DALLAS - In that hard time - flat oil prices, inflation, recession - the first bite of the arctic had peeled down the sky and turned the grass and the trees a dull shade of brown and gray.
Big D lay dormant, waiting for spring, the moon and stars standing out blazing white over midnight blue in a dome of continent-straddling high pressure zones ebbing and flowing across the prairies like the giant cartoon balloons and bubbles they really are.
In the mornings, people found dead taxi drivers slumped over steering wheels with their heads blown wide open, their brain tissue splattered all over the dashboards and windshields of the clunky sedans they drove to the brink of mad dash missions for unknown people seeking whatever they thought might get them through the night.
Men, women, freaks and fools demanded instant service and the blind trust of turning the back of one's skull to any stranger on a strange trip in total disregard of safety as the hands of the clock spun through the night cycles of quitting time, bar-hopping, theater and dinner dates, night caps, closing times, angry errands to the impound lot to retrieve cars towed at owners' expense, and the odd-john tomcat out looking for a kitty.
Then there were the deep nights, the times when people who never show themselves in the light of day come out to creep because they are so scarred and so bereft of the courage of their confidence. They have consigned themselves to a peep-and-hide kind of scuttling-down life.
Sitting still in a light doze in the middle of acres of asphalt under a bright moon, the wheel man waited where he could see in all directions, listening to the radio for his number to come up.
“Godda fare wants you to wait on him right there where you're at. You copy?”
“Five by five.”
“Fo-ten. Good luck, man.”
Wheel Man picked him up in the right hand mirror, angling along the asphalt in a loping stride, the collar of a jean jacket turned up against the chill, hands thrust deep into blue jean pockets.
Then he shifted in an oblique and came up in the left-hand mirror, rushing to the passenger's door on the driver's side.
Tapped on the window. Tapped again.
The Wheel Man gestured that he should go around to the right side. Waited for him to lean over and peer in the window.
Grinning face under horn-rimmed glasses. Close-cropped, brush-cut hair. Shrugging, palms up, like, what's the problem.
Flicked the automatic door locks and the dude crawled in the car.
“What'll it be, boss?”
“I godda g'over to the south side, Oak Cliff. Know the neighborhood?”
“Sure. Born and raised.”
“Off Illinois, corner of Alabama and Georgia.”
“For sure, hoss. Let's ride.”
The 'Hood. Used to be white folks. Way back there. The 'Hood.
Bonhomie bubbled and chuckled in the fare's voice - deep dish good old boy inflections. Said, “Well, then, fire this motha-roo up, bubba. It's cold in this car!”
Blew in his clenched fists, rubbed his palms on his blue jeans and stuck his mitts back in his pockets.
“I wanna make a stop back at the crib. It's right up here at the next light.”
As they pulled up to the gate, “Right in here. Charge on in there.” They eased along the parking lot. “Wait right here.”
Almost as an afterthought, said, “Oh, yeah. This is for you to hold.” He handed a crisp fifty across the back of the seat, his arm angled from right to left, the bill proffered between thumb and forefinger.
“There's another one just like it when we get back here safe. Okay?”
Wheel Man snatched the bill, reached up and turned off the meter.
“You got it.”
Dude went inside through a patio door. Came back quickly and hopped back inside.
“I hope you're strapped, because I am.” Pulled a very long revolver out of a shoulder rig under the jean jacket.
Wheel Man, startled, jerked his nine out of the cigar box on the seat beside him, said, “Yeah. Got to, man. Ain't no other way.” Mildly, “Uh, could you please state the nature of your emergency?”
Dude cracked up, guffawed, giggled, then belly laughed again. Thrust the big gun back in the holster and rared back, grinning.
“Keep it handy, buddy. You just might need it, where we're going.” Laughed again, chuckled.
“Okay, you got your shit; I got mine. We ready to ride. What's it all about? I mean, just tell me what I need to know, but, hey, man, make it sudden. Gotta know something about all this here...”
“OK, I'm a lawyer.” There was a question mark in his inflection. “Prosecuted these Jakes – know what I mean when I say Jakes, folks from Jamaica, y'see – for a string of gang killings over in Fair Park – gan'sta' types - and then I got out of that side of it. I'm in the defense bar, now, cause it pays so much better. Okay?”
“Pays cash, you dig? Hey, need to know. You got anything against going to a crack house? How 'bout it?”
Tom Sawyer, the eternal frat boy, out on a lark, a scavenger hunt, some kind of ridiculous down-by-the-riverside adventure only he and the brethren admitted to the inner sanctum could fathom.
“Gotcha. We rolling, Counselor.”
“Now, you're talkin'.”
Across the bridge, down the freeway in the moonlight gleaming on the glass towers and gaudy outline of the jut jaw, lead-with-the-chin gambler's town, and then, leaving John Wayne behind, rolling into the shabby world of little clapboard houses and convenience stores, empty streets and intersections with slowly cycling green, yellow and red lights, the occasional cat scampering across the way and manholes spouting misty vapors.
The lawyer sat and jabbered, jicking and jiving about whatever, raving about houses with steel doors and little slots to peep out of, houses located in the middle of city blocks you couldn't drive straight to, but located in the middle of warrens of right-angled turns on hilltops with elevated porches and anything else to slow down the rivalry of cops and gun-toting raiders from other outfits, hell-bent and murderously intent on grabbing that money.
He laughed – nervously – his rant coming like choruses of jazz horn glissandos and arpeggios punctuated with percussive piano and drum licks. The wheel man glanced over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the dude idly adjusting his glasses, looking out the windows fore and aft, side to side, apprehensive, hyperalert, hypervigilant, rabbit ready and nervous as hell.
Turn here, turn there, passed the two dudes on opposite corners with cell phones in their hands, slow down - let me look here for a minute. Okay, pull in to the curb.
Dashed out of the passenger side and across the street from the little pocket park, up the steep steps of the old prairie house with the wrap-around porch, to the solid steel door where he squatted down beside the narrow slot and got busy taking stacks of bills and counting them, stuffing them in the pockets of the jean jacket.
Wheel Man watched, sweating, tuned taut as a drum and uptight for any sudden move or sharp sound, the motor idling. Waited. Wanted to haul ass, but knew better.
Dude came jogging back across the street, chuckling, and said, “Step on it, hoss. Let's gedda-fug-ouda-here.”
The Wheel Man drove, zigged, zagged out of the strange little neighborhood and back to the cross street leading to the freeway, only slowing for stop signs, coasting through signal lights.
Dude leaned back in the seat, snapped his fingers as if suddenly remembering something, and leaned forward with another 50 in his fingers.
“Good job. Just get me back, back to the place.” He chuckled again.
“You wouldn't believe it, but did you know everybody in that house is nekkid? Buck naked? Huh?
“Cause they can't carry anything away when they finish their shift in there. No money, no rock, no nothin'. Crack house!” They both roared.