The Last Wing in Town
by Yves Jaques
You're the last wing in town, the sky a stumbling giant yelling Fe Fi Fo Fum as it brushes its fingers over your cab. You could stick your head out the window and drown, the rain's coming down that hard. Did I say down? It's coming across up and over with the pretty purpose of a stepped on mine.
The whole damn citys gone indoors, sidewalks rolled up, shutters latched. And you're in the streets. You, and the freaks - the ones that don't care, don't know better, or got nowhere to go. You know you don't want them in your cab, but you gotta eat; you got a lover that loves flowers, a lover that loves Jim Beam. Fares are blood, and the heart must beat.
This is the thing about driving cab: It's like jiggin with the Devil; hes got the fiddle and you dont know the tune. Then again, sometimes its like a mating call, and you know what to do, how to move to it. But no matter what, you always feel like the dancer who isnt leading; just trusting blindly to the Devils sense of rhythm, watching his little pigs feet whirl in a blur. The Devil is Fortune, and none else, and driving the game that we cabbies play. And its a serious game. What we cabbies bet with is no less than our lives. Oh I see you smile, but let me ask you, how many times you been mugged for chump change on a dead-end night?
So like I was saying, Its one of those nights when Im the last wing in town. The dispatch is down, or maybe its because some punks busted my antenna, I don't know. Back to base though? No. I've barely hit my nut, dont got the time to trade for leftovers. Im a radio dead rogue elephant in my racing green Checker - licensed for seven, two jump seats, a little squirrely in a turn, but not bad for 500 plus keys on the odo.
Those miles are teeth, and my cab shes got a mouthful, yelling through them as she pulls me in mad, desperate circles through Pioneer Square, on a weird paydays night mix of drunks with money, and drunks with none. Im looking to catch some Romeo down on his luck. Maybe some young lovers, leave them to grope in my back seat while I cruise at a buck fifty a mile and hope they dont come too fast.
After a couple of turns I get hailed and pull up, wisps of steam floating smoky off the hood. Though I reach across and pop the back door the asshole gets in the front seat. I hate that. I don't need company that bad. I dont want anybody getting in the front seat unless its my Mother or my lover.
'Where ya headin' bud?" I ask, sizing him up, feeling theres something funny about him. Dont know what yet.
The guy stares out my fishbowl window. "Burien. 19th and 152nd," he says, with a curious accent, like he learned his English in England or something. Can't quite pick it up though, but he looks Indian, like from India Indian. Or maybe a Sikh. No, not Sikh; hes got no turban, no beard. Anyway, every Sikh on the streets tonight is gonna be behind the wheel of a cab himself, like my man Raji - drives for Classic too.
Rajis the skinniest son of a bitch you ever saw, like he was starved as a kid and just never got over it. I drop him off at his place sometimes. He let me in once because I had to piss. Smelled real strange in his apartment, not bad, just strange. I saw he had food stocked everywhere, like the place was a bunker or something.
Last week I rode in Rajis rig for the first time, down to the docks. I was looking for a cheap radio. Damned if it wasnt like being driven by the Grim Reaper. Raji wears those disco shirts with crazy outer space patterns on them, and covers himself up with a big ass trench coat - which I might add he wears regardless of how hot or sticky it might be. He told me that's how his people do it where he's from, stay covered you know.
Sitting behind him that time, with his head hardly larger than a grapefruit, and his right arm poking out the sleeve of his big old trench like a baby wearing daddys coat, it freaked me. I mean looking at his hand on the wheel, nothing but skin wrapped on bones; youre thinking shit what have I gotten myself into? Makes good tips Raji does. My guess is people feel glad to be in the here-and-now and not in the hereafter when they get back out of the mans cab. Nice guy though, hed give you the shirt off his back. Always likes to share his food. God you feel funny though, taking some, like youre stealing food from an orphan.
But Burien, a good fare, thirty bucks plus, put me way over the top of my nut. I'm thinking fuck it, Burien, buy a six pack, and I'm home - smoking a buttless and watching Juiceman hawk his juicer on late night.
The waters peeling off of the radials as Im rushing down First Avenue. Drops are exploding all over the windshield and the wipers cant hope to keep up but Im kicked back; I know these roads. Theres just the water and me and my fare and The Carpenters on the AM singing 'Close to You'. Which is about the funniest coincidence because Im just pondering how I cant find my color, the right color for my skin. What I mean by that is Im a chameleon. I change to fit whats around me, only every now and then I cant find my color. And thats when I dont feel close to anyone.
You see I was flipping channels one night I caught part of this show on chameleons, how they can blend in with anything, even change colors to show theyre mad or horny or whatever. I thought to myself goddamnit if that isnt me. Im a chameleon in my own way. Always have been I guess. This show just got me to thinking about myself in a new way.
Its like this, maybe some fare gets in I can feel the guy wants to talk sports Im on it you know, like how about them Sonics? You see that three pointer in overtime? Shit. Or maybe some woman, an office worker say gets in, and I can just feel shes got a kid, so Im talking to her about the croup, or the public schools or something. I do that all day long, Im a hundred different people. Im a thousand different people. I dont know why Im that way. I just am. I cant stand all that goddamn silence drifting off the back seat of my cab, me staring in the rear-view to make sure my fare hasnt kicked or some damn thing. And who is it makes the best tips at Classic? Yours truly. Which is beside the point. Like I said I just am that way. I just read people and become what they need. But every now and then my radar fritzes on me.
Like now. I'm glancing over thinking, what is it about this guy? What is weird about this guy? And thinking the other thing, which is nuts, but I always catch myself doing it anyway - and maybe its just a man thing - thinking can I take him?
And then it hits me. Just as I'm making small talk because he's freaky, and I'm asking, "Whatcha been up to tonight?" I know what it is. He doesn't have a coat on. It's raining buckets and this guy's got no coat on. So I'm turning this one over looking for the angle, the crack thatll take me in when he finally answers my question, "I just got out of prison," and with his strange accent it sounds funny and scary at the same time.
I just keep on driving. Only an idiot would ask "What for?" And I may be simple but I am not an idiot, so I just keep on angling, except the damn angle keeps changing on me. But you know, the moment seems kind of solemn, I mean the man just got out of the slammer. He didnt have to tell me that. The moment needs the common cup, like we used to pass around at church when I was a kid. It feels holy somehow. Thinking of Raji, and him telling me that a man with whom you share bread cannot be your enemy, I offer him a buttless - road food for the soul. I think that where the Bible says that man cannot live by bread alone that other thing it dont mention is probably cigarettes. Hell, give me a pack of smokes, and a bottle of Old Fashioned cream soda and I can likely skip the bread. Or a cup of Joe and a Navy Player's Cut - that's bread and wine for me.
Well, I just keep right on driving. Were smoking and its real quiet, a couple of holy men on Mount Checker, two tribes, driver and fare, and the throbbing short block of my cab, pulling us down SR-509. The skys gray, my skin is gray. My chameleon skin is never gray, but its like its turned off because Im thinking so hard about what he might have done, and the silence in the cab is thick and I got no rear-view to spy at him with. How longs he been doing time? Did he just rob somebody, or did he beat the shit out of them? Did he fuck some little girl? Im running through every wicked act that man is capable of and I just cant pin one on him. Thats real unusual. And the most important question Im asking myself is do they hand you a couple of twenties for cab fare when they boot you from slammer to street? I always think about that cop that got shot outside of the Olympic Broiler over some five dollar chow. Life is cheap.
Im on auto-pilot as my thoughts take us straight there like when you wake up a block from your house wondering how you just drove it. And that moments on us, that sacred moment where the cash switches hand. Money tendered for services rendered I always like to say. Of course its pretty much what I expected all along; he's got to go into his apartment to get the money.
The building is also pretty much what I expected, I know this town. Its one of those early Seventies types with the pebbly outsides, and the balconies that run the whole way along each floor. They look too much like motels for my taste; they got a vanishing feeling about them, and I have noticed that they attract a restless, shiftless kind of people. And they always have these funny tropical names like 'Hawaii West', or 'The Molokai.' What the hell is so tropical about a goddamn pebble wall motel with iron balconies running around it anyway?
I hunker down to wait, and light another smoke as I watch him disappear around the back, lost in the darkness of the trees. Damn those trees are dark and tight, leaning over like theyre thinking about swallowing the building up. Its the kind of forest bodies get dumped in. Come to think of it Im maybe two minutes from where the Green River Murderer used to dump hookers after he did them and then murdered them.
I'm sitting and sitting, and KIXI Light must be playing every Carpenters song ever recorded, because this syrupy wandering pop just keeps welling up out of my radio. It seems way out of place, feels like a sunny cloudy day. Here its pitch black and coming down hard. But her voice sounds so sweet and lonely. I can just see her up in her room waiting for something, just like I am. Looking at my watch I can see Ive been waiting a damn long time, a good ten minutes.
Just as Im ready to go and chalk it up to being stiffed because no way am I gonna follow that weird motherfucker into that darkness, of course my fare comes back around the side of the building, dripping wet, and still in his shirt. What a freak. But hey Im getting my fare.
He comes up to the window and says, "I can't seem to enter my apartment."
Fucking nice excuse, I'm thinking. Then he says, "I always have trouble with the lock. It is very difficult to operate." Operate, he says, in his funny English. Operate. Jesus Christ; makes me think of the East Indian guy that runs my corner store. I wrote a check there once and he looked me over real slow before saying, "Sir, may I see your particulars?"
Then my fare says, "Can you help me?"
Can I help him? Shit. I turn this one over and over in my mind as I stare at him deadpan. What I'm actually doing at this point is sizing him up again. Can I take him? Not if he's packing. I can lose the thirty bucks though, thats for sure. But then, what if this guy's on the level? What if some geek cops pulled him in because he looks funny? Because he aint white? Maybe he didn't do shit, but spent the night in jail anyway. Now the poor motherfucker can't get into his place, and it's pouring rain on his coatless, hatless self.
I feel like that angel that stands at the pearly gates, judging people. Or like that carving on the side of the Federal courthouse on Fifth; the one holding the scales. Justice blindfolded; aint that the truth. I mean, are people good? Am I good? Shit I dont even know if Im good. I had a fare tell me once people are wolves. He said it like it was spelled with a v. He was German I think. In my head I got the words I should say, "Tough shit, bud," and leave him standing in the rain. But goddamnit the words wont come out. Before I know what Im doing I got my door open and Im stepping out saying, "All right, I'll give it a shot." Nuts. And so I turn my collar to the rain and start following him around the back, into that dark wet forest.
As Im walking along I just cant figure it. Wheres that moment when you say yes or no to something? I mean I just dont know how my feet put me here and are putting me forward too. One second Im sitting in my cab a cool son of a bitch, and weighing the possibilities like Im some grand jury. What I didnt know is that the victim in the case was me. Now here I am; following this asshole in the middle of the night, in the rain, around the back of the Molokai which probably means dead motherfucker in Hawaiian for all I know. I feel like Im Wily Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon, staring across some canyon Im thinking about jumping over except I find that I done already jumped and am legs kicking over the cliff.
Thats it. Thats the answer isnt it? That scale that justice is holding dont test the weight of shit, its a goddamn seesaw, a carny ride, and you either get on the thing and yell whoopee or you dont. And if you dont get on the damn thing you were never going to. Its called talking shit. You were just staring at the carny man like you were gonna get on but you know inside you were never even thinking about it. You were either gonna or you werent. Theres no making a decision about it. Or in my case. You were just pretending you were gonna help somebody, or were thinking about helping somebody. Thats just so much comfort for yourself that youre a good guy cause you were maybe thinking about it. So you can be a Samaritan in your head. Jesus. But me, I have begun to jump across that goddamn canyon, and like in the Roadrunner, I dont know if Im gonna make it. I know one thing: Im no Wily Coyote can pick himself up out from under some boulder that landed on my head. Jesus.
And so Im staring down at that canyon. Im in flight. The trees are in a football huddle planning strategy, cramping me, like those one ring Police Guild circuses my Dad used to take me to. You sit in the front row maybe the show horse will shit on you. Everythings wet, and all those little night sounds are up close, whispering crazy in my ears. Im thinking, once you share bread with a man he cannot be your enemy. Raji's words again. I hope my fare knows that one. He ought to, his skins the right color. But then again, I suppose color dont mean much.
He hands me the keys and points to one, and then another. I try one in the lock. At the same time Im glancing backwards over and over again in a nervous jig, hands jittery on the knob. He gives me one of those earnest looks. God it's so black out, and so damn wet.
I realize the deadbolt is mounted upside down, so I throw the lock backwards. So far so good. I can see in the space between the door and the frame that the bolt is clear. I look back again. He's way too close for comfort and I remind myself that that's how most other countries are - they hang closer than we do. I seen it with Raji and his Sikh buddies; in each others faces and they aint even fighting. Still, a bead of cold stink from out my armpit drops down my side.
But the knob lock. Its a real bitch. The key goes in rough, a bad cut at the locksmith's. Won't turn one way or the other. I glance back again. He's hanging over my shoulder. I can't see his hands. Where are his hands? Reaching for a knife maybe. I try and read his face. No clue. That same earnest look.
"I think this ones the trouble," I say, smiling with what I hope is a natural looking face. Pulling the key back out, I check it against its mate, the key hole. "Bad cut, I think," I say a little too loudly. He gives me a slow nod, like maybe he doesn't know what I'm talking about, or like maybe his thoughts are somewhere else. I don't know.
When I stop to think about it, foreigners almost always make my chameleon skin go gray. Except for Japanese businessmen. Ive had a lot of them in my cab. I learned how to read them long ago - pretty much baseball talk and where can they get a call girl, which is pretty much where Id be in a foreign country myself. But otherwise, Im lost. I leave my own kind Im in space. In Vegas I kick ass. If I went to Monte Carlo Id get cleaned out. Or maybe I wouldnt because they couldnt read me either. Wed all be sitting there going how in hell am I gonna bluff this guy. Seeing how life is pretty much one big bluff anyway, maybe were kidding ourselves when we think we can even read our own kind.
With one more glance, thinking stab me now if you're gonna, I carefully put the key into the lower lock, laughing a little to myself about how Im stabbing it in. I jiggle it carefully in and out by little bits, feeling for the tumblers, or whatever you call a locks guts.
I hit it. The key lands home on a sharp upward pull; the lock turns smooth but squeaky, to the right this time the way a lock should. The door falls open and I stand quickly to the side, thinking hes not gonna push me in. Im ready for anything. I hold out the keys and he takes them from my wet palm, glides past me in a foreign way that seems too smooth for a man.
I can't help it, I wander in a few steps after him, around the corner of the hall. The first thing that pops into my head is that it doesnt smell like Rajis place at all. What it is I guess is that he hasnt lived here long. And no stashed food. Must have not been starved as a kid.
I can see him in the living room searching like crazy through piles of clothes and papers. He wants to get rid of me. Thats good. But the place is pretty much empty, like the repo man from the rental furniture store has been and gone. Im just now feeling the color of my skin coming on, the territory feels familiar, my fear dropping away. Knowing that hes as eager to get rid of me as I am of him, puts Wily over the canyon and onto the other side.
The apartments a wreck, clothes everywhere, a chair knocked over. Looks like more than just the mess of a lone stag; like there was a fight maybe. Finally he finds the right piece of clothing, a new, glowing white dress shirt splattered with the deep dead red color of day old dried blood. My skin goes gray again, thoughts all over the map, visions of knife fights and pistols and am I gonna be forced to drive this asshole fuck knows where while he sticks a gun to my neck? Jesus things get weird. Im in that goddamn cartoon again legs kicking over the drop. What have I done? Who am I? My guts are yelling at my chameleon skin. Why am I here and not in my Barco lounger watching Hawaii Five-O re-runs on late night?
Right out of the shirt pocket, it would have to be the blood stained one, he pulls out a roll of bills, peels off a twenty and a ten, and I'm glad they're from the inside of the wad and don't got any blood on them.
He hands the bills to me. "Thank you for helping me to enter my apartment," he says. "It is so cold, and so rainy outside."
I go to grab some change from my pocket, ready now to make this as normal as I can - money tendered for services rendered - and he says "Keep the change. You earned it."
You earned it. No shit. And I march slowly, like Jesus on the water, except Im on a parking lot; hearing every wet squishy step sounding like life, and remembering mined paddies as quiet as this until boom the waters part and the guy in front of you gets lifted on a spray of pink wet to meet his maker. You never know when your tickets gonna get punched. Im feeling it all, the damp in my collar, the drops on my neck. My back to the wall of the whole of life. Im humming a tune to myself, Close to You it is. I feel so alive, and laughing thinking about what a good Christian boy I am, just like all our women always want us to be. Such a Samaritan. Wondering still why I did it. How I came to be in that cartoon. Does Wily know why he chases that goddamn bird? Does the bird know why it runs? All I know is that I have jumped over the canyon and landed on the other side. But am I better for it? Who knows. Its the same as always - the devil fiddlin the tune and I dont know enough to even whistle along.
Yves Jaques can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org