THE LAST RIDE
Copyright 2009-2020 Wendell G Sweet. This material is protected by copyright laws both foreign and domestic. All rights are reserved. You may not use this material for any purpose without written permission from Wendell G Sweet.
THE LAST RIDE
It was early in my shift. I owned my own taxi so I could pretty much pick which 12 hour shift I wanted to drive. I was young, just married, and so I drove nights so that I could be home with my son during the day while my wife worked. I’d told myself for most of the last year that I should stop driving taxi, settle down to a real job and be more responsible. And then a contract to haul train crews came along followed by the opportunity to work with another driver who handled the airport contract, and suddenly I was making more money than I could have reasonably expected from what I would have considered a straight job.
The hours were long, but there was something that attracted me to the night work. Always had been. Like my internal clock was Set to PM. It just seemed to work, and after a few failed attempts to work day shift work, I gave it up and went to work fulltime nights.
I never regretted it, and I was never bored. The nights kept me awake and interested. They supplied their own entertainment. Train crews, regulars that called only for me, the assorted funny drunks late at night when the bars were closing. Soldiers on their way back to the nearby base, and a dancer at a small club just off downtown that had been calling for me personally for the last few weeks. Using my cab as a dressing room on the way back to her hotel. It was always something different.
Days, the few times I’d driven days, couldn’t compare. Sure, there was violence at night too, but it rarely came my way and never turned into a big deal when it did.
It was Friday night, one of my big money nights, about 7:00 P.M. and my favorite dispatcher, Leo, had just come on. He sent me on a call out State street that would terminate downtown. Once I was downtown, I could easily pick up a GI heading back to the base for a nice fat fare and usually a pretty good tip. My mind was on that. My mind was also on that dancer who would be calling sometime after two AM, and who had made it clear that I was more than welcome to come up to her room. It was tempting, I’ll admit it, and each time she called she tempted me more. I figured it was just a matter of time before I went with her.
I really didn’t see the woman who climbed into my car, but when it took her three times to get out the name of the bar downtown that she wanted to go to, I paid attention. Drunk. It was early too. Sometimes drunks were okay, but most times they weren’t. This one kept slumping over, slurring her words, nearly dropping her cigarette. I owed the bank a pile of money on the car and I didn’t need burn holes in my back seat.
I dropped the flag on the meter, pulled away from the curbing and eased into traffic. Traffic was heavy at that time and I pissed off more than a few other drivers as I forced my way into the traffic flow.
I had just settled into the drive when a glance into the rear view mirror told me my passenger had fallen over. I couldn’t see the cigarette, but I could still smell it. I made the same drivers even angrier as I swept out of the traffic flow and angled up onto the sidewalk at the edge of the street. I got as far out of the traffic flow as I could get so I could get out to see what was up with the woman in the back seat.
I was thinking drunk at the time, but the thought that it could be something more serious crept into my head as I made the curb, bumped over it, set my four way flashers and climbed out and went around to the back door.
She was slumped over into the wheel well, the cigarette smoldering next to her pooled, black hair. In her hair, I realized as the smell of burning hair came to me. I snatched up the cigarette and threw it out onto the sidewalk, and then I shook her shoulder to try to bring her around. But it was obvious to me, just that fast, that the whole situation had changed. She wasn’t breathing.
I reached in, caught her under the arms, and then suddenly someone else was there with me.
He was a short, thin man wearing a worried look upon his face. Dark eyes sat deeply in their sockets. His hair hung limply across his forehead. He squeezed past me and looked down at the woman. He pushed her eyelids up quickly, one by one, and then held his fingers to her lips. He frowned deeply and flipped the hair away from his forehead.
“Paramedic,” he told me as he took her other arm and helped me pull her from the back seat.
We laid her out on the sloping front lawn of the insurance company I had stopped in front of, and he put his head to her chest.
He lifted his head, shaking it as he did. “Call an ambulance,” he said tersely.
I could feel the shift in his demeanor. He wasn’t letting me know he could handle the situation, like when he told me he was a paramedic, he was handling it. I got on the radio and made the call through dispatch.
The ambulance got there pretty fast. I stood back out of the way and let them work on her, raising my eyes to the backed up traffic on occasion. Most of the people in those cars had their heads half twisted out of their windows trying to see what was going on, on the sidewalk. The paramedic had torn open her shirt. Her nudity seemed so out of place on the city sidewalk. Watching the traffic took the unreal quality of it away from me. A few minutes later I watched the ambulance pull away, eased my cab down off the curb, back into the sluggish traffic, and headed back to work.
I got the story on her about midnight once things slowed down, and I had stopped into the cab stand to talk to the dispatcher for a short while. His daughter knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone at the hospital. The woman had taken an overdose. Some kind of pills. It was going to be touch and go. He also had a friend in the police department too. She did it because of a boyfriend who had cheated on her. It seemed so out of proportion to me. I went back to work, but I asked him to let me know when and if he heard more.
The night had passed me by. The business of the evening hours catching me up for a time, and taking me away from the earlier events. I was sitting downtown in my cab watching the traffic roll by me. It was a beautifully warm early morning for Northern New York. I had my window down letting the smell of the city soak into me, when I got the call to pick up my dancer with the club gig.
“And, Joe,” Leo told me over the static filled radio, “your lady friend didn’t make it.”
It was just a few blocks to the club. I left the window down enjoying the feeling of the air flowing past my face. The radio played Steely Dan’s Do It Again and I kind of half heard it as I checked out the back seat to see if the ghost of the woman earlier might suddenly pop up there.
The dancer got in and smiled at me. I smiled back, but I was thinking about the other woman, the woman who was now dead, sitting in that same place a few hours before. The dancer began to change clothes as I drove to her hotel.
“You know,” she said, catching my eyes in the mirror. “I should charge you a cover. You’re seeing more than those GI’S in the club.” She shifted slightly, her breasts rising and falling in the rear view mirror. We both laughed. It was a game that was not a game. She said it to me every time. But my laugh was hollow. Despite her beauty I was still hung up on someone being alive in my back seat just a few hours before and dead now. Probably being wheeled down to the morgue were my friend Pete worked. I made myself look away and concentrate on the driving. She finished dressing as I stopped at her hotel’s front entrance.
“You could come up… If you wanted to,” she said. She said it lightly, but her eyes held serious promise.
“I’d like to… But I better not,” I said.
She smiled, but I could tell I had hurt her feelings. It was a real offer, but I couldn’t really explain how I felt. Why I couldn’t. Not just because I was married, that was already troubled, but because of something that had happened earlier.
I drove slowly away after she got out of the cab, and wound up back downtown for the next few hours sitting in an abandoned buildings parking lot thinking… “I was only concerned about her cigarette burning the seats.”
I smoked while I sat, dropping my own cigarettes out the window and onto the pavement. A short while later Leo called me with a train crew trip. I started the cab and drove out to the train yard to pick up my crew. The dancer never called me again.
From the short story collection Mister Bob, available below…