by Ray Nolan
We bought the van together. It was a bad idea to begin with but we’d never been wise to the good ones so what did it matter this time? I was twenty-two and dreamt genuinely of cleaning up and becoming a part of something I could be proud of, though I considered this less a task to accomplish than a feat to simply try for and fail. Luke wasn’t much different. He lied all the time and had burned most of his bridges along the way, the sort of history I could relate to.
It cost us three-hundred dollars and we called it the Virgin Mary Bargain.
So that morning we began drinking. The snow was light but driving back from the car lot everything looked different from behind the steering wheel. We marveled at the world around us suddenly crystallized, and once we’d reached our apartment we gazed through the front window at what we’d bought. Luke said we were finally going to make it to New York City, and for the first time in a long while I felt thankful for the few things in our apartment I’d actually paid for. Luke nodded admiringly at the van and, raising his glass, commented that we were really and truly making some progress in our lives.
After several hours we climbed back in the van and drove through the frozen landscape around us, past the cemetery and County Courthouse and out onto the back roads. We both sought in all that rare snow something as promising as where we thought our van would eventually take us, though our talk focused not on what we looked forward to but what we could’ve been. “A teacher teaching,” Luke said, “maybe a doctor healing.” I shrugged and told him to go for it, then told him how much I liked winter in Mississippi, how an occasion like this makes you feel as if you’re part of a more important picture than you really are.
“Well,” Luke said. “This happens all the time in Spain. Most people don’t know it but I read something once. It’s true.”
“They must freeze to death,” I said. “Literally freeze to death.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t get that far. But Jesus I need another drink. You in?”
“Is that a question?”
“They drink in Spain, of course. They do that everywhere.” With that Luke turned around the van and steered us cheerfully back to the Square. After all, we didn’t need so many words, and soon enough there we were amongst the upstanding people of that little town. It was strange to see them so unfazed by the snow, darting about in their gloves and wool overcoats, urged on by places you could tell needed them.
Luke parked the van and we blew on our hands all the way to the bar. Once there we sat on familiar stools and drank from glasses of bourbon while the snow fell beyond the big glass window facing the street. We could still see the van at the end of the block, where it sat hunkered and waiting for the next great phrase. The snow had picked up and by next morning powerlines would freeze and the whole town would be out of electricity for two days, but Luke and I just sat in the bar and drank our bourbon, unaware of this or any other ending. I’d get caught stealing a toaster oven and eventually tell my stories to a circle of recovering alcoholics. It cost us three-hundred dollars and we called it the Virgin Mary Bargain. His name was Luke. And our town crystallized and you couldn’t tell this street from that.
After a while a tiny baldheaded man entered the bar and sat down next to us. He sighed and said the world was being unkind today. You couldn’t help feeling sympathetic to his tale, which began that morning as all his mornings began, selling door-to-door health insurance to farmers. He didn’t want to bore us with details but suffice to say that today he couldn’t have talked a pig into mud. And then he’s on the highway and old trusty starts smoking and the rest you can figure out for yourself.
“Smoke and snow and voila. I feel like a drunk being here this time of the day.”
“Watch it,” said Luke. “What if we were drunks ourselves? What if I took offense to that? What if I knew karate?”
“Whoa.” The man’s hands popped up in front of his face. He showed us his palms. “No judgement calls on anyone but myself. That’s not my style, boys.”
“Don’t worry,” I said to him. “He doesn’t know karate.”
“Well, I’m all about respect,” he said. “Just so you know.”
“Actually I despise violence,” Luke said, then looked over at me. “I meant what I said about a doctor healing, a teacher teaching.”
“Wish I could’ve been there for that,” said the man, which seemed to soften things between him and Luke. Maybe it was just the usual scene, an empty bar except the three or four of you and sooner or later you’re all chums. We never exchanged names, though. The man talked about his smoking car and the car that had picked him up and taken him here, which he kept thanking over and over as if the car had done everything by itself, as if there’d been no driver at all. He shook his head and told us he was seriously considering staying the night at one of the motels in town. And talking about cars got Luke going on about our van and how the whole day was a cause for celebration. 1972 Dodge, purple. Just on the other side of the light. The Virgin Mary Bargain! Then he was off his stool and standing at the window and pointing down the street, where it still sat hunkered and waiting.
“I’m seeing it now,” said the man. “Yes sir.”
Luke had his forehead pressed against the glass. “It’s going to get us to New York City. That’s the plan.”
“What was it again? The Virgin Mary what?”
“Bargain,” said Luke. “And as far as I’m concerned it pretty much sticks.” He stayed at the window for several more minutes, and the man and I just stared at him. It was the kind of quiet you simply fall into, where you might or might not have taken the last sip. The kind of quiet where nothing bad happens and you’re convinced that one day you’ll find her, the pretty woman that holds your hand forever.
That kind of quiet. Until the man said, “I’ve decided to stay, boys, though I’ve got a few things in the car. Would either of you be so kind?”
Luke and I were happy to help, and soon the three of us were outside making our way toward the van. The wind had picked up considerably. It cut through my bones and swirled everything that crystallized and trudging to the van the man seemed even tinier than he was, as if he might be smothered by all that whiteness. He too wore a wool overcoat, which he hadn’t taken off his entire time at the bar. Now it only added to his fragile appearance, dwarfed as he was by its massive size. Luke and I trudged as well, past the stores we stole from and the alleyway where we sold our dope. But there was heat where we were going and we were being of assistance and for one single moment I had no idea why we play the dirty tricks we play.
“I appreciate this,” the man said. “You guys are real gentlemen.”
“It’s good to hear you say that,” said Luke. “Salesmen can be so phony sometimes. I know. I used to sell furniture.”
“Is that like the snow in Spain thing?” I asked him.
“Wish I could’ve been there for that, too,” the man smiled.
“That was then, this is now,” Luke shrugged. “It wasn’t that great anyway.”
When we got to the van he started the engine and the heat we’d come for kicked in, though it took a few minutes to warm up. I sat in the passenger seat and rubbed my hands together while Luke held his own up to the heat vents. The man sat behind us, huddled and making shivering noises with his lips.
“Out that way,” he said, pointing to the East. “Ten miles maybe.”
This time the upstanding people were nowhere to be seen. The streets were empty and I felt as if we’d missed the big news, though I knew we hadn’t. After all the damage had been done the locals called it the storm of the decade. And we were out in it, and you had the feeling that this was where great things happened, where the getaway got away and the abused exacted their revenge.
On the highway nothing had been plowed and no cars had been through and we went nowhere and anywhere at the same time. For some reason I wasn’t worried about how the van would hold up. Luke drove slowly, hunched over the steering wheel and squinting his eyes ahead of him. The man sat up in his seat, alerted to the icy road. The quiet descended once again and for a while no one said anything until Luke said, “How much more to go here? I don’t want to get too far out.”
I guess it was the man’s own revenge, his own getaway. I really don’t know, though the great phrase finally did come. “Pull over and hand me your wallets and step out of my new van, boys.” Had you seen him then you wouldn’t have thought him so tiny anymore. His voice sounded lower and more gravelly and he was quick with the pistol, which he retrieved from one of his inside coat pockets. Luke and I both stared at the gun, thinking the typical thoughts I’m sure, that we’d been conned by another con and what if a bullet was our final fate. We gave him our wallets and he said, “I could’ve told you I was Moses and you two would’ve believed me. But let’s not delay. Step out step out step out.”
I opened the passenger door quickly and did what he said but Luke stayed where he was. “Now you’ve ruined it for all salesmen,” he said. “Completely ruined it.”
“It’s not like I scored or anything,” the man said. “But it’s got wheels and I’ve got your wallets, so open the door.”
Luke did what the man said but didn’t move. “This day started off great but now I’m going to freeze to death. Fuck you.”
“I’m the one with gun, remember.”
“No shit,” said Luke. “You’re so Hollywood.”
With his gun the man forced Luke out of the van and fired once at him before closing the door and driving off. The gunshot rang wildly in my ears as I watched our van fishtail away from us and down the highway. Luke yelled something angry in its direction, then stopped suddenly and held his hand up in front of his face. The skin was torn away and there was a lot of blood but it wouldn’t kill him, or so I reasoned, and this was good news. All he said was, “What do we do now?”
“Does it hurt?”
“How can I know? I’m in shock.” He began wiping the blood on his jeans. His face looked suddenly pale as he sat down on the side of the road and lay back in the snow.
I took off my old army jacket and laid it over him. “We’ll be fine,” I said, rubbing my hands over his only good one. “Someone’ll come by.”
“Snowplows?” he said. “Where? When?”
“They’ll be here. Trust me.”
“But how can I know?” Luke said earnestly.
This time I didn’t have an answer, and I regretted then not knowing that the farthest we’d ever get in our van was New Orleans before it’d break down and the two of us would go our separate ways. The truth is that Luke was just one of those friends I’d happened to meet on my slow way to somewhere else, but kneeling down beside him right then, the snow and wind stinging our faces, I sensed an unerring kinship in what we were up against. I propped Luke’s head in my lap and prayed for our rescue as the cold tightened itself around us.
The plows never came but someone else did, not an hour later, a man in cowboy boots and a camouflage poncho. He gasped at Luke and helped him into his truck, then assaulted him with stupid questions. Is that blood? Are you hurt? Luke kept saying he was going to throw up, so I cracked my window and did my best to inform the cowboy of what’d happened. I could barely feel my fingers but soon enough we were at the hospital, where I gave my statement to the police as my body thawed under the supervision of those gentle doctors. Only then did I consider how lucky Luke had been, and looking around me I couldn’t help but think that this must be home, where the bad habits are kicked for good and the pretty woman keeps her promise.
After I’d been treated I slept on a couch in the waiting room, which remained empty the whole time I was there. What about the other emergencies? I wondered, though I was glad to have the place to myself. Luke was released that night, just in time for the blackout. His hand was bandaged and wrapped in a sling and his eyes appeared heavy from the Valium they gave him. I popped two myself and on the way home fell into another dream-dead slumber in the back seat of the cop car. Outside our apartment Luke shook me awake, jerking my shoulder back and forth.
“Here we are,” he said. “Hey.”
“You guys take it easy,” the policeman said. “Just take it easy from now on.”
“Yes sir,” I told him in a daze. “No doubt.”
I floated then out of the car, my breath coming in gusts, the snow beneath my feet carrying me swiftly to our apartment door. I looked behind me at Luke, who moved gingerly and with an expression on his face as though he’d just smelled something foul. When he got closer I realized he was wincing at the pain, and I asked him was there anything I could do. He shook his head and, once inside, fell immediately asleep.
When we awoke the next morning the house was frigid, and we spent the next two days bundled in layers of clothes and wrapped in blankets, eating potato chips and crackers and bread. We borrowed a few candles from the woman next door and carried them around with us wherever we went, which wasn’t anywhere really, to the bathroom and back to our beds, into the kitchen or living room for a change of scenery. Luke took his Valium and fell asleep once again but when he awoke he talked constantly about hunting down the man who’d shot him and returning the favor in some dark alley. He said that even pacifists could get mean if they had to.
In truth all either of us wanted was the van, and in the weeks that followed we kept hoping that suddenly it would just appear out on the street as though it’d all been some kind of trickery, as though Luke had never been shot and the van never stolen in the first place. Each morning I pulled aside the curtains and looked eagerly outside. When the phone rang I felt something spring up into my chest but it was never who I wanted it to be. After a while Luke and I stopped hoping altogether.
Then one day we got a call from the policeman who’d taken our statements at the hospital. He said the van had turned up beneath an overpass in Jackson and he’d be happy to take us there if we wanted. Luke was watching TV but he looked over and saw me, still and wide-eyed as I held the phone against my ear, and he knew. He stood and waited for me to say something but I didn’t, I couldn’t, not right then. After confirming that we still had a spare key, the policeman said he’d be right over.
He picked us up thirty minutes later and Luke and I listened to him talk all the way to Jackson. He told us about his family, about his wife who he’d met in high school and loved from the get-go and about his two daughters that’d kept him from growing old too soon. It was funny to be back in the cop car knowing what I knew about me and Luke and what the policeman didn’t. He talked the entire two hours but I didn’t mind because he spoke without expecting a response, and it seemed to make him happy to do that, to just open his mouth and let fly about his wonderful family and his wonderful life.
Finally we exited the freeway. It was just on the outskirts of the city, and everywhere I looked I saw truck stops and cheap motels and diners. The policeman took a left under the freeway and there, on the right side of the road, was our van. I felt my heart drumming as we pulled up behind it.
“There she is,” Luke said.
The policeman nodded. “Check her out, boys.”
He turned off the car and we got out. All the van doors were unlocked, and after a few seconds I opened up the driver’s side and stepped in. Luke walked around and climbed in next to me as the policeman circled the van outside, reaching out every so often and touching a wheel, a fender, the back windshield. Finally he opened the door behind Luke, got down on his knees and began looking under the front and back seats. “They always leave something behind,” he said, then dropped onto his belly. Luke and I both fell quiet, waiting for him to find something, to show us what we didn’t know, but he came up shaking his head. He appeared either baffled or upset by the lack of clues, and in the end all he had to say was that Luke and I were the luckiest sons of bitches in the world. “Does it hurt?” he said, pointing at Luke’s hand. “I bet it hurts.”
“Sometimes it just goes numb.”
“It was shot,” he said. “You’ve got to make room for something.”
“I can’t feel anything, though. Go ahead. Touch it.”
But the policeman had had enough of being friendly. He shook his head again and said there was a lesson to be learned from all this, then lectured us about the evils of drinking and driving. No one wins, everyone loses, why put yourselves through such a mess? It disturbed him to think of his little girls one day sharing the same streets with a bunch of drunks, and afterward he asked us finally if we understood, really understood where he was coming from. Luke and I nodded appeasingly and told him yes, absolutely, what more did he have to say?
“I hope nothing,” he said. “Now let’s get this thing started.” With that he stepped outside and closed the door behind him. I popped the hood and Luke and I just sat there as he snapped on the cables and started his car. A moment later he appeared at my window with his thumb in the air. I held my breath and turned the key. The van roared to life like a magnificent idea, and I thought then how nice it was to have lost our van and now found it, to have been through everything we’d been through and arrive back where it all began. Luke clapped his hands and patted the dashboard excitedly. When he asked what I was waiting for I told him to hold still, we couldn’t go anywhere with the hood up.