We all dream of escaping sometimes — but there’s more than one way to get away.
The big cab was pushing forty when he slammed on the brakes. The car skidded to an icy stop in front of her, its mammoth bumper nodding gently against her knees. He pulled his foot out of the floorboards and cursed. She walked alongside the car, tugged open the rear door, and slid in.
“Lady, I’m off-duty. You gotta … get out.” He wasn’t steeped in subtleties.
“Light’s on, bub.”
“What?” He checked the dashboard and saw that she was right. His heavy face wrinkled in anger. “Dammit!” He had forgotten to switch his sign off. He switched it off. He draped a thick arm over the back of the bench seat and craned his neck around. He looked at her and tried to smile; but smiling gave him a headache so he gave it up. “Okay, my mistake. You still gotta leave, lady. I’m off-duty whether the sign says so or not.” He waited for her to move. She didn’t have the looks to be a hooker — unless she was the coin-operated kind.
“Light was on, bub.”
“Yeah, it was. We signed the treaty on that one, already. Now it’s off, so pack up your charm and beat it. I got somewhere I gotta be.”
“1750 Cleveland Avenue. And punch it. Save the excuses for the old lady.” She pulled her shabby coat together.
“Look, driver! I’ve got to get home, and the only bus running at three in the morning is yours. So, point your face at the windshield and weigh anchor.”
His eyes narrowed to gunslits. “I’ll haul you as far as the pay phone on the corner. Then you’re gonna call a friend. My garbage detail’s over for the night.”
“Friend.” She snorted. “Do your duty, cabbie. Get it in gear.”
“You ain’t gonna beat it?”
“I don’t even know you.”
He frowned. “You gonna get out or I gotta strap on the rubber gloves and toss you out?”
“I’m not leaving this metal mansion until you bump the curb at 1750 Cleveland Avenue.” She stared into his face. “Clear ‘nuff?” She wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand.
He turned around to the windshield. He glared at her pasty reflection in the huge rear-view mirror. “You wanna go someplace?”
“Now you’re getting it — slowly but surely.” She laughed. “You must make a fortune, cabbie — the passengers have to coax you into driving. Thank God you got your figure.”
He peered through the cracked glass and into the ice-fogged Twin Cities night. He didn’t get very far. He hesitated, thinking about something. But thinking was something that gave him little comfort. “I bet you’re gonna blow without payin’,” he said.
She grinned at his angry eyes. “I got money, bub — don’t think I don’t. You start using your hands and feet instead of your mouth and maybe you’ll see some of it.”
Her voice was a pain in the ass. Her tired face was thin and sharp — a face to cut your lips on — and her hair was lank and dirt-blonde. She had a thin, blue coat wrapped around herself like a blanket, a pair of faded blue jeans, and the over-all look of a smart-ass teenager teetering on the jagged edge of an ugly adulthood. He made up his mind and threw the car in gear; the vehicle surged forward.
“There you go — like riding a tricycle,” she sneered.
He tramped his boot down on the accelerator and the car jumped, then slowly gathered speed. “We’re goin’ for a ride,” he muttered under his bad breath. “Me and the bitch are goin’ for a ride.” His face settled into grim, uncompromising lines and his knuckles glowed on the steering wheel.
She glanced around at the spacious back seat and her thin lips framed a scowl. “You need to own an oil company to drive this pig?”
“It’s a Checker,” he said tonelessly.
“Checker cab! Checker Motors Corporation — Kalamazoo, Michigan, ’23 to ’82.” His shoulders relaxed a bit, his hands stopped choking the huge, black steering wheel. “Built ‘specially as a taxi — lots of room.”
“Yeah? You could rent this back seat out as a motel room. You probably started your family back here.”
He replied by hanging a hard right off of Washington Avenue onto Fifth. She held tight to the armrest on the door. A chill wind knifed through the thin crack between his window and the door frame and raked the side of his head. He cranked the window shut, wishing it was that easy with women. It was twenty degrees and dropping like a snowball outside, but inside the cab it was warm — a mobile refuge from the frozen dirt of the street, ‘til someone opened the passenger door.
“Hey, cabbie, where the hell are you going?” She blew on the frosted window, wiped some of the ice away with her sleeve. “Falcon Heights is across the river. East. Your visa just expire, or what?”
“I ain’t goin’ east!”
She rubbed the window with her bare hand. “What’d you mean?” She glanced nervously at the twin rolls of fat hunkered on the back of his plug neck.
“Use those spitholders you call ears, sister,” he said. “I told you I ain’t goin’ east — and I ain’t goin’ across the river. You can make it if you take a roll out the door and start swimmin’.” His breath came hard and quick.
“What the hell are you talking about? Where’re you taking me? You’ll be one bean short of a sackload if you try anything! I’m warning you!”
“You wanna know where I’m goin’? That it?”
She shrunk slightly on the edges of his heavy anger. “Yeah. I want to know.” Her voice grew distant. “1750 Cleveland Avenue is in Falcon Heights — across the river.”
He grinned ominously. His red face shone ferociously in the glow of the dashboard lights. “I’m headed south, lady! South! Away from the goddamn cold and the goddamn snow. Away from the scramblin’ day to day just to make enough money to pay the bills! Away from the f’in’ grind of workin’ for your car and your house and your goddamn ungrateful family! Workin’ for what? For what!?”
He jerked the cab onto the 35W entrance ramp and gunned it. The car roared through the cold, early-April morning trailing noxious clouds of grey exhaust. Dirt-crusted snowpiles shunted along the sides of the interstate started flying by.
She stared at his coarse, grey-peppered hair. “You don’t have to yell,” she said to herself.
He drummed his cigar-thick fingers on the steering wheel as the cab shot through the gloom. He glanced at her in the mirror, but she looked away from his glistening eyes. “Listen careful, lady,” he said. “I got a full tank of gas and a full auxiliary tank of gas — thirty-five gallons of go-juice. At, say twenty miles to the gallon, that’s seven hundred miles from here to there. I’m gonna top it up one more time and then drive ‘til the gas runs dry. Where the cab stops, so do I.” He turned his block of a head around to look at her confused face. His neck cracked. His face was crusted with sweat.
She pointed at the road.
He turned back around with a grim look of satisfaction.
She kept quiet for awhile, then said: “When’d you figure all this out?”
“About five minutes before you jumped in front of me,” he replied. “Been thinkin’ about it probably my entire workin’ life. And I ain’t turnin’ back now. Ain’t stoppin’ but twice — otherwise I won’t make it.”
She folded her arms together, watched blandly as Richfield, Bloomington, and then Burnsville drifted by.
They traveled in a tense silence, the car holding steady at sixty-five. The lights of the city ended and the frozen countryside opened its black mouth and swallowed the cab.
“You wanted by the cops?” she finally asked, when she saw the Iowa welcome sign. “Kidnapping, maybe?”
He shook his head, cleared his throat — his mouth was dry and cracked and begging for booze. “Nothin’ like that,” he said. “I’m just sick and tired of the way things been goin’ and I’m gettin’ out. There’s gotta be somethin’ better down the road somewhere.” He sighed. “Look lady, I’m sorry about you—”
“Don’t turn to jelly, driver!”
He stared at her ghostly reflection.
She looked out the window, at nothing. “Don’t start blubbering to me,” she said. “You’re kidnapping me. That’s what you’re doing.”
He shrugged his doughy shoulders. “I told you to get lost, you wouldn’t. You wanted to go somewhere, you’re goin’ somewhere. You’re a stray I took in for awhile, that’s all. You can blow when I stop for gas. Stay to the end of the line and you can keep the cab. I ain’t gonna need it no more.” He gave her a tight smile, the issue resolved in his own mind.
She laughed. “Yeah, just what I need — a thirty-year-old beater. Sounds like my last boyfriend.” She wiped her nose. “You could’ve told me what you were up to and let me get out. You didn’t, so it’s kidnapping.”
“Why’re you stopping the once for gas, anyway?” she asked.
“I ain’t throwin’ everything away just to pick it up again in Council Bluffs.” He stared into the lightening dark. “Why don’t you stuff your mouth with sleep for awhile? You got a long ride ahead of you.”
“It’s not going to be that easy, cabbie. You kidnap me, drag me down your yellow-brick road to fantasyland, then you’ve got to pay the price. I’ll speak my mind even if it means losing yours. You should be more careful about who you hijack.”
He rubbed his face, then studied his shiny fingers. “What’s your name, anyway? You look like somethin’ that might have a name.”
“None of your business.”
He nodded. “You’re a fun girl. You oughta be in a circus.”
They drove on. He listened to the miles slowly clicking by. That’s all he wanted to hear — the miles slowly clicking by. Foul-mouthed women like the one in the back were called family where he came from — as depressing as varicose veins and stretch marks. He settled into his seat and watched the road ahead. He had skipped town at the sagging end of a twelve-hour shift, but he wasn’t feeling the least bit tired. Occasional trucks and cars sailed by on the other side of the interstate — rushing lights in a tunnel of inky nothingness. It was the end of the tunnel he was looking for.
She shifted around, grudgingly trying to get comfortable, her face sullen. She didn’t want him thinking for a minute that he wasn’t imposing a massive, undeserved hardship on her. “What’s your route? Longest distance between two points?”
“I35 south. Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Forth Worth, and then … we’ll see. I’m not sure where—”
“Got that right!”
He turned a question loose on her. “What do you do to make ends meet — besides kiss your ass?”
“Ha, ha. It’s funny that you’re nothing more than a nut on the end of a wheel.”
“C’mon, seriously, how do you pay the bills?”
“None of your business.” She stared out the window, into the blackness, avoiding his eyes.
“C’mon. Your face says radio. Am I right?”
“I’m a goddamn waitress! Okay?”
“Okay.” He jostled his head in a friendly manner. “That’s—”
He ran a nicotine-stained finger along the side of his large, broken-veined nose. “Maybe you ‘n me ain’t so different.”
“Yeah, we’re both talented mutts, all right. Make no mistake, cabbie — I’m not running.”
“Sure you are,” he said. “Everyone is from somethin’.”
“The philosopher hack driver — step right up, folks! Just don’t feed him.”
The small towns of northern Iowa flowed by — Woolstock, Webster, Williams, Hubbard, Story City; left in the churning wake of the cab.
He gritted his teeth when she spoke again. “You aren’t going to get away with it,” she said.
Des Moines exit signs whistled by as the sun’s weak rays revealed the aching emptiness that the night had only briefly hidden.
“Huh? Get away with takin’ you? Who the hell’s gonna miss you? I sure wish the cab hadn’t.”
“I’m not talking about me! I’m talking about trying to escape the past and start something new. Your old-life crisis.”
“What about it?”
“It’s not going to work, that’s what. You aren’t going to make it.”
“Yeah, I thought you might say that.”
“I’m telling it like it is, cabbie. Your past’ll catch up with you.” She pulled her hands out of her pockets — they were red and raw, the nails chewed down. “You’re going to grind to a halt in Dirtsville, Texas, have a good time ‘til all your money runs out, say a week, go hungry for awhile, say an hour, then start pushing a hack again. It’s all you know how to do, right? So you drive so you can eat — you got that taken care of. Then you get lonely because you’ve probably never lived by yourself before. So you team up with some leathery cowgirl whose husband has disappeared like a Panhandle river come summer — so you got that taken care of.” She snorted. “And you know what you got? You’ve got the same old life you left behind in Minneapolis moved to Texas. You put fourteen hundred miles under your can only to pick up where you left off. Same crap, different map.”
“You don’t know—”
“And you probably won’t even know it, cabbie. That’s the pathetic part. You probably won’t even know it until it’s way too late.” She brushed some greasy hair out of her eyes. “Places change, people don’t. You’re wasting time and gas is all you’re doing.”
He frowned, hunched his shoulders. “Mind if I smoke?” he asked.
“Yeah, I mind.”
He pulled a crumpled pack of Camels out of his breast pocket, shook one free, stuck it in his mouth and lit it. “What the hell do you know about people? You probably never even lived with any. How old are you, anyway? Thirty? Thirty-five? Try—”
He coughed on his smoke. “Old enough to drink and vote; in that order. Try drivin’ hack for twenty years — then you can shoot your mouth about people. Until then, don’t write any advice columns.”
“Truth hurts, huh? You can’t get away from yourself. That’s the problem. You can drive halfway around the globe if you had the brains, but all you’ll find is yourself waiting at the other end. You got to eat, you got to make money, and, from what I can see, you got to have someone to look after you. Your life is a dead, dull certainty.” She smiled triumphantly.
He smiled back. “Let me hear your accomplishments, then maybe I’ll unplug my ears.”
“I ain’t hearin’ anything I don’t already know.”
She didn’t respond.
“I thought so.” He checked the gas gauges — still a long way to go.
Wick, St. Charles, Osciola, Van Wert. They crossed the Missouri border around nine. The countryside rolled into hills and the trees and bushes grew tentative leaves. The sun was warmer.
He rolled his window half open and tasted the air — soft and mild.
“How many kids have you got?” Her voice cut through his calm.
“I bet you’ve got a whole big, fat family.”
“Most of ‘em are grown.”
“Aren’t they going to miss you?”
He considered that. “Maybe — some of ‘em.”
“You ever going to see them or talk to them again?”
“Maybe.” He hadn’t thought that far ahead. He knew that she knew that. “What the hell is this — twenty questions?”
“It sure as hell ain’t twenty answers,” she responded. “Just curious. You know, so I have some background information for the cops.”
“You think I shouldn’t’ve run out on—”
“Whoa! Back it up, cabbie. I don’t know nothing about people, remember?”
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, wishing it was her chicken-neck. His face glistened ugly in the sun’s cutting rays. His stomach growled. She laughed — a coarse, irritating laugh, like a smoker’s cough; more an opinion than a laugh. He caught her eyes and held them. “So what’s your story? You waitin’ tables the rest of your life or you expectin’ a call from Prince Harry?”
“Watch where you’re going,” she said, gesturing at the road.
He eased the big car back into the right hand lane from where it had drifted, ignored, halfway into the left hand lane. A buzzcut teenager in a colossal pick-up zoomed by and gave him the finger. He could’ve plugged every dike in Holland with all the fingers he’d taken over the years. “So, how ‘bout it?”
“Take the kid’s advice, cabbie.”
“Uh-huh! You make fun of me, but you can’t even answer one little question about yourself! At least I’m—”
“Shut your goddamn mouth!”
“Okay, that’s all—”
“I want to be a writer, okay? Make with the laughs and then shove ‘em up your ass!”
“A writer? What’d you mean, like a reporter or somethin’?”
“A writer! You know, books, stories — fiction. You ever read a book? Or do the blind read to you?”
He laughed, satisfied at having gotten her goat. “Yeah, I read this book once about an obnoxious, flat-chested, twenty-one-year-old—”
“It’s all crap, anyway! The only writing I do is in library books. There’s a big horse-laugh for you. I write my initials in library books.” She stared at the back of his head, tears of rage and self-pity suddenly sparkling in her grey eyes. “Pretty impressive, huh?” She twisted her head back towards the dirty window and the wooded hills beyond, blinking rapidly, her cheeks flaming an unhealthy red.
He listened to her dry sobbing. It sounded like she was being sick. He didn’t know what to do — never did. After a few minutes, he asked: “Why do you write your initials in library books?”
“Why the hell do you think? It’s the only way I’m ever going to get my name in a book — with my talent. The only way I’m ever going to be remembered.” She folded her arms together again. “Why the hell do you think?”
He pushed his hand through his hair and grunted. He couldn’t figure women if he had the instruction manual.
They drove on; Eagleville, Ridgeway, and, finally, Kansas City. It was eleven in the morning when they motored past Kansas City.
He calculated that they could probably do another two hundred and twenty to two hundred and forty miles before they’d have to stop for gas. After that, the home stretch — when the tanks went empty a second time, that’s where his new life began. It’d be warm at least, probably hot; because once they crossed into Kansas, summer was there to meet them.
They drove through Lawrence and Topeka and down the Kansas turnpike bound for Wichita. The terrain flattened out again — flatter than it had ever been before. The fields lay freshly plowed and planted. Fully-realized leaves stuck to the branches of the few trees and bushes that rimmed the almost-vacant highway. The noonday sun beat down hard on the big, yellow cab. He rolled his window all the way down, let the warm air rush in.
She kept her window sealed shut. “Aren’t you going to miss your family?” she started in on him again.
A vague smile dried up on his face, leaving a white line. “Yeah, maybe. Sometimes. Why don’t you give the family a rest, eh? They could use it.”
She laughed harshly, stared into his mirrored brown eyes. “You’re a pretty selfish sack of meat, aren’t you? Well, maybe not pretty. But selfish.”
Dust from the stripped fields blew into the cab. He rubbed a red-rimmed eye. “When I want your opinion, I won’t ask for it, okay? You don’t know—”
“You abandon your wife and kids in arctic Minneapolis while you take a joyride into the sun.” She leaned forward as he threw up his hands in exasperation. “How’s your family going to live without the so-called man of the house around?”
“You deaf as well as dumb? I told you already — most of the kids are grown; they can look after themselves. They don’t need their old man. They’ve made that plenty clear.” He sprayed water onto the windshield, turned on the wipers — succeeded in clouding the glass with streaks of dirt. “My wife’s got a job. She’ll get by. Maybe I’ll send money, if I can.”
She licked her lips. “You’re a classic,” she said. “You’re running away to get away and now you’re sending money back home. What’s the point? You’re your own square peg and square hole.”
“Yeah, well, not all of us have our shit together like you, I guess. Lemme see if I got a book here for you to autograph.”
He leaned over, fumbled around in the glove compartment. “Oh, yeah, here’s one. The Bible. You wanna take credit for that?”
He laughed, shoved the book back into the compartment. He glanced out the window at the fertile soil stretching endlessly to the horizon. He hadn’t thought a lot about what he was going to do when he got to where he was going. Or what he was going to do about his family. That was the point — had he thought everything through he never would have done anything. His flight had been the first impulsive thing he had done in fifty hard years of living. Sweat gathered in the thick folds at the back of his neck and his head started to pound. He felt the heat for the first time.
El Dorado, Wichita — the Kansas towns and cities shimmered in the distant under a broiling sun.
By the time he drove over the Oklahoma border, his brain was boiling with memories — some good, some bad; all fighting for room inside of his splintered head. Memories of a young bride, a new-born child, a first car, some more kids, his tenth wedding anniversary, the guys at the garage, neighbors, family, friends, relatives. Milestones and landmarks littering a life slowly built and hastily discarded — a simple life grown to frustrating complexity with the many people and responsibilities it encompassed.
“You’re probably getting low, driver,” she said. “On gas.”
He blinked a few times, then glanced down at the gauges. He would have to stop at the next town and re-fill the tanks — she was right.
The next town was Braman, Oklahoma; a small, work-deserted town in the middle of a hot, dusty nowhere. White clouds scudded aimlessly across a pale, blue sky, pushed around by a sharply rising and falling wind.
He steered the car into a decrepit, two-pump filling station a mile off of the interstate. The gas pumps were as old as the guy who emerged from the small, grey-weathered, wooden building. A faded windsock flopped around helplessly on a pole on the top of the building. The man wore a cowboy hat, a flannel shirt, and jeans. His face was brown and cracked like the topsoil that carpeted the surrounding fields, when it wasn’t blowing around.
The man stared at the car for a long moment, then slowly ambled over to the driver-side window. “Woo-wee! That is some kinda old-time metal you is hauling around, son! You ain’t come all the way down from New York City have you? I declare! Ain’t seen nothin’ like this since the Korean War ended and they turned all them Shermans back into nickels. Fill ‘er up with the regular or does she drink the diesel like a real tank?”
“Yeah, regular,” he replied. He undid a couple of more buttons on his shirt. The sweater his wife had knitted him and he had worn religiously the entire winter lay discarded on the seat next to him. “Hot, eh.”
The man pushed back his cowboy hat with a bent thumb and chuckled. His laugh was warm and gentle and timeless, and came from deep in his throat. He spat into the dust and steadied his blade of a body against a sudden gust of wind. “Mister, this here is a cool spell compared to what we’re gonna get.” He shuffled off to the pump, chuckling to himself as the dust swirled all around.
“You gettin’ out?” He turned around to look at her when she didn’t answer. He hated to break her quiet. “I told you that you could beat it when I stopped for gas, and now I’m stopped.”
She looked at him distrustfully. She spoke quietly: “What am I supposed to do — get Tex Ritter there to give me a ride back on his burro?”
“You can hitch a ride back with me if you can stand the company.”
She frowned, her lightly glazed eyes firing back to life. “What?”
“Yeah, I’m headin’ back to Minneapolis. The road to freedom is closed for repairs up ahead.”
“Minneapolis!?” She leaned forward, grabbed the back of the front bench. “What’d you mean? I thought you were going to keep going south?”
“Yeah, so did I — for awhile, I guess.” He shrugged. “But now I’m thinkin’ better. Maybe the hot air’s cleared my thick head. I dunno. I’m turnin’ around and—”
“You gutless bastard!” Her lips trembled and her blanched face flushed a fevered scarlet. “You stupid, gutless bastard! You drive all this way only to turn around when your guts run out!”
His face hardened. “Yeah, maybe. I dunno. I guess you were right about—”
“I was right!?” Her clutching fingers blazed white on the scarred, black upholstery. She gulped for air like someone near to drowning. “What about your goddamn idea about starting over someplace new?” She choked on her words, tore her face away from his.
The old cowboy looked in at them through the dusty back window, his face serene and knowing.
“Hey, take it easy. It was just a pipe dream. You said so yourself. Things ain’t really so bad back—”
“You gutless bastard!” she screamed a final time, then fumbled open the heavy door and stumbled out into the scorching afternoon.
“Howdy, ma’am,” the old man said. He touched the blackened brim of his cowboy hat.
She shoved past his courtesy, her brutal, trailing laughter tinged with hysteria. She staggered through the brilliant sunshine, ran across the lot and out onto the service road.
The old man pulled the dripping nozzle out of the cab, hitched it back onto the pump, and strolled over and said: “Feisty little gal, huh? Married me one just like her — long time ago.”
“Did you fill the auxiliary tank?” he asked, staring after her. She ran awkwardly down the road — tripping, falling, picking herself up, running again. Like a child. He couldn’t figure her out. He’d thought she’d be happy about his going back.
The old man scratched the dry stubble on his beef jerky face. “You got one of those, too? I declare. Didn’t know you had one of those.”
He nodded impatiently, watched her retreating figure until she reached a curve in the road and her small body was lost behind a line of trees and brush.
When the tanks were finally filled, he paid off the old man and left him hanging in mid-sentence and a cloud of dust. He tore out of the station and shot the cab down the service road. Hot air thundered through his open window and his face dripped with sweat. He’d pick her up and haul the both of them back to Minnesota where they goddamn well belonged. It was too damn hot here anyway. The car rocketed forward and he grimly hung onto the wheel and shook his head. What the hell had he been thinking, running away like he had? There were plenty worse off than him. He saw them every day.
The big cab was pushing forty when he rounded the bend in the road and slammed on the brakes. Something had darted out of a clump of bushes directly into his path. He fought the steering wheel over hard to the left, but he wasn’t nearly quick enough. A sickening thud resounded in his crimson ears.
He jammed the car to a stop, slammed the gear shift into park, and fell out the door. He was instantly crushed by the towering heat and smacked around by the angry wind. He ran jerkily down the cracked road to where her body lay mangled. Her legs were twisted grotesquely, and thick, black blood leaked out of the side of her head and onto the hot asphalt. She wasn’t moving. He collapsed next to her, frantically dug into her thin neck with his shaking fingers — desperately searching for a pulse. He found nothing. He looked down at her staring, accusing eyes and her broken mouth. He retched over and over, his stomach heaving empty. His swelled head was lacerated with searing pain and scalding tears streamed down his burning face. He felt himself blacking out, then somehow pulled it together.
He glanced up and down the empty, windswept road. He swallowed hard, staggered upright, and then carefully dragged her body into the grassy ditch. She was amazingly light — easy to handle; and he did so tenderly. He walked quickly back to the big cab, climbed inside, and drove south — a man on the run.
Long pounds out fiction in all genres. Big guy, sense of humor. Writing credits include: Blue Murder Magazine, Hardboiled, Thriller UK, Damnation Books, Bullet, Robot, Eternal Night, Another Realm, Ennea (9), The Dark Krypt, Albedo One, Baen’s Universe, The Forensic Examiner, and stories in the anthologies The Mammoth Book of New Comic Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Jacobean Whodunits, and The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries.