It’s a strange but indisputable fact of life that grumpy old men make excellent fictional characters.
Why do you think so many people love Up?
If these grumpy old men are soft inside but in denial about it, that’s even better.
Guess what this story is about?
This is another short story that I wrote for a competition. Did I enter it into said competition? No, I did not.
I started roughly five weeks before the deadline, finished the rough draft, put it away, and forgot about it until the deadline was past.
I see a hundred faces in a day. People get on. They tell me where they’re going. They pay me. Some try to make polite small talk. Some stay silent. Some chatter the entire way, regardless of whether I respond or not. And I don’t. I get them where they’re going, and then they get off.
It’s a good job. A practical job. It gets me what I need and it’s rarely frustrating. Sometimes it can be interesting. Mostly it’s not. I drive some nice people, and I drive some people I can’t wait to never see again. I hear plenty of good stories. I hear plenty of bad ones. I forget about all of them.
I have a few regulars–people who use my little river taxi every day to get from coastline to coastline. Aside from those few regulars, people get on, and then they get off. And then I never see them again. Or maybe I do. I never recognize them again, in any case. Like I said, I see a hundred faces in a day. I don’t remember any of them.
I know what you’re thinking–you think you know what comes next. You think that one day, one fated day that I’ll never forget, I saw a face that was different. I saw a face that changed my life. Maybe I knew it immediately–that this person was different and special. Maybe I realized it after a strange but eye-opening conversation. Whatever the case, the day that that person climbed onto my boat remained with me forever; the face of that person stayed forever etched in my memory–I think of that face every day. That face and the person belonging to it made me realize something about myself and my lonely existence. It opened my eyes to all the things around me that I’d never noticed before. It changed the way I looked at the world and the way I treated other people. But more than that–more than any of that–that face changed me.
I’m sorry. I have no such story. I do not change. People call me a grumpy old man. I am a grumpy old man. I was born one. I will die one.
There has never been a person who climbed onto my boat and turned my world upside down. There has never been a face that has stuck with me since the moment I first saw it.
There was, though, a face that has stuck with me since the moment I last saw it. I don’t know why. I didn’t know her. I didn’t care about her. And yet, somehow, I remember her.
She didn’t change my whole life and open my eyes to the colors of the world. She didn’t lead me to the truth of some life-altering revelation. She wasn’t special any more than anyone else in the world is. She wasn’t different from the other people who climbed into my boat. She wasn’t different at all.
She wasn’t different until the day she left.
No, I did not fall in love with her. She was young enough to be my daughter. I am a grumpy old man, remember?
And on that note, no, she did not bring a ray of sunshine into my life that lifted the weight of my grumpiness and made me step a little lighter.
She did not teach me to sing. She did not teach me to dance. She did not teach me to slow down and enjoy every moment. She did not teach me to love. She did not teach me anything, and I certainly taught her nothing.
So why did her face stick with me? Why does it flash in and out of my consciousness on days when business is slow and the sky clouds over and the air tastes of rain?
I don’t know. But if you will stop asking your ridiculous questions, I’ll tell you what happened.
I don’t remember meeting her. I don’t remember the first time she came onto my boat and told me where she was going. And I don’t remember the second time, either, or the third or the fourth or the fifth.
She was a regular. She was my eight o’clock pick-up. And my six o’clock. I took her to the far shore at eight in the morning, and I brought her back at six at night.
Like I said, I don’t remember when this started. I don’t remember the day she became a regular. I don’t remember the day I realized that she would always be there, standing on the near shore by the Dodson Pier at eight o’clock in the morning every weekday. But one day I must have realized it, because I found myself, sometime after the first time she had used my taxi, arriving at the same spot at the same time every morning.
This happened with all of my regulars. I took them someplace once, forgot about it, took them to the same place at the same time again, forgot about it, and continued this pattern every day. I didn’t remember them personally–if you ask me about my regulars today, I can tell you that I have three or four, and I can tell you where and when I pick them up every day. I can’t tell you about them. I don’t remember them. I forget about them every time I take them somewhere. I don’t forget about the time or place that I need to pick them up–that’s my job. That’s my living. I have to be there. But I forget about them.
I can tell you that right now, as I drive, there is a woman in my boat–a regular–who I can’t stand. What is her name? I don’t know. What does she look like? I don’t care. When did I pick her up? Six o’clock sharp. The trip to the far shore takes ten minutes long, and she is apparently going to talk every second of the way. Does she do this every time? I don’t know. What is she talking about? I don’t know, but she’s loud and nasally. I feel like an elephant is trumpeting into my ear.
But we will get to the far shore, and she will get off, and I will forget about her. I will pick her up tomorrow, but I only know that because I pick up a regular at six every morning. I picked her up at six, so she must be that regular.
The one thing I can tell you for sure is that she isn’t the regular.
The regular didn’t talk like this. She didn’t talk at all, in fact. She must have once, I suppose, or a few times, to tell me where to drop her off. But that would have been the first few times I picked her up, and like I said, I don’t remember those.
I only remember the times I picked her up after she was already a regular, or had been for some time. It was the same every morning. She got in, and she didn’t say anything. She sat next to me, one hand holding her umbrella, one hand resting in her lap. Every once in awhile, she would adjust her sunglasses and then return her hand to her lap. She didn’t talk to me. She didn’t look at me. I didn’t talk to her. I didn’t look at her.
It was pleasant.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time. I didn’t remember any of this at the time. All I knew was to be at Dodson’s Pier at eight. Someone would be waiting for me, because someone always was.
In retrospect, I think I must have liked her. I must have enjoyed her company as she sat silently next to me in my boat. Or maybe I just appreciated, in some subconscious way, her constancy. She never missed a meeting–she was always there, waiting for me on the shore. She always climbed in with the same stoic expression. She never said anything because she never had to. I knew where she wanted to go. She always wanted to go there.
I suppose people can’t always be constant. I suppose they change. I don’t, but I suppose other people do. The other people–they change, and they move on. They leave. They step off your boat and they never come back. And even though you didn’t know them–even though you’d never talked to them, or didn’t remember it–you remember them. You almost feel like you’ve been left behind, even though you didn’t know like or love or care about them at all.
Of all the trips I ever took across that channel, from coastline to coastline, carrying passengers to and fro, I don’t remember any as well as that cloudy day that I last picked her up. She was standing where she always was, at the time she always was, with her sunglasses and her umbrella and her long gloves–like she always was.
Not that I noticed any of that. She was my eight o’clock regular.
I pulled up next to the Dodson Pier and looked straight ahead while she climbed in. She got in and got herself settled, and I started to pull out.
“Not to Westbay this time,” she said.
“What?” I grunted.
“I’m not going to Westbay this time,” she said.
She was always going to Westbay. That was always where I took her.
“I need to go to Greenhaven.”
I looked at her. She had already looked away–she was facing away from me, out over the back of the boat, her head cocked slightly to one side. She always sat like that.
It surprised me that I knew that–after all, I didn’t pay attention to where she looked or how she looked or what she said or what she did. She was my eight o’clock. And my six o’clock. I picked her up at Dodson Pier and took her to Westbay. And that was all.
But as I looked at her, I realized that I knew everything about her–I knew that she sat with her ankles crossed and her head cocked to one side. I knew that she never talked to me. I knew that she always brought that same umbrella and that she always wore those same sunglasses and those same long blue gloves. I knew that when we got out into the middle of the channel and the wind picked up, it would whip her hair around her face, and she would try to push it back with her hands, and she wouldn’t be able to, and it wouldn’t bother her. Because it never bothered her. And I had always thought that that was funny, but I had never known that I thought that.
She was my eight o’clock. She was my trip to Westbay that I took every morning. But now she wanted to go to Greenhaven. Where the airport was.
I realized, suddenly, that there was something different about her. She had her same sunglasses and her same umbrella and her same gloves on her hands, but this time her hands were different. One held the umbrella; the other should have been in her lap. But it wasn’t. It was resting on the top of a trunk that she had in her lap.
She wanted to go to Greenhaven.
I pulled out. I took her across the channel. The wind whipped her hair into her face, and she tried to push it back but couldn’t. And it didn’t seem to bother her.
I had known it wouldn’t.
I drove her to Greenhaven. She dropped her money in my hand, and for the first time since I had started this job, I watched a passenger leave my boat. I watched her step onto the pier and felt the boat rock gently. She didn’t say anything to me as she left. She never did.
I remembered her, from that moment on. I don’t know why. I just remember her. I remember her pale face and her yellow hair and her silence. I remember her umbrella and her sunglasses and her gloves. I remember her trunk, on that last day when she left. It had a sticker on it–Paris.
She never came back. I haven’t seen her since that day. I don’t mind. Like I said, I don’t know why I remember her. She wasn’t very special to me or anything. She definitely didn’t change me. I’m a grumpy old man. I don’t change.
I just remember.