Friday, November 23, 2012

Fiction Friday: Terms and Conditions

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

4. Five-Man Band

            The view outside was turning from pitch black to fuzzy grey, but inside the van it was still too dark to do anything but talk. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be an option. Michael kept his hands at ten and two on the wheel and stared straight ahead at the road, barely moving and refusing to respond when spoken to. His coffee went cold and sat lonely and purposeless, sloshing forlornly next to my emptied cup. After an hour of near silence, I decided to address the silence head-on. “You’re awfully quiet.”
            He looked at me sideways, without turning his head. “Yes, I am,” he said, almost inaudible over the hum of the highway. The phosphorescent green dials on the dashboard reflected dully in the lenses of his glasses. “You should be, too. Try to get some more sleep.”
            “This isn’t the first time I’ve been dragged out of bed at odd hours. I can get by.”
            “No. Seriously,” he said flatly, and tapped his finger against his ear. “Go back. To sleep.”
            My annoyance got the better of me. “I know the van is wired, Mike” I snapped. “I helped wire it.” He just shook his head, lips pressed tight together. I picked up his neglected coffee and took a sip. “If you don’t want to talk, just say so -- ”
            Something in his voice made me take a closer look at him. Something in the set of his jaw made me wish I hadn’t. “Okay, fine,” I stage-whispered, and drank, leaving a dark lipstick print on the white lid of the cup. “We’ll talk later.” He dipped his chin in what experience told me was a nod, and I went back to staring out the window at a landscape I couldn’t even see.

            My business card (back when I had one) called me a “transport/logistics expert”. If you asked, I would say my job was to plan and expedite the movement of client assets and personnel. I did a bunch of different things -- arranging pick-ups, tracking deliveries, keeping my colleagues abreast of events as they happened. There was a ton of paperwork and a lot of sitting on my rear, and I usually had the radio on in the background. I would tell you that I didn’t get out of the office that often, and that you didn’t want the boring details. Client confidentiality, and all that. I wasn’t paid enough to jeopardize AGATE’s reputation.
            Of course, those boring details were that “office” translated to “the back of the van where all the monitors and blueprints and maps were”. That radio I listened to all day? It transmitted two ways. Michael and his sister did most of the active work, but my job was to be keep everything organized on our little expeditions. I planned routes, made sure we stayed clean and fed on the road and kept all the paperwork in order. There were some missteps at first, but I turned out to have a knack for playing mission control – hence, “Houston”.
            Two weeks after graduation, I moved across the country and tried to settle in at AGATE. I say “tried” because the job was always changing -- one week we babysat a shipping container en route from the port of Los Angeles to Duluth, Minnesota; the next we turned around and drove to Yellowknife with fourteen cartons of “all you need to know is that it doesn’t explode that often” following us in a U-haul truck. The only real constant was that Michael did almost all of the driving. Rosie rode shotgun, and I sat in the back, making phone calls and navigating. Michael’s father ran his company by a strict set of operational rules, including one that clearly stated no personal phones and no GPS units on the job. Everything was worked out on paper maps; all communications happened by radio, or with burner phones that we swapped out weekly or as needed. No exceptions. The longer I worked for AGATE, the more it made sense.
            Two months in, I thought the job would kill me. My circadian rhythms were destroyed by the constant travel. Despite subsisting on road food, I was losing weight. Most of my belongings were in storage because I hadn’t had time to find a permanent residence. When I slept, it was either on the road or at the office (that “sleep through anything, anywhere” thing of mine really came into its own during this period). Commissions aside, the pay was average at best. My contract had a provision that I could quit any time I wanted, as long as I turned in my keys and signed an NDA before I left. When the thought occurred to me that I could walk away, no questions asked, I ignored it. I felt like crap, but I was having the time of my life. 
            That fall, Michael and Rosie went recruiting during an extended break between jobs and came back with Colin and Stephanie. I wasn’t entirely sure how they fit in with our team; so far all we did was glorified fetch-and-carry jobs, and we didn’t need five people for that. Also, we had to put some of the seats back in the van, and I’d gotten used to the extra room.
            They were quite a pair. Colin spoke like a native in three languages and knew all the swears in four more (he claimed his parents travelled a lot when he was young), and he could bluff his way through, into or out of just about anything. He was also pretty good at something that resembled tai chi, if tai chi involved chair legs and the occasional broken bottle. He was calm, methodical and the image of professional deportment when he was sober. He was very, very handsy when he was drunk.
            Steph, on the other hand, smoked in the van, slandered our families as a form of affection and had to be bribed into wearing deodorant. She changed the color of her hair almost weekly, and admitted she didn’t remember its original hue. She spoke one language (poorly), lied well only when it didn’t matter, and couldn’t punch her way out of a paper bag (no muscle, and no follow-through at all). But the things she could do left us all wondering how she a) hadn’t yet spent time in federal prison and b) still had all her fingers. She decided we were friends right off the bat, and taught me how to play ratscrew (a card game like war, but with more rules). I liked her better than Colin, partly because of the cards, but mostly because she never tried to get a look down my shirt.
            After a few successful runs, it was like they’d always been there. The five of us would hang out in the back of the van and play Uno when we weren’t busy (or we’d park the van, find a bar and play gin rummy with real gin). Michael and I had a running bet on how Steph and Colin had met each other in the first place, but they avoided the subject through an intense, unspoken mutual effort and always changed the subject when asked. By the time we realized we could pin them down and make them tell us, we were all close enough that it didn’t matter anymore.

            Michael swung the wheel to the right, leaving the interstate and jerking me out of my reverie. “I’m hungry and I need to stretch my legs,” he said, more a statement of fact than an explanation as we trundled down an exit ramp and onto the surface streets. The dark cornfields had melted into dawn-lit suburbs while I was daydreaming. I could just make out the stress lines around Michael’s mouth in the easing darkness. “I hope you’re okay with stopping to eat.”
            I suddenly realized I was ravenous. “Sure.”
Part 5

1 comment:

og said...

I'm right with ya. Keep it coming.