Friday, May 11, 2018

Drive by Ateret Haselkorn

Ateret Haselkorn's character makes a life for herself driving for a ride sharing service, but is haunted by her past.

I remember the first natural lie I ever told. Not your standard, "I didn't steal the cookies from the jar" fib, but the kind that emerges on its own to serve a purpose for however long you need, like a disposable life raft made from your own breath. I can even recall the way the lie felt as it rose to the back of my throat, before I knew what I would say, before I let the words form on my tongue and then catapult through the air. The best I can describe it is as a feeling of organic creation. I had the same sensation in the moments before my daughter was born, of a force, a likelihood, an about to. Then her head came out, and then she was there. It happened from inside of me as it should, as was intended, and all I had to do at that point was allow it to take place.

A natural lie isn't exactly like the creation of birth but tinier, like resting back on your heels and looking at the sky in surprise, as if it didn't exist at all until you glanced up and made it form. When I told my lie, I wasn't more than sixteen and at the bar of a local restaurant thanks to a fake ID and a drunk bartender. I thought I'd pick up a freebie, like a drink or a burger, because that's what my friend Vanka was training me to do, at least whenever she gave me her attention. She was a senior and said she hadn't paid for a thing since junior high when her breasts grew in. I was sitting at the bar and watching her "role model the behavior," as was often described in Living Skills or detention. I guess her trick was her smile and maybe the way she looked twenty-two or three. She laughed loudly and often and, well, her bosoms were pushed up like they were going to reach her chin one inch at a time on a slow conquest. Since Vanka said I didn't have those curves to "work with," we did what we could and used a five-finger discount at WalMart on a small push-up bra and the padding of a much larger one that Vanka called, "The Rusky." The padding went into my underwear, slid right over my derriere, turning me not into an hourglass exactly but maybe a minute glass.

It worked too, once I stopped watching Vanka and started making eye contact with men. Vanka never looked at me anyway when she was "on." Actually, she didn't look at much anything other than men, which is probably connected to how she rear-ended someone and lost her license, and that likely led to the rare attention that she did give me. I had a car, an old Toyota that was my grandma's when her eyes still worked, and a license. Vanka's lessons for me were supposed to be payment for services rendered.

I don't think Vanka noticed when the man eyed me. I should have felt excited but all I felt was sweat drip down my back and get caught in the Rusky-padding on my rear. I was scared, ok? I was sixteen and he was older than dirt. Also, he had red hair and so did my grandma before the grays came in. She used to smack everything she could reach assuming that if you didn't deserve it for past sins you'd deserve it eventually. I'd log that as a prepayment on debauchery.

So, then I had the initial feeling hit me, not that I had to take action but that I would. I flagged the waitress and I asked for chicken soup. I had no idea why at the time since I don't even like chicken soup because Grandma forced it upon me after church every week. When the man offered to buy me a drink, I told him I had someone waiting for me at the motel, and when the man said, well, why is he there, I said, he's sick, and he said, why are you here if your man is sick, and I said, I've got to bring him soup. And right then the waitress brought it over, and my story loop closed, confirmed and supported by itself. I was so happy that I laid ten bucks on the table and didn't ask for change.

That was my natural lie. I took my soup to the car and ate it there, watching Vanka through the windows. She had a beautiful jaw line, like her face was cut out of stone. Her eyes were green but only if you looked at them up close, which I sometimes did with a side glance at stop lights or by looking into the rear view mirror as she used it to reapply her mascara. She was chatting with a man at the bar and I could see him slowly inching over so their thighs would touch. I think he faced the mirror to use the reflection to admire her cleavage. I wondered if he'd be able to see the birthmark on her neck since it was only a few shades darker than the rest of her skin. I wondered if she'd be able to ignore his small and shiny head with those little gray hairs sticking out the sides.

Vanka never expected rides home, only to reach her destination, but she still could have called or texted me to see where I went or if I was alright. I saw her at school Monday and she didn't even ask then, but I still told her I got a meal out of the evening because it made me feel good. That was only a half-lie and, although it didn't feel the same, it was nice the way the soup continued to deliver results for me. Chicken soup is good for the soul.

I didn't ask her about her evening to show her I didn't care either, but about five weeks later she made me drive her to a certain women's clinic, so I figured it out on my own. I think abortion isn't really a question of values but more of a science question. When does life begin? When does it end? In my opinion, it begins right when God marries two cells together and only God should end it. I regretted driving her to the clinic so much that, a few years later, when it came time for my grandma to leave this earth and the doctors kept asking me to make a decision on end of life, I made it clear that was not up to me. So, that woman stayed on the machine for months and months on end. As I saw her withering away, I realized she had so much life left in her and knew I was doing what was right and good.



Vanka was gone before my graduation but I suppose she left an impression on me. No, I don't pick up men at bars, but I drive and I get paid for it with money now. The income source came pretty naturally when those apps were invented and suddenly everyone wanted to participate in what my teachers say is called a sharing economy. I'd share just about anything if you paid me, except my daughter, Bethany. I don't share her with any one, not even her dad, as he long ago departed and I have no intention of following him to wherever he may be.

It wasn't like my dream or anything to drive for a living. You may write me off as a loser, many people do, but I go to community college too. I have a full course load towards becoming an accounting clerk, which I pay for with my ever-so-flexible driving job and some cash my grandma left me. My daughter caused it all, actually. Those early morning feedings, me with nothing to do when she went back to sleep, and surge pricing calling my name. All those commuters, all those airport rides, and I only had to pay my neighbor a small fee to babysit while I hit "available" on the app and got into my car. Assets went up while my debts and liability balanced just fine. Accounting is beautiful in that it assigns all things a name and value. If I'm ever asked to stand up and read from the ledger of my life, I'm sure everything will balance perfectly. I treat others as they treat me, and I keep excellent records.

I don't drive that Toyota any more, though. My car is equipped with connections, Bluetooth enabled, and the best in wireless entertainment and navigation. Heck, my car is smarter than me. Last week the car swerved to keep me from hitting a pedestrian when I looked down to yank Bethany's baby toy out from beneath the brake pad. I turned the wheel back before hitting a wall, which was scary, but better than what could have happened. My car is my co-pilot. Grandma might have been proud of my foresight. Probably would have thought I spent too much of her money on one thing, but she's dead now.

I have regular customers now, and my rating is very nearly five stars. It would have been an even five but I didn't get my customers mini-bottles of water at Costco one weekend when Bethany was sick and I had to stay home. I suppose an asshole or two who I drove around on Monday were accustomed to a higher level of service.

My most regular passenger is always in a suit, somewhere important to go. The early hour and few available drivers bring us together often and produce a lovely surge in price at the same time. I have him pegged as a trader, a man who deals with imports and exports, because we go to the warehouses a lot or to the airport and he is always saying things like, tell B I want the sale to close next week. Later on it became, tell B he is peddling the wrong candy and switch after this drop. So, guess I don't really know what he does but don't want to judge him on it.

He is always on his phone, which doesn't bother me much as I'm used to being ignored. I didn't realize how ignored, though, until I once said, nice to see you again, and he said, have we met, so I guess he never noticed me at all. The weird thing was that after he didn't recognize me I went into my receipts and it was like he wasn't there. I actually import my logs into a spreadsheet so I can manage my income better and I saw no two male names the same other than a John and a Jon, no letter h, even though I'm sure I've driven him multiple times. I guess I'll call him Baldy.

Maybe Baldy reinvents himself daily, a whole new person each time the sun rises. If I were him, I would reinvent myself with a larger head and some more hair.

One time we went to the warehouses and, because he looked stressed out and let out a sigh that bore the weight of human suffering for the past two thousand years or so, I offered to wait if he just needed to run a quick errand. He declined my offer by saying no thank you the way that Vanka used to get rid of men she didn't like - polite but with no room for arguing. I hate it when people speak that way to me almost as much as when they don't speak to me at all.

I only drove around the area for an extra moment or two, only dawdled during my three-point turn in the lot to be cautious. You can't entrust all of your driving, or your life, to your car, you need to reserve some responsibility for yourself and throw the rest out to the Lord. Anyhow, I saw Baldy standing on the other side of the chain-link fence and he wasn't doing much, just looking over some stuffed garbage bags and a few larger goods wrapped in white sheets and lying on the cement. There was one stray shoe, a man's loafer, on the ground. There were a couple men standing around and one woman sitting on a crate wearing heeled booties, short shorts, and a tank top, but I didn't get a good look at her before I left.

I took myself out to coffee and made sure to thank the barista by name. Thank you, Ellen. I was sitting at a table, reading over my class notes and watching the sun climb higher into the sky, announcing itself by illuminating others, making me feel seen beyond measures like page views and number of shares, when my phone ding-dinged and the app summoned me back to the warehouse. I knew I should have waited, I thought. But it turned out the passenger wasn't Baldy but the woman and the woman was Vanka. I didn't realize it at first because I wasn't looking at her face but at the way her cleavage was pushed up so high she could practically rest her chin, but, in a way, maybe those puppies helped absorb the shock I felt as she approached my car. Lord, forgive me my dirty humor.

Vanka looked the same but blonder and thinner. She also had more piercings in her ears and she was wearing sunglasses that hid half her face, but it was her. She opened the back door and got right in. She turned to her phone without one word or glance of acknowledgement and started tapping away with her fingers that were dwarfed by acrylic fingernails.

After a long and stunned pause, I put the car into reverse. I would have run into a fence if my smart car hadn't thought better and stopped us. Vanka's destination was along the docks and, when we were on our way, I just had to say something, so I said, hey Vanka. She looked up and said, what'd you say? So I asked, don't you remember me, and she said, I think you have me mixed up with someone else.

Perhaps it was her shame that kept her from admitting her identity. I knew what she'd done, after all, and now she was mixed up with Baldy and whatever he was into. I mean, there was no way she couldn't remember me, right? All those rides, all those times she fixed her makeup in my mirrors. We shared some moments of our lives with one another and I even helped her to end one.

I didn't say anything else and dropped her off. Would you believe she gave me four stars and made a one-word comment of, "timeliness," bringing down my average and dinging my profile? No tip either.



That night I put Bethany to bed and thought about all that I wished for her. I decided I wanted her to live with a personal value reached through her own self. I sometimes think that we spread ourselves through too many places and it has distracted us from our common good and from God. There is a new American pastime of living through others, the way that Vanka lived in my car at times, between one door and the other. Along with that, folks comment on the lives of others as if they were their own. They do it on newsfeeds, on Twitter streams, and even on the app I use for my livelihood.

When Bethany let her hand rest on mine for a moment, when I felt the natural heat of her tiny fingers, their energy far greater than her current strength, I felt her potential in the balance. I looked at her closely and tried to send one thought from my mind into hers: I see you. I see you for all you are and all you will do and become. My wish for you is simple - that you know your worth without so much outside input. That you stand with the weight of your own value. Amen.



The next week was less eventful but I thought of Vanka often. I realized how much I hated her. It pains me to divulge it, but loathing had been growing within me all these years. Hatred isn't cold or hot, it's just a dull mass of twists and turns that you don't feel until it has filled every boundary of your body. I am not proud of this. I am, however, justified.

Sometimes after classes I'd walk over the bridge downtown and pause to take a few breaths. I'd look down and think I saw Vanka below, gazing up at me from the water. I'd wonder if she had found peace within herself after what she'd done.

One morning the moment I pressed "available" as I sat on my driveway I was summoned to do a pick up a block away by a new customer, and an interesting one. He wore jeans and a large gray hoodie but had no student backpack. His thick neck was decorated with a metal chain made of many small beads that disappeared under his neckline. I thought maybe he was a military vet who still wore dog tags. Then there was his baseball cap. It was black and blank. Around here, you might see a high school team name as opposed to college or national, but never nothing. Everyone's got something to promote on their foreheads, everyone.

The real oddity, though, was that he asked me questions. Inquiries that went beyond, how ya doin'. He kept his eyes out the window while he asked, how long you had this car. I said going on two years and he said, you use the self driving, and I said, not much, maybe once, and he asked, too scary? I said, it's like one of those trust falls into the arms of a stranger. I wouldn't say he laughed, I'd say he chuckled. Then he said, why don't you use the video camera in the car if you're so high tech, and I said, I don't need to see what went behind me, I've only got eyes for the future, and he chuckled again before handing me a photo and saying, have you seen this man, I'm looking for my long lost cousin. I'll give you one guess as to who he showed me, standing at the warehouse, looking much younger and unaware his portrait was being taken. Baldy, of course. I had pulled over at my new passenger's destination by then and I had a moment for a precious, natural lie to emerge and guide me. I said, maybe I've seen him but after a while they all start to look the same. Grandma always said that If you don't have time for trouble, it won't have time for you, and I've no time for trouble, none at all.

When the passenger got out, I took a few deep breaths and wondered how he knew that I'd disabled my video. It must have been because the tiny red light was off. Truth is I don't use it because I don't like electronic eyes on Bethany when we drive, but that lie I told was not a biggie. Vanka always said a lady can say whatever she wants to maintain her air of mystery. I think about that when I use my body spray deodorant and it makes me smile. My air of mystery.

The following morning, I was up and ready, surge pricing beckoning me with its index finger. The car seemed to unlock even before I put my fob near the handle and the steering wheel turned as if my eagerness was getting ahead of me. Traffic must have been terrible because the navigation system took me on a route I'd never before used to get to any of the usual places, but none of my passengers commented on anything odd as they were buried in their texting and their Facebook. The scariest thing was when my brakes didn't respond to me until I pumped them a few times. It made me nervous, so I went to the dealership first thing the next day and told the mechanic that a ghost was driving my car. He laughed at me and said, maybe this smart car drives better than you but I'll take a look. Then he became very serious and said there was evidence of a remote presence. I asked, a ghost? He said, no, a hacker. He said the only things that would leave a bad mark on a hard drive like mine would be salt water, a sledge hammer, or a very skilled hacker. I think he was trying to be funny, to make me feel better, before he offered to install a security patch that would take a while. I had to get home to feed Bethany so I said, tomorrow, first thing.

On the way out, I received a ride request through the app and I hit "accept," hoping to make a quick buck before I got home. The map took me to an unfamiliar neighborhood where two familiar people were waiting on the corner. Baldy and Vanka. I didn't realize it until I arrived, of course, as his name was never listed the same way and he never had a photo. She was wearing those sunglasses again and this tight turtle neck cropped shirt that seemed neither suited for warm nor cold weather. He was kissing the back of her hand when I pulled up. They got in silently.

The destination was a regular spot downtown and I thought I'd be done in no time but then I got that familiar feeling that I was losing control, that a presence greater than me was in charge. The feeling was slow to build, as if it were coming off the steering wheel and moving down my legs to the pedals. I could feel the moment when the full force took charge and moved us in the direction of the bridge. Why are we going this way, Baldy asked, and I said, sir, I think the navigation system is putting me on a certain route, maybe there was an accident up ahead. He didn't look too reassured and Vanka said, it's ok Baby, as if that would solve anything. Baldy leaned forward to look out the front and yelled, it's taking us to the bridge, what the hell is going on, turn around now. I said, I can't turn around, sir, there is nowhere to turn. A drop of his sweat landed on my right forearm and I realized that was the closest encounter we'd ever had in all our rides together. It was a cold sweat.

Let me tell you, I was sweating too at this point, wishing I were home with Bethany instead of in this crazy situation. The pedestrian crossing area was up ahead and I could see tourists blissfully walking in front of my approaching car. Baldy swore something awful, I won't write exactly how here, and yelled, stop, stop! I screamed, I can't, I can't!

There are odd moments of clarity in any day, emergency situation or not. These are times when the part of your mind you need steps out of the crowd and dances solo. I have felt such moments in prayer and I felt one in the car as Vanka shrieked and Baldy swore and the car accelerated along the bridge that ran higher and higher above the water below. I asked myself if the doors were locked. I looked at my door and saw it was unlocked. I put one hand on my seatbelt and opened it. I put my other hand on the door handle and opened it. Look, I said to Baldy and Vanka.

How had I never before noticed that Baldy's eyes were hazel. I was surprised by that right before I jumped out of the car and onto the cement by the guardrail. It didn't hurt too badly, I only rolled for a short bit before stopping and hauling myself up to the side. Just as tourists looked up and began screaming and running, my smart and well-meaning car swerved. It smashed into the rail, flipped over it, and landed in the water far below. It made a strangely small sound when it entered the water, like a distant wave crashing on the sea.



Please know that I have great respect for law enforcement. I have only two problems with the institution. One, while the laws that govern our society are rooted in the Commandments, we have lost sight of these roots. Two, the police follow these misguided laws and those laws protected that clinic where I drove Vanka years ago. Still, I was polite and respectful with the cops. I only pitied them as I knew their path had gone off course. I knew I had nothing to fear. I didn't even ask for an attorney.

The mechanic said he tried to force me to stay for the security patch, which wasn't true but turned out to not matter. The car was on the record as hacked. I had no motive. That counts as insufficient evidence. Or no evidence, if you ask me. The cops told me that the circuit board was smashed up and couldn't decode itself.

At the press conference, the police chief said that anything connected to the outside world can be hacked, any device, appliance, vehicle, or other part of the "Internet of Things." When he said there was evidence that my shiny car had been hacked, the media went nuts. Baldy's body floated up to the surface and was identified using dental records. I heard he'd likely survived the crash but drowned in the water. Since he was a wanted man for running a very large drug ring, theories abounded. People wanted to know who did it, was it the FBI, or his own men. I learned that ride sharing was Baldy's way of moving about undetected. I guess that when you share yourself with everyone, you break into too many pieces to be known.

Vanka's body was found later. Her family claimed it and, when her identity was released, they used a different name but I knew it wasn't her real one because I always pay attention to these things and my accounting never errs. I even recognized her expression before I jumped out of the car because I had seen it once years before when her gaze met mine in the rearview mirror. Her painted eyebrows arched while her pupils scanned my face for something. I think she wanted to know who I was and, as she was crying, I think she finally saw me. Maybe she suspected I was there all along.

Everyone, however, knew my name and face. I received some five thousand emails in a week. People clapped me on the shoulder as I walked through campus or made eye contact when I entered the classroom. I admit I am still not used to it. One person set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for me and my daughter. I won't say how much came in as Grandma taught me that flaunting is a poor quality masking spiritual hollowness, but I took that and the insurance money and bought myself a new car. This one is not smart, but it is very, very nice.



The thing about lying - good, natural lies - is that they move you forward and keep you safe, sometimes even better off. I think the navigation system is putting me on a certain route. These lies come from some instinct that you keep in your center. I think of mine as a cabin in the woods, a cozy place with a small door that only opens when you know the magic spell and, if you think too hard about it, you won't get it, not ever. Maybe there was an accident up ahead. You have to be open to these statements within you, the same way you have to be open to God.

Grandma always said if you want a job done, you best do it yourself. I admit that I don't know exactly what that asshole with the blank baseball cap had planned when he hacked into my vehicle, but I could not squander the sliver of opportunity between the mechanic saying my car had been taken over and Baldy and Vanka summoning my ride. You really don't need a hacked smart car to become a vessel for other power, you just have to be open to what exists within you and what He has provided. It was like I'd been handed an assignment to pursue justice and all I really had to do was step back and let myself drive. Well, that and slide a baby toy beneath the brake pad.

I tried to explain all this to Bethany recently. She rolls over now and crawls a bit to reach her toys. I want her to know that the whole world is within her grasp and she just has to listen for the instructions. Like the ones that made this story unfold itself here, one beautiful piece at a time.

6 comments:

  1. An interesting and scary twist. This is one of the many things I fear about self-driving cars. That said, your writing style and choice of words makes this character come to life, as you pretty much are looking through her eyes and with her skew on things. I'm left wondering if she'll return to driving or find some other line of work ;-)
    Jim

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the read. Thank you.

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  2. Excellent job of getting inside the head of the MC. I liked many of her observations, like “when you share yourself with everyone, you break into too many pieces to be known.” A bit of an indictment of social media.

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  3. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

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  4. I too responded to the 'home truths' phrases ranging from 'chicken soup is good for the soul' to Grandma's 'if you don't make time for trouble it won't have time for you'...Huge amounts of detail to absorb in this disturbing and always restless internal monologue.
    B r o o k e

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  5. I liked this! Some really great lines in here. Fun story.

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