The Old Man and the Van
Marco and BB first noticed the ancient blue Pontiac minivan parked by the vacant lot on their quiet street in mid-August. Despite its age and dents, it was clean and seemed well maintained. On some days the old man who owned it would drive off, but then would always come back to the same spot later in the day where it would remain parked through the night. On other days he would unload an old black bicycle from the back of the van and leave it parked while he rode off on the bike, to return before dark.
After a week, Marco and BB decided that the old man must be sleeping in the van. Marco’s actual name was Marcus, but BB began to call him Marco after a game of Marco Polo, and the nickname stuck. And BB’s name? On the playground in fourth grade, Johnson called out to BB, real name Boswell Butte, ‘Hey Butte, you got a big butt,’ which got a big laugh. But that also stuck, and although it was later shortened to BB, everyone knew what it stood for.
Marco convinced BB to tell his dad of their suspicions since the Buttes lived on the street and Marco’s home was a street over. The boys didn’t want the old man to be chased away; they were just curious about him, but were too shy to speak to him themselves. So on a Friday after work, Mr. Butte walked over to the car, keeping a smile on his face as he approached it. After all, these days with all the guns floating around and so many of the homeless—if indeed that was the case for the old man—with some sort of psychological problem, Mr. Butte did not want to come across as threatening. The old man looked up as BB’s dad approached while BB watched from his front steps, but he could not hear what was being said. After a while, the man got out of the van and stood leaning against it as they continued to talk; then they shook hands and BB’s dad waved goodbye as he walked home.
BB was all ears as his dad filled in BB’s mom and him about what he’d learned. Yes, the old man—Carl Herman—was living in the van. He’d lost his wife and then his home, had no immediate family, and was living on social security. He was 84 and no, he did not appear dangerous. He seemed quite sane, just down on his luck. Yes, the van, from what he could see, was pretty neat, Carl’s clothes looked clean, and no, he did not smell. BB’s dad was for leaving him alone and letting him park there. After all, he had to live somewhere and this street was a lot safer for an old guy then many other places. And besides, he was quiet, wasn’t bothering anyone and wasn’t being a nuisance. BB’s mom was dubious at first, but came around after BB’s dad said that he would talk to the other neighbors and let them know about Carl. BB felt a little thrilled, to have an actual homeless person on their street. Wait till I tell Marco.
The boys began to wave at Carl when they passed on their bikes and he waved back and, after a few days, BB felt bold enough to add hello to which Carl replied. Carl was happy that the boys were curious and friendly. He felt that it was a sign that he was at least tolerated on the street and that he most likely would not be reported to the police as a vagrant. BB’s mom did caution the boys not to get too friendly with Mr. Herman and certainly not to get in his van if he offered them a ride, or to accept any food or drink from him.
BB thought that living in a car must be kind of like camping out in a tent. It must be fun in a way. You could just go set up anywhere you wanted to. He told Marco and Marco said why don’t we just ask him what it’s like. They stopped by after school and found Carl sitting on a folding camp stool, the curb side of the van in the shade, peeling an apple. No he said, he lived in the van because he had to. He would much rather still be living in the small house that he used to have, but he’d lost it and the van was all he had left. You just do what you have to do. Carl offered them a slice of the apple and while BB, mindful of his mother’s words politely declined, Marco accepted. The old man told them he was glad they stopped by to talk and to feel free to do so any time he was in. He didn’t have too many social contacts and was happy that the boys felt comfortable with him, since he had no grandchildren or children of his own.
The boys began to stop by regularly when they didn’t have other things to do; baseball practice didn’t start till after the new year. They were curious about his life and Carl was quite happy to answer their questions. It felt good that some people actually wanted to hear about him. Had he been in the Great War that they were studying in history class? No he was too young for that war, but he’d been in the Korean War but never actually fought because he was in the quartermasters, which he had to explain. After the war he worked in mostly sales jobs, the last being with a Pontiac dealer (he had to explain about Pontiacs) until the company went out of business and no one would hire him because he was too old. Yes, he and his wife wanted children, but couldn’t. And then she died and then he lost their house when the landlord raised the rent. And so now he was their neighbor. Carl was quite open to questions such as about his meals—some prepared at the beach park, some fast foods; about where he bathed—at the beach showers, and he used restrooms that were open to the public. All this information BB and Marco repeated to their families. BB’s mom became less concerned about Carl and perhaps even began to worry a little about him. She began to send BB over with left overs on paper plates after dinner sometimes.
When October arrived, BB told Carl that the houses on the street usually decorated for Halloween and excitedly described what decorations the Buttes were planning. Carl thought about what he should do. He didn’t want to be empty handed if any trick or treaters knocked on his windshield—after all, he didn’t need any tricks played on him. So he bought a bag of miniature candies just in case. And a light-up plastic jack o’lantern that he thought would look fitting on his roof. On Halloween, he watched the parents with younger children go by without approaching his van. Guess the parents are being careful about me, he thought, feeling a bit sad that he was still not totally trusted. But later as the evening got darker, the older kids began making their rounds. BB and Marco had told their friends about Mr. Herman, and so some of them approached yelling trick or treat. He had his bag of candy ready to dole out. They said they liked his jack o’ lantern. He recognized BB and Marco because they had mentioned how they would be costumed. “Wait,” he said, “I’ve saved these for you” and he handed them each a supersized candy bar. Big score!
At Thanksgiving, BB’s mom gave BB a paper tray of turkey, stuffing, yams, and a slice of pumpkin pie to bring to Carl before they sat down to their own dinner. Carl was touched to the point of tears when BB said he couldn’t stay and talk because they hadn’t had their dinner yet. He wasn’t getting leftovers, he was being given the first serving!
To show his gratitude for their kindness, Carl bought a small pot of poinsettias for Christmas and walked over and left it on the Butte’s steps with a note of thanks. Later, BB’s father walked back with BB and thanked Carl for his thoughtfulness but assured him that he really didn’t need to do that, that they were happy to share what they had with him. After all, though he didn’t say it to avoid embarrassing Carl, social security payments were not that generous.
It was in January that Carl rode off on his bicycle one morning but did not return. Nor did he return the next day. BB pressed his father to find out what had happened to him. But calls to the police produced no information because BB’s father was not a relative. There was a short item in the paper that an elderly man on a bicycle had been struck by a car and taken in serious condition to the county hospital. But again, hospital policy prevented the release of any information except to relatives. Finally there was short news item weeks later that the old man, now identified as Carl Herman had died of his injuries and efforts were being made to contact any relatives. BB and Marco were saddened when Mr. Butte told them the news. They asked what would happen to him because he didn’t have any relatives. None that we know of replied Mr. Butte, but maybe they will be able to find one he didn’t tell you about. But what will they do if they don’t find anyone? Then the city will bury his ashes in a field where there are other unclaimed bodies. That made BB feel even worse.
The van sat in its usual spot getting more dusty until one afternoon a tow truck arrived to take it away. The boys asked where the truck was going. The city holds auto auctions for abandoned cars and if no one buys them then they are sold for scrap metal. That seemed the final sad finale.
Baseball season arrived and the boys got busy with that but still remembered their elderly lost friend. He told us he’d come to our games, BB said to Marco wistfully. Summer was followed by fall and October. Marco told BB that he wasn’t going to trick-or-treat on Halloween this year. That they were now teens—though barely—and it was time to drop the kid stuff. Why don’t we just make this our last year, replied BB. Marco agreed. Okay, one last time. But we won’t really costume up—just a mask or bandana with regular shirts.
On Halloween night, they began their rounds as they usually did in the more distant areas of their neighborhood, to finish at BB’s home where they would sort their loot. More than one household commented on their lack of costume effort and implied that they were just big kids cashing in on free candy. True.
Later that night when they arrived back at BB’s, the boys were startled to see a Pontiac SUV parked in Mr. Herman’s spot. It was hard to tell the color in the dark. “You told me he died,” said Marco. “And we saw his car towed away.”
“That’s why my dad said he saw in the news. Maybe the van was bought by someone who brought it here,” replied BB. “Just a coincidence.”
“Look, it even has a jack o’ lantern on its roof just like Carl had,” Marco pointed out. “You wanna go see?”
“Sure,” said BB with more confidence than he felt.
The boys could see a figure behind the steering wheel, but couldn’t make out its face and they slowed up, then stopped. A familiar voice softly called out, “Happy Halloween, BB and Marco. Come on over.” They were ready to bolt, but Carl said again, “Don’t be scared, I’m quite harmless. Come over.”
Scared? No they weren’t scared, so they slowly approached and then were overjoyed to see that it was Carl in the car. “Carl, we heard you were dead,” BB exclaimed.
“As you can see, here I am,” Carl replied. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“And your car was towed away,” Marco added.
“And yet, here we both are,” Carl replied with a large smile. “How have you boys been?”
“Me and Marco are fine, but are you okay now?”
“Never felt better. But tell me about yourselves.”
So they did. It was getting late and finally they told Carl that they had to go in since tomorrow was a school day; that they were so happy that he wasn’t dead and had come back.
“Here boys, it was great to see you again,” and he handed them each a super-sized candy bar. “Happy Halloween.”
They went into BB’s home to sort the candy as they usually did, and excitedly told his parents that Mr. Herman was back. Mr. Butte went to the front door to see for himself. “The van’s gone,” he said on returning.
“He probably went somewhere else,” said BB, still going through his candy. BB’s father and mother looked at each other. After Marco left, BB put the sack of candy on his dresser, washed, then brushed his teeth, and changed for bed. In the morning he checked his candies again before going to school. But the super-sized candy bar was gone.