Showing no class, Debbie called me at work over Insure-A-Lot’s toll-free line to break up. “Jeff, you’re just too — boring.”
“Boring? Tonight, I’m interviewing a van buyer,” I said.
“Vampire? Whoa. That could be exciting.”
“Van buyer. About a specialized policy for big stakes.”
Since we’d never written a specialized policy like this, I personally questioned the van buyer, drinking a brewski with him on the curb of his Burbank apartment building that sultry July night. Establish rapport, collect answers to Corporate’s paranoid underwriting questions, earn a very un-boring commission.
A blonde Betty I know would call the buyer’s rolling work of kitsch a “kidnap van,” it being windowless, but kidnap vans wear white and this one went black as proverbial midnight except where colorful murals outshone the darkness. The van featured vivid tattoos imprinted into its paint-skin, “subcutaneous frescoes” in the October 1979 words of Vans Illustrated, portraits reportedly reflecting the viewer’s expectations: kidnapping, perhaps, if you’re a blonde Betty; Vikings astride winged unicorns if you’re Betty’s D&D-playing little bro; The Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lord of Lords to disciples of the Divine Dude. If you were starcrossed, you’d see gleaming galaxies and cosmic comets, blue moons, green clovers and purple horseshoes but I required answers deeper than superficial.
“Yeah, she used to be an abduction van until someone four or nine owners ago repainted her and went to work on the murials” — he said “murials” — “and installed the werewolves and mummies and the red shag carpet and stainless-steel spider webs. Goth-ed her out completely,” said the buyer of the van, an hombre I swear to the Divine Dude was named Van, former Marine, ex-Hippie, current owner. “I call her the ‘Van Go,’ get it? Like Van Gogh?”
“Say again?” I smiled at him. “I’m missing one ear.” Were we establishing rapport?
“I don’t follow you.” Van was cool enough to lay the allusion to the Dutch painter but not frosty enough to catch my counter-reference to Vincent’s alleged self-mutilation (severed in a secret duel by the sword of Gauguin).
“Since you wrote in ‘big stakes,’ the nit-pickers want the vehicle’s particulars and peculiars.”
Van frowned and watched a pony-tailed boy on a green 5-speed Schwinn ride past us down East Elmwood Avenue. “I completed the application.” No rapport.
“The bean counters insist. Can she fly?”
He took a hit of his Coors. “She’ll do 98 miles an hour in the quarter mile.”
A non-answer. “Will she leave the ground?”
His sneer said, “Who would ask that?”
“Work with me, Van. I’m on your side. Can she turn into mist?”
“Take the tachometer to five-thousand, drop the tranny into Low, ease off the brake pedal and she’ll fry the rear tires, like, good-’n’-smoky.”
“Kind of a waste of Goodyears but I can see how a burnout would make for quite the hazy daze.”
“Straight up.” He took another hit of his Coors. The Banquet Beer. Golden, Colorado.
“She casts no reflection in a mirror?”
“One night, I snuck up behind two bottle-blondes in a Bimbo Bucket doing their makeup in the rear-view and I flipped on the high-beams, laid on the horn and revved the engine. Jumped out of their skins. Lipstick everywhere, man, like clowns.”
I translated it back to him in case he was testing my hipness. “So, with stealth, you surprised a pair of primping girls in a convertible VW Rabbit and terrorized them?”
Meaning, I’d passed his test — for now. Rapport equaled honesty equaled completed forms equaled satisfying the underwriters equaled commission. For “Lack of Reflection,” I check-marked “Yes.”
“Sunlight a problem, like a severe problem, Van?”
He drained the dregs of his barley pop. “Gotta constantly reapply Kolor-Restor or the murials go faint, fade under bright lights like the Los Angeles Rams.”
I nodded in sympathy, being a Baltimore Colts fan. “What else? Holy water? Any aversions?” Coors is surprisingly satisfying on a Burbank apartment building’s curb beside a supernatural murial van on a sweltering July night.
“‘A-versions?’ She’s a con-version van, Holmes, converted from a kidnap-mobile into a den of iniquity.”
So, he knew from “iniquity.” Straight up. “Tell me about fangs,” I said.
When the kid on the Schwinn pedaled by again, Van hucked his empty at the longhair lad. “No idea what you’re talking about, Holmes. ‘Fangs.’”
“The underwriters cut me no slack.” I tapped my clipboard. Lucite. Clear Lucite. “Questions need check marks. Can the van turn into a bat?”
“I keep a Louisville Slugger behind the driver’s seat. Good enough?”
“I’ll make it work. Any extraordinary powers?”
He gazed at a tube-topped, bell-bottomed blonde highlighted by a streetlamp two apartment buildings over. Probably a Betty. When Van rubbed his temples, she turned and smiled at us.
I nodded. “Power of persuasion.”
“Straight — ”
“Up,” I interrupted. I’d felt his vibe well enough to finish his…
“Sentences,” Van said aloud.
“How’d you – ?” I asked.
“Intuition. No shine-o-la, Sherlock: van buyers wield mystical influences.”
I remembered a horror flick where a portraitist imprisons the souls of his subjects in his murials, I mean paintings.
“Hollywood only tells half the van-buyer story, Holmes.” He smiled. Despite the night’s balminess, a glint of fangs drove a shiver up my spine.
No small feat, I feared him more than I feared Corporate’s underwriters. I swigged more malt beverage, dashed off the remaining pre-printed boxes and said, “Sign these forms, write Insure-A-Lot a $100 deposit check, and you’re insured.”
“For one conversion van to be driven by one Van Helsen up to twenty thousand miles per year; covered for liability, towing and uninsured motorist; complete replacement in the event of impaling by tree, post or wooden pole.”
“Straight…” said Van.
“Up,” I said, nervously.
I took my half-can of Coors to go.
The blonde two apartment buildings over? Not a Betty. A Victoria. Taurus. Classy enough to act impressed I’d insured a van buyer for big stakes, impalement by big stakes.
Sean Jones says: “When I read other authors’ bios, they talk about their cats. I don’t have any and I wonder if other authors really do. After all, they’re creators of fiction. Let me tell you about my cats. Jasmine is black Siamese with green eyes and she loves to scamper on the back porch and catch moths in the moonlight. Thor is a tabby who sleeps all day, ironically through thunderstorms. Then, there’s Penelope, a Persian…”