The six of us sat waiting, eyes still puffy and blurred from too little sleep. It was 5:50am on a Thursday. The interior of the van was beginning to swelter in Houston’s late summer heat. The air outside was already heavy and wet and sunrise was still an hour away. Slouching in my second row seat, I sipped my coffee and wished for a pair of baggy sweats and a t-shirt instead of the professional attire we were all required to wear. Paul, our driver for the day, was five minutes late.
“Weren’t we supposed to leave at 5:50?” Haley asked from the back of the van. She sounded frustrated. Glancing back, I couldn’t see her in the dark, but I only gave her another minute or two before she began the awkward job of climbing over the others so she could get out and drive herself to work.
Bill studied his watch, gauging how much time he had before he started losing passengers. “Let’s give him a few more minutes,” Bill said from the van’s co-pilot seat. “We’ll leave at 5:55-ish.” Bill didn’t want to drive.
At 5:56, Paul’s truck pulled into the parking lot. We watched him through the windows as he backed into a space. A hollow bong resounded through the air.
“Well, that would be Paul hitting the guard rail. Again,” Bill quipped. Then he dissolved into big guffaws of laughter that we all caught. Paul had frequent run-ins with the guard rail.
Paul’s tall frame climbed out of his truck, dragging a briefcase with him. He slammed the door to his truck and trudged across the parking lot to the van. He jerked open the driver side door making it squeal on its hinges and settled into the pilot’s seat. Turning the ignition and throwing the van into reverse, he immediately began ranting about being unable to see the Shuttle out at Ellington field last night.
“The place was like a parking lot!” Paul raved, backing out of the space.
“That’s John’s truck behind you, Paul,” Ned warned from the rear of the van. Ned’s voice was dry, controlled, like a flight controller issuing direction to an aircraft.
Paul blew out a frustrated sigh. “Well, who parks behind a van?” he grumbled.
Since Ned had just said it was John’s truck, I assumed this to be a rhetorical question and kept silent.
“And you’re going to hit Meghan’s car on your right,” Mary remarked, sounding like a bored Bingo announcer calling out numbers at Senior’s night. Alarmed, I sat up and looked out the window. How close was he to my car? Was he really going to hit it?
“Please don’t hit my car, Paul,” I said, unable to keep a wheedling tone out of my voice. I didn’t want to enrage him further by criticizing his driving skills, but more than that I didn’t want him to hit my car.
Paul conducted an ungraceful ten point turn, all the while cursing both John and me for parking too close to the van. I settled back in my seat, ignoring the stream of foul language issuing from our driver, grateful that he had not hit either vehicle.
Vans don’t operate for long without gasoline and since no one wanted to push we decided to stop for gas. The first station we pulled into was dark, not yet open for the day. Paul growled in frustration, and then ran over the curb exiting the station’s parking lot. We passengers bounced around the back of the van, everyone tittering nervous laughter. A little further down the road, we found an open gas station.
“You better call Ed for the Pearland zip code,” Paul said, looking at Bill. The look said this was not a request; It was an order.
“I just texted him,” Bill said, avoiding Paul’s piercing stare. His eyes were on his phone’s screen as though willing the five digit number to appear. The rest of us raced to see who could Google the numbers the fastest. John shouted out a number to Paul and Ned gave him another. Paul entered one zip code, then the other before heaving a frustrated sigh and using his own credit card.
The tank failed to get a good vapor lock, and Paul became increasingly agitated. Each time the pump cut off, he hunched his shoulders and put his entire bodyweight behind forcing the pump deeper into the van’s gas tank. The sounds of the van being violated reverberated through cabin, and we all turned to watch the spectacle through the windows. The scene had the quality of a train wreck. We couldn’t look away, and some even took pictures. After the valve shut off for a third time, Paul threw his head back and rolled his eyes heavenward. From the inside of the van, we placed bets on how long this would continue before he lost it and had a man-tantrum. Some gave Paul far more credit for restraint than I did. I expected in another two shut-offs he would rip the hose from the pump, throw it on the ground and boogie all over that bad boy while the rest of us talked the police out of arresting him.
After ten more cut offs (Thanks a lot, Paul. I lost that bet.), we finally had enough gas to get us to the office. A shiny and sweaty Paul climbed back into the van. He put the vehicle into gear and headed for the I-45 feeder. Relaxing after the excitement, I took another sip of coffee. Paul, still distracted by his war with the gas pump, chose that moment to go over the curb leaving the gas station. Everyone screamed. I screamed, too, adding a surprised and painful “oh shit!”. The impact had sent hot coffee splashing out of my travel mug and down the inside of one leg. I frantically brushed at the wet patch on my pants trying to dispel the heat. Glaring at the back of Paul’s head, I snapped closed the lid on my travel mug, not trusting his driving enough to take another drink until he had calmed down. To his credit, Paul did apologize, and he really sounded sorry. Still, I kept my mug closed until we were on the freeway—with no curbs in sight.
Our commute underway, Paul griped from the driver’s seat that every other driver in Houston had learned his trick of sticking to the feeder roads to skirt traffic on I-45. Bill nodded and agreed in the appropriate places. I suspected he was scared to disagree. Everyone else fell asleep, lulled by the familiarity of the van and the rhythm of the road.
Me? I took notes…
Just another day in the van.