I pull up to the curb and study my waiting cargo. Six suitcases, two kids, mum and dad. More cases than people, I always find that funny. I try not to be a bitter man, but when I transport families, it’s tough, it is. If I still drank, the sight of that little girl’s stuffed animal, a blue elephant, would be worth a glass of whisky. Ten years ago my wife left me. She told me that alcohol was my mistress, said she hadn’t signed on for that. And she took the kids. Whatever she told them I don’t know, but they want nothing to do with me, even though I’ve been sober for three years now. So no, I don’t much like driving families.
This family wants to go to the airport, as they all do. No one would stay in this town unless forced. No one would stay in this country unless forced, if you ask me, although no one is asking. The dad is sliding in next to me now. He’ll be jovial; Americans usually are. Slap you on the back, they do. They haven’t suffered enough, you know? It gives them this odd optimism, the kind children have.
Little girl is in the back seat and sucking furiously on her thumb. In her other hand she is clutching that worn elephant. The boy is opening and closing his window. I grit my teeth but say nothing. It’s better that way. Better for my tip, at least.
“How many minutes to the airport?,” the man asks me.
“Ten,” I say. “Sunday morning, no one’s on the road.”
“Really?,” he replies, and tilts his head back to his family. “Hear that? We’re going to be early. I’d planned for a half-hour.”
“We aim to please,” I tell him, and I mean it, I think. This job, it’s all I have, so I’d better do it well. I pride myself on never making anyone late.
Now: “It’s so pretty here,” sighs the wife, and I cannot disagree. Pretty is what we have in Ireland. Green everywhere. It makes things just that side of bearable.
Slow and easy, I enter the roundabout. Not too long now. “What airline?,” I ask. “Aer Lingus,” Dad laughs. “We flew through here from Paris so we could save money.”
That’s what they do. This is a layover, no more, for most.
I pull up to the terminal and check my clock. Nine minutes. I’ve done my part for today. The American man tips me generously. That’s another thing that’s peculiar to Americans. I wave everyone off, head for home. Last fare of my shift. I’m ready to sleep. In my driveway, I glance back at the rear of the cab. I’m hoping that the boy didn’t do any damage to the windows. On the seat is the girl’s blue elephant. Shit. Normally I scan the cab right away for forgotten belongings. That little girl’s going to miss her elephant, I know it.
I remember Stella with her dolls. She was a slip of a thing then. She insisted on sleeping with all eight or ten of ‘em, and cried if one couldn’t be found. We used to wreck the house trying to find those dolls. Anything to get her to smile. Stella. She’s eighteen now. I don’t know what she looks like. That hurts.
I sigh, double back to the airport. What else have I got to do? I can get this child her elephant, I can do that. I park my taxi and carry the animal into the empty terminal. The ticketing girl looks bored; she is studying her fingernails. “That family?,” I inquire. “Two kids, American, coming from Paris?” She nods. “The girl forgot her stuffed — “
“Oh, they’re gone,” she interrupts with a dismissive wave. “I put them on an earlier flight. They were thrilled, acted as if they’d won the lottery. Americans…” She snorted. “Come to think, the little girl was upset. Maybe that — ,” she gestures toward the elephant — “explains it. Oh, well. They’ll get her another, I’m sure.”
I shrug and turn toward the exit. They probably will buy her another, they probably will.
At home again I put the elephant on top of the TV set. I fix myself a ginger ale and settle into the armchair. I’ve slept here so long that it’s become as comfortable as a bed, and it keeps me from feeling too lonely, waking up in bed to all that empty space, to absence. As I drift off I watch the local news. There isn’t much. There never is.
With a start I wake to urgent voices. Half an hour has passed. The voices are, I realize, coming from the telly. A plane has crashed. Headed to New York… Oh, God.
I feel sick. And the little girl without her friend. Oh, God.
When her mum and I finally found a lost doll, Stella would hug us extravagantly, and exclaim, “She just wanted to come home, and you helped her. You can do anything, can’t you!” We never did challenge her belief.
I wonder if she remembers saying that, and I wonder when she realized that we could not, in fact, do everything. That we could not do much of anything at all.
I replay the morning a thousand different ways until I can get it to come out right. I see the elephant as I’m driving away from the airport, I go back in to the terminal, I catch the family, we spend enough time on the details of the thing that they end up taking the flight they were meant to.
Later I move the elephant to my chair. Now when I fall asleep it’s lodged between me and the upholstery. I figure that Stella would want it this way, would be glad that I’ve brought blue elephant home.
It’s the least I can do. It’s the most I can do. It’s all I can do.