It happened like this. Two whitetails ran out in front of the Ice Cream Man’s box Jeep. So the song, when Gareth heard it at first, was a tinkling of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Then came the crash and the chimes went low and awful and young Seamus Volta looked like he might cry and his little sister stood at the road as the foot-rush panicked the docks. Men came flying up over the river hill to the road to help pull the Ice Cream Man out of his vehicle.
Mr. Giles ran the other way to get his gun. Always he had it strapped to his belt but he’d been helping out with the docks, had left the gun in his cabin.
The doe had run off, her left back side heaving a bit of hide into the bumper, but the buck’s right antler came clean through the windshield. Mr. Giles shot it before its hooves did more damage to the Jeep or the Ice Cream Man. Everyone stood there eating PushUps and Drumsticks and Bomb Pops before they all melted. It would be some time before the tow truck could come.
“Go on. Eat more. Whatever you want,” the Ice Cream Man said, wiping sweat from his forehead and between his neck rolls.
Mr. Volta said later, “That freezer would’ve kept things fine.”
The Beetle Lady, with the help of Mr. Giles and Mr. Volta, sawed the deer’s head off right there in the road, hauled it back to her place in a wheelbarrow.
Mr. Volta promised to help slaughter the rest of it for the Ice Cream Man.
“Thanks a million,” the Ice Cream Man said.
Mr. Volta kept the loin, though. Fried it up in olive oil with chopped hardneck garlic and green onions. It wasn’t tough at all.
“But the rest will be,” Mr. Volta said. “That buck put up a fight. That’ll ruin the meat.”
Oh, Gareth had wondered why he was willing to give the rest of it away. Mrs. Volta had, too. She said that venison could have lasted them the whole winter.
Gareth knew when he saw it that he’d never stop picturing how that deer head looked bumping down the road in the Beetle Lady’s little wheelbarrow. The wheels of the barrow squealing. They all figured what the woman would do to the head, how it would look when she was done with it, how the white of its skull would glow through the windows of her place by the light of the river moon.
And Gareth, all these years later would remember how youngest Volta boy, Giuseppe, didn’t say “deer, deer” or “ice cream, ice cream” that day. He’d only leaned his forehead on the back door’s screen, stared out. By the time Mrs. Volta carried him to the road’s berm, his dirt-scuffed cheeks lined in tear trails, the tow man was hauling the Jeep off.
“Jeep, Jeep,” was all the kid said, pointing.
He should’ve been talking more than that by then, but he was stubborn.
That’s when Mr. Volta gave his own son that horrible nickname. Jeep.
And it stuck. Along with the memory of that poor doe losing her mate, that poor buck stuck in a windshield, cut apart and eaten.
Neither asked for any of that.
Just wanted to cross the road, make it deep into the hill, into the tree line.
Growing up, stories and meals were intimately connected—mostly hunting and fishing tales. At times, details were difficult—maybe the drive my dad and uncles put on in order to get a great kill shot at the whitetails/venison or a bit of bragging about our beagle, Amy, tracking down a squealing, dying rabbit we were eating. This story is no different—a meal and its disturbing “understory.”
The ice cream Jeep had such a presence in my childhood that it had shown up obliquely in the longer project I’d been working on, so it set squarely on my mind when I attended a Kathy Fish class in which she had us build a flash from 1) a place, 2) a vehicle, and 3) a song. Immediately I had the vehicle and song, and I’d always wanted to tell a story of the special deer that lived along the river road in my town. Ice cream vehicle songs, a dying deer, and the river road arrived almost simultaneously as I drafted.
In the very pragmatic community where I was raised and currently live, nothing should be wasted—melting ice creams, dead deer—and while I know no one who eats roadkill, this Volta family might have been one to do so. Also, nicknames are commonplace in my small town—often derived from a memorable life event—so I wanted my character, Jeep, to have a significant negative event connected to his name. I’d named him after two people in my hometown who couldn’t have been more unlike him and at the time I was drafting this story, I was fleshing out his backstory. Suddenly this “naming story” of a wreck, savory tenderloin and sweet ice cream eating, and a child’s reaction to trauma came crashing together along the river road.
Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears online or is forthcoming at New Orleans Review, Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, West Branch, Litro, Prairie Schooner, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere, and was selected for 2019’s Best Small Fictions anthology. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcarts and named finalist by Sundress Publications for their 2018 Best of the Net anthology, Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Award, and Arts & Letters Unclassifiables contest, as well as semifinalist in Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize and both American Short Fiction’s Short and Short(er) Fiction contests. She’s the recipient of an artist opportunity grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and is currently working on a novel set in the hills of the Appalachian Plateau of Western Pennsylvania.