Grasping at Straws - Ian Woollen

            Kenny’s general anesthesia took longer to wear off than expected. Nothing to worry about, the nurses assured his wife, Gail. They brought her a Coke and allowed her to wait on a chair in the corner of the recovery room.
            The patient lay motionless on a high bed. Lights and numbers blinked on the monitor beside him. An undulating wave of blue. Fluorescent tubes flickered overhead. A nurse popped in to fiddle with something. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes passed, maybe more. From previous experience, Gail knew that time turns murky inside medical facilities.
            Kenny stirred, groaned, tried to bite at his lower lip. “Where am I?”
            “In the hospital,” Gail said.
            “You finally had me committed?”
            “For your hip surgery,” Gail said.
            “Oh, so I’m a hipster now,” Kenny said.
            The nurse smiled. “Is he usually such a card?”
            “It comes and goes,” Gail said.
            How to describe Kenny? Squat, muscular, balding at the crown, pie-faced. Plain vanilla, in the best sense. What you see is what you get, and what you don’t see… well, more on that later. Kenny worked at a lumber yard six days a week for twenty years. He liked the smell of the wood. He wore coveralls and drove a forklift back and forth between warehouses and the loading dock until an April tornado destroyed the entire complex. Tornadoes don’t get names like hurricanes but they should. This one was ruthless. A couple of his crew members didn’t make it. Kenny survived with a disabling hip injury, which required several surgeries.

            “For better, for worse, but not for lunch,” Gail said. “You need to find something else to do.” She was sweeping the kitchen, or attempting to, while Kenny read the newspaper. A smiling embodiment of always pleased and never satisfied, Gail wiped her hands on her apron and waited for her husband’s response. It often took a minute for Kenny to put his thoughts together.
            “Yeah, I don’t know,” Kenny said. “My grandfather claimed you need three things to stay active in retirement.”
            “Except the poor guy never got the chance,” Gail said.
            Kenny nodded ruefully. “One of his things was fishing. He was going to take me bass fishing every weekend.”
            “So, why don’t you dust off your tackle box?”
            “I need to make some money. Our savings took a big hit from all the medical expenses recently, and, besides, fishing isn’t the same without Arthur.”
            Kenny’s grandfather had been a popular taxi driver, working for the Red Diamond Cab Company. He liked to do the airport run, chatting it up with his fares. “How was your trip, mister? What was the best thing that you saw?” Sadly, Arthur’s career came to a tragic end one afternoon in the winter of 1998 when he pulled up at a gated, north side address and honked. Out from the house hurried a ponytailed musician with a guitar case on his back. He ran down the porch steps, dragging a couple of bags on rollers. As Arthur loaded the luggage into the trunk, the musician’s irate girlfriend ran out screaming and waving a pistol. She fired at the musician, but missed, hitting Arthur instead.
            “Hey, here’s an idea,” Gail said, “become a taxi driver, like your grandfather. You keep your vehicle nice and clean, and you know your way around the city.”
            Kenny blinked and scratched his head. The suggestion floated back and forth between them, like a bluegill under the surface, while Kenny formulated his response. He shivered through a feeling that bordered on giddy. “I could be a taxi driver like my grandfather?”
            “Sure, why not?”
            He paused and said, “I don’t think taxis exist anymore.”
            “Yes and no,” Gail said, “people use their own car and subcontract out to Uber or Lyft.”
            “But there’s probably a phone app gizmo. I would never be able to figure out how to use it,” Kenny said.
            “We can get one of the neighbor kids to teach us. I’m sure it’s easy. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business.”
            “A good suggestion,” Kenny said. “You always have good suggestions. There is one problem.”
            “You’d have to talk to your passengers. You’d have to have conversations.”
            “Yeah, it’s just not me.”

            A zealous problem solver, Gail recruited a neighbor kid to set up Kenny’s Uber account and presented it to him as a done deal. Not wanting to disappoint her, Kenny sucked it up and reminded himself that she often knew what was right for him. Then he wrote out a list of all-purpose phrases to use in response to his passengers’ backseat comments. Among them, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes,” and, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” and, “I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse.”
            Fortunately, on Kenny’s first day as a cabbie, the interactions, the routes, and the app technology all went smoothly. Nine fares and nobody said much of anything, other than to tell him their destination. Kenny drove a very pregnant woman to the hospital. That was kind of cool. And he drove a guy in a clown suit to a birthday party. In some ways, the job was like operating the forklift, just moving stuff around. Kenny made a point of holding the steering wheel tightly at ten and two o’clock, so his passengers would feel safe.
            “How did it go?” Gail asked, at the dinner table. She’d made his favorite meal, liver with onions.
            “I’m tired, more than I expected,” Kenny said, “maybe just from nerves.”
            “Does your hip hurt?”
            “My hip is fine.”
            “That’s great.”
            “And, surprise, I could sort of feel Arthur riding along beside me.”
            “Did he say anything to you?”
            “No, but here’s the thing,” Kenny said. “I realized that my grandfather has always been there, riding along beside me, cheering me on in spirit.”
            Gail wiped her hands on her apron. “Did you stop at the tavern on the way home?”
            “No, why?”
            “You sound drunk.”
            Kenny laughed, thought she was kidding. They finished supper, washed the dishes, and walked around the park. The playgrounds were crowded. Frisbees flew in the dusk. A strolling guitarist strummed random chords. They stopped to chat with an elderly neighbor, Dolores, on her usual bench. Back in the day, Dolores had worked as a dispatcher for Red Diamond and was tickled to hear that Kenny was driving. “Arthur would approve,” she said.
            “I hope so,” Kenny said.
            “Get yourself a gray chauffeur’s cap. Arthur liked wearing one.”
            “Kenny doesn’t go in much for hats,” Gail said.
            They returned home to watch their TV show and to eat a bowl of ice cream. Afterwards, so as not to fall asleep on the couch, they went to bed. Kenny wanted to be fresh in the morning. Unfortunately, his sleep was fitful, disturbed by a dream of a taxi driver getting attacked and robbed. He saw Arthur, in his prime, expiring from a gunshot wound, slumped over the steering wheel. In the dream, Kenny spoke to his grandfather. “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
            At breakfast, Kenny considered buying a pistol and a shoulder holster. Gail was against it. “It’s asking for trouble,” she said.
            “Do you want me out there driving around unprotected?”
            “No, I want you to be comfortable,” she said, “but now I regret suggesting this job in the first place.”
            Kenny poured them both more coffee. He reached over and patted her knee and said, “Look, I’ll do the job unarmed for a couple more weeks and see how it feels. Ever since Arthur was killed, I not as trusting as I once was.”
            Gail glanced at the clock on the stove. “It’s eight thirty in the morning. Did you put something in your cereal?”
            “What do you mean?”
             “This doesn’t sound like my husband.”
            “Still waters run deep.”
            He decided to try the airport run, on the hunch that arriving passengers just off an airplane, just getting back from a trip, were probably not going to attack their taxi driver. It was a tradeoff, as far as income. Some days he had to wait in the cell phone lot over an hour. He dozed, read the newspaper, and watched people being greeted by family and friends.

            “Gail, how come we never take trips?” They were sitting on the back porch after Sunday lunch. Gail was filling her birdfeeders.
            “Weekends in the fall, we go see the leaves at Turkey Creek,” she said.
            “I mean on an airplane or a train.”
            “Because long ago you and I both decided that traveling was a pain in the ass,” Gail said. “Have you changed your mind?”
            “Yesterday I had a fare returning from an annual trip to Yellowstone, a tiny lady in big hiking boots.”
            “You want to go to Wyoming?”
            “I don’t know,” Kenny said, “it’s a possibility.” He had heard some vivid stories from his airport fares. It didn’t take much to get them going. Inspired by his grandfather, Kenny discovered that being a good listener was as important as talking, if not more so. All he had to do was grunt and grin and say, “Welcome home.”
            There was a volunteer firefighter who had been in the thick of a raging wildfire in Colorado. He had a lot to share about the feel of the wind and smoke. Then there was a choir director from Florida flying in for a conference on something called ‘choral-ography’. Her hair was wrapped inside a bright, blue turban. “Say again. A conference on what?” Kenny asked. He honked at the stalled truck in front of him. Traffic from the bypass was backing up off the ramp.
             “It’s movement, simple and easy,” the director explained. “It’s essentially teaching choir members how to dance and sing together at the same time.”
            “My wife used to sing in our church choir,” Kenny said.
            “What happened? Why did she stop?”
            “No clue, frankly,” Kenny said, “I’ll have to ask her.”
            The director said, “By the way, do you have any recommendations for restaurants near my hotel downtown?”
            “Sorry, you’ve stumped me on that one, too. It’s been a long time since I went out to dinner.”
            On Saturday, spur of the moment, Kenny invited Gail to dine at a nearby cafeteria. It had been around since forever, same location, right across from the baseball stadium. Both sets of parents had taken them there as a reward for sitting through a double-header. Kenny assumed Gail would be happy not to cook for a change. Wrong. It took some convincing.
            “It’ll be too expensive,” Gail said.
            “We can keep it simple, mac and cheese. It’s a cafeteria. Jello for dessert and coffee. Can’t be more than a few bucks.”
            “Says old Mister Tightwad.”
            “I’m feeling flush today, thanks to a couple of big tips.”
            “What if we can’t get a booth and have to sit at the counter with somebody else?”
            “I don’t understand,” Kenny said. “Why is that a problem?”
            She wiped her hands on her apron and shrugged. “It shouldn’t be. Okay, let’s go.”
            Gail’s reclusiveness had sneaked up on her in the past few years. After two miscarriages and a joint decision not to try again, she focused all her attention on housekeeping and her birdfeeders. Gail often joked about becoming a homebody. Kenny thought this was her version of his mother’s frequent ‘the world is passing me by’ complaint. But he was starting to wonder if it was more than that.
            Gail spoke daily with the neighbors and waved to the mail carrier. Kenny and she took their walks, and she still went to church, but less often. Kenny wondered if quitting the choir was part of the homebody syndrome. To prepare for broaching this topic, he brought Gail a second helping of dessert. “Honey, I want to ask you something personal,” he said.
            “Oh my God, I’ve created a monster,” Gail said.
            “Next thing you know, I’ll be buying a monster truck.”
            “What is it, Kenny?”
            “Why did you quit singing in the church choir?”
            Gail gulped her iced tea. “You want the truth?”
            “Yes, please.”
            “You promise not to get upset.”
            “I promise.”
            “There was a guy in the tenor section who was hitting on me,” Gail said.
            Kenny forced a laugh. “My goodness, well, at least he knew how to spot a winner.”
            “And I was afraid that if you found out, you would hurt him,” Gail added.
            Kenny winced and gulped his coffee. He nodded. “There might have been a time when that could have happened but I think that time has passed.”
            The next few weeks felt different between Kenny and Gail. The atmosphere grew warmer. It was as if one of them had turned up the thermostat without telling the other, and that was acceptable. Gail read their horoscopes aloud from the newspaper at the breakfast table. Kenny brought home a deluxe 40 lb. bag of birdseed from the farm co-op. He regularly worked eight hours, driving all over town and out into the county. Unarmed, and with little to no pain in his hip, He felt more comfortable with the taxi gig, but he missed being with his wife through the day. That had never occurred at the lumber yard.
            Kenny and Gail held hands together on their walks. It felt good, not too sweaty, not too loose, or tight. And then one morning, Kenny woke up and found himself curled against Gail’s back, with his arms and legs wrapped around her. It was sort of embarrassing, especially when she said, “You are hogging the bed.”
            “Sorry,” Kenny mumbled. “What day is it?”
            “Laundry day.”
            With all the subtlety he could muster, Kenny said, “Would you like to come out with me in the cab?”
            “What do you mean?”
            “Ride shotgun, be my straight man. Arthur and May used to do it, and everyone thought it was cute.”
            “Like an old couple going for a Sunday drive,” Gail said.
            Kenny said, “And it would get you out of the house.”
            “Oh, is that your strategy? No, thanks. I’ve got things to do.”
            “Think about it.”
            “Go make some coffee,” Gail said, “and, just for the record, if we were out riding around together, you would be my straight man.”
            Kenny sensed that a seed had been planted, especially when Gail went to the bank to deposit his disability check and came home with an Alaska cruise brochure from the 50+ Travel Club. She didn’t say a word about it, just left the brochure out on the kitchen counter. She also stopped accusing him of hogging the bed. They went out to dinner at the cafeteria again. Cleaning out his car after work, Kenny found a pamphlet about foster parenting that had been left in the backseat by a D.C.F.S. social worker, to whom Kenny had offhandedly mentioned their childless status.
            Gail grabbed it out of his hands. “No, are you serious?”
            Kenny chewed on his lower lip. “Maybe if we put our minds to it.”
            “Hell, it still feels like a dirty trick,” Gail said. She dropped the pamphlet and suddenly began to sob. It was like a storm blowing in, or out, something long pent-up inside her. Kenny leaned in closer. He held her tightly and remembered clutching a steel support girder in the warehouse as the tornado roared through.
            “Forget about it,” Kenny said. “Forget I ever said anything.”
            “Oh, for chrissakes,” Gail moaned. “What is the matter with us, Kenny?”
            “We’re just getting older and grasping at straws,” he said.
            Gail slowed her breathing and swallowed. “Tell you what… I will ride with you. It’s not a solution, but it will help. I can make sandwiches. We’ll find a nice place to stop.”
            With Gail onboard, the customer rankings for their Uber service increased. Kenny claimed not to care about the rankings and reviews, but he started reading them daily. He and Gail consistently received five stars. One particular review had an impact on him. It came from Dolores, who they’d driven to the audiologist to have her hearing aids fixed. “Your grandfather would be proud of you,” she posted, “Arthur never could have handled all this online crap.” Kenny resolved to buy a gray chauffeur’s hat.

Ian Woollen lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He and his wife are the proverbial grad students who never left town. His day job is psychotherapy. His wife is a choir director, and he sings in her tenor section. His recent short fiction has appeared at Westchester Review, Mystery Tribune, Failbetter, and Blue Lake Review. A new novel, Sister City, is out from Coffeetown Press.