from Red Cross Magazine
The High Cost of Living Hits Billy Brad
by Ellis Parker Butler
The high cost of living, as it rises or falls like the tides of the sea, does not hurt those whose incomes are controlled by the same impulses, and rise and fall in harmony with it. If Mr. Bradley's salary had gone "upsy daisy" at the same moment that "Children's Sandals,
Sizes 5 to 13," went "upsy daisy" all would have been well, but salaries have a habit of panting along about four blocks behind the high cost of living, like Billy Brad trying to catch up with the ice cream cone man. And that was why Mrs. Bradley asked Grandma to stay at the house while she went to the "Unprecedented Factory Clearance Sale" to get a pair of sandals for Billy Brad's busy little feet, for ninety cents as advertised.
"And here's five cents, Billy Brad," she said, as she departed. "If the ice cream man comes around you can get an ice cream cone, so be a good boy and do what Grandma tells you. Goodbye, dear, and if he gets hungry, mother, there are cookies in the stone jar in the closet under the china closet. If he gets fretful that's probably what he wants, but please don't let him have over two or three at a time, because he puts them in his pocket and crumbles them. Well, goodbye, dear. I think you'll be all right until I get back. But, mother, if he does get impatient, you can give him a couple of slices of bread and butter. He likes the raspberry jam on it best. Goodbye, dear. The raspberry jam is in the jar labeled 'apple butter,' on the second shelf in the kitchen behind the salt bag and the meat chopper. Well, goodbye, dear; be a good boy. I wouldn't give him too much to eat, mother; his tongue was a little coated this morning. Well, goodbye, dear!"
Three times, on the way to the corner, Mrs. Bradley turned to wave her hand at Billy Brad, who stood holding his nickel in his chubby fist. When she disappeared around the corner he took his seat on the low, concrete horse-block to wait for the ice cream man. It was then eighteen minutes after twelve. Normally, barring accidents and unusually good trade conditions, the ice cream man arrived in front of the Bradley residence at two-thirty. Normally, when there were no sandals to be purchased at a bargain, Billy Brad had his "yunch" at twelve-thirty and then an hour of "rest" in his room.
Billy Brad's "rest" was a tradition, hanging over from his tenderer infancy. Theoretically Billy Brad went to his room, after lunch, and indulged in sixty minutes of refreshing midday slumber. In practice the "rest" did not work out that way. Billy Brad would go to his room, shut his door with a bang that shook the house, and immediately begin to drive huge, reluctant nails into tough, resonant boards with the "yammer" from his tool set. When, after a kitten-quiet morning in the sand pile in the back yard Billy Brad retired for his siesta, he became active and the noise was like that of a muscular carpenter putting a tin roof on an ice house.
On this particular day, not being required to take a rest, Billy Brad sat quietly on the horse-block and resembled a Rodin "thinker" done in pink flesh with dimples, and freckles across the puggy little nose. He was not impatient. He was doing the thing he loved best to do. He was waiting for the "yice-keem coam man." He had only two and one-quarter hours to wait.
Waiting for the ice cream cone man was, at that moment, a sacred rite with Billy Brad. It was a return to the cherished customs of his youth -- half a year ago -- when he was a mere infant of four years. In those far-off, long-ago days waiting for the ice cream cone man had been the maddest, merriest part of his day. About two-thirty each day the ice cream cone man arrived; at two-forty-five Billy Brad had eaten his cone, down to the final, pointed tip; at two-forty-six he began to "wait" for the next day's coming of the ice cream cone man. First, he undertook the financial operation of securing the necessary nickel, and -- being Billy Brad -- got it. Then he lost it, and found it, and lost it and did not find it, and wept, and Mrs. Bradley found it, and then he lost it and found it. And then he lost and found it. It made life one long thrill. The last thing at night he asked, "Where's my yickle for my yice-keem coam?" and the first thing in the morning he asked "Where's my yickle for my yice-keem coam?"
Through the long winter he thought many times of the ice cream cone wagon. When some far-off junkman's bell would jingle Billy Brad would raise his head and listen, expectant, half-believing and yet wondering. Could it be the ice cream cone man?
On warm, sunny days that halted the snow Billy Brad would say hopefully, "I dess it's mos' time for the yice-keem coam man to come around now." At Christmas he laughed gleefully at the cornucopias hanging on the tree: "Yey yooks yike keem coams," he said.
And Billy Brad had been away from home the very first day the ice cream cone man did come around! He had been in the city with Mrs. Bradley shopping, and the ice cream cone man had tinkled his bell in front of Billy Brad's home in vain! Billy Brad knew this within three minutes after his return from the metropolis. Mabel May and Dorothy Ann, the Street's twins, told him. Strange boys he had never seen before, stopped and told him. Unintroduced little girls in pink dresses, who lived in the far-off regions two hundred yards up the street, stopped and told him they had had ice cream cones today and were going to have ice cream cones tomorrow.
"And -- and -- and I'm going to have a yice-keem coam tomorrow, too!" said Billy Brad, but it hurt that he had not had one today. He felt cheated. He had missed an ice cream cone and had only had a trip to New York, a cake of nut chocolate, an orangeade, a package of sugared popcorn, a chocolate sundae and a bar of peanut candy. It must not happen again.
From time to time Grandma looked out of the window and saw Billy Brad sitting on the horse-block. He sat so quietly that she feared he must be ill.
"Are you all right, Billy Brad?" she called quaveringly.
"I -- I -- I'm waiting for the yice-keem coam man," Billy Brad shouted back.
Grandma did not understand him. She did not hear as well as she had once heard and she seldom understood Billy Brad's words anyway.
"Oh! very well, dear!" she called back, hoping all was, indeed, very well.
Billy Brad sat on the horse-block and listened. Now and then he sighed and moved a little, trying to find a softer spot to sit on; now and then he glanced over his shoulder toward the back yard and the sand pile, where so many things waited to be done.
His ears were keenly alert for the ice cream cone man's bell. It was usually to be heard first far distant, many blocks to the north, "jangle, jangle, jangle," and then a long pause while some fortunate young person bought a cone, and then "jangle, jangle, jangle," as the ice cream cone man drove to another house. The bell rang many times, usually, after Billy Brad first heard it -- as the ice cream cone man drove his lean, uninterested white horse up one street and down another -- before it reached Billy Brad's. Waiting became a pleasure, however, after the bell was first heard. Always, sooner or later, the ice cream cone man arrived. Never had he, or his horse, dropped dead after the bell rang first in the far distance.
This day many sounds came to Billy Brad's eager ears as he listened hopefully. A bird in the oak in the back yard whistled "chitty chee wee wee" insistently. Far off, somewhere, a streetcar gong clanged "clank, clank, clank." A lawnmower whirred with muffled clicking. A boat on the Sound tooted. A chicken went "cra-a-awk, cr-a-a-awk." A screen door slammed. A woman's voice came from the distance: she seemed to be telling a delivery boy what she thought ought to be done to him in the way of general massacre and destruction.
And then! So faint, so far, Billy Brad could scarcely hear it, the "jangle, jangle, jangle" of the ice cream cone man's bell!
Billy Brad clasped his nickel closer in his hand. He straightened his back and sat upright and eager. The look of gentle patience that had dwelt upon his face changed to glad expectancy. He held his nickel between his hands and pressed his hands between his knees ecstatically.
"Oo!" said Billy Brad joyfully.
Up and down the street cone buyers began to appear, taking seats on porch steps or hippety-hopping to the street.
And the jangle of the bell came nearer and nearer. It came to the end of the block. Billy Brad stood up. He meant to be ready. Mabel May and Dorothy Ann went hippety-hopping back to their porch, nibbling ice cream cones. Eddie held his cone high in the air and shouted. Billy Brad stepped back one step as the terrifying white horse drowsed past him and then stepped close to the wheel of the ice cream cone man's cart.
"I -- I -- I wanna yice-keem coam," said Billy Brad eagerly and held up his nickel. The ice cream cone man looked at it.
"Six cents, son," he said.
"Six cents," the man said. "You gotta pay six cents. That ain't enough money. You gotta have another cent. Tell your ma to give you another cent."
"But -- but -- but I wanna yice-keem coam," said Billy Brad, holding up the nickel in the palm of his hand.
"Six cents," the man said. "You can't get one for five cents."
"But -- but I want one," said Billy Brad.
His lip quivered. You see, he had waited in all two hours, and fifteen minutes, and six months, just to buy an ice cream cone.
"I want one," he pleaded, and tears filled his eyes.
"Go tell your ma to give you some more money -- another cent. I gotta get six cents for cones this year. You tell your ma; she'll give you another cent."
"She -- she -- she ain't no home," said Billy Brad tremulously. "She -- she -- she ain't not home. She -- she -- ain't -- ain't -- ain't -- oh, oo -- hoo -- hoo! Oh, oo -- hoo -- hoo! I wanna coam, I wanna -- Oh, oo -- hoo -- hoo!"
The rest of it was drowned in sobs. Never in the world, from the time of Shem, the son of Noah, to the present day, had there been such grief. The "Oh!" became a loud wail, a scream of anguish such as a small boy utters when he has picked up a bee by mistake; it became a series of screams of anguish and Billy Brad turned and fled toward the house. He did not hear the ice cream cone man say, with deep regret:
"I'm sorry, son, but you can get one tomorrow. Giddap, Nellie!"
What Billy Brad heard, through his own yells, was the jangle of the ice cream cone man's bell as he stopped at the next house. Grandma heard the yells. They were such yells of pain and fear as are torn from a child when it is frightened to madness by the bite of a ferocious dog. Her heart stopped beating. Her face turned as white as chalk. She ran, trembling, to the door to see Billy Brad scrambling up the porch steps, using his hands, looking back, and then looking up at her with eyes that were wide with fear, while his screams rent her ears.
"Come in! Come in! What is it? Oh, what is the matter?" she cried, her hands outstretched.
I do wanna yice-keem coam -- I do wanna -- I do -- " Billy Brad shrieked. "Ah -- ah -- ah -- I do wanna -- ah -- ah -- ah -- I do -- I do."
"Oh! did a dog bite you?" cried Grandma, quite as excitedly as Billy Brad. "Did a dog bite you, Billy Brad? What is it? Oh! tell Grandma; tell Grandma!"
"I do wanna -- I do wanna -- " shrieked Billy Brad. He might as well have shrieked a part of the Koran as translated into Greek. Grandma had him in her arms. She was on her knees, feeling his bones to find the broken one, looking for the bloody tooth-marks. Never had she witnessed such tumultuous, long-continued grief and anguish. The tears ran down Billy Brad's face in rivulets, in rivers -- they almost washed it clean.
"Tell Grandma; tell Grandma." Grandma wailed and "I do wanna! I do wanna!" wailed Billy Brad, while she felt of him as if he were an ancient Roman slave and she an ancient Roman slave dealer hunting flaws, and then he heard the jangle of the ice cream cone man's bell farther down the street and wailed twice as hard and long and loud as before. It was as if his broken heart were now being run through a corn-sheller or a meat-chopper or a coffee-grinder or some such instrument of torture.
Ice cream cone man's jangling bell was far, far away by the time Grandma learned the awful truth that five cents, because of the high cost of living, and taxes, would no longer buy an ice cream cone.
"Land sakes alive!" she exclaimed then. "Why didn't you tell me? Scaring a body half out of her wits! Of course the poor man couldn't sell you a cone for five cents; he'd be jailed if he did, I dare say. Now, do stop crying. Here! Here's a penny. Run fast and you can catch him and get your ice cream cone."
Billy Brad grasped the penny and fled. Faint and far he heard the jangle of the bell and he went down the porch steps, right foot first -- ta-tump, ta-tump, ta-tump -- and ran across the lawn and up the street.
Now and then he paused to listen for the ice cream cone man's bell, and then he ran rapidly until he reached a corner. He waited to hear the bell again and ran on, to the next corner.
And then, standing on a corner, and waiting, he did not hear the bell again. It did not ring again. It had stopped ringing. It rang no more. The ice cream cone man was lost! As the certitude of this came upon Billy Brad his woe returned two-fold. It had been the sorrow of his life to be unable to buy an ice cream cone when he had five cents in his hand; it was at least one-fifth more anguishing when he had six cents in his fist. He stood on the corner and wailed at the top of his voice.
The first little girl came and stood and looked at him with awe. It was the first time, as far as she could remember, that she had ever been able to look into the interior of a boy and see his tonsils and the latter end of his tongue. She hoped he would wail for hours and hours.
The next little girl walked around him in a circle, to see what was sticking into him, but the third little girl said, "What's a matter? Whatcha cryin' for?" By the time there were eight or nine little girls and boys around Billy Brad they had decided what was the matter with him, and when the policeman stopped they told him.
"He's losted," they told him. "He don't know where he lives at, 'cause he got losted."
The policeman bent down.
"What's yer name, hey, kid?" he asked.
"Ah -- ah -- ah -- wanna coam -- ah-ah-ah!" sobbed Billy Brad.
"Wannercomb," said the policeman. "I don't know nobody around here by that name. Any of you kids know him?"
"No, sir! No, sir, we don' know him," they chorused.
"Kin you kids get him to say what his name is so I can understand it?" asked the policeman.
They asked him, many at a time and singly.
"I wanna coam! I wanna coam!" wailed Billy Brad.
"He says he wants t' go home," volunteered the biggest girl. "He won't say anything else."
"Well, I guess I'd better take him down to headquarters," said the policeman.
"When his folks miss him it's likely they'll be 'phoning there anyway."
So Billy Brad, frightened, sobbing, was escorted by a tall policeman to the station house. Long before he reached there he was meek and silent. He was meek and silent as he sat on the edge of a big chair in the station house. He knew what had happened; he had been arrested because he had tried to buy an ice cream cone for five cents, when the lawful price was six.
"I -- I -- I have got six cents," he said. "For because my gramma she gived me a cent, and -- and -- and I haded five cents, for -- for because my mamma she gives me five cents."
"You got six cents, have you kid?" said the big lieutenant behind the desk. "And what are you going to do with your six cents?"
"I wanna yice-keem coam," said Billy Brad.
The lieutenant knew boys.
"Mike," he said, "take the kid's cash and chase in next door and fetch him a cone. What kind do you want, kid?"
"Banilla," said Billy Brad cheerfully.
"Vanilla, Mike," said the lieutenant, and Billy Brad settled back in his big chair, happy of heart, contented of mind, ready to face the future calmly. He liked being in jail, if this was a sample. Home, since the high cost of ice cream cones disrupted its calm, had never been like this
When Mrs. Bradley reached home, with a pair of sandals that were not what she had hoped, but which would do very well under the circumstances, she found Grandma all but prostrated and learned that Billy Brad was lost, if not drowned or crushed by an automobile, and that William Bradley, Senior, had been telephoned for.
"Have you telephoned the police, mother?" she asked.
At that minute, or a minute earlier, Billy Brad had pushed the tip of his tongue against the luscious vanilla ice cream that peeked over the top of his cone.
"And now, son," the lieutenant said, "they tell me you don't know your name. Sure, a big lad like you knows his name, don't he?"
"Yillyum Athcoft Bradyey, two-forty-two Yelm Street, Wes'cote, Yong I'yan'd. Fi'e years old," said Billy Brad as promptly as an old offender, and the lieutenant flipped over the pages of the telephone book and drew his telephone toward him.
"Westcote, One, two, two, nine," he said and, in the same breath: "Yes, ma'am; I was just this minute telephonin' you; the little lad is here, all well an' hearty, eatin' an ice cream cone as big as life. Do you want to talk to him?"
"Yes, mamma," said Billy Brad into the telephone, when his mother had spoken to him, "and -- and -- and a great, big pleeceman branged me to jail he did, for -- for because yice-keem coams ain't not five cents; yice-keem coams is six cents.
As some deep philosopher has said: "The high cost of living affects all classes and all ages." Even the ice cream cone age.