The Van That Mrs. Westphalia Bought
Mrs. Westphalia sipped her tea. She was getting very good, almost expert level, at making tea on the black varnished stove top shoved between the washing machine and her nightstand.
Invest in a solid stove. You won’t regret it on those frigid nights when you just need something to warm your belly. Nothing like it, really.
Frank the salesman was right. The air inside her van had turned brittle tonight. Not even the space heater she bought at that drug store in Whitefish could toast a cold as bone-deep as this.
She missed Frank occasionally, even if she barely knew him. He had a certain easygoing charm that hummed from his thin, gray mustache to the roll of forehead shading his brow. For years, she’d pass Frank’s Van Shop & More on her way to work and when she sat at her desk and stared at those beige walls, Mrs. Westphalia would imagine opening the door to his shop. A bell tinkled at her unexpected entrance, and there next to a bright-red “SALES EVERY DAY EVEN SUNDAY” sign would be Frank, standing in the middle of the showroom, smiling in a pink button-down with a “Frank” name tag pinned to his shirt. (As if she didn’t already know.) He would ask her what kind of van she wanted and she’d smile, too, because she had no idea.
“A green one?”
Making photocopies, Mrs. Westphalia wasn’t actually standing in front of the large machine but driving slow in her new van. Answering the phone – Mr. Zurk’s office, how may I direct your call? – she’d feel the cool wind in her hair and laugh at how she absentmindedly left the windows down (not again!) on this spiraling mountain road to nowhere.
One Friday in April, she edged into her spot on the fourth floor of the office garage and before she could turn off the ignition, put the car in reverse. With a satisfying screech, her old Mercedes-Benz twisted down the parking structure and turned left onto McHull Street. It was raining, water sloshed against her windshield. A clap of thunder, another pour of rain and Mrs. Wesphalia rode on, loving the drama of it all.
If she wasn’t wiser, Mrs. Westphalia might’ve thought Frank’s Van Shop & More was closed. The lights were off and the parking lot, usually scattered with vans for sale, was empty.
“Sorry, we’re in a bit of a blackout as you can probably tell,” Frank said as his doorbell chimed to the tune of Mrs. Westphalia’s footsteps. “Still selling today though, especially if you’re willing to buy with cash.”
There are juxtapositions in life, she thought, when the rhythm of what you thought might destroy your light becomes the very thing that saves you. The Law Offices of Zurk & Benedict & Benedict LLP were having serious issues with their payment system this week; yesterday, they’d given Mrs. Westphalia her weekly salary in cash. Later in the afternoon, she planned to deposit it at the bank.
She looked into the darkness of Frank’s Van Shop & More, patting the wad of cash in her pocket. “I do.”
And with those words, so began the marriage of Mrs. Westphalia and a lime-green 1971 Volkswagen Bus with a rusting fuel door and 208,000 miles to its name. The van was the only one in the dealership she could afford. Frank, unsure how long the blackout would last, wanted to make at least one sale that day, so sold.
“If this rain doesn’t stop, yours might be the only van we move,” he told her. “And I honestly thought we’d never sell this old boy to anyone.”
Mrs. Westphalia wasn’t worried about the vintage van. Eventually, she’d fix it up with a new coat of paint and whatever else it needed to run with her forever. The road, once closed to her by a three-walled cubicle and a stack of unsent faxes, was finally open. Now she could follow its concrete currents anywhere.
That first night she got as far as Bainbridge, Idaho. The second night she drove the van off the side of the road and parked it by a river protected by the gray of snow-spotted mountaintops. The sun fell, the moon rose and Mrs. Westphalia finally understood the wild rush of letting go. Under the shadow of a waxing gibbous, gripping a cup of hot tea, she promised her van she’d never settle for law office secretary again.
She counted stars in Provo. She smoked her first cigarette in Paris, Wyoming. She slept on a California King at a two-room motel in Yosemite, watched the Big Sur tide and got a duck tattoo at a dive bar in Helena. If the breeze blew just right, she could still smell the whiskey that somehow got mixed with the ink on her wrist.
Mrs. Westphalia’s newfound language was a lexicon of dusty roads and self-serve gas stations. She soon learned there was a certain way to speak to a convenience store employee if you wanted a fresh cup of coffee and not whatever sat dull in the pot.
As for the art of navigating the geographic unknown, she’d become a master. Until today, sitting on a vinyl chair surrounded by the silver hubcaps of Morrison’s Auto Repair. It was only a matter of time until the van broke down but Mrs. Westphalia thought she had figured out time, how to bend its yellow dashes to her whim.
A man appeared, his mustache thicker than Frank’s, hands stained with grease. “Hi, I’m Jackson.”
“So, we took a look at your van …”
The next words hung lifelessly in the plastic-smelling air. The place was kept cooler than midnight on the plains of New Mexico.
“OK, tell me,” Mrs. Westphalia said, breathlessly calm. She was no longer worried. The decision had been made before she stepped into the shop or figured out how to boil tea.
“It’s not too bad, ma’am. We can repair it, you’ll just be without your vehicle for about three days.”
Her tattoo itched. Across the street, she could see a small music store. Something brown hung from the display window. Maybe a Fender Stratocaster. She’d always wanted a guitar.
The bells attached to the front door of Morrison’s Auto Repair clanked as Mrs. Westphalia walked out, turning once more to Jackson and tossing him the extra set of keys to her van.