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Number 98’s Last Ride

Shifting Out of Here

the present

The longer the shadows become in my life,

The colder the breeze seems to be.

The days roll on by… still I can't quite believe

That someone's not waiting for me.

~ Justin Hayward

Part 1

Chuck snapped the last buckle into place and pulled on the belt perpendicularly to check its tautness. He was positioned on one knee, beside the wheelchair, and he allowed himself a couple of breaths before he raised himself up. This would be the last ride of a long day.

Lori had missed her usual ride from daycare, because she had been to a doctor’s appointment, which had run late. So Chuck had been dispatched to come and take her home. He was tired, stiff, and short of breath … and that early winter chill was wearing him down.

Driving the handicapped around (and of course, that word is considered politically incorrect) could be a grueling job, but it had its rewards. He was in his late 40’s now, and he’d been doing this work for almost fifteen years. Never mind the professional image, or the résumé, or the qualifications, or the recommendations, or the "experience," or any personableness… if one wanted to do this job well, two things were required.

The first was a thorough knowledge of the streets and avenues… and of the city itself, for the city had its traffic habits. Chuck thought he had done his share of driving around before he got into this. He’d started out delivering pizzas almost as soon as he got his driver’s license. And later, he had been the chase-man for a construction company. He thought he knew the city.

"The city" included the inner-city, with its complicated one-ways and parking restrictions. And then, there were the inner-residential areas, with the contrasts of the upper, middle, and lower classes. Sometimes, he felt a little out of place, and other times, he was downright afraid to step out of the van.

The long avenues extended out into the first circle of suburbs. One had to know whether to catch a freeway out of the inner city, with no stops, or to use the one-ways and weave in and out, picking up and dropping off in the outer residential areas. Fight traffic, look for the flow, watch for the cut-offs, be on time… and above all, keep your passengers safe.

The suburbs unfolded out and away, like the fields and the hills, one circle after another. He had never realized it before, but the address numbers on the avenues would sometimes reach 5 or 6 digits. And, by using the city map book, one had to figure out how to find addresses from a freeway.

Sometimes, the streets turned into gravel roads with catchy names, like Willoughby’s Pond Lane or Lazy Creek Road, and he would find himself pulling up to a farmhouse, with happy dogs and dirty-faced children running up to meet him.

"The city" was an enormous network of streets and avenues and conduits and roads, much like a web. And it often seemed as if the center of the web would snare a driver, so he might have to run around that frenzied labyrinth, doing short rides for a couple of hours. And then … zoom … one ride could take him up and away, out there to where the sky seemed to expand, where one might be able to listen to several songs on the radio, from beginning to end.

And then, having dropped off, one could light up a smoke and enjoy a pseudo-relaxation, making sure to air out the van before the next pick-up. Smoking in the company vans was absolutely prohibited. But smokers break rules… they have to.

One learned as much city geography as one could in the five days of training. The bosses figured that if a trainee could at least get a set route down, he was usable. One could learn the rest of it with experience. The trainee had to buy the voluminous city map book, and of course, he had to demonstrate that he knew how to use it.

The other thing that was required was something more inscrutable. There was training and certification provided—the Defensive Driving, First Aid, CPR, Vulnerable Adult Abuse Awareness, and the all-important Patient Assistance Technique.

But nothing could have adequately prepared him for that first meeting with that small limp form that had to be strapped to the back of her wheelchair in order to sit up straight. She seemed so delicate that he was cautious going over the cracks in the sidewalk, and every sound she made caused him to look at her with great concern. When she tried to smile and say "hi," she drooled, and there was a look of apology and discomfort in her eyes.

That second requirement was something that could not be taught. He came to learn that it is an inborn quality in some people, something in their hearts or at some other level of conscience, that allows them to interact in a casual and effective manner with the severely disabled or deformed. And having found this quality in himself after some time, he also came to regard it as somewhat of a curse.

Some folks, like Chuck, get up early, and they face the weather and the traffic to get to work. And then, they face the weather and traffic again, to get that faction of the citizenry to their appointments, and their classes, and their jobs. And it is not uncommon for those folks to put in 10-12 hour days.

They give physical support to those who need it, they push the wheelchairs, they wipe noses and chins, they tolerate the body smells and the guttural sounds, the tantrum episodes and the health and medical issues… and they do it day after day after day. And they come to feel that if they don’t do it, everyone in that milieu suffers for it somehow.

Part 2

Number 98

Chuck climbed into the driver seat, shuddered off some of the chill, and strapped himself in. He picked up the mike and clicked in, “Number 98 to base.”

“Come in, 98.”

“Got Lori on board. You got anything else?”

“That’s a negative, 98. You just get her home and don’t bother calling in ‘clear’. You can gas up and bring it on in. I appreciate the extra help tonight, Chuck …I can’t say that enough. It seems like there’s always somebody missing.

The dispatcher continued, raising his voice slightly, so as to get everybody’s attention, “And by the way, this is for all drivers! We are hearing reports of ice slicks out there. I didn’t realize it was getting that cold, but apparently, it is. Please be extra careful and watchful!”

Chuck looked in the rearview mirror and smiled, “Copy that, base … and … well, you know … when you said it was Lori, how could I say no?”

“Copy that, 98.” And then, the dispatcher spoke a little louder again, knowing Lori was in the rear of the van, “Goodnight, Lori! Have a safe ride! And thank you for riding with us!”

Chuck had to hold off on the clicker as several drivers chimed in and wished Lori a good night. No one was supposed to be "special" in this arena… but someone always was… Lori was. Almost every driver knew her and loved her—the way professional drivers are not supposed to. He heard Lori squeal, and he glanced in the mirror and saw her squirming and wiggling—her way of bursting into laughter.

And then, there was a lull, and he clicked in, “Ten-four, base, we’re en route.” He clicked in again, “Thanks a lot, guys.”

This was a sort of inside joke. It was well known that if Lori got into a "laughing loop," she might overdo it and wet herself, and then, he might have to do a little extra clean-up.

Lori was actually a very pretty woman in her own right. She may have been in her 30’s or possibly in her early 40’s. She had been born with a debilitating disease that was gradually withering her body, but she had already beaten all the odds. The common legend about her was that it was as if she had an indomitable will to live, and so she did. This was what the drivers and service providers loved so much about her. She had a way of being able to find joy in every moment and sharing that joy with others, while it lasted. She was a shining example not just of the handicapped, but of humankind itself.

When Chuck looked at Lori sometimes, he could picture her as one of those Greek women of ancient times, with the long flowing garment held against her figure by the breeze. She was shapely and beautiful, endowed with a regal posture and a quiet grace. But he did not dwell on such fantasies for long. There was a job to do.

Almost as if she had read his mind now, Lori began to settle down. There was a song on the radio that Chuck recognized, and he turned it up a little (But one has to always be able to hear the 2-way radio… it’s the lifeline to the base).

When Lori liked a song, she would sway her head and sort of coo and hum with it, and she was doing that now. The name of the song was "It’s Cold Outside of Your Heart." It said things Chuck could understand but could not himself articulate at any given moment. And then, there was something about that last line, “I refuse to believe that someone’s not waiting for me.”

He turned out of the parking lot and went two blocks. There he turned left unto a one-way, which would lead to a boulevard over by the big lake. Lori loved going this way when they could, because they had to drive around the lake to the other side, and it could be scenic and pleasant. Not today though.

Today was gray and cold, and the wind was picking up in a nasty way. It appeared to be darkening much too early, and Chuck thought there was an unusual amount of debris flying across the road. Without looking away from the road, he reached for the mike.

“98 to base.”

“What… you lost already?”

Lori squealed and Chuck smiled to himself. “You haven’t heard anything about any freaky storms, have you? We got high gales over here… lots of flying debris.”

“Wind? Where the blazes are you, Chuck? There’s no wind. Come on, just because it’s Friday... There’s no wind, Chuck. What—you and Lori just pulling my leg? There’s just a dead freeze going on, with some flurries in some areas. Copy that, 98?”

“Yeah, ten-four. No storm. That’s good to know. Thank you, base.” There was a familiar air of tension over the 2-way now. He had seen this happen before. He glanced in the mirror and saw that Lori wasn’t smiling or laughing either.

That air of tension occurs when somebody says something on the 2-way that doesn’t make sense. It has to be waved off as a joke, but everybody can tell that it wasn’t meant to be funny. Maybe it’s the concentrated singularity of that same thought in all the drivers’ heads at the same moment that makes it feasible for the isolated one to sense it.

Part 3

the storm

Chuck was just driving, seeing boxes and plastic bags flying across the road, sensing that telepathic tension, thinking it was too quiet, wondering, “Something just ain’t right, Lori …”

Up ahead, he could see the lake now. Two blocks before the boulevard was a train crossing. And they were on a slight incline all the way down. He tapped on the brakes just to get a feel for..

Suddenly, there was a bright light. Looking up, he saw what looked like a meteor, a shooting star … except that this "ball of fire" appeared to be right there, right over the lake in front of them.

He heard Lori cooing. And seconds later, a red-hot boulder hit the water, there was an enormous thundering sound, and he saw a spray of different colors go up in the air at least a hundred feet. The van glided down to the stop sign, and he looked in the mirror, “Did you just make a wish on that falling star, Lori… or whatever it was?”

And Lori cooed and nodded as best as she could. Chuck made a left turn unto the boulevard. But then, he turned into the first parking area and pulled into a stall. This was the lake, all right, and they were on the boulevard, but something was very different.

The area farther down towards the water, where the walkway and the bicycle lanes ran, was now lined with some sort of pavilion or platform with pillars and columns. There was something very familiar about it, but it didn’t belong there. He got out of the van, took a few steps forward, and lit a cigarette. He wanted a better look, and he took a few more steps, but then, he realized he couldn’t just leave Lori. Then, the impossible happened.

He noticed that the sun was cresting on the opposite side of the lake. “But that’s not east,” he thought … “and it isn’t morning!” He heard a sound in the van, and he turned and saw Lori climbing up into the front seat and letting herself out. And then, he watched her walking past him, towards the columns. “Dang, Lori” he said softly, “what the hell did you wish for?”

Chuck stood there, staring in astonishment. It was all very familiar! He had seen this before somewhere—some sort of Greek platform, with the columns, and the morning sun making it all glow, and the girls in the Greek garb—this was all on an album cover or a poster or something!

Lori had been gazing at the sunrise, but she turned to him now. He could only stare, as she walked back to him gracefully, and she put her arms around him and laid her head on his chest. “My wish came true,” she said.

“Uh-huh.” Chuck put his arms around her cautiously and looked out over the water. Something had just happened that he just could not grasp. When it came to believing in magic or miracles, in spirits or God, he considered himself a practical man. What he lacked in piety, he made up for in being civil and friendly. But this was big—big and frightening.

He was thinking to himself, maybe he was whispering, “Lord, I sure don’t know what’s going on here… it looks like we’ve maybe crossed over into another place… it’s a beautiful place… and it’s warm… and… there’s been some… changes…”

He felt Lori’s body pressed against him, her warmth, her reassurance of his own humanity, “Don’t know what else you have in mind, Lord… how long we’re going to be here… but I’ll take it… I’ll take every moment of this You care to give me.”

Epilogue

Daybreak, by Maxfield Parrish, 1922

“98, do you copy? Chuck, are you there?” The dispatcher was frantic. Lori had not arrived at her residence. Meanwhile, there was a news report being aired about a train collision over by the big lake. It was being speculated that the train had barreled into a hi-top van with a lift on it.

The engineer being interviewed tried to describe it, “… the god-awful noise and the flying glass and metal parts, there was the screeching of the brakes on the train, metal on metal, and then the horrific sounds coming from the van, as it tumbled and dragged, sparks flying everywhere, and then, it got snagged on something, and it just tore apart… it just blew apart… at times, it seemed like an animal, going through its death throes, and you could almost hear it screaming.”

Except that there was no van to be found, no parts of it, no wheelchair, nor any sign of the driver or the passenger. They found the markings on the street, on the frozen surface, that showed the van had started sliding from the top of the incline, it had started to fish-tail a couple of times, but the driver had kept it straight, and it slid through the barrier, right into the path of the train.

That was the only trace that could be found that might have been Number 98, and it would melt and wear away in a short time.

r. nuñez, 1/2014

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