BY DB LIPTON
Copyright is held by the author.
DAVE PRESSES “Trip Complete.” The customer gets out and walks off without a word, which is fine with Dave. He gives the guy five stars. A notification appears: 50 cents tip. Customer comment: “Unfriendly driver.” Dave runs his hands through his hair. Not even 30 and it’s already thinning. Hungry, he checks the time. Almost midnight. He’s near McDonald’s, but lately his body has had more jiggle when he drives. Anyway, under his seat, there’s an unopened bag of Doritos from Walmart. For emergencies.
Dave’s phone chimes. A ride notification. Rudyard’s, a bar a few streets away. He swipes Accept. Customer name: Dusty. Instead of the standard picture of her face, her user avatar only shows the cursive words Eat Me. That doesn’t sound promising, but Dave needs the money. Rent is due soon.
Slowing in front of the bar, Dave sees only empty sidewalk. He touches Driver Waiting. After a couple minutes, he’s about to drive away when the bar door opens and a bespectacled young woman strides out. White sneakers. Brightly patterned dress. Her freckled face is encircled by a nimbus of dark curls. Dave has only a moment to register these details before she snaps, “Hey. Quit staring. You the Schlep guy?”
Dave nods, humiliated.
While she gets situated in the back, Dave checks her destination. Residential area six miles south. Fine, he thinks, let’s get this over with. He drives.
“Sorry,” she says. “I just really had to get out of there.” In the rearview, Dave is horrified to see her hand in her dress, rummaging around her breasts. He’s relieved when she produces a phone. “You’re Dave?” She must have opened the app to confirm her driver. “You don’t look like a Dave.”
“No? What do I look like?” She leans forward, regarding his broad shoulders and pale skin. Dave gets a whiff of something that reminds him of being young. He wants to ask her what it is, but that’d be impossible.
“Maybe . . . Russell?”
“Weird,” he says. “My mother’s name is Russell.” It’s not a funny joke. But Dave cannot control himself. “My father? Also named Russell. They met at a convention.”
“The Russell Convention?”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“Who hasn’t?” She pauses, their little game concluded. “I’m Dusty.”
“I know who you are,” he says ominously. In the mirror, he sees she’s alarmed. “The app tells me your name.” He taps his phone in its dashboard mount. Too creepy, he thinks. Whatever. She’s probably engrossed with her phone by now. He checks the mirror. Dusty’s staring back at him. For a moment he cannot breathe.
Dave drives her to an inexpensive apartment complex near the stadium. The gate is broken, the security hut unmanned. Weaving through the parking lot Dusty directs him to one of the buildings.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“You, too,” he says, reddening at his blunder, but she’s already walking off toward a set of stairs. He presses Trip Complete, awards her five stars. No tip notification. Good. Wouldn’t feel right to take extra money from her. Another ride notification: Greg. He presses Accept with fingertips coated with orange powder.
A knock on his window makes him jump.
Outside, Dusty asks, “Are those Doritos?” He looks in his lap. He doesn’t remember opening the bag. “Can I have some?” He nods. Dusty walks in front of his car. In the headlights, she seems like a gangly angel floating by in the night. She joins him in the front, takes the bag of chips and begins to munch.
“I don’t want to go home yet,” she says, mouth full.
“Really? Looked like stress-eating.”
“I have to pick up Greg.”
“I can’t come with?”
Dusty sits cross-legged in the passenger seat.
“You like being a Schlep driver?” She should put on her safety belt, but Dave doesn’t want to seem bossy or square. Still, he could get a ticket. Not worth the risk.
“Put your seatbelt on.” He’s relieved that she complies. “It’s okay. Not a career.”
“What do you want to do?”
Dave shrugs. “Saving for film school. I should have just enough a couple decades after I’m dead.”
“Parents can’t help you?”
“Dad wants me to work at his restaurant. In London.”
“That sounds amazing. You’re an idiot.”
“You don’t know my dad.”
“Fair enough.” She checks her phone, then puts it down, annoyed. “What kinda movies you like?”
“Whatever makes me ask questions, really.” This woman cannot possibly be interested in me, he thinks. Still, he’s eager to think of a special example that will impress her. “Alice in Wonderland,” he says. “The Disney one.”
“Shut up,” Dusty says. Dave frowns at his own childishness, but she goes on, “That’s my favourite movie. It’s perfect escapism.”
“Oh, it’s more than escapism,” Dave says. “Good movies should make the audience ask questions that our real lives hide from us with this, like, this opiate of expedience, y’know?” Dave realizes she’s staring at him stonily. “Also the Mad Hatter’s cool.”
They laugh. She assures him he doesn’t need film school since he “can already talk like a pretentious ass-hat.” She shows him the tattoos on her wrist: Drink Me.
And on the other: Eat Me.
Mystery solved, Dave thinks.
They recite lines from the film, then act out entire scenes.
“Don’t overthink fun stuff,” she says. “It’s dumb. Pull in here.”
Dave stands at a gas pump, filling his car, trying to hit five dollars even. Schlep doesn’t reimburse drivers for gas and he’s on a budget. Dusty emerges from the convenience store.
“Hey, dude.” She seems glad to see him, as though she’d expected him to drive off. She puts a hand on his shoulder to steady herself. Dave nearly shrieks as Dusty reaches under her dress’ skirt. Her hand emerges with a preposterously large can of beer she’d been holding wedged between her thighs.
“Did you steal that?”
“No, they just ran out of bags.” His eyes widen and she laughs. “Follow me.”
Behind the gas station, Dusty pounds her drink, holding it with both hands. Like a baby, Dave thinks. She offers him the tallboy. He declines.
“C’mon,” she says. “We’re celebrating.”
“I’m driving, remember?” he says. “Celebrating what?”
“I bombed tonight. That bar? My friend, Jaffer, hosts an Open Mic Night. And I sucked. Biblically.”
“You’re a comedian.”
“Not according to that crowd.” When she laughs, Dave is charmed by the one small gap between her front teeth. She sees him looking at her mouth, and quiets, suddenly shy. “I teach high school English. Comedy’s a hobby.”
“Tell me one of your jokes.”
“Okay. Here we go.” Reanimated, she addresses an invisible crowd, “Who here eats corned beef? Me, I love corned beef. Love it. How come we aren’t corning more foods? When are we gonna get corned pizza?”
“This is a joke?”
“Like I said, I bombed.”
Dave wants to say something helpful, reassuring. “There’s candy corn,” he offers. Dusty laughs again, upends her can and spends the next several moments pouring it down her throat. She burps with a lot of bass. Dave is captivated. She is exquisitely nerdy, almost cartoonish, and her comfort with being disgusting is delightful. Dusty sees him studying her.
“Greg?” she asks.
“Yeah, let’s go get Greg.” Dave heads back to the car.
Dusty calls after him, “Sure you don’t want a drink? I got another one stuffed up in here.”
Greg, a plump, young man crammed into a stylish suit, settles awkwardly into the back seat, fully absorbed by the screen of his phone. His destination is another bar nearby.
Dusty turns and glares at their new passenger, but Greg doesn’t notice. She slowly places a chip in her mouth, then crunches loudly. Greg looks up, startled.
“Hello, Greg,” she says.
“Is this a shared ride?”
“Let’s talk deal, Greg: if I can make you laugh, you give my guy Dave a big tip, okay?”
“How many Freudian psychologists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“Two. One to turn the lightbulb and one to hold the penis.”
Silence, then, “You mean ‘ladder’?”
“Yes. Ladder. I meant to say ladder.”
And so the night unfolds, Dave driving his customers around town while Dusty tells her jokes.
“How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
In a few hours, Dave is almost thirty dollars richer. Alone together, Dusty grins.
“You like me, Dave?”
“I like you.”
“Me, too,” she says. “I like me, too.”
Dusty stifles a yawn. He drives her home.
At her apartment building, Dave gets out with Dusty.
“Okay if I use your bathroom?”
“Real slick, Dave.” She punches his shoulder. “There are smoother ways of weaselling into a girl’s apartment. But I’ve heard worse.”
“I really do need to pee, though.”
“Oh. Sorry, yeah, come in.” Dusty produces a set of keys. “We need to be quiet,” she says, opening the door, “because my roommate-” She stops, stricken by something inside.
Dave peers around the doorframe. A woman their age is curled up on a futon, turning off a television.
“Hey!” Dusty makes an attempt at cheerfulness. “Dave, this is my roommate, Rachel. Rachel, Dave. He also answers to Russell.” She laughs, desperate and hollow.
“Hi,” Dave says, but gets no reply. “I just… Yep.” Dave steps quickly to the hall bathroom and closes the door. He can hear muffled bickering. He doesn’t want to take conspicuously long, so he flushes, washes his hands, and reenters the living room.
Dusty has taken shelter in the kitchen.
Rachel is standing, seething, “Let’s be clear: you ditched me, on my birthday, to go to perform at Rudyard’s. Without me. On my birthday.”
“I definitely understand how it may seem that way.”
“We said we were gonna do that together–”
“Jaffer texted saying there were time slots,” Dusty says. “He didn’t text you, too?”
“No,” Rachel folds her arms. “He didn’t.”
“Weird.” Dusty shakes her head at the mystery of the universe.
“No,” Rachel corrects. “Not weird. There was one slot and you took it. You stabbed me in the back. A big ol’ birthday stabbing from my best friend. Great.”
“In my defense . . .” Dusty holds up a finger, about to make an incisive point, but goes quiet.
“Yeah?” Rachel asks.
“Hang on. I’ll think of something.” Dusty looks to Dave, helpless. Her need for him to charmingly intervene, to fix this somehow, is more than he can handle.
Dave says, “I should go.”
While driving aimlessly, ride notifications appear on Dave’s phone. He presses Decline, one after another. Unsure what else to do, Dave calls his father. The transatlantic connection is poor, but Dave hears the sounds of a restaurant making preparations for the day. Waitstaff hollering amidst kitchen clatter.
“What’s up?” his father asks. Dave explains that he’s met someone. “When will we meet her?”
“Never. You would not approve of her.”
“So what? You think my parents approved of your mother?”
“This woman frightens me.”
“David, your mother has scared the shit out of me for over forty years. Fear is no excuse.”
“Dave, look. 65 million years ago, an asteroid smashed into the Yucatán Peninsula. All the dinosaurs killed, right? Allowing our mammalian ancestors to thrive—”
“Two hundred thousand years ago, humans arrive, unique in our ability to learn collectively…”
This was why he didn’t call his father very often. Life was too short.
“Dad, I’m gonna go.”
And then Dave realizes: Life is too short indeed.
And he wants to hear that laugh again.
Beneath Walmart’s unforgiving fluorescent lights, Dave marches among the beverage coolers and through the bakery with strange determination.
The cashier is a tired middle-aged woman with two sad moles on her chin. She scans his items: candy corn, beer, and a birthday cake.
“That’ll be $32.17,” she says.
Thirty dollars. His, no, their entire night’s earnings. He’ll have to do a double shift tomorrow.
“Worth it,” Dave says.