From God Isn’t Here Today
The gig economy didn’t create monotonous jobs, but it arguably perfected them. With the disappearance of many factory line jobs to robots, displaced workers have been forced into precarious labour doing menial service tasks like delivering food to knowledge workers who have managed to find a place for themselves in a landscape of increasing income disparity.
One job that predates the gig economy but also anticipates it is that of the ice cream truck driver. A fixture on sunny summer afternoons, ice cream trucks are beloved by the young and the young-at-heart, who come running at the distinctive sound of the truck’s tinkling, jouncy music – the truck operator is a kind of Pied Piper for the capitalist era. No matter that the soft-serve confection they dole out is a veritable cocktail of chemicals with practically unpronounceable names – including tetrasodium pyrophosphate, maltodextrin, mono- and diglycerides, and polysorbate 80. The tasty treat remains enduringly popular.
And who gives much thought to the person serving the ice cream from the truck’s cramped, stifling interior?
Clagary-born poet, artist, and educator Francine Cunningham puts one such individual at the centre of her delightfully titled story “Come and Get Your Ice Cream, Motherfuckers.” Appropriately, her protagonist is unnamed, his anonymity a perfect reflection of the social status such figures are granted.
We do know certain salient facts about the man. He is not young and has been serving ice cream to squealing children for his entire working life. “[E]very scrap of a cent he’d managed to eke out … was because of the damnable truck, with its hideous colours and sugar wrapped in ice wrapped in a polluting package.” The syntax here is telling: “damnable,” “hideous,” and ”polluting” do not exactly connote sanguinity or peace of mind.
The man’s mental distress is, by this point in Cunningham’s brief and savage story, well established. As is the source of his greatest anxiety: the incessant jingling music that blares out of the truck’s speakers as a siren song calling the neighbourhood children to attention. While the kids feel a rush of excited anticipation at the thought of an imminent sugar high, the truck’s driver is being driven increasingly mad by the tinny, repetitive tune and its childish, inane rhythm: “BA dum BA dum BA dum BA da da BA da da DAAA dum.”
Years of exposure to the same monotonous melody have taken a mental toll on the man: he is unable to sleep without pills, and even then the music worms its way into his subconscious. We first encounter Cunningham’s protagonist in a liminal state between sleep and wakefulness, his unconscious brain battering his conscious self with an earworm that more closely resembles tinnitus: “BA dum BA dum BA dum BA da da BA da da DAA dum.” Cunningham deploys a beautifully ironic simile to describe her protagonist’s mental state, describing the “notes descending onto his consciousness like feathers falling out of a cloudy dark sky.” The lightness of the feathers belies the incipient threat of a sky that is both cloudy and dark – a foreshadowing of what is to come.
Cunningham’s use of language is evocative in conveying the man’s distress. After waking, we are given this description: “His eyes bored into the mirror, searching for a hint of the rhythm there.” The double meaning contained in the verb “bored” is a brilliant narrative gesture, and the notion that the music is so embedded in his brain that he feels he can literally see it conveys the degree to which his environment has come to torment him. His mental disorder has had physical effects as well: when he smiles, he looks like a “grimacing spectre” with twitching lips and yellow teeth.
The repeated musical tones become a leitmotif recurring throughout the story to the point that they begin to infect the reader in the same way they do the truck driver. We are able to comprehend precisely how and why his discontent has morphed over the years into what he describes as full-on rage felt “in the tips of his fingers, in every strand of hair on his head.”
His fury drives him to act out where his excited young charges are concerned, making them chase the truck down the street and beat on its sides to earn their sugary reward. (The effort, which frequently results in bleeding feet and burning lungs, renders the children “heroes” in the man’s jaundiced eyes.)
Of course, no amount of antagonism foisted upon his naive and innocent customers will help assuage the mental assault of the truck’s music; if even industrial grade sleeping pills can’t entirely block out the hated sounds, surely no kind of petty revenge on the children who keep him employed will do the trick. (The disparity between the man and his customers is apparent in his imagined notion of the children retreating back home to boast about their success in chasing down the truck over barbecued dinners. Both the meals and the family camaraderie are denied the truck driver, who we are given to understand leads a lonely, solitary existence, his only human connection being the children who come to his truck’s window.)
The narrator’s agitation will not be assuaged by any kind of external action; his problem is in his head, so that is where he will ultimately attempt to find a solution, in a scene that is so unexpected it elicits as much of a gasp from the startled reader as it does from the unfortunate kids who witness it. The anger and frustration that has been seething in the protagonist right from the story’s confrontational title is let out in a moment of misguided violence that may help him release his demons, but will certainly ensure he never again has to be subjected to the incessant, repetitive chime of the truck’s horrendous jingle.
“BA dum BA dum BA dum BA da da BA da da DAA dum.”