Business As Usual: The Stranger

Business as Usual
Illustration by Josh Carroll

Taxi Driver Vic Pasternak is back with another episode of “Business as Usual,” a 12-part storytelling series. This edition is an excerpt from ‘All the Help You Need,’ coming soon from Slow Collision Press.

Captain Jerry Nicodemus leans on the helm looking at the slow clock, and I hang around the taxi shack looking to cherry-pick calls, just like the rest of us—Leon Bath, Quiet Chuck and the skinny greenhorn staring from the chair pulled beside the dispatch desk.

Fat Leon digs a fat elbow in my ribs and asks about my summer vacation. “So what happened to Colorado?”

“It didn’t flood, if that’s what you mean.”

He tips his chins at me. “Bring back any weed?”

Nothing’s changed around here but the calendar and a few fresh faces. I look through the venetians out into the parking yard and see a dude creeping around the door, smoking and scratching at his 15-day beard. This was the same guy I’d seen hanging around the dumpsters upon pulling into the lot. Next, he disappears from the window, and I hear him bang through the service door into the garage. Then the door from the garage swings into the office.

The creeper breezes in like he’s a regular of the club. He’s broad-shouldered but too tall to be anything but lanky, with long arms, hands, fingers. Greasy jeans hang off his butt under an outsized t-shirt, and he wears a cap twisted to the side. He looks like the kind of hitchhiker that would eat your brains.

Meanwhile, a flurry of phone calls. The old man dispatches Leon to K-Mart and Quiet Chuck to pick up the Vine. The hobo snoops about the room and rubs two quarters for everybody to look at. “Anybody got a cigarette, preferably an American Spirit?”

“I smoke menthols,” Leon says on his way out the door.

“I got USA Golds, if’n you want,” says Jerry.

I say, “Lucky bitch gets a preference?”

But Quiet Chuck offers his cigarettes as does the rookie. The creeper peels a square out of Chuck’s pack and Chuck won’t take the 50 cents.

“Make that son-bitch pay,” I growl at Chuck, and at the stranger: “Hobos keep it outside.”

I glare at the creeper and the creeper looks back at me a little dumbfounded.

Hobos and junkies make camp behind our yard in the high grass on the river’s edge. I can only assume this dude is one of them.

“I says the hobo camp’s out back, down on the river. Now scram.”

I clap at him twice, chop-chop.

The stranger pats Quiet Chuck on the shoulder. “Thanks for the cigarette, bubba.”

Then Quiet Chuck leaves for his call and the creeper goes back into the garage as the old man bursts laughing until he’s whooping with a hand over his mouth. “Vic Pasternak, that ain’t no hobo. Haw haw, that’s Billy!”

“That guy’s a cab driver? He’s one of our drivers?”

Captain Jerry whoops and whoops until he fires up a fresh smoke.

The stranger meanwhile returns from the garage brandishing a bottle of Windex and looking at me with flat, cold, crazy eyes. He moves into the room lifting the Windex bottle like he’s going to spray me, and I whiff a peculiar funk from his clothes, like he’s been playing out in floodwater. Or shitting his pants.

He points the nozzle at a newspaper folded beside me on the couch. “You using that?”

“It ain’t mine.”

“I’ma use it for my windows then,” he says, talking like a southern boy but I can’t place where from. His drawl is spiked with brass notes, like N’awlins by way of Buffalo, NY. “Washing windows with newspapers makes’m shine like they wasn’t there, bubba.”

He grins sideways like the ShamWow Man, then sallies out to sparkle his windows with yesterday’s news.

I get off the couch and over to the schedule. “What’s that creep’s name?”

“Billy Kinross,” replies Jerry. “You remember Frank Boulot? Drunk Frank? It’s his nephew.”

This town has more than one Drunk Frank, but there’s only one Billy K. on our schedule. Finding where my name is penciled in, I see we’re set to work the same shifts all week.

The old man throws the rookie out of the office and waves me into the chair beside his desk. I ignore his offer and return to the window instead. I split the venetians and peer into the parking yard, watching the creeper wipe down the glass of his taxi with newspaper, stretching across the dash to get the whole of it.

Taxi drivers are scorned everywhere, unfairly and fairly. This business draws survivor types and other outcasts, the thrill-seekers among us, the authority doubters and haunted souls, the dopes that think they’re making real money, street rats that don’t give a fuck, musicians, alien hunters, drug addicts, single dads, the chronically mentally ill and felons. Drivers don’t always stick around, good and bad. Our work cooks up a strange gumbo and those of us remaining grind and grow on each other to become something like comrades-in-arms. Or lifers among a proud and highly dysfunctional family. When the new rookie quits, some fool will volunteer to replace him. Newbies always find their way here. As do the d-bags that’ve been previously shit-canned and the dopes that can’t get work anywhere else, or won’t.

But this window washer doesn’t look like one of our tribe.

Jerry shifts to a low voice: “Billy’s working to get back to the righter side of the pasture. He’s been out for a bit.”

“Out of where? Prison? This’s who we’re hiring these days?”

“We always hired jailbirds,” Jerry says like he’s letting me in on a secret. “And don’t be smart. I got him the job and he’s doing fine. The Christ has personally asked that I shepherd Billy toward the righter ways.”

We might call him Jerry Nicodemus, our Captain, but townfolk call him Preacher, especially behind his back. “I think Jesus is asking you to have a little heart, Vic Pasternak. Be nice to Billy as some kind of favor to me. You’d see he’s the salt of the earth if you’d just have a little heart.”

Billy waves at us from outside the venetians. Then he moseyes into to his cab and makes a big circle driving out of the lot. I watch the whole show from the window and he stares back at me as he goes.

“I got a little heart all right,” I tell the old man. “And I don’t like that guy.”

Vic Pasternak has been driving a taxi in Illinois City, Ohio, for over a decade, ruining his chances for a solid career and shortening his lifespan. He enjoys fishing, preying, chainsawing and long walks alone.

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