We’ve been walking around Sandy Lake, drinking in the fragrance of fresh rain.
Miriam, more disciplined and virtuous than I, punches the air with clenched fists, checks her pulse. I am wavering and vagrant, watching raspberry ribbons braid the summer sunset, stopping to stroke every puppy I see. When we arrive at St. Cloud, our neighborhood’s most elegant street, I spy a vintage GMC van parked beside the curb.
A long extension cord slinks up the brick path to the os of a sedate stone
mansion. The van is crudely painted, white panels tagged with battle cries of honor
and courage. Hanging on one side is a large, hand-carved wooden shield painted cerulean
blue with a yellow cross. Above that, hand-fashioned armaments—a jousting stick, brass
fittings, and ropes of chain. Across the front bumper stretches a big steel kangaroo bar.
“Minnesota isn’t exactly the outback,” Miriam announces.
“But it can be cruel,” I say. “Check out that brass nozzle next to the door. What do you think it’s for?” I ask Miriam.
“Must be a mezuzah,” Miriam says, smirking.
“Wish I had my camera,” I say.
A man’s square head appears between the jalousie slats of a small window in the side of a van. A black and white cat with black spots winds around his neck like a boa.
“Hello,” the head says.
“Hello,” we say back.
The cat meows.
The man peers out at us, blue eyes dilated wide and unblinking, neck rim of his t-shirt frayed and gray. Around his head are woven threads from which crudely carved amulets hang between his hungry eyes.
“We’re admiring your van,” I say.
“This is my home,” the van man says. “I live for the environment. I fight traffic. I drive under the speed limit. The shield you see is like Joan of Arc’s. She was a crusader too. Voices tell me to do things like they did to Joan. Some are evil. I got rolled once. . .”
He pauses, lowers his head, waiting, confused. Miriam cocks her head. I shift my weight.
“But your shield is the flag of Sweden, not France,” I say, bent on accuracy, filling the awkward spot.
“Good eye!” he exclaims, raising his head. “My ancestors are Swedish. I modified the shield. I lived in this house once but I moved to Wisconsin. I suffered a tragedy.”
“Oh,” Miriam says, “I’m sorry.” Miriam is courteous.
“Now I’m afraid to leave my van,” Van Man says.
“What kind of tragedy?” I ask. I’d like to be detached like Miriam, but I’m
“My cat, Gretel, burned to death. I couldn’t get to her in time. When I got to her, she was already fried. The boy cat here is Hansel. We’re both in deep grief.”
“Yes,” Miriam repeats.
“How did it happen? A gas heater?” I ask.
Van Man nods. “What happened was this—someone called me from the outside. He wanted me to hurry, get dressed, come out. I left before I fully checked everything. I should never do that. We shouldn’t be hasty. I’m not fixing any blame here, though. No blame. Gretel’s gone is all.”
“Yes,” says Miriam. “No one’s to blame.”
The warrior in me doesn’t buy the no blame game. He should’ve checked on the cat. Irresponsible SOB. I’ve met his type before. Which version of Hansel and Gretel was he thinking of? And what’s his role in the fairytale? Is he the evil witch? Or is he the poor widowed parent, at the end of his rope, who carelessly loosed Hansel and Gretel at the edge of nowhere to forage for food in the forest, shocked when Gretel didn’t come home? Or is he the one lost in the forest? In any case, he’s guilty.
The peacemaker in me says Van Man is doing the best he can. Bad things happen to good people. He copped to Gretel’s death. What more can he do? Nothing’s good or bad, but thinking makes it so (Hamlet).
The songster in me remembers. “My baby’s gone, gone, gone. . . waah, ah…” Van Man has the blues. That’s it. He’s just stuck in the denial stage of grief. Some of us don’t escape.
“I was married once, about ten years ago. I wear the necklace she gave me right here.” He taps a piece of petrified wood hanging between his famished eyes. “I pay her tribute, but she doesn’t have a collar on me anymore.” He rubs his neck. “The other charms are from people I’ve met along the way who’ve gotten into my head.” His slender fingers fondle the amulets. “My name’s Victor. What’s yours?”
I introduce myself. I’ll help him through his grief. We’ll embrace. His attenuated fingers will smooth my senescent spine. I’ll stroke the hardened outline of his ribs, his hips.
An older man, grey hair, grey complexion, probably Victor’s father, backs his
Mercedes out of the driveway, stops briefly to scowl at us. I smile and say “Hello!” to the
face behind the rolled-up window.
“He hates me, “Victor says.
His father drives away as I stand waving. Victor, Don Quixote casting at windmills, is linked to his father by a trailing umbilicus leading to the womb of his original home, the mansion. He’s wasting his time. His father will never understand.
“I’d like to take some photographs of your van,” I say. “Would that be all right, if I come back and take some pictures?”
“Oh, yes, that would be fine. I’ll be here.”
“Okay then, we’ll see you,” I say.
“Take good care, ladies,” Victor says. Miriam and I fast-walk home a few blocks away. Miriam dismisses him as “certifiable.” I am making plans.
As soon as Miriam leaves, I grab my camera. When I go back to the van, I hear sobbing and choking from inside. I can’t bring myself to snap the shutter. I close up my camera, knock on the door. He opens it wide, stark naked, face covered in tear slime, gasping for breath.
“How goes the b-b-battle?” Victor asks, wiping his eyes with the back of his beautiful long arm.
“Battle?” I try to look into his eyes, not at his naked body. I am wowed. His eyes are the color of violet crocuses popping up out of earth. “Battle,” I repeat.
Why didn’t I fight more battles? I could have done more. I’ve been living off the fat of the land, getting my paycheck, spending it. But, here’s Victor—driving around, stoned, afraid to get out of his van, trapped in the sorry Seventies, a by-product, like taconite tailings only suckers like me want to clean up. Most people have forgotten those days. Being a fulltime warrior was fraught with peril. And drugs nearly did me in.
“C-Come in,” Victor says, rolling his hand in a circle and bowing low.
On one hand, Victor, who still holds on to those good ol’ peace and love values, might rekindle my flickering light, and I can spark his. On the other hand, curiosity killed his cat.
I lower my head and enter the van, which is stripped to the driver’s seat. There are two electrical extension cords overloaded with wires for a coffee pot, hot plate, tape deck and trouble light. Against the sides are a cot, a litter box, crates spilling over with soiled clothes, and cans of Dinty Beef Stew. Hansel sprawls on his back on the cot, claws curled up. The walls are plastered with bumper stickers like “Save the Whales,” “Save the Redwoods,” “Jesus Saves.” The air smells of jasmine incense, carnation aftershave, and ginger root. A dark glob of assorted vegetable mush is congealed to an enamel pot sitting on a hot plate. Victor gestures for me to sit in one of two aluminum frame folding chairs with frayed green and white webbing. He sits down facing me, our knees touching. Tiny hairs above the flat spots of my kneecaps electrify. I’ve never sat in a van with a naked man.
I try to hide my camera. I want to embrace his spirit, not his van. Besides, I know Ritz Camera will never develop him in the buff. I play with the strap of my zipped-up camera bag and survey the landscape.
Under the jalousie window is a large poster of muscle-bound Daniel, from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, reclining amongst a cave full of ravenous lions. The poster says, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, stress is not a 20th century phenomenon.” I chuckle into my lap before I dare to glance up at Victor. I am dazzled by his coffee mocha color, his feline grace, his raw, unfurled power. I want to frolic in the soft, golden hair that shines from his sinewy limbs like sunlit grass trailing across a prairie.
He reaches over my shoulder to click in Blood, Sweat and Tears on the tape deck. “What goes up, must come down, spinning wheels, all around.”
Wait, this is a new century. What am I doing here? His hollow eyes swallow me up. The hairs on my knees have collapsed and I am apple butter, all gooey and thin. He leans over to stare into my eyes. I like the fervor of his medieval sensitivity, but resist the glow of his skin.
He snorts with excitement and pulls out a Brown and Williamson roller and Zigzag papers. One whiff of that sweet seduction and I’m dizzy from time warp. Just as I’m about to take a drag, readying to pass into an old world, I remember. I’ve carved out a new life. I’m a “responsible” adult, worrying about stuff, getting to the job on time, striving to be satisfied with my existence, things when I was stoned, I dismissed.
I clear my throat. “It’s time to establish some guidelines, dear Victor,” I begin. “Our mysteries don’t mix. I cope in new ways.” I stroke his arm the way I stroke the top of my dog’s head. Nice Victor. Good boy, Victor. Hearing the delicious spark of his ignited Zigzags doesn’t change the counterfeit of euphoria.
“It’s good for what ails you. C’mon, it’ll take the edge off,” he says.
“Victor, burning up the energy I have left in me would be a big mistake. Little cats. Big lion. You can’t change what was. I’ve come from more than one lifetime of cinders. What counts is forgiving yourself.” A train passes over the tracks between his van and my home - clackety, clackety. Our intersection is dangerous.
“About the poster,” I say.
“Does it apply to you?” Victor tries to melt me down with his crocus eyes.
“That’s a subject for another day. Gotta go, kiddo,” I say, standing up, forgetting the limits of the van, bumping my head. I do still fight, but in different kinds of struggles.
“I’ll light your cinders anytime. Just come on in whenever you see my van,” he says, purring. He morphs from lion to Daniel and back to Victor.
We’re all players.
“Before I go, I’d like to take your picture,” I say. “Put some clothes on and stand in front of the willows.” I wait outside while Victor selects just the right armor to suit the pose. He hops out in a haz mat suit, unhooks the jousting stick from the van and looks straight into the camera, smiling. Happy— that’s how he looks. At peace with himself.
Every holiday, I revisit Victor plugged in. He dresses or undresses for each occasion. We stick to safe topics. He waxes eloquent about environmental pollution. We discuss saving oak trees and Indian burial grounds from highway engineers, research on frogs with three legs swimming crookedly upstream near a plastics factory, and polar bears in a land of diminishing ice.
We listen to Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock. I inhale the groove of Jimi’s first ray of rising sun where I left off in 1969. Victor’s a pothead, a repentant pet abuser, and perhaps a shaman. He’s also a good friend. We’re both working toward the same end, living to the ultimate, giving of ourselves until we’re ready to be food for the earth.
“Lions don’t frighten me anymore. I like to just hang out and watch their tails flick back and forth,” I tell him.
“My maiden in distress,” he says.
“I’m no longer in distress,” I say. “Forgiveness is everything. I put myself at the top of the list.”
“Don’t forget to watch the way the sun paints the willows’ silhouettes from behind,” he says.
“I promise,” I say.
Thanksgiving, I slide an envelope under his door. It’s my photograph of him, holding a jousting stick, long tendrils of weeping willow draping down behind him. Christmas morning, Miriam calls. She read about his suicide in the obituaries. He lists his parents, not much else.
In April, tiny purple and yellow crocuses spring up, strong enough to pierce the last crystals of snow. Their petals tremble bravely in the icy wind.