Business as Usual: Vic takes a strange late-night ride

Business as Usual
Cabbie Vic Pasternak returns with part four of his 12-part storytelling series. — illustration by Josh Carroll

Sundays blow gentler breezes around the taxi shack, the pace slow and steady, our money for easy work. People don’t much fuck around on Sundays, like it’s a rule.

With his back to me, Captain Jerry Nicodemus mans the dispatch helm as if bent to an organ. At his left, our two main phone lines plus ashtray and smokes. At right, the business radio and desk mic, plus a sideline in reserve. His Levi’s hang like drapes and nicotine stains his fingers; his eyes are pursed as if from combat the glow of which has faded. Such is the veneer of his 30 years in the chair.

Mainline rings and he answers, flowing into his dispatcher’s mantra: “Where are you? … Going where? … How many passengers? … ”

Between his phones is a tilted wooden cubby like two ice-cube trays slapped to sides. Each driver is given two slots, one for a badge and another below for stowing call tickets. As Jerry sucks calls off the phones, he writes orders on tickets and then radios the call to the next driver in rotation, sticking the ticket in its right place.

Sounds like an easy juggle but it’s not.

“So you don’t need a taxi, ma’am? … We’ll carry packages for you, but we don’t do that sort of thing.”

Ringing off, he says: “She wanted an ‘escort,’ like she called it.”

The old man works every Sunday for his observation of a Friday sabbath at his temple, a triple-offshoot from Church of God Int’l. They speak in tongues, craft rationales for burning the Quran, and believe the earth’s age to be 6,000 years. Or so I’ve gleaned from the mind-blowing newsletters cycled into our other shop literature. Me and the old man get along fine because we share the understanding that I am irredeemable. We don’t talk Jesus or we don’t talk at all.

Mainline rings and he runs his mantra all over again.

When he rings off this time, he holds the ticket out at me and says, “You ain’t up in rotation but this’n’s for a man of your caliber.”

The ticket shows the address of our local massage parlor.

“Go to Deli Mart 5 and get a packet of snack crackers and bring them there.”

“Snack crackers?”

“Regular snack crackers, ‘orange with the cheese,’ she said.”

“Just one packet of snack crackers?”

“Hookers get munchies too, kiddo. But she’s also got a call for you there so move ass.”

So I go to D-5, buy the crackers, then drive over to the redhouse and get out to pound on the door. KNOCK HARD, somebody has Sharpied over the knob.

But here I get spooked by a slick coming out of the shadows.

“You my taxi?”

This must be my other call, a dude throwing lonesome airs.

“Hang on, buddy. I got snack crackers to give the lady.”

Inside the redhouse—for enquiring minds wanting to know—is a dentist’s waiting room on low lighting. A couch, potted peacock feathers in the corner, a small counter up front for the till, and a short hallway marked by four numbered doors. The door on the john hangs open at the end and its toilet hisses.

The lady of the house must have heard me for she appears out of Door #3 with two brassy guys in tow. She’s a farmgirl in citygirl makeup and a belly shirt that shows black hairs growing on her navel.

“This must be our cabbie,” says one of the guys.

“And you get my snack crackers, Vicky?”

She always calls me Vicky. Paying with a five, she tells me to keep the change while the two guys give her three c-notes and tell her the same.

Back at my taxi, I see Lonesome Dude has decided I’m his cab after all and so occupies the front seat. The brassy guys complain the cab belongs to them but I smooth the waves and figure out they’re all going the same direction, the guys to a hotel in Coralville and Lonesome Dude to a farm out yonder.

It’s a weird trip. Lonesome Dude chews a lip while the two in back brag about riding motorcycles across country. They aren’t for-real bikers, instead wearing Eddie Bauer leathers and puffing Cohibas, the kind of rich white assholes that confuse Eric Clapton for a legendary bluesman.

Lonesome Dude doesn’t like them either. He grinds boot heels into the mat and squeezes his hands on his seat, popping eyes like his head is ready to explode.

The two in back roll on, sniggering, “When she took that negligee off, or whatever it was—fuck me,” the other blowing a fart through his lips before they both burst laughing.

“I can smell her ass on my hand.”

“Your hand smells like my balls.”

I draw into their hotel where the guy paying me says to keep the change. Then he walks off leaving the door hang open so I scream wheels out of there and let inertia shut the door.

Lonesome asks, “Can I smoke?”

We both light up and drive into the country, jumping on the gravel out toward Cosgrove, rolling along without speaking and Lonesome staring hard out the window like he’s hoping to burn a hole in the sky with his eyes.

He lives on a farm with its barn built against the road and the yard parked with haycarts and skidloaders. The farmhouse is gothic dark and now two dogs come barking despite their master hollering at them to quit.

Lonesome climbs out to pay his fare and to tip me a fin. Then he bends to look at me.

“She ain’t coming home tonight.”

“Who ain’t?”

“The bitch what used to live here.”

He points back toward town, back toward the redhouse, and I know who he means. Lonesome can’t burn a hole in the sky with his eyes but his few words have sucked the wind out of me.

“It’s tonight I find out how she’s been filling the fridge. Told me she was working at a all-night dry cleaner, now how about that.”

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.

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