I have this fantasy about the drivers. It goes like this.
There’s a long skinny pale one who calls himself Tex. As a child, Tex was enormously fat, which is why he’s into deprivation. He brings me to his mother’s house and I tie him to the kitchen chair. It takes a really long time to do the knots tight enough around his wrists and ankles, and when he starts whimpering, I stuff a ball of pantyhose in his mouth and seal it with a big square of duct tape. By the time I’m finished I’ve worked up an appetite, so what I do next is take everything out of his mother’s fridge and go to town.
He sits there, eyes wide, gurgling and twisting, the legs of the chair digging chunks out of his mother’s linoleum, as I polish off half a lasagna and two pork chops, a bowl of spinach dip, and a big gluey pile of mashed potatoes. He bucks like a pony when I pull out a fat slice of German chocolate cake. I watch him squirm, crossing and uncrossing my legs as I poke the cake with the tip of my fork. I really shouldn’t, I say, I’m so full! I give Tex a doubting, frowning look. Tex widens his teary eyes and grunts, and it sounds like eee eh, eee eh, but I know what he’s actually saying is, Eat it, eat it. Because I am obedient, I break off tiny morsels and roll them into dense little chocolate balls. I chew each of them with agonizing slowness. When everything’s been eaten, I rip the duct tape off and he says, Kathy, Kathy, you’re so fricking hot. I stare at the red swollen rectangle the tape has left around his mouth, at the little droplets of blood pooling in his pores, and I think, Here is someone who knows how to suffer.
Then we do it in his mother’s bedroom, and when he falls asleep his body is a thin white line I do not want to disturb.
I sneak back down to the kitchen and put on a frilly little apron and some lemon-yellow dish gloves. I wipe down the cabinets, the table, the counters, until there is not a trace of me left anywhere. I buff the stovetop to a creamy shine.
Just when I start to get that empty after-sex feeling, I hear a series of noises coming from outside: plywood snapping, a dull thud, a man’s voice saying, Oof. I look out the window, but all I see is an azalea bush trembling in the breeze, so I unlatch the screen door and slip outside to the backyard.
Yoo-hoo, I say, anyone there? I go around to the side of the house and see an enormous man at the foot of a ladder under the bedroom window. It’s Leo. He’s another driver, lantern-jawed and inarticulate. His work boots glisten with fresh mud.
He looks at me and says, Hey, Kathy, and I can tell he likes what he sees. My body gleams in the watery Portland light, muscular and unblemished and young, like I’m twenty-nine again. The apron flutters over my thighs; my hair is matted into a wild, irresistible swirl; the dish gloves are just this side of trampy.
Were you watching us through the window? I ask. I put my hands on my hips, pretending to be furious. I wonder if Tex is awake and listening, if maybe the two of them planned the whole thing.
Yeah, he says, hanging his head. He clenches his jaw rhythmically, and I take this as a sign of submission.
Well, Leo, I say. You’ve misbehaved. I’m going to have to do something about it. I press two gloved fingers against his cheek, hard enough to leave a nubbly indentation. He reaches out for me and murmurs, Oh baby, but I swat his hand away. The heady smell of fresh fertilizer hangs thick all around us.
Now get on your knees, I say, and he kneels down in front of me. His neck is almost the width of my waist, and I reach down and take hold of the back of it. I stand there, my legs planted in the wet grass, listening to the whoosh of traffic going by. I push Leo’s face into the lap of my apron and decide what I want to happen next.
It’s never like that with the real drivers. They fuck mechanically, eyes focused on the empty space above your head. They like it quick and ordinary in the bathroom of the North Star Tavern after only one drink so they can still cart Mr. Stevenson over to Saint Luke’s for his 2 P.M. colonoscopy.
Even so, a girl can dress up and dream.
The new guy is waiting for us in the van at the bottom of the driveway, motor running. I’m wearing a tight, twat-flashing little dress I just bought. Black vinyl—it squeaks when I walk. I’ve got a lot of makeup on, Betty Boop eyes and lips, because I like for them to see me as a walking, talking cartoon girl. I need a lot of makeup anyway, but for doctor day I go above and beyond. The drivers think I’m ten years younger than I am. It would be a shame to let them down.
Mom’s all gussied up too—I like her to look good for the doctors. She’s wearing the purple velour track suit I bought her, and she hasn’t pawed off her lipstick yet, which I count as a sign she is in some way pleased with her appearance. Mom, you look just beautiful, I tell her, and beauty always gets rewarded. I really have found that to be true, I add. I have to converse with myself because Mom doesn’t keep up her end of the conversation. If she did, she might have a few things to say about the way I look.
We all have to work with our assets, I continue, giving her a pointed look as if to imply that she is actively throwing her assets away and it is only with my help that her full beauty potential can be realized. Which is sort of true. In Mom’s case, her assets are her crooked lips, still pouty and full, and what’s left of her hair—springy ash-grey curls that I’ve tied with a sweet lavender bow. In my case, it’s the whole package.
Let’s say goodbye to Daddy, I say, and give Daddy’s handsome military portrait a little air-kiss as I open the front door. Mom hates that I put his picture up, hates to be reminded of what she once had. But I want to look at Daddy when I come in and out of the house. I’ve hung his picture where she can’t reach it, way up high by the ceiling, so Daddy is staying right where he is, looking out at us, chin thrust out like a good strong Marine, looking like he’s just uttered his favorite expression: Use it or lose it.
We’re using it, Daddy.
Wheeling Mom outside, I see that the old people who live across the street have hobbled down to the bottom of their driveway, arrogantly rattling their walkers as they go. They shout at the driver in voices like rusted hinges. There is no way they’re taking our cripple van, I think. This driver is mine.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the O’Shaughnesseys, I say to Mom, bending down so she can hear me and so Mr. Van Driver can get an eyeful of the rack I’m sporting. Look how they’re waving their walkers around, all that Irish vim and vigor! They are such fakes! Look at the colour in their cheeks! You can’t wave your cane around that way, Mom, can you? I don’t think so, no, you can’t. You can barely get your cane off the ground to jab it at me!
Mom gives me one of her classic blank stares, her jaw clicking the way it does now, her tongue moving inside her mouth, a blind mollusc unfurling.
Lately, Mom has been doing this thing where she slides down her chair toward the ground. Not because she’s weak, but because she is willful. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was embarrassed about us taking our rightful van, that she would rather just give it to the O’Shaughnesseys. I tell her: This is our van! It’s doctor day, remember?
Now don’t melt on me, I say in a stern whisper. Straighten up, Mother. I don’t want Mr. Van Driver to know our business. Him knowing our business is not the way doctor day works.
He comes around the side of the van, which says “HANDICAB” on the side of it to let everyone know there’s a cripple in the back, and stands there. He’s nothing like Jimbo or Ray or the recently fired Steve. They’re halfwits, slow-moving simpletons with cheesy thighs and nervous, guilty smiles. The new guy does not smile. He’s got a layer of acne on his cheeks and pockmarks underneath that. His eyes are brown, round as walnuts, ringed by thick black lashes that remind me in a bad way of Shirley Temple, but he’s got these twitchy lips pressed tight against each other and they are all man to me. He sort of vibrates, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet like he really needs to get going, like he might launch himself at us if we don’t shake a leg.
I take it in stride. I like a cruel streak.
She ready to go? he says with his slit mouth.
By the way, I say, I’m Clarissa. Because why should I tell him my real name? And this—I point to Mom, who’s jabbing her cane in my direction like she’s got a major bee in her bonnet—is Mavis, which I’m sure it says on your roster. He looks at the two of us, rocking back on his heels a little, and I can see he’s wondering if we’re related or if I’m just a decked-out nurse from the agency.
Oh, kay, he says, really slow like he thinks I’m stupid. Hello, Clarissa. Hi there, Mavis. You ready to go?
We three watch the EZ Glide platform descend from the back of the van with all the gravitas it deserves.
Name’s Dennis, he finally mutters.
I know, I say, it’s on your name tag. And the other guys told me about you.
Yeah, he says, they told me about you too.
Oh really, I say, leaning in. There’s a faint chemical whiff of dandruff shampoo and under that a musky smell of unwashed jeans. Well, I wouldn’t believe everything you hear.
He snorts, I think in a good way, and then he’s all business, wheeling Mavis onto the platform and launching her heavenward, strapping her in with the regulation fifteen or twenty different straps. He’s not used to women like me talking to him, I think. Probably makes him nervous.
In the van on the way to His Holiness the Dalai Lama Ambulatory Care Center, I see him glance at the little heart I’ve drawn on my chest in lip pencil. That’s my little heart, I say. Do you like it? And then I shimmy in my seat to let him know I am up for anything he can think of, even if his ass is flat and uninspiring and his arms, now that I’m pointing out problem areas, seem too short for his body.
Yeah, he says, smirking in a way I don’t much care for. Sure.
He turns onto Stark, and I look out the window at the morning dew sparkling on the lawns, one of which features a lemon tree with an unseemly amount of fruit dangling from the branches, like shiny yellow testicles. I wonder what bar Dennis Van Driver will want to go to and whether I’ll decide to drink Scotch or beer. Scotch, probably, because it’s a crisp and Scotchy sort of day. Mom, in her better years, drank gin.
Mom is holding her own in the back, sliding around in her wheelchair when we turn corners. She periodically bangs on the bottom of the van with her cane, which you’d think was a butcher knife the way she tries to stab you with it. My mother is really violent for a cripple. That’s the way we do it, Mavis, I say, filling up the space in front of me with words not pertaining to Dennis Van Driver. I turn around and flash a big gleaming smile for Mom.
Sometimes, and now is one of them, I’ll be going along thinking nothing’s getting through to her, and then she’ll go and give me this one particular look that proves she’s still in there, wishing she could just spit the words out: Kathy, you are a very troubled girl.
At Dalai Lama, everything goes according to plan. After Mom is lowered down on the platform, blinking and dazed like the prize ewe at a livestock auction, I sidle up to Dennis Van Driver and whisper in a hot buttery voice, Give me five minutes.
Then I’m cruising down the catwalk, wheeling Mom through the hospital lobby and down the corridor on the fourth floor, toward the heavy mahogany doors of the neurologist’s office, my heels clicking, my tits jiggling inside their vinyl casing. I make eye contact with every single one of the silent-shoed nurses in their hideous flower-printed scrubs, stare into the smug faces of the doctors with their pharmaceutical freebie pens poised above their clipboards. They all can’t help but look back at me. The big black orderlies are the only ones who smile, shaking their heads like they’ve seen my type a million times. I hold my head up and walk with one foot curving around in front of the other, a movie star glamour walk, and in my head I say, That’s right, assholes, I’ve still got the je ne sais quoi coursing through my veins, even as Mom here slides down into her wheelchair like a bag of chicken parts! Thanks for asking!
Before I know it, we arrive at the waiting room of Dr. Masinovsky, and it all goes smoothly when I lean on the Formica counter and say hi to Shirl, the receptionist. From there, it’s only another minute before Deedee, Mom’s favourite nurse, comes out and calls Mom’s name and says, Hi, Kathy, and I slip five twenties into her waiting hand and she says, See you in a few hours then, and I say, Great, thanks, Deedee. Cute shoes, and then I am free, free, free.
Deedee will make sure Mom gets poked and prodded by Portland’s finest medical practitioners for the next five, six hours. Deedee doesn’t make trouble, because she understands about the unknowns. Because she knows there is a point where you don’t know how long it has been or how long it will be, and there’s no telling where you will end up before it’s over.
So, what should we do now? I say.
We’re sitting in the van, staring out the window at the hospital parking lot. Dennis Van Driver’s face is in constant, unreadable motion.
He says, We?
Yeah, you know. Us two.
Instead of answering, he snorts.
Something funny? I ask. This is not normal, not the usual response at all.
I guess you want to go do pickups with me, he says, staring straight ahead, sort of smiling and cringing in this weird way.
That’d be great, I say. You can look at me, I won’t bite!
I let out a little giggle that comes out sounding like a cough. Let’s drive around picking up the old people together, I say. Won’t that be a nice first date?
Not really, he says. Nope, can’t say that it would.
Huh, I say. O.K., well, what if I told you I’m writing an article for the Oregonian about cripples and old people, a day-in-the-life kind of thing?
Bull crap, he says, turning to look me right in the breasts. I pull his hand toward them, looking him in his vibrating cow eyes. He’s not as excited about it as he should be, since his hand barely grazes my dress before he snatches it back.
Trying again, I say, I’m really good with the old people.
Oh God, he says. Fine. But I am not having relations with you in this van. I am not on that wavelength. There are things I have to take care of.
Are you a homo, Dennis Van Driver? You can tell me if you are. It’s not a foreign concept to me.
He sighs dramatically. Then he says, You want to get out or not?
I look back toward the centre, the towering white monstrosity of it in the clear blue sky. They’re running the incinerator today and it belches out a thick white smoke. The place is like Buchenwald to me.
No, I’ll stay, I say. Just drive.
When we turn onto M.L.K. to pick up the next person on the list, I’m in the middle of telling Dennis Van Driver about a Korean movie I saw on cable. This woman, a midwife, has hundreds of cats she feeds in an alley behind her apartment, and all of a sudden her patients all start giving birth to litters of kittens instead of babies. It was really graphic, I say, and I’m so glad I didn’t have babies and that Hammy, my hamster, isn’t free to go around breeding in alleys, and right when I’m getting to the climax of the movie he interrupts me and tells me to open the glove compartment.
You have pot? I ask.
Better. He pulls out a little baggie of brown dust and starts opening it. Crank, he says. Only the best for the toiling classes.
I am not a member of the toiling classes, I want to say. I am rich, or at least richer than a driver of cripple vans, and if I knew how to drive I would have a Mercedes S550 and you would eat my dust. I can afford to buy drugs that are not the colour and consistency of sawdust. But I say nothing, I just look out the window at an obese woman in a yellow muumuu who has a shiny dark smear where her forehead should be.
Maybe we should take that fat woman to the hospital, I say. Since we’re going that way anyway, I mean.
Only the people on this list go to the hospital! he yells.
O.K., fine, sheesh, I say. No need to get angry. I think of how it would be if we pulled over and he pushed me up against the side of the van, the warm metal buckling under my back. I survey the crappy neighbourhood we’re in: crumbling row houses, a potato-chip bag swirling in the gutter, some empty soda bottles knocking around a weedy driveway. It would be all right out here, I think. It’s not all that different from a bar.
You snort it, he says. Watch. He picks up a key from the dash, dips it in the powder, sticks it in his nostril, and sniffs hard, shuddering a little with the force of it.
Have some, he says.
And then we’re high, and everything is clean and purposeful and solid, with sharp edges and smooth black outlines. At a stoplight, Dennis Van Driver puts his hand back on my breast and squeezes and my nipple mushrooms up to meet his palm, and then he leans over into me and puts his tongue between my teeth. His other hand is up my skirt and clawing at my panties, all knuckles and fingernails, and I’m trying to feel attached to the seat, to stay in the moment, but my skin is starting to crawl a little and it’s hard to concentrate. Still, it’s not all bad.
I thought you didn’t want to have relations, I say, and Dennis Van Driver lets out a big contemptuous snort. Then the cars behind us start to honk and Dennis Van Driver is back on his side of the van, shifting gears and laughing.
Soon we are picking up Chester Mills, and I am ringing the doorbell and looking sideways at Dennis Van Driver, who is one long ugly string of tensed muscles. He seems to be struggling to keep down that malicious laugh of his.
Chester’s wife comes to the door, and she only has what looks like three teeth in her mouth. I hate her immediately.
He don’t want to go, she says, air whistling past the teeth. She’s wearing a pink polyester robe that makes me wonder when the last time was that Chester put a hand in there, put a hand anywhere near her. I want to reach out and yank the sash that’s keeping her body such a goddamned secret.
Chester, get out here, she calls to the recesses of the house, and we stand there blinking at each other. I know just how she feels, but any pity I might have had is replaced with a pure, glowing hate. It’s coming out of my eyeballs, filling up the stoop. I stand there a long time wearing a little grin, watching Chester’s wife scratch her scalp with elaborate finger motions, as though she’s playing the harp.
Finally, the man of the hour comes scraping down the hall and clumps on over to where the wife and me are having our faceoff.
Well? he says. We going or what?
The wife stays behind. She shuts the door before Chester is even in the chair we’ve brought, arranging himself and his legs and his arms just so, putting feet in the foot holders and arms on the armrests and pointing his scraggly chin straight ahead of him with a set expression as if to say, Bring on the next humiliation. Then he gets to looking at me and clears his throat like he has something important he’s getting ready at say, a gem of wisdom.
You are like a living doll, he says, and I can hear the phlegm collected in his throat scratching at the words. Dennis is wheeling him toward the van and he laughs when he hears this, a silent shaking kind of laugh, until there are tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. He’s just a less-wrinkled version of mouldy old Chester, I think. If Chester could unzip his sagging flesh and toss away his old-man’s resignation, angry little Dennis Van Driver would be what emerged.
Why, thank you, Chester. That’s nice of you to say. And it’s nice to meet a man with manners.
I mean, you supposed to look like some kind of fairy tale thing?
I don’t know, I say, putting my hands on my shiny black hips. Do I look like a fairy tale thing?
Something, yeah, he says, falling silent as Dennis Van Driver hoists him up on the platform.
Chester’s in the back not saying a word, and Dennis Van Driver is turning down a bunch of little streets instead of getting back on the freeway. Just need to pick something up, he whispers. And that’s when I realize we’re off doing a drug deal, and I say oh, kay in an icy voice and start thinking about how good it would feel to get Dennis Van Driver fired, how easy it would be, and how maybe I could get Jimbo and Ray fired, too, and it could be a whole new group of drivers and we could all sit around together in a parking lot somewhere and drink malt liquor.
When we pull up to a pink stucco box the size of a pool house, Dennis Van Driver takes the keys and tells me to stay there, he’ll be back in a minute. He is a scrawny little insect man running across the dead lawn to buy some crappy brown meth, and I am his de facto girlfriend. Someone in the little house opens the screen door and Dennis Van Driver goes inside and is gone. That’s when I notice I’m now unbelievably itchy.
Chester and I sit there in the driveway a while, making conversation.
I would like to get the hell out of this van, he says. You’re taking me someplace bad. Oh, we’ll get to your doctor’s appointment in a few minutes, you just sit tight, I say, scratching my chest and thighs, everywhere the dress touches, making long red stripes on my skin.
I’m getting out of here, he says. This is not the doctor’s office!
I don’t really care what you do, Chester, I say, be my guest. The itch is unbearable, and I peel away part of the dress so I can stick my hand down it. The old man mutters for a few minutes before he actually does it. He gets out of the chair and makes his way to the back of the van, jiggling the door handles for a while before pushing them open with a surprised grunt and climbing out onto the street like it’s a jailbreak. He turns around and gives me a little wave.
Bye, Chester, I say, and just like that he’s gone, clumping up the street, his greasy white hair blowing in the breeze as he heads back to where he came from. The van doors swing open and the blue out there is wide as anything, as life itself.
And then I wait and wait and wait.
I think of my bookkeeping job, the windowless little room I sit in adding up columns of numbers. All those zeros imprinted on the insides of my eyelids, stuck there even when I’m sleeping. I think about how Dennis Van Driver is going to come out of the drug house and have a heart attack when he sees Chester halfway down the block. The itch is making it impossible to keep sitting folded up in my seat. I stare at the drug house until it looks wobbly and alive, and finally I think, Fuck it. I dip into the bag one more time with the corner of one of the Handicab business cards and take another burning, eye-watering snort, then I shove my feet back inside my shoes and get myself out of there. Because Dennis Van Driver is nothing to me.
I walk along the sidewalk and feel the sun beating down on my scalp, melting my makeup. I notice there’s a sweaty residue building up between me and the vinyl getup. I turn a few corners and find my way back to M.L.K., and who should be at the bus stop but the fat woman in the muumuu, the one with the shiny gash on her head.
This bus go to Dalai Lama? I ask her. She turns to me and says, Yes, yes, oh yes it does, and what a coincidence because she’s heading there herself. That’s a nice dress, she says next, which makes me laugh, and we spend some minutes talking about fashion and I hear my voice rising and falling in excited waves, tripping over my own thoughts. I can’t get them out fast enough, and she is nodding, nodding, nodding because I am so utterly right about it all.
I get out two stops before the hospital and head over to a sorry-looking row of shops. By now there are angry red bumps forming where my skin meets the edges of the dress. I’m going to get a new outfit and surprise Mom, I decide. I feel very important striding down the sidewalk, squeaking along like nobody in the history of downtown Portland has ever had to perform such a vital errand. I wonder if anyone will notice if I take off the dress right here and now and keep walking in my panties and bra. Someone would probably run out and cover me with a blanket and call the police, and I think of how nice it would be to have a stranger cover me with a blanket, a red plaid throw they wrap around themselves when the store’s chilly in the morning. Like someone saying, Hey, it’s O.K., we all have off days where we end up walking in our panties on the sidewalk, and here’s this blanket which is the first part of the solution.
I spot a little used clothing store and go inside, breathless with anticipation. They’ve got classical music playing and I hum along as I look through racks and racks of musty old clothes, shoving the hangers along the metal bars. Everything is all wrong until, all the way in the back, the last thing I lay eyes on is the absolute right thing, a perfectly soft white cotton dress with a blue boat pattern going all around it. On the deck of each boat is a tiny blue woman, waving farewell with an even tinier blue handkerchief. It’s got a frill at the bottom that flounces when I twirl.
The saleswoman is charmingly frumpy in cat’s-eye glasses and carrot-coloured hair. She has a possibly-fake-but-lovable-all-the-same British accent, so I go ahead and buy a wide-brimmed blue straw hat she shows me and an electric blue purse she calls a clutch, which I like the sound of because it’s so clear about what it is.
I burst out of the store in my new outfit, running my fingernails up and down along my red bumpy rash, and the next logical thing is a drink. Just next door is a diner, and when I peek my head in there is a waitress looking back at me. She smiles, and she is pretty in the way I want to be pretty, with a tiny, old-fashioned waist and a big round ass below it you can tell looks great on a bicycle. And her face! You could eat her face off it’s that good, high forehead and two green eyes under real eyebrows—not a stitch of makeup anywhere. Underneath her skin are shades of blue and gold, evidence of beating blood, of health. She guides me almost wordlessly to a big red booth in the corner, and cars are going by and the sun is twinkling behind me somewhere and because of the way the light is reflected, all of a sudden my face is illuminated in the window and I see it’s the face of a bat, all pinched, with something way off around the eyes, dark pits under and above them. My bat face says a lot of things that are not good, and I think what a shame it is I’ll never get my face back, even when Mom is long gone and everything isn’t up at a tilt the way it is. This will still be my face—even if I get implants and injections and they cut some of the skin away, everything will still show somehow because that’s the way I’m made.
I order a beer and a slice of chocolate cake from the pretty waitress and begin the process of balling it up, but I don’t eat it. I arrange the balls along the table edge in two even lines like chess pieces, and I sit there for a while making sure each ball has precisely the same texture and shape. When I’m tired of that, I slump down into the booth to try to feel what it’s like not to have any bones or muscles, to feel what it’s like to melt. I slide down lower and lower until I’m lying flat on the booth, staring up at the water stains on the ceiling.
I lie there until the light changes, until my limbs feel heavy and thick. My feet seem impossibly far away in their little shoes at the other end of the booth. I reach in their direction—Hello, feet!—and lift the hem of my new dress up until I feel a soft tickle of air on my thighs. The fabric puffs up and slowly settles, the blue boats rustling there in the white cotton water, sailing silently away.