Yesterday's post was Part I. If you haven't read it, go ahead and do that now. I'll run for coffee and meet you back here in five...
Kevin dropped the van off at my house that night.
“She stalls,” he said, “and there’s no heat. You’ll want to keep the scraper on your lap to keep the frost off the inside of the windshield. Which reminds me, the driver’s side windshield wiper sticks, so you’ll want to stick your hand out the window to give her a good slap every now and then, except when you unwind the window, don’t do it all the way or it won’t go back up. Oh, and the tires are a little worn, so you’re going to want to slow down well in advance of any need to come to a full stop.”
“Oh, and if the brakes don’t work – and I’m not saying they won’t! – but if they don’t, the hand brake works pretty well.”
There was the briefest of pauses as we considered the implications of using a hand brake to stop a work van and the conditions under which Kevin already knew that it would work “pretty well”.
He tossed me the keys. “Pay day’s on Friday,” he said. He handed me a map. “Don’t be late picking them up!”
Pick up time at Parkers Prairie was 6:30 a.m., which meant that I was out of the house and coaxing the van down the road by 6:00.
February in Minneapolis is a blue-tinged month, a month of brittle air and reluctant machinery. The van moved, glacier-like, from residential area to freeway, where it blocked traffic and pulled vile words from passing motorists, a mobile example of what happens to nice girls who don’t go to college.
My little criminals were waiting for me when I pulled up: Boomer (burglary), DuWayne (child support, driving after revocation, driving without insurance), Randy (burglary), Jeff (vandalism).
DuWayne was rolling a joint even before, it seemed, he climbed into the backseat.
“Pearl!” he shouted. “Long time no see!”
DuWayne and I had grown up in the same trailer court.
“We gonna have time to swing by my guy’s place?” It was Boomer.
His “guy”. Hmm. “No,” I said. “I’m not going to your dealer’s.”
The smell of marijuana drifted toward the front of the van.
“Hey, I’d really appreciate if you guys didn’t –“
“Didn’t what?” It was Randy. “Smoke a little dope? Come on, now! What else we got, huh?”
They all started talking: We got no women. We got no prospects. We sleep in a big locked room.
I sighed. “Do what you want,” I said. “I don’t care.” I paused. “Roll down the windows.”
And maybe it was the long hours. Maybe it was the outrageous amount of pot smoke that rolled through the back seat of that van, but the two months I drove van for my brother’s crew was both the easiest and hardest way to make a buck. There was the equipment we loaded and unloaded in the snow, the nap Jeff took every afternoon in the back of the van, the runs to Subway for lunch, the winter gloom of arriving at the workhouse before the sun came up, the dark loneliness of the drive back home.
The worst day on the job was my very last.
When you’re on a slight incline at the head of the line of cars waiting for the light to turn, when you’ve managed to scrape a face-sized line-of-sight into the windshield, when it’s snowing and you are forced to unwind your window to stick your arm out, intermittently, to un-stick the wiper blades, when the stoners in the back are passing yet another joint, what happens next?
The light turns green and the van stalls.
The voices from the back rise, chorus-like.
“Give it some gas!”
“No, you’re flooding it!”
“Well pull over!”
“How’s she supposed to pull over, dingus? It’s dead!”
“Hey, are we sliding?”
We are. The van, at the head of a line of now-impatiently honking cars, is slowly slipping backwards.
“Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes!”
“I'm SITTING on the brakes!” I scream. “We’re on ice!”
“Holy crap, we’re going to slide into the car behind us!”
“Get out!” I yelled. “Get out and stop this van!”
Four men, reeking of pot, bloodshot eyes squinting in the failing light, climb out of the van and throw their shoulders into its back end in an attempt to keep it from rolling.
HONK! HONK! HOOOOOONK!
I look in the rearview mirror to see the man in the BMW behind us, the car that would have a van in its grill were it not for the men with their shoulders against it, laying on his horn.
He has lowered his window: “Move that piece of @#$!”
I smile feebly, hold my hands up in the international gesture of futility.
The driver of the Beemer is not amused. “Move it!” he screams. “Move it or I’m calling the cops!”
The guys keeping the van from sliding start cackling. The cops? He’s going to call the cops on a stalled vehicle?
DuWayne turns around, leans his back into the van and grins at him, revealing his missing teeth. “You want us to let this go, then?”
“I want you to move it, you low-life losers!” the man screams.
And that’s when the van starts slipping again. From the driver’s seat I hear all four voices from the rear of the van begin to shout.
“DuWayne!” It is Randy’s voice that rises above the din of the other men’s voices. “DuWayne, no!”
DuWayne is suddenly at the BMWs driver’s door, pounding at the window, which appears to have been raised against the vision of the large, dentally-challenged man charging his car. “Who you callin’ a loser?! WHO YOU CALLIN A LOSER?!”
Various forms of the sentence “no, DuWayne, no!” hit my ears as I close my eyes and put my right hand back on the keys. I begin an internal chant: Start. Start. Start. Start!
The van roars to life. In my rearview mirror I watch two of them pulling DuWayne from the hood of the car. I throw the van into gear, moving cautiously sideways as the tires seek traction.
“Get in the van! Get in the van!” I scream. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
It takes all of them to pull DuWayne away from the BMW. They throw themselves into the back of the van, and the sliding door shuts as I drive away.
The BMW chooses to stay at the light, a line of cars behind him, honking.
I start a “normal” job in an office two days later.
Boomer, Randy, and Jeff have gone on with their lives, I’m sure, but doing what, I have no idea.
I receive a “butt-dialed” call from DuWayne roughly eight years later where I learn, through diligent eavesdropping, that he and someone named “Cherry” are down at a lake, drinking beer in his car, and, apparently, admiring each other’s swimsuits.
I hang up when they start removing them.
I no longer drive a van load of dope-smoking petty offenders to work every day.
And in hindsight, I kinda miss it.