Every summer of my childhood, as far back as I can remember, the ice cream truck wound its way through the streets of our subdivision, and up to our road, Griffin Terrace. It started coming in mid-May, when the daytime weather began to be consistently warm, after the lilacs but before my mother’s gladiolas, usually when my father was out mowing the lawn or tinkering with his truck in the driveway and I was playing hopscotch or Chinese skipping on the sidewalk with a few of the neighborhood kids. It came every few days, all summer long, and kept coming until mid-September when the nights cooled, and kids stayed indoors more, and the leaves on our Mountain Ash began to turn orange and fall.
The ice cream truck cranked out a medley of tinny, music-box-style instrumentals—most of which were happy and jovial, as ice cream truck songs should be. Peter Piper. Somewhere over the Rainbow. Happy Days are Here Again.
But there was this one sweet-sad tune in the mix that I didn’t recognize. It was slower than the others, and started out low and pretty, then climbed in a lilting pattern toward what felt like a grief-stricken high note, before falling again, leaving the listener hanging, unresolvedly, somewhere in the middle.
The song had an irredeemable quality to it. Life was sad, it seemed to say, and always would be. My heart ached every time it played, and I couldn’t help imagine summer passing, then my childhood. I pictured my parents getting old and my brother moving away and then I pictured the passing of everything.
I was always relieved when Peter Piper kicked back in, lifting me out of the pit of existential dread I’d briefly stumbled into.
Sometimes, long after the ice cream truck had left our street for another neighborhood, I heard my mother humming the melody. A few times, I caught her singing it, with words, in the kitchen as she stood at the counter peeling potatoes for dinner.
Where are the clouds? Send in the clouds, she sang.
The lyrics, when I heard them, made the song seem even sadder. Why would anyone want the clouds to come? I thought about it on the front steps while I sat nibbling my homemade orange juice popsicle. Maybe, I deduced, the song was written in the south, where the summers are long and hot and the songwriter was hoping for rain. I tried to picture a man out in his garden, standing watch over his carrots and lettuce in the dry soil, lifting his face to the hot summer sky, a kind of prayer: Where are the clouds? Send in the clouds.
This explanation gave the song a happier twist, but the story didn’t match up with the melody. So still, every time the ice cream truck found its way up to Griffin Terrace, the song left me with a small ache.
Years later, over the phone, I asked my mother about the song. I hadn’t heard it since the ice cream truck days, and I wanted to know how the rest of it went.
“Which song?” she said, confused.
“You know. The one about clouds that the ice cream truck used to play.” I hummed the bit of tune I could still remember.
She laughed. “Not clouds. Clowns.”
She sang it properly for me: Isn’t it bliss? Don’t’ you approve? One who keeps tearing around, one who can’t move. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns.
“That melody line always used to make me feel so melancholy,” I said.
“It is a rather depressing tune for an ice cream truck to play,” she said.
After I hung up, I googled “Send in the Clowns”. I found a live performance by Judi Dench with a string orchestra. The ice cream truck’s music box version, I realized, had been stiff and a bit off-rhythm. This version swelled and fell, soared and plummeted. It sounded to me like the soundtrack to the final scene in some tragic tale.
I shut it off.