A Stranger appears at the right moment. Borrowed to the Bone. Chapter 9
December 21, 2012
Ben Tom took a seat beside the cabbie and Willy sat in back. The cabbie reached to turn the lever on the meter, then smiled and pulled his hand away. “Old habits are hard to break. You boys got business at the car pound? Lose a car?”
Ben Tom noticed that the cab was as immaculately clean inside as it was outside. “1955 Ford Victoria. Cream and turquoise. I was saving up for lake pipes, maybe a continental kit.”
“Well, you may have to use that money to bail her out. Then you can save up again for that custom stuff. That the car that sits in that yard over on Gould Street?”
Ben Tom’s eyes widened. Willy’s suspicion grew as he leaned over the front seat back and studied the pins and licenses on the dash and sun visors. He pointed to an AA button. “You an alcoholic?”
Ben Tom turned to push his little brother back into his seat. “Sorry, mister. That’s none of our business. So you’ve seen my car?”
“I live in the neighborhood. A few blocks over and down. That’s one fine car. What’s it gonna take to get her out of hock?”
“Afraid to ask.” Ben Tom told him the whole story.
Ben Tom’s candor and trust always astounded Willy. He pointed to another button on the visor. What’s that NA stand for?”
The cabbie smiled. “Narcotics Anonymous.”
Willie laughed. “Man, sounds like you like to attend a lot of meetings. You must be really messed up.”
The cabbie kept his eyes on the road, smiled and nodded. “I’ve been up the street and around the block a few times. Seen things and done things I hope you boys never experience.”
Ben Tom really studied the man for the first time. Thick gray hair cut very short, heavy, black eyebrows, black eyes, deep dimples and other lines in his face made him look like he had been carved from hard wood and etched. Ben Tom imagined that every line could tell a story. He wasn’t smoking, which was unusual for a cabbie and for an alcoholic. All his uncles and his father drank and smoked heavily. When one of his uncles quit drinking, he smoked even more as if the cigarettes made up for the alcohol abstinence.
“So how long you been quit? The drugs and alcohol, I mean.”
“Nine years today, as a matter of fact. An old Mexican cab driver picked me up right where I picked up you boys. My car was in the pound, too. I was trying to figure out a way to steal it. I come back here every year at this time to remind myself who I was back in those days.”
The story was starting to scare Willy a little bit. He couldn’t decide if the cabbie was crazy or had something up his sleeve. With wide, interested eyes, Ben Tom urged the cabbie to continue.
The cabbie worked his fingers on the wheel. “The old man started preaching to me when he got me in his cab. Made me sit in the front seat just like you are.”
Ben Tom felt a strange serenity come over him as he met the cabbie’s gaze. Willie interrupted it. “So what did this old man look like?” Ben Tom turned and gave him a look that said to shut up.
The cabbie raised one finger on his steering wheel hand. “He was darker than a lot of Mexicans, like he spent a lot of time in the sun. Deep lines in his face. Gray bushy hair. Had a handlebar mustache that was near white. I remember he had to move a big sombrero out of the front seat so I could sit.”
Ben Tom was intrigued. “Sounds like somebody out of a picture show I saw once.”
Willy was skeptical. “Or somebody you just made up.”
The cabbie ignored Willy and spoke to Ben Tom. “That’s what I thought at the time. But the old man started preaching to me. He knew a lot of the really bad things I had done and chastised me for them. Rattled off a long list of my bad deeds.”
The cabbie chuckled. “Made me really mad before he got through. I considered stickin’ him with my knife and leavin’ him beside the road, but he just kept talking and preaching.”
Even Willy was starting to get interested. He leaned over the seat. “What kind of bad things?”
“You mean besides being a drunk and dealing in drugs? I was hauled in several times for beating my wife. Broke her nose once and both arms. A shoulder. Beat my kids, too. Nearly killed a man for just looking at my wife. I stole to support my habits, rolled other drunks. But just before this old man picked me up, I had started pimping my fifteen-year-old daughter. I had hit bottom.”
Willy took a deep breath and blew it out strongly enough to whistle. “You one bad-ass, mister.”
“That’s just a short summation of what I’ve done, son.”
Ben Tom’s calmness was gone. “What about the old man? What was he saying, exactly?”
“To tell the truth, I didn’t understand a lot of it at first. Nothing made me madder in those days than a holy-roller preacher. So I asked him, ‘Where is this God you keep talking about? He sure as hell never done nothing for me. He ain’t found time to come to my house.’”
The cabbie’s voice lowered as he seemed to struggle to recall. “Well, that old man just kept driving. Didn’t answer me. I figured I had him dead to rights. So I decided to press him a little more, really show him I wasn’t as stupid as some those rubes who buy into that religion talk.”
Ben Tom was getting anxious. “So what did you do?”
“I pointed up to some birds sitting on a high wire and asked the old man, ‘You see God sitting on that high wire? All I see is birds.’ I pointed to a house with a chimney. ‘Is he standing on the roof of that house over there, ready to take gifts down the chimney like Santa Claus?’ I laughed a little at how clever I was.”
“So what did he say?”
The back of the cabbie’s fist struck Ben Tom in the chest hard enough to take away his breath. “He hit me harder than I just hit you and said, ‘Fool. God is everywhere, but mostly he is there.’ Then he slapped me on the back of the head and said, ‘And there’.”
“So what did he mean?”
“The old man was telling me that God is in our hearts, our minds and our souls. Something that had never occurred to me before. We pulled over to the side of the road and the old man gave me a good raking over the coals again for all the terrible things I had done and was doing. That night in my bed, God started talking to me. Now, I get down on my knees every night and talk right back to him.”
The cabbie went on to tell the boys how the old Mexican took him to his first AA meeting and his first NA meeting. “He came by my house in the cab to pick me up and was there to take me home after the meeting. We became good friends. Then one day, he just disappeared.”
“So what happened after God started talking to you?”
“I devoted the rest of my life to making up for my sins. I asked forgiveness from my children and my wife. I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to them. Now I have a good job and this fine cab. And I try to do the same thing for other people that the old man did for me.”
“That why you picked us up?”
“That’s right. I’ve picked up an unbelievable number of folks who have strayed right there in the same spot where I found you. In nine years of coming there on this day, I have not missed a day in picking up somebody who needs help, even if it’s just a ride. But I had the feeling you boys were thinking of breaking into that yard. Were you?”
Chapters of the serial are published on Friday.
You can learn more about Borrowed to the Bone and other titles by Jim H. Ainsworth on his Amazon Author Page.