Short Story

These Things Happen

Andy was licking his thumb every few minutes, getting some friction, turning the thin sheets of the Yellow Pages. On the kitchen counter were these objects: his elbow;, the book I already mentioned; a cutting board that had once floated in some dishwater and was suffering a yawning split halfway down its length; crumbs from something or the other; and a short drink of Scotch. It was ten o’clock in the evening, so the Scotch was all right. Who would deny a man a Scotch at that time of night?

From the Yellow Pages, Andy was gathering ideas. He needed another job, what with the second kid coming. His wife was pretty close to bringing the new one into the picture; Jean was seven months swollen, and, like the other child they had built together, this one would suck its first breath in the air of their house. 

They thought this way of doing the birth was best. Jean was a nurse, and had discovered that a lot of obstetricians stuck to their personal notions about how everybody should act when it came down to labor and birth. So Jean and Andy did it at home, made babies and had them there, too. This was an act of bravery; it was really her bravery, of course. Her courage was established out of the same stuff that makes those fish thrash their way up from the ocean to the certain stream that is their spot for taking care of life and death. Nothing stops them, I’ve seen it, and while these fish are fighting their way uphill a sheen simmers above the water, highlighting their act of faith. It’s the same halo men see as the glow on their pregnant wives. 

I was talking about the Yellow Pages, and the ideas in there. Andy thought about what he knew how to do, which was plenty, and he compared that with the advertisements for all the services offered in the book. 

One thing was, he knew how to drive. He’d been getting paid pretty well for wrestling blue busses through memorized routes. It was a job for the moment, until something better reared its head, and he thought since he had the special license, he might as well put it to use. He took a drink from the glass, and pinched a half-inch or so of the pages together to fast-forward to the L’s. He had been in the E’s, and nothing there had anything to do with driving anyway. 

Under the book hid a piece of a bread crust, about the size of a fruit fly, say. The weight of the extra pages moving over to the crumb’s side of the book’s spine was just enough to dust it into powder. The sound it made was too weak to be heard by anyone. The bread that spawned the crumb had enjoyed its gestation within the clean white belly of one of those automatic bread-making machines. Sure, there is something less of the human touch there. The kneading is done with the sweat of whatever makes electricity, and not with the sweat of Jean, or even Andy. But still, fresh bread. The house billowed with the smell of it most mornings.

Jean walked into the kitchen. It was narrow, the space between the sink and the counter where Andy leaned, and her belly, their child, rasped against his rear as she passed. This sort of thing occurred more often now. He wasn’t sure if the touch was always an accident, a slight female misjudgment of her increasing diameter. Maybe there was something more basic to it, like magnetism. He was right to think there were other reasons for the rub. She knew what she was doing.

What she was doing in the kitchen, though, was getting something to drink from the refrigerator. Andy heard a rattling of condiment bottles as the rubber seal of the appliance gave up its grip. He turned to her.

“Wouldn’t go to sleep?” he said.

“She was fussy. She wouldn’t go down unless I let her lie in our bed.” Jean poured some dark green tea into a glass, replaced the pitcher in the fridge, and sipped. 

“You’re almost out of that,” he said. “I’ll make some more for you in a minute.” He noticed some things about her. For starters, the tea. It was a tonic, you could say. Wrung from the leaves of raspberries and stinging nettles, it did what needed to be done for the blood and organs of a woman in her condition. The Indians knew about it, and so did others.

He also noticed places on her body. How could he not? There weren’t any parts of her he hadn’t thought about, or kissed. He was able to smell the warm oils of her skin even when he wasn’t with her. And her hair, the darkness of it, held stories neither of them yet understood. 

“You’re looking in the Yellow Pages?” she said.

“I’m looking for something. Another job,” he said. “Remember? We agreed, as long as it’s part-time.” He moved back toward the counter.

“I remember. Of course I remember,” she said. “What’d you find?”

Andy hooked an arm around her middle and danced her to his side. He slid his index finger in circles across the page as if the point of the finger were a roulette ball, and the page was the wheel. Inside of her, the child grew a tiny bit, an even expansion in all directions. The child was a girl, and she could hear her parents’s voices, even then. 

Andy’s finger slowed, and the circle it traced diminished in circumference. It finally stopped in the middle of a small red square near the center of the page. The printing within the square was black, and the largest of the letters, at the top of the ad, spelled out ‘Sapphire Limousine Service’. This was the job he had chosen, just like that, and this was company th¯at would hire him. 

“Sapphire Limousine,” she said. “You’ll drive a limousine.”

“Yes,” he said.

Jean lifted her glass of tea toward Andy. He met her glass with his own, then snaked his forearm around hers, intertwining elbows. They drank their drinks. They were that much in love.

Some time had passed. I’m not sure exactly how much. The new child hadn’t come around yet, so it couldn’t have been more than six weeks. Andy bought a secondhand black suit, a tuxedo, really, from a store in their city. The clothing had absorbed as much merriment as it could hold, what with years of weddings and dances. But it was a good enough tuxedo to wear in the front seat of a limousine. Not crisp enough for getting married in. But for driving, yes.

The guy who rented the stretch limousine for this particular night lived in an apartment. There were no numbers on the doors in the building. Someone’s oversight, probably. Not every detail in life can be looked after. Andy had, from the limo, called the phone number on the run sheet and asked the client what the plan was for the evening. Donny McCracken, who was the guy, said that they, this girl and him, just wanted to drive around a bit, visit some friends maybe. He said he did this a couple times a month. Andy thought driving around in a limo, at sixty bucks an hour, was a stupid way to spend money. He didn’t say this to McCracken. 

Standing in front of what he supposed was the door to McCracken’s apartment, Andy smelled marijuana. Unmistakable. Andy knew some things about drugs, and not just marijuana. That’s not this story, though.

The dope was a clue, and a good one. Andy knocked on the door, twice, loudly, and announced the name of the limo company so there would be no misunderstanding about what kind of uniform was being worn out there in the hall. A tuxedo was all. 

The apartment was darkened by small vertical strips of metal attached to a frame surrounding the windows. Not much light squeaked in, but there was enough. The living room looked as if it had seen a lot of living. There were things that hadn’t been put away, more than a few. Plates without mates. A green plexiglass bong, standing three feet tall. Four empty wine bottles, arranged on a bookshelf that had never held books. The labels on the bottles spoke of no special pedigree. 

There were two girls sitting on the floor, and they appeared to be young and easily influenced. They sported expectant looks, as if they wanted to be influenced or, otherwise, as if they wanted someone to call the police, or their mothers. Stuck to the top of the coffee table were plastic glasses containing the dried beards that marked the decline of beer foam. In places like this it seemed important that everybody had a lock on their bedroom door. In the kitchen, nothing much got cooked.

McCracken shook Andy’s hand. Before his pupils contracted to match the light, Andy kicked over a glass of something. He thought about how such a thing might affect his tip, but McCracken didn’t mind at all.

“Fuck it,” he said. “Happens all the time. Don’t worry about it.” He was in a celebratory mood. This one girl was going riding in a limousine with him.

“We usually like to get the business taken care of first thing,” Andy said. He slid his clipboard onto the top of the television. There was nothing on. “That way, you can just have fun. You don’t have to worry about keeping enough money to pay for the ride.” In this, limousine drivers are much like prostitutes. 

“Sure,” McCracken said.

“Six hours at sixty per?” Andy said.

“Sounds good, bro’. For starters. We’ll see what happens,” McCracken said. He weaseled an envelope out of his vest, and counted the money over to Andy. Some of the bills were sharply creased, not yet relaxed from being folded into unusual shapes. 

McCracken said, “There’s more where that came from,” as if he were the sole possessor of that information.

“We’ll take care of the tip at the end of the night, if that’s what you’d like to do,” Andy said. “The company suggesits twenty percent if you’re happy with the service.” Twenty percent of three-hundred and sixty dollars is seventy-two dollars. Andy had learned the tips tend to be better if they’re collected after the clients have had their fun. The trick is to keep an eye on their money clips so they don’t spend it all before the night is gone. 

McCracken tightened an elastic ring holding his hair in a pony-tail. One of the girls sitting on the floor rolled onto her side and then stood, as if McCracken’s hair maneuver had been a signal to her. At this point, there’s no way to tell if it had been or not. It happened, and that was that. She was up and ready to go.

I’ll tell you about the limo, because this was when they got in. It was a white-on-white 1985 Lincoln Town Car. Between the back of the front doors and the front of the back doors, an extra six feet of sheet metal had been added by some people in Kentucky. This is the reason the word stretch means something here. The inside of the passenger cabin was done up in leather the color of dried blood, in case there was a nosebleed, or a fight. The Kentucky people had included a television that didËn’t receive very much in the way of programming. Who would want that? Would you watch TV with bad reception in a moving vehicle at sixty bucks a show? You wouldn’t. But you’d want to keep your beer cold, and there was a place to do that, under a mirrored lid, of all things.

Romance had been considered, too. There were clear plastic conduits, like IV tubes, strung around the ceiling. They contained a series of tiny light bulbs, so small you could barely imagine them. These were controlled by a dimmer switch, set into a panel that also held the knob for the radio, the knob for the moon-roof, and the knob that raised a carpeted panel which sealed off the driver from the passengers. This last knob was the one that got the most use.

McCracken and the girl were in the back, and they were getting to know the knobs and such. McCracken said the girl’s name was Angela. He also said, “How about stopping at the party store?”

Andy nosed the big thing into a parking lot and opened the door‹ for McCracken, treating him like a celebrity or something. The potential tip made him do it. After loading up on drinks and ice, and some snacks in bags, McCracken said they were going to Jackson to visit some of his people. 

Jackson was another place altogether. An hour would get them there, and an hour would get them back, and that left four hours. I don’t know any decent people in Jackson. There’re probably some living there, but I don’t know any of them. Andy didn’t know any people there at all, decent or not.

There are no coincidences. Would you believe that on the way to Jackson McCracken saw one of his people and some of her kids in a van driving in the lane next to the limo? These things happen. There she was, one of his people, and McCracken asked Andy to pull up alongside the van so he could wave at this woman, smile at her, and scream out that here he was, in a limo, McCracken, and he was on his way to visit her in Jackson. 

But the woman was in no mood for waving at limousines. That much was obvious. What was also obvious was that the three or four kids in the back of the van were not happy, like the woman. One of them was hitting another with a well-worn Barbie. The doll’s hair had stranded into the sort of scalp orchard you might see on the forehead of an ego-pocked businessman. The third or fourth child emitted soundless shrieks, her mouth locked into an upper-case O. Their Dodge van raged down the highway, draping the road with shards of steely smoke, as if it, too, was out of sorts. 

The woman wouldn’t look in any direction other than the one in which she was headed. She seemed single-minded in this. After a while, McCracken gave up trying to get her attention. He fidgeted with the knobs and buttons. There was a sense of disappointment inside the big car then. A moment of some kind had been lost there on the highway.

Now they were in Jackson. McCracken navigated the car, calling out directions from the back, then firing up the volume on the radio until the moment just before another turn. Then he’d whip down the volume and navigate again. Angela hadn’t said much so far. There’d be more to her later in life, though she wouldn’t remember the ride in the limousine until she was invited to ride in another one for the purpose of going to a cemetery to watch someone, her mother, I think, get lowered into the dirt.

The neighborhood into which Andy was driving McCracken and Angela was not one that shared its streets with limousines very often. This Andy understood from the reactions of the residents. A middle-aged woman screamed like a child when the car rolled past her porch. Another hiked her skirt as some sort of payment for a ride. On most of the street corners there were knots of young men who were not up to anything good for the community.

McCracken said Andy should pull up in front of such and such a house, and they’d wait there for a few. Angela had to pick up some things and change clothes, he said. Andy got out of the car and stepped to the rear. He opened the door and let the girl out, then got back into the driver’s seat.

“What do you think?” McCracken said.

Andy thought he should keep the engine running. “About Angela?” he said.

“Yeah. Of course about Angela,” McCracken said. “She’s hot.”

“Well. How about that,” Andy said.

“I met her at a club I was playing at here. Did I tell you I was the drummer for the Dukes of Disorder?” he said. “I brought her back to my place. We did it all over the apartment.”

“Great,” Andy said.

McCracken said, “We’re going to pick up a girlfriend of hers. Drive around some more.” McCracken lowered his voice. “Did I tell you that Angela is bi? She might do it with her girlfriend. So I can watch. Or else we’ll go to the clubs. Me and two girls.” He draped an arm over the divider. “This is going to be a hell of a night.”

Andy smiled and said something mildly encouraging, something that Ωwould let his client know he was happy for him. He started to wonder how old Angela was, and how he would feel if he could know, right then, whether one of his own daughters would someday find herself in the company of a man like McCracken.

 Andy dug into the side pocket of his jacket for a cigarette and lit it. The phone rang, and he snapped it from the pedestal rising from the floor of the car.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi. It’s me,” Jean said.

Andy said to McCracken, “It’s my wife. If you’ll excuse me.” He stretched his arm up to the front of the ceiling, near the window, and powered the carpeted divider shut. “Hi,” he said.

Jean said, “Just thought I’d call to let you know. I think it’s started,” she said.

Andy threw the cigarette out the window and pressed the silver tab to close it. “How frequent?”

“Thirty minutes, maybe a little less. Like I said, they just started. They’re not very strong, either. We still have a lot of time.” Jea˝n sounded as though she meant what she said. “Where are you?”

“Jackson,” he said. He clicked on the radio to cover his conversation. “I’m in Jackson. I’m waiting for this guy’s girlfriend to change clothes or something. I don’t know.” Andy said, “You want me to come home? I could try to call Steve and see if he could finish the run.”

“No. Don’t do that. Like I said, they’re not very strong. Just warming up. There’s no reason to call Steve.” Jean said.

Across the street, Angela was walking toward the car. Have I described her yet? Five-foot five or thereabouts, one-fifty-ish. Hair that was short on the sides with a mushroom-shaped top. The haircut gave her head the look of male anatomy. Not attractive, but so what? McCracken seemed to like her well enough.

“Just tell me,” Andy said. “I’ll come home now if you need me. I’ll call up someone and have them drive these guys around all night if they want. I don’t care.”

Jean said, “My mom’s here. I’m OK. She’s taking care of things.” As if in confirmation, Andy heard some rattling of household goods in the background. Pots, cooking things. “I’ll call you if they change at all, I promise.”

“All right,” Andy said. Angela had returned to the back of the limo, and McCracken was motoring the divider down. 

“Promise you’ll call if it changes,” Andy said.

“I already did,“ Jean said. “I’ll call. Bye, and be careful. I love you.”

Andy said goodbye, and that he loved her too, but there was some interference on the phone and Jean didn’t hear him.

“Everything cool, bro’?” McCracken said. He had lowered the divider. Andy saw McCracken’s face in the mirror, next to Angela’s. They were sitting that close together back there. Angela had changed her clothes, but the hair was the same. Andy told them his wife was in labor, but the contractions had just started. Angela was interested in the information, and wanted to know more about the delivery plans. McCracken slunk down into the bench and rolled another joint.

This was how the rest of the time in Jackson was spent. McCracken navigated to a certain street corner, and three young men caught sight of the car. McCracken lowered the window and yelled something at them. It doesn’t matter what. You think of something. They climbed into the car, and McCracken sent the divider up to the ceiling. Andy heard muffled conversation, some laughing, and then the men left. Andy lowered the divider, turned in the seat, and told McCracken it was !all right to smoke a little pot in the back, to have a few beers if they wanted, but there would’t be anything else going on. Those were the rules, he said. He told McCracken he knew what was what, that he had spent enough years in certain occupations to know the smell of commerce in narcotics. 

“Don’t worry,” McCracken said. “They’re just some old friends of mine. I used to live here,” he said. “Right around here. Relax. Besides, I just want to see two more people. And who’s paying the bill here, anyway?” he said. “We’re here, we’re picking up some shit, and then we’re heading out to Detroit. Angela maybe wants to see if a friend of hers there wants to go for a ride in the limo, too. Right, Angela?” he said.

The first of the last two people Andy took McCracken to see was the woman from the van, who was home now. She seemed pleased when the limo greased its way up to her driveway. For an instant she might have thought this was some sort of prize patrol from a sweepstakes or something. Despite living in Jackson, she still had hope. But it wasn’t her ship coming in, of course, it was just McCracken. He was her second nephew, related as much in tragedy as in genes. 

McCracken introduced her to Andy, who was polite. It was a big part of the job. He was also polite to the older black man who got a forty-minute ride out into the country, just driving around, looking at the houses with yards and what not. To Andy there seemed to be no connection between these people, as if they were merely names gathered from a hat in some gift-giving exercise.

Andy and Jean had a midwife, bought and paid for. They weren’t careless about this matter. Wanting it to be done right was what was on their minds. Andy had talked with the midwife several times about how it was to be done. She would sit off to the side, maybe offer some comments here and there, but it was to be Andy’s job to bring the child into the world. His would be the hands that first felt the thrum of life from this watery thing.

Jean was getting everything set, moving with determination and know-how. All the preparations had been covered: sterile scissors for cord-cutting, a knit cap for the child, simple foods and juices. The midwife was on call, but wouldn’t be needed until tomorrow morning, afternoon maybe. There was a combination of herbs that was to be brewed up and poured into the tub; a bath for Jean and the baby. 

Andy called Jean on the way to Detroit. He was closer to home then, closer than Jackson. He could have turned back and dropped McCracken and Angela off at McCracken’s apartment. After all, he had told them his wife was starting up, that it was getting closer.

“What’s happening now, hon?” he said. The cruise control was on, and Andy was steering with his knee while he poured a coffee from his thermos.

“Well, we’re getting there,” she said. “I mean, it’s not emergent or anything, but I’m progressing.”

“I’m supposed to be done with this at eleven or so. I won’t go overtime. How’s Gabby?” he said. Gabby was two then, and acted it.

“My mom’s reading to her. It’s really all right here. I’d tell you otherwise,” she said. “I don’t want you to miss anything, you know that.”

“Just tell me what to do,” he said. In saying this he was mistaken. It was a time in his life when he needed not to be told.

“Call me in an hour. If things have heated up, you can get Steve or somebody to do the rest of the run.” Jean’s voice thickened and her breathing seemed concentrated.

“Are you having one now?” Andy said.

There was a moment with only the sounds of highway noise and the sizzle of the phone.

“Yes,” she said. “But it’s almost over.” The insistent shriek of Ozzy Osborne leaked from the back of the bid car. “OK. It’s done now,” she said.

“I’m going to drop these two off and get home,” Andy said.

“No,” Jean said. “Call me in a little bit.”

“Well. All right,” he said. “OK. Hang in there, I’ll be home in a few hours.”

McCracken wasn’t sure anymore how to get what he wanted out of the evening, or out of Angela. This driver was laying too much on him, he thought. Jackson had been tricky; some bad business had gone down, and Angela was getting all interested in this crap about where this and that baby was going to be born, and isn’t it wonderful they’re having it at home, and she kept moving away from him on the seat, and this is shit. Here he was, forking out the cash for a limo ride. She should be giving him what he wanted. That’s the long and short of the situation, he thought. Even the coke he had picked up in Jackson wasn’t getting to her.

“Let’s do some more of this,” he said. The divider was shut tight and he was ready to try again. “Let’s do more of this stuff. I bought it for us.”

“It’s making my nose burn too much,” she said.

“Then let’s fool around. You ever get it in the back of a limo before?” he said.

“Do you think we should just tell him to take us back to your place? We could just go back there and then I wouldn’t have to worry that we’re messing up his baby’s birth,” she said. “I promise I’ll be more fun there. At your place.”

“Fuck that. I hired the limo for six hours. He’s just the driver. He’s working for me. I should kick his ass, you want to know the truth. Besides, he‘s got the phone. If his old lady really needs him, she can call, can’t she? Can’t she just pick up the fucking phone and call him? She should be in the fucking hospital anyway, if she’s having a baby. Jesus,” he said. “C’mon. I wanted this to be real special for us, and it’s turning out to be shit.” McCracken ran his hand along Angela’s thigh.

There was something changing in Angela, though. It would take a while for it to take hold, but there was an effect like that of a membrane around her eyes becoming less opaque. For tonight, she felt it as a vague uneasiness, something that was keeping her from doing what she was used to doing, what McCracken wanted her to be doing. She wasn’t having fun, and it was an unusual feeling for her. 

She’d get over it later. McCracken was persistent, and they’d stop for another twelve pack on the way back from Detroit. The coke wouldn’t burn her nose quite so much as it did before. As before, they’d do it all over the apartment, though she wouldn’t do it with her girlfriend tonight, the other girl was nowhere to be found, and Angela would never do it with another girl while McCracken watched. He’d have to look elsewhere for that. 

This is how the rest of the night went. Andy got them all back into town, after driving McCracken and Angela around for forty minutes through downtown Detroit. It didn’t seem to Andy that they were having a whole lot of fun back there. That was all right with him; he thought he and Jean could spend the rest of the night feeling the baby as it rattled its way into the world. He would rub his wife’s back, and get juice and pillows, he thought. When the time came to touch the warm head of his child his hands would be clean and welcoming. 

When he was at McCracken’s apartment, in the parking lot, the phone in the limo rang, and the caller said, “I think you’d better get here right now. It’s really coming fast. Oh my god,” the voice said. It was Jean’s mother. Then she said, “I’ve gotta go.” Andy heard, in the moment just before the connection closed, the roar of his wife’s voice, a sound he had heard before. 

McCracken was weeding around in the back of the car, looking for something. Andy tossed the phone onto the floor and opened the back door of the limousine. “It’s over. The ride is over now. I’m going. I’ve gotta go; the baby’s coming.” Andy said. Still, he thought about the tip.

McCracken didn’t move fast enough, so Andy yanked him out by the arm. The tip was history now. You just don’t do that to your customers.

“Your fucking hands off me,” McCraµcken said.

“It’s been a pleasure; thanks for choosing Sapphire,” Andy said.

“Angela said, “Make sure to call us and let us know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“Who cares?” McCracken said.  

Andy vaulted into the front seat and mashed the accelerator. The tires didn’t squeal, and somehow that disappointed him. He got the limo back to its parking spot in six minutes. 

He left the keys under the mat and sped through four red lights on the way home. He got his car up to ninety-five on the highway. I’ll let you know now that what McCracken couldn’t find in the back of the limousine was found the next day by the owner of the company. What he couldn’t find was his gun. McCracken had hidden it on the rear ledge of the limo, in a small compartment designed by the people in Kentucky to hold a box of tissues. Things get tense in Jackson sometimes.  

When Andy was two minutes away from his house, Jean roared again, the fiercest of the night, and the child was born. 

Can all of this be understood as a logical sequence of events? You have to ask yourself. A child is conceived and bathes in the watery sounds of its parents as they live a life together. The Yellow Pages are consulted, and the outcome is a limousine waiting to be driven on a particular night to a series of particular destinations. The energies of all of this accrete until a man and a woman who should be together are not, and a man and a woman who should not be together are. I tell you the way it was, and the way that I think it will someday be, and that’s the best I can do. If there’s more to the story I don’t know what it is.

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