Home, James (A short story)

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is pretty much a transcription of a dream I had recently.)

She could have taken the train.

Her friends all told her so, those snoopy friends who dared advise her. How ghastly, though, the thought of huddling with smelly strangers or suffering children, their damp, foreign flesh pressing in. No, she would drive, she had the Bentley wagon and needed the extra space for Aunt Martha’s balloon bouquet, besides.

Onboard navigation, check. Sparkling water, check. A wealth of creature comforts to seal out the city’s din and offending fumes. She’d show Robert and Chase, her loafing chauffeur, just how foolish they were to worry about her driving herself.

The first few hours she ran on pure giddiness and Richard Marx’s discology. Cruise control and heated seats, toasty buns, goodness, she could use a nap. It wasn’t until she picked up the Kennedy Expressway, under assault by tractor-trailer brigades and dizzying signage, that panic set in. Her GPS android hiccupped its garbled orders: “Take right lane toward two-hundred-ninety and — continue, on left, in 300 feet – recalculating …” until the display summarily blanked.

Bollocks. Now what? Where? Zip, zing, whoosh! Boxed-in and claustrophobic, she hurtled a battle cry. “Ro-bert! YOU!!!! Bought! The! Wrong! Stupid! OWWW, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING TO ME!” She was hyperventilating. Like a pack animal, she moved where they moved, but aimlessly, blinded by those menacing balloons, falling behind, weak, disoriented, doomed.

Pushed by the undulating tide of traffic, she couldn’t recover from a misguided exit, landing her squarely in the filthy, fetid unknowns of Chicago’s South Side. Her luxury-car bubble instantly transformed into a space capsule. Every hair out of place after wrestling with the steering wheel, she gripped it now like a life preserver, peering out the windshield for any recognizable life forms. She knew she would have to get out and fish out her ancient road atlas retired to the trunk.

She notched open the door, looked to position non-sensible spiky shoes into the craggy Earth’s surface, but then, there, out the window to her left, drew the comforting sight of neon-yellow-orange reflective vests on men – not rescue workers as she first hoped, but two construction workers, helmeted and strong, shovels in hand, approaching the car.

She looked upward, and saw too late the glint of lust in two bloodshot, watery, yellow-tinged eyes set deep in leathery skin, then spastically tried to shut the door and engage all power locks. But a shovel’s rusted blade had made contact with her ivory-beige interior, prying it open, almost as wide as the mercenary’s toothless grin.

“There now, purdy thing, lost?” his gravelly voice mocked. “Naw. You ain’ from ’round here.” He whipped off the helmet with an upswing of his hand. “Jethro. Help da little lady out her vehicle, wit’ some of dat fine valet service, haw …”

The one called Jethro obliged. She flinched at his touch, sniffled, mewed. “Aw, she be scared?” the ringleader chimed. “We don’t wan’ nuthin’, sweets. Jus ’dose balloons. Is for my babe’s birfday. Das all. We be takin’ your balloons and you be on our way, everybod’ happy.”

As Jethro positioned the shriveling socialite beside the car’s rear door and jettisoned it open, she glanced back at the construction site and saw nothing being built. Other shadowy forms huddled under the overpass, punctured by flickers of light. They’re smoking something. Trash, brown paper, bottles pitched about, a shopping cart short one wheel. These vests are stolen. Trappings. A trap set.

Jethro wrenched out the balloons, handed them to his senior officer, who grinned with tongue dangling. Then, he dramatically let loose the powder-blue party ribbons. “Ooops.” A slow, demonic “oooo” through furrowed lips formed a fish-mouth “O” as the balloons sailed up into the traffic stream above. She felt her breath escape, chest tighten, fists and thighs clench.

With the back seat now empty, Jethro pushed her head down into the roomy ride as one might a police suspect, his other hand gripped tight around her bony arm as the fearsome leader took the driver’s seat. Doors pinched shut with a sick sucking sound, like coffin closing.

“Dis is nice. Our best catch today, Jethro,” the crazed chauffeur said with his winningest smile. He reversed the Bentley too fast making the tires squeal on the embankment, then set off on a route lined with houses whose plywood windows and prison yards of chain-link forced shudders. She spied a gang draped in cotton, T-shirts on their heads. She sat stiffly, as if already dead, trying hard to contain any reaction. The sweat beaded in the small of her back, at her neck, under her pearls.

“I’m Keneval,” he said. “And we gonna give you a chance. Not that your kind eveh give us no chances. But we’re better dan youse. Hear? Better dan youse! We gonna play cash cab. Heh. Das righ’. Giveya chance to win sumpin’ back.”

He tuned the radio to a thumping stream of grunts and curses and bobbed his brillo head to the beat. The car’s nine speakers shook and gasped like a chimney sweep’s soot snifter. Her precious car careened as Keneval drove too fast and too close to the jagged edges of this tortured terrain. Dogs barked, an occasional kid hurled rocks, finger gestures were exchanged. He opened the windows to let the air roar in and the noise belch out.

“First question. Ready?” Keneval paused. “When I say ‘Ready?’ You say, ‘Yessir! Yesmassuh.’ ” She managed a squeak, parroting him.

“Gooooood. ’K. First one. Name a liquor that ends in a ‘H.’ ”

Name a –?

“V-v-vermouth?” she pleaded. She’d never seen Cash Cab, but guessed this was not a typical line of questioning.

Keneval emitted a loud buzz sound, forcing her undainty convulsion.

She glanced at Jethro. He shrugged, gazed out the window without loosening his vice grip on her. She pictured hard the array in Robert’s study. “Glenfiddich!” Too frantic.

“Unh-huh, no names, LICK-er,” sighed the twisted Trebek. Confirmed. They didn’t speak the same language. Aware it ended with an “e,” she tried, anyway, praying he wouldn’t know the difference: “Absinthe.”

“Whatchoo talking at, lady!?” Keneval cackled while rocking back and forth. “Hawh, I shouldn’t be giving you so many guesses, dat’s not in my rulebook.” He leered. “But go’on, one more, see who’s so smart.”

“Syrah?” she heaved, overachieving.

“NO, no, no, and more nnnno,” Keneval scolded. “The answer … is ‘Dry mouth.’ ”

A wheezy laugh. “Or we would have accepted, ‘Truth … serum.’ ” That’s when she saw it. A gun in his belt. A gun. His ratcheting giggle, in any other situation, might have come off as benign.

“Tell me,” Keneval finally crooned. “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” He was drumming on the dashboard.

He was a madman, she glumly dawned, and she had no hope of surviving this. Still, activating her brain was helping her keep her wits about her. In a start, she remembered she had her phone with her in the back seat, in her Gucci handbag, not far from the Manolo stilettos. Killer shoes.

“OK, second round,” the evil Keneval announced, clearing a fresh buildup of phlegm. “In Russia. You know, Russia?” she nodded, though he wasn’t watching. This was her chance to slip the heel into the purse, twitch and release the magnetic clasp. Jethro was still gazing out the window, a dopey, disinterested sentry. With every bump, though, his grip tightened.

She focused on keeping the left side of her body statue-still as she finagled her right foot … oh! She jerked. Jethro darted his eyes her way. She meekly smiled, then reached down to remove her shoe, indicating discomfort. He allowed this much, reached out his other hand to accept the shoe. She reluctantly surrendered it, and then the other, but in the tussle managed to nab the phone that fit sweetly in her palm, awash with relief she had not traded in her compact Samsung for a cumbersome iPhone.

“…In Russia, they got a Mickey D’s,” had been Keneval’s droning, drunken soundtrack. “Putin, he likes him some burgers, man. Putin. You know Putin? … Pootang … ” Here he had glanced her way, salaciously “… naw, not now, precious, not now.”

She shifted uncomfortably. Amid the distraction of the quiz, she hadn’t noticed they were back on a freeway, although the Chicago skyline was growing distant. A weapon plus cell signal could = a lifeline.

“Well, now, those commies, they line up in bad-ass-long lines, like we here for Mickey Mouse, ’cept it’s for a goddamned burger! … JETHRO. Pay her mind, we ain’t doin’ no Mickey Mouse today. … So. There are people dere in Russia low on the food chain, like me and Jethro heyah. They get paid to STAND IN LINE,” he attacked each word. “30, 50 by the hour. Dey live off dis desire of others. Gotta have deh burger, hooo, yeah.”

By now, she had her phone ensconced under her thigh and was fingering it, daring not to glance down. She visualized the touch screen, cursing the techno-whizzes who’d dispensed with a more sensible raised keypad, testing to be sure she had the phone in the right orientation. Marking off sectors of the screen, guessing at the “9” and “1,” praying it was muted, she made her choice: punched three times. Then came its queer beep-beep-beep tones that tolled her fatal error.

Keneval snapped his head around and, emitting a low roar, slapped her skull with such force it jettisoned not only her phone but both earrings and a thin line of drool. Jethro instinctively and obediently reached over her legs, picked up the device and handed it to his boss.

Flipping and shuffling the phone one-handed, his tongue tsk-clucking, Keneval slowly shook his head, then paused, performing his best gunslinger’s stare. He flung the phone out the window, jerkily pulled the car over and stopped. She heard the chew of gravel. The buzz of passing traffic. The black jackal whipped open his door, then the driver’s side back door and ordered Jethro out. “You drive, thug.”

King Keneval sidled in next to his prey. “The question. Shug.” He locked his eyes on hers, then traced her face with grimy fingers. “What, fair lady, is the best value on Mickey D’s dollar menu?” He sneered that gaping grin. “Answer!”

The absurdity of this script and the fear in her heart combined to produce not a word but a snort. How could she hope to get this right, anything right? Any answer would inflame this animal. All she could think was “latte.” The lady or the tiger? This lady was lost. Her eyes teared up. She was at wit’s end, yet newly callous to caring.

Jethro groaned, wearily. Was that sympathy? He took to swerving in and out of traffic at an unbearably high speed. It momentarily distracted her captor, who put his hands on Jethro’s shoulders and spoke some gibberish she couldn’t make out over the resumed radio racket and wind. With nothing to lose, she pressed her face against her window, the only one sealed, and mouthed “help” to passing motorists, all selfishly impervious. How could she be so close to normal people, people on errands, people on their way home from work, ugly stupid people who maybe could do something to help a fellow human on her last day? She reached her hand behind her head and waved it hysterically to anyone behind her.

This caught Keneval’s eye and with one hand he fused together her arms and tumbled her to the floor, placing his boot on her shoulder blades like a footrest. “Bust your motherfucking cantaloupe!’ he bellowed. “Oh lord, you steal my fun, woman.”

In a flash, she remembered her tweezers. Thank god for menopausal chin hair. Now who was the animal? Conveniently hunched near her purse, she ripped into the side pocket, extracted the fine silver weapon and burst up like an explosion, sending Keneval to the corner of the leather-pinched seat, wide-eyed in surprise.

She jack-knifed and pierced the carjacker’s eyeball with superwoman force. An inhuman shriek pierced her eardrum, but she attacked again, locking limbs with him. They were a tangle of grit and grime, as she pierced him again, and again. He reached for his Glock, but she reached deeper within and kneed him. With his elbow, he found the door latch, loaded her onto his thighs with the intent to eject her from the car, “This is where you gettin’ off, doll!” but he miscalculated the thrust of the door as well as her resolve. He fell back, out the escape hatch, chocolate-brown form folded like a newborn’s, then torpedoed like a turd onto pavement.

Jethro’s desperate attempt to right the vehicle during the scuffle instead cinched a queasy crunch, as the back tire hiccupped over muscle and bone, a final disservice. She glanced out the rear window to watch a rag-doll twirl then get swallowed in a horn-blaring parade of traffic.

Jethro had slowed a notch, which had given her an opportunity to shut the door, though she’d considered jumping. The ensuing commotion sparked his fuse. She saw blanched fear in the cutout of his eyes in the rear-view mirror. He hightailed, the Bentley’s speedometer needle soon straining into red, as they plunged past unsuspecting vehicles.

Neither spoke. Her breathing gradually calmed. Now what? What hell awaits me in this hard-won afterlife? The sun was setting. Her sweat, dripping. Normal people hovered on all sides. Normal, ignorant, blissful, boring people. Jethro chose an exit ramp. His hunched shoulders slowly relaxed as he navigated familiar mean streets.

Still no words formed. Nothing could sum up what she had just been through, was still going through. She’d been carjacked, a simple thing, truly, must happen every day. Yet she still had her life and, technically, her car. She rode. Waited. Hoped.

Darkness enveloped them now. The Bentley plowed on, through pockmarked alleyways and grimy cityscape. Fear was her ally — her sidekick. Where? How much farther?

First, she saw the child, as Jethro shimmied her car into an impossibly tight trough beside a mournful tract house in an ghetto wasteland. The boy’s pudgy hand tugged at a merle-mottled pit bull pup; in the other he held something like a bottle cap to his mouth. His vacant gaze latched onto the driver, his mouth yawning a silent cry. Then the others popped into focus, slowly swarming, nothing but stick figures in multicolored but faded rags: a scrawny, barefooted girl clutching a decapitated doll bigger than herself; a partly diapered toddler with glaze dried down one leg; a long-faced adolescent with pasty-gray skin, tear-streaked cheeks, mussed hair, doe eyes studying the ground as two more siblings clung to her brambly legs.

Jethro turned to his passenger and guiltily shrugged. “Home.” He tapped the onboard GPS. “Where you be headed now, miss?”

A question she had a ready answer for. She recited an address. With a golden touch, he resurrected the device, punched in the data. It lit up like a spaceship, a beacon for Home. He exited the vehicle into the circle of brightened children, now attaching like barnacles. Opening her door for her, he offered his hand as she scooped up her purse and cautiously emerged, her clothing ruffled but with some dignity intact. “Jethro,” she throated. “Thank you.”

“It’s James,” he nodded, bowed.

“James.” She dug into her purse to find the mad money she always had squirreled away, two Benjamins and 135 singles, those intended for hospital and rest-stop vending machines. “For your trouble,” she said, placing the bundle, secured by colorful rubber bands, into a chocolate-macaroon hand. Keep the change.

His smile blazed. An exchange of electricity.

Shaken but sure, she undocked the Bentley, watched the family’s huddle fade in her rear-view, then navigated back to a world of Panera Breads and Party Citys — somehow changed.

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