by Richard Luftig
I stubbed out my tenth Winston of the morning. Thank God we were nearing the end of the show.
“We’re back,” I said, feigning enthusiasm. “Time for two more calls. You’re on Tradio. What do you have today?”
The voice sounded as parched as these Ohio fields during this two-year drought. “This is Eleanor. You did a great job helping me get rid of that lawnmower. Helped buy my meds. Today, I have two bikes, a dryer good for parts, and a rocking chair. I’ll take fifteen for the bikes and dryer, twenty for the chair. Everything’s negotiable except the chair. It belonged to my late husband.”
“Okay,” I said, “two bikes, a dryer and a chair. Your number and best time to call?”
Eleanor gave her number. “Call anytime. It’s not like I have a big social calendar.”
I laughed despite my foul mood. I reached to punch in the button for the next caller and my tee shirt rode up my stomach, a not-so-subtle hint that I needed to exercise more. Okay, exercise at all. It was one of the few perks of radio—I could be out of shape and no one would know. Also, no dress code. Given my limited wardrobe of stuff from the used clothing stores in this depressed town, I was grateful for not to have to dress up.
“We got time for one more. This is Tradio. Tell me what you got.”
“This is Robert in Wilsonville. I don’t have anything to sell. I need a driver.”
I was stunned.
“Hello?” the caller said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not sure I got that. You need a driver? Like a chauffeur?”
“Well, not exactly,” said Robert. “See, I’m eighty years old, crippled with arthritis, and my eyes are bad. Never been far from Wilsonville. Took a trip to Chicago once and Niagara Falls on my honeymoon. But that was a long time ago.”
Get to the point, I thought. We’re off air in 60 seconds.
“I’m sick of summers and winters here aren’t much better. So I figured I’d hire a guy to drive me to Las Vegas. Always wanted to play the slots. I’ll cover expenses, but the driver has to pay his own way home.”
The sound engineer was frantically waving for me to wrap up the show.
“So, you want someone to drive you to Vegas, and you’ll pay the freight? Never had an offer like that before, but it sounds good. Give me your number and best time to call.”
Robert left the information and hung up. “Okay,” I said, “that’s our show. Remember, that stuff in your garage is good for cash. This is Tradio. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I gathered up my papers and left the booth. Ottero motioned me into his office. Not a good sign. The station manager never spoke to D.J.s unless they had screwed up on the air. Or about to be fired.
I tried to remember whether I had used profanity. It wouldn’t have been the first time. The show was boring enough, and I didn’t have patience with yokels who hadn’t rehearsed their spiel. How hard could it be to remember three things you wanted to sell for fifty bucks?
Ottero was shuffling through the mess on his desk.
“What’s up, boss?” I knew he liked to be called ‘boss.’
He found what he was looking for. “I got this from some judge. It says I need to garnish your salary for back child support. I don’t have time to be the court appointed bill collector.”
I took the paper and fumbled for the generic glasses I had bought at the drug store. The station didn’t offer health insurance.
I perused the paper and stuck it in my pocket. “It’s nothing to worry about, Stan. I got it under control.”
“How? By winning the lottery? Take care of this or find yourself a new gig. You got until your next paycheck to get this straightened out and the court off my back.”
He went back to his paperwork, indicating that I was dismissed.
I was furious. Damn, leave it to Leanne to almost get me fired. Maybe I was a few weeks, all right months, late with child support for Kimberly. But it wasn’t like I was rolling in dough. I was behind on everything, rent, credit cards, car. Leanne of all people knew how bad I felt about not paying support for my daughter. That ten-year-old was the one good thing that had come out of the marriage, maybe my whole rotten life.
But I just didn’t have it right now. If I couldn’t pay on the car, the bank would repossess it. No car, no work. Then where would they be?
And now Leanne had put my job in jeopardy. No, they would all have to get in line. Even Kimberly who deserved better.
I remembered the old guy who had called the show, the one wanting a driver to Vegas. I heard about blackjack dealers making $1,000 a night on tips. Maybe I could get a gig like that.
I saw the sound engineer in the booth. I knew that he kept a list of calls. I rapped on the window, and he came out.
“Hey, Eddie, you got the log from this morning’s show?”
He handed me the clipboard. “After anything in particular?”
“No,” I said, not wanting to tip my hand. “Some strange calls today. Just interested.”
I scanned the sheet, found the old man’s name and made a mental note of the number. I’d write it down when I got outside, away from prying eyes.
I got into my beat-up Ford Fiesta and drove as quickly as I could to Kimberly’s school without getting a speeding ticket. If I made the lights, I’d be in time to pick her up for lunch.
When I reached the school office, she was waiting for me. I showed the secretary my I.D. and signed her out. “All set to go, Pumpkin?”
She seemed worried.
“I’m not sure I’m allowed to go. Mom says you owe her money.”
I saw that the secretary was listening.
That’s all I need, some busybody not letting me take my own daughter to lunch.
“No problem,” I said loud enough so the secretary could hear. “It’s just a misunderstanding. Let’s talk about this outside, okay?”
Once in the car, I looked at her sitting in the passenger seat. I knew I was prejudiced, but I thought she was beautiful, with her long, brown hair and mother’s eggshell-color eyes—blue but often changing to green or hazel depending on what color blouse she was wearing. Given that I had what was known in the industry as a face for radio, I realized that any good looks she had she had gotten from Leanne.
“Look, Hon, it’s true I owe your Mom some money but it’s nothing for you to worry about.”
She seemed unconvinced. “But Mom says we need it to live. Why don’t you just give it to her? Then everything would be okay.”
I wished I could light up a Winston, but I never smoked in front of my daughter. It was hell, but I wasn’t going to kill her with second-hand smoke.
“It’s not that easy. If it was, I’d give it to your mom in a heartbeat. But things are tight right now.
“Don’t worry, though. I have something in the works, something that pays a lot. It’s going to come any day now. And when it does, I’m going to pay everything I owe your mom and get something special for you.”
I spoke before thinking. “A surprise.”
She became excited. “What is it?”
Nice going, dumb-ass.
I scrambled to think. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Let’s just get some lunch so you’re not late and we both get in trouble.”
I dropped Kimberly at school promising to pick her up for the weekend. But I feared facing Leanne. And having to come up with a surprise seemed impossible. For the first time, I dreaded my visitation rights.
I drove aimlessly. There weren’t a lot of places to go in a town of three thousand people. Finally, I pulled into a space in front of Cal’s Bar and went in for a whiskey. It might only be one p.m., but given the day I was having, I figured I deserved it.
I sat on a stool and ordered. When I pulled out my wallet, a slip of paper fell to the ground. It was a name and phone number. At first it didn’t register, but then it hit me. Robert, the guy who wanted a driver to Las Vegas.
I nursed my drink. This could be my ticket. Out from under my crappy job. Out from Leanne threatening to garnish my salary. A fresh start.
But what about Kimberly? I pictured her face. If I was going to break her heart, let it be one final time and leave the kid alone to grow up sane—maybe without a father–but sane nevertheless. I’d be doing her a favor by leaving once and for all.
I punched in the number on my cell phone. No answer. Maybe the old coot was asleep. I wondered if the offer was on the level.
The voice that picked up sounded groggy.
Maybe the guy’s demented and calls radio shows for fun.
I disguised my voice. “I’m calling about the job you talked about on Tradio this morning. The one to drive you, expenses paid, to Vegas. Is the job still open?”
“Yeah,” the old man said. “You interested?”
A moron. Would I call if I weren’t interested?
“I might be if the terms are right.”
The old man changed the subject. “Say, you sound familiar. Do I know you from someplace? What’s your name?”
Maybe he wasn’t as senile as he sounded.
“Probably not,” I said. “Is the job still open?”
“Yeah. But first let me ask you a few questions. You got a license?”
Again with the dumb questions. Would I be calling about a driving job if I didn’t have a license?
“Yeah, I got a license.”
“You got a prison record?”
I was stunned. “Hell, no,” I stammered.
“Great. You’re hired.”
“Just like that? Don’t you want to interview me first?”
“Nope. I figure if you know how to drive, and you’re not a hardened criminal, you’re right for the job. Besides, it’s not like the phone’s ringing off the wall with offers.”
“When you fixing to go?” I asked.
“Day after tomorrow.”
“Jesus, why the rush?”
“Young man, hope you don’t mind me calling you young man, but next to me everybody’s young. I don’t know how much time I have. I’m on oxygen and got more pills than most pharmacies. So, day after tomorrow. Take it or leave it. I’d go earlier, but I figure whoever drives me might have loose ends to tie up.”
I wrote down the address and agreed to meet him in two days. Then, I stared at my cell phone.
What had I gotten myself into?
I didn’t have much to pack; you can’t get a lot of stuff into a one-bedroom apartment. Besides, DJs live under the radar. If your ratings were low, you could get canned that day. It had taught me to travel light.
The lease wasn’t a challenge. I’d just leave and let the landlord keep whatever was left behind. Most of it was “Goodwill Modern” anyway.
I wouldn’t tell Ottero. It would serve him right when no one showed up to air Tradio. What would they fill in with? I always wondered how many folks listened to the show. Would anyone notice I was missing? Or care?
But Kimberly. How was I going to break it to her? I knew I should just leave. That would be easier on both of us. It would spare me having to lie about where I was headed. Sooner or later, Leanne would have the police looking for me. The less Kimberly knew about my whereabouts, the better.
But skipping out on my daughter would be the final betrayal. I would probably never see her again. She would hate me forever, and I couldn’t blame her. I was a shit as a father.
Some things never change.
By travel day, I still hadn’t done much preparation. I crammed some clothes into two large garbage bags. The rest was staying behind. I didn’t know how much room the old guy had in the trunk of his car.
As for Kimberly, I knew it was best for her if I just disappeared. The less she knew, the less she could tell Leanne.
But I had to see her one last time.
I locked the apartment, stuffed the trash bags into the trunk and drove off. Kimberly was waiting at the bus stop near the house.
I took a chance that Leanne was not lurking nearby. “Hey, good looking! Want breakfast?”
“Dad! What are you doing here?”
“Do I need a reason to pick up my best girl? Hop in.”
“I’ll be late for class.”
“I’ll sign you in. What’s better, homeroom or pancakes?”
She slipped into the passenger seat and glanced at me.
“Mom will have a fit if she finds out.”
“Then we’ll keep it between ourselves.”
I drove to a diner where they served good breakfasts. We sat down in a booth in the back. I didn’t need being noticed by one of Leanne’s friends.
The waitress came over. “So what will you have?” she asked.
Kimberly didn’t hesitate. “Strawberry pancakes and hot chocolate with whipped cream.”
I ordered black coffee.
When the order came, she skimmed the whipped cream into her mouth without losing a drop. “So what’s the occasion?” she asked again. “It’s about the surprise, isn’t it?”
I blinked in confusion.
She giggled. “Don’t play dumb. The surprise you promised the other day. You’re going to tell me about it, aren’t you?”
I struggled to recover. “Well, it’s a surprise. Just not the one you think.”
“I knew it! I told Mom you were going to work things out and get her the money. I told her you were getting a new place.”
She didn’t even pause for breath. “That’s the surprise isn’t it? You’re getting a new apartment. One with an extra bedroom for me. I guessed it, didn’t I?”
I looked into her expectant eyes. Where did she get this from? I tried to remember if I had hinted, even slightly, that I was getting a new apartment. No, this was a just a ten-year-old’s dreams running rampant.
She sat waiting, confident that she had guessed the purpose of our breakfast. I sipped my coffee stalling for time. “Yeah, something like that. But you have to keep it secret. I don’t want any of this getting out until it’s finalized. You have to promise, not a word to anyone, especially your mother. Okay?”
Kimberly drained the last of her hot chocolate. “Deal!” she said. “But it’s going to be hard.”
I felt like a heel. Breakfast had been a terrible idea.
I looked at my wristwatch. “Time to get you back.”
I paid the check and drove her to school.
She reached for the door. I took her hand.
“Honey…I need to tell you that no matter what happens, well… you know I love you. There’s nothing that will ever change that. I hope you’ll always feel the same way about me.”
Kimberly turned and gave me a hug. “I know Dad. Me too. I can’t wait to see you next weekend. Maybe you can show me the new place.”
She opened the door and got out. I watched her disappear into the school. Gone forever.
I had time to kill before I had to pick up Robert and drive him to Vegas. My plan was to drive across town to a supermarket near where he lived. I’d ditch the car there. It would be a couple of days before the store manager would report it to the cops. By then I’d be halfway to Nevada.
I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. This was it. The line I was about to cross didn’t have any do-overs attached.
I sat there, thinking. When had it all gone south, my whole crappy life? Now I was about to lose my daughter. I cut the motor and sat with the windows rolled and lit up a Winston.
It was crunch time, just like in blackjack when you draw a sixteen and the dealer has a ten showing. You have to draw a card or stand pat. Either way it’s a sucker’s bet with the odds against you. That’s why the casinos were all rich and the players poor.
Grow up asshole, I berated himself. You want to be a big shot in Vegas? How about starting now? Cut the deck. Play a hand. Make a decision and stick with it.
My mind was made up. It was time. Time to live up to a commitment for once.
I put the car in gear and drove off towards a new life.
But first I needed to make a stop. I headed toward the station. I needed to check the Tradio files. Maybe someone had a two-bedroom apartment cheap in town. Who knew, maybe that prick of a station manager might let me pull some extra hours.
And a second job. I’d need that to pay back child support.
I wondered how the old guy, expecting me to pick him up in fifteen minutes, was going to get to Vegas.
About the Author:
Richard Luftig is a Midwesterner now living California. He taught at Miami University in Ohio. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines. One of his published short stories was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. His book of poetry is scheduled to be released in 2019.