El Chofer

El Chofer

Outside it was getting light.  It was also raining but I did not mind because I was inside.  Many of the passengers watched the rain, but most watched the other passengers.

The Spanish man got on the bus at 6:45 a.m. “Con permiso,” he said, moving by a raisin-skinned woman spread out across the aisle-way.  The woman pulled tight against her seat without raising an eye toward the man.  He sat down and began to talk with the man next to him.  It was a quick flurry of Spanish words and I wondered what they might be saying.

We got off the bus at 7:30 a.m.  It was still raining and the Spanish man offered me his umbrella.

“No,” I said, “Gracias.”

He turned toward his workplace, and I turned toward mine.  The rain felt cool against my neck and above me the streetlights were going off.  The sun was strong enough to light the roadway, even with the rain-clouds filtering its light.

“I wish to hell it wasn’t like this, Jack.  I really do.”

“I know you do, Mitch.”

“Sometimes things happen that we just can’t control.  And it’s nobody’s fault, really.  It just happens.”

I raised my glass. “To hell with it.”

We clinked beer mugs and turned back to the television.  San Francisco was mauling Jacksonville late in the fourth quarter.   Right about now, Susan should have been coming out of the dining room and telling us to turn down the volume because we’d wake the kids.  She’d say it’s a school night and they all had to get up early.  Then she’d add, before kissing me goodnight, “The salary cap is killing the NFL.”

Mitch turned off the television when the local news came on. “Are the girls coming over this weekend?”

“Susan’s taking them to Louisville to visit her mother.  It’s alright.  It’ll give me a chance to stare at the walls some more.  I haven’t done that enough lately.”

“Ok.  I’m going to head home.  Call anytime.  I mean it.”

I asked him if he were ok to drive, even though he’d only had one beer.  He gave me a friendly punch in the shoulder and said to take it easy.

It was after midnight and I had to be at the bus stop in a few hours.  I took the dishes and empty chip-bag into the kitchen, put food out for the cat, then went to bed.

The bus broke down one morning in front of Marsha’s Café and Diner.  It was about fifteen minutes away from my work.  A forty-something woman repeated, “Damn it, I’m gonna be late,” and two teenagers celebrated their excused absence.  We stood outside, waiting for the next bus to come.

“Ten minutes, tops.  It’s fifteen minutes between buses,” the driver said.  He was on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette.

I approached the Spanish man and pointed to the diner. “Coffee?” I said.

“Ok,” he smiled.

We seated ourselves at the counter and ordered two cups of coffee.

“I’m Jack,” I said.

Alberto had moved here from Guatemala about ten years ago.  He said the government was unstable and he felt compelled to leave.  He spoke a fluent English, though each word was touched with his accent.

“What did you do there?”

“I was a journalist,” he said. “I wrote for El Mundo.”

A new bus was arriving outside and the passengers were boarding.

“We should go,” he said, throwing a couple dollars onto the table.

Alberto sat next to me when we got back on the bus.  He asked what sort of work I did.

“Shipping manager at Aramac.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Do I enjoy it?  No, hardly.  My boss is a dick and the people under me are disrespectful.  But it’s work.”

He nodded.

I’d never been a coffee drinker, and could feel the caffeine begin to run through my body.   The two teenagers weren’t on the bus.  When we got off, I shook Alberto’s hand and said it was nice meeting him.

Diana, my oldest daughter, answered the phone when I called.  She said school was fine, Emily was fine, and so was Mom.

“I’m glad you’re all doing well,” I said. “I thought Saturday you, me, and Emily could go up to King’s Island.  Spend the day.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I could talk to Emily.”

“It was just an idea.  Give me a call if it sounds like something the two of you want to do.  No pressure,” I said.

After she hung up, I walked barefoot along shaggy brown carpet.  Mitch had been over earlier to help change a filter in the air conditioning vent.  I asked him to stay longer, have a beer or something, but he had to pick up his son from soccer practice.

I opened the front closet and pulled out an atlas, turning to a giant map of Central America.  Except for a family trip to South Carolina while Jimmy Carter was still in office, I’d never been outside the Midwest—I took Susan to Lake Erie for our honeymoon.  Guatemala was larger than I expected, and I imagined the insects were even bigger.

I walked through the house, opening all the windows to let in fresh air.   The wind headed north and east, blowing the sour factory pollutes away from Winton Place.

Two weeks later I was in Alberto’s three-room apartment drinking coffee and studying photo albums.  We had been on the same bus home from work, and he invited me to walk to his place when we got off.

“She’s beautiful,” I said, looking at a picture of his mother sitting on a porch swing. “Is she still in Guatemala?”

“Yes.  I’d like to bring her and my brother and sister to Cincinnati, but it’s not possible at the moment.  I talk with them weekly.”

I nodded.  “Do you get to visit?”

“Too dangerous,” he said. “Otherwise I would return in a minute.  Do you have kids?”

“Two daughters.”

“Ah, must be a handful,” he laughed.

“No, not these ones,” I said as Alberto got up to refill our mugs with coffee.  The apartment was sparse: a futon and foldout table made up the kitchen/living room, and the other rooms were strictly utilitarian as well. “Thanks,” I said, taking the coffee.

The phone rang at that moment. Alberto answered, “Hello,” then proceeded to speak excitedly in Spanish.  After a few minutes he turned to me, raising his hand as he spoke.

“I’ll see you,” I said, letting myself out the door.   It was the last day of summer, and the thick heat seemed to attack me.

Later on, Alberto apologized for being so rude. “No, no, it’s fine,” I said.  He explained that it was a lady-friend who lived in California.  He’d never met her before.

“They’ve refused to grant me citizenship, even though I’ve lived here for so long.  I work.  I obey the law.  But still the judge wants to send me back to Guatemala.”

“Did you tell the judge how dangerous it is?”

He said that he asked for asylum, but the judge didn’t take his claim seriously.  I said I was sorry, and wished there were something I could do.

“Her name is Sonia,” he said, smiling. “She came with her family from Mexico to California about twenty years ago.  Everyone speaks Spanish over there, she says.  That is nice.”

I told him it must be.

It was three blocks—maybe a quarter mile—to walk to my house from Alberto’s place.  Over the driveway and next to the house was a car shelter that Susan and I had built years ago.  Under the shelter and covered by a canvas tarp was my fourth love, after the girls: a cherry red, 1969, Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.

“It’s broken?” Alberto asked.

“No, no.  Runs perfectly fine.  In fact I got a major tune-up only a couple months ago.  Isn’t she a beauty?”

It had a tan interior and silver chrome bumpers.  Every day I pulled off the tarp, started the car, and let her run for five minutes as I sat, listening to the hum.

He asked me why I took the bus, when I had such a car.

I told him I lost my license. “Let’s go inside,” I said. “I’ll pour you a beer.”

I hung up on Susan when she called.  She had asked how I was doing.  I didn’t know how to answer.

Mitch was sitting on the couch. “You ok?”

“Same old, same old,” I said. “Want to order a pizza?”

“Sharon’s parents are coming over for dinner tonight.  I promised to help clean.  Maybe some other time.”

“Sure,” I said.

We took our glasses to the sink.  After Mitch left, I picked up the phone and called Susan.  I told her we must have got cut off before.

“How are you, Jack?”

“Alright,” I said. “How are you?”

“Fine—” There was a pause. “Listen, the reason I called…”

“Just say it.”

And she did.  She had prepared divorce papers, complete with custody agreements—I’d get the girls every other weekend—and all she needed was my signature.

“What about alimony?”

“Jack, I make more than you do.  I think we’ll be able to work together on the big expenses.  College, birthdays, et cetera.”

Et cetera, I thought.

“Get in,” I said.  Alberto went around to the passenger-side, opened the door, and slid into the cherry-red car.  I did the same thing on the driver-side. “This thing gets up to 130mph.  You know, if we were in Montana, I’d find a road, press the pedal to the floor, and just keep it there until we reach Canada.”

“Or run out of gas.”

I laughed. “How’s your mom?”

“She’s doing well.  She’s going with my brother to Mexico City next week to visit some old friends.  You haven’t talked about your family,” he said.

“You know about my two daughters.”

“How old are they?”

“Twelve and sixteen.  Diana just got her license.  Emily’s started junior high.”

“And their mother?”

“Susan’s Susan,” I said. “For better and worse.”

“When did she move out?”

“This July.”

I offered him a pinch full of sesame seeds.  We took turns spitting them out of the car, seeing how far a seed would travel before hitting the ground.

“Hold on a sec,” I said, then climbed out of the car.  I returned a few seconds later with a set of keys.  The engine coughed then murmured as I turned the key in the ignition. “Listen to that,” I said.

Alberto smiled and asked if he should put on his seat belt.

I closed my eyes.  The purr of the idle engine was different from the roar of the moving car: I hadn’t heard that noise in weeks.  My right hand moved from the steering wheel to the knob of the stick.  I held down the clutch and guided the stick from first to second then to third.  My right foot stayed on the brake.

“Do you drive?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I can,” he said, “but I don’t have a license.  I forgot to renew it and, since I don’t have a car, I haven’t bothered.  Is that what happened to you?”

I lifted my foot from the break and held it over the gas pedal.  I slowly pressed down on the gas while easing off the clutch.  The car lurched forward and I hit the break. “There was an accident,” I said, “and I lost my license.”

I turned off the car.  Beads of sweat were forming on my brow, and wished I were back inside with my remote control in hand.  Alberto sensed my discomfort and opened his door.  I got out and apologized to him. “I haven’t been sleeping,” I said.

The girls came over the next weekend.  We watched a Reds game on television Friday night, and rented a movie for Saturday.  Leslie offered to take the Pontiac out to pick up the video.  I didn’t see why not, and handed her the keys.

That night, the girls curled up on the couch during the movie.  They were laughing, reminding each other of their own funny stories, things that had happened to them.  A boy at school got so nervous during a speech that he wet himself.  A substitute teacher got fired for calling a seventh-grader a smart ass.  I thought about asking the girls about how the boys treat them.  I’d never given any impression that I cared, one way or the other.

We were watching Jurassic Park.  We’d all seen it half a dozen times, but it was a safe movie for the three of us.  When Susan came the next day, I watched from the living room.  I didn’t blame her for leaving me.  In fact, I would have respected her less had she stayed.

Alberto had proposed to his lady-friend in California.  He did it over the telephone.

“I even got down on one knee,” he said, grinning at me.  He was Joe Montana, after winning another Super Bowl.  Or Sammy Sosa, after hitting a game-winning homerun. “Sonia will be here in five weeks.  We marry the next day.”

“That’s not too fast?  The day after you meet her for the first time?”

“I met her six months ago.  I learned more about her from talking on the phone every night, hearing her voice and her soul, than I would have from six months of seeing movies together.”

“Who will be at the wedding?” I asked.

He went through a list of several people, including myself but not his mother or siblings.

I said that I wished there was a way they could attend, and offered to video-tape it with my camcorder.

He said that would be wonderful.

Time couldn’t go fast enough for Alberto.  He packed his days with work, visits with friends, and of course long conversations with Sonia. “I can’t wait for her to arrive,” he said.

“I’ll be glad to meet her,” I said.

“She only knows a little English, I’m afraid.”

I hit him on the back and said, “Well, as long as you can translate, we’ll be fine.”  I said that I wished them the best and rang the bell for the bus to stop.  Sonia was a potter in California.  She spun clay on one of those tables, fired them in a kiln, and sold beautiful dishes, vases, and weed pots.  Alberto had given me one for my birthday.

When I got home from work that day, I climbed inside the car.  I let the engine run, and turned the car radio to the local rock station, telling myself that if Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild came on, I’d back out of the driveway.   It didn’t. “Fuck it,” I said out-loud.

Six months had passed since I last drove.  Susan and I had been on our way to an open-house at Emily’s school.  Outside it was raining.

“I hate the rain,” I’d said.

Susan just looked at me.  I didn’t turn my head away from the road, but I knew she was looking at me.

We’d just crossed the intersection of Vine and Mitchell.

“That’s a lot of money, Jack.  We don’t need another car.  Diana’s two years from college.”

“It’s my money,” I’d said. “You’re the one who insists on separate bank accounts.” She sighed, and I looked at her—“Susan,” I’d said.  We were stuck in the right lane behind a bus.  I glanced up at the rear-view mirror and then darted into the left lane to go around the bus.

“Jack!”

That was how I remembered it.

Police had investigated:  the girl was jaywalking; she shouldn’t have been in the roadway; the rain certainly didn’t help visibility.  It wasn’t my fault.

Two weeks later, my Pontiac arrived.  I wouldn’t drive it or any other car.  Two weeks after that, Susan stopped trying to get me to eat or turn off the television or talk.

“Sometimes things happen that we can’t control,” Mitch had said.  But I didn’t know how to believe that.  Not when I had been in the driver’s seat.

Sonia was forty-five, a few years older than Alberto.  But she was a lovely woman with soft features.  There was something about the white of her lacy dress and her dark eyes…

After the ceremony, Alberto told me that Sonia’s first husband died two years ago of a heart attack.  She’d felt guilty for a long time because she had insisted they live in the country instead of closer to an urban center, where a hospital would be just minutes away.  If only she hadn’t been so stubborn, she thought, he might have gotten the care he needed.

“I told her, ‘Sometimes things happen.  It’s nobody’s fault.’”

If God did exist, He must have been trying to drill that concept into my head. “She looks like she’s doing alright now,” I said, watching Sonia dance with Alberto’s young neighbor.

I took bus 47 and then two transfers to get to the Pediatric Rehabilitation unit at Children’s Hospital.  It was full of kids recovering from long-term injuries.  The on-duty nurse told me that some parents stay every night with their child as he or she recovers.  She walked me to room 407, where Brandy Johnson had been placed.

This girl who was sound asleep, with tubes up her nose and portions of her head shaved, was there because of me.  I asked the nurse when she might get out.  The nurse said no one could be sure.

“It’s really unfortunate, huh?” the nurse said. “But she’s a great girl.  It would take a lot more to knock her down for good.”

I nodded.  When I got home, I called Alberto.  I said I’d sell the Pontiac for $5000, $2000 less than what I had paid for it.  Alberto said he’d take it for $4000.

“Ok,” I said.  I was planning to buy some scuba gear.

Prologue

The Barbeque

Why the Long Face?

All the String in Cincinnati

Ok, Henry

El Chofer

Collection Day

Dirty Heaven

A Place for Jamaal

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