Eric Lunden is sitting on the baggage belt with James Blake, waiting for the next flight to arrive. They haven’t renovated this end of the building yet, and the belt is a relic, a conveyor with swiveling plates that hooks through the baggage room and disappears under a sail the midcoast poster. Eric and James are sipping coffee and shooting the breeze – traffic’s heavy for this early, the new Avis girl is a fox – while keeping an eye out that some wise guy doesn’t sneak in and hit the on button that sends the belt lurching into motion. Those twisty plates can do some damage.
After a while an elderly dude comes ambling up with his two-wheeler, which means the Maine Air flight is going to land shortly, which is their cue to get outside. They ease to their feet and head for the doors, two rangy young guys almost exactly the same size.
Eric says “Tate,” to the skycap, and the old-timer says “Eric,” right back, with a nod. Then he turns to James and says “Brother,” and they bump knuckles. The two cabbies push through the double doors and Eric says, “Huh.”
James laughs a little.
They cross to the taxi stand – James is number one, and Eric two – and drape themselves against James’s front fender. It will take a few minutes for the plane to actually land and for the people to claim their bags and come outside. This early it’s mostly suits coming to town on business. Once in a while an early-rising family. No tourists until mid-morning, generally speaking.
Eric doesn’t mind dawdling there. He and James have become amigos all over again, twenty years later, and it’s nice, standing there in shirtsleeves in the sunlight that comes at a slant across the river and settles itself over the airport like a softly shaken blanket. There’s a little breeze kicking dust devils along the terminal lane. After a while Eric looks over and says, “About all that brother stuff.”
“What took you so long?” James says.
“I had to think about it.”
James snorts. They often snort at each other.
“No, really,” Eric says. “Am I not a cabbie?”
“Can’t deny it.”
“And listen, was I not a skycap, too?”
“Rumor has it.” James looks into his coffee cup, takes a quick sip.
“If you prick me, do I not bleed?”
James rolls his eyes because he knows Eric is showing off. He’s way more educated than Eric—has a master’s in comparative lit from Columbia, and taught for a while at Colby. But he also turned out to be someone who couldn’t hack academia, which is why he’s back in town, temporarily driving taxi for Stormin’ Norman Lavin.
“And where do I abide?” Eric says.
James doesn’t bother to answer.
The fact is Eric has been staying with James at his father’s rooming house. How Eric ended up there was, he came back to Maine to see his mother and brother on a lark, and when that went better than expected, he decided to go crazy and look up the old man, too. But Johnny Lunden was at the Togus VA facility, drying out, which meant Eric had to hole up somewhere if he was going to wait, which he decided to do because it had taken him almost a decade to decide to come back, and who knew when he’d work up the ambition to try it again.
He ran out of money after a couple of weeks, and Early Blake – James’s father – helped get him in at the airport. He lugged baggage, then jumped to a cabbie job. When James reappeared it was a surprise, but they reconnected over a few games of backyard hoop – they’d always had similar games: made the smart pass, played serious D, weren’t gunners – and then when James began driving too – he needed something mindless to do for a while – they were together a lot, just like the old days.
“That’s all well and good,” James says now.
“But . . . ?”
“There’s context involved.”
“Well,” James says, “one’s heritage.”
“As to that,” Eric says, “who really knows any more?”
“Most folks have an idea.”
Eric puts an arm next to James’s. He’s a bit olive-y anyway, and likes his sun. He shakes his arm to emphasize the scant difference.
“Are you making some kind of a point?” James says.
“A family of Nordics,” Eric says, “and I show up.”
“So there was an Italian in the woodpile.”
Eric takes his arm back. “One day,” he says, “I closed the bar at the Trade Winds, and I was walking across the parking lot when these two assholes came out of one of those street-level rooms, yelling the N-word.”
James raises his eyebrows. “At you?”
“Huh,” James says. “So what happened?”
“When they got close one of them said, ‘Hey, you ain’t a—!” Eric makes a nasty face to indicate the word he’d stopped using, even in jokes, a few years back. “Then they turned around and went back to their room.”
“Crestfallen, no doubt,” James says.
“Crushed,” Eric says.
“Poor lads,” James says. “Racists have feelings too, you know.”
“Anyway, the point is—”
“The point is, it was dark out and they were probably drunk.”
They work on their coffee. Pretty soon the Maine Air twin lands and rolls out and taxis toward the terminal. They’re the only scheduled carrier that comes into Baxter, a little commuter that flies Cessnas back and forth to Boston.
“Another time,” Eric says, and James groans.
“No, listen. I’m walking back from the store with a six-pack, and this girl I happen to know is going the other way, and it seems like she’s purposefully not looking at me, so when we’re about to pass I reach out and grab her arm. She jumps a foot. ‘Oh, my God!’ she says, ‘I thought you were some black dude.’ ”
“Well!” James says. “No wonder she jumped.”
“She didn’t mean it like that. Anyway, the point is—”
“Yeah, I know,” James says. He takes a final slurp of coffee, walks the empty cup across to the trash can. There’s a paperback sticking out of his back pocket. He and Eric are both notorious for reading in the cabs—it drives Lavin crazy—but James’s books are apt to have the word treatise on their covers, while Eric’s tend more toward busty blondes and revolvers.
James comes back and the old baggage belt starts up—you can hear it lurching and clanking into gear—and Eric warns, “I got more,” as he drifts down to his own cab to wait.
“I was afraid of that,” James says.
After ten minutes the clatter shuts down and people start coming outside. First are a couple of old ladies, arms linked, dragging suitcases on wheels. Seeing James in the number-one spot, they veer toward Eric, smiling like harpies.
“Sorry, ladies,” Eric says. “That other gentleman is first.”
James snorts under his breath. One of the old ladies rolls her eyes over toward him and then back to Eric, staring fixedly, trying to will him into some kind of tribal understanding.
“No problem, ladies,” James calls over. “It’s perfectly all right.”
“Absolutely not!” Eric protests. “I wouldn’t think of it!”
It’s all bullshit, of course. James is pretending to be unflappable, and Eric is feigning righteousness, but actually neither wants anything to do with the old ladies because whoever transports them will inevitably have to hump their bags up three flights of stairs into a place that smells like stale crumpets and old cat litter in exchange for a minuscule tip, if any. Eric has the leverage, though, because James is first up, so when he marches them over and more or less stuffs them into James’s cab, James can’t do anything about it.
“There you go, brother,” Eric says.
James smirks. He walks around the front of the car and gets in behind the wheel. He looks over his shoulder and says, “To the Ritz, ladies?”
“What?” one of the old ladies honks. “No!”
James puts the cab in gear and pulls out into the lane. He leans sideways and throws the meter as they head off. Eric gets into his own cab and moves it up to the first position. When two suits come out of the terminal, heading his way, he scrambles to get the door for them. They walk right past, though—they’ve got somebody waiting in the temporary lot—without even an apologetic glance.
Eric throws the door shut a little harder than necessary.
“Excuse me?” someone says then.
This skinny kid is dragging a big case on wheels with one hand and holding a duffel over his shoulder with the other. Eric looks around, hoping one of the Vietnamese cabbies might be pulling in. They’re usually happy to take anybody at all. If Eric was to walk down and say, “You want this kid?” they’d jump at the chance and maybe even thank him in the process. But they’re not around, so it looks like the joke might be on Eric. Kids traveling solo are even worse tippers than nasty old ladies. Eric imagines James will have a good laugh when he hears who Eric ended up with.
Or with whom I ended up, Eric will have to say, or James will correct him.
“Excuse me, sir?” the kid says again. “Could you take me home?”
Eric looks a little more carefully at him. Blond hair, nice teeth. Sometimes you can’t tell because they all dress alike—this kid has cutoff jeans and a Red Sox T-shirt—but then you hear them speak and revise your original estimation. “Okay,” he says. He pops the trunk and wrestles the big case in. “Oof!”
The kid laughs. “Sorry.”
“That makes two of us,” Eric says. “What the heck are you smuggling?”
“Just my cello.”
Eric’s mental cash register dings. He puts the other bag in and goes for the door. The kid asks if he can ride in front, and that’s usually a no-no, but Eric doubts this kid is going to be much of a threat. This little rich kid home from music camp. He projects a big tip for delivering the family scion home safely. His imagination takes over then, and he pictures Mommy the nubile trophy wife, coming out to pay in her bathrobe, fresh from a steamy shower, all pink and moist and probably halfway to a self-induced climax because her aging and fabulously wealthy husband has run off to the hedge fund office with barely a backwards glance.
Eric throws the meter. “Camden?” he says. “Chestnut Street, perhaps?”
The kid looks at him. “How’d you know?”
“Not allowed to tell,” Eric says happily. “Trade secret.”
They pull into the terminal lane and roll out to the River Road. Eric drives up to Baxter and cuts across to Route 1. He stops at the intersection across from the Elks Club, and while they’re waiting, remembers asking James if he wanted to go over for a swim after work – Eric had a guest pass – and the way James had looked at him, as if he had two heads.
“The Elks Club?” James said. “Serious?”
It took Eric a moment. “You can’t swim there?”
“Is there a Sons of the Confederacy nearby?” James said. “Maybe we could drop in for lunch afterwards.”
Eric apologized, but James threw him to the wolves anyway when they walked into the office to cash out, telling Lavin all about his innocent invitation. Lavin thought it was pretty funny. He barked out a laugh and rasped: “Can I go too?” around his omnipresent, unlit cigar. “Hey, go get Trang,” he said. “See if he and his old man want to come along. We’ll invade the sonofabitches!”
It still makes Eric cringe, but then there’s a break in the traffic and he whips the cab out onto Route 1 and heads for Camden. About halfway there, the kid says, “How did you guess Chestnut Street, anyway?”
“It was the cello.”
The kid smiles and looks out the window. They pass the new McDonald’s and run along past the hospital and through Rockport and on to Camden. They go into town to the five-way intersection and double back onto Chestnut Street.
Riding up the hill, Eric looks out at the harbor and all the jutting masts. A block further and they’re smack-dab in the high-rent district, impressive old homes rising on both sides of the elm-lined street.
“Tell me when,” Eric says.
“Right there,” the kid says, pointing at a tall Victorian with a colonnaded porch, huge bay windows, fancy scroll-worked eaves, and a wide lawn stretching downhill toward the water.
The gate is open so Eric drives on in. He takes them to the top of the drive and the kid says “Keep going,” pointing to an offshoot that leads around the corner of the house.
“What, the servants’ entrance?”
The kid looks at him. “Pretty much.”
They follow the drive to a smaller place, built in the same style as the big house. Probably the carriage house originally, and Eric gets why the kid thinks it’s funny. His fantasy starts to fade.
“Home, sweet home,” the kid says.
They get out and Eric wrestles the cello out of the trunk.
“My mom will pay you.”
Eric hands him the duffel and follows him onto the porch and inside. The kid takes the cello case and sort of runs it into a corner of the hallway and throws his other bag down and scampers off. Eric looks through the doorways flanking the entryway. You can tell the place was pretty fancy back in the day, but it’s plainly furnished now. After a bit, the kid and his mother come back. She turns out to be your plain, ordinary mom in her thirties, tired-looking, a little rushed. She’s nice enough, though, and gives Eric a decent gratuity.
You never can tell.
Eric walks outside and the kid follows.
“My mom works for the rich folks,” he says. “That’s who paid for music camp. Braces, too,” he adds, showing his teeth. He watches Eric get in the cab and waves, sort of clumsily, the way kids do.
Eric waves back and drives down Chestnut.
He doubles back through town, thinking about the kid and his mom. Then he uses the rest of the ride to rehearse a story for James, the one he was getting ready to tell when the flight came in. He wants to get the details right.
It’s a good story, he thinks. He could start with him quitting his family and escaping to Florida, but he maybe he’ll skip that part and go right to when he ran out of money and got caught stealing food. From there on it’s really good—how they took him into a back room at the grocery store and sat him down next to another kid they’d busted. How his ill-gotten steak and the other kid’s pilfered ham sat on the table, tagged as evidence, and how the other kid grinned at him and rolled his eyes and said, “Nice timing, brother.”
“Shut up, you two,” the man guarding them said. He was watching through a window for other scofflaws. He hadn’t spotted any though by the time the cops came and took Eric and his new acquaintance outside.
The other kid’s name was Jerrod, and they talked all the way to the hoosegow.
“You came all the way down here to get busted?” Jerrod said.
“Expanding my horizons,” Eric said.
Jerrod used his whole body when he laughed. They rode on, trying to stay upright on the bouncing bench seats. It wasn’t easy because they’d been left handcuffed. Finally they arrived and their driver marched them inside and they were booked: fingerprints, shoelaces and belts, wallets, the whole deal.
“What’s this?” Jerrod said. “Crime of the century?”
“Shut your mouth,” the cop inking his thumb said.
When they were grudgingly offered a phone call, Jerrod shook his head, but Eric called Maine and left a message, just on the odd chance that his mother would give a damn and come through.
It was getting dark when they reached a big communal cell with bunks at one end and showers at the other, and eight other occupants. The door clanged shut with a sound just like in the movies, and the sheriff shuffled off without a backward glance. Eric turned to face his cellmates, trying not to seem too nervous, but sticking pretty close to his new friend, who seemed to know people from the way he was reaching out, tapping fingers, mumbling greetings.
“Who your friend, J?” The speaker sat on a cot under the single barred window. He was probably forty, and had a definite air of authority. He looked sort of fierce, actually.
“Caught us the same place, X,” Jerrod said.
The older man stood up and stepped close to Eric. They were the same height, but he outweighed Eric by forty pounds or so. “What’s a skinny little mother-fucker like you doing in jail?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Eric said. “I was trying to steal some supper.’
“Trying to steal you some mother-fucking supper!” He looked around the cell with wide eyes. “I guess we got us a bad man here!” Everybody laughed, and he looked back at Eric. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Eric.” It seemed like a silly name, all at once.
“Huh,” the older man said. “Around here, everybody calls me X.”
“Yes, sir,” Eric said.
“That’s because I reject the white man’s slave names.”
“Don’t blame you,” Eric said, ludicrously.
X stared a little harder, but let it go. He held a hand upright, and after Eric figured out what was expected, they shook, brother-style. Then X nodded and said, “All right. I guess you can call me X, too, since you in here with the rest of us.”
“I think I’ll just go with ‘sir.’ ”
X grinned at Jerrod, then looked back at Eric. “All right,” he said, “come on. You little boys need some work. Come on, y’all,” he said, turning to include everybody else. “Fall in.”
They lined up and he led them in small-space calisthenics, a routine he’d obviously directed before. He talked the whole time, exhorting them to work hard, to stay strong. They went at it long enough that when he finally called a stop, Eric was exhausted, but proud he’d made it through.
Everybody headed for the showers, so he fell in and took his turn. There were two stations with four showerheads each, and they stood in two circles, soaping up, sneaking looks at one another as the water hissed down. On a bench next to the shower room was a pile of rough towels, and they dried off and put their clothes back on.
Eric stretched out on the cot next to Jerrod’s. Voices rumbled, the men conversing in twos and threes. Eric could hear yelling and swearing from other cells, some of it in Spanish. Then the lights went low and it got relatively quiet, but you could still hear doors opening and shutting, people calling out. At one point something rang like a school bell, then there was a loud, extended buzz.
Eric was pretty keyed up, and wouldn’t have thought he’d be able to sleep. But sometime later, when he heard his name called, then called loudly again, he realized he’d been lost to the world. He sat up, saw a beefy guard hulking outside the cell door.
“I said get on out here,” the guard said.
When Eric gets back to the airport there are two empty cabs at the taxi stand, Trang’s and James’s. Nobody’s in the baggage area, so he goes into the little coffee shop and gets a cup to go. Trang’s sitting at the counter, and he smiles and says hello.
Eric walks down to the new end of the terminal and finds James by the door opposite the ticket counter, talking to Early and Tate, both old-timers sitting in plastic chairs against the wall. James is telling a story – performing it, really, waving his arms and stalking around tight-assed – and the two older men are leaning against each other, lifting their feet up and down, helpless expressions on their faces.
When Eric walks up, James turns with leftover tears in his eyes.
“What’s so funny?” Eric says.
“Oh,” James says, “nothing much.”
The old-timers giggle, and James rolls his eyes. “Foolish old men. Let’s get outside.”
“Gentlemen,” Eric says to the skycaps. He turns to follow James.
“So long, brother,” Tate croaks from behind them.
There’s the slightest hitch in James’s gait, but he keeps moving. Eric doesn’t look back. They walk to the baggage area, pass through the double doors and cross the lane to the taxi stand. Trang is standing at attention by his cab, first up, and he waves and smiles. Eric waves back and leans against James’s vehicle, turning his face up to the sun. It’s still nice, with just enough breeze to keep things comfortable.
After a minute or two, James says, “So, let’s hear the rest of it.”
But Eric just says, “That’s all right,” because he’s changed his mind about Florida. It’s not just Tate and that business in the terminal, either. He was already having second thoughts, because in reviewing the story, in taking it all the way to the end, he remembered a couple of things. How he had someone to wire money for bail, for one. And then there was the way the guard, after letting him out of the cell, matter-of-factly locked the rest of them back in, as if that was a normal thing to do. And finally, how when Eric said, “Take it easy, you guys,” nobody in the cell acknowledged him, not X, not even Jerrod.
He couldn’t tell the story and leave that stuff out, right?
So when James looks at him, he just shrugs.
“Suit yourself,” James drawls.
And now Eric feels this brother that he might have added lolling between them, like some kind of ghostly balloon. James is quite aware of it too, from the way he smirks into his coffee cup. But neither of them says anything. It could be that they’ve just missed the moment. Or maybe it’s simply gotten too noisy, because inside the terminal the old baggage belt has lurched back to life, and it’s not a bit quieter than it ever was. They stand there listening as it rumbles along its same old track, carrying the same old baggage. They can picture it twisting and swiveling through the archaic end of the building, probably just dying to pinch someone’s unsuspecting ass.
Jim Nichols lives on a little river in Warren, Maine, with his wife Anne, their Springer Spaniel Brady, Brady’s new stepbrother Jesse (a flat-coated retriever), many ducks, cormorants, osprey, eagles, two hives of Italian bees, cardinals, waxwings…well, you get the picture. Jim has published work in many venues, including december, Esquire, Zoetrope ASE, Narrative, Night Train, River City, elimae, The Clackamas Review, American Fiction Vol.9, Conversely, Germ, and Portland Monthly. He is the 2014 winner of the Curt Johnson Prose Award for Fiction (december magazine), a past winner of the Willamette Fiction Prize, and a prize winner in the River City Writing Awards. His collection Slow Monkeys and Other Stories was published in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon Press, and his novel Hull Creek appeared in April 2011. Closer All The Time, a novel in stories, will appear in February 2015 by Islandport Press.