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Authors: James Sallis

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BOOK: Drive
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Chapter Seven

He wasn’t supposed to have the money. He wasn’t supposed to be a part of it at all. And he damned well ought to be back at work doing double-eights and turnarounds. Jimmie, his agent, probably had a stack of calls for him. Not to mention the shoot he was supposed to be working on. The sequences didn’t make much sense to him, but they rarely did. He never saw scripts; like a session musician, he worked from chord charts. He suspected the sequences wouldn’t make a lot more sense to the audience if they ever stopped to think about them. But they had flash aplenty. Meanwhile all he had to do was show up, hit the mark, do the trick—“deliver the goods,” as Jimmie put it. Which he always did. In spades.

That Italian guy with all the forehead creases and warts was on the shoot, starring. Driver didn’t go to movies much and could never quite remember his name, but he’d worked with him a couple of times before. Always brought his coffeemaker with him, slammed espressos the whole day like cough drops. Sometimes his mother showed up and got escorted around like she was queen.

That’s what he was supposed to be doing.

But here he was.

The score’d been set for nine that morning, just after opening. Seemed ages ago now. Four in the crew. The cook—New Guy—who’d put it together, engineer and pit boss. Fresh muscle up from Houston by the name of Dave Strong. Been a Ranger, supposedly, in the Gulf War. The girl, Blanche. Him driving, of course. They’d pulled out of L.A. at midnight. All of it pretty straightforward: Blanche would set up the room, grab and hold attention, as Cook and Strong moved in.

Driver’d been out three days before to get a car. He always picked his own car. The cars weren’t stolen, which was the first mistake people made, pros and amateurs alike. Instead, he bought them off small lots. You looked for something bland, something that would fade into the background. But you also wanted a ride that could get up on its rear wheels and paw air if you needed it to. Himself, he had a preference for older Buicks, mid-range, some shade of brown or gray, but he wasn’t locked in. This time what he found was a ten-year-old Dodge. You could run this thing into the side of a tank with no effect. Drop anvils on it, they’d bounce off. But when he turned the motor over, it was like this honey was just clearing its throat, getting ready to talk.

“Got a back seat for it?” he asked the salesman who’d gone along on the test drive. You didn’t have to push the car, just turn it loose, see where it went. Watch and feel how it cornered, if its center stayed put when you accelerated, slowed, cut in or out. Most of all, listen. First thing he’d done was turn off the radio. Then, a couple of times, he had to hush the salesman. There was a little too much play in the transmission for his taste. Clutch needed to come up some. And it pulled to the right. But otherwise it was about as perfect as he had any right to expect. Back at the lot, he crawled underneath to be sure the carriage was straight, axles and ties in good shape. Then asked about the back seat.

“We can find you one.”

He paid the man cash and drove it off the lot to one of several garages he used. They’d give it the works, new tires, oil and lube, new belts and hoses, a tune-up, then store it, where it would be out of sight till he picked it up for the job.

Next day, his call was at six a.m., which in Hollywoodese translated to show up around eight. Guy working second unit held out for a quick take (why wouldn’t he, that’s what he got paid for) but Driver insisted on a trial run. Buggy they gave him was a white-over-aqua ’58 Chevy. Looked cherry, but it drove like a goddamned mango. First run, he missed the last mark by half a yard.

Good enough, the second-unit guy said.

Not for me, Driver told him.

Man, Second Unit came back, this is what? ninety seconds in a film that lasts two hours? That rocked!

Plenty of other drivers out there, Driver told him. Make the call.

Second run went like a song. Driver gave himself a little more time to get up to speed, hit the ramp to go up on two wheels as he sailed through the alley, came back down onto four and into a moonshiner’s turn to face the way he’d come. The ramp would be erased in editing, and the alley would look a lot longer than it was.

The crew applauded.

He had one other scene blocked for the day, a simple run against traffic down an interstate. By the time the crew finished setting up, always the most complicated part, it was coming onto two in the afternoon. Driver nailed it on the first run. Two-twenty-three, and the rest of the day belonged to him.

He caught a double-header of Mexican movies out on Pico, downed a couple of slow beers at a bar nearby making polite conversation with the guy on the next stool, then had dinner at the Salvadoran restaurant up the street from his current crib, rice cooked with shrimp and chicken, fat tortillas with that great bean dip they do, sliced cucumbers, radish and tomatoes.

By then he’d killed most of the evening, which is pretty much what he aimed for when he wasn’t working one job or the other. But even after a bath and half a glass of scotch he couldn’t get to sleep.

Now he knew: that was something he should have paid attention to.

Life sends us messages all the time—then sits around laughing over how we’re not gonna be able to figure them out.

So at three a.m. he’s looking out the window at the loading dock across the street thinking no way the crew over there, hauling stuff out of the warehouse and tucking it away in various trucks, is legit. There’s no activity anywhere else on the dock, no job boss or lights, and they’re moving at a good, nonunion pace.

He thinks about calling the police, see how that plays out, watch while it all got a lot more interesting. But he doesn’t.

Around five, he pulled on jeans and an old sweatshirt and went out for breakfast at the Greek’s.

999

Things go wrong on a job, sometimes it starts so subtly you don’t see it at first. Other times, it’s all dominoes and fireworks.

This was somewhere in between.

Sitting in the Dodge pretending to read a newspaper, Driver watched the others enter. There’d been a small line waiting outside the door, five or six people. He could see them all through the blinds. Blanche chatting with the security guard just inside the door, brushing hair back from her face. Other two looking around, at the point of putting guns in the mix. Everyone still smiling, for now.

Driver also watched:

An old man sitting on the low brick wall across from the storefront, knees stuck up like a grasshopper’s, struggling to get his breath;

Two kids, twelve or so, skateboarding down the sidewalk opposite;

The usual pack of suit-and-dress people heading for work clutching briefcases and shoulder bags, looking tired already;

An attractive, well-dressed woman perhaps forty years old walking a boxer from both sides of whose mouth strings of gluey saliva hung;

A muscular Latino offloading crates of vegetables from his double-parked pickup to a Middle Eastern restaurant down the block;

A Chevy in the narrow alley three storefronts down.

That one brought him up short. It was like looking in a mirror. Car sitting there, driver inside, eyes moving right to left, up, down. Didn’t fit the scene at all. Absolutely no reason for that car to be where it was.

Then sudden motion inside caught his attention—everything happened fast, he’d put the pieces together later—and Driver saw the backup guy, Strong, turn toward Blanche, lips moving. Watched him go down as she drew and fired before hitting the floor as though she’d been shot herself. Cook, the guy who’d put it all together, had begun firing in her direction.

He was still thinking What the fuck? when Blanche came barreling out with the bag of money and threw it onto the new back seat.

Drive!

Drive he did, pulling out in a brake-accelerator skid between a FedEx truck and a Volvo with a couple dozen dolls on the shelf by the rear windshield and a license plate that read Urthship2, not at all surprised to find the Chevy wheeling in behind him as he watched Urthship2 crash-land into the sidewalk bins of a secondhand book-and-records store.

Air would be thin up there for Urthship2, the new world’s natives hostile.

The Chevy stayed with them for a long time—the guy was that good—as Blanche sat beside him hauling money by the handful out of the gym bag, shaking her head and going Shit! Oh shit!

The suburbs saved them, just as they saved so many others from the city’s damning influence. Finding his way to the subdivision he’d scouted earlier, Driver barreled onto a quiet residential street, tapping the brakes once, again, then again, so that by the time he reached the speed trap he was cruising a steady, sure twenty-five. Not knowing the area and not wanting to lose them, the Chevy had come charging in. Driver watched in the rear view mirror as local cops pulled it over. Squad pulled up at an angle behind, motorcycle mountie in front. Guys would be telling this story back at the station for weeks.

Shit, Blanche said beside him. There’s a lot more money here than there oughta be. Has to be close to a quarter of a million. Oh shit!

Chapter Eight

As a kid, new to town, he’d hung around the studio lots. So did a bunch of others, all ages, all types. But it wasn’t the stars in their limos or supporting players arriving in Mercedes and BMWs he was interested in, it was the guys who sailed in on Harleys, muscle cars and jacked-up pickups. As always he stayed quiet, hung back, kept his ear to the ground. A shadow. Before long he’d heard word of a bar and grill these guys favored in the grungiest part of old Hollywood, and started hanging out there instead. Some time in the second week, two or three in the afternoon, he looked up to see Shannon settling in at one end of the bar. The barkeep greeted him by name and had a beer and shot in front of him damned near before he sat down.

Shannon had a first name no one used. It got listed on credits, nether end of the scroll; that was about it. Up from somewhere in the South, hill country, everyone said. The Scots-Irish ancestry of so many of those hill folk showed in Shannon’s features, complexion and voice. But what he most looked like was your typical redneck from Alabama.

He was the best stunt driver in the business.

“Keep ’em coming,” Shannon told the barkeep.

“You need to tell me that?”

He’d sucked three mugs dry and thrown back as many shots of well bourbon by the time Driver worked up courage enough to approach him. Stopped with the fourth shot glass on the way to his mouth as Driver stood there.

“Help you with something, kid?”

A kid not much older (he was thinking) than those streaming home from school now in buses, cars and limos.

“Thought maybe I could buy you a drink or two.”

“You did, did you?” He went ahead and tossed the shot back, set the glass gently on the bar. “Soles of your shoes are mostly gone. Clothes don’t look much better, and I’d wager that backpack holds damn near everything you own. Been some time since you and water touched base. Plus you probably haven’t eaten in a day or two. Am I on track here?”

“Yes sir.”

“But you want to buy me a drink.”

“Yes sir.”

“You’ll do just fine here in L.A.,” Shannon said, gulping a third of his beer. Signaled the barkeep, who was there instantly.

“Give this young man whatever he wants to drink, Eddie. And have the kitchen send out a burger, double fries, coleslaw.”

“Got it.” Scribbling on an order pad, Danny tore off the top sheet and clipped it with a wooden clothes pin to a hoop he then spun towards the kitchen. A hand back there reached for it. Driver said a beer would be fine.

“What do you want from me, boy?”

“My name’s—”

“Hard as it may be for you to believe this, I don’t give a flying fuck what your name is.”

“I’m from—”

“And I care even less about that.”

“Tough audience.”

“Audiences are. That’s their nature.”

Danny was there with food not long after, never a long turnaround, places like this. He set the platter down before Shannon, who inclined his head towards Driver.

“For the kid. I, on the other hand, could use another couple soldiers.”

The plate slid his way and Driver tucked in, thanking them both. The bun was soggy with grease from the burger, fries crisp on the outside and meaty beneath, coleslaw creamy and sweet. Shannon nursed his beer this time. While the shot stood patiently by, waiting.

“How long have you been out here, boy?”

“Better part of a month, I guess. Hard to keep track.”

“This the first square meal you’ve had in that time?”

“I had some money, to start with. It didn’t last long.”

“Never does. In this city more than most.” He allowed himself a measured sip of bourbon. “Tomorrow, the next day, you’re going to be every bit as hungry as you were ten minutes ago. What are you gonna do then? Roll tourists on Sunset for the few dollars they have on them and traveler’s checks you won’t be able to cash? Hit convenience stores, maybe? We’ve got career professionals for that.”

“I’m good with cars.”

“Well then, there you go. Good mechanic can get a job anywhere, anytime.”

Not that he couldn’t do that, Driver told him. He was damned near as good under the hood as he was behind the wheel. But what he did best, what he did better than just about anyone else was, he drove.

Finishing off his shot, Shannon laughed.

“Been a long time since I took to remembering how that felt,” he said. “Feeling so full of yourself, so confident. Thinking you can eat the world. You really that sure of yourself, kid?”

Driver nodded.

“Good. You want any kind of life out here, you even expect to survive, not get eaten up, used up, you damn well better be.”

Shannon finished his beer, settled the tab, and asked if Driver’d care to come along. Dipping into the six-pack Shannon had bought off Eddie, they drove for a half-hour or so before Shannon nosed the Camaro over a low ridge and down a slope into a system of drainage canals.

Driver looked about. A landscape not all that different, really, from the Sonoran desert where, in Mr. Smith’s ancient Ford truck, he’d taught himself to drive. Bare flatland ringed by culvert walls, an array of shopping carts, garbage bags, tires and small appliances not unlike the random saguaro, scrub and cholla he’d learned to maneuver about.

Shannon pulled up and stepped out of the car, left the motor running. Last couple of beers dangled in their plastic web from his hand.

“Here’s your chance, kid. Show me what you have.”

So he did.

Afterwards they went for Mexican food to a place on Sepulveda the size of a train boxcar where everyone, waitress, busboy, cook, seemed to be family. They all knew him, and Shannon spoke to them in what Driver later discovered was perfect idiomatic Spanish. He and Shannon had a couple of scotches to start, chips and salsa, a blistering caldo, green enchiladas. By the end of the meal, several Pacificos having passed by on parade, Driver was fairly wiped.

That morning he woke up on Shannon’s couch, where he lived for the next four months. Two days later he had his first job, a fairly standard chase scene in a low-end cop show. Script had him hitting a corner, taking it on two wheels, coming back down—simple, straightforward stuff. But just as he pulled into the turn Driver saw what could be done here. Swinging in closer to the wall, he dropped those airborne wheels onto the wall. Looked like he’d left the ground and was driving horizontally.

“Holy shit!” the second-unit director was heard to say. “For God’s sake print that—now!”

A reputation was being born.

Standing in the shadow of one of the trailers, Shannon smiled. That’s my boy. He was working a top-grade movie four stages over, swung by on a break to see how the kid was doing.

The kid was doing all right. The kid was still doing all right ten months later when, on a perfectly routine call, a stunt the like of which he’d done a hundred times, Shannon’s car went over the edge of the canyon he was speeding along and, cameras rolling, catching the whole thing, plunged a hundred yards straight down, somersaulted twice, and sat rocking on its back like a beetle.

BOOK: Drive
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