Cabbie in the Orange Grove
The worst part about driving a cab is that people always slam the door when they get out. It was one part of the job that I never got used to.
The date was August 1, 1982, and I still remember it clearly. It was my first day on the job as a cab driver in Orange County. I was fresh out of law school and I had failed the bar examination miserably. When you pass the bar exam in California, you receive a cheerful letter welcoming you to their little club. But when you fail that inhumane three day test, the folks at the state bar make sure to give you a full and complete beating about your test taking deficiencies. According to them, the purpose of such a detailed explanation is to give you pointers to allow you to successfully retake the test. But what I think they are really saying is: Nice try loser! Don’t bother us again.
Even if I had passed that most medieval of tests, I’m not sure what would have come of my legal career. I didn’t go to one of those highfalutin Ivy League law schools like Stanford or Harvard. I went to law school at City College, a law school so pathetic that there were no janitorial services and the students had to take turns at night emptying the trash cans and cleaning the toilets. That should have been my first clue that a successful legal career was not awaiting me on the horizon.
Anyway, there I was, a recent law school graduate turned cab driver with a pregnant wife at home and about seventeen dollars in my pocket. My job was to transport folks back and forth to John Wayne Airport, during the graveyard shift. Business travelers, mostly, along with an occasional woman with tears running down her face heading back to Kentucky or some such place for a funeral for the dearly departed.
My supervisor’s name was Woody, and he gave me just a few simple instructions. First, stay out of dark alleys. Second, never leave the cash box unattended in the cab. Seemed simple enough.
My first fare of the evening was a college coed on her way to visit her boyfriend in Alabama. I dropped her off at John Wayne Airport at 8:30 PM, then headed over to Denny’s for dinner. I had the Moons Over My Hammy special, which never disappoints. I washed that down with three cups of hot coffee, with three little cups of half-and-half stirred into each coffee. I tipped the waitress four dollars because she smiled at me real nice and called me “honey.” Whenever they call me honey or sweetie or anything else that makes me feel tingly inside, they automatically get an extra dollar tip.
I headed back to John Wayne Airport and sat in the queue until 10 PM. I was reading the latest issue of People magazine (my wife had given it to me). There was a cover photo featuring Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. Loni had this great big smile stretching from cheek to cheek, while Burt glared at the camera with just a whiff of hostility or smugness, I couldn’t tell which. It was difficult to know what really lied beneath Burt’s thick mustache and dark, haunting eyes. My guess was that Loni had invited the folks from People over to the house for an exclusive interview and photo shoot, and that Burt had been dragged along unwillingly.
The vapid articles did not take me long to read, and before I knew it, I was dozing off in the driver seat, with my head fumbling onto my right shoulder.
I was startled out of a deep sleep by the backfiring of an AMC Pacer. Most things in life you get used to, but not the comedic ugliness of that particular automobile. I peered into my rear view mirror and spotted a man walking at a brisk pace toward my cab, carrying nothing but a medium sized duffel bag in his left hand. No luggage. The man had brown, shaggy, curly hair with a brown mustache and mirror aviator glasses covering his eyes. A brown leather jacket covered a pair of narrow, scrawny shoulders. The man was also wearing dark blue Jordache jeans that were so tight that I pondered how any blood could make its way to his crotch.
The man sat down in the backseat of my cab, gently closed the door behind him, and said “just drive.” Even as a first day cabbie, I knew the dude was bad news.
I merged onto the 405 freeway south, and it was as dark as a pint of Guinness, due to the lack of traffic lights. After about five miles, the man told me where to exit, and directed me through a series of brand new suburban streets where the houses were only half way constructed. After a couple of turns, we were driving through an orange grove and I could feel the tires of my cab slowly rumbling over large dirt clods between endless rows of orange trees.
There was suddenly a blunt pressure at the right side of my neck and I immediately knew that the man was pressing a gun into me.
“Stop here,” he said. So I stopped the cab.
“Stay in the cab, and don’t go anywhere. If you try to drive off without me you will find out what a good shot I am, so just stay put, all right? Shut off the engine and keep the headlights turned on so I can see what I’m doing.”
I found it interesting that he presented his order like it was some type of negotiation, even though he was the one holding the gun.
“Sure, I’ll stay right here. Just go do your thing and then let me go,” I said. My mouth was so dry that my tongue felt plastered to my teeth.
The man exited the cab with his duffel bag and slammed the door so hard that my inner ears felt as if they had been filled with silly putty. I turned off the engine, but kept the headlights on. The man walked in front of my cab, then fell to his knees about twenty feet in front of the headlights. He slowly and deliberately unzipped his duffel bag, set the gun onto the ground, then started rummaging inside the bag with both hands. He did not take anything out of the duffel bag, which piqued my curiosity more than just a tad. The man retrieved a portable military issue shovel from the duffel bag, and started digging a hole into the soil. He was so leisurely about the digging of the hole that one would suspect he was simply gardening in his backyard on a Sunday afternoon.
The first set of eyes appeared out of the darkness, looking like a couple of fireflies on a mid-west summer night. Then, the gray, furry legs of the first coyote came into view, as my headlights shot straight through the orange groves like a ray gun. The coyotes had been roaming the orange grove in a pack, and in less than ten seconds, there were six of them. The coyotes formed a menacing circle around the man and just stared at him as if they were children enthralled by the tattoo lady at the carnival.
But the man was so focused upon the petty hole he was digging into the earth that he did not notice the coyotes at first. The man eventually looked up to take a breath and wipe the sweat from his brow with his forearm, when he popped up onto his knees with his back as straight as an ironing board.
The coyote closest to the man made a hungry sneer, as a defiant growl was born from its throat. The new housing developments had wiped out the fields and had made the coyotes restless and hungry. Now the coyotes were circling the man and staring at him with their stomachs growling and their frail ribs showing.
The man had dropped his gun and shovel and he was standing halfway hunched over, like someone who had just run a few miles in the heat and was physically exhausted, with his hands on his knees.
Before I had a chance to give much thought to what I was doing, my right hand turned the key in the ignition and my right foot hit the gas at the same millisecond that I put the car in drive. I made a sharp right turn and shot past the pack of coyotes with the man standing at their center. I could see them all in the rear view mirror as the tires from my cab flung dirt clods into the air.
The bright summer full moon painted a not so pretty portrait of the man sprinting between a few of the coyotes before making a run for it. The hungry and desperate coyotes were in hot pursuit of the man, as he frantically hustled for his life with his arms flailing and his jaw hanging so low to the ground that I thought he might trip over it.
It took a few more minutes before I realized that the man was chasing after my cab, hoping that I would stop for him. I considered how absurd it all was, that twenty minutes earlier I was sure he was going to kill me and bury me out there in the orange grove, or at least take my wallet and steal my cab. Now, I was the man’s only hope for salvation.
Oh, what the hell.
I stopped the cab and popped the trunk. The man hopped in, and as soon as I felt the shocks jolt up and down, I hit the gas before the man had a chance to shut the trunk. Dust flew into the coyotes’ eyes and the pack parted to the left and to the right, as the man and I sped through the warm darkness.
There was a quaint little bar on the corner of Main Street and Alton Parkway, and the man and I spent the rest of the night drinking Jack Daniels and laughing hysterically. It turns out that the man’s name is Casey. He confessed to me the whole story about what was in the duffel bag and why he had me take him to that empty orange grove in the middle of the night, but I am not at liberty to talk about that. I promised Casey that I could keep a secret, and I intend to keep my word.
Over the years, Casey and I remained fast friends. He was a struggling science-fiction writer and I reviewed the first drafts of a couple of books he was putting together. Most of Casey’s stories were not very good, but I told him he was writing some pretty impressive stuff because it must be important for a new writer to develop confidence in himself. But deep down, I think Casey knew that I was putting him on a bit.
We became so close that I was the best man at Casey’s wedding. Aside from the family photos of me with my wife and kids, my all-time favorite photo is the one of me and Casey at his wedding, wearing matching black tuxedos with blue ruffle shirts and big obnoxious black bow ties. I sell insurance these days, and that photo still hangs in my office — me and Casey at the wedding with sweaty red faces and bourbons raised high in a toast to good times is quite the conversation starter.
When people come into my office and ask me who the man is standing next to me in the tuxedo, I politely tell them that I don’t have enough time to tell the whole story.