The Little Things

A short story excerpted from Charlie Bonaire's Diary

By John F. Crowley

Charlie Bonaire piloted the '81 Mercury Zephyr station wagon easily through the yellow-tiled Lincoln Tunnel, having correctly guessed that the taxi in the left lane would get to Jersey before the bread truck in the right lane.  Staying precisely six car lengths behind the yellow cab, he cruised at 60 mph, enjoying the strobic effect of the passing ceiling lights.  Only now, around 3 a.m., could one's transit through the busy tunnel be enjoyable. 

As he emerged from under the Hudson River his AM radio crackled to life again; the talk-show caller was still ranting against Arab terrorists.  "Tell me," the caller implored in thick Brooklynese, "Dose guys hate dis country so freakin' much, what the hell are they doin' over here?  Because dis is the best country in the world, and everybody wants ta come here!  T'ink about it!  You don't see nobody swimmin' to Iraq, fer chrissake!"

Charlie punched up the sports station, where a squeaky-voiced man was telling the Knicks how to play basketball.  Charlie sipped his coffee and navigated west on 495, rounding a climbing curve that offered one last view of Midtown dominated by the Empire State Building, its upper floors floodlit green for St. Patrick's Day.  As always, Charlie drank in the view.  It was the little things that made the job good.

The midnight courier shift at Spanklin Micrographics of Rahway, N.J. was no career, he knew, but there was much to recommend the job: the bosses were sleeping, the donuts were free and the roads were clear.  All the rush-hour nightmares -- the tunnels and bridges, Route 1&9, the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, Route 22 -- were calm, dark and welcoming now, and driving them was a pleasure, as it was meant to be.  Charlie checked his watch; he was early, so he took the exit ramp for 1&9 before 495 could deposit him onto the Turnpike.  That would take him south through Jersey City and over the Pulaski Skyway -- below which mysterious swamp fires had been smoldering for years -- and then past Newark Airport, past the huge Anheuser-Busch brewery with its landmark neon flying eagle, past the Exxon refinery, to Rahway.  There, at Spanklin, two bored women named Sandi and Dell drank coffee, ate donuts and waited for the data cannisters Charlie carried.  When he arrived they would begin processing them and give him others to drive to Manhattan or Paterson or New Brunswick or some other place where bleary-eyed data processors worked through the night.

The tan Mercury hugged the curve of the exit ramp and swung southward onto 1&9, past the quiet factories and diners and taverns lining the old, overused road. During rush hour it was a four-lane parking lot, but now it presented a diverting alternative to the Turnpike.  Charlie moved along at 65, trying to tune in an oddball radio station out of South Orange he'd heard the previous night.  He passed a couple cars and a UPS semi, then spotted brake lights a half mile down the road. He slowed past a traffic sign flashing "Right Lane Closed Ahead."  He sighed and checked his rearview mirror.  A pair of headlights was coming up fast in his lane, the left lane.  "What's your hurry, pal?  We ain't goin' nowhere." 

Charlie saw the headlights behind him swing over to the narrowing right lane and approach even more swiftly.  "Is that a cop?" he muttered, scrutinizing the lights.  "It's a taxi. You wanna get around me fer chrissakes?!  We're slowin down here!"  The speeding cab, running out of road, had drawn even with the Mercury but would not get by.  Charlie glanced over at the cabbie's face.  It was dark, arabic and registered annoyance.

The cabbie's miscalculation forced him to brake and fall in behind Charlie, now smoothly decelerating into a spot three car lengths behind the old Dodge Polara in front of him.  The cabbie rode Charlie's tail and honked.  Charlie chuckled.  "Yeah, this is a great spot," he said.  "I don't blame ya. Who wouldn't want to be here?" The cab came even closer, and the cabbie honked again.  "Hey, back off, pal," said Charlie.  He tapped his brakes, and the cab nearly bumped the Mercury before the cabbie stood on the brake.  Charlie heard the screech and saw the headlights bob back in the mirror.  The cabbie honked again.  "Well, stay off my ass!"

The Mercury -- and the cab, still close behind -- passed a road crew filling potholes, and Charlie could see that the road would widen again in a few hundred yards, just before the conflux of 1&9, Route 7 and the spur leading to the Holland Tunnel. Here Charlie's route would take him up the ancient steel entrance ramp to the Pulaski Skyway.  By the time Charlie reached the red light -- the Polara ahead of him had gone through it -- he'd moved back to the right lane. 

The cab pulled alongside him and the driver gunned the engine, but Charlie didn't look over.  He lit a cigaret and remembered the last time someone had tried to squeeze around his blind side on a narrowing road; it had happened a few weeks before in Roselle Park.

He'd been driving down Westfield Avenue near midnight.  Up ahead the road was narrowing from two lanes to one, the left one, to accommodate a utility crew.  A motorcycle had sped around Charlie's right side at the last moment, dropped in front of him in the left lane and braked for the car ahead of it.  Charlie'd had to brake, and he'd honked angrily.  The motorcyclist had given Charlie the finger, then, when the road widened again, kept moving in front of his car as he'd tried to change lanes.  Charlie'd honked and launched into a string of epithets.  The motorcyclist had slowed at that point, come alongside Charlie and begun returning the verbal broadside in a latino accent. 

"Fuck you!" Charlie had yelled.

"Fuck you!" the man had yelled back. 

"You drive like shit!"

"You are shit!"

"You suck!"

"You suck me!"

"I hate you!" Charlie yelled.

"I hate you, too!" 

But as Charlie had looked at him the next moment, the man had begun to smile, and then Charlie had started to laugh. They had just reached Locust Street, and the motorcyclist had waved and turned left. Charlie, still laughing, had waved back.

A car horn jolted Charlie from his recollection. He glanced over at the cabbie, who was yelling something at Charlie and giving him the finger.  Charlie took a drag from his cigaret and looked ahead again, exhaling pleasurably.  When the light changed, the cabbie left a patch of smoking rubber as he shot through the intersection and up the ramp to the Skyway.  Charlie leisurely accelerated.  "Go ahead, pal," he chuckled.  "It's all yours." 

He was halfway up the ramp when the cab reached the top and swung across the two southbound lanes of the highway.  By streetlight Charlie could see the cabbie turn his head around toward him.  "Yeah, I'm way back here," Charlie said, "Keep your eyes on the road."  In the next moment Charlie saw that the cab had swung left too wide.  With a terrible crunching sound and a shower of sparks the cab crashed into the steel siding and rebounded tail-first across the road, where it smashed into the other side before skidding to a stop, completely turned around, in the middle of the road.  There it sat, smoke billowing from beneath the crumpled hood, pitiful in a pool of steaming antifreeze.

"Jesus Christ!" muttered Charlie.  He entered the highway slowly and checked behind him; two semi trailers were approaching but would be half a minute getting there.  He gingerly steered around bits of glass and twisted chrome, and plotted a narrow transit between the cab and the left wall.  As he reached the cab he saw the driver sitting rigid, hands locked on the steering wheel, his face a mask of shock. Charlie put his cigaret in the ashtray, stopped next to the cab, leaned over and rolled down the window. "You OK?"  The driver glared wordlessly at him. " Well," Charlie said, "I guess you're not dead. But this is comin' outta your check, y'know."  He smiled.  "Have a nice day."

As Charlie rolled the window up he heard the bleat of a truck horn and the blast of air brakes.  He squeezed the Mercury past the cab's buckled rear end and accelerated over the empty steel arch of the Skyway, and after a moment, as the road turned southward, the smoke and hazard lights disappeared from his rear-view mirror.  To the west he spotted the twin, floodlit spires of Newark's Sacred Heart Cathedral.  To the east, beyond the World Trade Center, the sun was still just a rumor.  And twenty miles down the road in Rahway, Charlie knew, there waited a White Castle restaurant with steamed-up windows and tasty little cheeseburgers. Yes, he thought.  It's the little things.

(c) 1998 John F. Crowley