Calls would come in from the time I logged on duty until I decided to quit for the day. Sunday as a cab driver in a town where the liquor stores are closed: There’s nothing quite so profitable or so depressing.
The dispatcher and we drivers who felt like working on Sunday had a system so that anyone listening in (like they actually would) to the dispatches would not have concrete evidence that we were, in fact, just ordinary bootleggers for one seventh of the week.
I would buy a case of bourbon, a case of vodka, and a case of cheap white wine and put them in the trunk of my cab. Shorty, the dispatcher, would call me on the radio and say, "Number 25, we’ve got a white package delivery over at 2536 Hawthorne." That meant that someone at that address needed a bottle of vodka and they needed it quick.
What I could never understand, being the son of an alcoholic father and one who is quite fond of liquid forgetfulness himself, was this: You have been doing this for years. You know that every Sunday you are going to be out of booze if you don't stash some away. You know that you're going to pay me a fortune to get a bottle on the Sabbath. Why do you keep doing this every damn week? Week in and week out? For years?
I could make enough money on a good Sunday to let me take the next couple of days off. I never felt a whole lot of guilt about the deal. They made their beds; they could lie in them, eh? The bottles cost me around five bucks. I'd sell the bottle to them for ten, and I'd charge for the fare from wherever I was to their house and back to wherever I was when I started. So, if it was someone out in the burbs, it could run them a total of thirty bucks to get a bottle that cost me five. But when I'd see their shaky hands reaching through the half-opened doorway to pay me, the amount in question seemed to be the last thing on their mind. I felt no guilt whatsoever. None at all. Until one summer afternoon.
Shorty came on the radio and said, "Number 25, we need a package delivery at 6593 Stonehenge." When he didn't qualify the package as brown or white, it meant the cheap wine. This seemed strange because that neighborhood was the upscale part of town. I assumed it was a kid home alone who was getting away with something while mom and dad were at a church picnic.
It was around 1:00 PM. I rang the doorbell, holding a bottle of the cheapest wine California has ever offered for consumption. I think the alcohol content was around 20%. A small middle aged lady in a bathrobe opened the door.
"How much?" she asked.
"Ten for the wine and fifteen for the trip. Twenty five total."
She handed me a fifty dollar bill and said, "Keep it."
As she started to shut the door, I felt a gush of emotion as I caught the sight of a grand piano in her living room. I said, "Do you play the piano?"
She seemed in no mood to talk. She wanted to uncork that horrible liquid and down it as soon as possible. But she also had manners. She said, "No. But my husband did."
The door widened just a bit; just enough for me to know that she really did want someone to talk to.
"Is your husband home?"
"He died back in February. You want to come in? I would like to drink a glass of wine, and I don't want you standing in the doorway."
She was twice my age and not a pretty woman. You could tell that she'd never been pretty. The bathrobe was old and worn, but the house was elegant. Dust had piled high on expensive knick knacks and bibelots. I sat down in a Windsor side chair and she hurried off to the kitchen to get a glass. She did not offer me any of her expensive purchase, but I'd been drunk on cheap white wine several times in my youth and I would not have accepted had she done so. I imagined her bowels as a tormented place where no food would find purchase for any length of time. The entire scene was making me weary of life and my temporary career as well.
She came back with a tumbler filled up with half the bottle and two cubes of ice. The look on her face as she took the first sip was one of despair more than joy. One could, however, sense the joy hiding somewhere in the background of her face.
"So, you drive a taxi for a living. What is that like?"
"It’s just a job. I'm working my way through graduate school. I think."
Within two exchanges, she had drained the tumbler. She stumbled back to the kitchen for the next half of her lunch. When she came back and sat down again, she drank in sips instead of gulps. I knew that she could not have lived like this for long. The trappings in this house were way too expensive to be afforded by a common lush.
"How did your husband die?"
"He couldn’t have been that old?"
"He was fifty seven. I am fifty two. I don't plan on getting as old as he did."
"Don’t you have some other family? Children?"
"We couldn't have children," she said as she polished off the bottom of the tumbler. "Do you have another bottle of this in your cab?"
"Yes. But I'll have to charge you the same price."
She handed me another fifty dollar bill and I went out to the beat-up Yellow Cab and brought her another bottle of wine that cost me around three bucks.
She stumbled into the kitchen and poured another half a bottle into the tumbler and put three more ice cubes in it and returned to her sofa.
I could see it all so very plainly now. He had taken care of everything. He had balanced the checkbooks, paid the bills, cut the yard, and she had collected on a very large life insurance policy. She was sitting in an empty house with a barren womb and paying me a fortune for shit that a sailor would not drink.
I told her that I needed to use her phone to call my dispatcher. I was hoping he would tell me that there were no more calls. I wanted to stay and do something for this woman. I wanted to earn my money honestly. But Shorty said, "What the fuck are you doing? We've got two browns and three whites that need to be delivered right fucking now!"
I told the lady I had to go back to work. She was not concerned by this time. Her eyes had glazed over and I think she was about ready to ask me if I wanted to accompany her to the bedroom.
I didn’t do the Sunday work for the next two weeks. The third week after, I did. Around 1:00 PM Shorty called and said, "Number 25, we need a package at 6593 Stonehenge."
I lied and told him I was out of packages and just drove around town, on that lonely Sunday afternoon, wasting gas and wasting time and wondering about wasted lives.