by Jane Lebak
When he could hear Cassie's voice from ten feet outside the garage door, Jason grinned. Some poor slob was about to have the worst day of his life.
Sure enough, when he looked at the recipients of the tirade, he saw three flustered men (one being John, her husband) cringing while clutching a few tools and pretending to look busy.
"Don't give me that." Cassie had her hands on her hips. "How come everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to give an old lady a ride to the doctor?"
Jason tossed his jacket onto the trunk of a half-disassembled Monte Carlo. "Saving the world's more fun."
Cassie pivoted, her face beaming like the sun. "Jason! Can you do me a favor?"
Jason didn't see the three men biting their lips as they kept their faces turned intently toward an engine that was actually just fine.
"You need a ride?"
"Shut up, you louse! My granny needs a ride. She's eighty-five years old, and she's legally blind." Cassie clasped her hands at her chest. "I'd take her myself, but she has a walker, and I need both hands to steady her, and I can't find someone to watch the kid." Jason glanced at John, and Cassie quickly said, "John has a meeting this afternoon. Please, Jason? She's very infirm and she can't drive any longer. She really needs to go to the doctor. It's just this once."
Jason also didn't see three men holding their breath and fighting off twitches of wild grins.
"I have to tune up my car."
"I'll do it." Cassie flashed a winning smile. "If you can just take her, I'll even wash it for you."
One of the three men guffawed, and Jason got an abrupt concern in his eyes, a little unasked question. Cassie threw an empty soda can at the man's head, and the other two men burst out laughing. She said darkly, "John, maybe you'll be driving Granny after all?"
"Cass, don't take this the wrong way," John managed to say, "but it's no use."
...meaning, "You won't find anyone to cart her anywhere in the next hundred years no matter how desperately you bribe us--not unless she's handcuffed, gagged, muzzled, and caged in a trailer." So Cassie stepped closer and whapped him with an oil rag.
Only instead of hearing what John was really saying, Jason heard, "Polishing two hundred pounds of rust just gets you shiny rust." So he drew himself up taller. Back in medieval Europe two men might have fought to the death over such matters of honor. "It's a deal. I'll take your grandmother."
Everyone looked at Jason, open-mouthed. Cassie all but jumped in place. "You can? Terrific!"
There's always at least one audience member at a horror movie who says, "Don't do it!" In real life, as in film, no one listens.
Armed with a phone number and some hand-drawn directions to a home in Corona, Jason placed a call from Cassie's office. "Is this Mrs. Beatrice Lockhardt?"
"Put me on your no-call list."
"I'm calling for Cassie. She said you needed a ride to the doctor for a 1:30 appointment?"
"You got a name?"
"I'm Jason. When would you like me to pick you up?"
With a firm reminder to himself that this was Cassie's grandmother and not a Spectran operative, Jason said, "Jason Anderson, a friend of Cassie's."
The woman laughed. "How'd you end up with a name that rhymed?"
Briefly he wondered if maybe this was the woman who had sold Lucy to Spectra for spare parts.
"When should I pick you up?"
"Quarter to one."
The appointment was definitely written down as 1:30. Forty-five minutes would leave them sitting for about a half hour in a doctor's waiting room. But she was Cassie's grandmother and probably wanted to take it slow. If she had a walker, she might need extra time to get into the car. Okay. "Twelve forty-five it is, then."
"Quarter to one."
"Right." He glanced at the paper. "And you're at 37-81 187th Street?"
"I'm at Dottie's house. Pick me up here."
Jason turned over the sheet of paper with the map. "Where is it?"
"You have to get off the highway and head toward the fire station."
Jason blinked. "Which highway?"
"The one that lets you off near the fire station."
Jason mentally ran through the entire Beltway system, the Long Island Expressway, the Southern and Northern State parkways, the Meritt, Wantaugh and Sprain Brook parkways, and determined that just about every exit off every highway fit that description. "Which fire station?"
She huffed. "The one near the school. There's a fire station and a school."
Jason rubbed his temples. "Which borough are you in?"
"Queens." She sounded exasperated, but at least that narrowed down the number of parkways he could possibly wander before finding the correct fire station and school. "When you get off the highway, there's a fire station and a school on the same street, and there's a traffic light."
This was getting better and better. Jason stopped taking notes. "Okay. So after I pass the fire station and the school, then what?"
"Make a right at the traffic light and go past the houses."
Jason threw his pencil at the desk, put up his feet, and rocked back on the chair. "Got it."
"At the corner there's a fire pull box and a mailbox. Are you writing this down?"
"That's a dangerous corner. Make a right there and go a couple of blocks to the house with a picket fence. There's also a telephone pole."
"Make a left and we're on the corner. There will be a car in the driveway."
"And will there be a front doorbell I should ring?"
"The doorbell doesn't work. Knock loud."
After fifty G-Force mission briefings and debriefings, Jason had gotten very good at saying, "Of course," when what he really meant was, "You have got to be kidding me."
After a moment he said, "Do you happen to have a phone number for this place?"
"You've got my number. I'll be here."
Yeah, but then I can't call anyone else at the house and get directions. He shut his eyes. "Have you got an address for it?"
"What do you need an address for? I just told you how to get here."
This is Cassie's grandmother. This is Cassie's grandmother.
"Maybe we should go over the directions again."
"I told you." She had a grandmotherly tone of voice. "Listen closely, Jeremy. Get off the highway and head down that road until you pass the fire station and the school. At the light you make a right and head to that intersection with the three-way stop--"
Jason sat upright. He'd been there once, maybe a year ago...the three-way stop--that was the "dangerous" intersection! "Wait--I know where you're talking about! The street without the stop sign is coming up the hill, just over the bridge, past the fire station and the school--"
"That's what I just told you!" She huffed. "Then you make a right and make a left at the picket fence and the telephone poll."
Jason jotted a few directions from memory. "Okay, fine. I'll be there at twelve forty-five sharp."
"Quarter to one, Joshua. I want to make sure we get there on time."
Heading to the parking lot, Jason passed Cassie's father in the hallway. "I hear you got suckered."
Our intrepid hero paused. "What?"
Peter Stuart chuckled. "You're driving my ex-mother-in-law to the doctor, right? Poor kid." He punched Jason lightly on the shoulder. "Next time I see you, you're going to have grey hair."
"I already got directions from her."
Peter laughed out loud. "Make a right at the place where all the pigeons hang out?"
"And a left by the store that sells things, yeah."
Peter leaned against the wall with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "It's not too late to back out, you know. I've seen that car of yours. You could easily spring a leak somewhere and call from the side of the highway."
"I really don't--"
"You shouldn't speak ill of the dead, so on my honor, Jason, I hope this woman lives forever. This woman used to smoke cigars. Not those dainty you've come a long way baby cigarettes. Big smelly cigars. My ex-wife used to tell the story of how her mom was driving the kids across to Fort Tilden on the Rockaways, and the cigar flew out the window. She slammed on the brakes and threw all the kids against the dashboard and the front seat, and then she backed up on the Marine Park Bridge to get that cigar." He was laughing out loud at Jason's expression. "That's the absolute truth. Backed right up and went back to get her cigar. People were honking and swearing, but she wouldn't go on until she found it."
By now Jason looked composed again. He'd faced down Spectrans with guns, after all. "So she's got spunk. That's a good thing."
Peter Stuart grinned. "You'll learn, my boy."
"She's one old woman, and it's only a trip to the doctor. How bad could it be?"
If life were a movie, he should have listened to the audience.
At the house with a car in the driveway and a roof on top of the walls, Jason knocked at the front door. The fact was, he'd done this part too often before. With SafeRides, an organization that kept drunks off the road by driving them home from parties, he'd frequently had to interpret what he called Jack-Daniels directions to Jim Beam Street. Some hadn't been quite as clear as Mrs. Lockhardt's.
After he'd knocked a second time, Jason began to wonder if he hadn't gotten the wrong house after all (But there's a fence and a telephone pole, right? That would be too much of a stunning coincidence!) and he went around the house to look for another entrance. Back at the front, he decided to give it another try before giving up. This time, a white-haired woman in a brown coat came out the door, carrying her walker onto the front porch.
"We're late, Justin." She lifted up the walker and carried it down the steps, down the walkway, right to the car. Fighting off a grin, he let her into the front seat, then folded the walker and stashed it in the trunk. Mrs. Lockhardt sat with her purse on her knees as he started the engine.
"This your car, Jack?"
"It's a piece of shit."
It was entirely plausible, of course, that Cassie had phoned her grandmother in advance to prep her, to play a joke on Jason. He glanced sideways at the woman, who showed no signs of a sense of humor. She had her feet planted squarely on the floor. When he offered to help her buckle her seat belt, she said, "Why? You're a bad driver?"
"I trust my driving. I don't trust every other maniac on the road."
"I'll take my chances."
Jason pulled out wondering if maybe this woman didn't know something he didn't--like she had sold her soul to Satan in return for being too mean to die. He knew that was ridiculous. If she were too mean to die, why visit the doctor?
Driving for SafeRides had given Jason more than a handful of interesting experiences. He'd learned to follow directions such as "This exit!" bellowed out at the top of the passenger's lungs with fifteen yards clearance (a full mile after signs announcing it had first appeared). The opposing circumstance--a passenger suddenly grabbing his shoulder and crying out, "There's a sharp right coming up in twenty miles!"--happened with less frequency, but he'd experienced that too. He'd learned to watch until the client got his front door open--or in one amusing instance, the front door of a house he'd lived in fifteen years ago. He'd learned how to deal with angry drunks (quote Shakespeare--works every time, although he only knew three lines from Hamlet) and sad drunks (hand 'em the box of Kleenex). He'd learned that after a client said "But I don't complain" the remainder of the trip would consist of nothing but complaints.
They hadn't even gotten to the corner when Mrs. Lockhardt said, "I've got a doctor for this and a doctor for that and a doctor for the other thing. Makes me sick just thinking about the money they're all getting from one old woman. But I don't complain."
Jason's eyes went huge. There was an involuntary glance at the clock.
"Cassie said I'm taking you to Elmhurst Hospital?"
"The doctor called and canceled that. So I'm going to a different doctor. I'll give you directions."
On the wheel, Jason's hands tightened. "Which hospital is it near?'
"It's on Simon Street. You know where Simon is?"
Simon Says, do I look like a street map of Queens?
"I'm afraid I don't, Mrs. Lockhardt."
"Well, take a left here."
Jason taking directions wasn't Jason at his best. Like most drivers, he preferred to have the entire route laid out before him ahead of time, the better to gauge which lane he needed to be in, to avoid surprises, and in general to be more relaxed. Mrs. Lockhardt, on the other hand, kept a tight fist on her knowledge, as if imparting it to Jason would leave her ignorant for all eternity. Jason missed more than one turn because of the "You needed to make a left there" syndrome, and although he was able to get back to the street Mrs. Lockhardt intended, he still had no certainty where she was directing him. They seemed to be navigating a maze of one-way streets running exactly parallel to Francis Lewis Boulevard. When he asked about that, she said she didn't like traffic lights or highways, so she'd routed him through every stop sign in creation instead. (No wonder she wanted 45 minutes to get there!) In between directions, Jason got a rundown of her various illnesses. He found out about her diabetes, her heart condition, her thyroid, and the proper care of something called a "pessary" (I don't want to know what it is. I will resist asking.) which he was given an explicit definition of three blocks later.
At a four-way stop intersection, Mrs. Lockhardt broke her litany of medical jargon with, "You'll be going left."
Jason put on his turn signal. "Left here."
He turned left.
Mrs. Lockhardt sat up in the seat. "Why'd you turn?"
"You said to turn left!"
"No, I meant the road curved left."
"So what you meant was that I should go straight."
"I meant that the road would curve and you should--"
"--should follow the curve of the road rather than plowing into a store-front because that was what was directly in front of the car?" He glanced at her sidelong. "Give me a little credit."
She pointed urgently to a side street. "Make a right here!"
Three orange saw horses which read "ROAD CLOSED" sat across the neck of the street. There was no pavement visible behind the flashing yellow lights and massive construction equipment. "I think I know a better route."
"We're never going to get there."
Indeed, following her directions, they never would. Jason had long since realized Mrs. Lockhardt was directing him toward Elmhurst Hospital, even though it would have taken a grand jury subpoena to make her admit it. If left to my own devices I approached it near the wrong entrance, heaven only knows what would happen. Maybe she feared that once he had the reins, he would never take instruction from her again and would circle the hospital for all eternity, orbiting with tantalizing closeness but never finding the Optimal Parking Space or the Closest Entrance. He got on a main road and sailed toward the hospital while she muttered, "I guess you could do that too. But I hate this road. Too fast. Too many lights."
A word about Elmhurst Hospital: a police officer of Jason's acquaintance said that without a doubt, Elmhurst Hospital had the best trauma unit in Queens. "If you have an emergency, no matter how bad, the folks at the Elmhurst Hospital Emergency Room will pull you through. Top-notch. Then they send you upstairs, and they kill you." That officer had left explicit instructions with his partner, "I don't care if I'm shot in the Elmhurst Hospital waiting room. Take me to Boothe."
Cassie's grandmother said to Jason, "You drive like a pansy."
He nearly swallowed his teeth .
"I'm a great-grandmother and I'd drive faster than this. I'm old and I don't want to spend all my remaining years in traffic. What are you afraid of? Think they'll kill you?"
By now, Jason had his foot flat on the accelerator. Mrs. Lockhardt went on. "All those idiots Cassie hangs out with, driving on the track--that's not real driving. They're all just running around like crazies, but they don't really know how to drive All those racers are insane. It'll be a grand day when God wipes them all off the face of the Earth."
The defense-mechanisms for dealing with drunks suddenly seemed so inadequate. "What a piece of work is man..."
The speed limit on most New York City streets is thirty-five, but there's a de-facto speed limit on most Queens streets simply because of how many cars are trying to use them. You can't really do better than sixty on the major routes. At least not usually.
Jason's police officer friend had once told him it was a challenge to write an entire book of citations on one traffic stop. Just for the reader's information, there are twenty tickets in a book.
Mrs. Lockhardt had an irritated wrinkle to her mouth. "It's a crying shame what these doctors charge. I'm an old woman. Where do they think I'm getting my money from, anyhow? They want nothing better than to take an old woman for everything she has. The doctor inserted a pessary last June, but do you think--"
Breaking the speed limit--nearly breaking the sound barrier--Jason probably should have been pulled over long since. But fate wasn't smiling on Jason today. If he'd been pulled over, he probably could have gotten out of the car for a few minutes. He'd have known how to get himself arrested. Jail was sounding enticing right now, and frankly, the Chief could probably have gotten the charges dropped. But even without that, it still sounded quiet. Solitary confinement: he liked the sound of the word. Solitary. Quiet.
Shortly thereafter (not surprisingly, as Jason still hadn't eased up on the accelerator) Elmhurst Hospital came into view. Right next to it he found a Simon Street, and Simon Street obliged him by having a couple of medical practices. He cruised over to the door Mrs. Lockhardt indicated (repeatedly) and pulled up as close as he could.
"Why are you stopping here?"
"It's closer for you--"
"I've got a handicapped placard."
"I can drop you off and then walk from the car."
Jason knew Satan had reserved a special place in Hell for perfectly healthy individuals who parked in handicapped spaces. Mrs. Lockhardt hung her placard on his window and assured him that very special place. Jason swung Sweetheart over to the handicapped spaces, which were all taken up. The next space over was free, so he parked there. It took a moment to get Mrs. Lockhardt's walker out of the trunk and unfolded. She insisted he not help her up out of the car, then told him his car was too low to the ground and that his door closed too easily when she pried herself out of the seat by tugging on it. When he'd gotten her out of the car, she muttered about how far the handicapped spaces were from the entrance, how there weren't enough handicapped spaces, and how Jason had been rude to park so far from the door. She was an old woman, after all, with a walker, and it wasn't easy to walk like when she was young. When she was a young person, she certainly had known how to respect her elders! She'd never have dreamed of making them walk all the way across a parking lot!
Very few acts of real heroism get acknowledged by society as a whole. Jason had his jaw clenched, and he said nothing. Mrs. Lockhardt lifted her walker and carried it past the five occupied handicapped spaces and into the practice's entrance. Jason followed a step behind. She muttered, "Aren't you coming with me?"
"Wouldn't miss it. I hear they've got the best waiting rooms in New York."
Mrs. Lockhardt fumbled with her purse a long time before pressing either the up or down buttons on the elevator. They had arrived in plenty of time, but when she checked in with her doctor's secretary, she apologized for being late because her driver had gone late to her house and then gotten them lost. Jason picked a seat and pulled a sports magazine from the side table.
Mrs. Lockhardt asked for directions to the bathroom, and she returned with a paper cup the size of a shot glass. She drank some water, then went back to the sink and got some more. She explained to Jason that about every few months she needed to come in and have her urine tested, and then she went on again about her diabetes, her heart, her blood pressure, her pessary, and Jason might actually have had to look up from the magazine and pay attention if the nurse hadn't arrived then and asked Mrs. Lockhardt to step inside the office.
She returned in a minute or two. "They said there's not enough."
Behind his magazine, Jason's eyebrows raised. Way, way too much information.
"I'll have to drink more water and try again." She returned to the bathroom and returned with the tiny paper cup filled again.
As an intelligent human being, Jason had by now figured out a couple of points of fact: the first was that Mrs. Lockhardt didn't need to be here right now. She'd originally had another appointment scheduled, and if she was really going to three doctor appointments a week the way she claimed, she could have piggybacked this test onto another appointment at the hospital. She'd simply taken advantage of the free ride and a chance to get out for a bit. Secondly, if there "wasn't enough" for a urine test, as she had told him, she certainly didn't seem to be doing anything about it. One ounce of fluid was hardly going to satisfy the doctor's requirements for whatever it was she was having tested in the first place. His heart had started pounding, and when Jason realized his hands were shaking, he decided he'd better get outside for a while. He explained that he needed to make a phone call, and he walked down the hall from the doctor's office to the lobby. The air was cooler out there, and the long line of windows afforded clear sunlight. At least someone was enjoying the day somewhere.
From the lobby pay phone, Jason called Cassie's number.
"And you knew it was me because--?"
"Because caller ID is giving me the same number I've seen before whenever any of the other guys took Granny to the doctor."
"You're not very nice."
"Jason, please don't take this the wrong way, but I'd rather lose a lifelong friend than drive grandma to the doctor ever again."
There are moments in life when one might plot one's blood pressure on an exponential curve.
"But I meant it about detailing your car."
"Don't bother. I want you in my debt." The trouble was, although wise in the ways of the world and no pauper in his endowment of imagination, he couldn't think of anything horrible enough for true repayment. He clicked the receiver but kept the phone up to his ear listening to the dial tone. Time to go back inside. Time to go back to hell. Well, maybe in a minute. At least he could stand here in the empty phone booth and enjoy the white noise for a few more minutes.
There was no reason Spectra shouldn't attack now. Now. As in, right this second. As in, Cassie would have to come pick up her grandmother and set things right with the world. Come on--now would be just fine. Spectra was attacking all the time. Maybe Spectra was just about to unveil a flying shark mech that would snap up commercial airliners out over the Pacific--or even better, on planet Vega, planet Vega would be perfect--and he'd have to leave immediately to save thousands of innocent lives. Please?
Back in the doctor's waiting room, Jason found the same stifling air, the same lighting that made it slightly too dim to read, and Mrs. Lockhardt in the midst of saying, "--but I don't complain" to someone else who happened to be waiting for the same doctor. She looked at Jason and said loudly, "I'm sorry it's taking so long, Jared. I don't know why they're not taking me in again!"
That sentence had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the secretary hearing it. Jason gave his warmest smile, and he made sure the secretary could both see and hear him. "Mrs. Lockhardt, it's no trouble. I have nothing scheduled for the rest of the day." Then he settled back into his seat as if content simply to move all his personal belongings into this very waiting room and live there forever.
Mrs. Lockhardt gave a sad huff. "I just have no idea what they expect from an old woman! I already drank three glasses of water!"
The other patient shook her head in sad commiseration.
"And they're making this poor young man stay here waiting with me too! Can you imagine?"
Jason, never one to be used as a weapon without his permission, chimed in cheerfully, "I told you, Mrs. Lockhardt, I'm fine. As long as it takes is fine."
As long as it took turned out to be another hour. Mrs. Lockhardt condescended to drink another half-cup of water (Leave some for the fishies, Ma'am) but eventually after the nurse escorted her back to the doctor's office for a second time, it was decided she should go home and try again later in the week, when she returned for one of her other doctor appointments. Jason escorted her back to the car.
If she was coming here three times a week, no wonder the woman had trouble getting rides. Jason had already turned down any availability for any time in the next several years (not with "hell no" but with a leagues-better "I'll check my calendar," which made it seem as if he agreed with the noble purpose of the mission but didn't commit him to anything). Jason left her at the entrance to bring the car over to her (it was a bit far to carry the walker) and made sure he had the radio on before she got in the car. At least he should have something to listen to other than a detailed description of pessary function and prolapses or failures of various organs.
Mrs. Lockhardt told him she wanted to sit in the back seat of his car instead of the front because his driving made her sick--or was it his car? Jason had gone beyond the point of really listening to her, and he could accept without taking it personally that the car might have that old oil-and-gasoline smell, or that old-hot-vinyl smell that made some people uneasy. As he helped her get into the back, she had choice words to say about the number of doors on his car (The manufacturer designed the car to spite you--thanks for noticing!)
They pulled out onto the city streets, and Jason went back the way he'd come. Mrs. Lockhardt asked how on earth they were going to get back home by going this way. Jason said it was the same way. She told him it wasn't, and that she'd have to tell her daughter about this new route he'd discovered. Jason's ears tingled a little--had she actually approved of something someone anywhere had done?
She saw that he had a copy of the New York Post in the car and told him it was nothing more than a scandal sheet, a blatant tool of the right wing. The sports report came on, and she said it was a crime how much those guys got paid. She hated the weather, it went without saying, although she said it anyhow. Oh, but I don't complain. The insurance company probably would charge her for today, she said, even though the doctor had been so unreasonable about everything and it was their fault she was going to have to make a second trip. She told him about her friends Nettie, Lettie, and Dottie Moody and how they didn't understand because they still had their health. Jason brightly asked what she thought about the new public library hours in Queens, and she promptly (and undisappointingly) came back with it was a crying shame that young people today didn't learn how to read. (You mean other than blatant scandal sheets of the right?) The radio, at least, seemed to be his ally; after one particular song Mrs. Lockhardt muttered, "What the hell was that?"
Why wasn't he snapping at her? Why hadn't he thrown her out of the car? He'd back-talk to Chief Anderson, ignore Mark, make sarcastic remarks to Cassie, or just start firing back (using verbal or physical fisticuffs, depending on the situation.) But buried deeply in his subconscious was his Italian sensibility: you never, never, never act disrespectfully toward your elder relatives. The older they are, the more revered. Mouthing off to your grandmother earned you more than your father's smack across the face. It put a black mark on your soul that you'd have to go to Confession to eradicate, and even then you'd be the shame of your family for the next six generations. This held even truer with other people's grandmothers: you had to have a bella figura, you had to be refined and polite, or you'd discredit your whole family. Not everyone could have money, but everyone could have manners. In your heart you could seethe with rage, and you could complain all you wanted to your other family members about what a pain your grand-relative could be, but at the same time you always treated him or her with respect. Jason couldn't have phrased it this way, and he might not consciously remember it, but his father's strict patience with his grandmother, or his mother's uncomplaining care for his debilitated grandfather in his dying illness, remained etched into his heart.
All the same, respect didn't mean inviting annoying behaviors. Jason had pretty much stopped talking to her at this point, so Mrs. Lockhardt was surprised when he pulled off the main road and parked by a small auto parts shop. "Why are we here?"
"I'm just going to run in and get a few things for my car. You stay with the car, okay? It's a no-parking zone and I don't want to get a ticket."
"Open a window before you go. It's stuffy in here."
Jason cracked the window and then took his time walking into the store, finding whatever Sweetheart needed (I need a break right now--does that count?) and joking with the guys behind the counter. They offered him a store calendar for free, and he discovered a picture of his car on the front cover. Most valued customer: Sweetheart. They all had a good laugh. Hah-hah. Maybe he should have brought Mrs. Lockhardt in to chat with them about her pessary and her ungrateful grandchildren while he scoured their shelves for a tool so rare it might not exist at all.
One of the guys glanced out the window as he handed Jason his change. "Traffic enforcement."
Jason shoved the five dollar bill into his pocket and darted outside, jumped into the car, and pulled out of the no-parking zone. "Sorry about that, Mrs. Lockhardt--I don't want to get ticketed." He merged into traffic and continued heading toward her home using Cassie's hand-drawn map. "Even my father couldn't pull strings with parking enforcement. My cop friends can't, either. They told me last time that even the mayor has problems with the parking guys."
At the red light, Jason checked the map, closed his eyes, and determined that he had only about ten minutes until it was all over. But at least she was quiet for now. At the next red light, four blocks later, he glanced in the rear view mirror and realized why.
"Oh crap. I lost her grandmother." Jason banged the u-turn in the middle of Francis Lewis Boulevard and headed back to the auto parts store. Sure enough, there was Mrs. Lockhardt, sitting on a sidewalk bench with her mouth a tight line and her purse on her knees. He pulled into the no-parking zone even though traffic enforcement was right there, so he put on his flashers. In every other city in the nation, hazard lights indicate that a car has broken down: in New York City, they mean "I put it here."
Mrs. Lockhardt's voice greeted Jason as he stepped out of the car. "Ten grandchildren, but do you think that even one of them would have the decency--"
The traffic agent gestured to Jason. "Oh, look, he's back now. I'll help you to the car."
Jason glanced at him. "No ticket."
"You were in a no-parking zone."
"You can keep having this dazzling conversation while you fill out the form."
"Just get the hell out of here."
Mrs. Lockhardt wanted to get into the back again, and Jason helped her in, the whole time fielding off terrified comments that he was about to drop her into the curb.
As an act of mercy, every light was green on the way home. Maybe it was fate asking forgiveness, or maybe Jason had done sufficient penance for every bad thing he'd ever done or thought of doing in his life. Cassie's directions, with quaint landmarks like street names and house numbers, brought him to Mrs. Lockhardt's house quickly and without even momentary confusion.
At her house, he found three cars parked in the driveway. Jason's jaw hurt from clenching it so hard as he got Mrs. Lockhardt's walker out of the trunk, returned her handicapped placard, and extracted her from the back seat. She hefted the walker and marched smartly up the front steps, where someone let her in the front door. He recognized one of Cassie's cousins.
"Thanks for taking Granny to the doctor."
Jason said darkly, "You guys were home all along, weren't you?"
Mrs. Lockhardt turned to him and said, "Here, George." She handed him a one dollar bill.
Jason could have thrust the dollar bill back at her, could have simply refused it, and could have set it on fire if he had a dramatic streak. Instead he offered a broad smile and whipped the five dollar bill out of his pocket. "No, I couldn't possibly. The pleasure was all mine."
She took the money.
One week later President Kane asked him if he could, as a personal favor, go pick up his aged mother from Kennedy Airport. Jason should have known better. Instead, after pulling up at the crowded arrivals area in the rain, he found another old woman with soft wrinkles, a fur coat, and a smile. He settled her into his car, where she promptly took a look at the vehicle's condition and opened her umbrella in the front seat. "The roof's going to drip on my coat," she said sweetly while Jason stared in horror. He drove all the way to Massapequa with her holding the umbrella over her head.
Jason may have been muttering to himself, "Never again," all the drive home. But horror films always have a half-dozen sequels. And nobody ever listens when you tell them not to go there.