by Wendy Button
Here’s what Jordie said: “To forgive, that’s human. To err, now that’s really divine. There’s nothing more beautiful than a big old-fashioned fuck-up.”
Then, he shut the car door and walked down the dock and disappeared.
I haven’t seen him for three days. I’d look at my call sheet to see if he was set for the regular pick-up at 2:30 a.m., but he hasn’t called for a ride to his fishing boat since that night.
I hope he calls because this is one of my last nights driving the cab.
This is my third summer driving for All Right Taxi and my last. Next year I’ll be working in the city, wearing a nice dress, and taking the train to work.
Tonight, I plan on being quiet while I drive.
God only knows what I might say.
The day after I saw Jordie, I drove a double shift. A couple asked me where the road was to walk back to Cape Cod. I turned around and said, “Well, as soon as you put on your Jesus shoes, you walk right into the harbor and go straight.”
I guess they didn’t understand the concept of “island.” So I’ll be quiet tonight. The passengers can ask whatever they want. I’ll respond with a yes and a no and a sure.
I park my moped next to my taxi—the baby-blue Chevy wagon. It’s not the boat-on-wheels sized wagon. It’s medium sized and moves through the thin cobblestone streets with ease and gets great gas mileage. I call it “Baby Blue” and hum the Dylan song, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
My boss, Mousey, wants us to fill the cabs right before the gas station closes at midnight so that we can keep driving late: driving the bands back to hotels and the fishermen to the docks until three.
That’s how I met Jordie. He says he was in the CIA and quit in the early eighties. He built a house out by Cisco Beach and fishes. He does well: traps a few lobsters, catches striped bass and blues.
Sometimes he uses his nets, and other times, when he needs a long trip, he’ll use a rod and reel. This summer, Jordie’s been taking a lot of long trips out on the boat. He says that it’s good for his sea legs, all that rocking.
Before I go into my boss’s house, I think about leaving. When I leave the island, I will miss Mousey, his wife, and the other “family” at All Right.
I will miss Jordie. I want to stay in touch with letters and Christmas cards. Jordie thinks I’m nuts. He says that it’s part of life, learning to weed out so that you can keep going.
It’s something I’m not good at. My address book is stuffed. Even “Q” is filled with names and addresses.
I know where it comes from. It’s simple, really.
My dad left when I was six. No weekend visits with my brothers and me. No phone calls and no letters. He came back last year after he sobered up, but the ache’s still around.
It’s not easy forgetting that feeling of being left in the dirt by the side of the road.
Sometimes I think I see the ache in strangers.
Once, in the post office, I watched a woman fold a letter. The way she slowly creased the paper reminded me of how a friend of mine slowly stroked her brother’s coffin.
A couple of months ago, I saw a man close a car door. He gently shut it with both hands, clutching the open window frame. It reminded me of how my uncle clutched my aunt’s coat right after she died. The coat was soaked in blood from the car accident. But he kept it and held it with both hands as if he were about to slip it on another person.
I see that ache everywhere: street corners, restaurants, and movie theaters. And it’s a comfort.
The smell of frying pork chops lingers around the screened door. The dog is stretched out on the sand. The only thing that gets him excited is when someone says the word “bird.” I scratch his nose and he licks my hand.
Inside, the telephone rings constantly.
Mousey sits beside the phone, picks it up and says, “All Right Taxi can I help you.” He waves at me, his hands covered in grease from his car repair shop.
He is small—well, his legs are short and his body is pretty long. He’s around fifty, and his face is wrinkled from years of golf.
I sit down at the kitchen table and start playing with the clip on my taxi ID. Mousey picks up another call, and his wife, Judy, flips a pork chop.
The house is warm. It’s not from the stove, but the house feels warm. Pictures of their children cover the dark green walls: two sons, both in the Coast Guard, and a daughter who works for the Chamber of Commerce. The gray couch is covered with folded clothes. The open curtains are butter yellow and handmade. Flowers rest in a vase on the coffee table. It’s a nice place to sit before work.
“Had dinner?” Judy asks, wiping grease from her thick glasses. She’s dressed like a mom: a white long-sleeve shirt with strawberries all over it, ironed blue jeans that show her small belly, and bright white sneakers.
“All set,” I say. “Three more days.”
“You’ll make it,” she says, her voice deep from smoking two packs a day for years. We’re the same height, about five-five, but we’re still taller than Mousey.
Mousey directs a few calls, and the phone quiets down. It’s time for people to make the steamship back to Hyannis, and it’s always a little crazy when I get to work. Mousey places the hand-mike on the table, and then clicks the speaker button.
“Our Sidney darling is here,” he says.
I lower my head and it starts. One of the other drivers, Chris, a schoolteacher during the regular year, starts in with, “Hello, Sidney, Sidney Bo Bidney,” and she finishes the rest of the name-game chant.
It’s a ritual this summer. During the Fugaui Sailing Race, I was adopted by a crew after driving them during the day shift. Fugaui is short for the drunken slur “Where the fuck are we?”
That night I got drunk with the crew and decided to sing the name-game chant over the mike. The name I picked was Chuck. I yelled, “Chuck, Chuck, Banana Fanna Fo Fuck” over the air waves.
Mousey holds the mike toward me and clicks.
“Fugaui,” I say.
“Darlin’,” Mousey says, “after the boat rush you can take the phones.”
I nod. I love the CBs and how they look like any other CB, but on that little hand-mike are the numbers and buttons like a phone. Sometimes at night, when I get home, my roommates tell me that I talk in my sleep. That I have work dreams and say, “All Right Taxi can I help you.”
“A few late-night calls,” Mousey continues.
“No. But we’ve got a two o’clock at The Muse. Two-fifteen for those waiters at the Summer House. And Frank’s scallop group at 2:30.”
“Okay,” I say, taking the call sheet.
There are a few fingerprint smudges on the paper’s corner. I count the print’s rings.
“Five rings. You’re fifty.”
“What a scholar,” he says and Judy laughs.
The phone rings.
“All Right Taxi,” Mousey says. “She’s here.” I stand and readjust my pull-over, the smooth fleece warming my hands.
Mousey hangs up. “Jordie wants to make the boat.”
I look at my watch and say, “There’s no way.”
“Find one,” he says and sips from his beer.
I run out of the kitchen.
The screen door slams a couple of times. The wagon starts, the CB and phone bleep on. I drive out and sign on with a quiet “Hi.”
Down Hummock Pond Road, I zip past the shingled houses. Wobbly bike riders move up a small hill. I grip the steering wheel and step on the gas.
I dodge a mopeder wearing a dark green alien helmet. The CB crackles and the phone rings, but Mousey keeps picking up and sending others on calls.
I turn the corner and there’s Jordie.
He stands at the edge of his driveway, pacing and swaying as if he were made of rubber. His jeans rest below his potbelly. He kicks dirt with his red high-tops, and he twirls his long beard with his hand. A knapsack is by his feet and he stumbles around it when he sees me down the road. He flaps his arms like a big bird and my heart drops.
I know that he is shit-faced.
Three weeks ago, I gave him a liter of Coke with a ribbon around it to help him celebrate his tenth year of being sober. That night at a party with his friends he kept mumbling about how tough it is, how tough it is when you’re lonely.
I swing into his driveway. Jordie whips open the door and tosses his knapsack in the back.
“Go, Sidney, go!” he shouts.
I kick up sand and pull out before he even closes the door.
Jordie stinks like whiskey and scallops.
He wheezes and fumbles with his pack of cigarettes. There are cuts on his hand—his thumb drips blood onto his jeans. He looks alien. His face is cut up: a butterfly bandage is on his forehead and another is tight around his nose. His lips look like small pieces of shaved deli ham.
“Go on, Sidney,” he slurs. “I gotta get out of here.”
I step on the accelerator.
“Fuck trying, just do it,” he says.
He drags hard on his cigarette and exhales. The smoke hits the windshield and then moves across the dashboard like the fog that can cover the Jetti in the dawn.
I use a shortcut through the top part of town. I run the stop sign. Jordie rolls down the window and screams, “Out of the way you stupid fucking people!”
He is my friend and my friend is a mess.
I make a sharp turn onto Main Street. The cobblestones and old bumps make us bounce around. The “Baby Blue” hits hard. Jordie’s head rolls and then slams on the dashboard, his cigarette crumbles and orange ash falls to the carpet.
“Forget college. Get into racing.”
I am quiet.
“The scholar enjoying this islander’s charm. Thanking the good Lord that she is from some place quite different.”
He lights another cigarette and I reach for the mike.
“Is the boat still there?”
I click off and let the mike fall to the floor. I slam on the brakes and make a sharp left turn. Another moped. Jordie lurches forward and braces himself. His thumb opens up even more and he bleeds on the dashboard.
I jam the horn. He leans out the window and yells at the moped, “Get off the island you asshole!”
“The boat’s still here,” a voice says from the CB.
Jordie leans back in his seat.
“Keep your head out there Jordie. You stink,” I say.
I blurt it out. He’s not like this. Last summer he taught me how to drive standard and his patience was amazing, especially when I was trying to learn reverse.
“I might puke,” he says.
“Good,” I say. “Lean out the window until you do.”
“Mad, aren’t we?” he says and tosses his cigarette out the window and lights another. “Get me off this place.”
“I’m trying. You’re the one with poor planning.”
“No planning,” he says, shaking as he drags. “I walked through the glass door at the Rope Walk. I won’t get in trouble if I go and dry out for a couple of weeks. Have a look, Sidney darling.”
He lifts his shirt; his flabby skin is criss-crossed with scratch marks and more deep cuts. His stomach jiggles as we hit another bump.
“Oh, man, Sid,” he says as his head hits the doorframe.
“Why not,” he says and wipes his nose as I turn onto Gables Avenue. “It’s too small. Don’t you pay attention?”
“Yes,” I say and honk at a few pedestrians.
“Not really, babe. Or else you would’ve seen this coming,” he says, holding the dashboard, and then looks right at me. “You have no idea what it’s like walking at two a.m. in January.”
“It’s like that everywhere,” I say, thinking that I know that. I walk in winter at school. “Try upstate New York with thirty below windchill, you asshole.”
“My my. Not the same. I’ve got fourteen miles and sometimes a frozen harbor,” he says. “You have the whole lovely mainland.”
Jordie leans out the window and yells at some men in pressed blue blazers and smiley women in linen dresses, “Move, mother-fuckers!”
They stare and clutch their daughters in flowered sundresses. I see the Uncatina. It’s one of the older steamships, not new and tall with bright white paint and the fancy bar with a TV and a VCR like the Eagle. The Uncatina looks like its name: a little tired, a little ugly, and a little mournful.
People walk up the plank and board. The huge steel door where the cars drive on and park starts to close.
“Almost there,” I say.
“And another thing,” he says. “You got people year-round, I don’t.”
“That’s a lie. I don’t have anyone.”
“You’re pretty and you have your stuffed little address book,” he says. “And you’re young.”
“Why is young always supposed to make things better.”
Jordie takes a deep breath and leans against the door.
“You want to know a secret? Not a CIA secret, but an old man’s secret?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“People, deep down, are real shits,” he says, pointing at his chest, then at me. “We dump all over each other and it’s divine.”
“No it’s not,” I say. “Fuck you, Jordie.”
“The bad stuff makes us see things,” he says and claps. “That’s the stuff that shapes us.”
I stop at the end of Gables Avenue. The steamship dock is about two hundred yards in front, but the road is one-way. I have to go right, circle the block, and sit in traffic. But in front, it’s clear.
“Forget the sign,” Jordie says low and smooth just like when he told me how to slowly step off the clutch and give the car gas.
“There’s nothing divine in making people hurt.”
I drive straight.
I drive by fat-food alley: Hutch’s fried fish and Anthony’s pizza place. People stare while shoving food in their mouths. Thirteen-year-olds crowded around the benches laugh and their braces shine. I keep moving and Jordie keeps mumbling. I pull into the parking lot and move right to the metal plank as the Uncatina blasts its horn.
“Go get your ticket.”
Jordie runs to the office. I grab his knapsack and it’s as heavy as wet towels. I stomp on the metal plank as the dock boy starts to latch the chain.
“Can you hold it for a minute?” I ask.
“Engines are running. Not up to me,” he says. “Promise to latch the chain when we pull out?”
“Okay,” I say and breathe in the exhaust.
Jordie barrels out of the office and runs toward me.
“Please,” I say quietly.
Jordie pounds onto the plank. The whole thing shakes. The boat starts to move slowly out of the dock. Jordie grabs the knapsack from me and tosses it onto the boat. He grabs the railing and leaps onto the Uncatina and bangs into the white wall.
He leans back, lights a cigarette, and waves, using his whole arm.
The wave is slow. The wave is sad. And the wave is familiar.
The day my dad left, he leaned against the back of his baby-blue car. He crunched his cigarette out on the gravel driveway.
As he looked up, he saw me peeking from behind a tree. He tried to grin, but his mouth stopped and made a flat line. It looked like it hurt. He waved and made a large arc. Then he turned and climbed into the car.
I remember the taillights bouncing. I remember the gravel dust. I remember the tree bark against my cheek and hands. But I can’t remember what he said. I just know the gesture.
I stood by the tree for hours and tried to hear his voice, but I couldn’t get it. I clutched the piece of paper with his address. I thought about his grin and about his wave. Then I went upstairs, opened my little book and added his name.
“Jordie,” I yell, choking a little.
“Time to weed out,” he says.
“No, I’ll prove you wrong,” I shout.
“Make me proud,” he says and flicks his cigarette into the churning water.
The boat moves out of the dock, groaning toward Brandt Point. I latch the chain and move down the plank and stand in the parking lot in front of the cab. At Brandt Point, people toss pennies over the side—a tradition, toss a penny over so that you return some day. Jordie is at the stern, a small figure leaning against the wall as hopeful arms toss copper into the sea.
I get back into the cab.
“Sidney. Talk to base.”
“I’m here. Made the boat,” I say.
“Ready to go to ’Sconset?” he asks.
I look down at the seat. Jordie left a hundred for the three-dollar fare—he does that on our last ride of the summer.
“Take your time,” he says.
As I glide down Milestone Road, I pull out a rag from the glove box and wipe at the blood on the dashboard. I smell the sweat and whisky; Jordie’s still here. I’ll keep the windows up a little longer.
When I get to the view of the cranberry bogs, I stop at the side of the road. I roll down the windows. The brisk air moves inside and pushes Jordie out.
I get out of the cab and stand at the edge of the cliff. There are so many scrub pines, bear oaks, beach plums, and small island trees. This place, when you’re alone, can really leave you breathless. It is going to be a clear night. And later, it will be worth another visit. At least a drive-by to look and hold on to the familiar sight—hold on to the sight underneath those island stars.
Wendy Button received her MFA in fiction from Bennington College, and her short story “Climbers” appeared in Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops. She lives in Boston and has worked as head speechwriter for Mayor Tom Menino. (5/2002)