“Why, it's an outrage. That's disgraceful,” sniffed Nelda Isselfrick as she eyeballed the new sign Hooter and Izzy had hoisted over the top of Fred Finnegan's gleaming, mobile ice cream wagon.
Emblazoned across the shiny white paint in bright red letters: “The Chilled Udder.” Then in smaller, blue letters, “Frosty TrEATS for Warm Hands!” As the name implied, there was also an admirably rendered silhouette of a cow's udder, with teats that were more like icicles.
“You got to have a sense of humor,” grinned Hooter. “This here is what you call a solution. Except for them of us that know about Fred's Dairy Bar (what the replaced sign had read), he isn't getting much business. If he doesn't get enough business, he'll be moving on to set up somewhere else. He does that, and none of us get to enjoy the homemade ice cream. That includes you.”
“Well, I never,” said Nelda teetering toward the post office, licking daintily at the daily delight—almond-vanilla-mocha—she'd just purchased.
“I used to work the wheat harvest back in the day. Drove a combine and did some mechanicin'. That's what gave me the idea for a seasonal business that can be open longer than the season,” Fred had explained to Hooter when he first rolled into town. “Depending on the year, it already feels like summertime in April around here. By the time the novelty wears off, it's getting hotter farther north and so on. Then it's just the reverse heading into September and October, so I start the reverse migration. By then, the places I was during the first part of the season are ready for another taste.”
Rather than parking his rig around larger cities and towns, Fred learned there was more business in a smaller town, especially if it was located along a decently traveled highway. The license and inspection requirements were usually less intense, and it was cheaper and easier to find a place to set his trailer.
Fred figured Apache Flats was a perfect spot. It was, too, for about six weeks. Then the state highway department tore up a stretch of road about 10 miles away, detouring folks for about three miles and five minutes. The detour led back to the main road, but once folks—most of them frequent travelers between Childress and Lubbock—knew about the construction, they took a different route altogether.
That's why Hooter figured some innovative advertising might capture more of the folks still using the highway. He had plenty of civic backing, too, since once you had tried Fred Finnegan's ice cream, you wanted more. That's especially true of the devotion surrounding Fred's original Pickle Pops. These salty-sweet confections start with a pickle that is surely something between a straight-bred dill and a bread-and-butter variety.
Chocolate and peanut butter cover the pickle, followed by what seems to be Fred's own extra-vanilla ice cream. This in turn is bathed in another coat of chocolate.
“I know, it sounds terrible, but it's the next best thing since mama's milk, trust me,” Hooter had told his cousin, Charlie, encouraging him to try a bite the first time. The second required no arm twisting.
Other places, you might see a line for drive-thru donuts, or coffee and sandwiches at a fast food outfit. Since Fred came to town, what you saw in Apache Flats was a line of folks yammering for Pickle Pops. Fred only made so many each night for the next day; get them quick or you didn't.
“Why don't you make more of ‘em?” wondered Hooter early on. “It's plain you could sell them. For that matter, why don't you go big-time, become the next ice cream conglomerate?”
Fred had leaned across the stainless steel counter, doling out Hooter's daily afternoon ice cream fix and said simply, “It's awful hard to run out of demand as long as folks want more than you have.”
“Well, then, what about a franchise deal? Like supposing when you decide to hit the road, you showed me how to do that stuff and I could keep the wheels rolling until you come back through,” wondered Hooter.
“It wouldn't be the same.”
“No offense, Fred, and I'm not saying there isn't some kind of art to this, but surely someone could come close if they tried hard enough.”
“Oh they could. They could probably duplicate the taste exactly, but it wouldn't be the same.”
“Next!” hollered Fred with a smile, though there was no one behind Hooter.
Between slowing traffic and increasing summer temperatures further north, the inevitable morning arrived when the Pickle Pop crowd made an early morning run to town only to find that Fred and his treats were gone. He'd left the sign, though, with a note tacked to it: “Thanks for everything. See you on the flip-flop.”
It wouldn't be a stretch to say the town entered a time of mourning for something lost that they knew from the beginning they could never keep—like a winning streak or puppy love.
Hooter seemed to be the most dejected of all. It wasn't just losing the Chilled Udder's frozen delicacies; it was that he still couldn't figure out why Fred hadn't explained why the same taste couldn't be reproduced by anyone else.
Fred was right, though. Ever since the itinerant ice cream vendor left, Hooter had spent an inordinate amount of time trying to duplicate the Pickle Pop. Aunt Pinky had even agreed to help him, though she never seemed especially enamored with Fred's place or products. She sensed there was something more than a secret recipe troubling her nephew, though.
So, there they were, like sticky prey surrounded by jars of pickles, hand-crank-freezers dripping with promise, jugs of chocolate syrup and a pail of peanut butter.
“It's so close, but that's still not it,” grumped Hooter tossing another prototype into the sink after barely taking a nibble. “It can't be that hard.”
“It may be harder than you think,” said Pinky, dipping another pickle into another dish. “Best as I can tell, the ice cream wasn't what made that place so popular.”
“You looked forward to going in there every day, but sometimes Fred was already out of what you went for, but you didn't just turn around and come back, did you?”
“Of course not, I'd already made the trip, so I'd get something else,” said Hooter with a certain amount of defiance. He figured his aunt thought his trips to town for ice cream were a frivolous luxury.
“And, you'd stick around to eat it and visit with Fred and whoever else came by.”
“I didn't want it to melt before I got home.” Hooter was starting to feel like he was on trial.
“You were going there for more than ice cream,” said Aunt Pinky. “You were going there for a moment that appealed to you and the other folks who went, a moment they couldn't get anywhere else.”
Hooter hadn't bargained for an exercise in existentialism, with his aunt nonetheless.
“Where your theory starts leaking sense is the fact that the only folks I ever saw up there were the same ones I see and talk to everywhere else, at the feed store, the school, a meeting.”
“That's the point. Everybody sees everybody when there's something that needs to be done. Folks showed up at Fred's for enjoyment, period. It wasn't anything they had to do; it's something they wanted to do. The ice cream was just the excuse.”
“Well it's not like we were breaking the law,” said Hooter, still feeling like his aunt was trying to corner him.
“Look, there's no way your pickle pops can be the same as those you got at Fred's because the experience isn't the same unless you're looking forward to going to Fred's to get them.”
Hooter was starting to think a couple of monkeys had slipped out of his aunt's barrel.
“Fred was smart enough to know that, and smart enough to realize that he'd be hard-pressed to get you to understand it,” said Aunt Pinky.
“Hooter. You and Charlie could make more money doing lots of other things besides chasing cows.”
“Yeah. What's your point?”
“You do what you do because doing it is worth more to you than the money you could be making doing something else. Hobbies turn into livelihoods when they become jobs. It's not a job, it's your life.”
“I'm with you so far.”
“Looking forward to something is a big part of life's enjoyment,” said Aunt Pinky. “The moments are the destinations in life. Enjoy them, look forward to them but never try to make a substitute for them because it can't be done.”