The Sailor

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He was scared and I was sorry for having to draw blood a second time. He was a sailor, an alcoholic; a dry docked man too old to sail with a son cemented on the shore. His liver was crying for a break and he cried out when I stuck him a second time. He pleaded, “Don’t stab me again.” The Medic nodded at me to stick him until the blood was milked good to sample his blood sugar.

On the rig he was sweaty and grey. His heart rate started to crash and the medic asked me, “Josef, could you please undo the patient’s shirt.” We pulled the rig off to the side of the road. He was dying, or at least it looked like it. It felt like it. I stopped breathing and then I did breath and I became loose and open. We double-checked his patches, I swabbed his arm, and the medic gave him something magic, his BP cartwheeled then jumped back up, like an impossible acrobatic trip up a flight of stairs.

“I’m cold,” he said after a while.

I put a blanket around him and we continued for the VA. He had been in the navy. “That’s where I learned to love the sea,” he said. “I’ve passed through the Panama canal more times than my son has come down from Alaska to visit me,” he said. “Four times,” he said.

His son was in his dad’s living room when we had arrived on scene. He looked scared. The old man was worried that his son would never come back again because he got sick. “I’m weak and old,” he said. “I think you’re brave, sir,” I said. “No, I’m old and scared of everything,” he said. I didn’t know what to say to that, but I kept him talking until we arrived to the ER.

I keep dreaming about him. I keep dreaming that it was just me in the rig and I didn’t know how to fix him and he died.

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THE SIMPLE TRUTH ABOUT A LION

I’m fully aware that I’m their driver. That’s what I get paid for. They tell me where they want to go and I take them there. It’s a transaction. They want to see the city; I take them through the neighborhoods. They want to go to a view; I can do that too. The glass that separates the front seat from the rest of the limousine best defines our roles; it’s just me captaining the vessel, I’m employed so the beautiful people can consume their champagne and not have to pay attention to the road. In this regard the tint to the window between compartments obstructs any empathy between us, and casts only a reflection. They can only see themselves, which I suppose, since it’s their adventure, is fair. They can’t see my face and I’m too busy to focus on theirs, which is natural and obvious and for the best I suppose. Our relationship is transparent, a means to an end; at least I know it to be so.

I’m not a taxi. And it may surprise you that the variation of passengers I pick up is quite limited. There’s the affluent couples: their subsets demarcated by age. The young preload on cheap champagne and wine before having me drop them at a swanky pizza parlor. And often in these scenarios the drunker the young man in the back gets, the greater his urge to impress his girl. He wants to know my name, thinking that if we are on a first name basis that he can ask me to pick them up more liqueur; to deviate from the schedule and pick up more friends; to ignore his brutish and suggestive advancements on the poor girl that has found herself alone with a spoiled brute.

The twenty-somethings are not the easiest, but the best. They love hard and hate hard and show it on their jacket sleeves and gown straps. They are by far the most honest, at least if they let themselves be honest about their fleeting youth. They drink heavily to understand each other. Spend coin to understand fine food. Talk about the failures of their friends as if they are immune to the same fates. There’s an optimism that comes with a young couple when they forget about the rest of the world and create their own. I wish it lasted longer because it is a beautiful thing to watch.

The married are different. Some happy, some not; but contentment and stalemate look the same behind the glass. The mundane details of the day become something to ignore, but an impossible vehicle not to use to steer conversation with. They look out the window more. Observe the passing buildings, the October trees shedding leaves, the down and outs picking through garbage cans. They are affected and tip well.

The elderly couples on their way to the opera, or to their favorite restaurant, say little but often are in love with the gentle stream of long love. They burn the bottom of the limousine’s seats like coals. If I could just take the twenty-somethings, and the breathless old lovers, I would be happy. It would be like observing flame and then embers without the dying.

***

Tonight is cold and cloudless. I’m off to East Moyer, an affluent neighborhood where the streets are lined with ancient chestnuts whose thick trunks stand strong and tangled like a giant’s hand holding a bouquet up from the ground. The brick side streets glow from the street lanterns casting yellow light down from above. Off the bluff lies the black Atlantic swallowing itself. The mighty houses here in Moyer make ants out of the multiple SUV’s parked in their driveways. Their interiors are particular and clean. Their white walls are adorned with original artwork, mantels dresses with antique clocks and family portraits, bookcases crammed with first editions and folios belonging in museums, liqueur cabinets stocked to elude to refined control and temperance. Or at least, this is what I imagine.

I park outside of 1118 Harbor and wait. The first to open the door is a young man in a suit accompanied with a young brunette woman in a black sequined dress. To follow is a pressed white shirt buckled down with suspenders, and a good-looking upright young man in a waistcoat and bow tie. Their dates push out the doorway also in sequins, feathers and furs. Their dress, laughter and the scattered nature of their departure tell me that they’re in their mid-twenties, off to dinner then a costume party, and have depleted the gin stockade from the liqueur cabinet.

“My good man!” The suit says to greet me, “Can you tell what decade we’re from?”

He’s grinning, happy, full of himself and it is fine. He’s olive skinned, hair thick and parted well. The soft brown in his eyes picks up the yellow light emanating from the brick street and I like him for it.

“Chase. Chase Velo.” He shakes my hand. “There are my fools for the night. Don’t we look so? We’re off to Franco’s for dinner and then the Metropolitan for a ball. Did you collect the champagne?”

“Indeed Mr. Velo, it’s on ice as you asked.”

His fools stand together looking more like tonight’s chosen children. The regal blond in yellow and a feathered headband cuts in the pause.

“Chase, we allowed to smoke in the limousine? It’s cold.” She asked, crossing her naked arms, and squeezing them, pretending I wasn’t there. Her strong features but soft manner is perhaps an indication of her personality, strong and tender-hearted, all in one.

“What do you say driver? How is it?”

The waistcoat with a face cutout like a lion came in before I could answer no.

“Classless Lucy… really.”

I remained looking at her, she faked unaffected, her eyes neglecting the twitch indicative of a prior bad decision she’s now believes she’s stuck in. She was the unfortunate. The silence that followed his remark from the others meant that he’s a cutter. Chase showed restraint, looked at his date, as she looked at the ground. The lion was one of those types that cares less for a girl to make them want him more, and it works somehow, but all for all the wrong reasons. Funny how you just know, sometimes.”

“You’re welcome to smoke outside at anytime, miss.” I said to damn the lion. “I can pull over when and wherever you like.”

“My kind of driver!”

I looked to the soft voice that said it. Tall, dark, a slipping glacier of finger waves pasted to the side on her temple. Lips meaty, and I knew then that she was with the bold looking young man tied up in suspenders. Why, because all his words I could tell stayed in his month as something to chew on. She was the talker.

“We can smoke outside the restaurant. Lets stop wasting time.”

“Vivienne called it.” Chase said, giving me a wink as if I was to understand his girl’s needs as well as the rest.

“Let’s crack the champagne!” She said looking up from the ground.

I opened the door and watched them group together, Chase letting Vivienne in first, Bee the talker leading in her bold boy, and the lion leaving Lucy at the end of the chain.

***

Four bottles of Clicquot spared of their worth and the beautiful twenty-somethings cascade out of my limousine in the same order they entered. Vivienne with tempered grace, Chase with eager flames in his eyes, Bee a fresh application of lipstick, her bold boy, frank barely able to hold in his intoxicated identity, The beautiful lion dim eyed, and Lucy steady like the champagne had made her sober. Chase opened a silver case and passed out cigarettes to his fools and lit each one before his own.

“Driver.” He shouted. I’m one leg away from reentering my vehicle. “Come have a cigarette with us.”

I’ll always share a cigarette with my clients. It’s the least I can do, and I like Chase, and really all of them, including the lion, even if I have the feeling that he’ll break my heart by the end of the night.

I refuse Chase’s offer and pull and light one of my own cigarettes. Bee smiles and asks.

“I don’t want to call you driver; it’s so rude I think. What’s your name?”

“…”

“Soft, but strong.” bee laughs, “Love it, fits you.”

“Could have we found a better driver?” Chase praises.

Lucy looks at her lion looking at Vivienne. Frank watches Bee turn into a future bedtime dream. Chase sees Vivienne’s chin lift the skyscraper on the other side of the street. I see them all loving hard and hating hard under the surface.

They ask me questions about their predicament, about the future when this moment will subside into long workweeks without the energy to pretend. I tell them to forget about that and live in the 20s. They loved that and walk into the restaurant excited to be dressed like they were from a better time, drunk with the belle epoch illusion, excited by the ideal of being inhabited by the ghosts that made life a meal.

I parked on the exposed roof of the parking garage the next block over and looked out upon the bead-lit city. For every light there is a body at least. And for every body there’s a potential to love, love like the love I’ve felt for so many women in my past. I don’t know why I’m just a driver, something of a facilitator, a guy in a suit with a map in his head of every side street that makes up the city. What about my potential? Maybe just as I drive without a destination for myself, I want to watch life proceed without any invested interest. That so, I don’t drive at all, after all. Maybe because I’ve hurt too many and have  been hurt too often. I’m protecting myself. I wouldn’t want to be the one to collide with this limousine.

I get the call to return. Start the night again.

The fools slowly meander out of the restaurant. The chain is breaking and the night is still young. Chase and Lucy come out first. They’re drunk. Lucy no longer refined; something inside has happened. They talk like they’ve known each other longest. Chase is the one to sooth the situation. Vivienne, Bee and the bold follow. There is no lion and I gather this is where the masks break.

The skyscrapers grow taller. I get out of the car and offer cigarettes to the three so Chase can do his work. But Lucy asks in a dull voice, to hide any register of anger.

“Where is Vic?”

“At the bar talking about himself.” Bee says out the corner of her mouth as I light her cigarette.

Then I do the last thing I’d ever expect. It was the look of disgust on Bee’s beautiful face, the hardening of Lucy’s; the moment where I saw that Chase loved two women and Vivienne knew. When Frank said out loud that the lion is an asshole, as if offended.

“’I’ll get him.” I said. “I know the bartender’s here anyway, not a problem.”

I didn’t wait for an answer. I walked into the foyer, passed the host, and cut through the clatter of silverware and crossed conversations, to enter the bar. There the lion sat with a scotch, a young woman checking her phone next to him, and a bartender raising an eyebrow at me, instinctually knowing who I was looking for.

“Vic, isn’t it? We’re waiting for you.”

“Well wait then.” He said smugly. “I’ll be right out.”

“Lucy is waiting for you.”

“She can wait.”

The young women looked up from her phone, looked at me, said please to meet you and that I have your number to Vic, and then left for the bathroom.

“Have you paid your tab?” I asked.

“Aren’t you the driver?” Vic bit. “What is the driver doing telling me what to do? Have a drink with me instead. I’ll pay.”

“Finish up and lets go.”

He looked into my eyes, searching for a weakness, and sure I have a few, but not for him, not now.

“You think I’m arrogant don’t you? Well, that’s not it. And even if I’m wrong, I can say at least that women love it. You may not, but what do I care about that? Did you not see the woman that just left? Did you not see her? See, you wouldn’t believe what arrogance can get you.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Yes I am, but did you not?”

“Yes I did. Now come on, Lucy is outside.”

“Chase can have her. Take her home, do whatever he likes. Doesn’t matter much. She’ll tire of him within days.”

“That’s none of my business.” I said. “Lets go.”

He drained his glass, stood up, swayed, and walked passed me to the entrance.

***

I walked behind the lion deciding if I’d let the glass break between my passengers and I. However, what business is it of mine to interfere in the lives of others? And Vic had a point, a sick point about his character. His arrogance did make him desirable. He is desirable. Something about his defiant features and his inability to care about the feelings of others over his own needs makes him a bastion for broken spirits. And if I could feel it, then anyone else could, Lucy must, and must hate herself for it. His friends must hate him too but love what knowing him can give them. It’s an evil thing, security, especially when every one of us is insecure except for a person like Vic. Loving him must feel substandard, but in the real word the hungry follow. I decided at that moment when he exited the door that I hated him like I loath myself.

The slap came loud. Lucy put everything into it. The lion laughed.

“Go fuck yourself.” Lucy yelled.

I could see the slap wasn’t just about the girl at the bar, but for everything.

He laughed harder and grabbed Vivienne around the waist. She fought out of it.

Chase came in between Vivienne and the lion.

“What the hell was that, Vic?”

The punch came quick and Chase was down on the sidewalk. Bee got in his face and he pushed her down easily. Lucy pushed him back and he slid his hand across her face and went to grab her hair.

“What are you trying to do!” Vic yelled.

And before I could step in Frank took hold of the lion’s mane and thrust his nose into the granite wall of the restaurant, Lucy trailing within his grasp. But when the head hit, the hand released, and the body fell loose. Frank stood over him, huffing loud now that all the words that had been caught in his mouth were expended. And Bee looked at him terrified, and Lucy looked at the blood espousing from her true love, and Vivienne looked at the sleeping lion wishing that he would wake up a saint, and Chase felt unloved because he was bleeding too, but alone — and I, standing there feeling helpless knowing now that there was so much more to this story then I could ever have imagined.

Vic came to, looking at his friends as if unaware of what happened, and rested his back up against the building staring off into space. Lucy put her hand up to his face and he pushed it away and she tried to put it back, while she sobbed, but he grabbed it and threw it away again while Chase longed for it because Vivienne had walked away.

The lion refused help and staggered to his feet. Spit blood in the direction of his friends as he trailed off. And I refused to walk after him because he didn’t deserve any attention at all. We all watch and admired.

“Where you going?” Bee yelled at him.

“To the fucking ball.” He said and slowly faded away down the street.

The rest of us sat devastated on the sidewalk, all dressed up with nowhere to go but home.