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THANKS FOR THE RIDE by Philip Charter

You were a real asshole that morning. It was eight degrees, colder with the wind chill, and I was standing by the side of the road with my head under the hood, prodding at pieces of the lifeless engine.

I came round and opened the passenger door. “A little help, Gary?”

You didn’t even look up. “Don’t know nothin’ about trucks, missy,” you said, then you pulled the door shut like Oscar the Grouch putting the top back on his trash can. You really slammed it.

I pulled up my fleece collar against the cold and set about waving and hollering at traffic to get assistance. That red Ford F150 was everything to me. Devon and Sheri wanted their own wheels or for their mom to get a better ride, but I told them it was a car or college. That shut ’em up for a bit.

The murder capital of Michigan ain’t the best place to break down, but people in Flint are not all bad. A truck with a couple of contractors stopped after ten minutes. Mexican fellas. While I peered over their shoulders, they poured in antifreeze and connected jumper cables.

“Gonna need some new spark plugs soon.”

Great, another expense. “All righty,” I said, my hands burrowed into my pockets. “Thanks so much, fellas. You have a good day now.”

Even though I drove ninety on the 475, we still clocked in ten minutes late at the Tool Assembly. You sat, stone silent, fiddling with the strands on your bolo tie all the way to work. What was the deal with Native Americans and those things? It made you guys look like wannabe Texans. You traced the lines in your face with your bony fingers, thinking about God knows what.

Even after all those years working in an automotive plant, I acted like a damsel in distress as my eighteen-year-old truck coughed and spluttered, dying its slow death. Flint was dying its death too—a faulty circuit board with more lights turned out every year.

Back when we were all still on twelve-hour shifts, the guys watched hockey videos together on their coffee breaks. That place was so noisy you couldn’t talk much. Now they check their posts on Craigslist and organize their second jobs before their first work day ends.

At around ten-thirty, I got the dreaded tap on the shoulder. “Lori, please may I see you?”

The boss. Great. It was her style to pick on someone to chew out every morning and today was my turn. “Yes, Colleen.” I switched off the machine and removed my heavy gloves. I followed her to her office and she closed the blinds.

She sat there in her ridiculous pantsuit like a fat little penguin with too much makeup. “You know I hate to pull workers off the floor, but I’d like to know why you were late again.”

“Car trouble. My truck’s on its last legs, ma’am.”

The automatic air freshener on the corner of the desk hissed and pumped out its sickly sweet smell. “You know we’ve got the employee financing scheme for Chevy trucks. Do you want me to give Don a call, over at the dealership?”

“No thank you,” I said. “Saving every penny for the kids’ college fund.”

“Ooh, yah. I get you,” she said. “My Raymond is in his senior year at Berkley. It’s costing us a fortune. We had to cut back our vacations.”

What did she know about cutting back? With her husband’s income, they must have been on six figures, yet she patted my arm like we were sisters. I was lucky if I saw six dollars from DaShawn each month now he had a new family to look after.

“I’ll be honest, Lori. We’ve got to cut shifts but maintain production levels. That’s the word from above.”

“I can’t take another hours cut, Colleen. Otherwise I gotta take another job.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Well, we can’t have any more lateness. Got it?”

It was an impossible situation, but I wasn’t going to kiss her ass. If this is how the company treated employees after twelve years, I dreaded to think what kind of send-off you would get after forty.

“Gary might like shorter hours,” I said, thinking of how exhausted you looked after most shifts. “He gets a ride with me, and he’s past retirement age.” Since my pops died, I guess I kind of liked keeping an eye on you, another grouchy old man.

She looked shocked. “Gary? Why no. You know he’s our longest serving guy, and he—”

“He don’t talk back much?” I snapped.

“…Lori. The rules are quite simple. I’m just here to make sure standards are met.”

She always pretended to feel sorry for me, but I’d heard the comments she made about me never being married, and not going to church like her perfect family. My hours got cut a week later.

On the way back to Saginaw, you got out at West Boulevard. Your house was as weathered and tough as you were. I wondered if any of this block had been remodelled this millennium.

“Thanks for the ride,” you said. They were the only words you said all the way home.

“No problem, old timer. See you tomorrow.”

As you got out, my flip phone rang with Devon’s number on the caller ID. He used to joke that I must be drug dealer because of my burner phone and beat up truck.

“Yo, Mom, are you finished work yet?”

“Yeah, sweetie. I’m still in Flint. What’s up?”

While I spoke, I watched you shuffle up onto the stoop and smoke a roll up cigarette. You sat and surveyed the neighborhood like an old Clint Eastwood in that movie. Is that what people did where you came from? Sitting and smoking.

“Our ride from practice bailed. Can you come get me and Mark?”

I sighed. Another detour. “Sure thing. Might be a while though.”

I pumped the gas and hoped Sheri wasn’t going to hit me with more problems when we got home.

* * *

To be honest, Gary, you were an asshole most mornings. A monosyllabic rock not wanting to be prodded or turned over. Were you a deep thinker? If you were, you never shared what was on your mind. Sometimes the silence was a welcome break from the battles with Sheri and calls from the school about Devon. You never offered me a dime for gas even though I made a point of filling up on the way to work, carefully measuring fifty dollars each time.

Winter turned to summer, missing out what was supposed to come in between. The only way people in Michigan could tell it was spring was because hockey season was over. We went to work every day, driving the highway with me wishing the radio would do more than crackle and spit. And while I was putting on weight from late night drive-throughs, you got thinner. It looked like the safety belt would snap you in two if we hit something. Your brown lunch bag sat on your lap like a cat, always the same—a pot of beans and plain tortillas. The pack of Marlboro Reds you got through each day probably didn’t help your appetite.

In June we hosted the school cookout. It was my turn to smile and to pretend I enjoyed marshalling Devon’s hockey team, who were celebrating their first winning season in years. A few parents came to help but they didn’t stay long. The dads gave me the thumbs-up from behind their beer bottles, and the moms all went snooping around the house. They gave me those patronizing smiles where their eyes say that you’re losing and they’re winning.

As I had no intention of inviting DaShawn, and I didn’t have any time for running around with a new boyfriend, I invited you. I’d let slip in the truck about how I had to make two trips to Costco for the cookout, and you showed some interest. “Sounds real nice. You know, for the kids.” If anybody needed some ribs and cornbread, it was you. You got a ride to Saginaw with a neighbour who was headed up this way. Probably didn’t give them any gas money either.

It was a clear day, and you sat on a deck chair behind the grill, hat pulled down to protect you from the sun, as though you were on the bench awaiting judgement. There was a football being tossed around, plastic plates blowing away in the breeze, and two-hundred-pound teenagers recording simulated fights for Instagram.

It wasn’t too bad. Devon kept his teammates in line, and helped clearing up after too. As the guests left, they gave the Ford a wide berth as if it was a sick dog. When they were all gone, I found you in the same spot, not able to sit up straight, your hat on the ground. I didn’t even know you drank. Anyhow, six beers was too many for a seventy-year-old man. I never saw a guy with such decorum gurgling into a bottle. Sheri was with you, hanging on your every word, smoking one of your damned cigarettes.

“What are you two sayin’?” I asked.

You looked up. “Oh, you know… life and such.”

“Gary was telling me about his carvings.” Sheri smiled condescendingly. She was an artist too. “Says nature and the real world is a better teacher than I’d get at art school.”

I sighed. “Well you’re going to school.” She’s never listened to a single piece of advice I ever gave. “First I heard that you’re an artist, Gary.”

You told us about your carvings and sculptures. I thought you just sat staring at the walls in your house, smoking cigarettes and reading boys’ adventure stories.

“I’d love to see your work,” said Sheri.

“Maybe you will, kiddo,” you said. You looked up and smiled at me, and although I had no camera, it stayed with me like a photo imprint. You never smiled.

I pulled your drunk ass up and helped you into the truck to drive you back to Flint.

“Devon’s coach said this piece of junk’s got no more than a year left in it,” you said, during the journey. Then you went to sleep.

* * *

After Coleen cut my shifts, I took up Uber. Driving Uber in Michigan is not fun. What the folks with the fancy iPhones don’t know is that there are two Ubers—one for drivers chasing five stars, with bottled water and compliments, and one for the jobs no one wants. Guess which jobs I got with my beaten-up F150. I had to make up for my reduced hours. Sheri demanded more allowance, the cable provider was gouging us for every dollar they could get, and Devon was trying to eat the state out of peanut butter and jelly. I shouldn’t complain; we were happy, but I felt like I was a bodyguard to the family piggy bank, which was constantly under threat from being smashed apart. I even thought about asking you for a back payment for all of the rides to work I’d given. But then I figured a guy who eats beans and crackers didn’t have much green to spare either.

The Uber jobs were thankless. Fat rednecks loading the truck with ice machines, farm equipment, or their furniture after being kicked to the curb. These fellas sure didn’t expect a fortysomething blue collar mom to arrive in the pickup. And they all had an opinion about the truck.

“Can I get some air?”

“Not unless you want a blast of dusty breeze, buddy,” I replied.

“When d’ya last change that oil on this ol’ gal?” Probably not since I last got my “oil changed” by Marcus at the warehouse, I thought. That was just a one-off.

I did the work. I banked the cash and ignored my awful rating on the app. People from Grand Rapids to Detroit still need their shit hauled.

At least you didn’t give me a one-star review. After eighteen months of silent journeys, you talked a little more on the way to the Tool Assembly. Sometimes you talked about your relatives. I never had the guts to ask why you left your people, just like I never had the guts to pump you for gas money. Anyway, by then, our shifts were out of sync. It was only a few mornings where I’d give you a ride. You would reach out of the window and tap the roof twice to signal “giddy up.”

One Friday you gave me a little carving. It was a piece of polished bone, exquisitely done. Fine geometric patterns and a landscape scene on the other side.

“It’s beautiful, Gary. What does it mean?”

“A vision of the past and of the future,” you said, as if I should have known.

I brought the car to a stop in the parking lot. It breathed a sigh of relief that its morning exertions were over. “I… I had no idea you could. It’s great. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Wanted you to have it,” you said. Then you looked down, tired, like you were glad your exertions were over too.

“How long ya gonna keep working, Gary? Do you still got debts to pay? Family?”

“I’ll be working until the end. Don’t see a point of resting after forty years here. My spirit likes the routine.”

“Once my kids are through college, I’m gonna get the hell out of here,” I said. “Get a new set of wheels and drive.” I felt guilty saying that, like I was cheating on my own truck, running away.

“Cancer’s spread to the bones,” you said. “I got a few months, tops.”

There was a silence, an emptiness. Deep down I had known, but hearing it was still a dagger to the chest. I touched your hand. It was like a leather jacket that had been handed down through generations.

“Gary… sweetheart. I—”

“Don’t you get sentimental now, Lori. Life has been all right to me. I wanted for nothing.” You spoke with a lump in your throat. “Saw plenty of meaning. Mmm hmm.” That was your attitude—what you get is fair. Only then, sitting together in the parking lot, did I understand your silences. You didn’t say everything that needed to be said. That was as good as saying it all.

You kissed my cheek. “Thank you, Lori.” Then you took your lunch bag, pushed open the passenger door and started walking. I followed a few paces behind, dragging my feet. When we punched in, the whirring noises of the factory came to life again and the stench of cooling fluid filled the air.

* * *

When you stopped coming to work, I called in a few times. By then, you had turned from a wise eagle, to a helpless little bird, one who couldn’t leave the nest. You still had enough gas in you to tell me to beat it.

“Lori. Quit it. You know I don’t want you looking in on me. Ain’t the kind to accept muffin baskets from the guys in the warehouse.”

But you did have a few requests, so I came every Tuesday after my shift ended. Herbal remedies from a shop in Saginaw and boxes of nicotine patches. You showed me your art. It wasn’t possible to keep it under wraps anymore. There were dreamcatchers in every corner of the room, bone carvings, maps, and calligraphy. They had a raw charm. Your place had this kind of earthy smell that made it feel authentic. The intricate carvings looked like pieces to a puzzle that were waiting to be assembled. Their patterns called my attention so that I had to steal a glance every few seconds. I snuck a few pictures on my phone and showed them to Sheri, but photos didn’t do ’em justice.

I rearranged the cushions on the tattered sofa and made you a pot of tea. “You know, I miss our car rides. Such stimulating conversation,” I said. “The 475 ain’t the same without it.”

You laughed so hard you almost coughed up a lung. That was the second time I got a smile out of you.

When you got your breath back, you asked about Sheri and Devon.

“They’re doing good. Devon will be a sophomore next year, and Sheri’s so grown up.”

You nodded as if you already knew.

“She’s been going steady with a college boy from Michigan State. Finds out where she is going in a month. By God, Gary, the paperwork. It’s worse than when somebody has an accident at work. I’m almost starting to feel sorry for Colleen.”

You sipped your tea. “She’s cutthroat, that Colleen.”

“Mmm hmm. They’re talking about more cuts next year. I best start looking in Saginaw, maybe even Detroit.”

“You got some nice kids, Lori. You got to do what’s right for them,” you said.

I never knew if you had any kids. I bet you would have made a decent father. Every guy in the warehouse had given you a different tragic backstory, but you didn’t let it bother you.

One Tuesday, you didn’t answer the door. I knocked and waited on the little stoop, picturing you smoking in your chair, carving something with your knife. When I tried the door it was open. You knew. Your eyes were closed and you were sitting in a chair, upright, shirt pressed and your best bolo tie hanging loose. I instinctively wanted to straighten it up.

We had never talked about the end, but you were at peace, and I figured that after refusing the drugs, you didn’t have too long. A thick papered envelope with my name on it sat patiently in front of you. “Ah, Gary, you old bastard.” I choked back the tears and picked up the letter.

Lori,

I never felt at home here, but I couldn’t go back to the only home I ever had.

After my wife’s suicide, I had problems. The usual—drink and drugs. The elders thought it best if I was somebody else’s problem, so I came to Flint. Then I had to watch this city commit suicide over the last thirty-five years.

I had my carving, and the warehouse, which gave me some order. I never looked for someone new, but don’t let me dissuade you, you should get out there on the dating apps on your cellular phone. It would be nice for you to meet a man (and not one of those bozos at the Tool Assembly).

All a man needs to find peace is a roof over his head and an appreciation of how small it is in comparison. You would be surprised at what forty years of careful saving gets you. And you know beans are cheap.

Give the handicrafts to Sheri. She’s going to need plenty of inspiration at college. The $68,000 in the safe deposit box at Flint Community Bank is in your name. Buy yourself a new truck. You deserve it. None of that finance bullcrap.

The house is paid off, probably not worth much. Some young types might like it. It’ll be a blank canvas after you take out all of my junk. I’m giving some money to the reservation, but half my estate will go into a college fund for Devon and Sheri. I know that’s what will bring you peace—a better life for your kids.

The books are for you. I suggest quitting one of those jobs so you can read a bit. I’ve looked through enough stories to know how yours likely ends. These last few years, I got to hear about the struggles that come with your life. You are too good a person to be dragged down by the Colleens of this world. I enjoyed those car journeys; I just ain’t the kind of guy to tell you so until I’m gone.

Thanks for the ride.

Gary.

I looked around, to see that it wasn’t part of an elaborate joke. When I checked your pulse, you were still dead. Your face was gray and cold. I called the authorities and waited. My head was swimming with questions, flashing forward and backward, and I slipped the letter into my bag. I felt so damned nervous I had to get out, so I went outside to wait in the truck.

The afternoon sun beat down on the hood. I should have been sad, or happy, or shouted or something, but all I could think about was how many Uber bookings I was going to have to cancel. I thought of turning on the air and jammed the keys into the ignition. It wouldn’t start. I wanted to laugh. It was fitting. Try after try, the engine wouldn’t turn over. I rolled down the window to let in some breeze, then I sat and cried.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Philip Charter is a writer and teacher who lives and works in Spain. He is tall, enjoys travel and runs the imaginatively named website “Tall Travels.” His fiction has been published in STORGY, Page & Spine, Carillon and The Fiction Pool magazines among others. His piece “Raft” won the 2018 WOW Festival flash fiction competition.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Thanks for the Ride”:

Author Philip Charter has given us an interesting and different piece in several ways. First, he’s created two not entirely likeable characters in the beginning that he turns them around for us at the end. Second, he’s written it in an unusual voice. It’s a first-person narrator, but the narrator is telling it as if talking to the other character in second person. It’s also told from the past perspective, meaning it’s actually a reflection by Lori on what happened, yet it’s told almost as if it’s happening in real time. This type of storytelling is not something we seen often in a short story, and we find it refreshing.

The ending is well-wrought, emotional—and very unexpected. We applaud the author for his skill in pulling off this piece.