By James Sisk
“Base to C-16, over.” Stacy Murphy’s voice came across the radio’s speaker more with the high pitch of a small girl rather than one of a young woman who would be enrolling for her senior year of college in another month.
The cabbie lifted the microphone out of its dashboard cradle and depressed the send button. “C-16 to Base, over,” he said.
“C-16 pickup a fare at 2790 Barnacle Road,” Stacy said.
The address made C-16 grin. He had picked up that fare several times this summer.
“C-16 to Base, Roger. Where is the old guy planning to dine tonight, Stacy? Over.”
“Base to C-16, Lester’s. Over.”
“C-16, Roger. Over and out.” He slipped the microphone into its dashboard cradle again. He stuck his head through the open driver’s side window and smiled at Ed Meacher, another cabbie, leaning against the front fender of the cab.
“Gotta go, Ed,” he said.
Meacher grinned. “Spats?”
“Yeah.” Meacher’s reference to his fare’s nickname brought another smile to C-16’s face. The Crab Harbor cabbies had tagged the old man with the nickname because he always wore spats, something he’d only seen men wear in movies made in the ‘30’s.
“Take good care of him,” Meacher said. He pushed himself off the fender and stepped onto the sidewalk.
“Always do, Ed. Always do,”C-16 said as he shifted the taxi into drive and pulled away from the cab stand.
C-16 enjoyed being a summer cabbie for the Crab Harbor Cab Company. He had taken the job to earn tuition for college. His fares, mostly tourists on vacation, usually tipped generously, and he could spend his days off lounging at the beach checking out bathing beauties in their bikinis. The job also exposed him to a broad spectrum of humanity who ran the gamut of human personalities. Ferrying those characters and listening to the details of their lives, which they revealed to him, C-16 thought that the job would be an ideal cure for any author suffering from writer’s block. After a month of that work, the writer would never again want for story lines or characters.
C-16 did not know Spats’ real name. None of the Crab Harbor cabbies did.
The lanky white-haired old man sprang out of the wicker rocker as nimbly as a man half his age and descended the porch steps of the rooming house as soon as the cab came into view. As always, Spats had dressed for dinner even though he was on vacation at a seaside resort. He wore a tailored, pressed, navy blue suit with a folded white handkerchief peeking over the rim of the suit coat’s vest pocket. A red carnation clung to the suit coat’s lapel. The Windsor knot of his blood red tie pressed against the man’s Adam’s Apple.
There they are. C-16’s eyes fell to the man’s shins, which were encased in the trademark spats for which the man was known. They rested atop a pair of spit-shined oxfords. Without waiting for C-16 to open the rear door, Spats slipped into the back seat.
“Would you be kind enough to take me to Lester’s, driver? I’m in the mood for hard-shell crabs tonight,” Spats’ said. The old man’s manner and tone of voice personified the refinement of a society the world had left in the dust decades ago.
Still, C-16 admired the man’s demeanor and deportment and wondered whether he would ever exhibit such grace and dignity.
The cab rolled off the causeway, around the traffic circle, and veered onto Bayside Drive. A few blocks farther, C-16 swung a left into Lester’s parking lot and stopped under a burgundy canopy that sheltered the entrance to the restaurant. One of the restaurant’s valets, dressed in a white shirt, black bow tie with matching vest and pants, rushed up to the cab from his post at the front door, opened the back door of the cab, and stood as straight and stiff as a sentry on duty as he waited for Spats to step out of the cab.
“Welcome to Lester’s,” he said.
C-16 glanced at Spats and waited for the comment that he knew that the old man would utter at any moment.
Spats did not disappoint. He extracted his wallet from the inside vest pocket of his suit coat and said: “What’s the damage?”
Right on cue.
“Ten fifty,” C-16 said, quoting the fare to him.
Spats extracted three five-dollar bills from the wallet and handed them to the cabbie. “This should cover it with a little something extra to compensate you for your trouble,” he said.
C-16 removed a folded wad of cash, which represented the total fares and tips that he had collected so far that day from his shirt pocket, and added the bills to it, taking the time to place the bills into the pile in keeping with the order of the denominations. Then, he stuffed the wad into his shirt pocket again.
“Would you be so kind as to return for me in two hours? I should have finished my repast by then.”
Right on cue.
“Yes sir,” C-16 said. He flipped the driver’s side sun visor down, plucked a business card from a clump of them rubber-banded to the backside of it, and gave it to Spats. “Just call the number on the card and ask for C-16,” he said.
Spats slipped the card in his wallet, returned the wallet to the inside vest pocket of his suit coat, and climbed out of the taxi. He paused to tip the valet before walking into the restaurant.
“Base to C-16, come in, please.” Stacy’s voice was nearly swallowed up by the squawking and screeching static pouring out of the radio.
C-16 glanced at his watch and grinned.
Right on the dot.
“C-16 to Base, over.”
“C-16, pick up Spats. He wants to go to Bandstand Pier. Over.”
“C-16, Roger. Over and out.”
Spats tipped the valet a second time and settled into the rear seat of the cab.
Would you be kind enough to take me to the Bandstand Pier, Driver?
“Would you be kind enough to take me to the Bandstand Pier, Driver?”
C-16 loved Spats’ unfaltering adherence to his lock-step routine.
C-16 opened the rear door of the cab. “The Bandstand Pier, sir,” he said.
“What’s the damage?” The old man asked as he opened his wallet.
C-16 quoted the fare to him. Spats paid it and included another generous tip for the cabbie. Then, he asked to be picked up two and one-half hours later.
C-16 watched the gracious old gentleman’s gradual progress up the ramp to the boardwalk. When he had navigated it, the cabbie jumped back into his cab and headed for the the bus station cabstand.
Two and one-half hours later, C-16 sat in the idling cab at the base of the boardwalk ramp. A minute later, the cab’s rear door swung open and Spats dropped into the back seat. “Take me to 2790 Barnacle Drive, if you would, driver.”
“What’s the damage?” Spats asked as soon as the cab stopped in front of Barnacle Road address.
“Six dollars,” C-16 said.
Spats handed C-16 nine dollars. “I’ve included a little something extra for your trouble,” he said.
For the rest of the summer, C-16 shuttled Spats to and from dinner, the Bandstand Pier, and back to his rooming house at least twice a week. On each trip, Spats acted out the exact same inquiries as to the extent of monetary damage the trips had inflicted on his financial resources.
One pleasant September weekday evening after Labor Day, C-16 hung with the other idle drivers at the bus station cab stand waiting to be dispatched on a run. They passed the time by trading tales of the eccentricities of some of their recent fares. In the midst of Jack Strong’s amusing narrative of the conversation between two of his fares, a pair of elderly women out for their weekly trip to the supermarket in which they joked with one another about their husbands’
idiosyncrasies, C-16 caught the sound of Stacy Murphy’s voice wafting through the open window of his cab. He leaned in through the open window and grabbed the radio’s microphone.
“C-16 to Base, Over.”
“C-16, Spats wants to dine at Malcolm’s tonight. Over.”
“C-16, Roger, Stacy. Over and out.”
The other drivers had also heard Stacy. As C-16 shifted his cab into gear, they shouted for him to be sure to take good care of the old guy.
The day had been a slow one. C-16 had had few fares, most of whom had unloaded their complaints about their spouses, significant others, children, and best friends on him but tipped him sparingly. The experience had depressed him. Now, anticipating a ride in which he would be exposed to Spats’ pleasant, polite, positive, uncomplaining personality boosted his spirits.
He spotted Spats sitting in his favorite wicker rocker on the porch of his rooming house, just as he always did, as he awaited the cab’s arrival. C-16 stopped in front of the rooming house and waited for spats’ approach. After several minutes had passed without Spats making a move to come to the taxi, C-16 became concerned. He glanced at the rocker. Spats still sat there, but his eyes were shut.
Must be napping.
C-16 honked the horn. Spats did not stir.
“Cab,” C-16 called out.
Spats remained motionless.
C-16 got out of the cab, climbed the porch stairs, and faced his fare.
“Cab,” he said softly.
Spats gave no indication that he had heard him.
C-16 placed a hand on the old man’s shoulder and shook it gently. Spats remained motionless. A sudden, icy shudder racked the cabbie’s body. His eyes drifted to the old man’s chest.
He’s not breathing!
A screen door covered the entrance to the house. C-16 stepped over to it and pressed his face against the mesh. Cupping his hands on both sides of his head, he peered into the darkened hallway beyond. He could make out that it extended the length of the house. The clanking of pots and pans floated down the hallway from the far end to his ears. C-16 pounded out a loud rat-tat-tat on the screen door’s wooden frame with his fist. “Hello! Hello,” he shouted.
A middle-aged, overweight woman in a blue, print dress stepped into the hallway from a room at the far end of and plodded toward him, wiping her hands on her apron as she did so. She opened the screen door halfway, filled the gap created with her bulky frame, and scowled at C-16. Struggling to breath from the exertion required to make it from the back of the house to the front, she stared intently at him. “No need to yell,” she said. “I heard you knock. What’s all the commotion about?”
C-16 pointed at the rocker. “Something’s wrong with the old guy sitting over there,” he said. “He called for a cab. I came to pick him up, but I can’t seem to rouse him. You need to call for an ambulance.”
“What?” The woman said, her eyes widening, as she stepped onto the porch and glanced at Spats. Her body stiffened with shock as she continued to observe her motionless tenant. She let the screen door slam shut and waddled up to the rocker.
“Oh, my God! Mr. Marion! Mr. Marion!” She shook Spats vigorously while repeating his name over and over, the volume rising in intensity with each repetition. “Are you all right, Mr. Marion? Wake up, Mr. Marion! Mr. Marion, wake up, please! Wake up!” As she continued to shake Spats, a tremble worked its way into her voice.
Despite her efforts, Spats did not stir.
The woman backed away from the motionless man and scurried back inside the house, the screen door banging shut behind her.
Through the screen, C-16 heard her desperate, pleading voice. “It’s an emergency. Please send an ambulance to 2790 Barnacle Road now,” she said. “One of my guests is unconscious and not breathing. I’m afraid that something terrible has happened to him. Hurry, for God’s sake!”
The siren wail of the approaching ambulance reached the cabbie’s ears before it came into view. Seconds later, he spotted the flashing red lights as it turned onto Barnacle Drive and sped toward the rooming house. The commotion brought a crowd of gawking tourists and home owners spilling out of the surrounding dwellings to catch a glimpse of the cause of the excitement. The ambulance screeched to a stop behind C-16’s cab. The EMT sitting on the passenger side of the front seat leaped out, a small black bag clutched in one hand. He raced up the steps of the rooming house. His partner followed, carrying a small metal case.
The first EMT extracted a stethoscope from his black bag and jammed the ends into his ears. He knelt beside the rocker and pressed the stethoscope to Spats’ chest. Then, he wrapped his free hand around Spats’ wrist and felt for a pulse. After a few minutes, he let go of Spats’ wrist, stuffed the stethoscope into the black bag, stared at his partner, and shook his head from side to side. He rose and directed his fellow EMT to a position directly in front of the rocker. Then, he slipped his hands under Spats’ arms while the other EMT grabbed the old man by the ankles. In one quick move, they lifted Spats’ limp body out of the rocker and laid it on the porch floor.
The second EMT opened his metal case, removed a pair of ping-pong shaped paddles connected to the case by wires, and laid them beside Spats’ body. He adjusted some dials inside the case, instructed the others on the porch to stand clear of the body. Then, he pressed the paddles to either side of Spats’ chest. Suddenly, Spats’ body stiffened and rose off the porch floor momentarily. The EMT removed the paddles from Spats’ body, and it settled onto the porch floor once more.
They looked at Spats, who still showed no signs of movement. The EMT repeated the process several times, always with the same result. Finally, he glanced at his partner, a sense of foreboding covering his face. His partner nodded, and he stuffed the paddles back into the metal case, readjusted the dials, and shut it.
The first EMT lookedC-16. “Are you related to this man?”
C-16 shook his head. “No, I’m not,” he said. “I’m just a cabbie dispatched to pick him up and take him to a restaurant where he planned to have dinner.” He pointed to the heavyset woman in the apron standing next to him. “She’s his landlady.”
The EMT addressed the woman. “What’s the man’s name, ma’am?”
“Charles Marion,” she said, struggling to hold back the tears that had formed in the corners of her eyes. “He’s one of my regular summer tenants. He has been coming here for more than thirty summers.”
She fixed her gaze on the lifeless body in front of her and shook her head. “Such a gentleman. Such a total gentleman. Always so polite and considerate. Never a complaint about anything.” Her body shook with the grief that she could no longer hold back. Tears streamed freely down her cheeks like rivulets after a sudden summer downpour.
“I’m very sorry to inform you, that Mr. Marion has passed away,” the EMT said.
A low, primal wail burst from the landlady’s throat, and the flabs of skin drooping from both her arms jiggled like the surface of a lake ruffled by a gust of wind.
C-16 fought back his own tears, swallowing and glancing about in all directions but avoiding the corpse lying at his feet.
The EMT waited until the woman managed to regain her composure before he put another question to her. “Do you know of any relatives of Mr. Marion that we could contact to notify them of his passing and arrange for the collection of his body?”
The woman’s hand shot to her mouth. “Oh, dear me,” she said. “I almost forgot. I seem to recall that his wife died six years ago. He never mentioned having any children or other relatives to me. I don’t think there are any.”
She frowned. “What’ll happen to him if you can’t locate any relatives?”
The EMT shrugged. “We’ll keep searching,” he said. “Maybe, we will turn up someone. We usually do.”
Do you have his home address?”
“His year-round home is in Baxter, Maryland,” she said. “The complete address is on my rolodex. I’ll get it for you.”
She waddled into the house, returned a few moments later, and handed the EMT a piece of paper on which she had jotted down Spats’ address.
The EMTs lifted the corpse onto a gurney and placed a white sheet over his face. It did not cover his body completely, leaving his spats visible. They wrestled the gurney down the porch steps into the rear of the ambulance whose red lights had been flashing continuously since their arrival. The crowd of gawkers dispersed gradually, retreating to the comfort of their rooming houses and homes.
C-16 pulled up to the rear of the line of taxis parked ahead of his at the stand. He walked toward the huddled of other drivers standing there. They looked at him with broad grins spreading across their faces and shouted in unison: “What’s the damage?”
In 2016, James Sisk self-published his 1st novel, a mystery entitled The Dollar a Year Man through Amazon. Readers posting reviews gave the book an average of 5-stars. In 2017, The Pirates Alley William Faulkner society of New Orleans selected it as 1 of 10 finalists in its annual fiction writing competition. In that same competition, the Society chose “What’s the Damage?” as a semi-finalist. In 2018, the Society chose another of my short stories, “The 96-Hour Shift,” as a semi-finalist as well.