As I drove down a back road in western Buncombe County today, I heard a strange sound, sort of like a giant music box, being slowly…wound…down…one…note…at…a…time. It was sad, wheezy, mechanical music, and totally out of place in such a rural setting.
I immediately spotted the source: a pale green panel van with multicolored dots painted on the sides. Of course! An ice cream truck, blaring its siren song to bring children out of the woodwork, dollars clutched in sweaty summertime fists, craning their necks for a glimpse of the frozen treats in store for them.
Did I mention that ice cream trucks give me the creeps? Like clowns, they exist for the amusement of children–supposedly–but I find them more jarring than joyful. A truck with no windows that lumbers around town, promising sweets to children? More like a mobile version of Hansel & Gretel, if you ask me. Remember the truly terrifying Kid-Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? He’s the sort of character you expect to see driving an ice cream truck–and he’d probably be wearing a clown suit. Horrors!
I think I have this Stephen King-induced-terror of ice cream trucks because such trucks are exactly what the monsters (human or otherwise) that people his stories would drive. He probably didn’t write a story about a haunted ice cream truck simply because it would have been too obvious–a King-cliche, so to speak. (King, of course, did indulge in a bloodthirsty clown in It, which is a much scarier book than it is a movie.)
Maybe ice cream trucks have this effect on me because I didn’t grow up with them. My house was way up a secondary road (probably a tertiary road, truth be known) and I can remember the Bookmobile passing by on occasion, but no ice cream trucks. I knew about them, had even seen one in West Asheville once, but it was not part of my childhood. And why is their music always wheezy and clangy? Why does it have a Pied Piper “come along children; follow me over this cliff” sort of feel to it? Like an organ grinder, grinning as he cranks the handle of some unspeakable hurdy-gurdy to ensnare unwary children and draw them closer to the clever hands of what appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than a tame monkey…
See what I mean? Creepy!
I spent a semester at UTEP (that’s the University of Texas at El Paso–Go, Miners!) many years ago, and loved to go to Gussie’s Tamales across town from the campus (2200 N. Piedras Street). Gussie’s is a locavore’s dream: hand-made tamales in a variety of flavors, and so good you could practically roll in them. You place your order at the counter, pay very little, and in return, receive steaming packets of corn husks wrapped around masa that’s been filled with a variety of fabulous ingredients (my favorite was the green chicken).
Four of us made a Gussie’s run one particular evening and took our tamales to a nearby park so we could sit outside and enjoy the warm weather. We were just digging in to our Gussie’s haul when I heard something odd: a few wheezy notes that sounded like a merry-go-round on the skids. There were no other people around, and we were down in the park, fairly far from the main road. I heard it again, a little closer: DUM…dee…DUM…dee…wheeze…dee…dee. Getting closer. The others heard it, too.
Then we saw it: a white panel van, no windows, lurching toward us, bleating its demented little ice cream song, one labored note at a time. We looked at each other, then back at the truck, watching it weave closer, coming toward us through the empty, twilit park, tweedling its increasingly terrifying tune.
That was it for me. “I don’t know about y’all, but I want to get away from that thing,” I said, beginning to fold the corn husk back around my half-eaten tamal*. The others looked at me, looked at the truck–and began a wild scramble for the car. Doors slammed, I gunned the engine, and we were gone in a squeal of protesting tires. The park road formed a loop, thank goodness, so we bolted out the other direction instead of confronting what had suddenly become the “I-Scream Truck.”**
We roared around a couple of curves and I slowed down to look back. The truck was still there, just a pale blur in the growing dark, but the music was still audible: DUM…dee…DUM…dee…wheeze…dee…dee. My passengers shrieked “go!” and we tore out of the park and headed back to the comparatively well-lit security of our dorm. The tamales were still good when we ate them, but our enthusiasm for them–and certainly for ice cream–was diminished for quite some time.
* Yes, tamal is the singular form of tamales (plural). There is no such thing as a “tamale,” but everyone knows what you mean, so don’t worry about it. I’m officially a word-nerd…in two languages!
** Absolutely no offense is intended to what I’m sure are the very nice drivers of ice cream trucks and the very nice people who dress up as clowns or work as organ grinders. I’m sure there are children (and adults) who are not frightened by you–or your sinister simian henchmen–in any way!
Weird trivia: The UTEP mascot is a burly, bearded miner known as “Paydirt Pete.” He was much scarier in his earlier incarnations, like this one: