In Search of a Good Woman
by Galina Vromen
I know the kind of guys who hang out at Holy Holly's Bar and Grill, flipping the buttons of the pinball machine like their lives depend on making those metal balls skedaddle around. This guy who later introduced himself to me as Jim didn't look like any of them. Holly obviously didn't know him either 'cause she knows what everyone drinks, but when it came to him, she had to ask.
"What will it be, Mister?"
"A beer. Make it Carlsberg."
"Sorry, we don't carry that," she said, cocking her head and checking him out and trying to figure out how he had ended up in her joint. I mean Holy Holly's is grunge city. Which is what I like about it. It's so messed up already you don't gotta worry about messing it up. It's not often a guy in a clean suede coat comes into her joint, with a silk tie showing out from underneath no less.
"Whatever you have on tap will be fine," he said.
Then he turned to me. "Can I get you one?" he asked, a little too friendly like to be really friendly, if you get my drift.
"Thanks, I'm just fine." I pointed to the mug I was nursing. He had on a set of these round tortoise-rimmed glasses that made him look innocent, or dopey, or intellectual; I couldn't make up my mind which. And his hair was cut fancy, kind of like Robert Redford's, but dark brown. Anyway, he didn't fit in at Holy Holly's. I'm not even sure I fit in the place, seeing as I have a job and all, which is something most of the guys who come drinking there don't even dream of any more. Mostly, I hang out there 'cause it's the closest bar to King's taxi dispatch station, so it's convenient when I get off from driving my shift and want to relax before hitting the sack.
"You know, I think we've met before," he said to me.
"Really? I can't say as I remember, if you'll excuse me for saying so," I answered.
"No, no, I distinctly do remember you," he said. To get more of me in his sights, he moved his barstool back a few inches, which was probably necessary, seeing as there is about 224 and a half pounds of me to take in. I shifted on my stool, feeling uncomfortable with about 99 percent of myself as he stared at me. The other one percent - my brain - was working in over drive, trying to figure out why this guy would remember me. People usually don't.
I mean, I'm big, but I'm not really noticeable. Usually it's me remembers people's faces and pays attention to what they're up to. You kinda gotta when you're in my line of business. Otherwise, you can get into some bad spots.
"By the way, my name's Jim Moyer," he said, thrusting out his hand to introduce himself. The gesture was so abrupt, I was startled and managed only a limp shake back.
"Billy Foster," I said.
"Billy Foster," he repeated slowly, looking up toward the ceiling as if he was going through some Rolodex in his mind, trying to figure out where he had my number. "What do you do with yourself, Mr. Billy Foster," he said smiling and eyeing me up and down again. I wondered if he was an insurance man trying to drum up some business, though it was kinda late at night for that and you'd have to be a fool of a salesman to think someone around Holly's would have any dough for premiums.
"Drive a cab," I answered. "And you?"
"Drive a cab, drive a cab," he said, ignoring the question and mulling over my answer the same way he had my name, that Rolodex still obviously flipping away. "Ah ha. Okay. Got you," he said, poking his index finger at me. The signet ring on his finger flickered as it caught the light of the yellow lamp over the bar. He beamed me a smile. "You drove my wife about a month ago. Picked her up at our house in the evening."
"You don't say," I answered, more than a bit surprised because no one ever remembers a cabby. But I never forget an address. Some silly kind of professional pride I have. "Where you live?" I asked him.
"Over by Cliffside," he answered.
"What's the address?"
"25 Birch Lane."
"Mmm," I said, non-committal like. It took me less than a millisecond to remember. I'd had such a hard time finding Birch Lane I wasn't likely to forget it. But I was in no rush to let him know that. So I just sat there, going, "mmm," and "ooooh" and making other noises that don't mean much but let-me-think-about-this while it all come back to me.
We don't get many calls from Cliffside. At least not from people his age, which was about 40 I'd guess. Most people that side of town got their own cars, usually fancy ones. No need for taxis, except for the occasional geezer or "geezerette" (I like calling them that) too old to be driving any longer, and most of those old folks only go out during the day, to doctors and such.
Anyway, I remember it being odd to be called out to Cliffside at what must have been about 9:30 at night. The house was a brown ranch with white lace curtains, the kind that make you think of petticoats or wedding dresses. The lawn had carefully lit up elves all over it. Talk about ditsy.
I remembered the wife too. A wispy lady, with dirty blond hair tied back in a ponytail, except most of the hair had come loose and fell into her eyes. She was wearing jeans and an olive green sweater so big it made her look small.
"It sure took you long enough," were her first words to me. She seemed agitated but not the kind of looking-at-their-watch agitated people get when they think they're going to be late for something.
"Sorry about that," I said. "It took me a while to find you."
She didn't listen to my answer, having turned her attention to the two kids with her. Both looked sleepy. The smaller boy, he must have been about four, held the hand of the bigger boy - he was about nine and hung on to his mother's hand. She pushed them gently into the back seat, murmuring to them comfortingly, then settled herself by the window.
She looked like my high school sweetheart Mary. The one who refused to marry me. Or I should say, the first girl who refused to marry me on account of my being what she called "wishy-washy" - whatever that means. Nearly killed me, her saying that, especially since she'd been so crazy about me at first. Every time I can't make up my mind which damn brand of soap to buy, I think of Mary calling me wishy-washy. Every time I think about having gotten conned into driving a cab, by my Dad, whose cab I drive instead of having studied to be an electrician like I wanted to back then, I think of Mary. Actually, I haven't found a woman yet who'll have me, on a permanent basis, I mean. But that's another story, nothing to do with 25 Birch Lane in Cliffside.
"Where to, Ma'am?" I asked.
"Drive towards Willow Boulevard. I'll direct you from there," she said.
By the time we got to Willow Boulevard, the boys were asleep, their pink faces edible as marzipan, and she seemed lost in thought.
"Where to now, Ma'am?"
"Oh," she looked at me, as if noticing me for the first time. "Just a minute." She ruffled through her handbag until she found a slip of paper. "Okay, the corner of Front Street and Market Avenue."
I hate people who do that, don't give you the address, just feed you information bit by bit, so you can't figure out the best way to get someplace. She wasn't the chatty type, at least not that night. We didn't say a word more until I hit the intersection she wanted.
"Okay, now what?"
"Now nothing. We'll get out here."
"On the corner?"
"Yeah, that will be fine."
"You sure?" I asked.
"Well, it's up to you."
"Yes, you certainly could say that," she said, kind of ironic-like.
She pulled a tenner out of her bag. "Keep the change," she said. "It'll take me a minute to get the kids out."
"Sure, " I answered. "Take your time." The corner looked pretty deserted to me. It's on the edge of the city's industrial zone, though there are some residential buildings there, mostly seedy ones, a bit down the road.
I'm the kind of guy who likes speculating about the passengers I drive around. I wouldn't have expected her to head for a dumpy part of town like this, especially at night. She looked like she'd been born on the top rung of life, kind of classy, like Meryl Streep. Reserve was her middle name. Seemed to me, she didn't have a clue where she was going. Or where she was at, really, from the way she kept looking around as she tried to pull out her kids, unwieldy as warm taffy, from the car.
This time she held the little one in her arms. His head rested on her shoulders, his chubby legs dangling like a marionette's around her knees. The older boy clutched her hand. She stood on the corner, looking as dazed as her children, until I drove away. In my rear view mirror, I finally saw her turn into Market Avenue.
I hadn't thought about that ride again until this Mr. Jim Moyer - if that really was his name - mentioned it at the bar. So suddenly, I'm wondering if maybe he's lying. Maybe she's not his wife. Maybe he's a police detective. Because, I'm sure as hell that I never saw any man - boyfriend or husband - that night. And I'm even surer than hell that no one would remember me, sitting in my cab. I hadn't even gotten out to open the door for her. So I'm still saying "mmm" and scratching my head, looking as dumb as I can, trying to figure out why this guy is pretending he's seen me before.
"I bet you remember. My wife's a pretty little lady. People don't usually forget her," said Jim.
I pulled my Lucky Strikes out of my pocket, offered Jim one, which he refused. I lit up slowly, inhaling deeply and blowing out a long train of smoke up into the already smoke-filled air, playing for time to figure out what to say. You never know when remembering a ride has something in it for you. By now, I'd figured Jim had come into Holy Holly's to track me down about this particular ride. There was nothing coincidental about it. The police department must be doing pretty well these days to dress up their detectives so fancy. But why bother with a cover story? Last time the police were looking for someone and thought I could help, they were up front about what they wanted. Plus they got me off the hook on a traffic violation that was spoiling my perfect record - to show their "good will," as they put it. I hadn't been ticketed for anything since then but I figure it's never a bad idea to help out a cop.
Maybe there'd even be some money in it, which I could damn well use, what with my father racking up bills like there's no tomorrow in that nursing home I put him in since he started wetting his pants like a baby six months ago.
I wondered what the woman was wanted for. And what about those two kids?
"I might remember," I said.
"Where'd you leave her off?" he asked. I could tell he was trying hard to be casual, but he wasn't doing a good job.
"What's it to you?" I answered.
He looked at me grudgingly, as if my question had let him down somehow.
"I'd appreciate it if you tell me," he said, a little huffily, I thought.
"Well now, I don't know," I said. I still didn't have his game figured. "I'd appreciate it if you tell me why you'd appreciate it so much if I told you,." I answered. I was kind of pleased with myself for giving him a bit of lip. I'm usually slow on the come back, especially with haughty types like him.
"I need to find her," he said, a worried edge creeping into his voice.
"Your wife?" I said, surprised. Seemed a bit weird to me that he'd be looking for her where I'd left her off a month ago.
"Yeah, well, I've been trying to talk to her."
It took me a moment to catch his drift. When I did, I cocked my head and saw him in a different light. This was a man in pain. "You mean, you haven't seen her since I drove her away?"
"That's the long and the short of it," he answered, kind of relieved I'd figured it out. "I've been trying to talk to her, but they won't let me."
"The people where she's staying."
My mind is saying "a cult." My mind is saying "Mafia." My mind is saying "a boyfriend" or "his in-laws." My mind is saying: "I don't know what is going on, but take it easy, don't rush. For once in your God-damn life, be a bit cagey. Be a bit smart."
He's looking at me close now. He's gone from puffed up to pathetic, like a balloon that's suddenly lost all its air.
"So, they won't let you talk to her," I repeated his words.
"Yeah, can you believe it?" he said, shaking his head like he can't figure out whether to be sad or angry.
"Why won't they let you talk to her?" I said, like I knew who "they" were.
"They say she doesn't want to talk to me," he answered.
"Imagine that," I said, neutral like.
"Listen," he said, suddenly furtive. "Maybe this will help your memory." He laid out five one-hundred-dollar bills on the table.
"That's a pretty sum of money, you got there," I said, leaning back like he was showing me some unusual bills he happened to collect as a hobby. "It might actually help my memory some, but I don't know," I said, real slow, casually, like I've seen guys do in the movies when they up the stakes.
"I'll bet this will be a good jolt to the mind," he said, adding another bill, and another and yet another, until he had stacked up five more bills of one hundred dollars each. "Mind you, though, that's all I have."
"Well, I can see you genuinely want to find that wife of yours," I said, eyeing the money, which looked damn good to me. I imagined being able to wipe off some of that debt on my credit card. I thought about taking Dad out for a meal in a nice restaurant. Maybe surprising Mary by sending her a bouquet of roses with a note saying "just for old time's sake. Signed wishy-washy." Funny how stuff like that pops into your head at the most unexpected times. I hadn't talked to Mary for 15 years. Hell, she was probably married to some beer guzzling guy with a pot belly who growled at her during the commercials in football games while she paced around the house, picking up his dirty socks. She probably had five kids, or at least three. She'd always liked kids. I wondered if she still painted. She'd been good at that; did a great painting of me once. Real talent, she had. Anyway, thinking of Mary was not going to get that one grand from the counter into my hot little hand.
I picked up the cash, slowly, like I was counting it or something.
"Why do they say she doesn't want to talk to you?" I said, fully sympathetic with a man who seemed ready to part with $1000 to save his wife from whatever evil has befallen her. Hell, he'd probably already laid out a couple hundred just to get my name from the dispatcher.
"Those bitches say she told them I hit her," he said.
"What bitches?" I asked.
"In that God damn women's shelter she's hiding out at," he said. "Damn bitches," he muttered.
Suddenly, everything fell in place. Her not giving me an address. The woman had her husband's number. She knew he'd try to find her. To find me. To get me to help him find her. She must have been a lot more scared than she'd let on. Reserved, I had thought at the time. Scared shitless, more like it. She didn't even take a suitcase. Just walked out with the clothes on her back. And the two kids, of course. He must have been convinced she'd come back. He hadn't even run after her. Well she hadn't come back. Good for her.
I figured out a long time ago that no one ever knows anything about anyone. But I hadn't for a moment thought this Robert Redford wimp-imitation might be a wife beater. Which just proves my theory about never knowing.
The only thing I knew right then was that I didn't want his $1000. Besides, I really didn't know where the lady had gone. Smart little woman. As deliberately as I had picked up the money, I set it back down again.
"Sorry, mister. I can't help you," I said, looking him right in the face. "All I remember is I left her off at some street corner, can't remember where. Seems like she didn't want even me to know where she was going, in case you ever found me. Which you did," I said. "Guess the little wife really wanted to make sure you couldn't get at her." I pulled out my wallet to pay for my drink. I slapped a fiver on the table.
"I'm sorry Mr. Jim Moyer. Those bitches just may be right about her not wanting to talk to you. Good night now."
I walked off before he recovered from his surprise at my change of heart. I don't know if he tried to follow me as I pulled away from Holy Holly's. All I know is that as I cruised toward home, I felt good. A grand is a lot of money, perhaps not enough to change my life, but still a lot. Walking away from it was the best thing I'd done in a long time. It's funny what something like that does to your mind - like thinking of Mary. Maybe she'd kept up the painting, made something of herself, who knows. Maybe she wasn't married to Mr. Beer Belly, after all. She might still be single, or divorced. "Well, Mary, maybe I'm not so wishy-washy after all," I found myself telling her in my mind.
And that isn't all I'm going to tell her - as soon as I track her down.