffing away. “Security,” Leo added, holding out his hand for the huge joint, hoping his shirt had the power to get the guy to hand it over.
“Fuck off,” he instructed, and they did. They made their way through the striated layers of the crowd, going from the lightly peopled section at the back of the general admission floor to the increasingly dense crowd in the front. “Security!” the two kept yelling, shaking their purple shirts at people as they passed. “Let us through! Security!”
Deadheads were different than heavy metal fans. The people at the Nugent show never would’ve moved aside for them, but these people just smiled and ushered them by with elaborate hand motions, respecting the incandescence of the purple shirts. They made their way steadily through the crowd, “Don’t forget, we have to find Melanie,” Karl said, then suddenly they were in the front. They had made it. Leo was about to celebrate when Karl said, “Dude,” and nodded just across the metal barrier to the no-man’s land between it and the stage, where real security patrolled in their yellow jackets. “Stand like this,” Karl said, as he crossed his arms in front, where his shirt said “SECURITY” and leaned his back against the metal barrier. Leo joined him. People in front of them, hitting off an onyx pipe, eyed them. “Don’t worry,” Karl informed them. “Not real security.” They passed the weed to Karl.
The Coliseum speakers played pre-concert music, as tedious and out-of-date as pre-movie music. The roadies scurried around the stage, moving wires and plugging things in, and Leo admired them even though he was sure they weren’t actually doing anything, just walking back and forth.
There were a few false alarms, where one section of the stadium would start screaming for no reason, and Leo and Karl would turn to see if the band was onstage but they weren’t. Leo wondered if maybe Bob and Jerry were fighting like Diana said, and they weren’t even going to play. That had happened to him once at a Rainbow concert, when Richie Blackmore had come out on stage and then just left, pissed at someone or something.
Then the lights went dim and a roar went up, and people began to cheer with a loving ardor that Mussolini or Hitler could’ve only dreamed of. Karl was jumping up and down and Leo joined him, shouting as loud as he thought he could, though he could not hear his own voice. “They tune their instruments forever,” Karl shouted into his ear, as Jerry and Bob scraped their hands across their guitars, backs turned to the crowd.
Just then, someone kind of leaned hard against him. Leo held his ground and pushed back, just a bit unnerved at the thought that maybe they had pissed someone off by cutting up to the front, especially now that it was obvious they weren’t real security. The heavy weight pressed on him again, and Leo turned just as this big biker-looking girl fell on him, then past him and onto the metal fencing, bouncing off it and landing sprawled on the ground across Leo and Karl’s feet. They helped her up and she started to fall over in the other direction, but the crowd wouldn’t let her so she just stood sort of jammed in between.
Just a few feet in front of them was Jerry Garcia, big and hairy, with a gut as big as Uncle Syd’s, picking up a different guitar and flinging the strap over his shoulder, while Bob Weir made his way barefoot to the mic on the other side of the stage. Leo was looking back to see how the girl was doing when he felt a huge NFL-sized hand on his shoulder, attached to one of the real security guys in his yellow jacket. “Get her to the medical tent!” he yelled, and Leo stared at him, wondering why he was being picked on, before remembering that he was security too.
The girl stood back up between them, and then she puked right on Karl’s back, and the two realized they needed to get her out of there. Karl hoisted her stringy arm over his puke-covered shoulder, and Leo grabbed the other, and they started making their way back through the hopping and screaming crowd, once again yelling, “Security! Let us through! Security!” this time taking forever because everyone was hopping up and down and screaming, “We love you Jerry!” As they made their way back through the throng, the band burst into “Sugar Magnolia,” and Leo looked back and he could see music shooting up out of the stage like springy snakes emerging from their toy can. Then the surge of those unleashed notes roared through the crowd like a forest fire and Leo actually ducked, fearful of being singed by the music.
“Dude, I’m really high!” Leo shouted, but he couldn’t even hear himself so there was no way Karl had heard him. He hadn’t expected the Dead to be so loud.
“What’s your name?” Karl shouted at the girl who hung suspended between them, being half-dragged.
“Kara,” she shouted at the ground, her head still flopping between them, and it shamed Leo to think it hadn’t dawned on him for even a second to ask her name.
“Are you okay?” Karl asked her, and she nodded but Leo couldn’t really tell what the nod meant. “Where are you from?” he shouted, but she didn’t answer. She kept getting heavier and Leo wondered if she maybe had died.
As they neared the back of the floor and approached the medical tent, Kara suddenly came alive. “Wait,” she yelled. “I was in the front! I was in the front!” Before they could say anything, she bolted from them like a released sunfish, heading back into the crowd and quickly out of sight.
Leo and Karl just looked at each other. “What the fuck?” Leo asked, but he doubted Karl had heard him as the band had just shifted into “Friend of the Devil” and the crowd had erupted again. Karl began to dance in the open space at the rear, springy like he had special shoes, dancing in and around all the other Deadheads.
A playful Garcia guitar riff swept up Leo’s feet and another inflated his arms, and suddenly he was gliding and spinning too, moving towards Karl who saw him coming. His face combusted with a lifetime of love, and suddenly there was Melanie and she gave him almost the same look, and then he realized why people worshipped the Grateful Dead, because they still carried and shared the promise the rest of the music world had given up on. That was what Melanie meant when she talked about their generosity.
The music stopped, silence pulsing, then restarted quietly and everyone stopped dancing to instead sing.
Let there be songs
To fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
They sang about the mystery beyond sense and time and self, the promises only music could keep. The song, so simple in construction, revealed all. The Dead knew exactly what music was, and like Quadrophenia and The Wall, shared in one song what his seven notebooks could not. “Ripple” released him, exposing the many false contradictions he lived by. In an instant, Leo realized that he didn’t have to choose between his heavy metal anger and the contradictory peace he sought. Seeing Roy reminded him he could be everything he was and still be okay. He didn’t have to resolve anything. He didn’t have to fix anything. With what he hoped would be his last judgmental thought of the day, or ideally his life, he was shamed by how mad he had been at his friends lately. It was no one’s fault that he would not be living one of his ten thousand heavy metal fantasies. Nope. He would be working at Caldor while his friends went off to college, But he realized Bernstein was right. He could be at peace at Caldor. Standing on the floor of the Long Island Coliseum, he made himself an irrevocable pact that he would find peace at Caldor before choosing his path.
Then the music picked up pace and, holding his lucid thoughts, he let it liquify him. He danced from song to song across the Nassau Coliseum, through the night. He danced halfway to the morning as the Grateful Dead played on and on and on.
When the show ended, Leo flowed out the Coliseum with the crowd, gutted and disoriented beyond the usual feeling of emerging from a stadium after a show. He had experienced enough moments now like that “Ripple” moment, when everything broke clear as a breaching whale, to know they were real. He had come to terms with so much there in the rear of the stadium, most importantly his willingness to live with the contrast within him, to stop trying to reconcile and distill everything into some absolute truth. He felt free from the tyranny of resolution. Every time Caldor got him down, he would recall this feeling.
But first he had to find Roy and Diana. Stepping out into the warm night and morning air, he came back to Earth and searched to get his bearings as people streamed by, dancing out into the night. Walking aimlessly, he circled the Coliseum a few times as he searched for Roy’s ice cream van. Finally he heard someone yell “Kraft!” and saw Roy sitting in the open space of his van where the door was slid open. The pop top was down so that the van looked flat, almost bald, and his ice cream cone sign was nowhere to be seen. Bootleg tunes emerged from the van behind him. “Where’s Rose?” he asked. Words felt familiar to Leo, but far away, like rocks in his backyard. “Never mind. Come on in. Check out the system I’ve got rigged up in here.”
Leo stepped up in the van and, ducking low, sat on the rear bench. “This fold out to make a bed?”
“Yup. That’s how VW makes ‘em. But I added the freezer. At first it slid around. Made me drive off the road once. I was just about the give up the whole thing. Then I had this guy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard weld it in. See? Then I ran this cable into an outlet, so I can plug it in from the outside. Gets hot, though, and I blew out two freezers, which also almost made me quit, so I put in these two exhaust fans. And I had him mount these two racks, so I can slide the coolers in and out.”
“I don’t suppose you have any ice cream left?”
“Sold out. Always do. Made over two grand today, and that’s pretty typical.” Roy patted a flat old-man bulge in his shorts. “You put it in the hubcap of the spare tire overnight. You can’t put it in a hollowed-out book ‘cause Deadheads know to look in there, because that’s where they all hide their stashes. Then the next morning, you go to a post office or Western Union and get a money order. You don’t want a cashier’s check ‘cause that’s the same as cash, anybody can take it. You mail the money order along with a deposit slip to your bank. Never fails. Even if it gets lost in the mail, you can get a money order reissued if you save the receipt.”
“This whole thing is amazing,” Leo said. “Is it legal?”
“Well, if by ‘legal’ you mean do I have commercial plates, a common victualer’s license and a tax permit, then no. But if by ‘legal’ you mean does the Board of Health or some other fuckwit petty bureaucrat ever go to the trouble of coming to a Dead parking lot and busting me, it’s exactly legal enough. Worst thing that ever happened to me was losing a hundred bucks’ worth of ice cream sandwiches in Dallas.”
“Do you do something to the ice cream? Rose says it’s the best ice cream she’s ever had.”
“Jesus, Kraft, they’re all fucking high, whaddya expect? You stock up at a local grocery store whenever you hit a new town, buy a bunch of plain label seltzer water too, then sell everything for a buck apiece so you don’t have to deal with change. Don’t buy soda because the markup on seltzer is better, plus everyone will drink warm water but’ll bitch up a storm about warm Coke.”
Diana popped up into the van, her face shining. “That show was incredible.”
“You carrying, Kraft?”
“You mean weed? Yeah, of course.”
“Do me a favor. Just put it outside, under the van. That’s the one thing they do hassle me
for. For some reason, everyone thinks the ice cream is just a front for selling weed. But I make way more money selling actual ice cream. So anyway, the biggest trick is keeping it all frozen. I rigged the freezer up to a second battery, but it only stays cold for about four hours once I stop. And once you open it to start vending, it’s you versus time.”
“Uh-huh,” Leo said, listening to Roy the same way he always did, each detail linked to the previous one like a snake, but with the whole thread falling apart if you stopped paying attention in the middle.
“So you have to time it right. Buy the ice cream in the morning and get them out of the box and into the freezer quick. Then drive around for an hour or so and get the freezer down to its coldest temp. If you do it right, you can fit exactly 1,724 ice cream sandwiches in here. I tried other things when I first started, like bomb pops and even Italian ices. But you can’t believe what a hassle it is to have to give out spoons.”
“I love those wooden spoons,” Diana murmured.
“Of course, the one thing about the Italian ice is they don’t melt.”
“But that’s neither here nor there,” Leo said.
Roy laughed. “Look, Kraft, you going to college?”
“What’s your plan?”
“I was supposed to take off with some friends, but they all backed out. So it’s me and Caldor.”
“Still believe in nothing?”
“Maybe not. Believing in nothing kind of let me down.”
Roy reached over to the glove compartment and pulled out a piece of paper. “Know what this is? It’s your golden ticket, Willy Wonka.”
“It’s actually Charlie Bucket who gets the golden ticket.”
“Don’t ruin my moment, Kraft. Still got that ’71 LeMans?”
“Yup. Drove it here.”
“With the Pioneer stereo and the Jensen coaxials?”
“Yeah, but I’ve had to replace the speakers twice. Blew them out.”
“Of course you did. I’ll trade you my ice cream van for your LeMans, right now.”
“Oh shit,” Diana said, looking back and forth from one of them to the other.
“This was my last year anyway,” Roy said. “I saved up enough money to buy a farm outside of Ithaca, and Karen’s going to join me there. I was going to go to Colorado and then Alaska to finish out the tour, but then this young go-getter came along and I said to myself, ‘This is a sign from the universe.’ Whaddya say, Kraft?”
Leo thought smart for just a moment, then nodded and quietly said, “Done.”
“Alright, then help me grab my stuff,” Roy said. “I travel light.”
As they walked to the LeMans, Roy talked a mile a minute as usual. “You remember from Gumby how to drive a manual transmission, right? You gotta feather it a bit to get it into reverse… If someone doesn’t have cash, just give them whatever they want and don’t deal with the hassle… At some point you’re gonna think it’s a good idea to sell Snickers or some shit, but take it from me, it’s not… Make sure you get a good spot, close to the main entrance. You can always pay some guy to move, or just give him free ice cream. And when you go to Alaska at the end of the summer, take the ferry from Seattle. You don’t want to drive Bertha through the Yukon.”
Back at the LeMans, whose dark headlights peered suspiciously at Leo, Karl and Melanie lay with their backs on the hood, feet on the ground. “There you are!” they exclaimed as the group walked up.
“Karl and Melanie, I presume?” Roy said, going up to the car. “Ah, man, it’s beautiful.”
“It has scratches on the passenger side.”
“Just gives it character.”
“What’s up?” Karl asked, knowing Leo well enough to know something was.
“I just traded the LeMans for Uncle John’s ice cream van,” Leo said. “We have to get our stuff out.”
“I assume you’ll mail me the title,” Roy said, as he signed his over to Leo and handed it to him, along with his contact information.
“Yeah,” Leo said, not exactly sure what that meant, but knowing he would figure it out.
“Dude, I don’t get it,” Karl said again, and Melanie peeled herself up off the hood and stood up. Leo thought about explaining but realized that words, and the effort to use them precisely, no longer meant anything to him. He gathered his Marantz with the broken handle, the two lengths of phone cable his grandfather gave him to keep in the car for protection, his cassette case, and a back-up pair of sunglasses. Roy and Leo swapped keys.
Diana stood by the LeMans, and in the light of the streetlight that illuminated the parking lot her skin glowed almost ghostly, the girl of his dreams more apparition than reality. “Want to come with us?” he asked her.
“Do you have to get your stuff?”
“I don’t have any stuff, remember?”
Roy hugged Leo in that all-consuming embrace of his, one that felt even more real this time since he had backed it up by remembering him so well. “I named the farm Wel-Met. Come to Ithaca and find me when the tour’s over.”
They left Roy and made their way back to the van. Inside, Diana showed them how to pull out the bed. She hung the ice cream sign on some hooks out of their way, and Karl and Melanie lay down. “Oh shit,” Melanie said, “this is the most comfortable bed I’ve ever been in.” Diana got in the front with Leo, and he started up the van. It puttered, more like a lawnmower than a car, then he worked the clutch, found reverse, and stalled the van twice.
“You have to feather it,” Diana reminded him, as if he knew what that meant. After a few more tries, they were out of the spot and rolling across the parking lot. Then they were driving on some Long Island road and Leo was picking up speed, driving out on the Meadowbrook State Parkway. Perched in the high seat, peering straight out at the highway in front, everything was disconcertingly close since the van had no engine between him and any obstacle they might strike. He shifted the big gear shift into 4th, pressed down on the accelerator, and the van topped out just under Jimmy Carter’s energy saving limit of 55. Cars whizzed past them, headlights coming up behind then arcing around, taillights disappearing ahead. They merged out onto the Long Island Expressway.
“It’s awesome back here!” Karl called out. “I feel like I’m in my crib again.”
“Where are we going?” Diana asked.
“Rockland County. Where I live.”
“To your parents’ house?”
“No. I live in a yarn store.”
“And where is Rockland County?”
“Between Westchester and New Jersey.”
The LIE slipped beneath them and Leo knew he had some work to do. He thought about his grandfather, who had really been the one to give him the LeMans, and he knew this trade would please him. And he thought about his parents and knew it would not.
“You should stay to the right here,” Diana said. “Take the Whitestone. It’s better.”
And as the early morning lights of the highway and Queens dimmed around them, for the first time in his life Leo Kraft merged onto the Whitestone Bridge. Karl popped his head up from the back, and leaning on the freezer asked, “Dude, what the fuck? Your ancestors are rolling over…”
Surrounded by the tractor trailers that could not take the Throggs Neck, the van sputtered to the top of the bridge; and as they started to descend the mild grade, the grey water, junkyards, patchy fields and spotty, brown buildings of the Bronx fanned out in front of them, haphazard, splotchy and uneventful as the dimming ‘70s they were still leaving behind them.
▪ ▪ ▪
Living in Northampton, Massachusetts, and always the Ice Cream Man, Jeff Rosen has worked as a CFO in philanthropy and now serves as a Professor of Practice in Impact Investing at Tufts University. “Ripple” is an excerpt from his novel, The Nothing Brothers, begun in 1982 and forthcoming from Atmosphere Press in 2022. Follow Jeff on Twitter @NothingBroth70s.