Charlie preferred to be in the car by himself with the radio off. The silence was all-encompassing, punctuated only by the bump of his tires rolling over uneven asphalt on the long stretches of Missouri highway. His favorite artist was Springsteen, his favorite song “Thunder Road,” but in between customers, he savored the silence. It was Christmas, and Charlie was looking forward to spending the entire day with his poodle, Bentley. Marianne had the kids this year.
Since getting laid off from the meat counter at HyVee, Charlie started driving for Uber. His champagne-colored 1998 Hyundai Sonata was nearing 250,000 miles. The fabric seats still retained a whiff of nicotine that he could never eliminate, even though he’d smoked his last cigarette three years ago and hung a “New Car”-scented tree from his rearview.
His phone trilled. New customer. Charlie rounded a turn and watched as the air freshener tangled into his rosary. Jacob, read his screen. Two riders. For the next few minutes, Charlie’s grip tightened around his steering wheel. He reluctantly turned on the radio, an oldies FM station, where the deejay announced that Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” was coming up right after the next commercial break. Charlie cleared his throat, as he often did. It was a tic that Marianne grew to resent, but it wasn’t why she left him.
Charlie pulled up to his next stop, on the corner of a residential street that met a busy highway. It was a neighborhood of mid-century ranch houses with postage stamp-sized lawns, not unlike his own. Some more manicured than others. The corner lot, where Jacob was, had a dead car sitting on cinder blocks parked in the front. Charlie recognized the bark of a pitbull. He sent a notification that he had arrived.
A minute passed. Long enough for “Cracklin’ Rosie” to draw to a close. Charlie placed a call to his customer, but nobody picked up the phone. The door creaked open, and a skinny man followed a chubby girl with heavy black eye makeup outside.
“Sorry, dude,” the man mumbled as he grabbed the handle of the back door and clumsily opened it. The girl poured herself into the front seat and immediately pushed the chair back in a deep recline.
“Jacob?” Charlie asked the man in the back with loose muscles and flickering eyelids.
“Yup,” he managed.
With that confirmation, Charlie put his car in gear and headed towards another side of town. He assumed they were a couple, but thought it peculiar they did not sit with each other. When he looked in his rearview at Jacob, Charlie saw his head tilted back in slumber, jostling with the road.
The woman in the front was wearing dirty winter boots. Faux shearling spilled out of a popped seam on the left leg. She texted furiously, long pink acrylic nails clicking on her phone’s shattered screen. Finally, she exhaled, exasperated, and without looking up, whined, “Coby?”
Jacob, asleep, didn’t answer. Just a few minutes in the car, and he was out cold. She exhaled in an attempt to self-soothe, and Charlie smelled the vodka on her breath.
“They’re not answering me,” she said to herself.
Charlie cleared his throat. He watched her look at the broken screen and stuff the phone back in her pocket, only to anxiously tap the center console with her nails and grab at her phone again. Her preoccupation reminded him of his visits with Kyle and Finn, who could hardly bring themselves to look up at their father from Wayne’s iPad. Charlie chuckled as he remembered the way he’d ask about school, life, the dogs. To them, each inquiry was an affront. He’d pick at his scrambled eggs with the bent tines of his Denny’s fork, try not to piss off his sons so their good memories of him were intact.
Her phone rang. She had changed her ringtone from the generic iPhone melody to what Charlie recognized as “Crazy Bitch” by Buckcherry.
“Yeah?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “Wait a sec.”
There it was. She put the call on speaker. Charlie cleared his throat.
“Where are you?” crackled a male voice on the other line. “We told you to be here at nine.”
“Nine in the morning?” she was insolent. Charlie glanced at the digital display. It was almost two in the afternoon. “Dad, I’m on my way right now.”
“You know what, Tiffany? I’m tired of this shit.”
“Dad, I’m on the way. We’ll be there in like, ten minutes.”
“We? Are you with Coby?”
She covered her mouth with one hand, sighing, and rapped her fingernails on the car window with the other. Charlie looked at his navigation system. They were still twenty minutes away.
“You are, aren’t you? Dammit, Tiffany. I told you not to bring him to my house again.”
The other line rustled. Tiffany, that was her name. She tucked her wet boots up onto the seat, holding her legs to her chest.
“Can you put your feet down?” Charlie asked, trying to be patient. He cleared his throat.
She pretended not to hear him. The gray snow melted into the fabric of his passenger seat. He cringed.
“Tiff?” said another voice.
“Yeah,” she said. “Robbie?”
“Look, we already opened presents.”
“...I missed it?”
“We told you to be here hours ago, Tiff. And you’re bringing Coby? Seriously?”
“I wanted to be there for the presents,” she began to cry.
“Fucking hell, Tiffany. Your son has been awake for hours already, and you think we should just hold everything so you and your loser boyfriend can head over whenever you please?”
“Yeah, really, Tiff. We’re fucking sick of it.”
“Well I’m fucking sick of you...you guys. And your bullshit.”
The voice on the other line pauses for a moment.
“Are you drunk?”
“What the fuck do you want from me, Rob?”
She extended her legs and put her feet up on the dashboard. Louder this time, Charlie cleared his throat.
“I want you to get your shit together. None of us feel sorry for you anymore. You have a kid. We feel sorry for him.”
“Get your feet down,” he said, taking his eyes off the road to look at her. “Please.”
She acknowledged his gaze but refused to reposition herself. Charlie glanced back towards Jacob, who had begun to snore.
“Rob, we’re going to be there in, like, five minutes, okay?”
“Tiff, at this point--” Rob choked up on the other end. “At this point, don’t bother.”
Tiffany started wiping tears from her eyes. She had a squeaky cry, and her acrylic nails scraped against her cheeks, leaving little pink scratches. Of course, her eye makeup was ruined. There were crusty black eyelashes pressed into her wet skin.
“Well, I’m already on my way,” she said, softly, like she was contrite.
All Charlie could think about was the water mixed with dirt mixed with motor oil mixed with dog hair dripping off of Tiffany’s boots and onto his dash. It had already started to soak into the passenger seat. He saw Jacob’s lolling head in the backseat.
“Can you please move your feet?” Charlie asked. “You’re getting--”
“It’s too late,” interrupted Rob from Tiffany’s speaker. “And you’re drunk. Just go home.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“You know what?” Charlie said. “Get out.”
“What?” she was incredulous.
“Get out of my car. Get the fuck out of my car.”
“You’re drunk, and you’re disgusting, and I want you out of my car.”
Tiffany looked at her phone, which was still on, and hung up.
“I’m your Uber passenger,” she said. “You can’t just kick me out. It’s Christmas.”
“You’re damn right it’s Christmas.”
Charlie pulled over. The car, with one open door, dinged for a few seconds on the gravelly shoulder of the road.
Jacob woke up. He furrowed his brow and took in a deep inhale, assuming they’d arrived at their location.
“Tiff?” he asked, groggy. “We here?”
“No, we’re not here,” said Tiffany.
“You guys need to get the hell out of my car.”
“Okay, okay,” she bought herself some more time pretending to go through her purse. She made sure there was a bottle of vodka in there, some pills.
Charlie hadn’t used such a stern tone in years. It felt strange and unfamiliar, maybe even uncomfortable, like swallowing a hair. He cleared his throat.
“Are you kicking us out?” Jacob asked.
“I’ve been kicking you out.”
“I’m gonna give you a shitty rating, man.”
“See if I care.”
They stood on the shoulder of the road. Tiffany had her purse, her shitty coat, her shitty boots. Her heavy makeup smudged all over her face, her nose dripping with snot that fell onto her cheap black scarf and stained it white.
Jacob stood next to her, about three quarters awake, punching in numbers on his phone. As Charlie pulled away, he could see Jacob making a call and flipping his middle finger.
She fell into a crouch, weeping. Charlie drove to Marianne and Wayne’s house.