This is the second installment of “Pros” that I’m sharing with you.
Saturday, 11:35 a.m.
Two blocks south of the station stood a crumbling brick garage, three stories high and swallowed up by the taller buildings around it. From the street the only clue to its existence was its driveway, the bottom of which opened between a locksmiths and a dry-cleaners. Behind them it widened into a lot in front of the garage’s ancient bay doors, seafoam green with COLMINETTI’S TAXI painted in white-outlined red lettering across both of them. Dispatcher-slash-owner Dennis Colminetti managed a fleet of ten cabs, half of them out running twelve-hour shifts at any given time. Four of the five drivers getting off shift had returned and been cut loose; their cabs waited to be moved into the garage. The fifth cabbie, as usual, was late. Linwood removed the raincoat hood and shook the water from his stringy blonde hair like a sheepdog as he walked through the open bay doors.
The interior resembled a small airplane hangar; shelf after shelf of motor oil and spare parts and tools and tiny American flags and other things lined the walls, sharing space with outdated centerfold calendars and Knicks posters and windows too high up to see out of. Light fixtures and ceiling fans hung low from the steel beams holding up the roof. Five gleaming cabs took up most of the space on the floor and four drivers stood around them, smoking and talking amongst themselves while they waited to be dispatched. They loudly greeted Linwood as he entered, who answered with a sharp jerk of the head.
“Yo, Linwood. Gettin’ wet out there, huh?” The cabbie chuckled at him with the butt of a cigarette in his lips, waiting for the comeback that was sure to follow.
He sat leaning back in a chair, his long legs stretched out in front of his taxi, number 2R42. He sported a pair of black-framed eyeglasses over his brown eyes, too small for his long face but somehow not unsuited for it. His shoulder-length jet black hair was pulled back in a ponytail that always hung from the back of a ratty Islanders cap. He wore a brown corduroy jacket, his hands shoved deep in its pockets to protect them from the rainy chill pervading the garage. His faded jeans had a tear in the left knee, and he wore a pair of old khaki-colored oil-smudged workboots. With the easy-going air of a bohemian cowboy he spoke as if every syllable mattered, in a voice that was slow and deliberate, and deeply-pitched. He was about the same age as Linwood but stood several inches taller.
Jamieson. After six months Linwood still wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name.
“Not as wet as your mother was this mornin’. Thank her for me, will ya?” The three other cabbies in the garage hooted and laughed.
“Take it easy, huh, Linwood? Ya know, a guy might not take so kindly to you talkin’ ’bout his mother an’ what not.”
“I’d talk about your pops if that’d make ya feel better. When’s the last time you heard from him?” The cabbies hooted again, and this brought Jamieson to his feet. He spat out the cigarette butt and stalked over to Linwood, then put an arm around his shoulder, grinning from ear to ear. “Who the hell does this kid think he is? It’s almost like we’re family, am I right or am I right?”
“An Irish cabbie and a smartmouthed young buck. The resemblance is almost perfect,” said Reginald Placer, another of the drivers. Everybody sent up another round of laughter.
Linwood slapped Reggie on the shoulder. “See you round back in five?” he said to Jamieson, who gave him a nod. He went over to cab number 3C28 and opened the door, tossing the raincoat and backpack inside. He put on a Rangers hoodie lying on the front seat, two sizes too big, and stuck something in the pocket before slamming the door shut.
He had only been a cabbie for six months, but in that short time Linwood had come to understand what it really meant to drive a cab. It was more than just a car; when it was out of sorts he couldn’t make money, so he had to learn quickly what to do to keep it shipshape. Jamieson and the other cabbies taught him lots of things he didn’t already know, and he read manuals and textbooks like mad to fill in the blanks. Short of total engine reconstruction Linwood could correct any minor internal problem with his cab, and a few major ones besides.
Linwood walked around the cab, slowly running his hands across the hood, the doors, the vacancy lamp on the roof, the bumblebee-colored livery—all to the untrained eye no different from the other thirty-two thousand that ran across the city day and night. None of his fares ever noticed the half-dozen cigarette burns on the back seat; or the tiny crack an impressively drunk fare put in the Plexiglas when she punched the barrier with a ring she wore; or the scent of the linseed oil he rubbed on the leather seats after every shift; or the warp in his rear license plate, the result of a fender bender his first day on the job. Linwood did not know the entire ownership history of this particular taxicab but since he began at Colminetti’s it belonged to him and he alone, and he loved his cab with an intensity reserved for small children or pets or elderly parents, none of which he had.
Dennis Colminetti sat at his desk, speaking into the radio and filling out paperwork. He held up a huge hand for silence. Linwood pulled out a cigarette, a Marlboro menthol, and offered Dennis one. He raked a strike-anywhere match across the desk after drawing one from a tiny rectangular silver case full of them. The smell of sulfur and the hiss of the match head briefly filled the small office as he lit both cigarettes.
“Callin’ cab 2A49, four-nine. Dump da fuckin’ fare an’ get back here. Shift’s ova.”
“I’m ten blocks out now, boss. Headed in now.” The cabbie’s voice and his loud sniffling crackled through the radio’s speaker. Dennis dropped the receiver to the desk in disgust and took a drag from the cigarette. “Fuckin’ Rick. If he didn’t have dose goddamn kids he’d’a been gone years ago. Snorts up half’a his paycheck anyway… Jesus, Linwood. You an’ dese fuckin’ menthols. What is it, you turnin’ yo or somethin’?”
“I heard that boss,” Reggie called out from in the garage. “I think you makin’ this an unfit workplace for all us yos.”
“Blow it out ya ass an’ call da Mayor’s office, see if he’ll listen to ya,” Dennis called back. Reggie laughed and Linwood smiled. “Now,” said Dennis, turning his attention to Linwood and leaning back in his ancient, creaky office chair. His balding scalp reflected the light from the bare bulb overhead and his huge belly rose above the desk like a small mountain of rayon. “Convince me why for I should letcha out on a cabbie-killer.”
Linwood put his lit cigarette in the ashtray, placed his hands on the desk. “I’m a newbie, boss,” he began. “I’ve only been on the job for six months. But you know I can do this, so let me do it. Why do you think I took this job, boss? To pay the bills? I could be flippin’ burgers or foldin’ shirts for that. I do it ’cause not every Joe Douchebag could do it. I do it ’cause it’s tough. I do it ’cause it’s scary sometimes. And last time I checked, I wasn’t some pussy in a crewneck.” That drew a chortle from Dennis.
Linwood stood up straight and picked up the cigarette again, and took a drag. “Every other cabbie workin’ for ya’s done it at least three times. Besides, if you don’t let me the other guys are gonna think I’m soft. You don’t want that on your conscience, do ya?”
Dennis pretended to think it over with a laugh. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a small, worn, brown pleather notebook. “Yeah, all right.” He gave the fare log to Linwood. Dennis then rose heavily from the chair and leaned in close across the desk, made sure Linwood heard what he was about to say. “Look, I know ya. You liketa smoke pot an’ talk about pussy all day long, but I know you’re a good driva too, so I letcha be. That bein’ said, no amount’a coffee an’ cigarettes’re gonna keep ya awake fuh long if ya don’t keep your fuckin’ eyes peeled, Linwood. You hafta stay sharp’ta stay safe out dere, get it? It’ll be a good test, see how much balls an’ guts ya got. If anythin’ else you’ll get some interestin’ stories out of it. An’ thanks for da cig.” Dennis waved Linwood out of his office.
I’ve been working on something since October. I say something because it started out as a short story, but now… I’m not sure what the hell it is. I guess the closest thing to it would probably be a novella, but even that sounds a bit ambitious.
But the fact remains. It’s been titled “The Pros of Matchsticks” since I began it (a title I’m still not sure about), and at present it’s about eighteen thousand words, and maybe two-thirds complete. It’s become an important project to me, the first thing I’ve written that I’ve lavished so much care and attention on. As I said, it’s something that I’ve been working on for about six months. But I like this piece, and it’s only now that I feel comfortable enough to begin posting it here.
And still the fact remains–it’s a long piece. I’d like to give it to you all in installments, once a week. This is the first one.
A cloudy Saturday morning in late November.
Linwood Rouxlard stood on the platform at Lexington Avenue and 59th Street without standing out at all—just another tall, lanky body wearing worn, faded jeans and a solid blue shirt. Over it was a blue raincoat, of a lighter hue than the shirt; unbuttoned and with the hood up, it covered the mass of blonde hair he hadn’t touched since the day before. As always his desert-colored canvas backpack hung from his right shoulder. He loped toward the platform’s edge, rubbing the sleep crust from the corners of his electric blue eyes as a train, clad in American flag livery, pulled into the station—The Q train, about time—and a line formed behind him.
“Hey! Hey you!”
Startled into tearing off the hood, Linwood whirled around to see a half dozen kids jump the turnstile, yelling and cursing as a couple of transit cops chased after them doing the same. The crowd of people moving about the platform made their escape that much easier and before the cops could drag them from the train it was full again and ready to leave, and it did. With an impatiend, frustrated sigh Linwood checked his watch.
One cop, tall, dark-skinned, and wearing glasses, laughed the incident off while the other, short, squat, and ruddy-faced from running, fumed. The taller cop called ahead to the next station, alerting the transit officers there of the stile-jumpers, then turned to his partner.
“You know, you gotta calm down, man. How many times’ve we gone through this? Every year you get just a bit slower and the kids get faster. That’s life, right? They’ll get ’em at Fifth Ave.”
The squat cop stopped in front of Linwood, bent over with his hands on his knees, sweating as his skin returned to a color like wallpaper paste. He wiped the perspiration from his huge graying mustache as he caught his breath. “That’s not the point, man. These shitty kids think they’re so goddamned hot. If I could I’d beat the shit outta each and every one of ’em… The fuck you lookin’ at, dickwad?” He rose to his full height, shooting arrows of hatred and frustration from his eyes toward Linwood who, in mock shock, raised his hands and took a step backward in surrender.
The black cop laughed. “Don’t mind him, kid. He’s just mad he’s gettin’ so fat, is all.” He turned to his partner. “Come on, I’ll getcha a cuppa coffee.” The white cop mumbled his assent, and the two moved off together as an N train arrived. Linwood put his hands in the pockets of his jeans and lined up to get in the crowded train, finding a clear space to stand as it pulled away from the station.
The train wound through its tunnels beneath the streets of Midtown Manhattan, stopping at one station, then the one after. As passengers alighted at 49th Street Linwood snagged a seat, between a fat guy in a suit reading the Wall Street Journal—emblazoned with a front-pageheadline about the latest ENRON misstep— and a little blond girl clutching a pink backpack to her chest as if it would anchor her to her seat. Slipping his backpack from his shoulder and placing it between his black-and-white Chuck Taylors Linwood closed his eyes, lulled into a strange sort of comfort in the crowded, smelly car. When he opened them again a woman stood in front of him.
She couldn’t have been more than thirty. She had an au naturel look, deep purple lipstick the only stitch of makeup she wore. She wore blue jeans and a tight-fitting paisley-patterned sweater. Her bright red hair was tied back in a ponytail. Her sleeves were rolled up to reveal burnished copper forearms and smooth, perfect wrists. Her stomach lay flat and invisible underneath the sweater, and through a dent in the fabric her navel stared Linwood in the eye. With her right hand she held onto a small black purse and the handrail above him; Linwood could hear the charm bracelet around that wrist jingling above and through the rattling of the car and the babble of chatter inside it. With the left she had a hushed discussion with someone on her cellular phone, in a broad voice that carried above the murmur of the other voices. Linwood couldn’t tell if she wore a wedding band or not.
“Yes… yeah, I know that. But until we get confirmation from Hewlitt on what he wants to do our hands are tied… Well, what do you expect me to do, Sandy?… I’m… I’m on the way there, now. I can’t believe we’re doing this on a Saturday. God help you if it rains before I get there… Yeah. Yeah, I got it… I’ve already made the reservations at Renduto’s. It’s a great atmosphere, it’s expensive, and there isn’t much more we can do… Nine sharp, yeah.. Yeah, I’ll bring the damn bagels, Sandy… Okay. Okay. Yeah, bye.”
The woman sighed heavily, put her phone in the purse, and smoothed out her ponytail just as the fat guy farted loud enough for the dozen or so people around him to hear, and smell. Linwood and the red-haired woman and the little girl looked in his direction, but he only hid deeper behind the paper. Then the girl began laughing, and Linwood and the woman and a few others around joined in. The train stopped at Times Square, and whether it was the station he wanted or not the fat guy jumped up quickly, snatching up his briefcase and paper, and with great effort abandoned the car and disappeared in the flood of passengers.
“That just made my day,” the woman said, brushing a tear away from her hazel eyes. Her gaze met Linwood’s for a beat just as two old ladies entered the car, small, white-haired identical twins. They wore the exact same flower-print dresses, the same white gloves, carried identical white patent-leather purses. The pleasant expression the twin on the left wore and the pasted-on scowl of the one on the right was the only discernible difference between the two. They came to a stop behind the woman and from either side of her both locked eyes with Linwood. The smile lingering on his lips slid from his face as he rose to give them the space on the seat. He moved next to the red-haired woman in the snug paisley sweater. The train began to move again.
This is a Coney Island-bound N local train. The next station is 34th Street—Herald Square.
She wore huge hooped earrings, the left one silver, the right one gold. He noticed the wispy scent of her jasmine perfume which, now that he was so close to her, won out over the dissipating aroma of the fat guy’s fart. His eyes drifted down to her high breasts poking from the close-fitting paisley sweater, and stayed there.
“You’re looking at my earrings,” she said, as Linwood nearly jumped ten feet out of his skin. “I like to keep them guessing. It’s also a great conversation starter. You are looking at my earrings… right?” Before he could stammer out an answer the twins seated in front of them giggled, startling Linwood again.
The train began to slow, and the woman leaned closer. Linwood stood several inches taller, so she craned her neck to reach his left ear. Her breasts brushed his shoulder, an earring became ice against his neck. Her jasmine perfume and the scent of her skin itself were almost cloyingly overwhelming, but not quite so. And then in a warm rush of moist air against Linwood’s earlobe she whispered an invitation, a challenge:
“If you told me you were staring at my tits, how do you think I would have reacted?”
The woman flashed him a teasing smile and slipped out of the car with the river of passengers. He looked down at the twins, still tittering, and the little girl watching everyone stream out onto the platform. Linwood realized this was his stop too, and a beat after realized he sported an erection, which he hid with his backpack as he fled the train in embarrassment just as the fat guy had done. He went up to the street, searching for the red ponytail in the crowd the entire way, but she was gone.
And it had begun to rain.
This is a story of what happened to me when I landed in London nearly a month ago, the first of of many I found there.
I got this pen at Heathrow,
trying to get through the
humidly uncomfortable line
that always seems to exist at
crowded Customs counters.
I was to fill out the entry form
sorry, flight attendants—
give you when you’re
“ten minutes out” from your destination
but still jostling through
the lingering effects of
in a holding pattern
the runway, down which
we were to taxi.
I brought that rumpled form with me,
into Terminal 4.
an American, white… Mid-forties, maybe?—
gave me this one, and said
(not in these exact words but
“Keep it. It’s just a forty ‘p’ pen.”
Yeah. He actually said forty ‘p’.
I remember that part.
I also remember thinking
he was a tool.