Warning: Contains plenty of adult language.
Joe drove his taxi across the Ringling Causeway as the evening faded into dusk. He loved this time of night. Striations of orange and pink and purple expoded in his rearview mirror and turned the glass towers of downtown into whimsical murals. With no fare in the cab, he had the windows down and the cool, salty evening breezes swirled around him. The winds off the Gulf always made him feel cleaner. His straggly, mostly grey hair, pulled back behind his head, twitched in the wind. He didn't smile a lot these days, but as he crossed the bridge and looked north over Sarasota Bay, he remembered what smiling was like.
He had been married to a woman who eventually learned to dislike him. The long glow of their romance had faded and they had gradually learned how much they disagreed about basic stuff. They argued about how to raise the kids they didn't have yet. They argued about the business he had started. They argued about money and whether he was making any. And they argued about stupid philosophical bullshit. Joe had finally played the bad guy and moved out. Just the same, she had probably been his last chance to be conventionally happy.
His business had almost taken off but then didn't. He and his partner had learned to scrabble and survive when it didn't seem possible to anyone else. Along the way Joe began to appreciate life, and to value things like money and success, in ways that most people, especially his ex-wife, couldn't understand. It wasn't about some external status, he felt he was doing something bigger and more personal too. With his wife gone though, Joe was able to see clearer the way his partner was handling the money, and how the company was actually doing. This more jaundiced eye helped him to leave the company after all. He still cussed at the notion that his ex had been right all along.
Now he drove this cab for a living and wondered what could possibly go bad next. Still, he drove a nice Town Car all day for Checker Cab of Sarasota. The company had the airport franchise, so only their cabs could pick up passengers there. It was decent money schlepping bitchy tourists back and forth between the airport and the resorts out on Lido and Longboat. At odd hours, Joe worked the city too, to make a little extra money. He wasn't even sure what the money was for, but it made him think that he was doing something with his life.
His last fare had been a family going out to the Longboat Key Club for their vacation. Two bratty kids, a gorgeous soccer mom in yoga pants, with a dad who didn't seem to deserve either. Joe was more than chagrined when he spotted some nerdy accountant who seemed to have it made; even though the whole lifestyle seemed foreign to him. The BMW, the minivan, parent-teacher meetings, the house in the suburbs, the fucking immaculate lawn, the pool off the patio, the packaged vacations and all that bullshit. It didn't seem like a real life to Joe, but it made him feel strange. Not quite jealous, not quite offended, but a little bit of both and something else too. Anyway, the dad tipped pretty well. The beginning of a vacation was where the good tips could be had. Everyone's excited and dad hasn't spent enough money to start rationing it.
Joe turned up US-41 to head back home. This used to be 'the strip' in town back in the 50's. Old motels and seafood joints fought for waning attention with neon signs that lit the street. It was damn near Vegas for a mile or so. Joe could've gone home a couple ways, but up here he might find one more small fare. Every little bit helps, he thought. Helps what? he almost said out loud.
Near the end of the lights, a kid hailed for the cab. Joe slowed to turn and eyed the kid warily. The Chinese place was usually garishly lit, but it was dark this time of night. Hopefully, the kid just got off work or something. It was a strange place to be standing this late.
"Where to?" Joe asked from his already open window.
"I need to get up to Motel 301," the kid said flatly as he looked up the road and then back down toward downtown.
Motel 301 was a notorious spot on the northside and not the kind of place the cabbies liked to go after dark. Most of the local 'second string' hookers lived there with their junkie boyfriends. People didn't go to Motel 301, they ended up there. Trouble often found its way there too. The cops ignored all but the worst of what went on.
Joe eyed the kid again. He was wearing a clean shirt, his pants hung loosely. Just another punk trying to look tough. Mom and Dad were probably in the suburbs, nervously wondering where he was and if he was OK.
"Alright, get in" Joe barked, not convincing himself that it was a good idea. He hit the unlock button and the kid grabbed a backpack and climbed in.
They were silent as Joe drove up toward the airport and the motel. A jazz program out of Tampa buzzed quietly out of the cab's crappy speakers. Joe tried to think of something so he could chat with the kid. He usually liked to talk to his customers, but tonight he decided it was best just to drive.
Catching all the lights green was Joe’s favorite game. If he pushed the speed limit just a bit, he could usually hit them all. He seemed tp get away with a lot on the street. The cops gave him a little leeway with the taxi light on the roof. Being left alone appealed to him on many levels; ex-wives will do that for you.
Motel 301 was an island of bright lights out by the back of the airport property. The cab lurched and groaned into the rough parking lot as Joe looked around. A trucker had squeezed his big rig into the empty lot next door. The artificial light made the puddles shine like lakes from an airplane at night. There were a few cars around, but it looked like a slow night for the girls; weeknights usually were. A few stragglers hung around the stairs smoking, but most everyone had gone. Someone was probably making money tonight, most were not.
"You want dropped off out front or what?" Joe asked hopefully.
"My room's kind of in the back by those dumpsters. If you don't mind getting me close. Some of the people around here make me nervous."
Joe shrugged as if to say whatever. He didn't speak not wanting to reveal the tiny edge of nervousness that had snuck up on him.
"Right back there," the kid leaned over the seat enough to point toward a couple dumpsters at the far end of the building. One dumpster was at the edge of the light, half open with an odd assortment of junk piled into it. A dirty mattress leaned against the other which was just a dark box back in the shadows by the airport fence.
The cab slowed to a stop near the last room. Pealing paint and strips of plywood sagged off the neglected door. Joe clicked the meter which showed $4.75 in an eery green glow from the dash.
"How 'bout we just call it four bucks." Joe was tired. It had been a slow day until the nerdy Longboat dad's tip had brought him up to decent for the day. He wanted to give the kid a break, get him out of the damn cab, and go home to bed. Joe heard the kid dig in his backpack for a wallet and thought his day was about over.
Then he heard the safety click and felt the sharp stab of the gun's barrel behind his ear.
"How about we call it all your cash on hand," the kid grunted with a harder edge in his voice.
Joe looked through the chain link fence beyond the dumpster. The airport was dark. He knew no one at the motel would even stir for a gunshot. The quiet idle of the cab and the kid’s excited breathing were the only sounds. Joe knew he had to play this just right.
“Cash on hand” was such a suburban thing to say. Dad was probably an accountant. A bean counter and his punk kid; what a night.
The cab hummed. The kid rasped in Joe's ear.
"Huh ... well, thank God," Joe finally said.
"What the fuck ..."
"You're gonna save me a lot of trouble," Joe continued. "And you might keep me from wasting more time too."
"I don't understand, man," the kid stuttered. Joe felt the slightest release of pressure from the barrel behind his ear.
"You see, kid, I've been driving around in this damn cab, thinking about my useless, fucking life and about just doing myself in. Two years ago, my wife left me. Last year, I had to close my business and start driving this fuckin' cab taking tourists out to the Key Club and eating their shit every day. How would you feel?"
"Tough shit," the kid spit as he pushed with the barrel again.
"You see, I thought I would just pull into the parking lot out at Lido Beach or some damn place, stick the gun in my mouth and be done with this mess; just forget about it all. Been out to Lido four or five times and I couldn't do it. I don't even know what this gun tastes like yet. Do you know what your gun tastes like?"
"Fuck no, man," the kid said getting gentle again with the barrel.
"See, I figure about the time I hand you my money, you're gonna realize that you've been sitting in my damn cab for twenty fucking minutes and that I can I.D. your dumb ass. So you're gonna have to shoot me. I just wanted to say thank you ahead of time."
"Shit," the kid drawled and leaned back into the seat, still pointing the gun at Joe's head. "You are one crazy motherfucker, man."
"I'm counting on you now," Joe said sternly.
"I don't know, man. This is a fucked up situation. I don't wanna pop some crazy fuckin' cab driver. They'll hunt me down for that shit."
"Don't let me down, kid," Joe said.
He paused and then said, "Hey, you wanna see the gun I was going to use? It's a beauty."
Joe slowly pulled his gun from under the armrest and carefully held it up in his open hand; no fingers near the trigger. The motel sign bathed the gun in yellows and reds.
"A Smith and Wesson Mountain Gun, stainless steel, rugged, 44 fucking Magnum. What d'you think?"
"Its nice. I guess."
"You know once you cap me, you can have this gun too. It's built to take some shit - outdoors even."
"Fuck! You gonna give me your money or what? Crazy fucker. Jesus!"
"Look at these custom grips," Joe slowly twisted the gun in his hand. "You're going to love this fucking gun, kid. Don't forget to grab it on your way out."
When Joe caught the kid's glance in the mirror, the kid just stared back, dumbfounded and silent. His eyes swirled with anger and confusion. His gun still pointed at Joe's head.
Joe waited. The kid stared.
With the gun in his left hand, Joe let it drop slowly to rest on the steering wheel. He casually scratched the back of his neck with his right hand. The kid didn't flinch but leaned his gun a little closer, not yet touching Joe's neck again.
Again Joe scratched.
In a single motion, he stuck a finger in his right ear, pushed the gun over his shoulder and fired. The back window darkened and Joe's head swam in the acrid belch of gunsmoke and the incredible noise of the blast. His left ear howled, stinging like it was on fire. He had practiced that move in his head a hundred times.
He grabbed his phone and opened the door. When Joe stepped out, a couple girls were leaning over the third floor railing. They gaped and shrank away. Damn, he was still holding the pistol. Leaning back into the open cab, he set the gun on the seat and got a full face of the metallic smells from the backseat. He chose not to look at the kid. Joe already hated the kid for forcing his hand. He hated the job for making him think he needed the gun. He hated this life that kept kicking him while he was down. Joe slammed the door and dialed 911.
He wondered how he was going to keep himself from calling his ex-wife tonight.