The Lessons Learned From Dewayne Palmer’s Van

To this day, on the rare occasion I actually see one, I can point out a 1978 Ford E350 Quadravan without hesitation.

I spent a good chunk of the first eighteen years of my life staring at one across the street. Of course, this particular van had lost the majority of its paint by the time I first laid eyes upon it. Rust covered the bulk of the exterior, and it always came to life with a dry, tired kind of wheeze, so loud you could hear it no matter where you stood on the block.

If I close my eyes right now I can feel the humid heat of a summer evening when the majority of those on my block gathered around the back of Dewayne Palmer’s E350 to watch the police pull his corpse out of it. I managed to get there before the ambulance, and before anyone had a chance to cover up the worst of it.

Lit only by a grime covered streetlight, I could still make out Dewayne’s face in the darkness of the van, his eyes closed, mouth partially open, the decay from over three weeks inside a hot van in the summer making him look a lot older. I never knew Dewayne’s exact age, but I think it’s safe to guess forty-one or so, since that’s how old my own father was at the time, standing next to me as a police officer threw a blanket over Dewayne.

He hadn’t officially lived on our small block of homes. Dewayne lived out of the very van he ended his life in, coming by our area only when he needed either money or some food. Charley Clay lived right across the street from us, an old friend of Dewayne’s from high school.

Everyone knew when Dewayne approached, his arrival clear in the backfire of his aging van and the light haze it created for about a mile behind it. The street in front of our home could barely handle two cars at once. When Dewayne came calling people had to stop and let others pass by if two people wanted to go down the street at the same time.

No one could get by the slew of cars and people crowding close to Dewayne’s van when they pulled his corpse out. Some of us had been hanging around for three hours by that point. The sun had set completely. The sound of hands smacking against arms to kill mosquitoes along with the sharp crackle of the police radios joined the hum of a normal summer night.

I sat on the curb with Josh Stefanelli and a few of the others from my graduating high school class. Most of the others were there only for the excitement of death. They hadn’t spent the years of their youth staring at the rusted over van. They never had their mothers pull them abruptly towards the window each time they disobeyed a rule or brought home a report card filled with Cs so they could be shown the E350, a symbol of Dewayne and human failure.

“Is that what you want to be someday?” my mother said to me on so many different occasions, finger thrust towards the van. “That’s where you end up if you don’t study. Do you want us to go over there and talk to him?”

In elementary school I always quickly shook my head at the suggestion. I’d later understand the threat held no weight, because my mom avoided Dewayne far more than I. My dad confided to me once the dislike my mom had felt for Dewayne even back in high school, and had loathed the few occasion my father hung around him.

Each time the familiar bang of his van made us jump she would give my father a venomous smile reserved for matters involving Dewayne and tell him once more, “I told you about him. If you and Charley had just listened to me he wouldn’t be coming around our neighborhood.”

Josh nudged my side and silently pointed towards the open van and the police officers getting out with the bags of pot in their hands. The sight didn’t shock us, and when I glanced over at my father, standing closer to our home watching the same scene, I didn’t see a hint of surprise in his features.

Most of us avoided Dewayne’s van in our youth simply because of the smell. Not all of it came from what we would later recognize as marijuana (even after seeing the bags taken from his van I wouldn’t draw a connection between the drug and the smell from my youth until two years later when handed a joint at a party, and I was hit by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia after the first drag), but rather due to the mixture of rotting food and human filth his van exuded.

Dewayne rarely interacted with any of us children. I witnessed Jacob Tovias across the street yelling at Dewayne once after the man had attempted to strike up a conversation with Travis, Jacob’s seven-year-old son. Jacob lived next door to Charley, and during the weeks Dewayne was around Travis rarely got to play in the front yard.

“Why does he come here?” I asked my mother after witnessing the sight, perplexed by Dewayne’s presence.

“It’s complicated,” she told me, but never bothered to elaborate.

By around eleven the ambulance had rolled out with Dewayne’s corpse. A lot of the police had left as well, the remaining few waiting for the tow truck to remove Dewayne’s van.

A few of us got up the nerve to move a little closer to the open doors of the van. We could see the red stains on the carpet. Robert Holtz concluded it was blood. “He slit his wrists, you know,” he whispered, mimed the action itself to freak out the few girls who joined us.

This information came from Eddie Moeder. He lived on the other side of Charley and first pulled open those back doors to see Dewayne dead across the floor of his van. “Look over there and you can see Mr. Moeder’s vomit near the back of the van,” Robert said, and we all strained our necks to see the dried puddle of what had once been inside of Mr. Moeder’s stomach.

We tried to put into words what the smell must’ve been like. The van hadn’t been locked. Mr. Moeder had simply been the first to lose his patience and see what had become of Dewayne. A deep stink had hung around the van for a good two weeks before the doors opened and Mr. Moeder threw up, but the smell alone hadn’t been enough to make anyone worry.

No one showed any sign of worry at all during the lead up to the discovery. All I heard was a growing desire to confront Dewayne and get him to leave. “He needs to get another job,” I would overhear people say.

Often these statements would be framed with a claim of helping Dewayne. The past had taught me people merely wanted him gone so they wouldn’t have to stare at the van anymore.

Less than a week before the discovery I heard our neighbor Mrs. Verch telling my mom she’d already canceled a planned party because of Dewayne’s presence. “You can smell him from over here.”

The tow truck showed up at midnight. I lingered for longer than the others to see it vanish down the street into the darkness.

They held a funeral for Dewayne four days later. Most of the people in our area, including my parents, attended. Thankfully they held the service inside and out of the fierce heat that day. People filed in slowly and methodically, no real mark of sadness or loss noticeable in any of them.

A few of them gave speeches, mainly about Dewayne in his youth. “He liked to do things his own way,” my own father said. “Society isn’t particularly kind to people like Dwayne, but that’s a problem he won’t have to deal with anymore.”

Once the service ended no one spoke about Dewayne even though his body remained in the back of the room. I avoided going near it, acted as if I didn’t care, and in a way I honestly didn’t, not about the person Dwayne had been.

Most of the summer involved preparations for college. I’d been accepted in the spring, even gotten a few scholarships to help me along.

I think the scholarships in particular drove me to scale the fence of the scrap yard at two in the morning in late July. Greg Nalty’s father junked cars for a living, and through Greg I learned about Dewayne’s van. It didn’t take me long to find it in the large scrap yard, almost drawn to the rusted over vehicle.

I let the wave of heat and foul smelling air wash over me as I opened the back door in the darkness of the night, saw just briefly Dwayne’s corpse on the thin carpet soaked with blood.

I crawled inside, the first time I’d ever been inside of Dewayne’s van before. The overhead light still worked. With the doors shut sweat quickly soaked my shirt and hair, but I didn’t bother opening a window, or even avoid the remaining stench. I took it all in, I guess to experience what it must’ve been like to be Dwayne.

I took out a bottle of whiskey I’d managed to swipe from my father. The brand wasn’t the same as all those empty bottles we found around Dewayne’s van, but I didn’t have much else to choose from.

I lifted my arm to see red soaked into the seat beside me, and wondered if this was where Dewayne had done the deed. Something stuck up just a little from the base of the seat. I pulled loose the old, wrinkled porno magazine, got a laugh, and flipped absently through its yellowed pages before putting it back.

No one ever found out about my trip out to the E350 before Mr. Nalty crushed it three days later. I can only imagine what my mom would’ve thought had she known I’d trespassed.

The act had felt needed; to accept the lessons Dewayne had taught me without ever trying. I’d watched the man’s decent as my own life began to rise, due in no small part to his very influence. Seeing him everyday made me try harder than I think I would’ve been capable of, just so I’d never be like him.

I felt I owed him a debt I had no means of repaying. I couldn’t even thank him for it. Sure, my mom might’ve been the one to use him for that very purpose, but she only could because of who Dewayne had been.

I went to the van to do what I hadn’t had the guts to do at Dewayne’s funeral: give him my last respects. I poured the rest of the bottle of whiskey onto the floor of the van before I slammed the doors shut.

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