The end of the shift could not come soon enough for Joe Kelly. With luck, the last fare of the day would bring him close to the station, cutting down on the non-fare travel time that always cut into his pay numbers. Too much time on the road without a fare would count against him with the pencil pushers who weighed the cost of fuel and engine wear against the efficiency of the drivers. Joe’s paycheck took a hit if he had more than an hour of non-fare time logged in a week, so on days when he was on the wrong end of town near the end of the shift, he would look for anyone dressed in a suit coat, on the likelihood that they’d be headed toward The Hill, close to his garage, and not down to Southie or out to Jamaica Planes. It was a game he’d perfected over the ten years he’d been driving for UpTown Taxi, thus it was rare his non-fare time ever hit the hour mark.
Today he had been especially pleased with the last fare, the one that brought him all the way out from The Fenway to Faneuil Marketplace. But it wasn’t his skill at fare-spotting that had gotten him home today, it was just luck. The history teacher didn’t fit the game. He wasn’t dressed like the lawyers or the bankers who mostly populated the richer part of town. He wore a simple brown leather bomber jacket – well worn, but not ragged–faded jeans, and his hair was long enough to rest on his collar and cover his eyes in the wind. Joe had almost not stopped for him, but when the man stepped right out into the street, he had no choice. He was about to give the guy a loud lecture on traffic safety, but before he could even open his mouth the man was in the back seat.
But it turned out better than Joe could have ever guessed. What a coincidence, the guy not only took him in the right direction, but he was a teacher at Standish, and had given him a card and an invitation to call.
“You’re out of your mind, Joey,” he muttered to himself, thinking of how he would approach such a phone call. “The guy was just being polite. No one at that school gives a crap about gettin’ Lindy in to their hoity toidy . . .” he pulled up to the garage door and laid on the horn. A young man wearing an oversized orange vest over a shirt with UpTown Taxi stamped across it, and a faded Red Sox cap hopped out of the attendant’s booth and jogged over with a clip-board in hand.
“Hey Joe, whadda ya know,” the kid said, tugging on the brim of his hat. “Another series startin’, you think we got it this year?” He handed Joe the clipboard, a large manila envelope and a key with a round tag with Joe’s taxi numbers on it.
“Every year, Tony. The trick is convincin’ the rest of the league.” Joe unlocked the cash box, pulled the day’s receipts and tucked them into the envelope, then signed the time sheet and handed everything over to Tony.
“The curse is over, man. Mark my words, you heard it here first. Tony knows bo-sox and this is our year . . . again.” Tony looked down at the slip, initialed it, gave a carbon receipt to Joe then clipped the envelope to the front. “Wow, only ten minutes down time today?”
“Yup, it was a good one. Payroll come down yet?”
“Yup. Surprised they made it on time, being Columbus day and all.” Tony pulled a stack of envelopes, bound in a thick rubber band out of the inside pocket of his orange vest, and fanned through the edges until he found Joe’s. “Lucky you. You get the thick envelope this week.”
Joe felt a sudden panic run through his chest as Tony handed him his envelope. “Thick? Oh geez, don’t tell me. Ain’t cuttin’ the fleet are they?”
“Relax, it’s just the annual touchey-feely-management-loves-you-but-can’t-afford-to-give-you-a-raise-letter. You know, like last year.”
“Oh, is that all?” Joe tucked the envelope in his pocket.
“Yeah, I already read mine. Besides, why do you worry? You’re the man with the magic hours.” Another taxi pulled up behind Joe, and honked. Tony gave Joe a pat on the arm then jogged back to his booth. The gate opened, and he waved Joe through.
“Magic hours,” Joe said, laughing to himself as he pulled in to park his taxi for the next shift. “What I really could use is some magic money.”
Getting home was never as easy as getting back to the garage. He’d have to take the T nearly to the end of the line at South Station. He never seemed to mind the irony of his life; he was a man who drove a car for living, yet didn’t own one. He had also never been in a taxi that he was not behind the wheel.
The train was on time for a change; another sign this day was turning out to be a diamond. The lucky streak continued when he got on and found the car nearly empty, and was able to sit down.
With the landscape passing by and the skyline fading behind him, his thoughts turned, as they always did, to his kids. Jimmy would be finished with basketball practice and just about home by now, and Lindy would be helping the little girl in the next apartment with her spelling while they waited for her mom to get home from work–a nice little paying job she took very seriously.
“Good kids, both of them,” he smiled at the thought. “I did good.”
An elderly lady had taken a seat next to him at the last stop. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Hm?” He turned to the lady with a sheepish smile. “I uh, sorta talk to myself.”
“Ah, do you ever answer yourself?”
“All the time,” he admitted with a chuckle.
“You have children?” she asked, pulling a ball of wool and a crochet hook from the large tote she carried.
“Two. Proud of both of ’em. It ain’t easy raisin’ good kids these days.”
“It sure isn’t,” she agreed with a sigh. “I’m glad mine were all grown and moved years ago. I don’t think I’d know how to do it today with all the drugs and violence and. . . I just don’t know how anyone does it.”
“Carefully,” he said. “And a liberal use of Tylenol and ear plugs.”
She laughed. “How old?”
“Both seventeen. Girl and boy. Seniors this year.”
“The hardest year. Any plans for college?”
Joe didn’t know what to answer, and just turned to look out the window. “Pretty sunset.”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t know what gets into me. I just find I like to talk and . . . well, it was not my business to ask. I’m sorry if I pried.”
Joe shook his head with a smile. “Naah, you didn’t pry. It’s just that college thing is sorta hanging over me like a two ton safe waitin’ to fall. But I made a promise and I’ll find a way to keep it.”
She nodded, wrapping the yarn around the crochet hook. “There’s no shame getting help.”
“I’m not ashamed—”
“Oh, there I go sticking my nose in again. Of course you’re not. You just love your children and want to do the best for them. I find that very admirable.”
“I do love them. They’re everything.”
She set the yarn work down and tucked it back into her tote. “My stop is the next one.” She offered her hand. “My name is Millie. Millie Jackson.”
Joe accepted the gesture, being gentle with the fragile looking hand. “Joe. Joe Kelly.”
“I’m glad to meet you, Joe.”
The train pulled to a stop. The doors opened, spilling out passengers to the left, and taking in new ones on the right. Millie stood up just as a young man in a hooded jacket swooped down the aisle, knocking her back to her seat.
Joe turned to reach out for the kid, but stopped dumbfounded to see the young man turn and apologize.
“Geez lady, I’m sorry. I wasn’t watchin. You ok? This your stop? Eddie! Hold the door! Lady needs to get off!”
Another kid, taller, and less friendly looking nodded and stuck his foot in the door.
“Oh, thank you. I don’t know what I’d do if I missed the stop.”
“You be careful now, this neighborhood is hard after dark,” the young man warned her.
“I’m well aware. Thank you, and thank you, Eddie,” she said as she passed through the door.
When she had cleared the door, Eddie let it close, then gave a nod to the other kid.
Joe watched a silent correspondence pass between them, and shook his head. They were good, but he’d seen it a thousand times. He didn’t drive a taxi in Boston and not learn some street smarts after all and he was fairly certain that one of these young men had just gained possession of Millie’s wallet.
He didn’t like the thought of the old lady alone without her wallet, and even though it wasn’t his habit to be heroic, he thought maybe he could pull the emergency brake and get off to find her. The train hadn’t started to move yet, so he glanced out the window and was startled to see her standing below his window, smiling up at him.
“There’s always a way, Mr. Kelly! Make that phone call!”
“Millie! Check your. . ” he turned, startled with himself for being so stupid as to warn the old woman by shouting when the thugs were still on the train. But they weren’t. In fact he was all alone again. He hadn’t heard the door open, or seen the two get off. He looked around up and down, but he was alone. He looked down to the platform, panicked that the kids had gotten off the train and were now going after her, but there was no one to see. The platform was completely deserted as the train pulled away.