he vans arrived on a humid evening in the foggy season. One by one they took their stations: at a green spit of land between the salt-pans and the velodrome where, until late every year, illicit but so-far-tolerated gardeners nurse zucchini, eggplants, green and yellow peppers, basil, and tomatoes, dressing them, staking them, always watering them; at the plaza with the statues of the Four Defenders where students from the High School for Beaux Arts go to argue and to gossip; at the junction of Music Street and Fortitude Avenue where vendors crouch on dirty blankets, peddling surplus compasses, high-peaked military caps, and tarnished medals; at the rancid blocks by the old fish market where gutters, scalers, porters, and their children sleep as best they can; at the square on Sassid Hill where wind glides through umbrella pines and nursemaids call their well-scrubbed charges in for lemonade and butter cookies; at the little row of booths outside the Cabmen's Guild where drivers grab their scalding coffee; at the esplanade on Sunrise Prospect, between the north and south buildings of the Ministry of Health, where guardsmen scatter gravel and civilians rake it back. In all, the vans chose seven places in the city.
Because they came when everyone was heading home for supper, and came besides in foggy season, no one paid attention. In a city five miles long and, at its narrowest, three miles broad, who was going to bother about seven extra vans? Models, especially, of a decent middle age, neither offensively fancy nor offensively cheap? Even the grime on them was moderate: enough to blend with the background, not quite enough for the words fingered in by daring kids (the traditional WASH ME and FUCK OFF) to be conspicuous. In a city where you can tell a florist's van by its painted sprays of jacaranda or a van from the sausage factory by its jolly pigs with knives and forks, these recent arrivals bore no advertisement or owner's name. Stranger still, the blacked-out rear windows made it impossible to peek inside.
Because they go everywhere, like flies in early summer, the motorcycle couriers were the first to notice them--notice, that is, a pattern of standing right by NO PARKING signs, day after day, without a single ticket pasted on their slightly grimy windshields. Despite the grime, the drivers of these vans had influence.
No one ever saw the drivers. The only hints of human life, if human hints they were, came from the darkened cargo space behind the empty seats. For the first few days, the level was always low--only the suspicion of a sound, like the very distant whistle of a train. They might have been recordings, they might have come from animals or tortured metal; the shrieklike, moanlike noises were loud enough to slow commuters hurrying to their work but not intelligible enough to stop them dead. As though unsure of what they heard, they walked by with the faces of tourists passing a cache of decomposing crabs. Knocking on the sides of the van--this happened opposite the High School for Beaux Arts, whose students do not lack imagination--produced a knocking in return, slow, deliberate, like the measured thumps that mark the acts of a French play. Rocking the van--that happened when the gutters, the scalers, and the porters suspected they were being spied upon--intensified the shrieks and moans and brought out the civic police, snappy in their dove-gray uniforms. The officers showed impressive muscularity and dedication in chasing down suspicious market workers but no interest whatsoever in vans that screamed.
Van--such a little, homely word, speaking of bread and newspapers more than of soldiers and the future. Did it occur in the early weeks that those in charge of children--parents, grandparents, older sisters and brothers, a nursemaid or two--warned them about a nearby van, even, for some petty lie, some shouting out of turn, some undone shoelace, threatened them with it, told them that there, down the street, stood the nemesis of bad behavior? Surely that occurred, and those who told such cautionary tales made fiction out of truth?
Laurence Davies' short shorts have appeared in The Diagram, StoryQuarterly, Natural Bridge, Mystic River, The Mammoth Book, and others.
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