Sunday, January 30, 2011
Midnight at the Cab Stand, by Randy Lowens
Wisps of white breath follow him into the taxi where the defroster's jet stream is boring a hole through patchy frost on the windshield. Blistered, hoary skin itches at his knuckles. He pulls his toboggan down further, over his ears, and blows currents of warm breath across his hands.
A plastic bag dances across the empty street. Christmas lights, those cursed pre-Thanksgiving Christmas lights, wink from lampposts and storefronts. Even here, in the most progressive city of the South, those beastly retailers must be sated. Even here.
Danny Lee adores his new hometown. He's proud to be an escapee from Babylon, an emigrant from Alabama expatriated to the hippest hollow in the hills, a beacon for progressives and oddballs of all stripes: interracial couples, unclosested gays, back-to-the-land Eden seekers, and old fashioned dropouts from the quest for cash and status. Old fashioned dropouts like himself.
At least, he used to be one. Was a time, he'd worked only enough to pay for rent and weed. He'd filled his days with yoga, cartoons, and free folk shows at the coffee shops, at every opportunity denouncing the baleful influence of Mammon upon the masses. But that's all over now. For two weeks, he's had a new plan. He's volunteering for overtime at his cab driving job and saving his spare change. Making plans to return to school and finish his degree. Ace those last few courses, then get a job, maybe at the library. Low pay, but benefits, and anyway it'd be a start. Save up and buy a house, a small one maybe, but a house to own instead of a place to rent. And somewhere along the way, convince Sally and the kids to come back home...
The radio crackles beside his knee. “Car 7. Car 7, come in.” Car 7 emits a final breath upon his hands before taking up a pack of Bugler and beginning to roll a cigarette. (He's given up Marlboros as part of the new austerity.) “Car 7, damn it, come in. I know you're out there. You holler for overtime, well, you gotta WORK the overtime...”
Sigh. “This is Car 7. Go ahead, Charlie.”
A moment of silence. “Why didn't you answer me, General Lee? I'm getting tired of your games.”
“Sorry, man. Just stepped out to check the air in the tires. Thought one was low, but they're okay. I'm taking good care of the equipment for you. So anyway, whuzzup?”
Another pause. “Pickup on Center Street. Two doors out from the utility place. Get your butt down there, pronto, and make a fare.”
“Yes sir, boss man.” He reaches and mutes the volume before the owner/dispatcher can respond.
Idling through windswept streets. Trees stand naked, lonely, mourning their lost leaves, dreaming of springtimes past, no longer hopeful, the coming year too far even to imagine. Things are tough all over. Newspaper stands shout the news of recession, recession, don't nobody say depression or it might come true. In the distance, semis scream and moan as they pull the Appalachian inclines. The Hummers and Suburbans of the ubiquitous khaki-clad tourists stand watch outside motel rooms, while the battered and bumper-stickered pickups of local good ole boys and girls line the residential streets nearby. Twas ever thus, even here in Zion. Even here.
“It's no use, Lee. Forget it. Me and Rickey are getting married. Nothing you say will change that.”
“I'm gonna go back to school, finish my degree, get a better job and buy a house...”
“I said, 'Forget it.' Been there, done that, heard it all before...”
Lee pauses with his dialing finger in mid-air. Gently places the receiver back in the cradle. She's right. There's no point in calling. Their fights are scripted, well rehearsed. Each angry lover quotes his lines, and no one is the wiser in the end. Besides, he's been working over and saving for two weeks, and what's he got to show? Tomorrow is payday, and he has fifteen dollars in his wallet. Fifteen dollars. Hooray for the new austerity.
Back in the cab, and another mile down the road. The fare at Center Street stands him up, so he returns downtown and parks at a cab stand on Main Street outside the coffee shops and craft stores. How cool the dulcimers in the window looked when first he moved here. How exotic, how unique. How empty it all seems at this time of night, this time of year. How tired and lonely the old man on the park bench appears to be. Christ, it must be after midnight, and twenty degrees out there...
Lee rolls the window down and whistles. Motions for the man to come over. The fellow approaches the driver's window, then starts to climb in back, before finally settling in the front passenger seat. Danny Lee smiles, but the man only hugs the door and stares at the bench he just abandoned. He reeks of stale sweat and Listerine. The sweat must be ancient—it's been cold a long time—and the mouthwash odor seems less a gargle scent than yesterday's libation oozing from his pores. Lee cranks the heater and points a vent in his direction.
“Cold out there. You need a ride somewhere, Old Timer? You live nearby?”
The man looks up the street and down again, as though only now aware of his surroundings, or uncertain of the location of his home. At length he shrugs and resumes staring at the bench.
Again, “You need a ride somewhere?”
“No moe-knee.” A gummy, toothless lisp.
“That's okay. I'm off duty now. Where you wanna go?” After a moment, “I asked, 'Where you wanna go', Old Timer?”
The man turns and stares, dull gray eyes beneath greasy red hair, as though weighing the sincerity of the question. Looks at his lap. Picks a piece of lint off his dirty plaid jacket. “I gah no-wheah to go. Sweep all ovah.” After a moment, “Stay in jaiw a wot.”
Lee mulls this over. “How long it been since you ate a bite, fella?”
“How wong since I ate?”
Studious examination of the parapets on the skyline. “Wong tie, I weckon.”
Fifteen dollars on the day before payday. Two weeks on the new savings plan. Only thirty five years old; still plenty young to finish school and start a career. If his wife and daughters don't return, why, seconds marriages are often better than the first...
Lee drops the gearshift into R and backs into the street. Down a notch further into D, and the pair are cruising Main Street, away from town, toward the bright lights of the gas stations, big box stores, and fast food joints that litter the interstate exit.
“Wheah we gone?”
“McDonald's. Mickey D's, by god. I got all of fifteen dollars, and for five, you gonna eat like a king. Hell, for ten, well, so am I. I done had sardines and bologna till I can't stand it. Then tomorrow—tomorrow is Friday, you know, my payday—well, come tomorrow I'm going to start saving my money. I'm going back to school, see, going to finish my degree and change jobs and buy a house and find a new ole lady and...”
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the editors of Metazen, in whose 2010 Christmas charity e-book this story first appeared.