A paved gorge glittering in weak sunlight with six lanes of traffic, flowing at the feet of brick and metal mountains. Di Paulo, rounding a looping curve, coming up suddenly on the prone rear end of Barney Heater’s year-old Mercedes. Too wide to fit comfortably on the shoulder, cars passing within inches. Charlie pumped the brake and swerved from the flow of traffic, hoping to avoid contact as he skidded in behind Heater. Did.
Under the rain of grit and noise, they made rough acquaintance. “Goddamn it! It’s about time you showed up. Right in the middle of downtown and I’ve been sitting here watching these idiots try to smash my car for a half hour! I’ve called every fucking taxi in the city.” Traffic had no effect on the range of his voice. “What the hell did you park behind me for? Get your skinny ass in the cab and bring it over here. I’m not going to walk into traffic for a goddamn cab ride.”
Heater, looking Las Vegas in short sleeves and oversized sunglasses, thick South-East Asian tattoos blurred blue across massive forearms, worked a ball of gum in his cheek, jaw muscles flexing. Orders dispatched, he lifted a cellular phone to his ear and turned away from the din.
Charlie thought for a moment, considered saying “what?—I can’t hear you!” just to see what would happen. Instead, he nodded, got back into the cab, and put it in reverse. When he was thirty feet behind Heater’s car, he waited until a brief cavity opened in the traffic and jammed the gas pedal to the floor. A long horn blast erupted behind him as he swerved into traffic. As he swerved back to the shoulder in front of the Mercedes, the horn made a Doppler effect as the car passed, while the driver flipped the bird as violently as time and space permitted. Backing up again, protected now by the Mercedes.
He leaned over and opened front door, waiting while Heater finished his call.
“God Damn!” he said. “I know you boys are busy, but my God, a half hour?” Charlie was watching the road, edging forward along the shoulder.
“Yeah, you managed not only to break down in a bad place, but a pretty bad time. A lot of day-trippers headed back to the airport, that’s why no one’s downtown.” He used all of the V-8 and surged in front of a tow truck. “So where am I headed?”
“Flamingo. You’ve got about two minutes to get me to the first race.” He sent a wad of gum sailing out the window, even while digging around his pocket for a replacement.
“That car’s a real piece of shit. Bought it a year ago out at Sid Jones’ and there hasn’t been a month gone by that it hasn’t broken down. Sid’s a friend of mine—or was anyway—but I’m through with it. It’s his car now.” He scanned the cab. “Hey, you got receipts in this cab don’t you?”
Underneath the sun visor, battened by braided cords of rubber bands, were the cabbie’s toolkit—receipts, pen, lighter. “Yep. Right here.”
“Hold on to ‘em. By the way, my name’s Barney Heater.”
The exchange of names happened with the majority of fares. The interior space of the cab distinguished the ride from other service transactions. Charlie viewed it as an offering of sorts, an acknowledgement—while inside the cab, at least—of his position. And, though it was not true in many cities, in Portland, most fares felt it impolite to sit down without making that connection.
Heater reached out to shake Charlie’s hand. He had thick fingers, blunt ended and muscular. The cabbie gave his hand and his name, but kept his attention on the thick traffic. Negotiating four lanes of cars, he zipped toward the 6th Avenue exit.
Heater lifted his beige, imitation-leather attaché from the floor and rested it on his knees. While the cab bucked, he dialed his phone, then opened the briefcase while it rang, trapped in the crook of his neck. Inside were a small stack of concert-like programs, two manila envelopes, a calculator, two pencils and a pen. They began their ascent up the exit ramp.
“Ray, Barney. Whatta we got—they started the first race, yet? Okay, good.” Rocketing now up the exit ramp, Charlie hit the break too late—the car in front of them looked unavoidable. Rubber gripped asphalt, sending the briefcase forward at the cab’s previous speed. Heater, with the quick dart of his free hand, flicked the top shut as it shot out for his feet. Guided it to the floor, neatly closed. “The cab got here about five minutes ago and I’m—” the car skidded slightly, nestling up to within three or four inches of a silver sedan “—coming off the freeway now. I’ll be there pretty quick. It gets too close to the first race, bet the first race. But only the first. You got ‘em written down? Good.”
Traffic was now moving through the intersection. Heater scooped the attaché back up onto his knees, opened it, dropped the phone in, snapped the fasteners, put it down by his feet. The cab was creeping along at a safe 20 miles an hour. Barney looked at him.
“What the hell are you slowing down for?”
“All right, Charlie, I finally got Sid on the horn—let’s go pay him a visit. It’s on 122nd and Washington.” As they were driving, Heater told him, “I want you to come in with me, all right?”
“Yep. Just come in there and stand next to me.”
A young salesman about Charlie’s age took them past gleaming new cars smelling of rubber, then began steering them toward a wall painted like a Jamaican beach. Just a few feet before the wall, a door materialized, hidden in a thicket of palm trees. This aperture led to a cramped warren of dingy halls and rooms. As he walked, Heater flipped a coin in his right hand.
Sid Jones was an older, skinnier version of Heater. More the appearance of a retiree than auto magnate, in a blue polyester blazer. At the V of Jones’s open collar was a nest of white chest hairs.
“Barn, you’re a sight for sore goddam eyes!—come on in and sit down.”
“Your eyes are gonna be sore when I’m done with you, you son of a bitch.” Heater hunched slightly, a fighter going in for a jab. He stopped in the center of the office, eight feet away from Jones.
Jones turned to Charlie. “Look at how he treats his old friend. Like I screwed his wife.” Charlie wondered about laughing, looked at Barney, didn’t. They waited a beat and Jones came around to the front of his desk. “How you doin’, young man. I’m Sid Jones.”
“I’m Charlie di Paulo.”
“He’s the cabbie who finally picked me up last night on the goddam 405. You owe him a lot of money, Sid.”
“Barn, sit down for God’s sake. We’re all friends here. I’m going to make this right by you, so why don’t you just sit down? There, Charlie, pull up that chair over there, will you? Can I get you anything—a glass of water, coffee, a soda?”
Heater made a conciliatory move, thumping his thick body onto the chair. “Yeah, get us some coffee, Sid. Bring a cup for the kid.” Legs apart, ready for action, but at least he sat.
“Good. Sit and relax and I’ll be right back.”
They sat for another moment in silence and then Heater turned his head slightly to Charlie and gave him a wink. He leaned back into the chair and started whistling a big band tune. The moment he heard the door, his body hunched, his legs spread, and he leaned forward, ready again for action.
Sid put two chipped teacups on the edge of his desk in front of them. “All right, Barney, let’s talk about your car.”
“It’s not my car, Sid, it’s yours. You bought it from me last night.”
For the next hour they played a game of reverse car-selling, with Heater trying to un-buy his new Mercedes. Sid maintained a staunch deal’s-a-deal position, and they circled endlessly. Heater emphasized the word “lemon” while Sid relied on “friends.” Periodically, Barney would ask Charlie a question about the circumstances of the breakdown, the unreliability of cabs, or the escalating cost of cab fare.
The conversation wore on past interest to Charlie until, unpredictably, Heater offered an alternative demand—a trade-in for a red and white Nash Cosmopolitan Jones had in the used lot.
“You want the Nash?”
“I want the Nash and ten grand in cash for the lemon.”
“You don’t want the Nash.”
“I’m takin’ the Nash, Sid. Obviously you won’t take your lemon back, so I’m takin’ the Nash.”
“Come on, Barn, the Nash is a novelty car. It’s a woman’s car—hell, it’s a small woman’s car. A co-ed or something. I don’t even think you’d fit in it.”
“I got a whole lot full of classics. Bigger, more stylish. You know what I got out on the lot right now? A fully-restored Hudson Commodore. Now that’s a Barney Heater ride.”
“Charlie, you ever buy a car, don’t come to this swindler.”
“For Pete’s sake, Barn. You thought that Mercedes was unreliable? Hell, that’s the best there is. You’ll spend your life in the garage with the Nash.”
“Well hell, Sid, I spend my life in the garage with your brand-new cars. Might as well have a classic. If it breaks down, I’ll call a cab.” He grinned and elbowed Charlie.
Heater got the Nash. Once Sid was convinced Heater really wanted the car, he was happy to make the trade. Another hour negotiating the trade-in value of the Mercedes, and then for the first time Heater went out to look at his new car.
It was a nice car—mostly restored, but the paint job was a little chipped and there was a tear in the upholstery on the driver’s side seat. Down down down went Heater as he climbed in, toppling from an awkward squat. Once in, he filled up two-thirds of the width of the car, but had a couple inches to spare over the top of his head.
“Keys,” he said to Sid, arm out like a plane’s wing. The tiny engine turned over and Heater revved it gleefully.
“See, Barn, everyone’s happy.”
Heater might not have heard Sid; he was speeding off toward the back of the parking lot.
As he drove, Sid told Charlie, “He’s an SOB.” Heater banked at the corner, car listing inelegantly. “But what are you going to do?”
Heater made two passes before pulling up next to them. “Sid, I don’t care what your mother says about you, I like you. It’s a hell of a car.”
He started waving his arm out the window, which Sid took to be a handshake offer. Heater continued talking while Sid shook his hand. “Charlie, go get the cab and follow me—we’ll take this out to a guy I know does auto-body work.”
Then he was off for another spin around the lot.