More old men, published in Down in the Dirt (Nov. 2009)
The Home sat on a hill above the little town of Youngville. The vets festered in there, like untreated wounds. They were victims of the wars, which we all were, of course, but they were so much more so. It didn’t even matter if they had been shell shocked or had cowered on the beaches on the front lines of the assault or crouched in the jungles waiting for a sniper’s shot to slam into their heads or hearts. They were victimized and raped by their very training, sucked dry by the corporals then sergeants then lieutenants then majors and all the way on up to the biggest bastards of them all. But the guys at the Home were not guys who had gone very far up that ladder. They’d mostly been privates and such and had done their stint, and maybe even reenlisted, because there were no jobs for them, and now finally the government was taking care of them as their use to society reached its lowest ebb.
In a world of stunning beauty it is horrible what people have to do to survive.
I was one of the town taxi drivers.I loved to drive, to feel the breeze slapping my cheeks and see the hills pass by, take the turns like a luge rider, or hang on along the long straightaways, feeling the earth pass beneath my feet, covering ground. I felt like I was seeing the world when I was driving. So I thought it might not be such a bad job, and I took it, quaking inside, as always, at the folly I was forced to commit.
Ralph, the owner of Town Taxi, was fat and was usually glued to a swivel chair behind a chipped and mostly barren desk. He smoked a cigar and he looked like Jackie Gleason.
“Look kid, you work for me I don’t want to hear about no drinking or doping on the job. You can’t make any money by hanging out under a tree reading the newspaper. You make your rounds, anybody wants to come down to town from the Home, Town Taxi will be there to bring ‘em on down. Got it?”
“Got it Ralph.”
“Alright, get out of here.”
Youngville was a little town, not much more than a village, though the entrepreneurs were beginning to notice it, and the tourists were beginning to be lured by their enticements. But in those days most people in Youngville had no need for taxi cabs. They had money and expensive cars and could trot down to the quick store or go pick up some salmon and asparagus down in Napa without so much as a thought. Ralph had built his business on the vets up at the Home. And there were only two places the vets ever wanted to go to - these were the quick store to pick up some meagre supplies, like candy bars and potato chips and porn mags; and the bars, especially around Happy Hour, when the drink prices were knocked down, two for one. We’d cruise the Home like vultures as the time for Happy Hour approached and haul them on down, five at a time, drop them off at The Whistle Stop, or The Grapevine, or The River Inn, then turn around and go pick up another load. When Happy Hour was over we’d carry them all on home, much livelier than when we’d carried them on down.
“The system never dies.” Charles said one evening on the ride back. “People die. Plants die. Animals die. Mountains erode and disappear. Planets die.” Charles was dressed in a snappy brown three piece suit. He clutched a portfolio close to his side, filled with the art that would never see the light of day. I’d seen his sketches, and they were good. But there was no one to market Charles, like so many others out there.
“What the fuck is he talking about now?” Romeo shouted. “Does he always have to start with this shit?”
“Stars die. Solar systems die.”
“Leave him alone Romeo. You could learn something from Charles.” responded Henry, the only Hispanic in a Home that sat in a valley that ate Hispanics like oer’dourves.
“He just gets to me sometimes. You know what he did the other day? He sketched a picture of me that made me look like a baboon!”
I looked in my mirror and I could see that Charles smiled, just a bit.
“Atoms die. Solar systems die. But the universe never dies. There is no beginning and there is no end.”
“Hey Charles!” shouted Eddie, an ex-plumber from Pittsburg, who spent a year in Korea, mostly manning the watch along the DMZ and the bars of Seoul, never even hearing a shot. “I’m a Catholic! What the fuck you mean? We’re goin’ to heaven, man!”
“All the components die, but the system never dies.”
“What system Charles, what system?” said Frank. He was a veteran of the second world war, like Charles, and had completely white hair and a full white beard. This was the first time I had heard him speak. He’d taken advantage of one of those tiny moments of silence, when everyone sulked and sucked into themselves.
“The universe.” Charles answered. “All the religions want you to believe that there is an End. But there is no end. The system never dies.”
“Oh shit! I can’t stand this!” Eddie curled into his corner seat with his arm pulling his head down to his shoulder.
“Science wants you to believe that there was a Beginning. But there is no beginning. No beginning, and no end.”
By the time we pulled around the long loop that led to the main entrance of the Home everyone was shouting or mumbling to themselves and as I piled them out of the cab it felt like I’d just gotten rid of a bunch of farts. But there were more on the way, waiting on their stools, swirling the last of their drinks, and I’d be listening to them on the ride back up. I watched Charles as he tapped his wobbly cane up the slate steps. There was no way I could ever know what he’d seen in his life.
Every so often we got called on to travel further afield, usually just down to Napa, not ten miles down the road. On rare occasions we got a fare that needed to get down to the airport, south of San Francisco. The vets hardly ever tipped and we always hoped for a bonanza on one of these trips. The bonanza might be money, or it might be a situation: an unforeseen situation, usually involving a beautiful woman. Taxi drivers are no exception to the rule of men who dream of impossible outcomes from improbable beginnings. Our adolescent dreams chase us down the alleys of adulthood like shadows.
I was hailed by a couple one afternoon, not long before Happy Hour, who needed to get to the airport.
“Climb on in.” I told them.
“Take us to the airport?” said the guy, tall and muscular and vaguely Latino looking. His confidence shouted to silence all opposition. “How much?”
He pulled out his wallet and handed me two twenties. “Let’s go. We have to make a stop on the way.”
“It’ll only be extra if it’s out of our way.”
“It’s on our way.”
Then I was forgotten, like the morning mist. He turned toward the woman and the outside world was lost. He worked her as if she was clay. She was lovely, dark of hair and dark of spirit, and she smouldered under his kneading, knowing that it was she who was really in control.
After a while, about when we’d gotten down to the Carquinez Straits, he pulled out a bomber of a joint and waved it around, asking; “Do you mind?”
“Naw, but I can’t. I’m driving.”
“What’s the matter, you think you can’t handle it?”
“Well, I’m not sure exactly. I don’t drive this route much.”
“Are you afraid of what might happen as you get out along the edge? Afraid to take chances?” He leaned forward from the back seat and blew Acapulco Gold into my ear.
“Alright, give me a hit.”
Not four exits after we’d crossed the BayBridge he told me to get off, head down Market Street and up O’Farrell. We pulled up in front of a dingy townhouse and they got out.
“C’mon, man! C’mon up? We’ll only be a little while.”
“Yeah, c’mon man.” she said, her eyes pools of promise.
I figured it was better than waiting in the cab.
We climbed a flight of stairs and fell into a room filled with smoke and bottles and turned out shirt tails.
“Hey! Enrico my man!”
My man hugged him and in general the greetings were robust.
There were seven people in the room, mostly men. It was clear that both the women were Enrico’s. It wasn’t clear what it was about Enrico that held these people in his palm. He sat down comfortably in an arm chair that seemed reserved for him.
“There’s a demonstration against this shit the city council is trying to do this Friday. Who’s in?”
Everyone except me lifted their arms, fists clenched.
“We have to show these capitalist pigs that we mean business! We will not let them run over the people!”
Enrico looked at me and said, “I don’t see your arm, amigo. I don’t see you. Where do you stand?”
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about your future, man! I’m talking about the freedom of the working man! Isn’t that you? Aren’t you a working man?”
“Yeah, but not the same way you’re thinking.” He had absolutely no idea of my story.
“What way?” He held his arms outstretched in disbelief, casting his burning eyes across the crowd of ten.
“Are you talking about violent revolution?”
“Ah! Violence! Violence is beautiful my man.”
“I don’t think so.”
In a move that would have done a movie star proud he reached behind him and pulled out a pistol and squared off and pointed it at my head. He came closer and I could feel the cold sting of the steel against my forehead. He loomed over me like destiny, his finger on the trigger.
His eyes were stern and paternal and smouldered like hot embers in a cold night. It looked like I wasn’t going to get a tip from this fare either. That’s what life was like. A long string of fares who don’t tip.
After about thirty seconds he relaxed and said, “I’m just kidding man.”
Everyone laughed and a huge sigh seemed to exhale from the room.
Enrico grabbed the hand of my tantalizing taxi woman and drew her to the bedroom adjacent to the room we all shared, closing the door gently behind him. She cast me a coy flicker as the door closed in front of her. We listened to those two in the room of eight, and seemed to find no passion that could match that of that asshole. We were all doomed and we knew it, he only had more fun on the way down.
The drive to the airport was filled with silence, like a woman is filled with child. I got back to Youngville about in the morning. I’d made fifty bucks that day - eat, put some clothes on your back and a roof over your head, maybe spare a few moments for a little bit of wonder. The light was just creeping over the hills toward PopeValley. I knew Ralph would want to know where I’d been. Knowing that he made his living preying on a bunch of lonely and disabled men who’d done nothing but been fools for their country, I didn’t really give a shit.
I was missing Charles and the old boys though, and hoped they’d gotten back to the Home after Happy Hour, all in good shape. They were the old boys of Youngville.
I was also hoping that Janie wouldn’t be pissed off at me. We’d had enough of that lately, and this was not a night for that sort of crap.
I headed home, hoping the ride would last forever.