In the pantheon of mean, tough, and vile--looking, truck-stop women I’d seen over the years, she was right at the top of the list, a scary creature whose presence chilled me to the bone.
‘Good Christ,’ I muttered, as she continued to glare at us, the face turning into a mask of deadly, accusatory rage.
First fare (hair of the dog)
A cowboy returns home to the meanest woman in the world
By Dell Franklin
I got this new job driving a cab. I always knew that somewhere along the line I’d end up hacking. Mostly I’ve tended bar, but I’ve dabbled at almost every other low-level gig, and, since San Luis Obispo is suspicious of hiring bartenders from the L.A. area, I knew I could get on as a cab driver because cab companies will hire anybody, so I’d heard, as long as you had a clean driving record and could suck in oxygen. I met the requirements. I was trained for one day by an old Mexican from East L.A., Sam Sanchez, who felt, because I was a bartender, I’d be a natural.
My first fare was at, without exception, the seediest dive in SLO Town, and at nine in the morning. As a bartender, I had always worked nights, and could not believe a bar could be this crowded at such an early hour. A murky, downcast pall seemed to hang over everybody like a vast energy-sucking dark cloud commingling with the dense swirl of smoke as mournful country western music wafted from the juke.
All heads along the bar and in the busy poolroom turned toward me, pairs of eyes squinting at me in a prolonged size-up as I stood in my new polyester cab uniform.
“Somebody call a cab?” I asked politely, but loud enough to be heard over the din.
A middle-aged, slatternly woman was smoking behind the bar. “He’s in the head,” she said dully. I nodded. I stood, arms folded. Slowly, gradually, heads turned away from me. A haggard-looking pool shooter said, “You the new cabbie?” I nodded. “How long you been hackin’?”
“This is my first day.”
“Yeh, no shit? You like it?”
“I don’t know yet. This is my first ride.”
“It’s a shit job. I done it in Redding, couple years back. You’ll hate it. People are assholes. Good luck, anyway, bub. You’ll need it.”
A chorus of derisive giggles and cackles rang along the bar. Then a middle-sized man, bow-legged, with a walrus mustache, flip-flops and a cowboy hat lurched out of the head and through the poolroom, stagger-ing toward me, wiping at his nose with the sleeve of his rumpled, booze-stained cowboy shirt. The bartender called out his name — Buck — and pointed toward me. He stopped before me, teetering in place, trying to focus his red-rimmed, very sad, very diluted eyes on me.
“Where’s Woody?” he asked.
“I don’t know about any Woody.”
“Woody always picks me up. I asked for Woody.”
”They fired Woody a month ago,” the bartender told him. “This is the new guy.”
“What’s your name, new guy?”
I introduced myself.
“Come on,” he said, nodding toward the door. As I turned, he put a hand on my shoulder to steady himself. “I gotta get home, sooner or later,” he said. “This ain’t gonna be easy.”
Outside, I helped him into the cab, front seat. He was around 40, weathered in the bright morning sun, reeking of sweat and booze. The corners of his mouth were flecked with white saliva and his nose ran like a leaky tap.
“First of all,” he said in his grating, gravel voice that was going hoarse, “take me to a liquor store.”
“We’re sitting in the parking lot of a liquor store, Buck,” I said, pointing ahead.
“Goddammit, we are.” He handed me some money. “Can you get me a twelve-pack of half quarts of Bud?” he asked, very polite.
“Sure.” I went inside and purchased the beer and placed the sack on his lap as he lay back, cowboy hat tilted down over his eyes. He lifted it back up, straightened. He pointed ahead.
“Go to the flower shop,” he said. “You know where the flower shop is, pard?”
“No. This is my first day. You’re my first ride. I don’t know where anything is yet.”
“Up ahead, coupla blocks. Shit, I’m in big goddam trouble.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, negotiating smoothly onto a main artery.
“The ole lady kicked me out two nights ago, I think. You know what day it is?”
I told him.
“Yeh, I been on a good one for two days. I got to go back sooner or later, like I sez. She is the meanest goddam woman in the world, pard. Maybe she’s cooled down enough she won’t shoot me. I went out in my undies. Had to borrow these pants and shirt from a pal. I done drunk my self sober in the meantime.”
I spotted the florist shop and pulled in. Buck handed me some bills and asked me to go in and purchase a large bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. I did so, placing the roses atop the twelve-pack on his lap. He already had a can out.
“These roses, they’ll help,” he said, sniffing at the flowers. “They always do.” He tapped his beer can against the twelve-pack. “This always helps, too, but it ain’t a done deal. Now, there’s a liquor store up the road, got better videos. Take me to that store. You know where it is?”
He pointed ahead, cracking open one of the beers, glancing at me. “You look like you could use a snort. Want a beer?”
I shook my head. “Not a hair-of-the-dog man,” I told him.
He nodded. “Sometimes a hair-of-the-dog ends up another twenny-four hours, it does.” He tipped the beer up and drained half of it, foaming up his mustache, the beer dripping down his chin onto his neck and soaking his filthy western shirt. He sighed, belched. “That’s better,” he said. Then: “Slow down. There’s the store.” His ruined eyes gleamed dully, his mouth crooking up in a grimacing smile. “Gimme a minute here, pard. I’ll take care-a bizness.”
He staggered into the store and returned ten minutes later, clutching two videos. I glanced at them. They were rated XXX. He leaned back in his seat, very tired, rubbed at his runny nose. Then he tapped the videos, looking hopeful. “These oughta do the trick. If they don’t, nothin’ will.”
He pointed ahead. “That’s right, you’re not Woody. You don’t know where I live.” He had me turn here, turn there, take a back street, until we pulled up in front of an apartment building, one of many such low-rent buildings down the road from a market. Just as we came to a stop, a woman stepped out of one of the bottom apartments in a bathrobe. She stood in the doorway, sort of slouched, arms crossed across her chest, and aimed toward us one of the more malignant looks I'd yet witnessed in my 43 plus years. In the pantheon of mean, tough, and vile--looking, truck-stop women I’d seen over the years, she was right at the top of the list, a scary creature whose presence chilled me to the bone.
“Good Christ,” I muttered, as she continued to glare at us, the face turning into a mask of deadly, accusatory rage.
Buck sighed massively. He handed me a wrinkled and soggy wad of bills and told me to keep the change — over a $5 tip. He seemed, now, more deflated than ever, pitifully hangdog and defenseless, almost as if he were pleading with ME for help. “Wish me luck, pard.”
“Good luck, Buck.”
He got out, teetered momentarily and then gathered himself, and be-gan weaving toward the truck stop woman. As he drew closer, her cold black eyes were riveted on his package. When he lurched up to her and halted, she sniffed the roses without taking them out, tapped the beer, then withdrew one of the videos. She looked it over, nodded, patted Buck on the ass, nodded at me, and followed Buck into the apartment, hand on his ass, the door closing behind them.
Six months later I picked him up again, same situation, same bar same results. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of his Cabby's Corner series here:
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