Junior’s business card read, in Samoan, “Have Truck Will Travel.” He had had only fifty of them printed up. He still had thirty-six left. So far, his fares had been mainly taking farmers and their baskets of taro and coconuts to the market, plus pig transports—some alive, some gutted and ready for the umu.
It was raining tonight. He had just taken his wife’s cousin’s neighbor along with a husband, an auntie, and several small kids to the hospital. The neighbor was in labor. They had stretched her out in the back, in the rain, her head in her husband’s lap, the rest crouched all around her. Of course, they hadn’t felt the need to pay—friends of the family, aiga pikiupi. His cell phone went off, the Star-Spangled Banner. It was Fia, his waitress friend at Sadie’s. She had a very drunk customer there she wanted to get rid of.
“Where is he going?” Junior asked.
“I don’t know, don’t care,” Fia said, “just out of here.”
Unless you’re a stranger there is no anonymity in Pago Pago. Someone will know who you are. In the case of Junior’s passenger, everyone would know who he was. That was part of his job. He was a politician, a holder of one of the higher titles in the Eastern District, a familiar face from the evening TV news and the local paper. Let’s call him Sir, as Junior did in Samoan. Actually, properly translated, Junior’s term of address would be something more like My Most Honorable Sir, but we’ll stick with Sir. Sir was, as Fia had claimed, honorably smashed. It was at times like this that Junior wondered why he was doing this. Why was he a ride for hire?
Junior had a day job driving a school bus. But his DOE paycheck barely covered the grocery bills for his eight-person household, his church dues, and his wife’s bingo habit. His wife Taipupu, of course, figured that what kept him out of the house at night and on weekends was another woman. As if he could afford another woman.
Sir refused to leave his booth at the bar. Fia refused to bring him another drink. The manageress came to cajole him into departing. Sir made a clumsy pass at her. Finally, two other men at the bar, lesser chiefs, came over and picked Sir up. He objected at first then gave it up, forgetting what he was objecting to. They deposited Sir in the cab of Junior’s pickup.
The rain, which had been steady, now picked up. Rainmaker Mountain across the bay was doing its job. All Junior could see in his headlights was water, both in the air and on the road. His windshield wipers were on high, but they hardly helped. It happened like this sometimes. You don’t think it could rain any harder, then it does. The end of the world will come as water. Both he and Sir were soaked. Junior was thinking about the leak in his kitchen’s rusty roof. Sir was mumbling the words of a pop Samoan song. Maybe he thought he was singing.
“O fea?” Sir asked. He wanted to know where they were going.
Junior was headed east. That was the direction his truck had been parked in, and he knew Sir came from one of the villages in that direction.
“You tell me, Sir. Home? Back to your village?”
“Take me to the Tepatasi,” Sir slurred.
The Tepatasi, a harbor-side dive, had burned down years before.
“The Tepatasi would be closed now, Sir. What village?”
“Whose son are you?”
Junior told him. He was not ashamed of his heritage. He named his father and his grandfather, who had held a talking chief title. It was always thus. You were not yourself or where you were headed but where you came from, who preceded you. Someday would his sons be able to say with pride their father’s name?
“Never heard of them,” Sir said. He went back to mumbling his song.
It didn’t matter. How long had it been since such things really mattered? What did anybody know any more about why it ever mattered? Junior never got out of second gear. He was sort of feeling for the road, or rather feeling if he got off it. You can take pride in something, but if pride takes hold of you you’re lost.
The road skirted the edge of the bay here. The rain cranked up another notch. Homage, fa’aaloalo, servitude, your only strength is your family’s strength, your village’s strength, your high chief’s will to be strong. No one stood alone. His right wheels threw up gravel, and Junior pulled back left onto the road. He had the road all to himself. No one, he thought, did something so stupid as strike out on their own. No one started a business of being alone in the middle of the night driving strangers and drunks to destinations unknown. That Greek guy in a dugout paddling lost souls to hell.
Junior lit a cigarette and looked over at Sir, who was slumped against the door now, eyes closed, passed out. What was he supposed to do with him? He could always dump him at the side of the road. Maybe the rain would sober him up. He wouldn’t remember how he got there. Jettison the past. But Fia would know and the two other chiefs from the bar. That could be bad for business. Sir had never heard of his grandfather’s title? What sort of chief was he?
Somewhere past or maybe still in Leloaloa—it was hard to tell exactly where he was—the road was suddenly flooded with rushing water. A stream off the almost sheer cliff of the harbor caldera had backed up at its viaduct under the roadway, probably clogged with village trash. It happened so fast in the headlight-white curtain of rain that he hit it just as he saw it. He had no choice but to try and drive through. He downshifted to first. The force of the water pushed the truck sideways toward the bayside edge. He jerked it left into a whitecap, and the engine stalled. Sir was still passed out.
To Junior’s surprise, the engine coughed back to life on his third try of the starter. Good truck. He patted the top of the dashboard then plowed cautiously ahead, trying to keep in the middle of the road and not make a wake. He saw the headlights ahead before he saw the flashing blue and red roof lights. They were coming at him faster than he was going.
When the police car, going too fast, hit the edge of the flood, it tried to brake and slid sideways. It was only a two-lane road, and Junior was in the middle of it. There was nowhere else for the cop car to go besides into the front of Junior’s truck. It took but a second. The crash was not really that dramatic or loud. Everything stopped except the rain. Sir came to.
The rest took place in the rain, Junior and the two overweight cops, one with a flashlight, standing calf-deep in the tugging flood of the road as they examined the damage—major to the side door and rear quarter panel of the black-and-white, minor to Junior’s truck, which was still running and whose headlights were still on. The fatter cop got angry. It was all Junior’s fault. Was he drunk, driving down the middle of the road like that, hitting a police car? Was he on drugs? He’d have his ass in jail. When Junior pointed out that it was their car that had been out of control, fatso got his handcuffs out of the snap pouch on his cop utility belt.
Cops liked to act like the uniform made them everybody’s chief. This one tried to shove Junior back toward his truck and ordered him to turn around and put his hands behind his back. Junior wasn’t that easy to push around and he was in no mood for this shit. The other cop, the one with the flashlight, came forward now. Fuck ‘em. He would take them both on.
“What’s going on here, officer?” It was Sir. He had pulled himself over into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window. Even in the rain you could smell the alcohol.
“Oh, two drunks,” fatso said. “Out of the truck.” He again tried to shove Junior backward. The uniform with the flashlight came over to the truck. “You heard him. Out of the truck.”
“Who do you think you’re ordering around?” Sir said, clearly if slightly slurred.
“You, you piece of shit. Out!” He showed the flashlight into the cab and onto Sir’s face. There was a long pause. “Oh, my apologies, sir.” He used an honorific even higher than the one Junior had used. “I didn’t know that was you. Are you alright, sir? Not injured?”
“Why are you molesting my driver? I must get home.”
Fatso, who had grabbed Junior’s shirt with both hands, now dropped them. “We’ll take you, sir. You’ll be safer with us.” He put his handcuffs back in their little pouch on his belt, still glaring at Junior.
The flashlight cop helped Sir out of the truck and through the rain and the rushing water to the cop car, the other side where the rear door still opened.
“You’re lucky this time, prick,” fatso said before turning and getting into the driver’s seat. “Next time, without chief, you won’t be.” He did more ripping damage to his fender as he backed up to pull away in the direction they had come. The other side of the car looked fine. Junior stood there in the rain. Of course, Sir had not paid him anything. His truck’s front bumper was pushed in. The rain did not let up.
Junior got home late, but Taipupu was still up, just returned from her church bingo game and having a cup of tea. “Oh, did the bitch throw you out into the rain?”