“The Pros of a Matchstick”—Installment IV – 12 May 2014
And here’s installment four.
Today, volunteers made thirteen discoveries in the rubble of Ground Zero, bringing the total number of casualties to—
Linwood switched the radio off as he drove through the Upper East Side with the windows cracked, listening to the radio and keeping his eyes peeled for fares and police. He was under the influence again, and in sharp detail he thought of the mystery woman on the N train.
“Jesus, you’re an idiot,” he berated himself. “The first girl that comes onta you while you’re both sober and you freeze up. Goddammit. Jesus, if you can hear me I’d give anything for a do-over…”
He came to a red light and took a pull from the joint. He reran the encounter again—and this time around half-remembered something. “What was it, what was it…! She said she was meetin’ somebody somewhere… Come on fucker, think!” Linwood smacked himself on the forehead as he tried to remember through the haze of marijuana smoke.
Just then he saw a flash of blue and white pull up next to the cab. His heart did somersaults as he quickly put the joint out and held the smoke in. Through slits in his eyelids he watched the cop, who wrote something down in a notepad. Linwood slowly exhaled what little smoke remained in his lungs and prayed the light would change. When it did he waited for the cop to pull out first, but the squad car didn’t move. After a beat or two of stalemate Linwood pulled into the intersection, and immediately heard the cop’s siren wail twice. He let out a curse and pulled over, hiding the half-smoked joint under his accelerator foot, and cut the engine. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, and watched the cop approach his cab. The first pull steadied his jangled nerves and he prayed the second would cover up the smell of the pot.
The cop came to the driver’s side window and stood there with his forearm on the roof of the cab. “You pulled out a little too quick back there, kid,” he told Linwood without looking inside. His voice was dry and sure. “You know the drill, don’tcha?” silently Linwood handed him his license and registration, and took another drag. “Be right back.” He watched the cop walk back to the squad car in his rear-view mirror. He was a tall man, his black cap wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it dry, his uniform hidden under a black rain poncho.
Linwood was outwardly calm but his mind raced too fast too settle on any one thought—except that if the cop was having a bad day and decided to make waves it could cost him his job. He smoked the cigarette in silence, deep in thought, and after what seemed a half-hour the cop came back with his papers. Before he handed them back he stuck his entire head through the driver’s side window and stared daggers into Linwood’s eyes. Rattled, Linwood reflexively pulled away.
The cop’s piercing eyes were green, and his eyebrows were yellow streaks above them; there was a small mole above the right one. He was middle-aged, no older than fifty but still strongly built. His clean-shaven face held the air of a cop save his ears, which stuck out like oar paddles from beneath the overturned hexagonal canoe of his cap. He wore an earring in the left one, which struck Linwood as… exotic, to say the least. He had never seen a cop wear an earring in uniform before.
“You get one chance to be straight with me,” the cop said. “Where’s the pot?”
Linwood didn’t hesitate. “It—there’s a roach underneath my right foot.”
The cop backed off a bit and scanned the interior of the cab, from front to back. “Is that all of it?”
“Yes,” Linwood lied.
“Okay. I want you to slowly—slowly—reach down there and get it for me.” Linwood did as he was told. “Now light it. Hurry up,” he added when Linwood hesitated. Linwood crushed out his cigarette as the cop searched the street in front of and behind them. He took a match from the little silver case and ran it across the dashboard. He held the flame to the joint and took a pull from it, and passed it to the cop who took a drag as well.
“What, you surprised?” the cop asked. Linwood wasn’t, but he remained silent. He stared ahead through the windshield but he could feel the cop’s glare burning holes into the side of his head. “Those strike-anywhere matches are illegal as hell. I could haul you in just on them, you know that?” The cop took a couple more quick hits, then he passed the joint back to Linwood along with his papers. “Go on, get outta here, you little arsonist,” the cop told him with a chuckle. The bewildered Linwood readily complied. He threw the roach out of the window and started the cab, pulling away while the cop stood at the curb and watched.
Two blocks away the gap in his memory filled itself in a flash. He made a right at the first corner and brought the cab to a sharp stop along the curb. “Come in, four-two,” Linwood called into the radio. His nerves were almost settled back to normal, and his first clear thought was how best to coerce Jamieson into helping him out.
“Yeah, what is it, two-eight?”
“I’m gettin hungry. What say you meet me at Byron’s in a couple hours Got somethin’ to run by ya.”
“Yeah, all right,” Jamieson answered. “I’ll be there.”
Linwood put the receiver in its cradle and pulled a worn notebook from his canvas backpack. “Renduto’s,” he said as he wrote. “Nine o’clock.”
Linwood moved with traffic along 116th Street while the intriguing redhead in the tight paisley sweater and the pot-smoking lop-eared cop ran laps through his mind, each overtaking the other in turns. He nearly missed a short black man in jeans and a black leather jacket flagging him down.
“I need’tuh get’tuh Brooklyn, man,” the fare said tersely, wiping the rainwater from his face with a small palm. He gave Linwood an address, and he made a right onto Second Avenue, toward the Williamsburg Bridge. He shot glances at the fare through his rear-view mirror, saw that his face was a rictus of anxiety and discomfort. He kept checking his cellular phone and surreptitiously groped at something in his jacket’s left pocket.
“Bad day, man?” Linwood tried prodding the fare into conversation. All he got in return was stony silence.
“I’ll tell ya ’bout a bad day,” Linwood tried again. “How ’bout on my way up to Harlem this cop stops me, right? He pulls up to me just as I take a huge hit from a jay. I don’t think he’s seen me, so I pull off, but the motherfucker woop-woops me anyway. Of course I’m shittin’ bricks—”
“I don’t care man,” the fare told him. “I got my own fuckin’ problems, an’ dey plen’y.” He went back to his phone.
“Oh, man, I hear ya. Problems, problems, problems. Seems like the world’s a big fuckin’ ball of ’em these days. Everywhere you look another pile’a shit for ya to step over, or in…”
They’d pretend to talk on their cellular phones, or ignore him outright, but the more disjointed nonsense came out of the cabbie’s mouth and the longer the ride, the more likely the fare would be to listen—if only to see if the cabbie had a point. It was like hypnotism. The fare was at the cabbie’s mercy, occasionally interjecting a monosyllabic grunt to let the cabbie know they understood, or were at least trying to. Linwood found this method useful; it sometimes got the fare to open up and talk. But by the time they came to Delancey Street, after twenty minutes of driving in stop-and-go traffic and the rain, Linwood had run dry and the fare hadn’t made a sound. He had put his phone down and listened close to the nonsense Linwood had been spouting.
“I see yuh like’ta tell stories, hom’boy,” the fare said. “I got one fuh yuh. A good one, too.”
“Really?” Linwood shot a glance into the backseat.
“Yup,” he said. “I jus’ got outta Rikers yestaday, been in deah eight months. My girl came ev’ry week fuh da firs’ month, every week. You could’a set a clock by her. Afta dat, tho, she stopped comin’. She ain’t send no letters. She quit answerin’ mine.
“I sat deah fuh six months, not knowin’ what happened’ta her but suspectin’—expectin’ all kinds’a bad shit. A month an’ a half ago a friend’a mine came through, an’ told me all wha’ was goin’ on outside while I was hemmed up in prison. Told me she was talkin’ shit ’bout me, an’ runnin’ ’round wit’ some otha nigga. I spent da las’ six weeks thinkin’, waitin’ fuh da moment when I’d get tuh set her straight.” The fare leaned in close to the Plexiglas barrier.
“So… How come they put you up in Rikers?” Linwood asked, in an attempt to diffuse the tense moment. He looked up to find the fare staring at him through the rear-view mirror.
“Ya know, it wouldn’t mean shit fuh me ta do you right here, den go get her ass too.” The man pulled a small Saturday night special out from the depths of his jacket. He stuck it through the Plexiglas window and rested the icy muzzle against Linwood’s neck. “You keep on, an’ you ain’t gonna see tomorrow neitha, motherfucker.”
Linwood’s heart leapt into his throat, but he never took his eyes off the fare or the vehicles moving around the cab. Then Linwood eased his foot off the accelerator. The traffic behind him noticed and hornblasts of irritation rent the air.
“Wha’cha doin’ white boy?” the fare said. He whipped around to peer through the back windshield. “You think I’m playin’ wit’ you, man? Don’t get—” Linwood slammed on the brakes. Cars behind them did the same and a cacophony of honks and profanity rained down on the cab; and as the fare was driven forward into the Plexiglas, Linwood plucked the pistol from his loose grasp. He shut and latched the window so the fare couldn’t get at him in lieu of the gun.
“Listen—” the fare began
“No, you listen,” Linwood interrupted. “You got problems, we all got problems. You had a gun, I got it now.”
“Wha’ da hell?” the fare said, confused. “If you don’t—”
“Shut up!” Linwood yelled back. He took a moment, and his voice was calm when he spoke again. “You think this is the first time I’ve been held up in my cab? Actually, it’s the second time in six months on the job. Six months. Do you know how dangerous my fuckin’ job really is? To be honest I’m surprised I’m not strung out on smack yet, but you makin’ it real hard for me to resist the temptation, man.”
“Look, you better let—”
Linwood locked the doors and continued speaking. “You know, the people in this place really take the fuckin’ cake sometimes. Christ, we all gotta eat, don’t we? I hafta pay rent the same as you. I really don’t wanna get killed doin’ my job, man.” The entire time he spoke the fare alternated between yanking on the door handle and issuing threats to Linwood’s well-being. He ignored it all and kept speaking.
“But beyond all that, you really think I’m gonna drop you off and let you do whatever evil thing you were plannin’ to do to some lady who don’t see it comin’? You must be outta your fuckin’ mind, boss.” While the fare continued to rant he studied the pistol in his hands. “Ya know, I’ve never even held a fuckin’ piece, much less fired one. I hate guns, man. But to keep you from committin’ some terrible crime wit’ this one, I’m keepin’ it. And I’m gonna get rid of it. Takin’ a cab to commit a murder wasn’t wasn’t any smarter than tellin’ the cabbie how you were gonna do it, now was it?” Linwood chuckled, looking out at the empty lane of bridge in front of him. He unbuckled his seat belt and for the first time turned to face his now-silent captive, seething, deflated and defeated, in the backseat. “I’m unlockin’ the doors right now, and I’m givin’ you one chance to get the fuck outta my cab and go on about your business. I suggest you take it.” True to his word Linwood unlocked the doors. For a beat the two men glared at one another, before the fare tore out of the cab and sprinted back into Manhattan along the subway tracks in the median of the bridge.
After he was gone Linwood let out a huge sigh and stashed the gun underneath his seat, too shaken to think, While drivers continued to honk their horns and hurl insults and curses at him Linwood calmly got out and shut the door the fare left open, got back in the car, put it in gear, and crossed the bridge.