I must have just heard a weepy Christmas ballad on the radio or seen It’s a Wonderful Life or some other irrepressibly inspirational holiday flick the night before, because for whatever reason I was in a freakishly, dangerously generous mood a few Decembers ago when I pulled into a 7-Eleven in Arlington Heights after last call and agreed to give two complete strangers a ride to Como.
I was probably hungry, too. Back then, 7-Eleven was selling those really-bad-for-you (totally awesome) pizza-sandwiches: strips of ham, turkey, and, like, five different kinds of cheeses luxuriating between two pre-cooked Neapolitan slices of pie loaded with toppings. (“Hey, 7-Eleven! Why don’t you just shoot the fat directly into my gut!”) For not-too-messy, portable post-bar food, 7-Eleven does the trick.
Anyway, I probably thought that by the time I got back from taking the couple – young newlyweds, as I would soon discover – to the nearby gang-war zone, I would have come to my senses and thrown out the potentially lethal, pizza-tastic goodie that now lay deliciously on the floor of my pickup truck in a white plastic bag. Nothing else within the realm of common sense comes close to explaining why my response to “Hey, man, can you give us a ride?” was “Sure! Hop on in!”
“I really appreciate this, man,” the guy said, getting into the passenger seat. “We’ve been walking all night.” His blushing bride, tiny and dark and quick to smile but impossibly quiet, sat in the flatbed with her back to us, her long black hair erupting into squiggly strands that tickled the night sky as we rumbled along the bricks. Neither of the kids looked like a bum. She had on nice jeans and a black leather jacket, and he wore a pastel golf shirt (no jacket) and khakis. He had short, curly blond hair and a large, pockmarked face. Had I gotten a closer look at him outside and seen his meth scars, I probably would have thought a little longer about saying yes to a road trip.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Just right up the street,” he said. “Not that far. Man, I really appreciate this.”
I had never been to Como before, or so I thought. But once we crossed Lake Como – a gaping, glassy expanse upon which wiggled the white blots of light from nearby streetlamps – I realized that I had passed through before. Quite a few times, actually. I used to take the main drag back and forth from town when I lived off Bryant-Irvin Road by Loop 820. I never went through the neighborhood at night by myself, though. I’m not that stupid.
The newlyweds and I drifted past the quiet houses and followed the quiet, shadowy streets of the tough ‘hood, curving, dipping, and rising, the creaks of my rollicking truck serving as our only soundtrack, and we eventually arrived at a rather well-lit intersection. On the far side was an abandoned building that looked like it once may have been a gas station. Or a fraternal lodge. Or a crack house. The guy asked me to stop – we were about 35 yards away. “OK, be safe,” I said. He asked me to pull up around back. “No, that’s OK,” I said, surprisingly without hesitation. “You guys be safe.”
“Aw, man, just wait,” he said. “I’ll be five minutes, man, I promise. Please? Just five minutes.” I sighed. “OK,” I said. “I’ll be right here,” which propelled him out of his seatbelt, through the truck door, and out into the Como night, all in one furious, clanking motion. He said nothing, reassuring or otherwise, to his wife, still sitting calmly in the back, hugging herself lazily, and acting bored but not necessarily unhappy.
I watched the guy walk down the street and disappear behind the building. I aimed my truck down an open stretch of asphalt, in case I heard gunfire or spied somebody creeping up behind me. “Wow!” I thought. “Am I fucking dumbass.” I kept the truck running and in gear the whole time.
About 15 seemingly endless minutes later, the guy finally materialized. He kept his empty hands visible the whole way back to the truck. “Thanks, man,” he said, now plopping himself back into his seat. “I really appreciate this.”
I don’t remember what we talked about on the ride back to 7-Eleven, but I do recall that the guy was an active talker and listener and always maintained eye contact with me. At one point I had convinced him of something or other, and he said “definitely, definitely, yeah, yeah, I’m gonna do that” repeatedly. I’m sure I wasn’t telling him to stay off drugs or whatever – I had decided to act like I didn’t know what was going on, which is funny, I mean, really freaking hilarious, considering. (A dumbass playing dumb? Genius.) But there must have been something about the conversation that made me comfortable enough to speak casually and, even weirder, at length. I could have kicked George Bailey in the teeth.
– Anthony Mariani
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