I don’t drive for Uber, but that’s what I tell the poor slugs who climb into my ’79 eight-cylinder beast of a Pontiac Trans Am, looking for a lift to anywhere. They get into my “Rod” thinking they’ve got this: dialed for Uber, arranged the pick-up, then hung around the corner till a driver (me if their luck’s runnin’ low) shows up. Open the door, throw their shit on the seat, climb in and take off. Whisked to whatever destination they’d had in mind, without having to drive to get there. That, they leave to the professional, like me. Only thing is, I’m not really the man. Not like they were expecting anyhow. When I show up, you can bet last night’s track winnings they’ll get where they were going, just maybe not how they’d planned. Prime example: last night’s lift.
I’d spied him, hunched over his cane in the strip-mall parking lot; an ancient Asian; Chinese, maybe Korean. I could never tell, but my old man always could. He’d served enough time shooting em’ down during Korea, and then later, living the ex-pat lifestyle in Shanghai. But to me, their small heads and oversized glasses always blurred the lines.
I was cruising my rod, looking for a pick-up when a squirrel jammed by and slowed my roll. Never one to hurt the little guys, I braked hard and exhaled. Then the passenger door opened.
“UUBBAAARR? UUBBAAARR?” He peered inside, scrutinizing. Looking for crumbs, I think. Asians always did that. Just like my dad, always scouring details, nothing ever good enough. Not one for small talk, the man spit it out again:
His stick tapped the inside of my cab repeatedly as if mining for gold. Clearly, he wanted me to take care of him. Too bad he didn’t know just how much I wanted to.
“Get in,” I said, without getting out.
He hurled a tattered bag in the back, not noticing the new vinyl seats; candy-apple red. Spent a fortune cleaning up the back there after the last job went south. The woman had bled out a lot more than expected after running over her feet. Would have been a clean job too, except she’d managed to lean right when I swerved left, and instead of taking her out altogether, I’d nailed just her shoes. After I’d tossed her in toes first on the way to the dump to shred what was left and the black leather seats never recovered. Hence, the new red vinyl.
“You go hotel, Lickety-Split. Not far, round corner, okay?”
He reached over grabbing the cigarette lighter, not noticing the spiffed up detailed dashboard. When I’d had the back re-done, I let em’ clean up the front too. Cost a ton, but worth it. The lighter sparked in his fingers and slow smoke spirals curled my way.
“Smoking’s not really my thing,” I said. “But hey, light up. It’s your funeral.” In more ways than one.
Dad smoked; a freaking chimney on steroids. Practically killed me off young with it too, giving me pneumonia year after year for the first ten. I spent more time in the hospital oxygen tent than anywhere else. Nearly died three times, and still, he continued to puff.
The man did the same. I rolled down the windows and coughed hard. No dice. The cancer-stick still smoldered, taunting me to stamp it out. My patience reached that high point on the salsa bottle; the one they marked blood red for spicy.
“You pull over, yes? Mr. Lee must pee.” Laughing, he showed off a front canine the size of a grape. “Now, please. You stop.”
“Okay.” I pulled the wheel hard, and the back tires swerved on rain pooling on the pavement. “A little wet never hurt anyone,” I said, pushing his door handle open. “Go on. I’ll wait.”
He walked to the side and found a good spot; lots of tree cover and camouflage. Then the sky opened; a downpour of donut sized drops. Perfect!
He chose a tree and disappeared. I saw the cigarette get flicked into the leaves. And when he re-emerged he reached into his front coat pocket and pulled out another. He ambled back to my ride and got in.
“Better now,” he said. “Mr. Lee all good. You go now hotel, yes?”
“You’re the boss.”
I revved her back up, and the engine roared. Always made me nuts, how great dad took care of the thing. Around me, he smoked like the Marlboro Man but never lit up inside his baby! Since inheriting the thing, I’d kept it tight. But the constant reminder of his disapproving stares made me want to do things. Things I should only think about. The man waved the stick in my face, leaning in close.
“Mr. Lee needs more light” He grabbed the lighter again, giving it his best shot. “I do. You drive.” But it died in his hand. “You have matchbook? This not working.” He shook it up and down, like mixing a shake. I pulled over hard, back tires squealing.
“You want matches; you got em.”
stop repeatedly, making me get out and stand with him till he’d finish his pack. Blew smoke rings right at me, laughing while I choked.I left her revved and climbed out, locking all the doors behind. Rain soaked the inside of my hoodie as I fingered the extra key in my pocket, opened the trunk and dug through dad’s leftover bucket of junk. Inside, smoking had always been off limits. But on all our road trips he’d
I grabbed engine oil and matches and poured it over fast. Flicked the entire matchbook up high and watched light blast fantastic. I backed up quick. The man inside peered through glass and tried to speak.
“YOU NOT UUUUBBBEEERRR…NOT UUUBBEEERRR…”
His lips spoke the truth. But with no one around to hear him, what did it matter.