“Hello sir, just making sure your location is correct.”
I sighed. “Yeah, that’s me. The dude standing in the middle of the road, getting wetter by the second. I am literally waving at you.”
“I think I see you, sir. I should be there momentarily.”
“If you want, you can just floor it into me.”
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“Nothing, nothing, never mind.”
You know what’s funny? Growing up, my parents always told me never to get in cars with strangers, offers of candy notwithstanding. Now I can literally call a stranger to my location, get in his car and take his candy. Societal role reversal.
The car pulled up, a fair amount slower than I requested. It was large, suburban four-wheel drive, the kind I would associate with “soccer-mums" had I known any mothers with disposable incomes or even anyone who played soccer.
The rain bounced off the sunroof and I considered opening it and continuing to drench myself on the way. Set the mood.
I got in and the driver winked at me, which I found a little disconcerting. I tried to wink back but I think it came across as more of a brief spasm.
“Good evening, sir, how are you?” his accent seemed less prominent than it was on the phone. He was wearing what appeared to be an Akubra, and I spent a few minutes trying to work out if he did that for himself or to endear to his vaguely racist clientele.
“Bar.” I directed. I glanced at the driver. “Please,” I added, as an afterthought.
“No problem!” he gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
I yawned. “Got candy?”
He pressed a button on his centre console and a small tray lifted, filled with mints, a decidedly poor substitute for candy.
“Help yourself, sir.” He flashed me a grin, seemed to notice that rain was slowly dripping from my hair onto the seat, and turned on the heater. I grunted a minty fresh thankyou and started idly looking around the car.
Despite the clean exterior, the inside was filled with junk. So many trinkets littered the front that I wondered if he used it as a market stall when he wasn’t driving people around. An entire tea set balanced inexplicably above the glove box. Coloured bead mats adorned the seats, and he had no less than three pairs of fuzzy dice hanging from his rear-view. A tiny man in a Hawaiian shirt holding a ukulele bobbled his head on the windshield, a frozen grin painted on his face. Probably because he couldn’t see where he was going, I decided. It’s all pretty bleak from here on out.
The driver excitedly drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, seemingly elated that I was his passenger. I noticed a row of small wooden carvings in front of the dash. The last one was obscene.
“Why do you have a wooden peni-” I began.
“It is a beautiful day,” the driver interrupted.
I snorted. “Sure. Apart from the cold and the torrential down-pouring.”
The driver raised his eyebrows. “Ah, but sir, the rain is cleansing. Without it, nothing would grow.”
I wasn’t really listening, just watching the cars fly past. A small child waved at me from the rear of a station wagon. I flipped him off.
“Sir, let me ask you something.” The driver turned to look at me, which I thought was a bold move while doing a hundred kilometres an hour on the freeway but I’m a sucker for new experiences. “Do you believe in fate?”
Well, that was an unexpectedly strange thing to ask someone you just met. I began to realise that this guy was a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
“I believe in the sanctity of silent road trips,” I responded, pretending to find the powerlines suddenly very interesting. I could feel his eyes on my face before he slowly turned back to the road.
“Sometimes, sir, it’s okay for us to be alone.”
I did a double take from my gazing out of the window. What? What did this minimum wage chauffeur just say to me? What does he know? Stay out of my business, jerk. Various thoughts bounced around my head. I thought about telling this guy where to go, or defenestrating myself. Instead, I said -
“Yeah, sure, I guess.”
He smiled, like he had heard my thought process and expected that answer all along. “Just remember, sir. Sometimes we must be lost ourselves, before we find what we’re looking for.”
My eyes narrowed. Whatever, you batshit insane Mr Miyagi bushman impersonator. I don’t need your fortune cookies of wisdom. You don’t even know me. I folded my arms, indignant.
“Look, man, I’ve had a rough day.” Week. Months. Whatever. “Can you just drive me to the bar?” Driver man didn’t say anything, just kept smiling.
I noticed his ID ticket. Ken. Well, Ken, you are officially the craziest person I’ve met this month, and I seem to attract crazy people like a tinfoil magnet. I began to fidget. Despite my earlier request, the silence was making me uncomfortable.
“What makes you think I’m lost?” I asked suddenly.
Ken did not respond, just patiently shifted lanes.
“Hey. Hey Ken. You can’t just say shit like that and leave it hanging.”
Ken bowed his head. “Forgive me, sir. It was not my place.” He slowly came to a stop at a red light. “I just…sense a sadness within you.” He smiled again and glanced out of the window. “If my passengers are sad, I consider it my duty to lift them up. Look, sir. A crow.”
I looked. It was, indeed, a crow. A sadness? That doesn’t take a genius. She was gone, and I was here, and nothing that was left really mattered much at all. Four months on, and I clearly had not made any progress in hiding it. I forced a smile that probably resembled a smear of toothpaste.
“That’s very astute, Ken. You get a leather armchair back here and you could run a mobile therapist service.”
Ken laughed. A sweet, infectious sound.
“That is maybe a very good idea, sir. Tell me, what are your plans at this bar?”
You know, Ken, you’re asking a lot of questions that a serial killer would ask. I’m going to the bar so I can drink myself into a numb, vegetative state. Until my speech is slurred and my vision is doubled and my existence becomes primal and I don’t have to consider the fact that she left me because I wasn’t enough. Standard Monday evening.
“I dunno. Maybe play some pool.”
Ken nodded. In the silence, I noticed that Michael Jackson was softly playing on the radio. I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life. I rolled my eyes. “Maybe have a beer or sixteen. I hadn’t really decided yet.” I saw Ken’s gaze studying me through the rear-view mirror. He spoke, resolutely.
“I believe in fate, sir. I believe that everything that is meant to happen, has happened and will happen.” His face filled with his trademark toothy grin. “Once you know this, sir, you can survive anything.”
Of all the rides I could’ve caught tonight, I had to get the one that was driven by a magic 8-ball.
“Yeah, I know.” I sat up proudly. “It’s my destiny to drink my bodyweight in beer.”
“Perhaps,” Ken seemed to think. “Whatever you decide, it is a choice you were always going to make,” he finished cryptically.
This guy was a crackpot. I snorted again.
“Sure, Ken. So basically, you’re saying that the love of my life was always going to leave, and I was always destined to be miserable every day, and there’s not a damn thing I could have done about it. You’re about as comforting as a chainsaw.” I wondered if Ken’s real motive was to ruin the day of every passenger he received. Mission accomplished, douchebag. I’m, starting, with the man, in, the mirror!
For the first time, Ken’s smile faded slightly. He looked genuinely concerned, but that may have been because of the fact the rain was now so heavy we could barely see out of the windshield. Maybe we’ll spin out and hit a tree, I wondered hopefully.
“Sir, you misunderstand. I do not mean to pry -”
“Pretty sure you do, Ken.” I interjected.
“But losing something that was never right…” he continued, undeterred. “…is actually the most liberating gift of all.”
I cringed so hard I thought I’d pull a muscle.
“What would you know? You don’t know anything about her. About us. I blew it. She was too good for me, Ken. I couldn’t give her what she wanted.”
Ken looked puzzled under his ridiculous hat. “But, sir, what did you want?”
Isn’t it obvious, Ken? “What I want is to be with her! She made me happy. She was beautiful. She ticked every box.” I could feel my fists clenching, my voice rising. “But she got sick of me. Starting going out more, coming home later and later. Not talking to me for hours, days. Always on her phone, always hiding the screen. She hated my hobbies. Hated my friends. Hated me.” I was crying, now. Pathetic. Big surprise that she’d left. I’d leave me, too. Stand up and lift yourself, now! Hoo-hoo! Sha-mone! I buried my face in my hands.
Ken took a turn down a quiet street, pulled the car over and turned off the radio. It was silent, now, save for the soft pattering of the rain, which had subsided slightly. He turned to face me, and I met his gaze through my fingertips.
“This isn’t the bar. If you’re going to kidnap me, please knock me out first,” I told him, sniffling.
“Sir,” he began, a kindness emanating from his expression. “I believe in fate. And it sounds to me that you and this girl were never destined to be. Sometimes, sir, we can be too close to the screen to see the whole picture. If she could not accept you for all that you are – including your faults - then nothing in your power could have changed that.” Ken looked away, gazing distantly down the lonely street. “You should consider yourself lucky that you discovered this now, sir, instead of years later, having ignored these signs and ending up as part of a broken family.” I noticed that a lone tear was flowing down his cheek. “It took me far, far too long, sir, and too many people were hurt in the process. But everything that happens, was always meant to happen, and for that we can be grateful.” Ken smiled again, and an inexplicable warmth came over me. “I believe you’re stronger than you know, Steven.” He turned around and started the engine.
I sat there, stunned. Who was this man? What had he been through? How did he know so much about me, know so much that I needed to hear?
All I managed was, “How…how do you know my name?”
“It came up when you ordered a lift, sir,” he said.
We continued for a time, his words ricocheting around my skull. I thought I was happy. I thought we were going to be together forever. But maybe… maybe he was right. Maybe it was never going to work. How can you ever possibly know? In hindsight, maybe I was remembering things better than they were. Maybe there’s some merit to this fate bollocks. Maybe Ken’s not completely off his rocker. Or maybe I’m just going mad too. I should ask him how he knows. I should ask him what happened to hi-
I snapped out of my reverie to the screeching of brakes.
“We’re here, sir. The bar.” Ken turned and gave me one last grin. “I hope you have enjoyed your trip.”
I managed a smile, a real one this time, teeth and all.
“Thanks, Ken. I’m sorry I called you batshit-insane.”
“You did, sir?”
“Oh, sorry. I guess that was in my head. Anyway, thankyou.”
I opened my door and climbed out, the sounds of the street jarring after the long minutes of silence. I watched him a while, but his stare did not leave the road as he drove away. I felt a strange calmness and briefly wondered whether they were really mints I had eaten. Walking up to the bar, I paused at the door. The familiar smells of stale beer and desperation filled my nostrils. I continued walking down the street. Looking up, I noticed that the sky was not as grey as before.