by Arnold M. Herr
I got back to my store just in time to get a phone call from Lou, a guy who had sold me books in the past, mostly military stuff. But his collection was pretty much tapped out. Most of what he had to offer was dregs; nothing special, just shelf stock. My sister said she’d mind the shop, so I walked about half a mile to meet Lou for a cup of coffee at the Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax. He rarely came in the store anymore. Whenever he was in the neighborhood, he would call and let me know he was doing some shopping at the Farmer’s Market and we would have a cup of joe at the food court.
I grabbed a coffee and a glazed doughnut at Bob’s and joined Lou at the table he had nearby. Lou had the habit of speaking over his right shoulder and out the right side of his mouth. I knew when he was about to say something because he would turn away slightly from me before talking.
Me: You can face me Lou, I’m standing right in front of you.
Lou: I drove a cab in New York for fifty-three years and most of the people I talked to were sitting in the back seat. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.
Lou is also nearly blind, but he still drives in spite of his daughter’s efforts to hide his keys. We talked about this and that…mostly that and very little of this. He complained about the high cost of books and that he could no longer afford to buy as lavishly as he liked.
Me: Well, you’re living on a fixed income aren’t you?
Lou: There’s nothing fixed about it. It’s in dire need of repair.
After maybe 20 minutes I got up to leave, telling Lou I had to walk back to the store and relieve my sister so she could have lunch. Lou insisted on driving me. I gave in too easily. I got into his car. In the back seat. Lou slid behind the wheel. In deference to me, he said he would drive slowly and carefully. It was only about 10 blocks to my bookstore. Did I mention Lou was ninety-two years old? He wanted to reach ninety-three. I think.
He fired up the engine and revved it a few times. “This is a ‘65 Checker. Two and half tons of indestructible, honest-to-God Detroit iron.” He dropped the gearshift into Drive and kicked the gas pedal to the floor. The rear tires spun and smoked as they grabbed the asphalt. He got right behind an exiting pickup truck whose driver had just paid the attendant who lifted the long plastic barrier over the exit lane. Lou yanked the wheel to the right and we raced up Fairfax Ave. three inches from the pickup’s tailgate. The carburetor sucked in 91 octane gas and sounded like a flushing toilet as Lou abruptly changed lanes. I was sure he had clipped the front bumper of the Metro bus we cut off, but we were a block away before I had the presence of mind to say anything.
Lou: I don’t pay to park anymore. I’m ninety-two. I paid enough. Been driving for more than 75 years if you can believe it.
I wasn’t sure what I believe anymore.
Lou: Your store’s around here somewhere, ain’t it?
Me: We just flew past it. Slow to sixty and I can get out anywhere around here.
Lou: Did you notice this baby can really accelerate? Raw power. Cast-iron block. Dual exhausts.
I was gonna say something; my mouth was open and poised for speech when Lou slammed on the binders. I flew over the top of the front seat and my face hit the windshield. It tasted of nicotine. Lou still smoked a pack and a half a day. I jumped out as the car skidded to a stop. Lou floored it before my door was closed and went fishtailing up Fairfax, through a red light at Melrose and weaving around traffic until he was out of sight. He was dead within a week. I’m not sure if it was the cigarettes or his driving that caused it.