Tag Archives: vans

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN: WE WERE YOUNG AND NOTHING WAS SIMPLE

BY ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL

This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Faded_RJR-1We talked about doing doughnuts next winter in the parking lot of the school and compared notes on how best to achieve one. Of driving vanfuls of friends to the movies, no longer being dependent on our parents or older brother and sisters. About how cool it would be to finally be able to go on real dates, to drive—ourselves—to pick up the girls, open the door for them and park at Saint Mark Lutheran—way in the back, where you can’t be seen from the road—play a CD and just see what happens.

Then Adam, sprawled out on my bedroom floor, said, “And we can go downtown anytime we want. I heard it’s so crazy down there.

“What about the S-curve? I don’t want to drive on that,” Daren said sitting up.

“No shit. Friend of a friend’s dad lost control of his brakes on it. Almost died,” I said. “Truth.”

“Everyone says they know someone who almost died on the S-curve,” Adam said. “It’s all bullshit.”

“Well, we can just take Eastern all the way down. That eventually gets you downtown.” I traced my finger along the unfolded map spread between us, routes highlighted in neon green and pink, future voyages we had been planning for months that would take us to all corners of Grand Rapids.

“But it takes forever,” Adam said. “The idea is to get down there quick and spend all our time hanging out.” Pause. “Oh, and there’s a hot dog place that we have to try. Heard it was awesome. It’s right by the liquor store.”

“And you’re sure they won’t card us?”

“Chris said they don’t card anywhere in Eastown. We’ll be fine.”

“What about parallel parking?” Daren asked. “Are you guys ready for that?”

“My dad made me practice in the van,” I said. “Set up two garbage cans and if I hit them I had to start over.”

“Are you going to be getting your own car eventually?” Adam asked. “Because you’ll be the first one with a license and I don’t really want to be seen in the van.”

“The van’s all right,” Daren said. “He and Becky made out in the back of it.”

“Yeah, but they were in the garage waiting for his parents to drive her home,” Adam said. “No offense.”

“I think I might be getting my sister’s Honda Civic,” I said. “It’s an eighty-nine.”

“All right,” Adam said. “That works. So you’ll have to be our go-to guy until I get mine a few months later.” Pause. “My dad’s getting me a Grand Prix. Red one.”

“Sweet,” I said, jealous, but trying hard not to show it. “That’s an awesome car.”

“I know.”

“My brother said that they’re working on technology where the cars will park for us,” Daren said.

“Yeah, right.”

“Not now, but in like five years or something.”

“I think,” Adam said while slapping Daren’s back, “that he’s just afraid of the parking test.”

“Leave him alone,” I said. “It’s the worst part.”

“No, the city driving is. You have to be real careful. Plus, they have a little steering wheel on their side of the car in case you really mess up.”

“Really?”

“They have brakes, too.”

We sat in silence thinking about it, about all of the tests on the horizon, if we were really, truly prepared, and then my mind went back to the church parking lot, to the stories I’d heard—the magical place it seemed to be. I thought about whether it was a sin, being in the parking lot, or if the whole property up to 52nd Street was part of the church—if all of it was God’s—and if Becky and I making out and feeling each other up in the back of my parents’ Astro was something I’d go to hell for. I imagined the place as I knew it—old stones making up the foundation, brown roof and stumpy spire, the parking lot’s cracked blacktop split by green weeds, plants I didn’t know the name of that no one had the money to deal with—and I couldn’t help but think that, in the dark, it didn’t matter where we’d go. We’d be there, alone and illuminated by the dashboard clock, the CD playing, the blackness of the deep summer night protecting us from roving cops or prying neighbors.

Then Adam stood, distracted, and pulled out the crinkled PlayStation Magazine from his coat, the one with Resident Evil on the cover—the guy making that grunting face carrying a big gun. “Whatever,” he said turning on the little television and flipping through the magazine. “We’ll all pass and before we know it we’ll be men. Men with cars. And life will be good.” Daren nodded and removed the CD from its box, blew on the back of it and placed it in the system.

“That’s right,” I said studying the map again, alone on the floor now, following the snaking Grand River and imagining the currents, the salmon and steelhead swimming upstream, the empty buildings downtown and how scared of it all I was. “Real good.”

Robert James Russell is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominated author and founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. His work has appeared in Squalorly, Buffalo Almanack, Pithead Chapel, Crime Factory, WhiskeyPaper, and The Collagist, among others. Find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.

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TOLEDO, OHIO: Undying love and a truck stop

van 2BY JODIE FLETCHER

This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

With concrete as unforgiving beneath me as a cushionless church pew, I gazed up hundreds of feet into the sky, expecting the TA sign steepling high above the outskirts of Toledo to provide the answers to life’s greatest questions: How had I gotten here? And how much farther could I go? Expecting a religious experience, I instead fell in love.

These were the early days, when I could only get about halfway through a cigarette before starting to feel slightly queasy. It would be during this trip, in fact, that I would become firmly cemented in the class of “smoker,” a status that even five years after quitting still feels like home. Somewhere along the endlessness of I-80, a line was crossed and I left behind the realm of “wanting” a cigarette to become a permanent resident of that seedier place called “needing” one. It’s this trip that I blame every time someone lights up and the ever-familiar lust — so long denied — winds its way through the smoke and into my soul.

But this was the first day of that trip, so the American Spirit perched between the index and middle fingers of my right hand was making me a little bit sick as I sat on the curb with a silk scarf tied around my head and my long tie-dyed skirt modestly shoved between the peaks of my knees. I looked every bit the part beside the rainbow-painted, Grateful Dead Bear-adorned Chevy conversion van my friend Leela had purchased off eBay for $800 the week before.

The “Sweet-Ass Van,” as it had been dubbed by another friend, seemed so vibrant and vivacious when we climbed aboard the night before, even as we crossed the George Washington Bridge and traversed the Garden State Parkway. It was somewhere in the mountains of Pennsylvania that Sweet-Ass seemed to lose her lust for life and now, nearly 18 hours later, this first leg of Leela’s exodus from New York City had taken us nearly twice as long as it should have. This being the first day of the trip, we had no way of knowing this was “making good time” by what would become our standards — the drive to California ended up consuming my entire three-week break from school.

Even in patchouli-soaked company Sweet-Ass was something to behold. For the salt-of-the-Earth folks at the TA — their T-shirts tucked into jeans, work boots actually distressed by work and literal trucker hats perched atop their heads — she must’ve been mind-blowing. But we were back in the Midwest, where politeness prevails, so even the people who rushed past us in a hurry took the time to make eye contact and smile. Those with a bit more afternoon to spare stopped to see “what’s the problem?” It was one of these kind fellows who confirmed the worst of my fears.van behind

We had already nursed this beauty through so much, pouring 12 quarts of oil into her increasingly exhausted engine between the Poconos and the sanctuary that was this truck stop. We’d emerged from the night surrounded by sun-illuminated cornfields, which proved to be a picturesque backdrop for us to pose against, gas cans in hand and thumbs outstretched. Traipsing through maize on our way back to the van, life felt so much like a lark that we didn’t even pause to consider, in light of Sweet-Ass’s broken gas gauge revelation, what else we didn’t know about this bitch.

I was a month shy of my 19th birthday and three weeks shy of having lived in New York for a whole year so, needless to say, I was pretty secure in my credentials as “The Shit” and quite certain I knew absolutely everything. This trip would prove me wrong in almost every way, but it turned out I did in fact know one thing: That knocking under the hood was the harbinger of doom.

The unmistakable sound started just outside Toledo and blessedly within sight of the corporate beacon of TravelCenters of America — the blue and red TA under which the unforgiving concrete and slightly-nauseating cigarette were about to bear witness to a moment of pure solace.

Shortly, it would be discovered that Leela’s AAA had expired five days prior and we would nurse the dying engine a few more miles, crossing the Ohio/Michigan border and arriving at my Aunt Jennie and Uncle John’s farm in Ottawa Lake.

But before all that, as I gazed out at the choreography of semis going to and fro and inhaled exhaust fumes between the puffs from my smoke, I had an experience of true presence. This truck stop — with its rows and rows of foodstuffs and car care products, its displays of kitsch, its walls of cold beverages, its islands of coffee and full stock of cigarettes — provided everything I could possibly need at that exact moment. I began thinking about its trucker showers and its laundry room, its full-service restaurant and its fast food options and realized that this truck stop actually provided everything I could possibly need for the rest of my life.

Sitting next to the Sweet-Ass Van, I fell profoundly in love with that truck stop, and with all truck stops, really. It didn’t matter how I’d gotten there or how much farther I would go, I had everything I needed within reach. And whenever I see that blue and red TA, wherever I may be, I will forever feel that same sense of overwhelming contentment.

Jodie Fletcher is a former newspaper reporter who left the glitz and glamor of a small-town daily to fulfill her freelancing dreams. Her work occasionally appears in Traverse Magazine and she serves as the co-editor and designer of The Mitten, a publication of the Michigan chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She will also be editing the upcoming comic, 2 Cents from a Shopgirl.

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