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  • 41. 1647 Ocean Front Walk

    By Dan Fante

    Our first father-son pairing is completed this week with this story by Dan Fante, whose new novel, 86’d, has just been published by Harper Perennial. The literary gifts Dan shares with his father, John—his sardonic wit, bruising self-abnegation, capacity for unexpected romance, and sinewy prose stylings—are enough to make you believe in DNA. But the Los Angeles in his stories is all his own—and his Bruno Dante is a walking testament to the powers of whiskey, perserverance, and faithless hope.

    Nothing stops it—the emptiness of being alone.

    It was September. Still morning rush hour, and I was chugging along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, empty. Another cloudless, flawless, fucking L.A. day.

    My Chevy taxi #855 had been overheating consistently for a week in the summer heat, and for the last two shifts in a row the problem was worse. My cab was an ex-Highway Patrol cruiser with over 200,000 miles on the odometer.

    I hated being assigned to this vehicle. Not only because of its cop history, but because of the steady night guy who drove #855. A fat Guatemalan fuck named Sergio. Sergio refused to report mechanical problems on the car the way it says to do on the SHIFT TURN-IN form that everybody is required to sign. According to a rumor passed along by JJ, the mechanic, my night man Sergio was devoting the bulk of his evenings to smoking cheap reefer and chasing crackhead pussy downtown near the Staples Center. The asshole was apparently unconcerned by the steam hissing out from under the hood of Cab #855. That left me—on my shift time—to deal with all the repair stuff. I’d complained repeatedly without result. This was because, coincidentally, Raoul the night dispatcher was Sergio’s brother-in-law, his sidekick at hounding pussy, and not coincidentally, also a prize Guatemalan sack of shit. It had taken two hours that morning for JJ to mickey-rig #855 so I could work my shift.

    While waiting in the repair shop, I’d occupied my time visualizing Sergio and Raoul frolicking in unprotected anal sex with the toothless rockhead bitches that hang out at the 9th Street off ramp from the Harbor Freeway.

    *

    Driving a cab had saved my sanity. For months my mind had been scalded by depression and sleeplessness. And terrible enforced solitude. I’d wake up—or come to—five or six times a night, in a rage, the faces of those I hated strangling my thoughts.

    I’d diagnosed myself as too fucked-up to write, and made the decision to give it up completely except for the poetry I jotted down while in my cab. Everything else that I’d put on paper—each new attempt at a novel or short story—was a lie. False. Unredeemable pigshit. Hacking twelve to fifteen hours a day was all that was keeping me alive. That and Shenley’s Reserve whiskey.

    My oceanfront apartment was a hand-me-down from my father’s cousin Paul. Three rooms facing the water in a hundred-year-old falling-down Santa Monica brick bunker with terrible plumbing. I got the place the week before I’d started the taxi job. Uncle Paul had lived there for forty-two years under city rent control. Before he kicked off, as he was being forced into a board-and-care by his kids, the apartment was offered to me. Two-ninety-seven a month, in a neighborhood where three rooms went for four times that much. So what if the tub was in the kitchen and the john had a pull chain? The place was a steal.

    My second week in the apartment—swamped by half-assed home improvement notions—I’d made the mistake of stripping the plaster from the walls that faced the exterior, baring the brick. My idea had been to seal the cracks, then cover the surface with clear lacquer. But that never happened. I began driving a taxi full-time instead. Now the rubble and shit from the walls was on my floor. The best I could do was to shovel and sweep this debris into one room—the bedroom—where it was piled up waist high. I took up residence in the kitchen and pantry. My roommates were Uncle Paul’s bad-tempered ghost and my deteriorated sanity.

    It had been a week since I d received a decent 10-21 radio call from the Sorrento Terrace on Ocean Avenue, so I decided to cruise by and see what was up. A week of not getting a call or a good fate from Marco, the day doorman, was unusual. He had my home phone number and habitually steered business my way. I’d made it a point to always tip the guy well, and I depended on one hand washing the other. The Sorrento is a swank, Spanish-style, thirty-story condo overlooking Santa Monica Bay. Many of the people living in the building are old nondrivers who use taxis to go everywhere. If you’re a cabbie, and have the right relationship with Marco, the place can pay off like a lotto ticket.

    Turning in under the Sorrento’s entrance alcove, seeing no cabs in the hold line, I was able to pull up near the front door. I caught Marco’s eye, and he saluted hello, then left his post at the door to walk over to my taxi.

    Leaning in my driver’s window he whispered, “Bad timing, bro.”

    “Why? What’s up?” I said.

    He wasn’t smiling. “You won’t like what’s coming down in the elevator, but there’s nothin’ I can do. Party of three to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.”

    “Sounds okay,” I said back. “Cedars is a decent hit from here.”

    “It’s Mrs. Randolph, She’s the problem. She’s fuckin’ whacked. Her mom is the rich lady in 3019. Mrs. Carter. You remember. You rode her before. Nice old gal. Says ‘If you would be so kind’ and ‘If it wouldn’t be too much trouble’ all the time. Real proper.”

    “Sure, I know her, she walks with a walker. An exceptional person, actually. Sharp and funny. She always wants me to help her walk to the door.”

    “That’s Gramma. So last week the old gal got diagnosed with cancer in the pancreas, and now her daughter, Mrs. Randolph, has totally lost her shit. Cryin’ on the phone. Crazy. The cleaning crew’s been up there twice already today sweeping up broken glass. You’re riding Randolph, her daughter Sydney, and the lawyer guy to the ICU to visit Gramma. It won’t be fun.”

    “Work’s work,” I said back.

    Marco leaned in close. “You look like shit. You been burning the candle at both ends?”

    “No candle. Just burning.”

    “Listen,” he whispered, “they’re not down yet. Go ahead, take off. They’ll ruin your day. Let this one pass. Lemme call another cab.”

    “No,” I said, “I’m here. I got a late start today. I need the work.”

    “Okay. But remember—don’t blame me.”

    Five minutes later, I was heading east on Wilshire Boulevard with Feldman the attorney in the front seat by me and Mrs. Randolph and her daughter Sydney in the back, on our way to Cedars-Sinai in Hollywood.

    The striking thing about the two women in the rear of my cab was their physical similarity. Mrs. Randolph and her daughter Sydney might easily have been sisters. Both women were natural beauties. The girl was unusually striking, quiet and soft-spoken, in her early twenties, with the look of a young Grace Kelly. The generation difference between them didn’t show.

    But Marco was right. Randolph was nuts. Lady-fuckin’-Macbeth. The news of her mother’s diagnosis had rendered her inconsolable. Through my rearview mirror, I watched her holding her daughter Sydney’s face between her hands, crying out “Jesus, Lord, do you hear me? I can’t go on! I can’t go on!” Sydney tried to contain her mom, but it was easy to see that she had her hands full. To me, Randolph’s reaction seemed excessive. Grandma Carter wasn’t dead yet, she had only just been diagnosed. Things change. She might get better.

    While Mrs. Randolph continued acting up, attorney Feldman was exhibiting the empathy and kindness of an insurance adjustor. He sat next to me, guarding his briefcase. Uninvolved, a coroner observing his colleagues sawing open a skull.

    The real trouble started when we got to Beverly Hills. I’d begun to hear my cab’s radiator hissing again. At Feldman’s request, the A/C had been running in the stop and go traffic on Wilshire, and now the temperature gauge was well into the red zone.

    In an effort to cool the car down, I shut off the air conditioner, then asked my passengers to open their windows. Feldman, in his blue suit, began making comments about inconvenience and grading the appearance of the cab. He wanted me to be aware that he based his tipping practices on the quality of the service provided. Attorney Feldman was a fuck and an asshole. I ignored him.

    At each intersection where I would catch a red light, I’d pop my gearshift into “N” and keep my foot on the gas pedal, revving the engine. It helped bring the blinking temperature needle back down

    As we crossed Beverly Drive and the traffic opened up, Mrs. Randolph began to moan. A sort of wounded animal sound. It steadily until it became a scream. Then she began throwing herself against the passenger door. It popped open suddenly and in terror Sydney began yelling, “Pull over! Pull over!”

    Hitting my brakes, I made a quick right turn onto a neighborhood street. Shy Sydney took a full minute to wrestle her mom’s grip the door handle.

    Between Randolph, my hangover, and my taxi’s boiling radiator, the situation was nuts. I refused to go on and I told Sydney and attorney Feldman that as far as I was concerned Randolph was unsafe to travel.

    While I waited in my cab, the kid tried to pull things together. She began walking her mom on the manicured grass by the sidewalk, holding her up. Feldman was out of the car too. Observing but not helping. Grudgingly, the jerk paced the women from behind.

    It was useless. Randolph was too far gone. Every few steps she would go limp, then allow her body to collapse.

    It was getting hot in Beverly Hills. Maybe ninety degrees. Two well-dressed pedestrians walking by, seeing Mrs. Randolph clutching Sydney, then sprawling herself on a lawn, stopped to offer their help. Mrs. Randolph must finally have realized she was attracting negative attention because she started to cooperate and made an attempt to collect herself.

    Twenty feet away, while watching this scene, I had my own mechanical problems. I located a two-gallon plastic coolant jug that JJ the mechanic had filled with water for me that morning “just in case.” After emptying it into the car’s reservoir, I continued racing the motor until the fucker finally began to cool down.

    By the time the crazy lady was ready to go on, my cab’s temperature gauge was back down from HOT and the car was okay to drive.

    *

    Back under way again, when I turned on to Wilshire Boulevard, the traffic was bumper to bumper. Feldman, fanning himself with a newspaper, had removed his suit coat, and was now making a pissy face, as if to imply that he regarded all Beverly Hills congestion as my responsibility.

    My attention was on traffic and my cab’s temperature gauge and I failed to notice that Mrs. Randolph was leaning forward directly against my seat back. Suddenly, without a word, her arms were around my neck in an unintended choke hold.

    “Help me!” she howled. “Can’t you help me?”

    “Christfuck!” I yelled, fighting her with one arm while jerking the steering wheel to steady the car. “Let go, goddamit!”

    Together Sydney and Feldman managed to pull her off. “This can’t be happening!” she moaned.” I won’t live without Mom! . . . Lord God-Jesus take me! Take me too!”

    I slammed on my brakes and pulled the cab to the curb.

    Now I was totally tweaked. I began ranting, demanding that Mrs. Randolph calm down and shut the fuck up.

    My mood and my cursing must have scared her because she instantly calmed down. Shell-shocked. Finally, she threw herself onto her daughter Sydney’s lap and began weeping quietly.

    Coming around to the rear passenger door, I popped it open. Me and Randolph were face-to-face.

    “Hey, look,” I said, leaning in, dripping with sweat. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I know you’re upset, okay? I understand what you’re going through. But you almost got us clobbered by a bus. You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

    She was out of the cab and standing in front of me, propped against my taxi’s rear fender, this beautiful mad woman, her green eyes blazed by the September heat.

    I was startled and off-balance when she grabbed me in a desperate hug, throwing her arms around my neck. I could feel the thinness of her cotton dress allowing her body in against mine.

    Confused, I tried backing away. The sensation was strange. Sexual. Mrs. Randolph wouldn’t let go. As she held me, I began to sense an involuntary reaction from my cock. Finally, I stepped back and forced her arms down to her sides.

    “You know, don’t you?” she whispered into my shirt. “You know what this’s like?”

    “Yes, I guess I do,” I said. Then I added, “I went through it with my own father.”

    There was a faint smile. “Mom is an amazing woman,” she whispered. “I wish you could have known her.”

    “I do know her. She’s a good, generous person.”

    “How do you know my mother?”

    “She’s been in my cab before. Several times. We’ve talked. I like her.”

    Randolph was pressing herself against me again, breathing in spasms. She began running her hands up and down my arms. “Will you hold me?”

    “Sure,” I said, hugging back, now aware that my cock had become fully hard.

    “Can you help me?” she whispered.

    “No. I don’t think so.”

    “You have kind eyes. Tell me your name. What’s your name?”

    “Bruno,” I said. “It’s Bruno.”

    “My name is Claire, Bruno.”

    “Hello, Claire.”

    “I don’t know what to do. Tell me what I have to do now.”

    The smell of her, the heat, the unreasonableness of this sudden starved intimacy, had me. Again I tried to pull away, but she held herself to me. “There’s nothing to do,” I said finally, half in a stutter.

    “Can’t you just go to the hospital and be with your mom? That’s really all she needs.”

    The words seemed to soothe her. Claire half-relaxed, but continued to keep her body against mine. “Mom used to be a teacher. A professor,” she breathed. “Did you know that, Bruno?”

    “No,” I said. “But I’m not surprised.”

    Now she was holding my face in her hands, meeting my eyes. “My mother has cancer, Bruno. Fucking pancreatic cancer. She’s going to die.”

    “You don’t know that for sure.”

    “Oh yes I do. I know it. Hold me, Bruno. Please.” Claire slid her arms around me again and I could feel as she deliberately maneuvered her crotch against mine.

    ‘We all go through this,” I whispered into her hair. “You’ll be okay.”

    “No. Not without Mom. I don’t care anymore. I just don’t care. You understand. I know that you know what I’m saying.”

    “Yeah,” I said, “I know. I feel that way a lot.”

    *

    By the time we arrived at Cedars-Sinai, Claire’s intensity was more controlled, but her mood had affected Sydney. All morning the girl had been trying to comfort her mom, but now the strain of the emotional marathon had taken its toll. She was nuts too.

    Both women got out immediately and rushed inside; then Feldman made his way around to my driver’s window and leaned in. The meter read $28.75. He stuffed two twenty-dollar bills in my hand.

    Now the jerk’s attitude had changed. He faked being solicitous. “Look my friend, my apologies for all this,” he hissed. “Can you wait for me? For us? They may or may not be going back to Santa Monica, but I’ve got to be at my office for a one o’clock meeting:”

    He was patting his briefcase. “I have one document that requires a signature; then I’ll be right back. Hopefully, barring additional hysteria, I’ll be in the hospital a maximum of fifteen minutes.”

    My thoughts had been on Claire and our unexpected connection. But now she was gone. Fuck Feldman, the unfeeling ghoul. “Hey,” I said, counting out his change, then handing it back, “you paid me. That’s that.”

    He handed me another twenty. Then another. “Work with me. I need your help. Candidly, I’m less enchanted with this situation than you are. I can well appreciate your hesitation.”

    I thought for a second, then changed my mind. I’d take his money. There was still an off chance I might see Claire again. “Okay,” I said, “what the hell, I’ll wait.”

    *

    In the Cedars parking building it took a few minutes, but I found a space where I could keep my eye on the hospital’s main entrance door.

    Opening my trunk, I retrieved the plastic two-gallon coolant jug I’d used earlier. I was able to talk the attendant guy into unlocking a maintenance closet for me so I could refill the container from the sink inside.

    After I added more water to my radiator, I continued racing the motor until the car cooled off. That done, I again filled the jug from the janitor’s closet. Then I turned the motor off and waited.

    Alone, smoking, trying to read my New York Times Book Review, thoughts of Claire swarmed me. The way she pressed herself against me. The uncertainty and need and fever in her eyes. It had been months since I’d felt a woman, felt anything except my own rage and despair. Impossibly, I realized that I was in love.

    No other cars were near me in the parking structure, so I unzipped my pants, then covered my cock with the newspaper and began jerking off. When I was ready to cum I peeled off a section of paper towel from a roll I kept under the seat, then blasted my load into it.

    *

    Half an hour later, Feldman came out the front door. Alone.

    The traffic going back to the west side was better than it had been our way to Hollywood. Feldman wanted me to turn the A/C on in. I tried running it, but gave up when the temperature gauge started climbing. After that neither of us talked

    His black BMW was parked in visitor parking at the Sorrento Terrace, so I pulled into the hold lot instead of dropping him at the main entrance.

    He paid me, then got out. Reaching back inside the cab, he began dragging his briefcase out across the seat. “I need to ask you a question,” I said.

    “Make it quick. I’m in a hurry.”

    “About Mrs. Randolph.”

    “Christ. What is it? Speaking frankly, I’ve had enough of that unstable bitch for one day. I regard this entire adventure as patently ridiculous.”

    “Is someone picking them up? Her and Sydney? Do you think I should go back to the hospital and let them know I’m waiting?”

    “Don’t waste your time. Mrs. Randolph has clearly demonstrated her immunity to reason. From what she said, they’ll be there all day. Until they’re escorted out.”

    Now attorney Feldman was patting his briefcase. “With the paper her mother just signed, Claire Randolph might well decide to buy the hospital and spend the night.”

    “You’re a swell guy, Feldman. A genuine humanitarian. Go fuck yourself.”

    He slammed my back door, then walked away.

    *

    Leaving the Sorrento, I decided to turn in #855 for the day. The hell with it. I’d made a hundred bucks and I was exhausted by the heat and the swamp of emotion. I’d let JJ the mechanic use the extra time to fix the goddam car. Once and for all. And there was no point in me going back to the hospital, even as a friend to Claire. No point whatever. It would only create confusion, and I’d be in the way. But I couldn’t stop my mind. It was racing, thinking about her and her mother and our strange connection.

    Returning #855 to my taxi barn in Culver City, I pulled into one of the vacant repair stalls. Rap music blared from the shop’s inside speakers, and a wall thermometer read 94 degrees. JJ was sitting on a bench eating lunch with one of the day drivers. The guy’s cab was six feet off the ground on a lift. His ex-cop car taxi looked to be a worse junker than mine.

    Walking over to JJ, I dropped my keys on the bench. I had to yell above the noise. “It’s all yours.”

    “Now what, motherfucka?”

    “The radiator’s shot, JJ. The car’s been overheating all day.”

    “Wha’jou expek, babe? It’s fuckin’ summertime. You should quit day shiff and go on nights. Motherfuckah runs juss fine at night.”

    I leaned in close so he could hear me, then handed him a ten dollar bill. “Do what you can, okay?” I yelled.

    “No problema, my man. By the time you get back here tomorrow morning she’ll be cool and sweet as fifteen-year-old pussy.”

    *

    That afternoon and night in my rubbled apartment, with time to kill, I turned my phone off and wrote nonstop, hammering the keys for hours. A sudden blast of energy and truth. I propped my windows n with the tallest secondhand books I had, to let in the ocean breeze. While I wrote, I sipped from a six-pack of Cisco wine coolers.

    Words spilled out of me like a busted water main. Sentences and paragraphs and pages that had been clogged inside my brain for months all came gushing out. A good story too. Crazy and funny. About two people meeting in an airport waiting area in a rain delay, getting drunk at the bar, then screwing in a stall in the ladies room. The guy was a one-time Vegas blackjack dealer who’d given it up when he found Jesus. After meeting Linda that night, he changed his mind, canceled his airline ticket, and told her he’d wait for her until she got back from Tucson.

    By midnight, I had twenty-five pages. I’d thought of Claire often, but had been so distracted by my story—on such a good roll—that I kept going.

    Exhausted, half drunk from the sweet wine coolers, I finally fell asleep around midnight.

    *

    The next day, on the bus on my way to the taxi barn in Culver City, the newspaper headline read TENTH DAY—HEAT WAVE CONTINUES. I reread my story. Even sober and after a night’s sleep, I still liked what I’d written.

    It took five minutes to locate #855 in the ocean of yellow behind the dispatch office. The cab was filthy inside. As usual, Sergio, the fat fuck, had been true to form.

    I felt the hood to test how long the car had been back in the lot, then discovered it was still hot.

    Starting the motor, there was no mistaking the sound of the same radiator hiss. Shitfuck.

    I got in, swept the french fries and a McDonald’s bag off the seat, then drove the half block to the mechanic’s shed.

    JJ was smiling and the hip-hop music in the shop was all but deafening. “Yo BigTime,” he jeered, “what’chu wan firss, the good news—or the bad news?”

    “My goddamn car’s still overheating,” I yelled.

    At his work table, JJ flipped a switch that canceled the noise. “Yeah, my brotha, I kno. Thaz the bad news.”

    “Okay,” I said, “fucking stab me. Shoot me. What’s the good fucking news?”

    JJ was sipping coffee. He spit a stream on the engine block of the car he was working on. A puff of steam exploded. “Well,” he paused, trying to sound hopeful, “good news iz I ordered you a radiator. Yours is fucked. Capital F.”

    “That’s not good news!”

    “Wait babee. The new one’ll be in today. You’re gettin’ a rebuilt right outta the factoree. You’re my man. I tole you, JJ’s watchin’ your backside for sure.”

    “I can’t drive that piece of shit. Listen to the fucker. It’s hissing already!”

    “One more day, Bruno. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’. Just keep the fuckin’ A/C off. You’ll be okay.”

    “And what about my goddamn customers? We’re in a heat wave.”

    “Bess I can do Bru. Sorry, man.”

    He spent the next twenty minutes running three bottles of Stop-Leak through my cab’s radiator, then letting the motor idle so that the sealant would take hold. I was familiar with this procedure. It was the second day in a row I watched it. Except yesterday there had been three cars ahead of me in the shop.

    At dawn it had the look of being another perfect fucking L.A. day. I grabbed two quick fares that morning: one was a house account to the airport, and the other was a radio call from UCLA to Topanga Canyon.

    Coming back on the Coast Highway, unable to think of anything but Claire, I turned on San Vicente and made my way toward the Sorrento Terrace. It was just after eight o’clock, the start of Marco’s shift.

    *

    When he saw me and our eyes met, his expression was blank. No smile. Nothing.

    Pulling up closer to the entrance, I noticed three guys in white jumpsuits from the building’s cleanup crew working on one side of the alcove, hosing down the drive, sweeping up broken glass.

    I rolled down my front passenger window. “Hey Marco, anything good on your board for today?”

    He walked around to my side of the car, then leaned in. “You didn’t hear, right? You don’t know?”

    “What’ve you got for me?”

    “They’re both dead,” he whispered. “Mrs. Randolph and Sydney, her daughter.”

    I felt my stomach tighten. “C’mon, that’s crazy, Where’d you hear that?”

    “Last night, sometime after ten o’clock. She pushed Sydney off, then afterward she jumped too. Old Mister Abesani in 3018 watched the whole thing.”

    Now Marco was pointing. “Look . . .”

    I got out of my cab. I walked over and saw the damage for myself. Two cars that had been parked overnight on the side of the building were smashed. One of them, an older Mercedes, had a crushed roof and hood. The other had a huge gouge on the trunk. The windows from both had popped out. Glass remnants and a torn-off side mirror were still on the ground being swept up by the work crew.

    It was impossible to believe. I turned away.

    Marco was behind me. His doorman’s hat in his hand, he was running his hands over his face with a handkerchief. “Mrs. Randolph was forty-two,” he said. “Sydney was twenty. A junior at Cal State. What a waste.”

    *

    I drove back to my garage and turned my cab in. No paperwork. No explanation, Leaving the keys in the ignition, I walked away.

    When I got home I undressed and took a shower. I was on my bed smoking, still trying to breathe, when I leaned over, clicked on my answering machine, and pressed the rewind button.

    The voice was a woman’s, faint, and hoarse from crying. There were long pauses. “I got your home number from the doorman —– I . . . asked him for it —– Bruno . . . I . . . I hope you don’t mind —–.”

    Then there was sobbing and the click of the receiver being hung up.

    *

    After that day I never drove a taxi again.

    *

    © by Dan Fante. From the collection Short Dog. Used by permission of the author.

    Bruno Dante returns in Dan Fante’s new novel, 86’d, new from Harper Perennial. Pick it up today.

    Check out Dan Fante’s favorite haunt.



    One Comment

    1. David Bright on November 8, 2009 :

      Dan–nice job! For me the measure of a good story is if I keep thinking about days or even weeks after I’ve read it, and that’s what’s happened here. By the way, I happen to drive a cab, and you do capture that feeling.

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