Drive Me Crazy
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People called me Driver. It was my sobriquet, not my birth name.
I’d been working for the same limousine service since I made it back on this side of The Wall. Not since the day I got out, I’d hustled here and there, but it was my first real job. After two years of living on lockdown, I found that as hard as it was living in a cage it was even rougher when you finally had freedom’s sunshine on your face. I’d paid my debt, but a man with a record, no matter how legit he tries to be, will still get a hard time from the assholes holding the jobs.
Part of it was my look. I’d inherited a John Henry, railroad-worker build like my maternal granddaddy. When you were six-two and dark as an open road, you grew up knowing that America wasn’t as kumbaya as it claimed to be. In some countries a man who looked like me would be a king. Where I lived I just passed for a suspect. I learned how to soften that look. I shaved my head bald and wore glasses when I could. Glasses intellectualized my appearance. Actually I needed them for reading. My world was getting blurry. When a man turns forty his body starts to change. But, to be honest, I couldn’t hide what I owned. A few times I’d walked into a room and men pulled their women closer. Maybe because when some women saw me, there was a subtle shift, like somebody had struck a match down below.
Women hadn’t been shit but trouble in my world.
My relationship with women was the same as my love-hate relationship with L.A. The city was expensive and pretty, decorated in palm trees and beaches, and even with smog, earthquakes, road rage, and endless traffic, a woman that beautiful was hard to leave. She heated you up in the middle of the day and with a gentle breeze she cooled you off at night.
Married women. That was another lesson I’d learned.
I say that because of the scam. Well, it was more than a simple scam. Scams involved Confidence Men who convinced you to give them their money. It took days, maybe even weeks before you realized you’d been had. And it was all done with a handshake and a smile.
What we planned was a bona fide crime.
Whether for selfish or personal reasons, we needed money, the root of all evil. I lived in Los Angeles County. The median cost of a single-family home was damn near four hundred thousand. Car registration had tripled. Gas prices were out of control. My one-bedroom apartment was in Inglewood, a city that had no rent control, and rent had shot up thirty percent, and now my rent was a little over twelve hundred a month. No matter how much I hustled, no matter how much money I made, it wasn’t enough. Maybe I just wanted to make some spending money to make it through another lean year in the Bush-whacked new millennium. I could say that with Schwarzenegger as the new “governator” after California’s total recall, I wanted to save up for the unknown. I could say a lot of shit. But I knew it wasn’t about the state budget or an energy crisis or an economy struggling to recover.
I just wanted to impress her.
There was always a “her” involved.
I’m going too fast.
Let me backtrack.
I was chilling at a dilapidated pool hall in South Central, a place called Back Biters and Syndicators, named after a John Lee Hooker song. The regulars just called the joint Back Biters, an old slang term for somebody who couldn’t be trusted, and it didn’t matter if the hand was black or white. It was a hangout with unfinished walls, decent pool tables, and hard liquor. No snooker or baccarat, no high-end shit like that. A joint where candidates for three strikes made or lost their rent gambling on eight or nine ball, maybe shooting craps in the back.
That evening I was sitting at the bar sipping a beer with my boss, Jason Wolf, Jr. We called him by his last name, Wolf. Six-footer with a Nordic blond mane. Two years younger than me. Hair was thinning up top. Kept what was left pulled back into a smooth ponytail. Wolf was a gray-eyed silver-spoon baby who had dropped out of NYU almost as soon as he walked into the institution of higher learning. Said NYU bored him. He used to drive back in New York, but after his dad died and left him a nice piece of change, he relocated West about ten years ago and started his own thing with his windfall.
He was the only man to give me a chance on this side of The Wall.
We’d shot some eight ball, then called it quits and posted up at the small bar, beers on the counter, chilling the night away. I was reading parts of the L.A. Times, looking for new words to add to my vocabulary. I loved learning ten-dollar words like abstemious and solipsism then throwing them in a conversation and watching the stupid light come on in somebody’s eyes.
Wolf was stroking his goatee with two fingers while he struggled with the crossword puzzle. Both of us had on dark suits. Mine was Italian. Wolf’s was more conservative, along the Brooks Brothers style. The poor always tried to look rich and the rich tried to look normal.
“Eighty-one across ... five letters.” Wolf grunted. He sounded like an old man who’d smoked since he was evicted from his momma’s womb. “Driver, what the hell is baklava glue?”
“What’s in it for me?”
“C’mon man. Help a brother out.”
Pedro was passing by, heard Wolf call himself a brother and laughed. Pedro was the bartender; a short, clean-cut, thick Hispanic man. Looked like Enrique Iglesias with bad metabolism and a smooth salt-and-pepper goatee. Second generation in this country. He was in his forties and had married his high school sweetheart the day he got out of the army.
I said, “You hear that, Pedro?”
Pedro shrugged. “Marrying a black woman has made him black by osmosis.”
We all laughed at that.
Pedro was a former aerospace worker who got downsized from his cozy sixty-thousand-dollar-a-year gig as a project engineer at Northrup almost ten years ago. He spent two years looking for a job and trying to feed his family off his 401(k) and unemployment. He retrained, then finally got on at Boeing at a serious pay cut. He was about to get downsized at Boeing, a nasty little déjà vu, but got fired before they could kick him out. Something went down. He went postal and beat the shit out of his manager and tried to choke him into an early grave. Down here, people admired Pedro for what he did. A lot of disgruntled motherfuckers wanted to do the same to both the man and the system. That was four years back, with eight months of that spent on lockdown, twice as long in anger management.
Wolf ranked on Pedro, “You’re as Mexican as Taco Bell and you’re breaking my balls?”
Pedro shook his head. “Here we go again. Dean Martin walks in with Sammy Davis, Jr., and the corny jokes come out.”
I told Wolf, “I think he just called you Sammy Davis, Jr.”
More laughter while blues man Robert B. Jones sang about a kindhearted woman.
“Driver, what’s up with your people?” Wolf turned to me. “Mexicans have all the jobs that the black people used to have.”
Pedro retorted, “Don’t hate.”
Wolf went on, “Walk on a construction site, into the kitchen at a soul food restaurant, or check out the hotel workers, hardly a black person in sight.”
I shot Wolf the middle finger of love.
Pedro retorted, “It’s our damn country, asshole. And for your information the original name of this land given by the original people was El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles but we had to shorten it because the gringos came over on the short yellow bus.”
“Are you insulting me, Pedro? Is that a racial slur I hear?”
“Damn right. Your Brad Pitt–looking ass don’t like it, hop in your Ferrari and go back to whatever part of Europe your pagan people migrated from.”
“I’m Catholic. And I drive a Lamborghini.”
Pedro huffed. “The cheap one.”
“Cheap? You drive a Hyundai.”
“The expensive one.”
Outrageous laughter came from all three of us.
I said, “The original residents called this part of the country Wenot, Pedro. Downtown was Yang-ya. Next time you put a motherfucker in his place, have your facts straight.”
Pedro said, “You’re an asshole, Driver.”
Wolf added, “A damn Encyclopedia Brown.”
“You know? Walking around with his head filled with useless information.”
I flipped both of them off.
We all laughed, and that felt better than chicken soup. I’d had a rough day. I’d driven a rapper to do an interview at a hip-hop radio station on Wilshire, not far from the La Brea Tar Pits. A gangsta rapper who ain’t never been in a gang. He was buffed and hardcore, but rumors had been circulating about his sexual preferences. The DJ straight out asked him if he was gay. That was during morning drive time, so millions of people were listening. The rapper went off and tore up the studio. Microphones were broken, there was a big fight. Station management tried to play it down. So after a day like that, I needed some spirits and laughter.
I had to drink, had to laugh, had to get this tension off my back. A big debt hanging over my head, my own cloud and angst that let me know the devil would come to get his due.
Pedro asked Wolf, “How is the wife?”
“New one or old one?”
“Did I tell you she flew up to Vegas with me, wanted to go to a trade show, Taser International booth. Bought a stun gun. Fifty thousand volts. Those suckers have been big since nine-eleven. And she got in line, let them zap her. Fifty thousand volts. She took it like she was a damn android. Got up and spent four hundred on a stun gun. Would you believe she did that?”
I shifted, hid my discomfort, and nodded. “I believe it.”
“Said she wanted it for protection. She has guns all over the house. You don’t buy a stun gun like that for protection. You buy that for torture.”
Silence covered us all.
Wolf asked our friend, “How’s the family, Pedro?”
“Just hope the grocery stores end this strike. My wife has been picketing for three months already. My daughter is in college. We have two car notes. It’s killing us right now.”
Pedro licked his lips, swallowed his frustration, then moved on to another customer.
Wolf asked me about baklava glue again. He was getting frustrated, I could tell. Underneath that cool demeanor he had some temper, some aggravation. The kind that trying to please the wrong woman gave a man. He had no idea who his wife really was.
I patted Wolf’s shoulder, told him, “Five letters. Try h-o-n-e-y.”
He thanked me.
It seemed like yesterday, but almost six months had passed since I had crept into his office, dressed in a black Italian suit, murder and another man’s fortune on my mind. Almost six months to the day. I know because my mother had died late that same evening. Got the message from my brother when I was on the way to kill Wolf.
I didn’t kill Wolf. Didn’t have to. Wolf was already gone.
The way he spoke, I could see Wolf was the living dead. The alcohol on his breath and the dullness in his eyes told me that somebody had killed him from the inside out, had left him living in a prison of his own. One that nobody could see but him.
Women had the power to do that.
His wife, Lisa, had been a bitch in five-hundred-dollar boots. She was his second wife, both African-American. Both beautiful as sin. But Lisa. Her image lived with me. Caramel skin. Bambi-like eyes. Shoulder-length auburn hair. Happy-go-lucky smile. She had upgraded her boobs from A to C, all paid for by Wolf. Her teeth had been veneered. She had a perfect smile. A simple glance at Lisa felt like a transgression, so I didn’t stare at her anymore. Even the scent of her perfume reminded me of when I was fucking her inside his home.
Wasn’t for Wolf I’d either be a poster child for recidivism—back in the joint getting three hots and a cot—or sleeping on a cardboard box with America’s discarded vets.
Didn’t want to think about that shit right now.
He gave me a job. That was all I really wanted. Just needed to get back on my feet.
Pedro whistled, then said, “Look at that dime walking in.”
My attention followed his eyes to the front door. So did Wolf’s.
This dime piece was standing underneath a giant Stroh’s beer sign that was hanging in the doorway. The room was dimly lit, but there was enough light to see what she had to offer. Light-brown skin. Long straight hair. Nice curves. Modest frame. She moved like she had an edge about her, like she was looking for trouble. Everybody noticed her. She had more style than the secondhand-suit and FUBU crowd that populated the bar.
I asked Wolf, “Who she?”
Pedro answered, “She breezed through here a couple days ago.”
Wolf went back to his crossword puzzle, more interested in his own personal mystery.
I said, “She’s ripe.”
Pedro nodded. “Put her hair in two ponytails and R. Kelly will be all over her.”
Pedro moved on, went to sell spirits and salvation to the masses by the glass.
She moved in our direction. Some women got closer and dropped from dimes to nines to eights, kept falling like the stock market. She never lost a point. She had on a long, black leather skirt, the kind that had a split and showed off her legs. Her heels were the kind that made her legs look good and her feet feel bad. Her straight hair had deep brown highlights.
Wolf grunted. “Driver, rat’s last meal. Starts with A ... ends in NIC ... seven letters.”
My eyes were anchored to the new girl, watching her move her baklava glue around the room. She saw me admiring her. I nodded. She held onto her business face, made a motion that asked me if I wanted to challenge her on the table. I shook my head, motioned at an empty seat next to me. She shook her head, moved on, found a sister who had money to burn.
“Rat’s last meal ... starts with A ... ends with NIC,” I mumbled. “Arsenic.”
Wolf scribbled in the answer, smiled like a kid who was done with his homework, and checked his watch. “I smell like two beers and fried fish from Geraldine’s. Lisa’s gonna pitch a bitch. Talk to you tomorrow, Driver.”
“No you won’t. I’m off tomorrow. Don’t even think about ringing my phone.”
“You ungrateful fuck. What you got planned?”
I told him that TNT was running a lot of movies I liked tomorrow, old noir movies like Act of Violence. Last Train from Gun Hill. The Set-Up. The Big Heat. The Killers.
Wolf said, “The Killers. I liked the first one with Ava Gardner. It was cold-blooded how those men marched up those stairs and killed that man without a thought.”
“Yeah, they did. Without a thought. They sure did.” I cleared both my mind and my throat, mumbled out my thoughts. “Lancaster and Gardner.”
“He loved her. And she played him. All for the money.”
Wolf went catatonic, like his inner voice was talking to him, telling him things, or maybe the alcohol was catching up to him. Either way, Wolf blinked out of his stupor, ran his hand over his goatee, and nodded like he understood something. His barstool screeched the floor when he stood up. Wolf took a final sip of his beer, whistled, and put his suit coat back on.
He asked, “You staying?”
A wave of tiredness rolled over me. That was my cue. I told him to hold up while I finished my beer. My sinful night was about to end, my peaceful tomorrow already planned.
He asked, “Heading to Strokers to watch Panther strip and dance the pole dance?”
Panther. A woman who had a Southern accent and schoolgirl smile like my ex-wife’s.
I paused, smiled. “Nah. I’ve given Panther enough of my paycheck. Gonna call it a night. Maybe make a few phone calls on the way home. Stir up a midnight snack of my own.”
Baklava Glue moved her hair from her exotic face, glanced my way again. A fresh dime in a room filled with old nickels, a few the size of a quarter, none that could be runner-up to Miss Barstow. A woman like that could walk into a church on Easter Sunday and ten minutes later somebody would have been shot, stabbed, or drowned in sacrifice as a show of affections.
I touched Wolf’s shoulder, told him, “I’m gonna try my luck with Miss Baklava Glue.”
Wolf held up and watched her for a second.
In the end he said, “She’s a cure for what Viagra is trying to fix.”
I winked at my employer, my friend, teased him, “Unless you want to holla at her.”
“High-maintenance women like that are why I’m in the condition I’m in today. Alimony and child support on an ex-wife who decided she didn’t want to be married anymore, then moved to Las Vegas just to make my visitation hell, and a now a new wife who won’t stop shopping.”
I asked, “That bad?”
“The wife went out for coffee at Starbucks and came back in a brand-new red Hummer.”
“I saw it in the parking lot at work. Ugly-ass SUV looks like an armored car.”
“And costs just as much. She’s killing me. Last thing I need is to meet another pretty woman who would take advantage of my cheating heart and gum up the works.”
I threw my hands up. “Told you to keep away from the high-end women.”
“Not my fault. They come after me.”
“Because you’re rich.”
Wolf set me straight, said, “Because I’m hung like a horse and they all want to ride.”
Pedro laughed. He was pouring somebody a shot of scotch, listening to Wolf ramble.
Wolf flipped Pedro off and went on, “Can’t help it if they love me, Driver. Just can’t help it. Maybe next time I’ll stick to my own kind and meet a nice Irish girl.”
Pedro told him, “You’re not Irish.”
“I’ll dye my hair red and eat Lucky Charms.”
We laughed, and when the laughter died, Wolf called it a night, headed across the room. His gait should’ve been confident and moneyed, like he owned the world, but he moved like a crab, like he was cringing all the time. If you stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and put a trench coat on his back, he’d look like James Dean strolling down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
As soon as Wolf left, Pedro gave me a knowing look, shook his head, his smile gone.
He told me, “She just called up here looking for you. She’s bold. Like she don’t care.”
Pedro didn’t say my trouble’s name. We knew my sins and indiscretions.
He asked, “How does she know when you’re here? I tell her you’re not here and she tells me I’m lying. It’s like she knows when you walk in the door. I’d be careful.”
“Fifty thousand volts.”
“Know what I’m saying? She’s loco like a mofo.”
I shrugged and pushed my chest out, waved it off like it was nothing I couldn’t handle.
Pedro looked in the direction Wolf had just gone, then shook his head and walked away.
Excerpted from Drive Me Crazy by Eric Jerome Dickey. Copyright © 2004 by Eric Jerome Dickey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.