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The Early Tears with Vic Pasternak: Lesson #13 — The last ride


Illustration by Josh Carroll

The first time I quit cab driving, I figured it was my last — but I ended up quitting three (technically four) times after that. I might again.

My first last shift was on a hot night in May. School was done and traffic was thin; everybody was moving out. It was time for me to go, too. Driving taxi in the summer is like selling snow-cups in the winter. I didn’t have another job but I had a pile of dough so I put in my notice and booked passage to the mountains.

Since it was my last night, Jerry Nicodemus sent me after what was in his estimation a cherry run to Cedar Rapids.

I found my fare waiting under the freeway bridge at Melrose and 218. He was a construction dude wearing blue coveralls zipped down to his belly, dirt on his face and undershirt, his hands black with roadwork.

He dropped into the front seat beside me and pointed at my radio.

“He tell you where I’m going?”

“He just said Cedar Rapids.”

The dude sounded weary. “Lindale Mall will work.”

That’d put us on the north side of CR, a good run from Iowa City.

“I know I sound like a dick but you got the cash for this?”

He went in his pocket to front me a $50. I was already spinning us around to catch the ramp onto northbound 218.

“I just got fired,” he said.

“Ah, that sucks. What happened?”

“My best friend was my boss and he just fired me. Now I don’t have a way home that I don’t got to pay for. So now what’s this make him to me? My best friend.”

“Ah, that really sucks,” I repeated myself.

As if they agreed, the skies grew suddenly dark with a storm rolling in. The sun burned hot all day and just as we crossed over the interstate, right where Hwy 218 becomes I-380, I felt the temp drop and brought my window up.

“Christ, look at that.”

We’d been driving below blue sky patched with low-bearing clouds torn wispy in the prevailing winds. As we came around these, we saw the furious engine of the storm. It came out of the NNW, a bleak wall that ran from our position northeast across Cedar Rapids and beyond, blowing in on a bias like the blade of a guillotine ten thousand feet wide. The clouds blew ocher and violet and violent green, blotting out all sun. The rain was miles off but you could see it crashing out of the clouds. We did not speak but to curse as winds belted my sedan, rocking the shit suspension.

As we came up on Hwy 30, everything seemed to stop. A sharp headwind blew cut grass from out of the median and across our lanes of traffic. Another sharp wind, this from the tail, sucked all the cut grass like a film on rewind back across the lanes and into the median.

The world seemed to stand still. We were passing through the cloverleaf at Hwy 30 as the setting sun fought to show itself beneath roiling clouds. In that eerie mellow light, I saw plastic grocery bags, tens of them, then scores, all lifted into the sky and floating a hundred feet above the ground. I didn’t know what their peculiar dance meant but it felt doomy.

Dude asked, “You hear that?”

“Yeah, I hear it.”

The funnel cloud came down hard and fast, and with deliberate force, like the fist of God. It appeared to touchdown a mile or so directly west.

I should have quit the day before.

Bringing my eyes back to the road, I saw cars ahead slowing down and then stopping altogether because, “Oh shit, a fucking tornado!”

I dropped the hammer and weaved the needle as my fare shouted oh-fucks and braced hands on the ceiling. Winds like none other buffeted the taxi.

I cut across every lane to make Exit 17, blazing down the ramp and sweeping through the stop sign onto 33rd Ave. I parked in the underpass, the first car there, followed closely by two more. We all got out and ran up the embankment to tuck ourselves under the freeway spans.

I forgot my cigarettes so of course I dashed back to the taxi. Opening the passenger door, I saw road tar plastered all over the seat. I grabbed my smokes and ran back up the embankment.

“Homebody, you got tar all over your ass.”

“My what?”

“I said looks like you sat in tar because you got it all over the seat of my taxi.”

“Oh shit; sorry.”

I shrugged. “I don’t give a fuck. I’m not driving cab anymore.”

We laughed and laughed as the sky fell dark ocher and a banshee wind howled. Our ears popped and roadside saplings bent over at their root.

“Can I get one of them smokes?”

We listened and we smoked and we waited four minutes, maybe six, until the lion of the storm either died or kept moving east.

Then I heard the wind break.

“Let’s go.”

We hustled down the embankment to the taxi and I spun us around to catch the ramp back onto northbound 380.

All the way from 33rd through the downtown curves, my taxi was the only vehicle on the roadway. I punched it full bore until the engine rattled.

My fare twisted through the AM dial hunting for tornado reports. A second funnel cloud was spotted north of the city but we were already west of it.

People nevertheless ran out from the next underpass to wave us off the road. Dude waved back at them and shouted at the shut window.

“Haha, dumb fucks! Tornado’s already gone! Woo!”

* * *

Four days later I was in Estes Park, Colorado high as a kite and urinating in nature when I became aware of how happy I was. It hadn’t felt that good to be alive for a long time. Back when I was a healthful sport. Back when I was blissfully unaware that any time I came off my mountain there was always a taxi waiting for me.

Sean Preciado Genell is author of the Vic Pasternak novel ‘All the Help You Need,’ available now at Prairie Lights. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 220.


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