Early morning pickups worked for Jack, even though sometimes he had to drive an hour further out into the burbs, pick the client up, and get them back to the airport in time for a 6:00 a.m. flight. This would have Jack up at 3:30 in the morning, but he didn’t mind after a night of getting up two or three times to piss. Sixty-three years old and it seemed like he was always pissing.
It was still hot that morning, even after thunderstorms moved through during the night. Jack stood in his driveway, smoking a cigarette. Sweat was blossoming on his neck, and he felt it above the tight-fitting collar and the Windsor-knotted tie. The black suit pants clung to the back of his legs. The suit was cheap—nearly all polyester, square-cut to fit all body types. He had a dozen nicer suits in his closet, but none of them were black. Who wore a black suit anyway? Undertakers and limo drivers.
Jack put the air conditioner on full as he nosed out of his driveway and pulled out onto the still-damp street outside his home. He rolled slowly past the other big Victorian houses on his street. They were full of young families now. He was alone in the house and kind of a dinosaur. He had the vague thought for the hundredth time that he really should downsize, maybe even move into the city. His daughter asked him about it every week when they talked on the phone. His son, John Jr., probably had a spreadsheet to figure out the equity in the house, and his best guess at the size of Jack’s portfolio. The last time they had talked, John had asked him about the limo driving. “Why the hell are you doing that? You don’t need the money.” Jack agreed, and left it at that.
Ten minutes later he had the car pointed north on Route 95, toward the New Hampshire coast and Maine. It would take him thirty-five minutes more to get to the client, and he already had to piss. Not much would be open if he had to stop on the way up, and he knew to never stop after he picked up the client. They would stiff him on the top and try to get him fired. Jack sucked his gut in to push the urge back up. He would be OK.
He liked the quiet at this time of the morning. He always tried to imagine who was in the few cars he saw on the road. Shift workers? Cops heading home after working on a tough case? He hated thinking something bad explained it—a sick kid or a young wife headed into the city for an early doctor’s appointment. He had been spooked one morning, late in the spring, when he saw a minivan on the side of the road. There was a boy he guessed to be about seven alongside, squatting and trying to take a shit. Why were they up so early or so late? And where were they going that had the boy doing this? Jack had seen action in Vietnam, had fought without a break for nineteen days during the Tet offensive in ’68. Nothing there had spooked him more than that kid on the side of the road.
The client was a guy Jack had picked up before. He was probably forty, friendly enough but quiet. He even dropped his own bag into the trunk after Jack popped it. They talked about the Red Sox until Jack had them back on the highway, and then they both fell silent.
The city was showing signs of life as they approached the airport. Some commuters were even on the road and some truckers were out, one leaning on his horn when a cab cut around the front of him without signaling or leaving enough room. Ordinarily Jack would have barked something out but he stopped himself. You were never supposed to lose your cool with a client in the car.
The airport was busy. Other town cars were dropping people off, cabs were snaking through to the curb and back out onto the road, and a state trooper was already pissed off. He was directing people with a flashlight and blowing on his whistle. He started to march toward Jack as he pulled to the curb but then stepped out of Jack’s way, letting him pull to a stop.
The client took the clipboard from Jack, signed the form. Jack was glad to hear the extra scribbling. The client was adding to the standard tip. Jack took the clipboard back, saw the guy had added $25. With $40 for the run, $22 for the base tip, and the $25, five runs this week would make for a nice payday.
“Thanks,” Jack said. “Appreciate it.” He was supposed to say “Thank you” and “Sir,” “Miss,” or “Ma’am,” but he never could bring himself to do it. They were all too young. Five years before, when Jack was still working and still had a wife, he was making twice or three times what this guy was making. He wouldn’t have even noticed him on the street.
Jack left the airport and stopped at the first gas station outside the airport where he knew they had a bathroom and a halfway decent cup of coffee. He did his business, then grabbed their biggest cup, twenty ounces, and filled it with black coffee. This would keep him awake until his next run at 10:00am, a pickup in the city and back to the airport.
His guy would be up already, or up still. Jack never knew, but the guy never failed to tell Jack to come over when Jack texted him. He was in East Boston, not far from the airport. Jack had started buying from him when his wife Marie was in the last stages and smoking seemed to help. Jack took to joining her. They would smoke and tell each other stories and laugh, just like they had when they were young and Jack was back from the war.
Somehow, three years later, Jack was still coming once a month, handing him three hundred bucks, and leaving. Jack had retired when Marie had a month left, and after she died and people left him alone, he took to smoking every night on his own. He would sit in his study and listen to Creedence, the Allman Brothers, Neil Young. It relaxed him and helped him pass the time until he could finally sleep.
Jack did what he always did, which was to park a few blocks away and walk to the three-decker. The neighborhood was more gentrified every month, hipsters pushing out the Central Americans, who moved in when the Italians started leaving twenty years before. Immigrants replaced by striving punks. His guy—he never learned his name, never asked and never told his own—was probably Italian, though. He lived in an apartment that looked like his grandmother had decorated it in the 1960s, complete with plastic covering the overstuffed chairs and Christ-on-the-Cross pictures in the hall and in the living room. Jack never saw anything more. The other doors were always closed, and Jack even wondered if the old lady was back in the apartment someplace, complaining that she was never introduced to the guy’s friends.
Today, though, Jack was surprised when a girl was there. She was on the couch, earbuds on, in a purple thong and a pink sleeveless t-shirt that showed her flat belly. She could have been sixteen or twenty-eight—Jack could never tell—but she had the body of a young woman and not a girl—full breasts and rounded hips. Jack took all this in just for a moment. He didn’t want to leer, but the guy noticed Jack looking. He nodded at Jack, turned to the girl. “Lisa, say hi to my friend.”
She was staring at her hands, which were poised on her thighs, fingers splayed. She took out a single earbud, looked at Jack. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, and he realized she was high, very high, and maybe not on the pot Jack was ready to buy. “Hi, friend,” she said, put the earbud back in, went back to staring at her hands.
Jack had handed over the money, but his guy didn’t reach into the end table drawer the way he usually did. Instead he grabbed his keys from the table, flipped them from his left hand to his right. “I have to go pick up. Hang with Lisa. Should be fifteen minutes.” He was out the door before Jack could react.
Lisa wasn’t much company. She kept looking at her hands, her head bouncing slowly to what must have been coming through the ear buds. Jack could only guess. He couldn’t hear the slight beats of music you usually hear from someone else’s buds. Maybe nothing was coming out of them. He sat opposite her on a chair, loosened his tie. It was hot in there.
His guy had never done this before. Jack had always been in and out in a minute. No small talk. Sometimes they didn’t even say a word. Money for a bag, nodding to each other, and Jack leaving, stepping back out onto the street. He loosened his tie some more, took out his phone, clicked through to his word game. He usually played it when he was waiting for clients. It was like Scrabble, but with easier rules. People chatted. He had been playing with a woman from Nashville for months now. She called him a Yankee and beat the pants off him every single time. He called her his Southern Belle and imagined her on a farm even though she commuted into the city and worked in a bank. Jack was disappointed to see she wasn’t online—probably getting ready for work.
Jack played moves in six games before he realized Lisa had taken off the buds and was looking at him. Her eyes were even more lidded now, almost closed.
“How much money do you have on you?” The words croaked out. She ran her tongue along her lips as if she were applying lipstick and she didn’t want to miss a spot.
“Money? Why? I paid him.” Jack’s shoulders went cold, and he could feel sweat run down the center of his back.
“He wants you to fuck me. We need the money. Two hundred? You have two hundred. You must.”
Jack knew exactly how much he had in his wallet, a hundred and eighty, and he had some loose singles in his pocket. He didn’t know how she could have guessed at the number. Maybe his guy had noticed that was usually what Jack was carrying, on top of what Jack always handed over. Jack wasn’t telling. Anything he said at this point was trouble.
Lisa’s eyes were closed now, she was rocking back and forth slightly as she lifted the tiny shirt over her head. Her breasts were long, pendulous. She picked up one, then the other, licked at them. It was absurdly mechanical, like she had seen it in a porno and had practiced it, half-heartedly. Jack laughed. “No, really. I can’t.” He stood up and left the apartment.
Jack didn’t want to wait outside. There was no explaining why he was there, an old Irish guy in a monkey suit, no car or hearse in sight. He made his way back to the town car, turned on the engine, blasted the air conditioning. He was shrugging out of the jacket when he looked in the rear view mirror and saw the girl walking up behind the car. She came to the passenger side window, tried the door. She still only had the thong on.
He replayed the next few minutes in his mind over and over again as he drove home, taking extra care in stopping at each stop sign and each red light. He knew he didn’t want her in the car, and he didn’t want her standing there next to the car. He put the car in gear and hit the gas with more foot than he meant to. He heard it all more than he saw it. She seemed to be sucked down to the ground. He felt and heard the thud, and felt the car roll over something. He didn’t look back in the mirror. There was nothing there he wanted to see.
There was never any need for the gun, but Jack had always had one. He went to a range a few times a year, then cleaned and lubricated it. It was a Smith & Wesson 9mm, and when he was done cleaning it, he would put it in the gun safe.
Now he sat in his kitchen, the gun on the table in front of him. It had ten rounds in it. If his guy came, and even if he brought someone else with him, ten rounds was either going to be enough or it wasn’t. If the police came first, he would put the gun in a drawer, let the cops in, and tell them right away where it was.
On the last day of action Jack saw in the Tet Offensive, he was in a camp, Bu Prang, near the Cambodian border. He was with a black kid everyone had taken to calling Roy Rogers, though Jack couldn’t remember why. Roy was a good shot, though, and unshakeable, so maybe that was it. When the shit got thick, Jack liked to find his way to Roy, and here they were, squatting back to back in a cabin, reloading, and checking the action on their M-16s. They had guessed right, when they picked this cabin. It had plenty of ammo and plenty of grenades. Jack stuffed his pockets with eight magazines, then watched Roy pick up two.
They had only been in there for five minutes when they heard mortars landing and detonating nearby. Jack felt Roy’s shoulders sag a little. “Charlie’s not letting up today.” That might be as much as Roy would say all day.
The problem with mortars wasn’t the risk of a direct hit. The odds of Charlie hitting their cabin were low. They were built crazy quilt and spaced apart. Someone had finally realized that if you built a row of cabins, and the mortar team got their bearings, one mortar that hit that row would be followed by ones that took out every cabin. He had come across that once, and it wasn’t pretty. He dragged parts of eleven bodies out of one cabin himself, then later watched people try to match the parts up.
No, the problem with mortars wasn’t a direct hit. They didn’t need to hit you directly. At that point in the war, Charlie was using Russian shells. They exploded into shrapnel that could get you from thirty and even fifty yards away. If one exploded close enough to their cabin, the shards would slice right through the walls. Jack wanted to lie flat, but that would look chickenshit. Roy’s back was ramrod straight again.
The mortars would only come for only a few minutes. Sometimes it seemed like Charlie only wanted to terrorize them, but everything was different now. The Offensive had lasted for weeks. It seemed like Charlie was going all out, and three times in the last week they had blasted the camp for twenty minutes, then sent guys right at them. Jack had never seen Charlie right out there in the open, charging right at him. He had fired away, watched some fall.
Jack felt Roy slide from a squat down onto his ass, and followed him down to the floor. It was Roy’s way of telling Jack they would need their rest for a few minutes, that it might be a long day. Jack picked at some peppercorns on the floor, half of them ground into the boards. The few that were left untouched were mostly bright green, but Jack liked the red ones, even though everyone said they all tasted the same. He found one, twirled it between his thumb and index finger, then pushed it between his lips. He bit it. He liked how they seemed to spark into every corner of his mouth at once, then open his nose to the rich, wet smells around him.
Bill Trippe asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work