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One to the Pony

Samuel Marx


His shift had just begun and already it was dragging on. Adjusting his five-panel hat, grey and well-worn, Andrew Weltz aimlessly spun the knob on the radio and slowed the van to a crawl, so as to avoid scraping the back end of the vehicle on the raised hill of the railroad crossing. The fabric on the seat below him was torn open, and he picked at the exposed yellow foam. If there were a way out of this, he thought as the van bounced over the tracks, he’d take it.


The roads hadn’t changed a bit since he’d left. Cracked and repaved here and there, but they all went the same place, past the same houses, slightly larger, but the same, and the same elementary school he’d attended a decade earlier. It too appeared to have a small, new, white-washed addition. Despite some exterior alterations and expected growth, nothing about Seaview Lake had changed. At least, not as far as Andrew could make out from the driver’s seat of the grey, Surf Side Taxi which he wove aimlessly up and down the perfectly aligned grid of blocks and streets.


In front of a modest Victorian, a few blocks off the beach on Virginia Avenue, he eased on the break and stretched across the empty passenger seat to crank down the window. He looked down the driveway to the closed garage door, deep in the back yard. For every house in Seaview Lake, he had a memory.


“Van 2, come in.” He jerked back from the window, straightened the van back into the right lane, fumbled for the handheld receiver of the two-way radio, and squeezed the call button.


“Go ‘head.” He held the radio to his ear and watched the Victorian disappear in the rearview as he waited on direction from his dispatcher.


“I’ve got one from 110 Albert Court.” The dispatcher's voice fought through the blowout speaker. A former driver himself, he was resigned now to yelling at local radio hosts in the basement office and answering calls.


“Copy that. Where to?”


“The Pony.” Andrew checked the time on the car stereo and confirmed it on his phone.


“The Pony? It’s 3:30.”


“The hell do you care? Said she was in a hurry. How far off are you?”


“I’ll be there in five,” Andrew said and returned the receiver to its hook.


He pulled off the local highway onto Lighthouse road and took stock the houses as he passed by; a sleepover here, a sweet sixteen there, ran from the cops back there. Scenes flowed in and out as he counted his way up to 110 Albert Court. The house was surprisingly large, a sprawling cape with a wraparound porch, close enough to the beach to command a several million-dollar price tag. He’d assumed earlier that the woman he was picking up must work at the Stone Pony, a bartender or ticket taker, and her shift was starting at four, hence the hurry. Now, he figured the house must belong to a wealthy doctor, CEO, or wealth manager, the norm in Seaview Lake and the neighboring resort towns dotted along the Jersey shore.


Fed up with the radio, he plugged his phone into the auxiliary chord. The playlist picked up mid-song, right where he’d last left off:


…And off you go and on you ride.

You never felt so lost and left behind.

Your headlights glow on your heavy mind,

shining on the road and now you're blind.

You can hope the stretch ahead is silver-lined…


The soft banging of a screen door, not far away, jolted him from the lyrics. He stretched over the passenger seat to get a better look at the house but saw nothing. No movement at all, but he was sure he had heard the bang of a—then there was movement, and everything unraveled quickly.


From the side of the house and up the driveway came not a woman but a young girl. She’d have been in a full sprint if she could, but a walking boot on her right leg and a pair of ill-fitted crutches slowed her down. None the less, she hurtled towards the van the best she could.


Still in a curious lean across the passenger seat, Andrew didn’t know what to think. He thought nothing. Above all else, he certainly did not think to unlock the sliding passenger door, which had a tendency to jam.


“Unlock it!” the girl shouted as she ripped on the handle, crutches dangling under each armpit.


They made eye contact through the dusty glass. She was desperate. He stupidly pressed the unlock button on the driver's side door, knowing it wouldn’t work. It hadn’t worked when he last drove the van five years ago and it didn’t work now.


“It’s broken I have to…” He unbuckled his seatbelt so as to make his way into the rear part of the van to unlock the door manually. “It sticks. Stop pulling on…”


“Come on, man!” She snapped her head over her shoulder, prompting Andrew to do the same. They took in the sight together; an older man, who could only be the girl’s father, red-faced, and overweight, thundered his way up the driveway and made a beeline for the van. At his size, he was slower than his crippled daughter.


“DO NOT GET IN THAT CAB!” His booming voice sent the nearby geese on Seaview Lake into a frenzy.


Now Andrew realized that the girl wasn’t desperate. She was terrified. He launched across the front passenger seat and popped the door. The girl flung herself in, massive boot and all, and slammed the door shut, first on one of her crutches then more successfully.


“What the hell are you doing!?” he shouted.


“Just drive! Please!” the girl squeaked.


“Hell no. He seems pissed.”


“He is pissed! Go! Please!”


He looked again at the round man rolling towards his van and suddenly his vision blurred. In that instant, right and wrong, do and don’t, yes and no, fight and flight all seemed to be mixed up, confused, backwards and in reverse. He had to act, but what the hell to do? Why the hell is happening to me, he thought. He forced his thumbs into the indents in the leather steering wheel.


“He hit me!” she yelped out with wide eyes. This jarred Andrew loose. He had one look at the young girl and her booted foot, then again at her red father, and he acted. The blur washing away, Andrew chose everything at once—right and wrong, do and don’t, yes and no, fight and flight. He slammed on the gas and tore away from 110 Albert Court as fast as the old van would allow him. They both watched as the round, red man shrank in the distance—she, fully twisted around, he, through the rearview. Andrew tore through a stop sign and onto the local highway, where traffic was steady and calm.


“Holy shit! That was awesome!” the girl shouted, devoid of all the fear and desperation she’d carried just seconds earlier. “You’re fucking amazing!”


“He’s gonna’ call the cops.” Andrew picked a large yellow chunk of foam from the seat.


“What the hell was that?”


“No, he’s not. Chill out. He just freaks the fuck out sometimes.” She was calm. “Ugh, look. He’s calling me now.” She showed him her iPhone screen, which read DAVE above a picture of a tomato. “He’ll blow my fucking phone up all night. I’ll text him later.”


“You call your dad by his first name?”


“He’s my fucking step-dad.”


“Can you stop saying fuck so much?”


Her face twisted into disgust, “What are you, a teacher?”


“No.”


“So, what the fuck do you care?”


Coming from such a tiny girl, the word felt sharp and forced. It made Andrew cringe in the same way he did when his mother would swear at the oven.


“It’s just lazy, to say fuck every other word.” He had to remind himself to watch the road every once in a while.


Her eyes widened, “I am not lazy!” she said with disdain for the very thought of the idea.


“Well, you sound lazy when you talk like that. And you’re, like, 12.” That lit her on fire. She leaned towards the center console, ready to pounce. Her eyes burned with thought, then, she eased up. She considered the man in the grey hat before her. She considered his comments, his actions, her own situation, and she settled back into the bucket seat for the first time since diving in. She watched quietly as the 7-11, the modular home building, and the pizza shop floated past her window.


“I’m 13.”


“Oh, in that case...” He began, sarcastically, before her eyes widened again and he raised his hand in defense.


“Joking. Joking.”


It was rare for Andrew to fill all four rows of the 16-passenger van he was employed to drive, even five years earlier, before Uber existed, it had only happened during the bar runs on the busiest of weekend summer nights. A full van had always provided the perfect distraction. Groups of people, drunk as ever, would shout over one another and turn the awful music up to the point of breaking the already blown out speakers. Andrew had learned to simply tune it all out. Now, the silence made him uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to having people ride up front in the passenger seat next to him, and he wasn’t used to kids, so he watched cautiously as the little girl hammered away on her phone. He turned up the volume:


Cause this world don't need no more tension and hate.

Needs a reason for these kids to stand up and create.

And I could pull this trigger, or I could just walk away,

if I could only make it to 28.


“This is really depressing. It’s making me depressed.” The little girl blurted out.


“Don’t use that word. You don’t know what it means.”


“I know what it means.”


“No, you don’t. Listening to a song you don’t like is not depression. Kids your age say they have migraines too, when they’re just tired or hungry. If you had a real migraine, you’d know it. You’d hardly be able to go outside.”


“I didn’t say I had a migraine.”


“Forget it.”


“Jeez. Really like this song, huh?”


“Yes, I like this song. I put it on.”


“So, you like being sad?” she asked bluntly.


Andrew tried to ignore her, but only then took notice of the young girl’s outfit. She wore ripped black jeans—one leg comically stretched over the top of her walking boot, a silly attempt at concealing the massive thing—and an oversized Nirvana smiley face t-shirt. She was a wide-brimmed black hat away from a spot-on ‘Girl at a Rock Concert’ Halloween costume, he thought, but the shirt interested him.


“It’s about Kurt Cobain. You know who that is?”


“No.” She didn’t look up.


He pointed to her t-shirt, “Nirvana. Kurt Cobain.” He mimicked shooting himself in the temple with a pistol. “Pfft!”


“Oh! Yeah! But wasn’t it more—she motioned the act of putting a shotgun barrel in her mouth and pulling the trigger, “BOOM!?” she shouted and flung herself back into the seat. For a moment, she hung over herself limply and played dead.


Andrew shook his head. “Right. That part you know. Wikipedia that one?”


“Some documentary, I think. Anyway, this song is super depressing. Can I change it?”


“Don’t worry; you’ll be out before it’s over.”


“What, no!” She looked outside and realized they were making the turn past the Windmill hot dog stand and into Asbury Park, a town not five miles from Seaview Lake, but a world away in its style. Where Seaview Lake had lavish mansions, emptily waiting all winter for their summer owners to arrive, Asbury Park had character, style, art, poverty, crime, and change. Nothing interesting ever happened in Seaview Lake. Asbury Park was an exploding ball of energy, just 10 minutes up the coast. “I can’t go there now,” she cried.


“You told the dispatcher Stone Pony,” said Andrew.


“Yeah, but not now, it’s only four o’clock!”


“You called.”


“Because I had to get the hell out of there before he made me go to some stupid movie with him.”


“Movie?” Andrew’s eyes thinned. “You said he hit you.”


Caught, the little girl squirmed. “Well, you were just sitting there, not moving.”


“So, you said he hit you?”


“I motivated you!”


“You lied. I nearly ran him over! Jesus Christ, I did kidnap you.”


“I’m not a kid!”


“I think tomato face may be telling the police otherwise,” Andrew replied, resigned to his fate already. “Great, they’ll fire me now. So, thanks for that.”


He stopped short on Ocean Avenue in front of the Stone Pony. The legendary music venue was painted black with white horses motionlessly charging down its outside walls. On a deserted late afternoon, it appeared more eerie than magical. Andrew picked up his clipboard from between the seats and scrounged the floor a pen.


“Alright, five dollars base. Dollar per town,” he muttered, calculating the girls fare out loud. “It’s nine bucks. Let’s go. I can’t believe you lied about that. What’s wrong with you?” Glowering, the girl began to pick through her small shoulder bag and tug at her crutches, which were stuck between the door and the seat. She took a long look at the empty town around her. She’s wasn’t ready for it.


“Come on, please don’t kick me out.” She was pleading.


“I’m not kickin’ you out. I’m motivating you.”


She pouted, “I’m sorry! My friends won’t be here for hours.”


“You called. I came. That’s how it works.”


“Just…” The scared little girl thought hard and turned to look at the empty seats in the back, “Let me drive around with you. This thing’s huge. I’m sure no one ever sits upfront. I can, like, help you navigate. Like a co-pilot!” She perked up in her seat satisfied with herself and her solution and awaited his approval.


“Yeah that’ll go over well. A 13-year-old crippled girl riding shotgun in my giant van. People won’t question that one.”


“Just say I’m your daughter.”


“How old do you think I am?”


“You have grey hair! You thought I was 13! Who cares? How old you are you?” He glanced again at her booted foot and drifted off towards the dead scene around him. A block down, a leather and denim-clad bear of a man stomped down the kickstand on his Harley-Davidson. On the boardwalk, a woman with a snake tattoo halfway raised the steel shutters of a storefront, not quite ready to open. Cliché after cliché. From the broken-down carousel, you could hear a busker playing a steel-string guitar. It was bleak. Asbury Park had come a long way since Andrew’s days of sneaking into concerts and drinking under the boardwalk, but it was a far cry from the squeaky-clean, bubble of safety and familiarity that was Seaview Lake. He knew it was no place for a little girl to be alone. No place was a place for a little girl to be alone. None the less, he picked up the radio to call in the completed ride to his dispatcher.


“This is van 2, I’m at the Pony.” He tried not to look at her as she silently, she pleaded with him to not dump her on the side of the road. She pulled out her phone, typed furiously, and shoved it in his face. He read: I’m sorry! I shouldn’t’ have lied.


“Copy that, van 2—” The dispatcher went on to confirm the fare costs and complain about another caller, but Andrew had faded off to another world. He thought about the garage door of the back house on Virginia Avenue, back in Seaview Lake. It had been years since he’d seen it, and it hadn't changed, but it stuck with him. At the edge of his side view mirror, something caught Andrew’s eye. It was a boy. A little boy in red shoes. The boy pushed himself on a skateboard along a cracked and broken sidewalk, clanking over the raised stone and repeatedly stumbling off. Andrew wondered why the boy rode the broken sidewalk instead of the freshly paved road just next to him. Undeterred, the boy pushed along. Andrew looked at the girl and at her desperate plea with her phone, then back at the side view mirror. The boy in the red shoes was gone.


“Hey, my bad,” Andrew said into the receiver, cutting the dispatcher’s rambling story off, “this lady actually had her venues mixed up. I gotta’ take her up to the Highlands. I’m gonna’ be about 40 minutes each way.” The little girl beamed.


“The Highlands! What the fuck?” barked the dispatcher. The girl furiously typed again and showed Andrew the phone: LAZY!


He smiled and shook his head.


“Yeah, she’s a real moron. I’ll charge the hell outta’ her though.” The girl fake pouted and was fake angry, assured now that she’d gotten her way.


“Eh, slow night anyway. Let me know when you’re back from the Shitlands,” said the dispatcher.


“10-4.” Andrew returned the receiver to the hook below the radio and again thumbed the indents on the steering wheel, digging them deeper and deeper. “If I don’t get any rides because of you, you’re paying for the next two hours.”


“Deal!” She shouted gleefully, and extended out her hand, “Pinky promise!”


His face wrinkled at the outstretched pinky. “Just promise, promise.”


“You are old and grumpy.”


“Jesus fucking Christ…”


“Lazy!” she shouted, bouncing in her seat.


He checked all three mirrors again and put the van in drive.


~


“Where are we going?” the little girl asked, breaking a long silence.


“Nowhere.”


Andrew was deeply at war with himself. He wondered why he always trying to help everyone? That was his problem—he thought that by taking on other people’s problems, perhaps his own might go away. They drove parallel to the beach on First Avenue and rolled past St. Clare’s Elementary School. Despite growing up just two blocks from where they were, and where the school had always been, Andrew and his brothers had gone to the public school, a mile bike ride across town. He had cherished that bike ride, always meeting his best friend, who also lived on the south end of town, at the blue mailbox by Seaview Lake, the actual lake, at 8 am. His friend was always late.

St. Clare’s was a square brick building with tan mobile trailers, which served as additional classrooms, and a lush green lawn that filled out the remainder of the block. A playground and two basketball courts at the far end of the lawn, it was ordinary. Once in the eighth grade, Andrew’s school was closed and St. Clare’s wasn’t, and he had found himself with nothing much to do. Andrew had always found it an odd phenomenon that people complain incessantly about the need for free time, then, when they get it, they rarely ever find anything meaningful to do with it. Tired of his PlayStation, Andrew had wandered over to St. Clare’s and texted a friend. He insisted that his friend come to the window and wave. Having never been inside the building, Andrew had no idea that the classroom windows of St. Clare’s had steel shutters on the inside. They could be cranked open to allow narrow slits of light in, but it was never enough to fill a classroom. Bright, fluorescent lights were relied on for the heavy lifting. Waving from the window being out of the question, his friend had torn up a few pieces of printer paper into tiny bits and pushed them through the steel slots. At 13, leaning on the handlebars of his bicycle, Andrew watched from the sidewalk as shreds of white paper snowed down the side of the brick building. He laughed, unable to see his friend's face, but knew he laughed too. He later found out his friend was given a week’s detention for playing with the window.


“Why are we going nowhere?” the little girl prodded.


“We aren’t going nowhere.”


“Then where are we going?”


“Do you ever stop asking questions?”


“It’s human nature to ask questions.” She replied smartly.


Andrew paused and considered what the 13-year-old girl in his passenger seat had just said.


“Where’s that from?”


“It’s from nowhere. My mom used to say it.”


“Well, I’m sure she read it somewhere.”


“She read a lot.”


“Rare breed,” Andrew said pessimistically.


“She was.”


Her words drilled their way from his ear to his brain. Is that what makes us human, he thought, the ability to question? Andrew had always felt that it was humanity’s ability to feel and love that separated us from the rest of the living world. He removed far too large a chunk of yellow foam, causing the seat below him to sink towards the center console. He looked at the girl without turning his head, half hoping that she’d keep talking, but she was miles ahead of him, hammering away on her phone.

Further north and a few blocks passed Walt Whitman Elementary, the public school he had attended, Andrew parked the van at the curb of an old, yellow house, which jutted out on the corner. Its high wooden fence and even higher trees surrounding it, along with the two black spires rising up over the trees gave it the feel of a suburban fortress.


“I’m running inside. Stay in the car,” said Andrew, slamming the heavy van door. She shrugged, not bothering to look up. It puzzled him, how she could be so deeply invested in the direction of their journey one minute, then entirely indifferent to it the next.


He walked up the white, rock pebble driveway and reached over the fence door. He felt and found for the piece of twisted steel cable that he could pull to lift the latch. Set into the rock pebble front lawn was a path of flat, grey steppingstones, which he carefully placed his feet on one-by-one. At the end of the path was the rusted entrance to a lofted garage apartment. Andrew pried open the door, trying his best to avoid the inevitable scraping and screaming of metal and rust. It opened just enough for him to step into the landing and look up the dusty wooden steps. Before he could call up, a wild mane of hair appeared at the top of the steps.


“Byrne, long time,” Andrew shouted up.


“I saw you toeing that rock path the whole way! Very nice.” The round face smiled wildly.


“Old habits.”


“I do it too! It never changes my man! Come on up.”


He followed Byrne up into a colorfully lit treehouse-like hide-away. The walls were adorned with band posters and outdoor landscapes. A Run-DMC song croaked from an old boom box. The burned CD must have been on repeat for 12 years straight, as Andrew rightly anticipated the next song, a ska track he couldn’t put a name too but could sing every word if he had felt inclined. He quickly refamiliarized himself with the space and settled down on an overturned milk crate with a cushion tied to it; a Byrne creation. On the wall opposite he was a corkboard with hundreds of concert ticket stubs thumbtacked to it. His eyes settled on one, ‘The Allman Brothers at PNC Bank Arts Center, 2007’.


“I remember this one,” he said, smiling at Byrne. Byrne got up from his bed and thundered across the room, causing the cabinets to shake and the ceiling fan to rattle with every step. It was the one obviously bad thing about living in his parents’ garage apartment; the space was impractical for a man as naturally large as Byrne. He pulled the ticket it off the wall, examined it closely, scratched his thick fingers deep into a knot of dark hair, and searched for a hint of the memory.


“I do not.” Byrne finally said, cracking up. “Beer?”


“Driving.”


“Right, the van. That still a good gig?” Byrne asked as he popped a Budweiser for himself and sat down on the edge of his bed, causing it to sink nearly to the floor.


“No. Uber fucked it up.”


“Too bad.” The thought of it cracked him up again. “That was a good gig.”


Byrne had always been an anomaly to Andrew. He was unique in his absolute contentedness with the life he’d built for himself. If he’d ever had a shred of ambition to leave Seaview Lake, he’d kept it to himself. The most peculiar thing though was that unlike Andrew, or any of his friends who’d taken to New York City for greener pastures, Byrne genuinely appeared to enjoy his work. Mostly hard labor and odd jobs, it was work few young men from Seaview Lake would ever settle for.


Byrne fell back onto his bed, his wide legs stretched out in front of him. Watching him, Andrew settled back onto the milk crate. If not for the crackling music, and the glugging of Byrne and his beer, it’d have been a minute of near silence.


They both perked up at the sound of the door being ripped open at the bottom of the stairs. Byrne instinctively scooped up a glass bong and tucked it below the bed and out of site. By the time he rose from the floor, he was startled to see a little girl on crutches leaning through the opening at the top of the steps.


Andrew had nearly forgotten about her. “What the hell?” he snapped.


“Your car smells weird.” She came all the way up the steps and into the living room, eager to get a better look.


“What? No, it doesn’t. Go wait outside,” Andrew said quickly, wanting her gone before he had to explain anything to Byrne.


“Yes, it does. You’re just used to it.” She snapped back.


“I’ll be out in a minute,” he said, watching as Byrne awkwardly fixed his bedsheets up.


“Give me the keys.” She held her crutches in one hand and extended the other out.


Needing her gone, Andrew jammed his hand into his pocket then stopped. He thought about his job, the van, about his dispatcher, who he hated, and about what he’d have done with the keys to a stranger’s car when he was 13. He let the keys fall back into his pocket. Byrne continued to move some items out of the girl’s line of sight and waved furiously at a window; he wasn’t used to unscheduled company.


“Sit down. Don’t touch anything.”


Byrne settled himself and took in the full sight of the tiny girl he was now hosting. “Cool shirt,” he said without an ounce of irony.


“This. Is. Amazing,” The girl said as she spun in wander of the colorful world around her. “It’s like a treehouse!”


“That’s the idea.”


“Can you just sit down?” Andrew’s chest was getting tight as he turned over the whole situation in his head.


“She’s fine. What’s your name?” asked Byrne.


Growing in confidence, she turned to the two men and smiled. “How nice of you to ask. Would you believe we’ve been driving around for almost an hour now and he not once asked me my name?”


“Wait you don’t know her?” Byrne said looking at Andrew with confusion. “Figured you were babysitting or something.” This brought fire to the girl’s eyes. Smart to her temperament, Andrew jumped up.


“No. I’m working, Byrne. Driving the van. I picked her up.”


“He kidnapped me.”


“No. It’s a long story. I’m dropping her off after this.”

“I’m his co-pilot.”


“Co-pilot. Very cool,” said Byrne nodding at Andrew. It was clear to Andrew that Byrne did not entirely comprehend or care what exactly was going on. He was always good about not prying into other people’s business. Settling into the odd situation, Byrne pulled the bong back out from below the bed and pushed around on the covers for a lighter he’d hastily buried. He offered it to Andrew.


“I’m working.” Andrew motioned to the girl who had busied herself with picking through a shelf of random items in the corner of the room, her back turned to them.

“What are you doing over there?” Byrne asked with unnecessary politeness.

She held a handful of patches up over her shoulder without turning around.

“I like your collection.”

“Oh, yeah, they’re some cool ones in there. Hey, how old are you?” Byrne asked.


“Byrne. No.” Andrew wanted to know nothing more about the girl beyond where she needed to be dropped off and when.


“13.” She said, not turning around. Byrne cracked up.

“No, really. What are you, 16?”


“13,” she said again.


“13, man! She’s 13. Well we started way younger than that anyway. She’s fine.” Hearing that, she twisted the white cap back onto the orange bottle she had picked up from the shelf and put it back in its place. She slid her hand into her pocket before turning back around to see Byrne exhale a mushroom cloud of smoke out through the window at the top corner of the room.


“What’s that do to you?” she asked. Byrne cracked up and she laughed too. She sat down on the edge of the bed next to him.


“Makes me feel pretty damn great,” Byrne said, settling deeper into his sunken bed. “You want one?”


Andrew had begun to pace the room, desperate to leave. Byrne looked up at his friend who was inching closer to the door.


“Absolutely not,” said Andrew. Byrne shrugged at the girl, unwilling to combat his old friend. Andrew said looking at his watch, “We gotta’ go anyway; it’s almost 5.”


Byrne was startled when he confirmed the time on his phone. “What’s at 5, man? I was just going to get something to eat, maybe watch a movie? I’m off, so you can stay if you want.”. It sometimes took walking out mid-conversation to leave Byrne.


“I’m sorry man. For bringing her. She’s going to Asbury Park, and she’s alone and I didn’t want to be responsible. It was stupid.”


“No need to explain yourself, my man. That’s you. Always doing the good. Always helping.” As they made plans to get a drink or see a show and said their goodbyes, the girl took notice of a piece of lined paper, framed behind an ill-fitting piece of glass, and hung crookedly on the wall. The handwriting was nearly illegible, and the paper was stained.


If you want to hear the truth, sit in silence, and listen to yourself.

No one sits in silence anymore.

They’re too afraid.


Byrne gave the little girl one of the patches from his collection. “I’ve had that since I was your age.” She smiled a quiet goodbye to the large man and said nothing. Andrew could tell she wanted to say something to Byrne. Probably another snappy response to any mention of her age, he figured. Andrew helped her down the stairs and exchanged a final hug with his old friend. Byrne receded back through the rusted door and pulled it shut.


Carefully, Andrew stepped from stone to stone along the path, the little girl doing the same just ahead of him. When they reached the gate, he pulled the lock open and let her through. Andrew listed as, from above him, the music on the boombox rose back up.


“No one sits in silence anymore,” the little girl quoted carelessly.


~


“People should start showing up soon.”


“Yeah.” She finished hammering on her phone and looked up. “My friends are already inside.”


This far into November, with the real cold beginning, the sun hardly lasted past 4pm before it had had enough and dove down into the Atlantic. Left behind was an orange and purple sky, burning over top of the Stone Pony and the Asbury Park boardwalk. People all around tried and failed to capture the power of the moment on their phones.


“Why didn’t you let me smoke with your friend?”


Engulfed in the stampede of a crowd about to erupt around them, the white horses painted on the black walls of the venue now seemed to roam freely. Andrew understood why the sun called it quits so early this time year. He was exhausted. “I don’t know,” he replied.


“You really did drugs in middle school?” she asked.


“I did.”


“So, what are you like, protecting me? She folded a piece of gum into her mouth, “That’s it! You think you’re, like, my hero or something, because you saved me from drugs, and from Dave.” She laughed at the idea. He smiled and scratched his cheek with his thumb, something he always did when he was embarrassed. He checked his phone, knowing there was nothing to see.


“Gimmie’ them,” he said without looking up.


“What?”


“I saw you take them from the shelf. Just give me them.”


She reached into her pocket, scooped out the pile of blue pills and handed them over.


“What are they?”


“Don’t worry about it.” He looked out the window and into the rearview, knowing there was nothing there to see.


“I wasn’t going to do them,” she said softly.


Andrew hopped out of the van, walked across the parking lot, spiked the pills into a nearby trash can, and heaved himself back up into the driver’s seat. “It’s twenty bucks for the ride,” he said without looking at the girl.


“Why are you trying to protect me and not him?”


“What?” he said as he slid his thumbs into the grooves in the steering wheel.


“You don’t even know me. He’s your friend. Why didn’t you say something to him?”


“Byrne? He’s fine.”


“He was drinking alone.” She rose in her seat and watched him intently.


“He’s always been that way.” He was fixated on the steering wheel, and the groove she had deepened throughout her time in that seat.


“You should say something.”


“He’s an adult. He doesn’t need me to tell him what to do.” Andrew was getting anxious now and again grew angry at himself forever wanting to help the little girl.


“I think he does. You told me what not to do, why can’t you tell him?”


“What you think, doesn’t matter!” he snapped. “You’re 13! What the hell do you know? You’re wearing a shirt for a band you’ve never heard of. Your opinion doesn’t matter. I let you drive around with me because I figured that if the cops came, at least they’d be able to find you and you wouldn’t be dead in a ditch somewhere! I was saving my ass, not yours! That’s all. Now please, twenty dollars, I have to go.”


Before he even finished, she had her phone out.


“See, you don’t even care! All you care about is that stupid phone!”


She raised her phone up and pointed it towards him.


“What are you doing?” He was breathing heavily.


“Taking your picture,” she said calmly.


“Great. So, you can put it on Instagram and tell all your friends the story about the crazy old cab driver that kidnapped you and freaked out.”


“Put your number in.” She extended her phone to him.


“No.”


Undeterred, she hammered away on the phone and then waited. Andrew’s phone pinged. He checked it and his shoulders fell at the sight of an unwelcome notification.


“Airdrop? Are you kidding me? Fucking technology.” He shook his head.


She cracked up and smiled, “Just accept it.”


Andrew accepted the notification on his phone and saw a picture of himself, red in the face, gripping the steering wheel and shouting.


“Look.” She leaned over and made him watch as she deleted from her phone the photo of him at the height of his delirious outburst. “It’s just yours now. My mom told me that you can either be the kind of person who takes pictures of yourself, or you can be the kind of person who does things worthy of other people taking pictures of you. I know that what you did today was for me, not you, and it was definitely worthy of someone taking notice, and a picture.” Already leaned over, she gave him a hug and gathered her bag and crutches. “Thank you.” She hopped out of the van, situated herself on her crutches, fixed her hair and shirt in the side view mirror, walked around to the driver's side and extended a ten-dollar bill through the open window.


In a daze, Andrew took the bill from her. “Wait,” he collected himself, “It’s twenty.”


“That’s is all I have,” she replied.


“Fu-” He stopped himself short when she perked up, ready to call him out, “I know, lazy. Very funny.”


The crowd around them was starting to build. The vendors on the boardwalk were open now and catering to massive lines of concertgoers. Just a few vans like Andrews were around, letting people out into the streets, but most people fled from Ubers or rode bikes. Those without tickets were setting up chairs and blankets in the park, just happy to listen to the band on the open-air stage. A firepit raged on the beach and hula-hoop girls were entertaining drunken tourists. Andrew always wondered where they all came from. Who were they? What brought them here? Wherever they all came from, he thought, they had brought Asbury Park to life.


He picked up his clipboard on which he recorded all of his fares throughout his shift. Only one line on the chart was filled in:


Passengers: 1

Pickup Place: 110 Albert Court

Pickup Time: 3:35pm

Destination: Stone Pony


He knew he’d have to change the destination to cover his ass with his dispatcher, so he tore the page and began to crumble it up.


“Wait!” She reached through the window and snatched the paper from his hand. She used the edge of the open window to smooth out the crumpled paper and studied it. She smiled at the nearly illegible handwriting, folded it up neatly, and put it in her bag.


Before he had a chance to second guess himself, he reached into his pocket, pulled out the ten-dollar bill, and shoved it through the window.


“Keep it. Use it to get home, or not home. To a friend’s, I guess. I’d give Tomato a day to cool off. If you guys can’t get a ride, call Surf Side. I’m on all night.” She put the ten back in her bag, nodded and turned to go.


“Oh my God, wait!” She turned back to the van, “You still never asked my name! And I don’t know yours.” It hadn’t crossed his mind since back at Byrne’s.


“I’m the only one working,” he said.


“Don’t you want to know my name?” she asked.


“Not really.”


“Why not?”


“Listen, when you tell your friends about all this, which you are going to, and that’s fine, are they going to care about my name, or are they going to care this absurd story?”


“The story,” she replied.


“Right. They don’t really matter, names. We don’t choose them, but we do choose what we do and say. That’s what people care about. That’s what they’ll remember.”


“So, I’ll just have to tell people about the grumpy old, grey-haired taxi driver who-”


“It’s not about looks.” He said annoyed, “It’s-“


“Who saved me from my step-dad.” Andrew went silent, “And didn’t leave me all alone in Asbury Park. And was nice, and kinda’ fun. And who, today, was my hero.”


Andrew swallowed hard and deep. He thumbed his cheek and went to look at his phone but stopped himself. He snorted in hard through his nose and cleared his throat.


“Alright.” He looked out towards the building crowd, “Your friends are waiting.”


“Yeah.” She reached into her pocket and placed something into the palm of his hand,

“Yours too.”


Andrew watched the tiny girl in the black Nirvana shirt crutch her way through the crowd and disappear. With one hand he felt the large hole he’d picked into the foam of the seat below him. In the other, he rolled the tiny blue pill in a slow circle around the palm of his hand.

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