It’s Wednesday after shift change and relief runs late for our dispatcher, Captain Jerry Nicodemus. The big clock turns meanwhile as phones ring electric and the old man takes orders for morning, the rest of us waiting to be assigned to our next missions—me, Leon Bath, Chuck Bowden buried in his smartphone and a skinny greenhorn staring at us from the chair pulled next to the dispatch desk.
I’d have parked downtown but the old man tends to forget faces not in front of him, which is why we’re all here in the shack, sweating and breathing each others’ fumes. Fifty drivers make our roster and we never close. That’s four to 14 taxis per shift plus a dispatcher with two 12-hour shifts running seven days a week going on forever. We varnish this place with the grease of life, tromping in from out with mud on boots, food in hand, wearing shredded lettuce and engine oil, blowing smoke and complaining the cab outside reeks like something died in it.
Leon Bath, who needs one, leans a fart from his enormous ass and barks laughing, “Maybe it was me, kerist!”
I had told them I was never coming back. But here I am.
He digs a fat elbow in my side: “So what the fuck?”
“This is where I got kicked off the Greyhound.”
“We figured you quit for good,” adds the old man, ragging me.
“It’s different this time,” I tell them. “This time I have plans.”
Go away half a year and everyone rolls their eyes as if you’ve been sleeping in the garage. In Colorado I’d worked harder and longer and for half the money than I had originally been led to believe. That said, five straps of 50s in a brown bank band isn’t a total bust. Decent money but my plans need more.
The greenhorn keeps staring until I snap: “What the fuck?”
Jerry intervenes to make the intros: “This here’s the new #12.”
The skinny kid adds, “My name’s Colby.”
“He who goes through life named after a cheese,” says Leon as he blows more gas.
“Hi, #12,” I say. “I’m Two-Oh-Two. Quit fucking staring at me.”
“Any other advice?”
The kid’s got balls but smiling isn’t part of his program. Bony arms, pencil-neck, big doe eyes that further tip off his lack of humor.
“‘I wanted her to love me, dude,’” I advise him in a whining voice, quoting his predecessor, the old #12. “You ever catch yourself saying that, stop what you’re doing and quit.”
I let Captain Jerry explain that the old #12 had stabbed a dude at request of a mutual girlfriend, this running foremost among other factors that together explain why Old #12 was a piss-poor cabdriver yet such a passionate man.
As it likewise turns out, not everyone cursed to drive a cab is cut out for it. Driving 12 hours overnight every night takes a lonesome kind of endurance, and never mind moxie for driving, quick math, remediation and stumping about so that nobody thinks it’s a good idea to cut your throat.
The new #12 looks like he hasn’t that kind of brass, and I give him three weeks before he quits.
The old man asks me: “How’s your little girl?”
It’s the weirdoes and strangers around here why I don’t mix this work with my family. I reply at last, “She’s good.”
“And how’s about her mama?”
“Like I said, I need money to hire a lawyer.”
“You never said that.”
“I didn’t? Well, that’s the story anyhow.”
The sideline rings and Jerry answers, listening with disbelief and grinning. Next the old man looks at me.
“Dr. Bob’s at Sturgis Corner,” he says, still on the phone, “You want to make 50 bucks for your lawyer?”
Minutes later, I swerve into the carwash and see our van parked in the last bay.
Dr. Bob is our zen master on overnights, keeping ever-cool in a world intent on provoking him. He sweats like a horse, hair in a ponytail, hands covered in surgical gloves as he blows the pressure hose over floor carpets hanging on the wall.
“The dude is huge,” he says, quitting the hose to give me the what’s what. “He promised not to blow and not believing him I put him up front. I was pulling over when he maneuvered inexplicably toward the rear of the cabin.”
“Dead in the fire fumbling for an exit.”
“Something like that. Next, he exploded.”
Dr. Bob drags aside the portside door like revealing a crime scene.
The dude in question is a moose bigger than Leon Bath wedged between the captain’s and rear bench, an island of comatose flesh rising from a sea of predigested beer and barbeque sauce, wild deltas of bitted rib, red mud, blond carpet.
“The plan is to clean up and get him home.”
I suggest involving other authorities.
“Is he a Friend of the Company, or what?”
“Friend of a friend. I told him it’s this or jail and he put cash in my hand. There’s 50 in it for you. Want gloves?”
Hey kids, here’s a tip: When going the extra mile, always get cash up front. Be like Dr. Bob.
So we climb inside where everything is barbeque barf and drag moose out by the shoulders, propping him against the wall. Dr. Bob next wands the van interior then wipes and scrubs and vacuums carpet, chairbacks, portside door, window, handle and floor runnels while I go after our friend with the pressure washer, driving him over until his shirt blows off and he’s batting arms and legs like a commercial roach.
When it’s all over, I feel great.
“I really got something out of that,” I tell him. “Just give me $20.”
“Stand up and get in the van,” he orders the shirtless moose.
His fare does as commanded and Dr. Bob hands me $40, calling it square.
“Welcome back to the jungle, my friend. It’s good to have a good one back.”
Vic Pasternak has been driving a taxi in Illinois City, Ohioa, for over a decade, ruining his chances for a solid career and shortening his lifespan. He enjoys fishing, preying, chainsawing and long walks alone.