West Dunn and Ash

by Richard Schreck

Stranded by traffic in front of a tire store twenty minutes from his home in Thibodaux, Hoke St. John stared out the taxi window at passersby, forgot them one by one. 

“Accident up ahead.” The driver switched off the ignition, hurled the remains of her cigarette at the sewer near the corner of West Ash and Dunn. Hoke ignored her, but she persisted. “Where’d you fly in from?” 

Why does everybody need to talk? “Miami.”

She looked back, tired eyes under dirty hair, makeup that should have been scrubbed off yesterday or earlier. “I wish I could go to Florida.” 

Weary of the burden of other people’s problems, he opened his mouth to tell her to leave him alone, but closed it instead. He ground his teeth, tried to guess her age, and wondered how old you had to be to drive a taxi in Louisiana. “Why?” 

“Cause it’s not here. Why were you there?”

He glanced at a passerby. “Job interview.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

“Think you’ll get it?”

He tried to sound pleasant, suspected he didn’t. “I got it. They offered me the job.” 

“Wow. So, you get to stay. That’s great.” Muscles bunched in her shoulders. “I need to go somewhere.” She laughed, but not in a way that made him anticipate a joke. “They put me in rehab.” 

The resentment in her voice made him think of his cousins fighting rehab and winning—Pyrrhic victory, of course. His regret shot out in the form of garden variety anger. “They let you out of rehab to drive a jitney cab?” 

She snapped back, anger to anger. “I left.” Traffic began to move, and she started the car, lifted both hands to the top of the wheel, squeezed the knuckles white. 

Hoke calmed himself. Don’t cross an addict. “Florida’s okay. But I haven’t decided what I want to do.”  

“Why’d you apply for the job, then?”

“The company I sell for offered me their Caribbean Region. It’s a good chance to move up. I thought I could do the job from here, but they said I’ll have to be based in Miami.” He tried to return to watching pedestrians, but they failed to distract him. Just my bad luck to wind up with a cabbie who’s ditching rehab like Les and Billy—headed to the same bad end.

They reached the accident, two cars crushed together. As she eased around them through the narrow strip left usable, “So they want you in charge of their Caribbean Region and you hadn’t even tried to get it? That means you’re a shot caller, one of those people who always seem to wind up in charge one way or another, solve everybody’s problems. Right?”

She was. He’d always had to be the responsible one, and he was tired of it. Then, telling himself he didn’t want to get involved, he did anyway. “Listen, two of my cousins ran out on rehab. It isn’t a good idea.” He expected she’d tell him to go to blazes, waited for it. 

“Screw rehab. That place was filled with rich people’s full-of-themselves kids.” Her voice softer, “My dad’s boss paid for me.”

“Generous of him. Your folks must be grateful.”

“Mr. Stein’s got plenty of money. But yeah, my mom’s grateful.”

“Your dad’s against it?”

“He’s dead.”

“Sorry.”

“Shot himself.” The lack of tone in what followed conveyed despair. “I was his last

straw.”

Hoke gave it a moment, let the silence have its way with her memories and his. At last, he took a breath, steeled himself to speak. “Look, I helped my cousins ditch their rehab center. The next night, they got themselves shot in some dumb …” Catching the implication, he added, “I’m not saying you’re … 

She interrupted, “You were close to your cousins?”

“Same as brothers. Their folks raised me.” 

“Why did you help them skip out on rehab?”

That was the question that kept him up nights. If he’d told them to stay in rehab, they would have. They‘d always done what he said, mimicked his opinions, copied his slang. “I shouldn’t have. It was a mistake.” 

Her voice came out soft. “Do their folks blame you? That’s usually the way it goes.”

“No, but they should, and now, I’m all they’ve got.” He lost himself in the image of his cousins piling into his Chevy on the run from their one hope of survival. 

Her voice brought him back. “That’s why you’re thinking about turning down Miami? Hey, you didn’t force them, right? You just wanted to help.”

“Sure.” As they turned onto his street, he recognized a face, saw a familiar car. “What’s your situation? What’s your mom say?” 

“That I’m off the rails. We don’t talk. You know?”

“Sure.” 

She was looking at house numbers. “You should take the job in Miami. Just go.” 

“Because …?”

“Family will kill you.” 

“What you’re doing won’t?”

They let that sit long enough that he told himself she was thinking about it.

Finally, he broke the silence with one last shot. “Look, your mother wants you to stay in rehab, right?”

“Sure.”

“Whether or not you do, maybe you can resolve things with her. But if you want to make the effort, you have to be there. You know?”

 “I was there. It didn’t help.” 

They reached his house. He pulled his carry-on toward him across the bench seat, opened his mouth to say, “You should go back to rehab.” Then, for the first time since he could remember, he just stopped. Tired of other people’s problems and planning for Miami, he handed her the fare in silence and pushed open the door. 

______
Richard Schreck has written over 30 nonfiction articles and scripts for media pieces. He served for ten years as a newsletter editor for TESOL, the largest professional association of persons who teach the English language, and as a member and then Chair of the organization’s Standards Committee. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, where he began a lifelong interest in technology as a contribution to linguistics and education. Among other fun things, he directed the delivery of the first online university course in central Siberia. Richard is currently writing Brain Game, a sci-fi/techno thriller with a dash of corporate espionage set in Baltimore and New Orleans in the years following Katrina. An excerpt has appeared in The Mailer Review: https://projectmailer.net/pm/The_Mailer_Review/Volume_13,_2019/Request.

Both Brain Game and West Ash and Dunn draw from a fictional world he began to develop while living on the Gulf Coast. Richard is a member of the Maryland Writers’ Association and the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.