At a distance, the big yellow van looked like a delivery truck, but it didn’t have a commercial logo. Its front window was wide, and there were smaller windows on the side and back doors. Thomas had removed the back seats long ago to make room for — well, to make room for just about everything that passed through his life.
Take our first official date, for example — an overnight fishing expedition to a lake in the hills about two hours away from the Massachusetts college town where we were living. I arrived at his house before dawn one cool early summer morning as he was loading the van. He had arranged the camping gear in neat piles on the lawn, which was wet with the night’s condensation and illuminated by the porch light and a horizon that was blue-black. A battered red fiberglass canoe lay on the ground in deep shadows next to the garage.
“Help me with this, will you?” he asked. Together we hoisted the canoe over our heads, and he fastened it onto the roof of the van with heavy elastic cords.
He threw firewood, a tent, cooking equipment, a bag of groceries, life jackets, oars, towels, pillows, sleeping bags, a change of clothes, fishing poles, and a tackle box into the back. Then he jumped up and kneeled on the three-quarter-inch plywood that was screwed to the metal floor, wedging each item between others to prevent shifting or spilling during the drive.
“And if it rains, we can sleep in here,” he said as I handed him the last duffel bag.
I must admit that I was impressed with that packing job. It told me that this was a self-sufficient sort of man who knew how to anticipate and meet his needs. But how much room, exactly, did he have in his life for the compromises that love (and possibly marriage) would require, I wondered. On later camping trips — much later — I noticed that our children prepared and packed for our family’s camping adventures as thoroughly and neatly as he did.
We laughed a lot during that first date. He had been divorced two years earlier, and I had just broken off an engagement in college. We shared bits and pieces of our own histories and talked about neighbors we both knew. We each thought that our three-term mayor was a good guy, even though we saw through the way he promoted his insurance agency in his back-to-back political campaigns. We liked each other, but sometimes I felt self-conscious in the close quarters of the van’s cab, especially when the conversation lagged.
“We’re almost there,” he said as we drove down the narrow sandy road that led us to the water. “Smell that air. This is living.”
Fragrant pine branches brushed against the roof and doors of the van, and their soft needles tickled our shoulders and arms through the open windows.
Thomas was impatient to get the boat onto the water before the sun burned off the early morning fog and heated up the lake’s surface. He quickly brought the old canoe to the water’s edge, put the wooden oars, rods, tackle box, bait, and life jackets into it, handed me an oar and pointed to my seat (the one near the front), pushed off, and jumped in at the last moment. We soon lost sight of the van, which receded behind a tall stand of pine trees whose lower branches camouflaged our camp.
He scanned the lake — its shoreline an unbroken mass of Eastern white pine, quaking aspen, poplar, and river birch — as he looked for the telltale ripple of a bass breaking the surface.
“You’re going to love this spot.”
We approached a cove where he had had success in the past, and the scent of low-bush honeysuckle and wintergreen wafted toward us through the remaining low-lying clouds, while unseen birds and small animals chirped and rustled in the hay-scented ferns.
“See what I mean?”
“Yes, it’s beautiful.”
Then he showed me how to cast my lure in a parabola — outward, upward, and beyond. He told me that my casting was OK for a beginner. After that, we didn’t talk much until we were heading back to land.
“Next time, I’m going to show you how to use the net.”
“Sure, if you think I’m up to it,” I said, remembering the way he had rocked the canoe precariously when he leaned over to net a fish that I had reeled in.
He looked up quickly and laughed.
We set up the tent and gathered dry branches that had been shaken from the treetops by other seasons’ winds and rains and snowfalls. Night fell by the time we had our fire crackling and began to fry the two bass that I caught. He had released the three small ones he hooked. Grease spattered up from the pan and stung our fingers and wrists when we turned the fish.
"Here. Wrap your hand in a towel. Just like this."
The man was prepared for everything.
As we sat next to the flickering fire and watched its embers and smoke drift upward, we ate our supper and drank a bottle of white wine and shared more stories of past hopes and future dreams.
It did not rain. In fact, we did not use the tent. We brushed aside brittle twigs and sticky, oozing pine cones and spread our sleeping bags on a spongy bed of dry pine needles. The sky was clear, and the stars were brilliant. We lay there breathing in the scent of the fire’s coals, the foresty odor of pine pitch that seeped from woody trunks, and the warmth of each other’s skin and hair and breath. I guess we were falling in love.
After that weekend, I began to look for the van around town, and sure enough, there it would be — at Debra’s Donut Delite in the morning, at Mack’s Gas out near the dump, and in the college parking lot. Sometimes I’d jump out of my car and leave a note on his windshield — a note from a secret admirer or a reminder to meet me at a certain place at a certain time. He said that one of his favorite messages was “Apple pie tonight.”
“I never knew just what you meant when you wrote that,” he said years later.
“What do you mean? I meant ‘apple pie.’”
“Oh, I thought it might be some kind of romantic code. I found it very intriguing.”
After our children started school, I often saw the van in the elementary school parking lot and occasionally caught a glimpse of its familiar yellow panels at street intersections as the van shuttled a half dozen shouting and laughing children, ours and others’, between soccer, softball, and baseball games and ice cream cones.
The van’s windshield became a kind of bulletin board for my husband’s friends and associates. If they knew that Thomas was heading out to the dump or to the Haywards’ orchard or was chaperoning a school field trip to a neighboring town, they might ask him to stop by to pick up or deliver something.
My husband taught part-time at the small college in our town, and Social Justice in an Unjust World was his most popular class. It always filled up quickly and had a waiting list, so he gave seats to students who needed the class to satisfy a requirement or who were motivated enough to plead their case for admission.
The van became well known, even beloved, at the college. For students, it represented my husband’s lineage. He was a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the nineteen-sixties, and his van and the peeling peace symbol on its rear window were emblems of that era, along with tie-dyed T-shirts and antiwar marches.
For several years, the big yellow van crisscrossed our little town on its various missions. Our three children grew older, the van’s odometer put on more mileage, and I guess that my husband and I did, too, although I didn’t particularly notice that happening.
“Here.” Thomas handed me a pair of scissors one afternoon. He pointed to his hair, which fell to his shirt collar, and made a cutting motion with two fingers.
“Are you sure?”
By the time I was finished, there was a two-inch-high pile of hair on the floor. The tufts and locks looked kind of pitiful sitting there at our feet, cast off from Thomas’s body. They no longer served the purpose they once did, I guess. But I remembered the time when I thought that his long hair was handsome and romantic and seductive.
“You look great,” I said, holding out a mirror for him. “See. You look so young.”
Thomas turned his head from left to right. “Strange.” He shook his head and rubbed his hands over the back of his neck and over his ears. “Thanks, honey. You did a good job. Come here.”
He pulled me onto his lap, and we kissed until the children ran into the kitchen. They were so startled by their father’s appearance that they couldn’t stop laughing and jumping and pointing.
For about a week, I noticed my husband pause in front of mirrors and windows, even the shiny stainless steel of the toaster. Once or twice, I noticed him peering at his upside-down reflection in his cereal spoon as though he was trying to find the real Thomas in the distorted likeness that he found there.
This was just one of my husband’s transformations during that period.
People started telling me that they had seen the van moving too slowly or weaving across the narrow blacktop of the highway out by the Purple Onion roadhouse near the town line, where the serious drinkers found themselves on midweek nights. Some people started to notice alcohol on my husband’s breath in the afternoon. That’s when I had to admit to myself that I noticed it, too.
We were taking out the trash one night while our beagle ran around the yard before bedtime. The dog didn’t like the woods after dark, so he stayed on the grass next to the house in the light from the kitchen windows, sniffing at the fading tracks of squirrels and chipmunks. Thomas had drunk most of a bottle of wine with supper and was still holding his glass with one hand and a trash bag with the other.
“People are talking.”
He didn’t ask me what they were saying, and he didn’t look at me. He lifted the lid off one of the trash cans and waited for me to throw in my bag. Then he dumped his bag in, and I could hear bottles clinking against each other.
“I’m going for a ride,” he said. “Want to come?”
“Are you sure you should be driving?” He knew I wouldn’t leave the children asleep in the house.
“Want to come?”
I shrugged and shook my head. He stumbled off to the van as I turned and went back into the house. He’d never had a serious accident, and he probably wouldn’t have one tonight. Still, I was worried, even though I didn’t like him very much just then.
I think that this must have been around the time that I would see the van parked in the college lot for long hours on days when I knew for certain that my husband was not scheduled to teach a class. These were the days when I let his office telephone ring for long minutes at a time, willing him to pick up the receiver.
“Pick it up,” I would think. “Just pick it up, you jerk.” When the answering machine clicked on, I would hang up and redial.
And it was around this time that a certain graduate teaching assistant would attend the student receptions that we held monthly at our old farmhouse and gaze at my husband with a satisfied, proprietary air. I wasn’t sure whether this was just another girl with a crush on my husband or someone who had slept with Thomas, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with my suspicions.
In a small town, people talk, and it takes a lot of effort — emotional and physical effort — to keep a secret. Because I’m an approachable sort of person, people started to take me aside to share their observations about my husband’s behavior.
Ann saw the van out near the graduate-student dormitory on a Wednesday at about five o’clock one morning. “Jack and I were on our way to the train station. We had tickets for Phantom of the Opera. Fantastic show. I recommend it. Was Thomas correcting papers or something?”
Karen noticed the van out by the lake at twilight on a July evening during a heat wave and asked if I had enjoyed my romantic dip. “Oh, yes, very refreshing,” I lied.
Frank said that he had been “Damn near run off the road by that husband of yours at the intersection down near Hollywood Hits.”
Actually, once I gathered enough evidence about his drinking, it didn’t take much discussion to convince my husband to join our local AA group. It meets on Tuesday evenings in the basement of the Congregational Church as soon as the Italian cooking class cleans up the remains of its weekly celebration of the Culinary Treasures of Tuscany. The leftover Chianti wine is taken home by the cooking-class students, and my husband says that the bottles don’t tempt him anymore. He has promised to attend meetings every week for at least six months.
“Dorothy’s giving me a ride.”
“You don’t want to take the van?” Thomas didn’t like to sit in the passenger’s seat.
He shook his head.
So he gets a ride there once a week with Dorothy, a retired high school chemistry teacher, and she takes him home again after the meeting.
I kept to myself Ann’s and Karen’s remarks about seeing the van where it should not have been seen. Something in me didn’t want to hear Thomas deny those facts or invent some story about them or, worse, admit them.
Well, perhaps I went too far, and perhaps some would condemn me for what I did. That’s their right. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how Karen had asked me if I had enjoyed my evening swim — when I knew for sure that I had not been at the lake at all that month.
One hot summer afternoon, I happened to be driving the yellow van down the gravelly dirt road that folks around here use to launch their motor boats into our town’s little lake. Even with all the windows rolled down, the air was hotter than my own breath. It was so hot that there weren’t any sounds coming from the woods.
Something came over me. Maybe it was the heat. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe I had planned to drive the van down the hill to the boat landing to look at the water and think about things between Thomas and me.
Instead, I parked at the top of the hill and sat there for a couple of minutes. It was unbearable inside the van. My legs and back felt like they were glued to the sticky vinyl seat, and the steering wheel was wet beneath my hands. I had to get out of there. I jumped out to try to cool off. That’s when I leaned over and released the brake.
Boy, did that van barrel down the hill. There were two pretty mallards paddling near the shore, and they took off in a hurry when they saw the yellow van tearing over the gravel, spitting pebbles left and right from under those big black tires. The dry old branches of the pine trees along the sides of the road scratched and screeched against the sides and roof of the van, scraping the paint, catching in the door handles and under the windshield wipers and around the big chrome bumpers, and finally bobbing up to the surface after the van plunged into the cool, clear water.
Mack charged my husband a couple hundred dollars to tow the van out of the lake. It wasn’t easy. The shelf of the lake drops off rapidly at that landing spot.
“What the hell happened?” Mack asked him.
Thomas shrugged and shook his head. “Well, Ellen had a little accident.”
Mack shook his head, too, and sighed deeply.
My husband never asked me why I did it, even after he confessed to the affair.
He might still pine for his young paramour — he says he does not — but she moved out of state as soon as she got her degree, anyway.
“That part of my life is over, Ellen.”
“It better be.”
“No, really. I get it now.”
He swears that his eternal devotion is to me and to our family. He says it with tears in his eyes and with a fervor that he seems to feel deeply.
“I don’t want to destroy what we’ve built together.”
Now that the van has dried out, my husband spends every evening after supper in the barn working on the engine. The van’s hood is always up, and the aromas of gasoline, motor oil, brake fluid, metals, and old exhaust residue drift out of the barn from time to time.
He’s taken out every engine part and laid them out on the floor in various patterns and arrangements that make sense to him. The pistons, gaskets, connecting rods, crankshaft, and sump are by the back door. The valves, camshaft, rods, and timing belt are over in the far corner near the rakes and shovels. The ignition wires and distributor, for some reason, are over with the radiator, water pump, fan, and hoses. The oil pump, oil filter, and carburetor rest on an old door he has placed across two sawhorses. The electric starter motor, battery, alternator, and spark plugs seem to be pretty much lost causes.
“It’s an opportunity,” he says, “to really do it right this time, Ellen.”
I sometimes watch him from the side porch as I sit on my wicker rocker, reading. I look up occasionally when the children call me to admire their somersaults and headstands on the lawn or their parade of dog-drawn wagons as they ride down our long dirt driveway. My tiger lilies line the drive and are thriving with little attention from me throughout this long hot summer.
During these evenings, I have time to think about how someday the children will be in high school and then in college, and then they’ll be gone. Time passes, and people have to move on, I guess. I might need some breathing room myself once they’re on their own. Maybe it’s time for me to take some courses and finish my nursing degree. Most semesters I was on the dean’s list, so I guess I have the aptitude.
Thomas has many talents, too, and one is his mastery of the internal-combustion gasoline engine. He exudes confidence and even optimism as he goes about cleaning and repairing the van’s many parts.
“Why should I pay for second-rate new stuff?” he asks when he takes a break and joins me on the porch. “The original parts were built to last. This thing is going to run better than ever when I’m done.”
“Maybe. Did you know that Mack has a pickup truck he’s trying to get rid of? It’s only two years old.”
But he doesn’t want to hear about any other vehicle. He’s determined to finish the job he started. I have to give him points for trying because he does know an awful lot about engines. But I just don’t think that my husband will ever be able to put that big yellow van together again.
ROSEMARY WINFIELD is an occasional contributor to various publications, including Denver Quarterly, Evergreen Review, and Grab-a-Nickel. She lives in Cambridge, Mass., and enjoys spending time in France, Italy, and South Africa.