Whose Van is that on Fire Out There? by Chris Orcutt
published in Volume 9, Issue 3 on July 31st, 2002It's two o'clock on a bright Sunday afternoon in February, and Eddie and I are picking out a couple movies at Crossroads when a man the size of a phone booth steps into the room clutching the straps of his overalls and booms out, "Whose van is that on fire out there?"
I can feel all of my organs and their bodily functions shutting down in recognition of the words "van" and "fire." I have a van, but it couldn't possibly be on fire. I don't smoke, and neither does Eddie. I recently changed the oil in the van, even did it at home with my father's knowledge. The van can't possibly be on fire; I just spent sixteen dollars to fill the gas tank.
I run to the mystery section, shove a kid out of the way, and stare out the front window. Yes, a van is on fire. A brown van, a brown Dodge van with white roof racks--my van--is on fire. And not a little fire, mind you. This is a Towering Inferno, steel-melting, people-on-the-roof-screaming-for-the-helicopter kind of fire. From where I watch, about fifteen feet up, the flames shooting out of the engine are higher than the windows. I bolt downstairs and outside to the parking lot. Jaded New Yorkers continue to file past the pyre as if saying to themselves, "Hey honey, look. There's a van on fire. Hmm, that's peculiar. Now let's go get some milk." All I can think of is the thing exploding and someone getting decapitated by a chunk of shrapnel and suing my poor father who has suffered enough bad luck with cars. I try to shoo people away from the danger, but it's no use. I bow my head in acceptance of the fact that I've lost another vehicle, and not six months after the last one.
Another bright Sunday afternoon, this time in October. Dad and I have just picked up, coincidentally, some videos from Crossroads and are driving home with the fallen foliage tumbling across the road in great migrations of scarlet, pumpkin and gold. I'm driving because I like the stick shift and because Dad likes to sit back in his seat and listen to the wind whistle through the cracked windows.
It's a gusty day. We get home, Dad makes a drink. Cracking of ice cubes, football playing on the TV. Mom's set out a clam dip pie and Ritz crackers. And then Sandy goes to the window and says, "Dad, what's the car doing floating in the pond?"
"Sandy, cut that out."
"No Dad, look."
Dad goes to the window, looks, blinks, takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes, puts his glasses back on, and sure enough, the Subaru is floating in the pond, its engine submerged and the tail angling out of the water in a way that is reminiscent of the final moments of the Titanic.
"Jesus Christ, Alex, get the boat!"
We run downstairs, look at a chain and decide on a heavy rope instead. We run down to the boat, which I have tied up on the far side of the pond, against the red bridge. I have to wait for Dad, and when he finally gets there, he climbs into the bow, making it difficult for me shove off. Dad swears while I'm fumbling with the oars, trying to get a good rhythm.
"Can't you row?" he says.
"You never taught me, all right?"
Dad doesn't recognize the irony of the situation like I do; given that he grew up on an island off the coast of Maine, I of all kids should know how to do this. Instead he growls and just points ahead at the slowly sinking Subaru. Then, as if sensing that his impatience might be counterproductive to the goal of us reaching the car, he gives me my first and only lesson on rowing: "You're dipping the oars in too much. Keep them close to the surface."
Finally I get us on course and we make it to the rear bumper. Dad has to stand up because the tail end of the car is almost vertical now. He ties the rope to something on the bumper and feeds out line as I chop the oars for shore. Dad doesn't wait to get all the way in and jumps off in what he thinks is a foot of water, but it's more like four feet and his face registers a combination of surprise and irritation as he clutches the rope and plows through the muck to land.
I join him on land and await instructions, which take the form of him throwing me the end of the rope and saying, "Pull." So we pull. Since Dad is in front of me, like the man closest to the mud pit in tug-of-war, he stands the most to lose and therefore is doing the majority of the pulling. By the time the rope gets to me, I feel like all I'm really pulling is Dad, so I kind of grip the rope half-heartedly and lean back on it, like a tug-of-war anchor.
"What the hell are you doing?" Dad asks. "Pull."
Although I'm convinced that the Subaru's sinking is inevitable, Dad will have none of this and is heartened when he arrests its downward momentum and shifts its movement toward land. Dad hauls on the rope with every cell in his body concentrated on rescuing the little automobile. He makes mysterious, primitive growling sounds, heaving on the rope as blood vessels swell in his face and neck. It worries me, and suddenly I feel guilty for not pulling as hard as I'm capable. But Dad has made progress; the car is now only twenty feet from land. He decides to try something new. He turns, puts his back to the water, throws the rope over his shoulder and drives forward in his best imitation of a powerful horse, like a Clydesdale. By now I have given up and stand on the grass watching, but with my hands at my sides and not in my pockets because having my hands out makes me feel that even if I'm not doing anything, there is at least the potential for me to help if asked.
Sadly, where there was once hope, there is now only despair. The rear bumper dips below the water, and suddenly it strikes Dad that the car is not floating in the pond, but has sunk to the bottom. Although the car is ten or twelve feet down, its silver paint shimmers in the light. Dad gives a few final tugs on the rope and gradually he is not holding the rope anymore. It is as if the realization of what happened has struck him and the rope just fell away. His shoulders sag and he puffs heavily, and I have the terrible feeling that I have caused my father to lose something much greater than a car, that he has forever lost his faith in the universe, that nothing will ever be right again. And, we still have to get the car out of the pond. He marches past me without saying anything and fades into the garage.
A little gray-haired man who resembles an elf out of Dungeons & Dragons sees me staring at the van and approaches me. I must be seething because he taps me meekly on the arm and hands me a miniature fire extinguisher.
"I see that your van is on fire, so I want you to have this," he says.
A sudden sense of possibility wells up in my brain and surges through my limbs. Grabbing the toy fire extinguisher, I race across the snowy parking lot to my burning van. After locating the safety ring, I yank it out, aim the nozzle at the engine grill, and spray. A small poof of white dust coughs out of the extinguisher, and the fire, as if insulted at an attack by such an impotent device, blasts out and singes the hair on my knuckles. Desperate, I beat the engine hood with the canister until Eddie practically tackles me from behind and drags me to the side of the road.
"I called the fire department," he says. "They should be here any minute."
"What's the deal with these people," I say, pointing at passersby. "There's a friggen van on fire and they just walk by like they see it all the time."
"They do, if they live in the Bronx," he says. "Damn it, we've got the catcher's equipment in there. I have to get it."
"Are you kidding? It could blow any second."
Eddie skis across the parking lot and throws open the back doors on the van. Instantly he is greeted by a mass of vile black smoke that reminds me of burning oil wells. Turning his head, he gulps a lungful of fresh air before descending into the choking cauldron. Ten seconds pass. Twenty. I edge closer, prepared to dive in and if necessary die a painful and ignominious death to save my friend. Then equipment begins to fly out the doors. First, a catcher's mask. A chest protector. A ball, three gloves, two bats, a bag of Doritos, and finally, the shin guards, the plastic slightly smoldering. Eddie leaps out coughing uncontrollably with a cloud of black surrounding him. The baseball gear rests on the snow in a steaming heap.
"I did it," he says, and at that moment I fear those will be his last words, that he has inhaled some poisonous gas, the by-product perhaps of sublimated plastic, the result of poor Federal regulations, and my friend just another statistic in the issue of flame-retardant seat cushions.
But he is okay. We drag the equipment to safety, and as the first fire trucks arrive, we point at the van for them, as if there might be another flaming van in the vicinity and they need to know which one to save.
Before the fire trucks can move into position, however, a yellow pickup skids into the parking lot, kicking up snow on me and Eddie. Kelly Knight, a svelte dirty blonde who sometimes massages my shoulders in Government class, jumps out of the cab with a giant fire extinguisher and starts blasting the fire from twenty feet away, walking toward it as she sprays. By the time she reaches the van, most of the flames are dead, but she shoots her cannon into the wheel wells and under the engine block just to be sure. Finished, she calmly stows the extinguisher back in the cab and primps her hair in the side mirror. The other firemen eye her coolly from the pumper truck, where several of them lean now smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee that the store owner brought out.
"Can I help it if you boys are slow?" Kelly says.
They grumble, and one of them tosses a snowball at her truck. Kelly smiles at me, struts over and envelops me in a purposeful hug. She has opened her black fire jacket with the fluorescent stripes, putting her pert breasts in direct contact with my thin sweatshirt.
"Alex, are you okay?" she asks, her breath warming my cold ear.
"Getting there," I say.
The problem is, just like in Government class, Kelly's very touch and voice makes a certain part of me stiffen up harder than bamboo. However unlike Government class, I don't have a three-ring binder or gym bag to shield the thing. Right now it's poking into her stomach, so I'm convinced she knows what's going on. I need her long jacket to cover myself.
"I'm kind of cold," I say. "Can I have your jacket?"
"Of course, honey," she says, narrowing her eyes at me and shimmying out of the coat. She knows, and she seems to like it.
I look across the parking lot at Eddie. He's getting some comforting of his own from Lara Finch, a sophomore hottie who looks like a young Raquel Welch. Normally Eddie is a striking Italian guy with a Roman nose and widely spaced amber eyes; however at the moment, with his face the color of a Hershey's chocolate bar, he's a dead ringer for Sammy Davis Jr. This doesn't seem to bother Lara, though, who squeezes Eddie's butt and leads him by the sleeve to her yellow Mustang. For some reason, Eddie and I always end up with girls who own yellow vehicles.
"We'll meet back at your house," Eddie says.
"Okay," I say, and I'm glad because I know I'm going to want him there. Eddie's a fairly credible witness with my father.
Eddie and Lara stow the sooty baseball gear in her trunk and drive away, heading down Route 55, in the opposite direction from my house. Lara is probably going to show him the scenic route. Good for Eddie.
"So am I taking you home or what?" Kelly says.
"With you?" I say. "I'd rather walk."
She slaps my arm. "Sure you would. Get in."
In the cab, I barely have time to put on my seatbelt before Kelly slaps the shifter into reverse, spins the front end around, and barrels the pickup onto Route 17. She is taking the direct way to my house, so I figure I'm not getting the scenic tour. Hanging on a hook behind me is another fire jacket like the one I'm wearing, and there are stickers on the windows for the Union Vale and Willowbrook fire departments. You think you know everything about someone, but you don't.
"I didn't realize you were on the fire department," I say.
"Yeah, I am. Haven't you noticed my beeper? It goes off in class like every day."
"The way you handled that fire was amazing," I say. "You just snuffed it out like a grease fire. Are you thinking of doing this stuff after high school?"
"Maybe," Kelly says. "I am good with a hose."
She takes my hand and rubs the soft flesh between my fingers. I'm trying to remain calm, staring out the window at the snowy fields--baseball fields, corn fields, regular fields, all kinds of fields. Something brushes against my leg and I jerk my foot onto the seat.
"What the hell is that?"
"Oh, that's my bunny," Kelly says. "His name is Wayne."
"Sure. Doesn't he look like a Wayne?"
"Like John Wayne?"
"Okay, I can see it." I'm lying. Wayne makes two small hops and snuggles onto some newspaper under the heating vent.
"I'm expecting a tiger to crawl out from under this seat any minute," I say. "It's like a circus in here."
"I guess it is," she says, throwing open my jacket, exposing my soldier at attention. Despite the strange talk of animals, the thing is still holding up my pants like car jack.
"And look," she says, "we've got our very own big top."
I don't know if it's a general circus theme or one that was written specifically for Barnum and Bailey, but whatever it is, she begins humming it, slowly at first, gradually increasing the tempo as she plays with my soldier, which is still wandering around in the dark of my sweatpants. A moment later, he becomes a stick-shift and Kelly goes through the gears while making engine noises.
"Easy," I say, "I'm not a commercial truck."
She smiles. "Off with the pants."
"Here and now, honey." There's a wicked glint in her eyes.
"I'm very coordinated," she says. "Now off."
I peel the sweatpants down to my ankles and sit there feeling a little foolish.
"Sorry, my hands are a little cold," she says.
"I'll be okay," I say. Like I care.
She leans over slightly from the steering wheel, looking at me occasionally but mostly the road. Her fingers are long, slender and remarkably smooth. After a couple false starts, she gets a grip and rhythm that's just right.
"At least one of my hands is getting warm," she says.
"Warm both if you want."
I look down at Wayne, who seems to be ignoring me. He blinks in the heat from the blower. I decide that Kelly truly is coordinated; the truck hasn't swerved once.
"What if someone sees?" I say.
"We're higher up than they are," she says. "Relax."
So I do. The crisis with the van is distant now. The snow outside, the heat, Kelly, the rabbit--it's surreal. I decide that nothing is missing, although a cold beer would be nice. A moment later I'm on the edge of fainting and I must let out a gasp signaling the finish because Kelly grins and the next thing I know she's reaching over and patting me dry with McDonald's napkins.
"Sorry," I say. "Thanks."
"You looked upset earlier," Kelly says. "I wanted to help you relax."
"Do I always do that to you? Make you big like that I mean?"
"What do you think?" I say. "I'm walking around school half the time ready to drill rock. You should be a massage therapist."
She finishes wiping her hands and tosses the napkins out the window.
"I've thought about it," she says. "I do have strong hands."
"Yes you do."
"So what're you going to tell your father?"
Since Kelly liberated me from Crossroads, I hadn't thought about the van.
"Where is it, anyway? You had me so flustered back at the store, I wasn't thinking straight."
"Flustered, huh?" She grins and rubs my leg. "I hate to break it to you, pumpkin, but the van's gone. Toast."
"What will happen to it?"
"One of the guys is going to tow it over to Jimmy's Salvage," she says. "Don't worry, it won't cost you anything."
That was something at least.
"It's definitely totaled, I take it."
"The radiator melted if that tells you anything."
"At least it was a good fire," I say. "Went out with a bang. Well, almost."
"So what about your Dad?" She smirks at me. "Has he gotten over the Subaru yet?"
Kelly knows about the pond incident because I told her--that's me, always trying to impress the girls with my exploits. The funny thing is, it works, as evidenced by what happened about five minutes ago.
"I'm not sure. He doesn't mention it, but once in a while I see him staring out at the pond. I think it still bothers him."
"What, not being able to get the thing out of there? Because that would've been impossible, I don't care how strong your father is. With the water in it, the thing probably weighed like three tons."
"No, not the car. I think he wants to chew me out about it but knows he really can't because it was an accident."
"So what are you going to tell him?"
"The truth," I say. "That I have no idea how the thing burned. It's not my fault."
"He's going to be pissed, huh?"
"Probably. But I think he's kind of resigned himself to the idea that he just has crappy luck with cars. This one's the fourth you know."
"Four? What were the other two?"
"Well, there was the Toyota that Eddie rolled after the prom last year. That's three."
"I remember that one now. And the fourth?"
"I didn't know you then. I was thirteen and the family Chevette burned up in the driveway. Dad tried to save it with a garden hose, but it happened too fast."
"I should have been there," she says. "I'm good with a hose."
"The best," I say.
We drive for a few minutes in silence, holding hands, looking out over the white countryside. The snow is smooth in most places, with small drifts here and there like ridges of icing on a wedding cake. A pair of quail glide across the road and dip into a hollow on the other side. I stroke Kelly's hair and she digs the back of her hand against my fingers like a puppy.
"That's nice," she says.
"The least I can do."
"That's your driveway, right?"
"Yeah," I manage to say.
She eases the truck onto the shoulder in front of my driveway and cuts the engine. We're holding hands again, caressing each other's fingers now.
"Are you scared?" she asks.
"A little," I say, trying to sound convincing. "But Dad's pretty reasonable. He's a high school principal, so he sees this kind of stuff a lot."
"Yeah, they're known for their fairness," she says. "Should I come in with you? I could vouch for the whole thing."
"No, I appreciate it, but this is something I have to do alone."
The truth is, I'd love to have her in, but somehow having the girl there who gratified me sexually not more than a half-hour ago while I try to explain a burned-up van just isn't going to work.
Kelly nods, watches a car pass and turn down Brush Hill Road.
"You want another handjob?"
Although my soldier is back on active duty, I decide this would be a bad idea.
"No, I'm all set, Kell, thanks."
"Okay then, we're going in."
We cross the road and coast down the driveway. I glance behind us, and Eddie is there, in Lara's Mustang, smiling like he just went four for four against Rhinebeck. I know what that's about. Kelly takes her time getting me up the hill, turns at the fork in the driveway, and comes to a stop on the uneven ground in front of my house that caused the Subaru mishap.
"Hey, you want to go out this weekend?" I ask her. "Maybe a movie?"
"Or not," she says. "Sure, that'd be great."
I'm unsure whether to kiss her since we recently engaged in what is considered by most people to be a slightly more intimate activity. But after a moment of staring into her eyes, her pink lips prove irresistible. We kiss, and I lick her lips before pulling away.
"Bye," I say.
"Go face the music," she says. "I'll see you in Government tomorrow--if you're still alive."
It's not until I get out of the cab and she's started back down the driveway that I realize I still have her firefighter's jacket on. This is good, though, because it will make what I now have to tell Dad that much more believable. Besides, I can return the jacket to Kelly tomorrow. I make up my mind that the jacket is a bizarre letter sweater between us, that it means we're in some kind of relationship now, a fact that fills me simultaneously with excitement and dread.
Down the driveway, Eddie kisses Lara goodbye through her window. He takes a slip of paper from her, jams it in his pocket. He's bobbing his head as he nears me. He raises his hand and I meet him high and slap it.
"Yessir," he says.
"Yup," I say. "Now let's do this."
The garage door is open, like they know we're coming, but they couldn't possibly. I open the screen door, wipe my feet on the shaggy outdoor mat, slip off my sneakers. My feet are sweaty but surprisingly free of odor. Even though my bedroom is down here, I smell the mildew for the first time. The basement is so dark, it's as if we've stepped into an Edgar Allan Poe story. Scant light trickles down from upstairs, and with the exception of a song by the Platters playing low on a radio somewhere up there, it's eerily quiet. We mount the stairs and start up. I get two steps before a voice booms down on me like I imagine God's must have sounded like to Adam and Eve when they screwed up.
"You burnt the van, didn't 'ya?"