Acts of Love

 

By Michael Pellegrini

                                                     

            One of the immutable laws of the universe seems to be that the losers all congregate in certain places, no matter where you go.  The junkies, the hookers, the pimps, the thieves, the street dealers, the down and out alcoholics, the drag queens, the failed bankers and jilted housewives, the defrocked priests and disbarred attorneys – all the downtrodden masses, miscreants, losers and misfits gravitate towards the same sorts of places, even in different locales.            

Now whether this is truly a natural law or rather some unwritten agreement among the participants is still unknown.  But either way, the results are much the same in nearly every instance.          

            Not surprisingly, Tacoma in Washington State is no exception to this law. 

            A bustling metropolis of nearly 300,000 people thirty miles to the south of Seattle, the City of Destiny, as the town fathers are proud to boast, is one of the largest container shipping ports in North America. 

            And like Every City USA, the class segregation exists and is promulgated in Tacoma at an instinctual level – the junkies intuitively know to gather down near the Rescue Mission, the homeless feel secure sleeping in the doorways of the businesses surrounding the Greyhound Depot, the hookers stealthily ply their trade on the streets over near the train station, and the other misfits, miscreants and losers that defy all efforts at categorization drive taxi for BlackTop Cab.

 

I.  BlackTop Cab Company

Up near the top of McKinley Hill in a seedy, working class district not far south from the Tacoma Dome is the office of BlackTop Cab.  It’s an old, dilapidated gray stucco building set near the corner of Harrison and McKinley streets. 

The long, narrow building is about a hundred feet off from the road, back across the width of a sloping asphalt parking lot, the lot rimmed by tall, stately maples.  This structure started its life in the nineteen forties as the Solomon Brothers Grocery. 

             In the mid-sixties, closely following the advent of a new Safeway just down the street, the Solomon Brothers Grocery unceremoniously folded.  Over the next few years, the building was home to a swift succession of businesses that one after the other, went down the tubes.  There was a floral shop, a carpet store, a pet mortuary, and an insurance office just to name a few. 

            In its last incarnation, the building had been an auto repair shop.  These owners installed three large garage doors in the side of the building and had dug out and leveled part of the parking lot to make driveways into the new service bays.  The portion out front, facing Harrison Street was turned into the business office. 

            Shortly after the untimely demise of the auto repair business, BlackTop Cab purchased the building and two adjoining lots down the hill.  The empty lots were used as a junkyard to store wrecked cabs for parts, and the building was partially remodeled to suit its new purpose.

            At the back end of the building up towards the top of the parking lot, BlackTop turned what had previously been a loft into its dispatch office, along with a small driver's lounge and a bathroom.  Outside, a short flight of stairs led up from the parking lot onto a small wooden deck in front of the windows of the dispatch office.  On the right corner of the deck was a door, which led inside to the driver’s lounge.      

 

 “So anyway, there I was,” said Mack Campner.  “The driver's side mirror fell off my cab one night.  Just fell off.  Presto chango, the sonofabitch disappears.”   He held up his hands, gesturing, a look of amazement on his face, and continued, “So anyway, there I am the next day.  I go to the shop and ask ‘em to put a new one on.  Not such a big deal.  Just a mirror, right?” 

Mack paused to light a cigarette.  He was sitting with Marty Medina on the deck in front of the dispatch office at BlackTop Cab Company, where they were taking in a little of the late afternoon sun while waiting for the start of their shifts.

            Exhaling a long plume of smoke, Mack went on,  “Any idiot could put a new mirror on in five minutes.  Right?  So, when I come back the next day, what do I find?  What’d these stupid dildoes done?”  He shook his head as if in wonder, and then continued, “Oh, shit!  These dudes'd put a whole new door on the cab.   But the kicker?  Ah, yeah.  The kicker was they were gonna charge me a hundred and fifty bucks for doing it!”   He threw up his hands.

            Warming up to Mack’s story, Marty Medina leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up on the rail of the deck.   “A whole new door?” he asked, a knowing grin on his face.  He straightened the crease on his gray uniform pants.  “Like, why?”

            Wide eyed, Mack held up his index finger.   “My question exactly.  So, I go and I find Evil Justin and I ask him why it was they put an entire door on when all the damned cab needed was the mirror.  He just tells me, ‘It was easier to put on a new door.’  Then like usual, he starts getting ugly with me, so I split.”  Wide eyed again, Mack tapped the side of his head with a finger.   “Easier,” he said, making a face.   “Can you believe this shit?”

            Smiling, Medina laughed and said,  “Only at BlackTop Cab, man.”

            Mack nodded, running his fingers through his gray-blond beard.  “Ain't it the truth?  So anyway, next I go and I find Elmo and bitch about the charge for the new door.  What a laugh.  Elmo, he just tells me I gotta pay the cost, even though it wasn't my fault the mirror fell off.  If I don't pay, he says, then I'm parked.  Period.”   Mack shook his head, and took a long drag off his cigarette.  Blowing out a thin plume of smoke, he went on,  “God I was pissed.  But I had to drive.  I mean, I ain't independently wealthy.  I wasn't born with no silver spoon in my mouth.  So, in the end, I bite the bullet and cough up the hundred and fifty bucks.”

            “That's too bad, man,” Medina said, shaking his head.   “Like extortion, when it comes down to it.  Another BlackTop moment.”

            Mack nodded, looking serious.   “No shit.  So whada I do?  They're screwing me.  Am I gonna get out the Crisco and bend over?  Not fuckin' likely.”    He gave an evil grin and went on in a low voice,  “I tell ya what I did.  Late the next night, I park my cab up here at the office, then I go out down in the boneyard.  I got this five-pound sledge.”

            Smiling, Medina shook his head.   “A sledge hammer?  What the hell?”

            Mack nodded.   “Uh huh, a sledge hammer.  I’ll tell you what.  I took that sledge, and I went and I bashed-in the side of every driver's door of every taxicab in the boneyard.  Every goddamn one of 'em had a nice big dent in the driver's side door.  Every one.  Then I take my sledge, and I get in my cab and I leave.”

            Medina cracked up, laughing, shaking his head.

            “So anyway, there I am the next night, I'm back here at the office and the dispatcher, it was Carnahan, he casually asks if I'd heard anything the night before.”

            “I ask him what he's talking about.  He tells me, 'Ya know, it was the damnedest thing, Mack.  Somebody broke-in down in the boneyard last night and bashed in the side of every driver's door on every taxicab there.'  Carnahan looks over at me then goes on, 'Now, I understand you just had the driver's door replaced on your cab.  And I saw you here last night.  You wouldn't know anything about it, would ya?' he asks, and he’s got this big shit-eatin’ grin on his face.”

            “For real, man?”   Medina asked, eyes narrowed.

            “Yup.  I just shook my head and told him, 'Who, me?' then walked away smiling.  And that's the last I ever heard about it.”

            Medina laughed, shaking his head.   “Man, Carnahan’s like really cool.”

            Mack nodded his head in agreement.   “Damn straight.  He knew it was me, I’m sure, but he never said nothing.”

            “Yeah, like he hates BlackTop more than any of us.”  Medina paused for a moment, thinking, and then said, “You know man, we really oughta do something nice for Carnahan.  He’s always covering someone’s ass.  He takes all this crap and no one never does nothing for him.”

            Mack looked thoughtful, staring off into space.   “Ain't it the truth?”

 

 

 

 

II.  Damned seagulls

The driver's lounge at BlackTop Cab was a small narrow room in back of the dispatch office.  To the right inside the door, was a pinball machine.  In back of that was a Coke machine and a candy machine, and then the long narrow hallway with the drop-boxes for the leasers on the left, and at the end, the bathroom door.  On the left side of the room was an old metal desk and a couple folding chairs, as well as the door into the dispatch office.  

One of the leasers, Dan Dinwiddie, was seated behind the desk in the driver’s lounge, wrapping up an interview with a new driver. 

In his early sixties, Dan was dressed in black sweats and was wearing a baseball cap with the legend, “Damn Seagulls! ” on it, with what appeared to be a large splotch of bird droppings on the bill.  About five foot eight, he weighed maybe three hundred pounds, and had a round, cheerful face with merry blue eyes, as well as a long, snowy white beard and mustache – all of which made him look a little like Santa Claus. 

Dan looked up as Medina walked through the door.

            “Hey Dan.”  Medina waved a greeting, and then put his money in the Coke machine and pressed the button for Diet Coke.  The can clunked noisily down.

             Dan waved back at Medina.  “Hey Marty?  You s’pose you could take a trainee tonight?  He had a quiet voice and his normal tone was almost a whisper.

             Close on Medina’s heels, Mack entered from outside and bellied up to the pinball machine.  He dropped two quarters in the slot and the bells dinged.

            Medina shrugged, as he swallowed a drink of the Coke.   “Yeah, I s'pose.”

            Dan turned to the man he’d been interviewing, and then hooked his thumb at Medina.   “This is Marty Medina.  He's one of my best drivers.  You can ride with him tonight.  He'll show you what to do.”

            Medina laughed.   “Hey, you tell people I'm one of your best drivers, Dan, I'm gonna like get a swelled head.” 

            Dan looked back at the man.  Eyebrows raised conspiratorially, he put his hand by his mouth and said sotto voce,  “He's really one of my worst drivers, but I was trying to be kind.”

            Mack, trying for some English jolted the pinball machine, and broke in,  “Yeah, you're one hopeless fucking wetback, Medina, admit it.”

            Smiling, Medina took another drink of Coke and answered,  “Screw you, Mack.  I keep tellin' ya I'm a wop not a wetback.”

            Dan giggled, a high-pitched laugh, then turned to the man, and said,  “We'll let you ride with Marty, anyway.”   He turned back to Medina and indicating the new man, went on,  “This is David Wick.  You be sure and don't scare him off.”

            Medina looked over at Wick.  He was in his mid thirties, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket.  He had the lean, hard look of someone who really needed a job.   “Pleased to meet ya,” said Medina.  “Like welcome to BlackTop Cab, such as it is.”

            Concentrating on his pinball game, Mack said under his breath,  “Fresh meat...”

            Smiling, Medina glanced sidelong at Mack.   “For Jesus Christ’s sake, Mack, chill huh?”

            Mack looked up, waiting as a new ball was loaded.   “Hey, God as my witness, I feel so good tonight, I think maybe I'm not gonna scoop anyone.  The whole night!” 

            Trying not to laugh, Medina shook his head.   “Yeah, right.  Like not scoop anyone for the whole night?  You sure you're not sick or something, man?”  

            Dan smiled and then looking back at Mack, said quietly, “Yeah… oh by the way, Carnahan told me about what you did last Wednesday night.”

            Utter innocence on his face, Mack concentrated on his game and asked, “Did what?”  The pinball machine shook as he jolted it, trying for some English.

            Wide-eyed, with a puzzled look on his face, Dan turned to Medina and said, “You know, it’s the weirdest thing.  Grandma Shirley had this really bad night, Wednesday.  Really bad – she booked zero.  No money at all.  She just couldn’t figure it out.  Every call she was sent to was no-good.  Every single one, she’d get there and the person was already gone.  It was simply amazing!”  Still wide-eyed and sucking his lips, he nodded his head in wonder.

            Medina turned to Mack.  “You were like scooping Grandma Shirley, again, huh?”

            Innocence incarnate, Mack smiled, totally focused on his pinball game.   “Who, me?”

            Over seventy, Shirley actually was a grandmother.  She was also perhaps the one person most unsuited to drive cab in the entire company – she was completely inept and as an example, was actually unable to find the Greyhound Bus Depot one time even when she was sitting right outside it.  Her inability to navigate to even the simplest destinations was legend at BlackTop.

            A good example of Shirley’s problems was a trip she had gotten one night from the Shipwreck Tavern on the Tideflats.         

            Late as always, Shirley finally found the Shipwreck and picked up the fare – a chemical salesman who wanted to go to the Amtrak station.  This was a trip that would normally take maybe ten minutes. 

One hour later, Shirley dropped the salesman off at the Eleventh Street Bridge, downtown.  Apparently, after having seen nearly every sight in the Tideflats – except his actual destination – the fare was desperate to get out of the cab and abruptly demanded to be dropped off as they came to the bridge, before as he said, the trip “bankrupted” him.

            Now smiling benevolently, Dan held up his finger.  “Guess what?” he asked Mack.

            Mack shrugged.  “What?”

            Dan grinned widely, and then said slowly, “Weeelll…. It’s like this… Apparently Shirley complained to Elmo.  Said she finally figured out what the heck happened:  there was this ‘ghost cab’ following her.  She was screaming mad, crying all about how she was gonna file a sex discrimination suit on whoever was screwing her.  She demanded Elmo do something or she was gonna sue him too.”

            Mack scowled, trying to look unconcerned.  He loaded another ball.

Dan went on, “Now you and I both know Elmo really doesn’t give a shit about what goes on here, but you also know how sometimes he goes off on his crusades.  Well, it looks like this may just be one of them.  Plus, I guess he wanted to get Shirley off his back, so what he did was he told Shirley he’d investigate it and park whoever did it.  P-A-R-K them.  He went and talked to Carnahan ‘cause it happened on his shift.  He told Carnahan he wanted to make an example out of whoever did it.”

            His game over, Mack looked vaguely uneasy as he stood next to the pinball machine.  “He did, huh?” he asked, polishing his nails on his chest.

            Dan nodded.  “He did.  But…but…” Dan enjoyed watching Mack squirm.  After pausing theatrically, he finally went on, “But, you lucked out, because Carnahan covered for you.   He told Elmo it was probably an Army-Navy Cab or something.  Told Elmo he’d been having problems with Army-Navy drivers all week.  You sir, owe Carnahan big, ya know?”

            Frowning, Mack shrugged.  “Hey, I gave that goddamn broad every chance to get those calls.  Every chance in the world.  Every one I waited long enough for any normal driver to get there before I picked the people up.  I can’t help it if she’s got fucking Alzheimer’s and can’t find her ass with both hands.  What am I supposed to do, let the company get in trouble because she can’t find the customers?”

            Dan looked sympathetic, nodding.  “Right.  But did you have to take every one of her calls?  Every one for the whole night?”

            Mack shrugged again. “Oh, I dunno.  I guess it got to be a game after the first five or ten.”  Eyes narrowed, he went on, “You know, some of them were real challenges actually, because she’d be right on top of the damn calls.   I put a lot of fucking work into it, really.”

            “I understand.  I’m just thinking you might lay-off her for a while.  And you oughta thank Carnahan for covering your ass.  Elmo really was pissed.  You know how he gets.”  Satisfied he’d made his point, Dan lay back in his chair and tapped his fingers on the desk.

            Medina shook his head slowly.  “You know, like we really do gotta figure out something nice to do for Carnahan.”  He started off into space for a moment, and then remembering the trainee, he turned back to Wick.  “I guess you’re getting the picture of what it’s like to work here.  But anyway, like I said, I’m pleased to meet you.”

            Wick smiled at him.   “Pleased to meet you.”   He turned back to Dan.  “Uh, you never told me what the pay is.”

            “The pay?  We split your bookings fifty-fifty, and we each pay half the cost of the gas.”

            “Okay.  And what nights would I be working?”

            Dan shrugged.  “It’s up to you.  I lease ten cars, so there’s a fair bit of flexibility.  If it were me, I’d work Tuesday through Saturday.  Those are the best nights for someone starting out.  You work twelve hours on, twelve off.”

Wick looked thoughtful, then said, “Okay, I’ll go for that.  Is there anything else I need to know?”

            Dan shook his head.   “Nope.  Marty'll show you the ropes.  Come see me after you've done the ride-along for three nights and gotten your hack license, and then we'll see about getting you on the insurance.”

            Wick nodded.   “Okay.”   He turned to Medina.   “So what do we do?”

            Medina smiled.   “Well, like first we gotta find out about my car.  C'mon.”   He nodded in the direction of the door.

          

 

III.  Babysitting morons is fun

            “Sir, I suggest you look very carefully and see if you can locate Puyallup Avenue,” said Ed Carnahan, sounding annoyed.  “It’s a big, wide street, just at the south end of downtown, off Pacific Avenue.  The train station is at the intersection of Puyallup Avenue and East J Street.” 

He sighed and then took a long drag from his cigarette.  After taking his foot off the microphone pedal, he glanced at Dave Murphy, sitting next to him, and muttered, “Dipshit fuckin’ idiot…” as he exhaled the smoke.  Frowning, he went on, “Babysitting.  I don’t have time for babysitting.  Where on earth do they find these guys?”  The radio crackled and sputtered.  Impatient, Carnahan moved the headset mic, adjusting it to fit more comfortably on his head, while waiting for the driver to respond.

            Smiling, Dave Murphy nodded as he spoke quickly on the phone to a customer.  All the phone lines were lit up, and blinking.  To Murphy’s right, the other phone people talked into their phones in hushed voices, busily answering the calls and writing up the trips as fast as they could get the information. 

            It was bar-closing time on Friday night, and BlackTop was very busy.

            The BlackTop dispatch office was a rectangular-shaped room about fifteen feet long by about ten feet wide.  To the left of the dispatcher was the window that looked out onto the deck.  Arranged neatly under the window on the counter was a vertical file full of various company forms that the drivers sometimes needed, as well as a small reference library with the Thomas Guide, the City Directory and other reverse directories and maps and so on.  To the right, the length of the other wall was taken up by the dispatch boards – two of them, side by side arranged with a Plexiglas partition in-between, so that in times when it was extremely busy, two dispatchers could work using different radio frequencies.  Facing the Plexiglas partition on both sides were narrow counters where the phone people worked – two positions next to each dispatcher, each position with it’s own phone and time-stamp machine.  At the back of the room was another Plexiglas partition with two more phone positions, and the phone supervisor’s position.  Beside that and to the left was the door that opened into the driver’s lounge.  To the right was a small alcove with the coffee maker and a tiny refrigerator, as well as a fax machine and copier.  Covering the walls and ceiling were egg-crate style foam insulation, to deaden the noise.

            There hadn’t been enough business to justify using two dispatchers in years.  Normally, on a busy night, they used one dispatcher and three or four phone people.  Tonight, there was just Dave Murphy and two others answering phones.

            After several more seconds, the errant driver finally responded on the radio, “Uh, like where is Puyallup Avenue?  In Puyallup?”

            Carnahan exhaled another long stream of smoke, and then shaking his head, stepped on the microphone pedal.  “Sir, do you have your map book?”  He turned to the counter on his left and opened a Thomas Brothers map book, flipping through the pages quickly.  He continued, “It’s on page fifty-seven.”

            There was silence on the radio for several seconds, then the driver responded, “Uh, I like can’t find my map book…uh, I …uh, think maybe I lost it or something…” His voice trailed off.

            Carnahan rolled his eyes, and then frowning, said in a strident tone, “Sir, I am going to give you ten minutes and if I don’t hear you call going with the gentleman from Amtrak, I’m going to dispatch someone else.  Do you understand, car thirty-five?  And if I do have to dispatch someone else, I’ll see you here at my window and we’re going to have a little talk before you get any more calls.  Do you understand me, sir?”  Carnahan’s anger welled up towards the end, and you could hear it in his voice.

            The radio crackled and the driver responded quickly, “Thirty-five copy.”

            Staring at the dispatch board, Carnahan nodded.  “Good.  Pick the guy up in the next ten minutes or you’re at my window before you get another bell.”  He took a quick breath, then went on, “Okay, we’re holding twenty bells in the Town, sixteen in the Lakewood, eighteen bells in the Tideflats, nine in the Puyallup, cars calling...”

            The radio squealed and sputtered with all the cars trying to call in.

 

 

 

IV.   Life is a bowl of tomatoes

            Edward Flanders Robb Carnahan was forty-nine.  He’d been involved in the cab business in Tacoma in one way or another for over twenty-five of those years.  He’d driven cab, he’d leased cabs, he’d dispatched and even owned a few cabs once as an independent operator.  As he said, the taxi business was in his blood.

            Almost six foot, Carnahan was overweight, a middle-age bulge developing as a result of his sedentary lifestyle.  He had a mobile, expressive face with laugh lines that crinkled around his eyes when he smiled, which was frequently, and a hawkish nose.   His graying brown hair was long now, usually trailing in a confused mass over his shoulders – he was in one of his “hippie phases,” as he called it.  He wore wire-frame aviator-style glasses to help in reading.  His usual mode of dress was faded blue jeans with a plaid shirt, along with an occasional cardigan sweater when the weather was chilly.  He smoked incessantly.  He had a fondness for greasy cheeseburgers and drank coffee by the gallon.  He was a voracious reader, and always had a book or paper or magazine available to read in the off moments when it wasn’t busy at BlackTop.

            Way back when, all the folks in his hometown said he had a great potential.

            Just out of high school, Carnahan had done his stint in Vietnam like many youths at that time.  Back from the war without a scratch, he’d spent his last few months in the Army at Ft Lewis, and then when he got out, he decided to stay in Tacoma.

            Using his GI Bill, he’d almost finished his business degree at Pacific Lutheran University when love intervened, and he’d ended up getting married.  The realities of providing for a family got in the way of education, and after his wife became pregnant late in his third year, he dropped out of school.  He’d been driving cab part-time for extra money for a couple years, so now he decided to drive full-time – but he was sure it’d just be for a few months till he could find something better.

            Twenty-five years later, and still, nothing better had come along.

            At various points in all those years, he had made stabs at finding a different line of work, but he’d always come back.  The truth of the matter was that he liked the cab business.  He figured it was his one true home.

            He’d been divorced about ten years now.  His daughter was grown and was living on the East Coast, attending college.  They maintained a close relationship in spite of the miles between them, and Carnahan went back to visit her at least once a year.  It was he mused, his only one hundred percent truly successful relationship with a woman, ever.

            Women had always been Carnahan’s downfall.  Since his divorce, he’d had a long series of different girlfriends.  His current flame was twenty years his junior, a cab driver named Lucy – a flamboyant young black woman given to dressing in leather pants and wearing hats with feathers.  They’d been together now for a little over six months, and from the rumors, it wasn’t going to last much longer.

            Carnahan was mostly philosophical about his women problems.  He just said some people were born to be married, but he was obviously born to be divorced.

            Still, if he was a failure in his own eyes with women, he made up for it in other ways – like for instance by the fact that he really was a great dispatcher.

            Carnahan had spent most of the last fifteen years at BlackTop, and was currently in his longest single continuous stretch as graveyard dispatcher – three years and six months in a row.

            The normal pattern was either that he’d get fed up and quit, or he’d do something crazy and get fired.  When he was fired, like the other professionals, he’d usually go work for Army-Navy Cab – the equivalent of being exiled to Siberia – for a year or two.  The length of the stay was determined by either the nature of what he had done to get fired, or by how pissed-off he was.

            The last time he’d been fired was almost four years ago.  He’d only been gone for about six months that time.

            In that instance, his departure had been as a direct result of some dealings with of one of Elmo’s nephews, a young man with the unlikely name of Jojo Mortimer.

Jojo was a major disappointment to his mother, Henrietta.  Right from the start of his miserable life, they’d all known he was a little “off.”  Jojo got terrible grades and didn’t socialize with the other kids in school.  He was an outcast.  He had a putrid body odor and bad breath and was flatulent beyond all belief. 

All the family was so very pleased when he finally got the job at the sawmill after repeating the twelfth grade twice and flunking out of high school at age nineteen.  With his mother’s active encouragement, Jojo bravely moved away from home, got an apartment, and it looked like he was set in life.  There were rumors that he’s started bathing, and actually gotten a girlfriend.

But then as luck would have it, the mill closed – and after only a few short years, Jojo Mortimer was suddenly thrust into the cold, harsh world of the unemployed.  It was awful.

Henrietta certainly didn’t want him moving back in – that was strictly out of the question.  She had recently acquired a new boyfriend on the side, and having Jojo move back home would have disturbed her potential for secret trysts.  So after examining an exhaustive number of different alternatives – and striking out with every single one – Henrietta finally turned to her older brother, Elmo.

Elmo couldn’t stand the sight of Jojo – just being around Jojo made him queasy, and the thought of giving him a job was about the last thing he wanted to do.

Unfortunately, Henrietta knew where all the bodies were buried – or so she hinted in their hour-long, exceptionally heated argument.  She even made lightly veiled threats about going to the county prosecutor and telling tales. 

To say the least, Elmo was very impressed with her determination.  As such, it was with great trepidation that he reluctantly hired Jojo to drive one of the BlackTop bandits.

The bandits were company cars – cars operated directly by BlackTop, where the drivers were paid an hourly wage to pick up the crème de la crème of the calls – the airport trips, the runs to Seattle or Portland and so on.  All the big money stuff.

Sadly though, success again proved to be elusive for Jojo Mortimer.

            True to form, he was a disaster as a cab driver right from the start.  Customers complained that he stank.  He couldn’t find half the destinations he was given.  He was rude and arrogant to customers and fellow drivers, alike.  He was consistently late for every call.  And if anyone complained, he’d just tell them to fuck off or he’d tell his uncle.

            For his part, Elmo showed a degree of tolerance and understanding that everyone had previously thought impossible.  He overlooked every minor and many major problems Jojo caused – things that would have sent any normal driver packing down the road to Army-Navy Cab in a heartbeat.

            And all this really grated on Carnahan.  He put up with it for about three weeks before he finally snapped.

            It was just after bar-closing on a Friday night.  Jojo had been sent to the Sheraton Hotel to pick up an elderly Japanese businessman who wanted to go to Seattle – a very good trip.  An hour after Carnahan had given Jojo the bell, the Sheraton called, angrily demanding to know where the businessman’s cab was.

            Carnahan immediately called Jojo on the radio.  What he found out was that Jojo had gotten a flag from the Olympus Hotel – a seedy, fleabag dive downtown – and was in the process of delivering the man to a destination in Lakewood.  He told Carnahan to not worry; that he’d pick up the businessman at the Sheraton after he finished, if he still felt like it. 

Of course in the cab business that sort of thing is a strict no-no, and even dumb as he was, Jojo Mortimer knew it.  He was just an arrogant young shit and figured his uncle would fix any problem he got into.

            Carnahan was enraged.  He sent another car to pick up the businessman, and he flatly refused to dispatch any more calls to Jojo, or to even speak to him, in person or on the radio. 

            Predictably, Jojo complained to his uncle, and when Carnahan came back to work on Monday night, he received a strongly worded note urging him to dispatch to Jojo, “or else.” 

Carnahan ignored that note and several others that followed for the next few days.  He continued to refuse to dispatch to Jojo on his shift.  Several more days followed.  Then just when it looked like Carnahan might succeed in banning Jojo from driving, another note appeared, telling him he would dispatch to him or be fired.  To make sure Carnahan knew he was serious, Elmo had the swing-shift dispatcher, Rosie Glenn, deliver the note in person.  Supposedly, if he refused, Rosie would tell him he was fired and then cover the shift.

Now, all of this was very awkward.  Carnahan and Rosie were friends.  He had trained her, way, way back when.  And Rosie didn’t even want to work a double that night, much less tell one of her best friends and mentor that he was fired.  She pleaded with him to come to his senses and just dispatch to the little twerp.

            So, when Carnahan agreed to bite the bullet, she was much relieved.

            Sadly, the truce only lasted maybe five minutes, until Jojo called in on the radio.

            Jojo sarcastically asked if Carnahan was done fucking around, because he’d like his big money trip now and please do hurry because his time was very important to him.

            It was at that single moment when Carnahan snapped.  He completely lost it. 

     Not only did Jojo not get his trip – no one did – because for the next twenty-five incredible minutes, Carnahan did a monologue over the radio.  He went on a non-stop diatribe, raving about Jojo’s shortcomings as a taxi driver, and a human being, as well as making some very salient comments and observations about Elmo and his shortcomings, as well as BlackTop’s problems generally.  On and on and on…

            When he eventually wore down and stopped, Rosie and the phone people – as well as the mob of nosy cab drivers that had come to the office to watch – all gave him a standing ovation. 

A crooked smile on his face, Carnahan bowed, then un-hooked the headset mic and walked out the door.

            Jojo only lasted a couple weeks beyond that before Elmo took action.  After begging and pleading with his sister and finally getting her agreement, he cheerfully fired Jojo – who later went to work at the Elephant Car Wash and found fame polishing hub caps.

            But it was six months before Carnahan simmered down enough to come back, even after Elmo made him offers of more money.

            He was BlackTop’s best dispatcher, bar none.  He could put out more calls per hour than anyone else.  His knowledge of the county was unsurpassed.  And the drivers loved him. 

      Someone was always saying, “You know, we really gotta do something nice for Carnahan...”

V.  Calling all cars

            Smoke drifted from Carnahan’s nostrils as he looked at the dispatch board, surveying the damage, trying to figure out the best way to dispatch the calls.

            There were hooks over the number of each car on the dispatch board, and on each hook hung the tickets giving the address of every call dispatched to that car, with time-stamps on the ticket showing when the call was received, and when it was given out.

            Below on the desk was a long, narrow metal board divided into sections that showed the different zones for the city, along with three slots for each zone – hired, vacant, and enroute.  There were magnetic buttons for each car.  When a car was given a call, the car’s button was moved into the “hired” slot for the zone.  When the driver called to say he had picked up the fare and was going, the button was moved to the “enroute” slot for the destination zone.  The button was moved to the “vacant” slot when the driver called-in vacant after the trip was completed.

            Carnahan intuitively knew how long it would take the different drivers to complete the different calls.  Thus, by looking at the board, he could tell in a few brief moments what he could expect – how many cars he’d have available in any given area in the immediate future.

            He was holding almost a hundred calls at the moment, and he had several good runs he needed to give out immediately.  He studied the board and the calls.

            He saw Marty Medina was going to Lakewood and would probably vacate sometime in the next few minutes. 

            Carnahan pushed down the mic pedal.  “Car Two-two?” he said tersely.

            Medina answered immediately, “Double deuce.”  His voice sounded tinny over the speaker.

            “How long?”

            “I’ll be vacant in about two minutes.”

            Carnahan studied the ticket, and then quickly said, “Okay.  Two-two, get one-one-five-one-six Holden Road Southwest.”

            “Two-two copy.”

            Carnahan pressed the pedal down as he time-stamped the ticket and hung it on Medina’s hook.  “Vacant cars calling?” he said in a strident tone.  He moved Medina’s button into the hired position for King County.  The fare Medina was picking up was, unbeknownst to him, going to Seattle – which from Lakewood, was probably a seventy or eighty-dollar trip.  Medina was a good driver, and Carnahan took care of the good drivers.

            There were squeals of static and buzzing from the speaker as everyone tried to call-in at once.  Carnahan heard what he thought was part of a number.  “Car with a five…”

            More squealing and buzzing noises, then, “…Forty-five.”

            “Go ahead forty-five.

Dave Murphy dumped a large handful of tickets in front of him on the board.
            “Car forty-five vacant fifty-six and S-T-dub.”

            Carnahan looked at his calls.  Forty-five was a newer driver, but he seemed to be working out well.  He selected a run and then said, “Forty-five, get Barbie’s Brews and Cues for Richard.”  The fare was going to Parkland – not a bad run.

            “Four-five copy.”

            “Next car,” he said quickly.  He hung the time stamped ticket on forty-five’s hook, then moved the car’s button.

            Out of the buzzing and squealing, Carnahan thought he heard Mack’s voice, and said, “Go ahead car sixty.”

            “Sick-o’s vacant at Greyhound.”

            Carnahan looked at the tickets.  Mack was another good driver, so he’d give away his other Seattle call.  “Car sick-o, get the tall one for the Sherman party.”  The “tall one” was shorthand the drivers used, referring to the Sheraton Hotel – the tallest hotel in downtown Tacoma.

            “Sick-o copy.”

            Carnahan hung the ticket on the hook for car sixty, then said tersely, “Next car.”  He moved the car’s button to the King County slot, along with Medina’s.

            There was a blare of noise from the speaker, and he thought he heard the number ten.

            “Car ten”

            “Car ten’s going to SeaTac Airport.”

            Carnahan moved ten’s button to King County.  Everyone’s going north it seemed.  “Going… Next vacant car.”

            There was a blast of noise from the speaker, then “... twinkie eight.”

            “Twenty-eight.”

            “Two-eight’s vacant Six and Pearl.”

            Eyes narrowed, Carnahan studied the tickets and his board.  Twenty-eight was supposed to have been going to Lakewood – the exact opposite direction.  He pressed the pedal, “Two-eight, you were going south – what happened?”

            There was a blast of static, then “...changed his mind.  I called but you couldn’t hear me.”

            Carnahan shrugged, and then after glancing at the tickets, he selected one and said, “Whatever.  Call me approaching Nineteenth and Mildred.”

            “Two-eight copy.” 

            Carnahan hung the ticket and moved the button.  “Who’s next?” he asked briskly.

            There were squeals and buzzing from the speaker, then part of a number came through, “…Three”

            “Car with a three.”

            “Thirty-three.”

            “Go ahead thirty-three.”

            “Well, I got kinda a problem here…” The speaker went dead.

            Carnahan waited for a few moments, and then asked impatiently, “Three-three, it’s really busy here right now.  Can this wait, sir?”

            Thirty-three came back, “…just puked all over the back seat.  He owes me fifteen bucks for the trip already, and now says he doesn’t have any money.  Can’t pay for the trip or for cleaning up the mess.  What shall I do?”

            Laughing as he sat at the phone next to Carnahan, Murphy said, “Dump the fucker out and use ‘em for a speed bump.”

            Nodding agreement, Carnahan chuckled, then serious, he pressed the mic pedal and said, “Three-three would you like me to call the police?”           

            “Can you?”

            Smiling at Murphy, Carnahan spoke sternly into the headset mic, “Three-three, if the man won’t pay you, the police will take him to jail.  Just ask him if he’d like to go to jail, or find some money.  And even if he goes to jail, he’ll still have to pay you.  That’s the law.  Pay you the fare plus twenty-five dollars for cleaning the cab.  That’s company policy.  Either way you’ll get paid.”

            There was a pause, and then thirty-three said, “He thinks maybe he can find the money.”

            “They always find the bucks when you call the cops,” said Murphy, writing up a trip.

            Carnahan nodded. “No shit they do.”  He pressed the mic pedal, and then said, “Okay thirty-three, you let me know what happens.  If you need it, we can have the police there in about two minutes.  Dave Murphy just talked to TPD and they’re standing by to find out what happens.  They have a car just down the street from you.”

            “Three-three copy.  I’ll let you know.”

            Shaking his head, Carnahan smiled and said, “Alright.  Now, who’s calling?”

 

 

VI.  When vampires walked the earth

Ralph Mack was white.  Really and truly.  He was the whitest, palest person ever seen.  He almost looked like an albino – or perhaps a vampire, as people would sometimes wonder.           

            In his mid fifties, Ralph had been driving cab for the better part of the last thirty years.  Ralph always drove at night, and it was a rare occasion that you’d ever see him somewhere in the daylight – all of which contributed to the vampire speculation.

He was about five foot six, skinny, and had gray hair, usually cut short, with a graying mustache.  His lined, expressive face and baby blue eyes had a perpetual look of innocence.  He was a quiet, mild mannered, likeable person, soft-spoken and never outwardly aggressive.

            Like many of the other “professional” drivers, the customary pattern for Ralph was that he’d work at BlackTop until he did something nuts and got fired.  Then after he got fired, he’d go drive for Army-Navy Cab until things quieted down.  Usually he was gone for less than a year at a time.  His longest single absence was a two-year stretch when he’d lost his driver’s license in a child support dispute.

            Ralph saw cab driving more as a lifestyle than a job.  His usual and customary hangout was in the Tideflats, working the seedy bars along Puyallup Avenue and the merchant ships calling at the Port of Tacoma.  

            The Tideflats was the most cut-throat area in existence for Tacoma cab drivers. It was common knowledge that if you couldn’t get to your fare within just a couple minutes after being dispatched, then you shouldn’t even bother trying because someone else had already scooped you.

            Ralph was one of the self-acknowledged kings of the Tideflats.  He knew when each ship was due in, and if one of the mates needed to go to Seattle, Ralph would likely be there waiting at the proper moment when the man walked down the gangway.  In his off moments when he had nothing else going on, Ralph worked the bars and the hookers and the druggies and the drunks and whatever else came his way.  He also scooped the other drivers mercilessly – but was always ready with a smile.

            One night a group of drivers had gathered down at Marilyn’s, a dive restaurant on Puyallup Avenue across from the train station, which coincidentally, was also known in the trade as the Eastside Driver’s Lounge. 

Ralph was feeling his liquor that night and uncharacteristically boasted to the other drivers, “Well nobody can ever scoop me, because I know all the short-cuts and all of the ways around.  No one’ll never scoop me.”

            Dan Dinwiddie, also present, saw this as a challenge.

            Dan and Ralph were good friends but Ralph’s boasting rather grated on him, because he figured anyone – including Ralph – could be scooped if you tried hard enough.  Dan thought it would be interesting to try out his theory, and at the same time, put Ralph back in his place – in a friendly sort of way.

            The very next day, Dan got his chance.  He’d been sitting at the train station for about an hour when the dispatcher came on the radio to tell Ralph he had a personal at the SeaLand Terminal.

            Like lightning, Dan was off.  As fast as he could, Dan drove to SeaLand.  Ralph’s fare, a crewman off one of the Alaska ships, the SeaLand Anchorage, was waiting at the gate of the terminal.  Dan stopped his car by the guard shack and the crewman got in the back seat.

            “Hey, you’re not Ralph Mack,” said the man as he closed the door.  “Where’s Ralph Mack?”

            “I have no idea, sir,” said Dan, politely.  “I think they sent me because he was on another call.  Do you want this cab or not?”

            Looking thoughtful, the man shrugged and then said, “Well yeah, I s’pose, if he’s not around.  I really don’t have time to wait.”  He settled back in the seat, and then went on, “Okay, I need to go to the union hall up in Seattle, then return here.  Do you know where that is?”

            Dan did indeed know where the union hall was in Seattle.  And a round trip up there would run well over one hundred dollars.

            Dan also knew Ralph was coming to pick the man up so he stalled around for as long as he could, talking with the man as he slowly drove up East Eleventh towards Portland Avenue and the freeway.  He wanted Ralph to know who had scooped him.

            Just as he was getting ready to turn left onto Portland Avenue, Ralph pulled up at the corner coming the other way.  Dan turned the corner and cruised by very slowly making sure Ralph could see who he had in his car.

            Ralph freaked.

            Dan had a scanner, and a few moments later he heard as Ralph called the dispatcher, complaining, “Hey, Dan just picked up my personal.  Ya gotta do something!”

            The dispatcher responded mildly, “Oh, c’mon, I don’t think Dan’d do that.”

            Ralph came back in a whining tone, “But I know it was my fare.  I saw him.  They just drove right by me.”

            Interested now, the dispatcher called Dan, and asked, “Dan, did you pick up Ralph’s personal?”

            Holding the microphone, Dan told the dispatcher, “You gotta be kidding!  See how rumors get started!  Nobody could ever scoop Ralph!  He’s way too fast!  And if you don’t believe me, you ask him!”

            There was a fit of laughter from the dispatcher over the radio, then silence.  The matter was dropped.

            Dan let Ralph twist in the wind for several days, then gave him the money from the fare – almost $120.  It was quite a while before Ralph boasted about being un-scoopable again.

 

 

VII.  Mack the knife

            The man was standing in front of the tavern near the street corner, leaning unsteadily, draped against a mailbox when Mack pulled up.  The lights in the bar were off and the blinds were pulled, which figured because it was now well after closing time. 

            Mack surveyed the scene with disgust.  He hated drunks with a cold passion.

A veteran driver, Mackenzie Campner was nearly fifty years old.  He was about medium height and skinny, with short gray-blond hair and a bushy beard and piercing blue eyes, that occasionally seemed to twinkle when he smiled.  In his former life, pre-BlackTop, he’d been a truck driver.  He had, he said, gotten bored with truck driving and started driving cab just to hold him over for a few months.  That was six years ago. 

Like nearly all the drivers, Mack complained incessantly about the conditions at BlackTop and was always on the verge of  “getting into something else.”  Still, like most everyone else, he never quite managed to follow through and find a different job.  One thing different from most of the others though, was the reason Mack stayed: underneath it all, he really and truly loved being a cabbie.   He figured it was his true calling in life.

            Sadly, his former wife hadn’t shared this love – she was deathly afraid of him being away at night, and deathly afraid of him being a cab driver, in general.  She nagged and complained and nagged and complained about this over and over and over until eventually, they split up.  After the split, she moved in with a Polish weightlifter that worked as a ladies shoes salesman, days at the Mall.  She started clipping coupons and was happy at last. 

Mack had been living by himself now for almost two years.   He’d felt much better after she left, too – finally he could concentrate on his work without her gawdawful, incessant nagging.  Unfettered at last, he strived hard to maintain the proper stereotype persona – or at least what he figured should be a proper persona for a cabbie.

            In Mack’s mind, the fares were nothing more than birds ripe for the plucking, and placed there solely to insure his own economic solvency.  He figured transporting people from point A to point B was merely an incidental, minor part of his real job – which was of course, separating the marks from their money. 

            Quite broad-minded, Mack also included other cab drivers as part of his economic domain.  He gleefully welcomed any contributions – albeit mostly involuntary and quite often unknowing – which the other drivers might make.

            And while he wasn't above rolling an occasional drunk – which as a class he detested and despised – he usually drew the line only at preying on people who didn't offer a sporting chance.  To Mack, the game was everything and if a person was too stupid to play, Mack generally retired from the game and treated them deferentially, as befitted their status as non-combatants.

For their part, the other drivers mostly looked up to Mack as their leader – even though he frequently exploited them.  Mack cherished this role and undertook the job with great relish.

 

Mack looked at the man, who was still leaning propped over the mailbox, swaying drunkenly.

Reluctantly, Mack pushed aside his disgust and revulsion of drunks, and called out to the man, “Hey you!”

            After a couple moments, the man turned his face towards Mack.

            Frowning, Mack called out loudly, “Yeah, you.  Who the hell you think I was talking to, ya fucking dipshit?  You call a cab?”

            The man hesitated, looking uncertain, then recognition finally dawning, he answered drunkenly, “Yesh…it was I.”  He continued to stand draped over the mailbox, staring vaguely in the direction of Mack’s cab.

            Mack shook his head.  He really and truly hated drunks with a passion, and this guy was very drunk – it looked like the man was just barely functional. 

He waited a few more moments while thinking seriously about calling the trip in as a no-good, but then yelled at the drunk angrily, “Well if you called the fucking cab, then maybe you better get in right now or I’m leaving.  You got about ten seconds, Einstein.”

            Finally aware of what he was supposed to do, the drunk reluctantly let go of the mailbox and bobbing and weaving, walked unsteadily around the side of the car.  Eventually, he navigated his way into the passenger seat.

            Mack could smell him as he got in – stale beer and cigarettes.

            The drunk fumbled with the door and finally got it closed. 

The drunk was a big man, maybe six foot three and well over two hundred pounds.  He was dressed like a laborer, in jeans and a blue denim work shirt, stained with grease around the front.  He had to be in his mid-forties, thought Mack, as he sized him up.  He had rough-looking hands – large hands, with grease under the fingernails.  Maybe a mechanic at a truck stop or something.  And totally and completely plastered, just on the verge of passing out.  The drunk lay back in the seat and closed his eyes.

For a second, Mack thought the guy might have passed out, and shouted, “Hey!  Hey you!  Where the fuck you want me to take you?  Hey!  Wake up, goddammit!”  Mack grabbed his arm and shook him roughly.

Having a drunk pass out in your car was a real pain.  Sometimes they could be pretty difficult to get rid of.  And if this guy passed out, Mack thought, he was way too big to drag out by himself.  He shook him again.

The drunk’s eyes fluttered, and then he mumbled something.

Mack shouted in his face, “Hey!   Where do you want me to take you?”

More alert now, the drunk narrowed his eyes for a moment, then smiling, slurred, “How ‘bout home?”  He smiled broadly, pleased with his display of wit.

Eyes narrowed, Mack screamed at him, “You fucking moron!   I don’t know where you live.  What’s your goddamn fucking address?”

The drunk lowered his eyes for a moment, and then said slowly, “Uh, …it’s twenty-four forty-three North Baltimore.”

Mack thought for a moment.  From where they were at the tavern, it’d probably be twelve dollars or so to that address.  But then another thought passed his mind, and he grinned wickedly, and said,  “Okay, look.  I want twenty-five dollars up-front to take you there.  Pay up or we’re not gonna move.”

The drunk looked indignant.  “Hey, whas this? You don’ trus’ me ta pay?  I got lots a money! ”  His eyes were almost closed again.

Sneering, Mack said, “Look, asshole.  I’m gonna push your smelly fucking ass back onto the sidewalk and you can sleep there tonight unless I get some bucks.  You wanna ride home in a cab, it’s gonna take twenty-five bucks up-front to get moving.  Now you gonna pay-up or what?”

Moving slowly, the drunk pulled a large wad of money out of his hip pocket and then shoved two bills at Mack. 

Mack grabbed the bills – twenties he saw – and quickly stuffed them in his shirt pocket.  “Now that’s more like it,” he said, turning the meter on.  He put the car in gear, moving off.  A broad grin lit his entire face.

The drunk rolled his eyes and finally passed out, fortunately for Mack, while leaning against the door.

 

An hour and a half later, Mack had finished breakfast and when he got back to the car, he saw the drunk was still sleeping.  The meter was up to one hundred and thirteen dollars.

He’d driven around aimlessly for the first half hour or so, and he’d then done a blood run from Tacoma General to St Clare hospital in Lakewood before deciding to go get a bite to eat – at his favorite restaurant in Kent.

From Kent, he decided to check and see if his brother who lived in Everett was home from work – he worked a night shift at Boeing.  As it turned out, his brother wasn’t home yet so he left a note saying he’d be over later to collect the money he was owed.  The drunk continued to snore.

It was nearly time to start getting light when Mack finally pulled into the drunk’s own driveway.

Mack put the car in park, and then after hesitating for a moment, with great distaste, he reached over and shook the man violently.  “Hey, asshole!   Asshole!  You’re home!  Wakee wakee!” he screamed maliciously in the man’s ear, and then shook him some more.

The man mumbled something and tried to hide his head.

Mack shook him again and screamed, “C’mon goddammit!  You’re home, motherfucker!  H-O-M-E   Now pay me my fucking money and get your stinkin’ ass outa my cab!”

The man mumbled again and struggled to sit up, blinking his eyes and rubbing his face with his hands.

“You gotta pay me my money!” Mack said a little softer, now that the man was awake.

The drunk shook his head as if trying to clear the cobwebs, then said thickly, “Huh… I… Uh…oh my God.”  His whole body shook, as if in a convulsion, and then he opened his eyes again, and after clearing his throat, asked thickly, “…uh, whada I owe ya?”

Lips pursed, Mack tapped his finger on the meter.  It read $314.70.

After staring for a few moments, the drunk finally focused on the meter, and then obviously in shock, exclaimed, “Three hundred and fourteen dollars?  What the fuck?”

Eyes narrowed, Mack shouted angrily, “Hey, what the fuck is this?  You hired me, asshole!  I went where you told me, now you’re gonna pay the fare or you’ll be doing time, goddammit!”

The drunk stammered, “But…but…how did I…?”

Mack cut him off.  “I don’t give a flying fuck what.  You’re gonna pay the goddamn fare or we’re calling the cops!”  He picked up the microphone from its bracket on the dash and held it close to his lips.

The drunk looked worried.  “No cops, please ”

“Then pay me!”

The drunk hesitated for a moment, then dug in his pocket and pulled out a large wad of bills.  After several moments, his hands shaking badly, he counted out three hundred and fifteen dollars and passed it to Mack.

Mack counted out the bills quickly, and then glaring, eyes narrowed, he shouted,  What?  No tip!   You chiseling cocksucker!  What about my goddamn tip?”

Looking shocked, the drunk pulled a twenty from his wad and trembling, handed it across to Mack.

Still glaring at him, Mack took the bill and looked at it.  “A twenty?  You cheap sonofabitch!  Oh, great!   Now I can send my kids to college.”  He hesitated for a moment, and then continued, “Aw, go on.  Get the fuck outa here.  Your stink is making me feel like I wanna puke.”

Relieved, the drunk fumbled with the door handle and managed to get out, and went wobbling across the wet grass towards his house.

Whistling to himself, Mack smiled as he reached across the car and slammed the passenger door, and then put the car in gear and backed out of the driveway.

 

 

VIII.  Service is our goal

Marty Medina was an ex-athlete gone to seed, the paunch of middle age starting to replace the flat stomach.  In his late thirties, the remnants of healthy muscles were now turning to flab, and hung loosely on Medina's large frame.  Nearly six feet tall, Medina had an olive complexion, and although he was out of shape, he still moved lightly on his feet, with an athlete’s grace. 

            His clean-shaven face was round, with large, expressive brown eyes, framed by shoulder-length straight, black hair, cut in a shag style, longer in back than on the sides.  He had a prominent nose, slightly crooked, as if it had been broken and not properly reset.

            Medina was very careful with his hands, and he got a manicure at least once a week.  Above all, he considered himself a guitarist – he still had ambitions of making it big someday – and at the annual company picnic thrown by Dan Dinwiddie, he would always be found off in a corner playing his guitar, usually with several ladies making moon-eyes at him. 

Ladies were indeed his weakness and as a result, he often ended up wasting a lot of time and money to pursue some romantic interest or other.  Even so, it didn’t really bother him.  The time he wasted and the money he failed to make were his own.  If he wanted to spend several hours giving out Hershey Kisses to all the hookers on Christmas Eve, or doing their errands or whatever, that was his business.

Every now and then, his business would intersect that of the ladies.  He had his favorites among the girls that worked downtown, and when the occasion arose, he’d steer some business their way.  That was as he reasoned, what cab drivers did.  Ethics or legalities didn’t enter into it.  He saw himself more as a mother hen figure than as a pimp.

He’d been at BlackTop now for about three years.

For a period of years after he got out of high school, Medina had played in a bunch of bands around the San Francisco Bay area, and at one point, actually did come pretty close to making it big.  After a falling out with his last band – where he’d actually ended up as their manager – disgusted with music and musicians, Medina turned his back on music.  Since then, after a brief interval in college, he’d been in sales, mostly.  His talents ran the gamut from selling rodeo tickets for crippled children over the phone, to flogging decrepit wrecks that could barely run for Honest Al's Used Cars.  The car lot had been his home for over five years.

            Al's motto, hanging on a big sign over the entrance of the lot had read, Quality Service is Our Goal.   Marty and the other salesmen used to joke privately that the only service it referred to was what Al forced on unwary female customers – Al was particularly well endowed and he liked to share this good fortune with any female who was willing – and many who were not.

            Marty hadn't really approved of Al's methods, and that as well as a good looking blonde and some other factors contributed heavily towards Marty's move to BlackTop.  Al had been romancing the blonde in the back of a VW Vanagon that needed CV joints and new rings.  Marty had unwittingly rescued her from Al's attentions. 

            He'd been about to take a picture of the van for the Photo Auto Trader magazine when he noticed it rocking and heard noises.  Camera in hand, he'd opened the sliding door expecting to find a couple of teenagers going at it.  Instead, he found Al and the blonde in a state of undress, the lady with her panties down around her ankles, and her broad backside upturned as she bent forward over the folding table.  Al was poised in back of her, in flagrant delicato, trying to do his worst.

            As they stared out at Marty, shocked expressions on their faces, Marty's bad luck continued and the flash on the camera somehow fired.  The blonde started screaming as Marty slammed the door shut and ran off towards the sales office.

            Although he hadn't actually taken a picture, he was never able to convince Al, who figured Marty was trying to blackmail him. 

            For a month or so, Al had nightmares about blackmail, deathly afraid that Marty would send the non-existent picture to his wife.  And while Marty vehemently denied any interest in blackmail, he didn't turn down the '89 Caddy when Al offered it to him. 

            After he accepted the Caddy, things really went downhill at the car lot.  Al became morose, withdrawn and paranoid, afraid of what he imagined Marty would want next.  The final straw was when Al started carrying a gun – just in case someone tried to stick them up, he said.  And so, they soon ended up parting ways.

            If Medina sold someone a beater Pontiac that would throw a rod before it went ten miles; if he sold someone tickets for a non-existent rodeo to benefit non-existent crippled kids; if he took someone twenty miles out of the way to boost their cab fare, it was all the same to Medina.    When people did business with him, they were buying Marty Medina and that was just the price of doing business with him.  He was the best – just ask him, he'd tell you – and you always pay more for the best. 

            Now all this said, Medina was also subject to random fits of nobility and honesty, often at the strangest, most inopportune times.  In addition, he had a well-developed if somewhat underutilized sense of fairness that plagued him occasionally.  Topping off this mass of contradictions was a compassionate, caring soul that longed to fight injustice, and to protect the weak and infirm.

            As Mack frequently observed, Medina was one sick puppy.

 

 

IX.  Chivalry abounds

            Marty Medina was driving slowly up Pacific Avenue, at “trolling speed” as he called it, when his trainee, Wick exclaimed,  “Hey, look!  Over there by the Jack in the Box.  Someone's flagging us down.  A broad.  Nice looking, too.”

Medina moved the Dodge Diplomat over to the curb lane and signaled a turn, and then pulled into the parking lot at the Jack in the Box.  The lady moved towards them at a jog.  As she got closer, Medina saw it was Dora, one of the regular girls who worked the area. 

            Dora was in her mid thirties and still looked good.  She hadn't ruined herself yet – like many of the other, older whores.  She was about five-five and slim, with great legs.  She was wearing a black miniskirt with low heels, and a tight, Nile green-colored satin blouse which was cut low, showing off her sumptuous breasts.  Her round face was framed by flaming red hair cut short, almost severely short.

             “Marty!  Jesus lord, am I glad to see you.  You gotta get me outa here.”   She slowed down as she neared the car, and looked in back of her, and went on, “This freak was following me.  I think he was vice.  He had this badge.”  She stopped by the door, and for the first time noticed Wick.  She frowned, and asked,  “You got a fare?

            Medina shook his head.   “Naw, like this is a trainee, David Wick.”   Turning to Wick, he said,  “Dave, may I present Dora?  One of our proud working girls.”   Looking back at Dora, he went on,  “Go ahead dear, get in back.”

            Bent over, standing with her head in Medina’s window, Dora smiled at Wick.   “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” she said very formally.  Then she turned and opened the back door, and climbed in the back seat.

As soon as she slammed the door, Medina turned the car around and turned left onto Pacific.  Glancing back at her, he asked,  “Shall I like take you down by the Valley Motel or something?”

            She nodded.   “That'd be great.”   She dug in her small purse and found a cigarette, which she lit.  Blowing out a long plume of smoke, she asked,  “Say, have you seen Ashley tonight?”

            Turning right onto Puyallup Avenue, Medina shook his head.   “Uh uh.  Haven't seen him all week.  Why?”

            She draped herself over the back of the seat in-between Medina and Wick, and said, “I'm kinda worried about him.  There's a whole lot a vice around tonight.  Got these two guys in a little blue truck with a camper on the back.  According to Alfred, they been picking up girls all night – and none a those girls a come here back on the street, at least yet.  Eva, Doris, Phyllis Mae and a bunch of others.  I think it's a sting like they did a few months ago.”

            Medina looked at her in the mirror.   “Eva?”  

            She nodded, reaching over to the window to knock the ash off her cigarette.   “Yeah, that's what Alfred said.”

            “Like I thought she went back to East St Louis to like visit her family?”

            “Yeah.  But she got back here a couple weeks ago.”

            “Huh.  Didn't even know she was back.”   Medina paused for a moment, then asked,  “Hey!  You see Hazel around, man?”

            She shook her head.   “Nope.  Not tonight.  Why?”

            He shrugged.   “I dunno.  It just that it's been a few days since I seen her.  Kinda worried.  You heard that Lockjaw was still after her?”

            She nodded, blowing a plume of smoke against the windshield.   “That porch monkey goes near that white girl he's gonna get his wiener chopped off.  And Hazel's just crazy enough to do it, too.”

            She looked over at Wick who was silently following their conversation and said,  “Lockjaw got it into his head that he's in love with Hazel.  He's a pimp junior, a wannabe.  Hazel can't stand him.”   Turning to Medina, she added,  “And no wonder ‘cause it’s for sure he ain’t exactly what you’d call a winner.  Me, I wouldn't let him catch my crap in his mouth.”   Back to Wick, she went on,  “One day about two weeks ago, they're all high on rock and he starts beating on Hazel.  Gonna finish her off, 'cause if he can't have her, then no one can, he reckons.  He gets this car and has China drive, while he puts Hazel on the floor of the back seat.  Tells her he'll kill her if she moves.  Got some rope and a shovel in the trunk.  Gonna take Hazel out in the woods, off her, then bury her body.”   Dora took another hit from her cigarette, and then went on,  “They get all the way down by Twenty-Fourth and Pacific and the car runs out of gas.  You believe that?  Hazel just freaked.  She starts fighting with him, and he stabs her in the leg with this little pocketknife, but she managed to get out of the car and run inside the Texaco station.  Lord Almighty God, she was lucky!”

            Eyes narrowed, Wick asked,  “The guy was really gonna kill her?”

            Dora nodded.   “Oh, yeah.  Lockjaw’s one crazy nigger.”

            Medina spoke.   “But like you didn't tell him the best part.”

            “Huh?” she asked, looking puzzled.

            “Like what Hazel's carrying, now.”   Medina pulled into the lot in back of the Valley Tavern and stopped, putting the car in park.

            Dora smiled broadly.   “Oh yeah.”   She turned to Wick.   “Well you see, after all this comes down, Hazel decides she needs some protection.  She spends two three days going around trying to find someone that'd sell her a gun.  Problem was every time she'd find someone with a gun, it'd be right after she scored some rock or something – she never was able to find a person who had a gun and have enough money to buy one at the same time.  A couple days of this, and she was going nuts.”   Reaching back to the window, she tapped the ash off her cigarette and then took another hit.  Blowing out the smoke, she continued,  “I mean she was right – she does need some protection.  If Lockjaw ever does find her again, she's a goner unless she can get him first.  But anyway, like I was saying, she got all browned off 'cause she couldn't get a gun.”

            Wick eyed Dora's cleavage.   “So what'd she do?”

            Dora grinned.   “Well, like I told ya honey, she was getting pretty desperate.  She's been going through all this stuff for a couple days.  So finally, she says ‘screw it,’ walks into this department store at the mall and shoplifts the biggest, nastiest electric carving knife they had!”  Dora cracked up.

            Medina broke out laughing as well, and said,  “And so like here she is on the street, and she's got this big purse, right?  Like she'll be standing there, and all of a sudden, she pulls this humongous knife out, and starts waving it around, yelling about what she's gonna do to Lockjaw when she sees him.  Like this foot-long electric carving knife.  And man, she's waving it in the air, and it's going, 'whirr, whirr, whirr.'  Oh, Jesus.”  

            Wick didn't seem to think it was quite as funny as Dora and Medina did.  Maybe you had to be there, Medina thought.

            Still laughing, Dora sighed and said,  “She's one stoned crazy 'ho.”

            Carnahan’s voice came over the radio.   “Car twenty-two.”  

            Medina picked up the mic and responded,  “Double deuce.”

            “Double deuce, get the Twenty-Fourth Street Tavern for Gary.”

            Medina keyed the mic.   “Like is that a male Gary, a female Gary, or an indeterminate Gary?”

            Carnahan’s braying laugh came over the speaker, and then he finally answered,  “Yeah, right.  You let me know when you find out, huh?” 

            “Two-two copy.”   He hung the mic up.

            Medina looked back at Dora.   “Well, lady, it's been real.”

            She smiled and leaning forward, kissed his cheek.   “Thanks for the ride, Marty.  Have a good night, huh?”

            “You too, lady.  Be safe.”

            She smiled.   “I will.”  Opening the door, she turned to Wick and smiled.  “Nice meeting you, honey.  See you around?”

            Wick nodded.   “You bet.” 

            “Bye bye.”   She slammed the door and undulated off towards the tavern.

            Medina turned to Wick.   “She's something else, huh?”

            Wick nodded, looking thoughtful.   “I wouldn't mind that.”

            Medina smiled.   “Maybe so.  But for damn sure, I'd want a full-body prophylactic.”   They laughed, and then he said,  “C'mon, let's go over to the Twenty-Fourth Street.”

            “It's a fag bar?”

            He nodded.   “Finest kind.”

 

 

X.  A Gathering Of The Forces

Phil’s Saloon was catty corner across the street from BlackTop Cab. 

Built just before the turn of the century, Phil’s was one of the oldest buildings in the area.  Originally called La Casa Felice dell' Ubriaco, which translated loosely as “The House of the Good Drunk,” it was built to cash in on the growing Italian community on McKinley Hill.

Through the years, ownership of the bar had been passed down the Rossini family, till when in the fifties, no Rossini heir could be found that wanted to continue the tavern.  Thus, it was sold to an erstwhile shipyard worker come restaurateur named Phil Syzmanski. 

The Rossini family had really let the place go in the last few years.  What started out as a cheery place where Italian laborers could knock back a few glasses of vino in an atmosphere reminiscent of their hometowns of Napoli or Ravenna had, by the time Phil got a hold of it, degenerated into a dingy hangout for bums and winos.

Phil fixed the place up. He scrubbed off years of grime and crud, opened up previously boarded-shut windows, and applied some new paint.  The useable remnants of the Italian motif decorations were dusted off and left in place, the rest tossed out.  And thus the transition was made to Phil’s Saloon – a bright cheery place where the shipyard workers could come for a drink.

After tending bar for the better part of twenty years, Phil retired in his late seventies and turned the bar over to his nephew, one Harold Lemoyne – a mostly absentee landlord with a predilection for fast women and cocaine.  In the short space of about five years, the place once again descended into a haven for bums and winos.

The BlackTop drivers fit right in.

Many drivers came over to have a few drinks after the end of their shifts, because the place was so conveniently located.  And then for that matter, some also came over for a few drinks before their shifts.  The place opened up at 6:00 AM and closed at 2:00 AM.   It was perfect.

Just inside the door on the right were four booths, old high-backed wooden booths with dark-stained wood.  Across from the booths to the left was the bar, which took up the center of the room.   The bar looked like it might have been shipped over from Italy – it had an ornate hand-carved hardwood top with a brass foot-rail, and with big heavy oak barstools with leather-padded tops.  The bar was U-shaped, with beer taps on both main sides.  The coolers were built into the wall at the end.

On the far side of the bar in the back of the room were tables and then along the rear wall, another row of four booths, along with doors to the restrooms.  The place was dimly lit, and reeked of stale beer and cigarettes – and frequently of urine or puke, the smells of which wafted out from the restrooms.  The tables were almost always sticky – but you could never really be sure with what.

Mack and Medina had commandeered a group of tables in the back and were getting pretty wasted. They’d both come in right when the bar opened, and Mack was buying rounds, feeling expansive after having what he figured was a very good night.

As the morning progressed, a number of other night drivers as well as some other BlackTop employees filtered in.

Johnny Avalon and Bobby O’Dea came in.  So did Darnell Jones, Hughie Wilson and Whitey Jorgen and Robert Ransoon and Dewey Mitchell.  They were regulars at the ‘Morning Tea’ as they all called it, and almost always stopped over for a few cool ones after turning in their cars. 

Bobby Wood made it and he hardly ever came over in the morning.  So did Dave Murphy and another of the phone people, a young lady named Martina Gustafson who had a second job as a telephone psychic with the Psychic Friends Network.

Everyone, it seemed, had had a really great night and wanted to celebrate and had picked Phil’s as the place to go.

By 7:00 AM, Mack and Medina really were getting pretty blasted.   The others weren’t far behind.

As usual, once they’d downed a few drinks, the conversation had quickly degenerated into a recital of the problems at BlackTop, along with a heated discussion of what they’d all like to do to make things right.  Chief on the list of problems were the shitty, broken-down cars and the asshole mechanics that kept them that way. 

The standard bitch was that if you took a car in for a broken windshield wiper, the mechanics would thoroughly screw it up and they’d end up having to deadline the car for a blown main-bearing or something.

To make the morning more interesting, Evil Justin, BlackTop’s lead mechanic, was also in the bar downing a few beers before the start of his shift. 

His presence had been bugging Mack to no end, and the more that Mack drank, the more aggressive he became, and the louder he spoke about how fucked-up the mechanics all were. 

Evil Justin was a sour, angry, bitter and petty person.  He loved to scream and berate and bully the drivers for no reason at all.  He made a real sport of it, actually.

He had come by his name honestly.  Early in his career, there had been a time where there were two mechanics at BlackTop named Justin, and so given his disposition, it was only natural that he be called Evil Justin and the other was called Good Justin.  The names fit extraordinarily well.

Evil Justin was in his early thirties.  He was lean and thin, and had a haggard look with mean and spiteful little eyes, set narrow on his face.  He had long, straight brown hair, usually tied back in a ponytail, along with a full beard and mustache – the effect of which made him look a little like a biker.   All which would have been great except he was way too short to be a biker – maybe five foot six or so.

He’d mostly worked at wrecking yards before coming to BlackTop.  He’d started out at BlackTop a number of years ago at the bottom doing oil changes and replacing windshield wipers.  The garage paid only minimum wage so there was heavy attrition, and thusly, Evil Justin quickly rose through the ranks to become the head mechanic.

Evil Justin lived solely to take out his pain, frustration and anger on others – mainly the drivers. 

When he wanted to be, he was a reasonably competent mechanic, so Elmo protected him.  Plus, their management styles were quite similar – they were both arrogant bullies that lived to intimidate and belittle everyone they came in contact with.  The only real difference was where Elmo was sneakier and underhanded, Evil Justin was more direct and to the point.  And he really and truly loved to scream.

Evil Justin was the one responsible for the scrawled legend painted on the door of the shop, “No Drivers Allowed! ” then along with smaller letters painted below, it said, “This means you, asshole!”

Any driver disregarding the words would bear the full force of his wrath.

At BlackTop, Evil Justin found an ideal home.  The place was made for him.

 

“Fucking junkyard dog,” said Mack, blowing out a long plume of blue smoke.  He took another healthy swig of Old Tennessee bourbon – which by consensus was the crowd’s favorite libation.  Gasping a little after he swallowed the fiery liquid, Mack looked over at Evil Justin, and went on, “That’s all the fucker’s good for.  Ain’t no kinda mechanic.”

The more Mack drank, the more he wanted to have it out with Evil Justin.  In the past few minutes, his comments had been getting very loud, and it would have been impossible for Evil Justin to have not heard.            

Dewey Mitchell, sitting to his right, agreed.  “Sonofabitch ain’t good enough to be a goddamn junkyard dog.”  He pulled a comb from his pocket and ran it through his close-cropped black hair, all the while, wondering who it was the guys were talking about.

“Did I ever tell you what we did to this guy at Oliver Taxi, once?” asked Bobby Wood.  A long ash tipped off his cigarette into his drink while he looked at Mack expectantly, smiling his toothless grin, staring out of his Coke bottle glasses.

Mack smiled drunkenly, and then asked, “Naw, what’d you guys do?”              

Another ash fell off into his drink, and then Bobby said, “Well, this guy was the shittiest mechanic I ever seen.  I mean you ain’t never seen nobody this bad.  Why you’d take the car in for an oil change, then three days later, you’d get it back and it wouldn’t run – every time.  So finally, we get fed up with ‘em fuckin’ up our cars and we decided to get even.  You know what we did?”

Whitey Jorgen broke in, “I was there, too, you old fool.”  He turned to Mack and went on, “We chained the back of his truck to a goddamn phone pole.  The asshole took off, burning rubber, like usual, and he pulled the whole back axel off!”

Bobby Wood slapped the table, laughing, and then said, “You shoulda seen the look on the asshole’s face!  Oh, we fixed that fucker so good!”

Everyone stole looks at Evil Justin, who was now downing the last of his beer.

“The cocksucker’s leaving,” said Bobby O’Dea.  “Here he comes.”

Eyes straight forward, Evil Justin walked towards the door, trying to ignore the group.

Mack called out to him, “Hey Justin!  Down enough beer so your hands won’t shake when you pick up a wrench?”

Evil Justin stopped and glared at Mack.

Mack continued, “Hold on, silly me, I forgot.  Why the hell would you ever pick up a wrench?  It’s much easier to scratch your asshole with your fingers, isn’t it?”

Medina giggled drunkenly.  The rest of the group at the table held their collective breaths, waiting for the explosion.

Evil Justin gave Mack a withering gaze.  Then with a thin smile, he said slowly, “You drive car sixty, right?  I know you do.  I remember now.  I just seen a write-up on it.  Had a noise in the engine I think.  I’ll have to call it in for service, today.  This is gonna take quite a while to fix.  Maybe two-three weeks.”

In a matter of only several seconds, Mack’s face went through several distinct changes, first registering shock, then incredulity and finally, it twisted with rage. “You fucker!”  He said thickly.  “There’s nothing wrong with that car and you know it.  You leave it the fuck alone!”

Evil Justin smirked.  “Nope.  I’m certain of it.  Sixty’s off the road.  I’ll write it out of service as soon as I get to the shop.  Don’t worry Mack, I’ll see you get a loaner.  I got a special one just for you.  Car thirty-one.”  Evil Justin smiled malevolently.

Now all of the loaner cars were pretty scary.  Without regularly assigned drivers, the loaners were never well maintained – they were all pretty much thoroughly thrashed.  But among the loaners, car thirty-one was something of a legend at BlackTop. 

The oldest car in the fleet, it had well over a million miles on it.  The main bearings had been going out for quite a long time – all while making a tremendous racket that never failed to frighten the customers.  But somehow, the car wouldn’t die.  The interior was completely thrashed, icky black grunge that was impossible to remove covering what was left of the upholstery.  The car smelled of stale urine and puke.  Sometimes the trunk wouldn’t close completely.  Several of the body panels were loose, held on with baling wire.  It was a wreck with wheels.

Wide eyed, Mack shook his head.  “You can’t do that to me!”

Evil Justin sneered.  “Whadayamean, you moron?  I just did!”

Mack stood up quickly and faced Evil Justin.  You sonofabitch!  He screamed.  “I want you outside, now!

“Kiss my ass!”  Sneered Evil Justin, standing his ground, looking Mack dead in the eye.

Medina moved quickly and managed to grab Mack just as he swung at Evil Justin. 

Dewey Mitchell and Robert Ransoon followed suit, grabbing his arms.  Mack struggled to get away.

Medina was pretty big, but Ransoon was bigger.  And Dewey was even bigger yet – an ex-boxer who was six-foot five, and weighed over three hundred pounds.  With the three of them holding him, Mack didn’t have a chance.  He stood struggling, trying in vain to break loose.

Lemme go you assholes!  Goddammit, I’m gonna kill this sonofabitch!” he screamed, twisting back and forth, trying to get free.  The three held on tighter.

Evil Justin narrowed his eyes and smirked.  “May be a couple months before I can get to car sixty.  I’m sure you’ll be real comfy in thirty-one.”

Shaking with rage, Mack struggled to get free, and when he couldn’t, he finally hawked a big gob of spit at Evil Justin, hitting him in the face.            

Still staring at Mack, Evil Justin calmly wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt, and then without saying anything more, he left.                           

The drivers released Mack as soon as Evil Justin passed through the door.

Breathing heavily, Mack shook his head, and then sat back down, grabbing his drink, and took a big chug of Old Tennessee.

Ransoon picked up his Indiana Jones hat from where it had fallen on the floor, and then sat heavily down, reaching for his drink.

Bobby Wood and Whitey Jorgen sat shaking their heads, sipping their drinks.  Dave Murphy went back to talking with Martina Gustafson about her work as a psychic.  He had a growing suspicion that if he could keep the conversation running long enough, he might have company in his bed this morning.  Dewey Mitchell sat down and combed his short hair again, and then drained the rest of his coke, all while wondering why everyone was so excited.  Pleased the interruption was over, Jonesy and Hughie and Bobby O’Dea resumed their argument about last night’s Mariner’s game.

Trying not to laugh as he sat down, Medina said, “Man, like I guess you showed him, Mack.”

“That fucker!” said Mack, still fuming.  “I’ll talk to Dan.  He can’t do this shit to me.”

“Right as rain, Mack,” said Medina, trying to suppress a giggle as he swallowed the last of his drink, nearly choking in the process.

Ransoon adjusted the brim of his hat, and said, “We’ll do it just like Bobby Woods said.  We’ll chain the back end of his car to a pole.  We’ll show the sonofabitch he can’t fuck with us!”

Mack nodded, his eyes narrowed, focusing on his drink.  “Serve the fucker right.”  He looked up, and noticing that most everyone’s glasses were getting low, he called out to the bartender, “Hey Joey!  Can we get another round here?  We’re dying of thirst!”

Martina left abruptly for the ladies room, and since she was gone, Murphy focused back on the group for almost the first time in the whole morning.  He decided to drop his own bombshell.

Looking over at Mack, he said, “Hey, did you hear Lucy and Carnahan split up?”

Glad for the diversion, Mack seized on the thought and said, “Huh.  That’s too bad.  I been hearing rumors for the past couple weeks.  But that’s what he gets for shacking-up with a lady twenty years younger than him.  Can’t expect a lady like Lucy to stay too long.”

Medina butted in.  “Bullshit.  Age don’t mean diddley!  Nothing at all a matter with younger ladies.  Man, like you shoulda seen this hooker I had in my cab the other night.  I bet ya she was ten-twenty years younger than me if she was a day, and probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.  I’d a sold my soul for that.  We coulda made sweet music for like years and years!”

Ignoring the interruption, Murphy went on, “He’s pretty broken up by it.  Nothing obvious, but you could tell.”

Mack frowned.  “That’s shitty as hell.”

Hughie asked, “You sure it’s over between them?”

Murphy nodded.  “One hundred percent sure.  Yeah, he really loved her.  It’s gonna take him a while to get over it.”

Jonesy added, “Women!  Thank fuckin’ Christ I’m divorced…”

Dewey, who had been following the conversation intently, now frowned and said, “Jeeze, that’s too bad.  I wish there was sumpin we could do for ‘im – kinda like help him over it.”  Still frowning, he stared off into space.  He idolized Carnahan and the thought that Carnahan was in trouble really scared him.

After draining his electric iced tea, Ransoon asked Medina, “If this hooker was so beautiful and you wanted her so bad, whyn’t you just date her?”

Medina shook his head.   “Naw, she was class, man.  Like way outa my league.  You know what she wanted for a head job?  I asked.  Two hundred bucks! You believe that shit?  Man, two hundred goddamn bucks for a blow job.”

            “You got money,” said Johnny Avalon.  “Why the hell didn’t ya pay her if you’re that much in love with her?  I woulda did it.”

            Staring dreamily off into space, Medina said, “I should have, ya know.  I fucking A should have.  God she was so sweet.  Looked twenty-one if a day.  Long black hair, parted in the middle.  Great figure with big tits, long legs, and a face that wouldn’t quit.  Exotic as all hell.  Kinda Chinese with a little Mexican thrown in, nice brown skin, but with these great big slanty, green, eyes!  God she was beautiful!”

            The drinks arrived and after paying the bartender, Mack sat studying his drink while the others continued to talk about Medina’s hooker.  After a few minutes, Mack looked up and broke in.

            “Hey, now just hang on a minute here,” he said.  The others looked at him expectantly.

            Mack took a large gulp of his drink, and then looking down the table, said, “I think Dewey there hit the nail on the head a couple minutes ago.”

            Looking pleased with himself, Dewey sat up straighter in his chair and saluted Mack with his glass of coke, as he wondered what he had done.

            Mack went on, “Now you all heard what Dave said about Carnahan.  He really did love that stupid broad Lucy and breaking up with her is gonna be hard as hell on him.  Now every damn one of us owes that sonofabitch something and we all been wanting to do something nice for him.  Right?  Admit it!”

            Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.

            “Well, I think we just got our chance, here,” said Mack.

            Medina stared drunkenly at him and asked, “What in the holy flying fuck are you talking about, Mack?”  Medina didn’t normally swear but when he got drunk, his vocabulary became quite colorful.

            Mack’s eyes narrowed.  “I’m talking about doing a great favor for our friend.  I’m talking about helping him forget Lucy.  I’m talking about starting to pay him back for everything nice he ever done for us.”

            “You got a plan?”  Asked Bobby Wood, eyebrows raised, staring intently at Mack over the rims of his thick glasses.

            Mack smiled benevolently.  “Have I got a plan?  Shit!”  He paused for a few seconds, the others hanging on his words, and then went on, “It’s like this: he’s got problems getting over Lucy, right?  Well, what’s the best way to get over a woman?  With another woman, that’s what!”

            The others nodded their heads in agreement.

            Mack looked over at Medina, and continued, “Now you been talking about this call girl you had the other night.  Really beautiful, you said?”

            Medina nodded.  “Like the best lest looking hooker I ever seen.  Ever!  Man, she was damn near the most beautiful woman I ever seen.”

            Mack threw up his hands.  “Well, that’s it then.  You wanna help Carnahan get over Lucy, what we need to do is buy him this hooker!”

            The others looked thoughtful, taking sips of their drinks.  Medina, with a broad smile on his face, stared off into space.

            “Now what we need to do, “ said Mack, “Is to do this right.  We buy the girl for him for the whole night.  If she’s charging two hundred bucks for a blowjob, a night’ll probably cost six seven hundred or so.  Maybe more.  Either way, we shouldn’t have a problem coming up with that much dough.  We can hit-up everyone.  I’ll start it off right now with a hundred bucks!”  He dug in his pocket and pulled out a large wad of money, and then quickly peeled off five twenty dollar bills which he placed on the table.

            Medina frowned, and said, “Like I dunno if I can afford that much myself, right now, man.  I mean like I got a car payment coming up next week.”

            Mack shrugged.  “Look, everyone just puts in what they can afford.  You can do fifty, can’t you?”

            Still frowning, Medina shrugged and said, “Well, I s’pose.”   He reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills.

            Mack turned to the others.  “Robert, I know you got it.  I heard about your round-trip fare to Portland two nights ago.  Whitey, you put in fifty and I won’t tell anyone what I heard about you and those soldiers you stiffed, last weekend.  Bobby, gimme at least twenty.  Same with you, Dave, Dewey.  Johnny, you’re good for a hundred, aren’t you?  Hughie?  Jonesy?”

            The others reluctantly started laying money in the pile in front of Mack.

            Medina, not wanting to look cheap, said, “Like if Johnny and Ransoon can ante up a hundred, so can I.”  He placed more bills in the pile.

            Smiling broadly, Mack said, “Now that’s the spirit!”

            Mack picked up the pile and shuffled through the bills, counting.  “Six hundred and ten bucks, just like that.”  He shoved the wad in his pocket.  “I’ll hang-on to this.”  He looked thoughtful, then continued, “Ya know if we can come up with this much this easy, we oughta set our sights higher.  We could really do a good number for Carnahan.”

            “Whadayamean?” asked Johnny Avalon.

            Still looking thoughtful as he sipped his bourbon, Mack replied, “What I mean is we could really make this a night he’s gonna remember.”  He lit a cigarette, and then blowing out the smoke, went on, “If we hit-up everyone, did a really good job of it and make everyone cough up with some dough, I bet ya we could probably get a thousand bucks or so.  Maybe more.  Can you imagine what kinda night we could buy him for a thousand bucks?”

            Medina’s dreamy expression seemed to spread to the rest of the group.  Even Martina who had returned from the restroom and had settled back next to Murphy seemed caught up in the fantasy.

            “A thousand bucks...” Mack blew smoke rings at the ceiling.

            Medina nodded.  “Wow, like we could make it the greatest night of his life.  Dinner, drinks, then a fancy hotel with the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.  Something he’d remember forever and ever!  Man!”

            Mack nodded.  “It’s settled then.  We’ll hit-up everyone over the next few days.  On the Q-T!  We don’t want Carnahan knowing what we’re doing.  It’ll be a lot better if it’s a surprise.  Then somehow, we get him to come here next Saturday night on his night off, and we present the hooker to him.  God, he’s gonna love this!”

            “Lucky sonofabitch,” said Whitey, wishing the hooker was for him, not Carnahan.

            “Damn straight!” said Dewey Mitchell, feeling truly blissful now that Carnahan’s troubles were finally over.

            Mack looked over at Medina.  “You do think you can find this lady again?”

            Medina shrugged.  “Like I think so.  She was working the Sheraton.  I think she was like staying at the Ramada, or maybe one of those motels in Fife, like the Executive.  If she’s still in town, we’ll find her, man.  There’s gotta be able to be someone who can tell us where she is.”

            Mack smiled, and said, “Good.  Folks, this is gonna be one bull-bitch of a party he ain’t never gonna forget!”

 

 

 

XI.  A job well done

Evil Justin was feeling under the weather.

            As he frequently did, he’d stopped over at Phil’s before work to down a few beers and had gotten a good buzz going, but by ten o’clock, the buzz had died a unnatural death and been replaced by a slowly throbbing headache that wouldn’t go away, even after a couple shots from the bottle of vodka he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk.

            He’d spent the morning harassing one of the new mechanics he’d hired the week before and that made him feel a little better.  The new mechanic, whose name was John, had spent the last three days putting rebuilt transmissions into car thirty-eight.  So far, they’d installed four different transmissions, and each one had been defective.  It was making Justin angry.

            Elmo had signed a contract with one of his friends to rebuild the transmissions for one hundred dollars each.  They’d been dealing with the friend now for about three months, and it seemed like the guy screwed up about half of the transmissions he rebuilt.  This was getting old.

            Evil Justin would have liked to cancel the contract, but he couldn’t because of the fact that the guy was Elmo’s friend.  The one time he had broached the subject a few weeks ago, Elmo just blew him off saying that the friend was a great mechanic and everyone was allowed a few mistakes from time to time.

            All of which made Justin suspect that the guy had something on Elmo.  Or that Elmo had finally gone nuts.

            The throbbing increased again, so Justin retreated into his office to have another slug of vodka.

            The room was at the back of the shop, under the dispatch office, and partitioned off from the rest of the shop by a heavy wire cage.  It also had a door that could be locked, and along with serving as Evil Justin’s office, it was where they stored any high-priced or easily disposable parts – the radios, carburetors, windshield wiper blades, and other electronics stuff like the meters – anything that might look attractive to a thief and could be readily changed into cash.  The room was about eight feet wide, and maybe twenty feet long. 

            Just inside the door on the left was a back seat taken out of a van, heaped high on one end with radios sitting in two piles – a broken pile and a repaired pile.  In back of that was a blue colored cabinet full of small drawers each filled with sorts of different nuts and bolts and washers.  To the right of the door and backed up against the wire cage, was an old black, four-drawer metal filing cabinet with all the car’s maintenance records.  Beside that was Justin’s desk – a beat up old wooden desk that had originally come from an elementary school, which he had rescued from a pile of trash on the roadside a few years ago.

            On the desk was a large, grease-stained monthly calendar/blotter with penciled notes written here and there all over it, and then an old phone, the original yellow color almost wholly obscured by grease.  In the desk’s left corner was a messy pile of bills and invoices, with a badly scored brake rotor sitting on top.  Behind the desk taped to the wire cage was an old calendar supplied by a tool company.  The calendar showed a nearly naked young lady with hopelessly improbable silicone breasts, smiling broadly while she fondled a wrench.   Beside that was a faded centerfold of Penthouse’s Pet of the Year, from 1994.  Hanging from the ceiling suspended above the desk was an electric cord with a bare light bulb.

            Beyond the desk on either side of the small room were the rows of rough shelves made out of junk wood where parts were stored – the storage that generally overflowed onto the floor.  The whole room was dark and gloomy, and like the rest of the shop, stank of grease and other, less easily identifiable things.

            Justin sat heavily on the old secretarial chair in front of his desk, and pulled the bottle of vodka from the bottom drawer.  After checking to see no one was looking, he took a long pull off the bottle, and then replaced it in the bottom drawer.  The fiery liquid burned as it coursed down his throat.

            He had closed his eyes while waiting for the buzz, and was leaning back in the chair when he was interrupted.

            “Excuse me?”  Said a voice.

            Justin opened his eyes.

Standing in the open doorway to the office was a driver.  Evil Justin figured he must have been new, because he didn’t recognize him.  The man looked like he was in his early thirties, lean and thin, about medium height with the stubble of a crew cut.  He looked meekly at Justin.

“What the fuck do you want?” snapped Justin, annoyed at being disturbed.

The man frowned, and then avoiding Justin’s angry glare, he said timidly, “Er, I …uh, just wondered about my car – car twenty-seven.  It was called in for maintenance yesterday.  I was wondering when it was going to be done.  I talked to one of the mechanics about two hours ago and they told me all it needed was an oil change and it’d be good to go.”

Evil Justin was enraged.  No one ever asked when their car would be done.  Ever.  He could hardly believe the guy had had the nerve to come in and ask.  He must be real new, he thought.  Or real stupid.

“So you want your car, you stupid asshole?  Just who the fuck do you think you are, anyway?  Can’t you fucking read?” he asked in a low voice.

The driver backed up in the doorway a little, and said, “Uh, the dispatcher told me to ask ‘cause there aren’t any loaners available and they’re real busy right now.”  He studied the floor, anxiously.

Evil Justin stood up and faced the driver.  “I asked you if you could read, cocksucker,” he said a little louder.

“Yes.  But I just wanted…”

Evil Justin quickly stepped closer and cutting him off, he screamed in the man’s face, “You stupid cocksucker!  Just shut the fuck up!  The sign says no driver’s allowed, dipshit!  You may never get your car if you try this kinda stupid shit again!  Now you get the fuck out of here and don’t bother me.  And you damn well better stay away from my goddamn mechanics!  Out!”  Justin stabbed his finger at the door.

            The man backed up a little again, and said, “But I… I…”

            Seething with anger, Justin screamed, “You fucking moron!  You wanna get parked for good?  Get the fuck out, right now!”  

            The man turned tail and fled, heading for the nearest exit.  Justin watched as he retreated, the glow of vodka and the satisfaction of a job well done finally beginning to overcome his headache.

            He sat heavily at his desk again, and fished out the vodka, taking a long pull off the bottle.  He had just replaced the bottle in the drawer when one of the mechanics entered with a box of parts that had been delivered.

            “We got the rotor for fifty-five and the computer for twenty,” said the mechanic, placing the box on the van seat by the pile of radios.  He was wearing greasy blue coveralls, and had a lit cigarette dangling from between his lips.  He stared uneasily at Evil Justin.

            Justin looked up at him.  “You working on twenty-seven?” he asked.

            The mechanic nodded.

            “What’s left to do?”

            “The brakes are done and I fixed the leak in the radiator.  All it needs is oil and a lube.”

            “Leave it for now.  I want you to help John with the transmission in thirty-eight.  Make sure he gets it right.  You can finish twenty-seven tomorrow or the next day.”

            “You sure you don’t want me to finish twenty-seven?  It’d take only fifteen-twenty minutes.”

            Justin glared at the mechanic.  “You trying to be a smart-ass?  Maybe you want my job – is that it?  Is it?”

            The mechanic shrugged and said, “Naw, I just thought you’d want me to finish it first.”

            The vodka was starting to come on good now, and Justin was beginning to feel more mellow than he had all morning, so he allowed the mechanic to escape without reaming him too badly.  He said, “When I want your opinion, fuckface, I’ll ask for it.”  The man frowned and Justin went on, “You don’t like it?  Well don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.  Now get the fuck out and do what I told you or start looking for another job.”

            The mechanic shrugged.  “Whatever you say,” he said, looking unhappy.  He shuffled off across the shop.

 

 

 

 

 

XII.  Hit me with your best shot

The junkie took one look in through the window on the passenger side of the cab, saw Dewey Mitchell’s hulking form, and quickly decided to get in the back seat.  Dewey had that effect on people.  He looked a little scary, at least until you got to know him.

As the door closed, Dewey looked back at him, and asked in a gravelly voice, “So where ya going, Bud?”

The junkie looked nervous, like maybe he needed a fix.  He answered, “I’m going to the Mission, man.”

Dewey nodded, taking in the information slowly, then after a couple moments, he said, “Uh, okay, then why don’t ya gimme a five.”  He might not be the smartest person, but he’d been ripped off enough times by junkies and other low-life’s to know that you always got your money in advance.  And plus, Mack had drilled it into his head over and over in the past few years, and so he rarely forgot, anymore.

Intimidated by Dewey’s bulk, the junkie forked over the money without hesitation.

With over three hundred pounds on his six foot five frame, Dewey Mitchell was a hulking giant of a man, often called Lurch by his fellow drivers.  He’d had been driving cab at BlackTop for almost fifteen years.  

In his high school years, Dewey had pursued the dream of becoming a boxer.  Sadly, with a glass jaw and poor coordination, his career never even got off the ground.

He’d drifted out of high school at age sixteen, and had been working at the Hygrade meat packing plant on the Tideflats for several years when he ran into Donny Thompson one night.

Donny was booking fights once a month at the National Guard Armory and needed someone to fill out the bill for a heavyweight fight coming up.  He’d caught one of Dewey’s high school fights – the only one where he’d lasted more than the third round – and he was impressed with Dewey’s size and strength.

Dewey had never really lost his dream of becoming a boxer, and throwing around frozen slabs of meat wasn’t exactly a picnic, so obviously, he was interested.  But honest to the core, he told Donny about his glass jaw.

As it turned out, Donny didn’t care.  It was just supposed to be a one-night stand.  The way he told it, everything would be pre-arranged.  They’d dance around in the ring for a few rounds, the other guy would pretend to knock him out and then Dewey would take a dive – all for which, Donny would give him the huge sum of one hundred dollars, cash.

Now the thought of doing something dishonest – like taking a dive – truly offended Dewey.  But the more he thought about it, the more he really wanted to get back in the ring in the worst way.  Plus, he really did need the money.  So, eventually he agreed.

The fight started as planned, with Dewey dancing around the ring throwing punches, his opponent, Robert The Marauder Muldoon, apparently cowed by Dewey’s bulk.  The crowd cheered and cheered, and Dewey was in seventh heaven.  And that’s where the whole thing went horribly wrong.  It went to Dewey’s head – and, he started fighting.

In one lucky blow, Muldoon was surprised and nearly went down.

“What the fuck you doing, kid” said Muldoon in a stage whisper, fingering his sore jaw.

Dewey took that opportunity to land another blow and Muldoon promptly lost his cool and began actually fighting, too.

The ensuing battle lasted only one more round and was quite an exciting contest, but ended when Muldoon delivered a punishing series of blows to Dewey’s head, knocking him out.

Dewey laid in a coma for the next several days – with a severe concussion, according to the doctors.  When he finally awoke, he wasn’t quite all there.

He’d never been what you call a mental giant, but now his reasoning powers had been knocked back to the level of a twelve year old and his short-term memory had suffered as well.  The doctors diagnosed this as a traumatic brain stem injury that was a result of the knock-out.  They told him the brain damage was probably permanent, but that with a little rehabilitation, he was still high-functioning enough to be a productive member of society.

Dewey didn’t have a clue what they were talking about or really care.  He just wanted another sponge bath from the pretty, blonde nurse.

Back out on the street after rehabilitation, Dewey struggled through a series of different jobs before finally landing at BlackTop.  Cab driving actually suited him well.  Of all his faculties, his spatial senses still worked well and he was able to navigate around the town without too much difficulty.  He really did fit in well as a cabbie.

While he was a very imposing figure and could look quite terrifying when he chose to, he was a gentle giant.  Always happy, it was almost impossible to get him angry, even when his feelings were hurt.  He was quick with a kind word, and was completely and blissfully unaware of anything beyond his immediate world. 

Some of the dispatchers would lose their patience and occasionally be unkind to Dewey because he was so dense.  But Carnahan always went out of his way to make sure Dewey was taken care of, feeding him some very good runs every now and then.  Because of this, Dewey idolized him.

Dewey had hung out with Mack and Medina now for several years.  Initially Mack had avoided him, figuring he was a ‘retard.’   But then he found out Dewey’s story, and after that, treated him deferentially.  As Mack told everyone, he admired and respected him for having had the balls to go in the ring and refuse to throw a fight – even if he was a little slow.  And in any event, as Mack privately thought, having a six foot five giant for a friend might have its benefits.

 

Dewey picked up the mic, and finding a break in the heavy radio traffic, he spoke up, “Car five-nine.”

Carnahan responded, “Five-nine.”

Dewey thought for a second, trying to think of where he was going and then remembered.  “Fifty-nine’s going Fifteenth and Commerce,” he said, and then released the key of the mic.

There was a pause for a moment, and then Carnahan responded, “Dew, Dave Murphy wants me to tell you to GTM.”  This was the driver’s shorthand for Get The Money up front before you go.  If the phone person who wrote up the trip thought there was anything suspicious about the call, they’d usually tell the dispatcher who would pass along the tip to GTM.

Dewey, eyebrows furrowed, thought furiously for a second, and then said, “Oh, I did.  It’s okay.”  He un-keyed the mic.

“Good for you, Dewey.  Five-nine’s going, then.  Next car,” said Carnahan. 

The radio crackled and sputtered with all the cars trying to call in.  Dewey turned down the volume and hung up the mic.

He stared blankly off into space for a few moments, while planning out all the details of where he was supposed to go – what turns to make, what street names he should look for, and so on.  He liked to make sure he had everything down, because sometimes when he didn’t, unexpected things happened – like for example, the time when he had ended up east of the mountains in Cle Elum when he was supposed to have been going across town to the Seven-Eleven at Thirty-Eighth and J.  

Finished planning his route, Dewey flicked the meter on with his index finger.  He dropped the car in gear and moved off into traffic.

They were at the Mission in just a few minutes.

Parked at the curb, Dewey looked back at the junkie and then said, “Well, here we are, Bud.  You want your change?”  He always liked to ask because as he found, sometimes they would say no.

The junkie shook his head.  “Just wait for me a minute, then we’ll leave.  I wanna go to Lakewood.”

This wasn’t one of the responses he’d expected and the interruption in the routine threw him off for a moment.  Dewey stared at him blankly, and then finally asked, “You don’t want your change?”

The junkie’s eyes narrowed.  “I said I wanted you to wait, and then we’d go to Lakewood.  Didn’t you hear me?’

Dewey focused on what the man was saying, and then recognition dawned.  He remembered there had been other times when this had happened.  “Oh, you mean like you want me to wait and then take you to Lakewood, huh?”

The junkie nodded.  “You got it, man.”

Dewey thought about that for a second.  Slowly, he looked over at the meter.  It was only a little over three dollars.  His brain aching with the effort, he did the math and after figuring out he had almost another two dollars left, he looked back at the man.  “I’ll wait here until the five bucks is gone.  If you ain’t back by then, I’m leavin’.”

He settled back to wait as the junkie closed the door.

 

 

XIII.        Hooker?  I don’t got to show you no stinkin’ hooker

It was early evening, finally starting to cool off a little from a high of almost ninety.  The smells of hot grease and gasoline wafted out from the open door of the shop.  Johnny Avalon was washing his car on the wash rack in front of the deck.   And Medina still had not been able to find the hooker. 

Mack was getting worried.

They’d collected several hundred more dollars, and it seemed likely they would easily be able to reach the one thousand dollar mark.  But without the hooker, all their preparations would be in vain.

Mack, Dewey and Medina were sitting on the deck in front of the dispatch office, waiting for their day-drivers to bring in the cars

 “I think if we’re gonna find her, we’ve just gotta go do it,” said Mack, frowning.

            Medina shrugged.  “Like, it’s only Wednesday, we’ve got three more days.  What’s the rush, man?”

            Mack frowned.  “The rush is we’re gonna look like jackasses if we don’t get the girl.  We go and collect all this money, promising we’re gonna deliver the goods.  If we don’t deliver, our ass is grass.  Three days ain’t shit!”   

Mack hadn’t even been in his car yet and his uniform was already sticking to his skin.  He moved in his chair trying to get comfortable.  A vague thought chased across his mind that he’s ask Johnny Avalon to spray him with the hose – it was still that hot.  He moved again, trying to get comfortable.

 “Hey Mack!  Marty!  You guys seen Ralphie?”  It was Robert Ransoon, walking up the stairs to the deck.

Mack’s frown deepened and he turned away, not wanting to change the subject. 

Medina answered, “Like I don’t think he’s here yet.  Why?”

A broad mile on his face, Ransoon fingered his Indiana Jones hat, adjusting it to the perfect rakish tilt, and then he said, “I just wanted to thank him for the favor.”

This was unusual enough to divert Mack, who turned and asked, “Ralph Mack did you a favor?”

Wide eyed with a goofy grin on his clean-shaven face, Ransoon nodded.  “Sure as shit.  You’re gonna love this.  I was in the Tideflats, two in the zone behind Ralph.  Ralph had just scooped someone in the Town at Greyhound and was running silent – he was going somewhere down towards Lakewood, I guess.  I saw him just as he was turning onto the freeway, southbound.  He waves at me as they go by.  One minute later – one minute – Carnahan comes on the radio.  He calls him three times, but Ralph never answers ‘cause he’s running silent, so Carnahan finally calls him out of service and gives me the bell.  You know what it was?”

“What?” asked Darnell Jones.   He and Hughie Wilson and Bobby O’Dea had wandered over and had been listening in. 

Shaking his head, Ransoon went on, “Jonesy, you ain’t never seen one this good.  The bell was to SeaLand.  It was a sailor.”

  “Imagine that.  A sailor at SeaLand,” said Mack in a caustic tone, impatient to get back to the subject of the hooker.

Ransoon was unfazed.  “A sailor at SeaLand.  Right.  But you know where this dude wanted to go?  Do you know?”  He paused for a second, and then went on before anyone could speak.  Ferndale, up north of Bellingham!  He had to catch a ship at that oil refinery.  It was over two hundred bucks! 

The driver’s eyes opened a bit wider, and heads nodded appreciatively.

Grudgingly, Mack acknowledged Ransoon’s good fortune.  “That is a helluva good trip.  I always figured Ralph was nuts running silent all the time.  Looks like it finally bit him in the ass.  I mean so what if the fare hears the guy you scooped call in?  It don’t matter.  You don’t never wanna turn your radio off.” 

Dan Dinwiddie appeared, walking slowly and cumbrously up the stairs.

Ransoon called out at him, “Hey Dan!  You’ll never guess what I did to Ralphie!”

Dan waved and continued walking into the driver’s lounge. 

Ransoon and the most of the others followed, leaving Mack and Medina and Dewey.

Thankful the interruption was over, Mack turned to Medina and said, “Okay.  So anyways, we were talking about the hooker.  Right?”  Mack sat glaring at Medina.

            Mack was impossible to deal with when he got in one of these moods, so Medina resigned himself to the inevitable. 

“Okay, okay.  So like whadaya wanna do?”

            Mack took another long drag from his cigarette, then staring off over towards the street, he said, “I think we gotta go look for her tonight and fuck everything else until we find her.”

            “Like you’re saying we should take the night off?” asked Medina, scratching his head. 

Excited, Dewey interrupted, “We’re gonna take the night off!”  Bouncing up and down, he strained forward and for a second, it looked like his plastic chair would break.

Mack put his hand on Dewey’s shoulder.  “Hold on, Dew.  Just me and Marty.”

Dewey looked crestfallen.  “I don’t get to take the night off?”

Eyes narrowed, Mack said, “Look, somebody’s gotta hold down the fort.  It’s an important job, and I know you’re up to it.  Right?  You’re not gonna let me down, are ya?”

“I wouldn’t do that to ya, Mack.  You know that.”  He shook his head, a solemn expression on his face.

“Thanks Dewey.  I knew I could count on you.”

Sighing, Medina brushed back his hair with his hand, and then said, “Okay.  Like I guess I don’t have a real problem with taking some time out.  But like if we’re gonna go cruising for hookers man, I for damn sure don’t wanna do it in my own car.  That’s a bust, bigtime.”

            Mack nodded, running his fingers through his bushy gray-blond beard.  “Yeah, this is true.”  He paused for a second, and then went on, “Okay... look, let’s take your cab.  We’ll tell Rosie we’re on a mission.  She’ll be okay with that.  We find the lady and make the deal, then you can drop me back here and we’ll go back to work.”

            Medina tilted his chair back on its hind legs.  “Okay.  That’ll be cool.”

            Dave Murphy climbed the steps to the deck and sat down heavily next to Dewey.

            Murphy was in his mid forties.  Tall and skinny, he had long, straight brown hair with a receding hairline, and a bushy, drooping mustache – a Fu Manchu sort of style – that went all the way to below his jaw-line and which he would sometimes twirl with his fingers.  His face was narrow and angular, with a strong, prominent jaw.  His brown eyes were inquisitive and questioning.  He was wearing faded jeans and a black t-shirt, with black square-toed boots.

            Years ago, he and Medina had played in a couple of bands together.  At the time, Medina had played lead guitar and Murphy played bass.               

            Murphy had been a cab driver for most of the last ten years, until around six months ago.

            Following a break-up with his wife for about the eighth time in a year, Murphy went and hung out at the Spot Tavern and cried in his beer for several hours.  After working all the angst out of his system – and getting pretty buzzed in the process – he started shooting pool with a couple of bulldaggers named Joe and Melanie who had drifted over from next door at the Loop.  Murphy did really well at nine ball and by eleven o’clock, he was up nearly fifty dollars.

            The bulldaggers had to get up and go to work the next day – Joe was a receptionist downtown for the Department of Labor and Industries; Melanie worked as a hairdresser – so they left at about eleven thirty.

            Murphy was pretty drunk.  He was feeling good having won the money playing pool, and the sorrow about breaking up with his wife had changed to anger – everything being her fault, as it was.  So, he decided to go somewhere else where there was more action.

            Big mistake.

            The whirling red lights in his rear view mirror caught him by complete surprise as he turned onto South Tacoma Way.  Later, at the hospital, he blew a one point eight on the Breathalyzer.

            About a week later, Elmo found out and Murphy was parked – BlackTop’s insurance wouldn’t cover a driver with a DUI on their record.

            One of the phone people had quit a couple days before, so since Murphy had been around for such a long time, Elmo allowed him to take the job.

 

            Medina nodded to Murphy.  “What the hell you doing here so early?” he asked.

            Murphy shrugged.  “Fire suppression training.  I just got out, thank fuckin’ Christ.  What a gawdawful boring sonofabitch that was.”  He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, then blowing out a long plume of smoke, asked, “So you guys find the lady for Carnahan, yet?”  He looked over at Mack.

            Mack shook his head.  “Nope.  We’re gonna go look for her tonight.”

            “I’m not, I’m gonna work” said Dewey, hunched forward, drumming his fingers on the railing of the deck, staring wide-eyed at a bug crawling on his pants leg.

            “We’re like just waiting for Phyllis to bring my car in, then we’re gonna take off,” said Medina absently, ignoring Dewey, shifting in his seat, angling to get a better view of the gorgeous blonde undulating down the sidewalk a hundred feet away across the parking lot.

            “Where you figure to look?” asked Murphy, following Medina’s gaze and noticing the blonde for the first time.  She truly was memorable.

            The blonde passed around the corner out of view.

            Alert now that the distraction had vanished, Medina quickly answered, “I dunno.  Like I don’t figure her to even be on the street – she’s way too classy for that.  I think we gotta check out the big hotels, and maybe some of the high-roller bars.  When I picked her up at the Sheraton, she was like going to the Ramada or somewhere.  I’m pretty sure that’s what it was.  Looked to me like was she was working the convention trade – out of towners.  I been looking at the Ramada, the Sheraton and all the bigger hotels.”

            Mack blew out a long plume of smoke.  “And that’s why you haven’t been finding her.”  He shook his head and then went on, “Look – you wanna find a whore, you talk to the other whores.  They all know each other.  They know who’s doing who and who’s working where.  It’s a small town, really.  You’ll see.  I say we go talk to the ladies first and see what we can come up with.”

            Medina shrugged, unwilling to get into a fight over the matter.  It just wasn’t that important.  “Have it your way, Mack.  I don’t care.”

            Murphy asked, “You guys want some company?  I got a bunch of time to kill before the start of my shift.”

            Medina shrugged again.  “What the hell, man?  The more the merrier.”                      

            “I gotta work,” said Dewey, happily, but no one heard.

 

 

XIV.  The great hooker hunt

            After squabbling over search techniques for the better part of an hour while waiting for Medina’s car to come in, the three finally decided to go out to eat first.  The idea was that it was just too early to find any hookers out and about – it was common knowledge that you usually never saw a working girl on the streets until after eight or nine o’clock in the evening.     

            Mack had changed into civilian clothes for the occasion, while Medina kept his uniform on.  The reasoning there was that it’d look weird to have two drivers in uniform with one fare – and they certainly didn’t want to attract any attention.  Thus Medina would be the driver and ostensibly, Mack and Dave Murphy would be the fares.  They figured they’d be able to blend into the background, wherever they were.

            For dinner, they ended up going to Marilyn’s.  Mack, to ease his digestion, had several good slugs of Old Tennessee.  Deciding Mack had the right idea, Murphy joined in and downed several drinks of his own.

            Medina was crushed at being left out, but resigned himself to this fate because he had to drive – Mack was still assigned to car thirty-one, and it was for sure they weren’t going anywhere in that car.

            By the time they finally teetered out of Marilyn’s at about eight-thirty PM, Mack and Murphy were feeling very mellow, and so a stop by the liquor store on Thirty-Eighth Street was ordered.  When that mission had finally been accomplished and the provisioning had been taken care of, they were at once on their way to find the hooker.  Murphy and Mack sat in the back seat, sipping Old Tennessee while Medina played chauffer.

            “Onward, Jeeves,” said Mack drunkenly.

            Fuming, Medina hunched down in his seat and drove.

            Following Mack’s directions, they cruised all the common spots hookers hung out.  There were a number of ladies working, they observed, but none that even remotely looked like Medina’s girl.  Finally, after almost an hour of driving, Mack spotted a hooker he knew.

            “There!  See that one, the blonde?  Stop by her.  She’ll know.”  He pointed at a tall, willowy blonde standing by the entrance to the Twenty-Fourth Street Tavern.

            Medina pulled the car over to the curb.

            Rolling his window down, Mack beckoned to the hooker.

            As the woman approached the car, Medina recognized her – it was Ashley – a transvestite hooker that often worked the area.  He/she was a little over six feet tall, skinny as a reed, with long, straight strawberry blonde hair, parted in the middle.  From a distance, she looked awfully pretty.  It wasn’t till you got close and saw the five o’clock shadow that you’d realize she was a he.

                        When she recognized Mack, Ashley stopped short of the car and placing her hands over her breasts, and started gushing, “Oh, honey!  Don’t tell me tonight is finally gonna be my lucky night!  I knew you’d come around eventually, Mack!  Oh, I’m gonna make you the happiest man alive!”  

            Medina and Murphy cracked up.  Mack looked embarrassed.

            Mack answered, “You wanna pipe down with that shit, Ash?   People might get the wrong idea, here.”                                          

            Giggling, Murphy asked, “Does your ex-wife know, yet?”

            In falsetto, Medina chimed in, “Oh, Mack!  I thought you were mine!  You Cad!”

            Coming closer, Ashley bent down so her head was at window level.  She recognized Medina and blew him a kiss, then smiling broadly, turned back to Mack, and asked, “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t, darlin’.”

            Looking very uneasy, Mack drew back a little from the window, and then said, “Look, we got a serious problem here and we need your help.”

            Visibly disappointed, Ashley frowned and said, “So what can I do for you, honey?”

            “You can help us find a girl.  We’re looking for this one special girl.  It’s for a friend.”

Her brows furrowed, she said, “Yeah, right.  What’s the girl’s name?”

            Mack nodded his head.  “My question exactly.  Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem – we don’t know her name.  Marty?”  He looked over at Medina in the front seat.

            Medina spoke up, “Like I had this girl as a fare last week.  Long black hair, parted in the middle.  Great figure with big tits, long legs, and like a face that wouldn’t quit.”  He stared off into space for a moment, savoring the memory, and then continued, “Man, she was exotic-looking like you can’t believe.  Kinda Chinese-y with a little Mexican thrown in, nice brown skin, but with these great big green eyes.  Young as hell.  Maybe twenty-one or so.  I picked her up at the Sheraton and then like took her to the Ramada or maybe somewhere in Fife.  Like I think she was working out-of-towners – the convention trade or whatever.  I don’t think she’s a local.”

            Ashley shook her head and then quickly said, “Oh, that’s easy.  It’s gotta be Suzy.  She just got in from LA last week.”

            “Wow, you know her?  Like how’d you meet her?” Medina asked.

            “I ran into her up in Seattle,” answered Ashley, inspecting her long, blue nails. “We’ve been hanging out together, partying since then.”

            “You sure it’s the same girl, Ashley?” asked Medina.

            Ashley nodded.  “It is.  Gotta be.  She really is beautiful.  But look out – she’s a real flying bitch most of the time.  Picky?  Oh, you wouldn’t believe!  And she’s got religion, too!  You believe that?  And that’s not all – you know what she wants to charge?  Hah!  Maybe they can get away with bucks like that in LA, but not here.  I’ve been helping her for the last week, but I tell you, I’m just about ready to give up!”  She threw up her hands and then paused, batting her eyes seductively.  After a few moments, she went on, “But anyway, what could she do for you that I couldn’t?”  She stared at Mack, looking ever hopeful.

            Mack smiled.  “Ash, soon as I decide to turn queer, you’ll be the first to know.  I promise.”

            She batted her eyes again, smiling.  “You sure, darlin’?”

            “Absolutely, positively.”

            Closing her eyes, she shook her head, saying, “Oh, what is a girl to do?”

            “Where can I find Suzy, Ash?” asked Mack.

            Ashley opened her eyes and sighed, and then her voice deepened and for once she sounded almost like a man.  “She’s got a room at the Valley, unless she’s got a trick right now.  Room twelve.  You can tell her I sent you.  Later tonight, I think she was gonna go up to the Ramada.”  She paused for a second, and then went on, “They got a machine tool expo at the dome tomorrow.  And machinists got big bucks!”  She was smiling again and her voice had returned to normal.

            Mack smiled.  “Thank you, Ash.  I owe you.”

            She batted her eyes again.  “And I’ve got just the perfect way you can pay me back, darlin’!”

           

            Several hours later, they still hadn’t found the girl.  Every place they went, it seemed like she’d just left.

            They’d gone by the Valley Motel and gotten there mere seconds after she’d departed.  They’d arrived at the Ramada just after she left there.  They’d followed her trail to Fife and back, down to Lakewood and even over to Puyallup, once.

           By this time, Mack was completely drunk on his ass, and Murphy wasn’t far behind, and they were both really getting on Medina’s nerves.  They’d had Medina stop at the liquor store yet again for another bottle of Old Tennessee, then not long after that, they’d both gotten the munchies and as a result, Medina’s back seat was now littered with the detritus of their meal: vagrant potato chips, wheat thins and peanuts were now strewn about the seat, as well as a long streamer of Cheese Whiz that Murphy somehow missed getting on a cracker.

                        Medina never let anyone eat in his car, for that exact, precise reason.  He liked to keep his car clean and tidy.  So now, he was getting pissed.

                        Then to top it off, it was a busy night and they were missing out on some very good runs.

Medina was about ready to pack it in.

            For the past fifteen minutes, Murphy and Mack had been in a heated discussion on the heady subject of Indian salmon fishing, and it was boring Medina shitless.  After striking out at the last three bars they’d gone to, Medina decided to try the Valley Motel again for one last time before packing it in.  He figured if the girl wasn’t at the motel, he’d return to the office and dump Mack and Murphy off – somehow – so he could get in at least a little business for the night.

            Medina pulled the car up to the door of the motel room and stopped.

            Mack and Murphy continued arguing as he got out and went to the door and knocked.

            The door opened.

            Suzy was just as Medina remembered.  Long, shiny black hair parted in the middle, big, slanted, almond-shaped green eyes and a stunningly beautiful face.  She stared at Medina for a second, then recognized him and smiling, said, “Oh, I’m sorry honey, I didn’t call a cab.  Maybe it’s next door.”

            Mesmerized, Medina stared for a moment, and then answered, “Naw, like it’s not that.  Hey, can me and my buddies like talk to you for a minute?”  He jerked his head over at the cab where Mack and Murphy were finally getting out.

            Looking disinterested, she shrugged, and then said, “Whatever.  It’s your nickel.”  She turned and walked back inside.

            Medina followed.  Booze in hands, Mack and Murphy trailed behind. 

            The door closed, Suzy sat down in a chair next to a small table.  Mack, Murphy and Medina sat down on edge of the bed.  They stared at her, in awe.

            She really and truly was beautiful.

            Looking a little apprehensive, she broke the spell, saying, “If you guys want a date, it’s gonna cost.  And I don’t do no kinky stuff, like with chickens or grapefruits or getting tied down.  We’ll get that straight right now.”  Her voice was nasal and hoarse, and that along with her bad grammar were at odds with her appearance.

            Mack took a quick sip from the bottle of Old Tennessee and then sat it down next to him on the nightstand.  He held up his hands unsteadily, and then said, “Hang on.  Look, we got this little proposition for you.”  He paused for a moment, staring at her trying to judge her reaction, and then went on, “I and the boys got this problem.  We got this friend.  This guy we work with.  He just broke up with his woman, and it’s really tearing him up.”

            Suzy’s face was unreadable.  She shrugged again, and then asked, “Yeah?  So?”

            “Well, we wanna get him a present – something to help get him over losing his old lady.”

            “You wanna get him laid?” she asked.

            Mack nodded, admiring her directness.  “Yup.  That’s it in a nutshell.  We wanna buy you for the whole night.”

            Her eyes widened.  Then after a moment, eyebrows raised slightly, Suzy smiled, looking more interested. “A whole night’ll cost you plenty.”            

            Mack shrugged.  “We got plenty of dough.  What do you charge for a whole night?”

            Her green eyes narrowed.  “You guys cops?”

            Murphy laughed.  “You really think we look like cops?”  He wobbled unsteadily sitting on the bed.

            Mack nodded.  “Lady, we’re not cops.  Not even close.  We’re cabbies.  The guy we’re buying you for is our dispatcher, Ed Carnahan.”

            She sat motionless for a moment staring at Mack, and then leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette.  Blowing out a long plume of smoke, she cleared her throat, and then asked, “Okay, so what exactly do you have in mind?”  She looked from one to the other of the drivers.

            Mack continued to stare at her for a few moments, almost hypnotized by her beauty, swaying slightly as he sat on the bed.

Concerned that Mack was too drunk to talk, Medina elbowed him in the side.

Mack glared at him momentarily, and then he snapped out of it and remembered why they were there. 

Looking back at Suzy, he said, “Okay, it’s like this.  We want you to go out for drinks and dinner with Eddie, maybe dance a bit, then go to some nice hotel and fuck his brains out all night long.  We’ll pay for the food and the booze and the hotel.  We want it to be really nice – the very best night in his life.”

            She stared at the wall for a few moments and took a big drag from her cigarette.  After blowing a long plume of smoke up towards the ceiling, she looked back at Mack and with a straight face, said, “Okay.  Fifteen hundred bucks.”

            Mack frowned, looking worried.  “That’s more than we got.”

            She shrugged.  “Hey!  You want the best, you gotta pay for it, guy.  And I am the best.”  She drew herself up in the chair, sitting a little straighter, and then went on, “You want your friend to think he’s died and gone to heaven, and then I’m the angel you want.  I’m the angel you need!  And the best is always expensive.  You reckon you don’t have what it takes?   Then maybe you oughta you go look up on the Hilltop and buy him a ten-dollar blowjob.  Don’t waste my time.”  Looking bored, she studied her nails.

Gazing in awe at Suzy, Medina turned to Mack and nodded agreement.  “Like she’s right,

man.”

            Still frowning, Mack said, “Look, there’s gotta be some way we can do this.  It’s just we don’t have quite that much cash.”  

            She raised her eyebrows and shrugged, then said, “So exactly how much have you got?”

            “Well, we gotta think about dinner – I figure you go to a nice place, maybe Johnny’s Dock or something, drinks and dinner’s gonna be at least a hundred and fifty bucks.  Then the hotel, say the Sheraton, will cost another hundred.  Maybe another hundred for extra expenses.  Take off all that, I figure we could still come up with close to a thousand for you.”

            You could see the wheels turning inside Suzy’s brain.

            Her almond-shaped green eyes narrowed, and then she said, “Make it eleven hundred and I’ll cover any extras, if they come up.”

            Mack nodded.  “Okay.  Done.  But it’s gotta be the very best night of his life.’

            Suzy drew herself up again, and at once looked even more beautiful.  She smiled, looking gracious, and said, “I can guarantee it.”  She paused for a moment, and then asked, “So how do I get paid?”

            The drivers had put quite a lot of thought into this.  They wanted to make sure they didn’t get ripped-off, so they had devised a plan.

            Stifling a whiskey-flavored burp, Mack smiled.  “Okay, it’ll be like this.  We’ll pay you three hundred bucks now, as a down payment.  Saturday night – that’s the night we want the date to come down on, we’re gonna present you to Ed as a surprise over at Phil’s Saloon – it’s up on McKinley Hill.  You know the place?”

            She nodded.  “I heard of it.”

            Mack went on, “One of us can come pick you up and bring you over there.  We’ll give you another three hundred, then.  You come to Phil’s, have a few drinks, then we spring the surprise on our friend, and you’re off.  Either Marty or me’ll give you rides for the whole night – take you to dinner, then dancing, and then to the hotel.  We’ll be your own personal chauffeurs.”

            Eyebrows raised, she said, “Yeah.  That’s okay.  So when do I get the rest of the bucks?”

            “At the end of the night – whenever that is – you call us to pick you guys up, we’ll give you the final installment of five hundred bucks – and then take you wherever you want to go.  You can keep our friend there with you until we show up and pay you.”  

            A slight frown on her beautiful face, she stared off into space for a moment, and then said, “You’re asking for a whole lot of trust, here.  Five hundred bucks!”

            Mack shrugged. “Same for us.  Look at it this way – we’re paying you six hundred bucks in advance without you having done jack.  We’re just gonna have to trust each other.”

            She hesitated for a couple moments, and then shrugged.  “What the heck.  I guess you’re right.”  A big smile lit her face, and she asked, “Hey what’s your guys names, anyways?”

 

 

XV.  And may I present…

            Ed Carnahan hated parties.

            He’d been hearing whispers all week that Mack and the boys were going to throw him a surprise party and it bothered him no end.

            A group of drivers would be talking and then fall silent when he approached.  Someone would ask him what he was doing Saturday night, and then there’d be muted snickers from the rest.  This had happened at least a half-dozen times just in the last day or so. 

And, he could swear people were watching him.

            It drove Carnahan nuts to the point where on Thursday night, he finally cornered Dave Murphy and asked him point-blank what was happening. 

            But Murphy just clammed up, and simply told him to “Relax and don’t worry...”

            All of which made Carnahan even more nuts.

            Breaking up with Lucy had been pretty rough, and the only thing he wanted now was just to be alone.  The idea of a surprise party didn’t turn him on at all.

            Then to top it off, he’d heard one rumor that they were trying to set him up with some girl! 

            He figured a woman was about the absolute last thing he needed.

            Mack had finally come to him late Friday with an obviously phony story about how he wanted him to come to Phil’s Saloon on Saturday night and just knock back a few with the boys.  He’d known right away the story was phony and Mack even knew he knew.                        

They were just playing out their roles.               

            But still, he agreed. 

            The way he figured it, he had no other choice – he was trapped.  Because whatever it was they had planned, Mack and the boys had gone to an awful lot of trouble.  From the looks, the whispers and the probing questions, it seemed like almost everyone at the company expected him to show up.  So, there really wasn’t any way out.  He resigned himself to the inevitable.

           

            With a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, Ed Carnahan walked through the doors of Phil’s Saloon.   An old Tony Bennett song, Fly Me To the Moon, blared from the jukebox as he entered.  He waited for a moment for his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom, and then was able to make out the faces of Mack and Medina through the hazy, smoke-filled room.  Searching farther, he recognized a number of other familiar faces – in fact, the more he looked, the more it seemed as though most all of the drivers not on duty were there.

            The sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach intensified, and he was strongly thinking of bolting for the door when someone called out his name and he knew there was no escape.

            Mack and Medina saw him and in an instant, they were there at his side, guiding him towards the group of tables they had commandeered in the back.

            “Glad you could come, Eddie,” said Mack, steering him by the elbow.

            “Hey, Ed.  We got a place for you,” said Medina, standing in front of him, beckoning to an empty chair placed between Bobby Woods and Dave Murphy. 

            “Saved it special for you,” said Medina.  He held the back of the chair as Carnahan sat down, and then continuing, asked, “So like what can I get you to drink?”

            Carnahan thought this over for a moment as he scanned the crowd of familiar faces, then said, “How about a shot of Old Tennessee on the rocks?”

            Everyone was there.  Sitting across the table was Rosie Glen, who waved hello, and to her left was Whitey Jorgen and down from him, Jonesy and Hughie and all of the night drivers and a lot of the day drivers as well.  Dewey Mitchell, Wayne Sands, Robert Ransoon, Woody Wooten, Don Murdock, Jim Camandona, Billy Paul, Bobby O’Dea, Henry Lowry, Dale Church, Steve LeMay, Walter Cavalier, Lyman Clark, Ed Timmons, Dave McDonald, Bob Cox, Bill Richards senior and junior, Johnny Avalon, Don Rudy, Joe Cadero, Mike Severson, Phyllis Johnson, Hans Sdorra, Billy Seamans, Ernie Harris, Ed Miller, Ralph Mack, and even some of the leasers – he spotted Dan Dinwiddie sitting talking to Lee Houston.  Don Morgan was there, leaning drunkenly against the door of the men’s bathroom.  Everyone.

            And now almost all of them were staring at him, expectantly.     

            Nearly overcome by a feeling of dread and despair, Carnahan loosened the collar of his shirt and someone shoved a drink into his hand.

            Standing at his side, Mack rapped a spoon on a glass loudly, and then shouted, “Alright now!  Let’s cut the shit!  Can we get some peace and quiet here?”  He continued to rap the spoon on the glass.

            When the noise had died off and the room was finally silent, Mack announced, “Okay, I wanna thank all of you for coming tonight.”  Then looking down at Carnahan, he went on in a lower voice, “I’m gonna cut the horseshit and come straight to the point.  Ed, we all know you’ve been pretty down since you and Lucy split up, so we wanted to try and cheer you up.  How we gonna do that?  Well it’s this way: you got a hangover, how do you cure it?  By having a couple shots, that’s how!  You got a bad breakup with a lady?  You cure it by getting another lady!  And that’s what we got for you...” 

            Medina, sitting at a table nearby did a drum roll with his hands on the table.  The eyes of the crowd turned expectantly towards the storeroom door.

            And out walked Suzy. 

            Radiant, graceful, glowing.  In a word, stunning.

            Five solid feet of one of the most gorgeous women on the face of the earth.  Shining black hair parted in the middle, her almond-shaped, slanted green eyes were focused on Carnahan, who was sitting helpless like a possum caught in a cars’ headlights, staring at her, holding his drink. 

            She looked elegant and sophisticated, standing in high heels, wearing a dark-red dress with a low-cut top, which showed off her sumptuous breasts.  The dress was slit on one side, exposing her long, slim legs.  She carried a small black purse under her arm.  She walked gracefully towards him.

            Standing face to face with Carnahan, she held out her hand expectantly. 

            Transfixed, he stood up and took her hand, and then as if in a dream, he bowed and kissed it lightly.

            At their side, Mack cleared his throat and then said, “Ed, may I present to you, Suzy.”  Then looking at Suzy, he said, “And this is Ed.”

Carnahan and Suzy stared into each other’s eyes, oblivious of the crowd around them.

Mack cleared his throat again, then said loudly, “It’s like this, Ed:  Suzy and you are gonna go out for dinner at Johnny’s Dock – we got you some reservations there – and then after you eat, then maybe you can do a little dancing.”   Pausing for a second, Mack quickly went on, “And no, you don’t need your checkbook – everything’s paid in advance, on us.”

There were murmurs from the crowd and one or two people clapped.   Mack paused for a moment.

Carnahan and Suzy were still staring at each other and a sloppy, crooked smile lit Carnahan’s face.  Mack coughed, and then continued, “After you done danced your heart out, well, what you do after that is up to you.” 

Someone from the crowd screamed out, “Get it on!”  And everyone else laughed. 

Mack continued, “But we do got you booked into a nice room at the Sheraton.”

            There were catcalls and shouts from the crowd.  Carnahan’s cheeks reddened.

 

 

XVI.   The first strike…

            The restaurant was packed, and they had to weave in and out between people as the hostess led them through the noisy crowd.  Carnahan was feeling nervous as the hostess finally seated them at the window table Mack and the boys had reserved.

            Suzy wasn’t at all what he’d expected.

            They’d talked as they rode in Medina’s cab to the restaurant.  She had asked some polite questions about his work, and after warming up a bit, he told her a couple funny stories from when he used to drive cab.  She was very polite and treated him deferentially.

She really was beautiful and charming – which was quite unexpected.  He found her drawing him out of his shell, almost making him forget the pain of breaking up with Lucy.

            He’d been absolutely miserable since the last ugly fight with Lucy, which ended with her packing up and leaving.  It wasn’t like it was really that big a surprise to either of them – they’d both known it was coming.  But just the same, it was still a shock when it finally happened, a shock he felt it would take a long, long time to recover from.

            He blamed himself for the break-up, naturally.  He saw it as the final proof that he was completely incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with a woman.  Every time, he’d go into a relationship with a new woman full of boyish enthusiasm, and open himself up wide – a true romantic to the core, sure that this relationship was the one.  And just as surely, every time, it’d all go south in short order, and he’d end up back by himself again, an emotional wreck.

The break-up with Lucy had been one of the worst – he’d had such high hopes – and it hurt him a lot more than he’d let on to anyone.  So since then, he’d basically decided to swear off women for good.  He figured it was safer if he never opened himself up again.    He was never going to be hurt like that again.  

But now Suzy… God, she’s beautiful, he thought.

            The hostess placed menus in front of them, and then smiling broadly, asked, “Would you like the champagne now, or with your dinner?”

“Champagne?” asked Carnahan, eyebrows raised, as he looked over at Suzy.

She shrugged, and said, “Sure.  That’d be great.”

Looking back at the hostess, he said,  “Okay, I guess we’d like it now.”

The hostess nodded and left.

Carnahan focused back on Suzy. 

She was staring out across the shimmering waterway, at a small cabin cruiser heading out towards Commencement Bay.  A man was standing on the bow of the boat, coiling a rope, while

a young boy watched intently.  A woman was at the helm, and a young girl stood beside her, leaning out the window of the cabin shouting something at the man and boy.

Suzy looked back at Carnahan and flashed a nervous smile.

“The water’s really pretty, isn’t it?” he asked.

 “It is.”  She was silent for a few moments, still staring at the boat, and then said, “You ever wonder what it’d be like to live like that?”  She nodded at the boat.  The man and boy walked aft to talk to the woman.

“Being able to afford a boat?”  He asked.

She nodded again.  “Yeah, more or less.  I guess I mean mom and dad and the kids, out for an evening cruise.  That kinda thing.”

A busboy appeared and began filling their water glasses.

When the busboy had left, Carnahan picked up the linen napkin, and after placing it in his

 

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