The Pros of a Matchstick–Installment V – 19 May 2014
Here’s Installment five.
Linwood slouched against the polished oak counter at Byron’s Pizzeria on the Lower East Side, sipping a soda, lost in thought. The long trough buzzed with men in drab-colored suits and garish ties, and women in their power skirts and blazers the same dull color, all conversing together and at once. Everybody scarfed down slices of pizza and guzzled glasses of beer, and the three chefs behind the counter scurried between the kitchen and the bar to keep up. In contrasting silence Linwood listened to the chaos, to their talk of breakthroughs and office politics and dirty jokes only they understood—and all of it peppered with inferences of the motives of the hijacker terrorists that tried to stop New York.
Theirs was the language of skyscrapers, the contemptuous boasting and posturing of business lawyers and investment bankers and headshrinkers. It was the coding of a world he saw from the street every day but could never become an equal part of. Linwood liked coming here though, liked trying to crack their code. In a city where dozens and dozens of foreign tongues were spoken, here in this tiny pizzeria the regulars spoke a language he could never acquire, though he understood every word.
Two months after starting at Colminetti’s Linwood dropped a fare along Central Park West at three in the morning. A white guy in a dark three-piece and a black trench coat and fedora, he gave Linwood a credit card to swipe for the fare. As Linwood gave it and the receipt back the fare opened the door, but instead of getting out of the cab he shot a long arm through the open driver’s-side window. He locked his forearm against Linwood’s throat, pinning him to the seat, and stuck a syringe through the Plexiglas window and into his neck, without depressing the plunger. Linwood was in shock, caught off-guard and too surprised to thrash against his captor and his bonds. The fare kept his face out of the sightline of the rear-view mirror, and only ever spoke in an even, solid tone never rising much beyond an accent-less whisper:
“Hello, number thirty-six. I’ve just stuck with you with a clean syringe, full of air. And here’s what’s about to happen. After a predetermined amount of time I’ll push in the plunger, you’ll suffer a pulmonary embolism then die a painful death, and I’ll walk away.” Linwood caught a flash of green as his frogman watch disappeared underneath his chin. The fare began to mark time.
Linwood sat there for what seemed an eternity just trying to breathe, and not black out and wet his pants before he died, when Jamieson’s voice came through the radio asking if he was ready to come off shift. By reflex the fare tightened his lock on Linwood’s throat, and neither of them moved as the cab fell silent. When Jamieson came back to repeat his question the fare pulled the syringe from Linwood’s neck, tossed a rubbing alcohol-soaked pad into his lap with a chortle, and bolted from the cab into the night.
Afterward, after the half-dozen trips to three different clinics to make certain he hadn’t been infected with hepatitis or HIV, Linwood spent the next week replaying what happened over and over again. Not the act itself—it could have just been some junkie serial killer, one of maybe two hundred fifty running loose through the streets of New York. No, what Linwood couldn’t wrap his mind around was why exactly Jamieson’s voice had scared off the would-be killer. He also didn’t understand why he couldn’t tell Jamieson what had happened to him.
It wasn’t out of fear; Linwood couldn’t be afraid of somebody he didn’t even see clearly, and he still came into work the next day. It wasn’t a denial of events either, because he expected to be killed that night. It was something else, a sort of perverse need to keep this thing a secret from Jamieson—that somehow surviving an attempt on his life made Linwood more of a cabbie than he was before it happened. A cabbie has to be a hard person; this job was a dangerous one, and it took attacks like that to weed out pretenders. Linwood was the newbie cabbie, and he felt his pushing past something like this would only make him a stronger driver in the long run. He was sure Jamieson didn’t tell him everything, either.
Linwood looked out at the sidewalk, watching light traffic move along Water Street as cab 2R42 pulled up behind his. Jamieson got out and jogged through the drizzle to the counter, where he slapped Linwood’s hand. He squeezed in and Linwood ordered two slices of pepperoni pizza and another soda for Jamieson.
“So, what’s up, man?” Jamieson asked. Linwood briefly recounted his encounter with the cop, leaving out the episode on the Williamsburg Bridge.
“You called me down here for that?” Jamieson said. “Who cares that some bent cop smoked your bud? If ya ask me more of ’em should follow suit. But it would’ve been hilarious watchin’ you shit your pants.” He guffawed as a chef in a spotless white apron slid two slices of greasy pizza on sturdy paper plates and a drink across the counter.
“Nah, man, that’s just the lead-in. After that I’m drivin’ away, right, when I remember somethin’ the chick said on the train. She was talkin’ on the phone, and she told somebody that she was meetin’ somebody else at a restaurant tonight. A place called Renduto’s.”
Jamieson took a big bite out of the huge slice of pizza. “That’s a lotta somebodys,” he said through a mouthful. “So what’s the problem? Go see her, then.”
“But that’s just it,” Linwood said. “It seems kinda stalker-ish, don’tcha think?” He took a bite out of his slice. “I mean, think about it,” he said with his mouth full. “I show up, and she could be there with anybody. What if she’s with her husband or somethin’ man? What then?”
“Didn’t she ask you about her tits, man? Maybe she’s lookin’ for a side job,” Jamieson said. He took another bite. “Whatcha ‘spect me to do about it?”
“What I ‘spect you to do is… come wit’ me to check it out. You wanted to see her,” Linwood said as Jamieson began to laugh. “Now’s your chance.”
Jamieson picked up his soda and turned to face the street. “So you want me to double-team stalk her wit’ ya? I don’t know, man. It’s not really my style, ya know.”
“Come on, Jamieson. You don’t hafta stay long, just check it out wit’ me. I figure I’ll hang out ’round the place, try to pick her up…”
“This just gets worse,” Jamieson interrupted.
“…as a fare,” Linwood continued, “maybe get her to… to elaborate on what she meant on the train, you know?” He reached for a few napkins, giving one to Jamieson. “The whole day it’s been drivin’ me nuts that she got away from me…”
“Jesus, somebody should put you on a sex-offender list, maybe,” Jamieson interjected again. He finished off the soda and turned to face the counter again.
“…and I just wanna talk to her, is all,” Linwood finished. “Maybe get her name, her phone number—” Jamieson opened his mouth to interrupt again, but Linwood held up a hand to silence him. “A simple introduction is all I want.” He took another bite out of his slice.
“Let’s be clear, Linwood,” Jamieson said. “A simple introduction is hardly all you want from this chick.” He polished off the crust and wiped his lips on the napkin. “You see this?” he asked, showing it to Linwood. “To the untrained eye this is just a greasy napkin, but in actuality it’s the remains of the lunch ya bought me by way of payment for takin’ part in your crazy wingman plan.” Linwood smiled in relief and playfully tousled Jamieson’s hair through his cap. “Easy, easy,” Jamieson said, removing his hand. “What time she say she gonna be there?”
“I think around nine,” Linwood said as he handed some cash to the guy behind the counter. “I figure they take an hour to eat, so circle up the wagons ’bout… ten, ten-thirty?”
“Yeah, sounds good to me,” Jamieson said. He walked out to the sidewalk and looked up at the sky. “Finally stopped raining,” he said to himself. He pulled out two cigarettes, handing one to Linwood who joined him after collecting his change. They walked to Jamieson’s cab, where he got in, and leaning through the passenger side window Linwood clandestinely slipped him something. “Here, a little somethin’ else for your trouble.”
“Much obliged,” Jamieson said. He put the joint behind his right ear. “I’ll be on the horn, man.” He cranked up the cab and pulled away from the curb. Linwood got in his cab and lit the cigarette.
I wonder what her name is. Annette? Magda, maybe. Hell, I’d be happy if it was Ursula, so long as I knew what it was—
“Cab two-eight.” Dennis’ gruff, disembodied voice boomed through the cab. “Need ya ta get ta Chinatown. Ain’t got no cabs workin’ there, so you’re it.”
“Will do, boss,” Linwood said into the receiver. He made a note in his fare ledger, then started the cab and pulled away.
Linwood made the short drive to Mulberry and Bayard streets and parked, waiting for a fare. After the encounter on the bridge and his meal with Jamieson Ricky’s remark about the tranny and her boyfriend rewound itself through his mind.
He was good at his job but in truth Linwood was still a greenhorn—a greenhorn who’d had his life threatened twice already while on the job, but an amateur nonetheless. Ricky had been a cabbie for more than twenty years. How many times had a straight razor been pulled on him? Or a pistol? Or a syringe, even? His drug addiction was but one inevitable consequence of being forced into contact with two decades’ worth of insane New Yorkers, and it was likely Linwood would end up as Ricky had—a broken beaten thing, if not a corpse.
Linwood lit a cigarette and stuck an arm out of the window, listening to the news on the radio. Regular service on the M has been restored this evening after police removed the body of a black male from the Williamsburg Bridge, struck by a Manhattan-bound train about an hour ago. Linwood’s lips were dry, sticking to the filter, and in his haste to turn the volume up he burned his index and middle fingers on the lit end of the smoke. The man, five-foot-four, 135 pounds and around thirty years of age, has yet to be identified. Witnesses say that the man fled from a taxi that caused a traffic snarl along the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound lanes.
Engrossed, he relit the cigarette and was immediately startled by a fare tapping on the curbside window. He unlocked the doors and watched in horror as a pair of identical twins got in, dressed in identical flower-print dresses and white gloves, carrying identical white old-lady purses and two huge paper shopping bags from a nearby antique shop. The women didn’t seem to notice him, and the three of them sat for a beat until the dour-faced twin on the right cackled without warning at something. As it did on the train the sound of her laughter burned through Linwood’s body like a blade made of ice, causing him to wince and drop the cigarette in his lap. He beat his crotch to put it out.
“Wh—where to, ladies?” Linwood cleared his throat and tried to steady his hand as he pulled away from the curb.
“Amsterdam and West 95th, please,” the softer-faced twin replied. In slience linwood made a left onto Canal Street from Mulberry and began the long trek uptown.
“I still think that Chinaman took you for a ride, Frances,” the bulldog-faced twin told her sister. “You spent seven hundred dollars apiece on two vases God Almighty Himself could see wasn’t worth a third as much.”
“You know I don’t haggle,” Frances calmly replied. “And don’t call Lenny a Chinaman. Yes, he’s Chinese, but it’s rude and you know as well as I he’s from Astoria. If you were just going to complain all day why did you come out at all?”
“I came out because I wanted to see you waste money on something you’ll end up putting in a closet,” her sister answered back. “You always come down here looking for some artifact from this dynasty or that emperor and the shopkeepers see you coming from a mile away. All they have to do is mention Emperor Ping-Ling Chow from the Ying-Yang dynasty and they get you like a bug to a zapper. It amuses me. Greatly.” She laughed at her cleverness, startling Linwood again and almost causing him to lift his foot from the brake and roll into cross-traffic along Broadway.
“Really, Lucinda.” Frances sighed in exasperation. “Did I snicker and judge you when you bought that silly set of hairpins?”
“A set of hairpins I’ll actually use,” Lucinda interjected.
“Hairpins,” her sister continued, “that were quite the pretty penny, two-fifty for the set, as I recall. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t this be a textbook case of pot-kettle tête-à-tête?”
“No, because the hairpins are something I’ll actually use,” Lucinda repeated. “They happened to be in an antiques shop, and so they happened to be expensive. You go antiquing and come back with the most disturbing things. It’s wholly your fault there is a perfectly awful suit of armor in our living room and a chamberpot doubling as a vase on the mantel, and all more expensive than my hairpins.”
“What about that Rembrandt print you just had to have,” Frances retorted, “the one that doesn’t belong on the walls in a brothel, let alone our parlor. As I recall that was every inch your doing, sister dear…”
Linwood drove up Sixth Avenue trying and failing to tune out the two bickering septuagenarians in his backseat, block after block after block. It became humorous at length, listening to them argue about more efficient ways to spend ridiculous amounts of money on increasingly ridiculous things. As they crossed 42nd Street Linwood almost forgot he had seen them on the train that morning, and didn’t think they would recognize him in any case. He got comfortable enough to light another cigarette.
“Excuse me, sir?” Immediately the twin with the vases began rapping on the Plexiglas. “You’ll have to put that cigarette out because I simply cannot stand the smoke! Sir? Sir!” Linwood took one small drag and reluctantly defenestrated it as the cab slowed to a crawl through Columbus Circle. He thought of Ricky again, and how these women would have reacted if he had decided to do a line or two at a stoplight instead of lighting a cigarette. Picturing it Linwood stifled a few snickers, then giggled, and finally broke out in peals of laughter as he drove through the roundabout. A few of the drivers and pedestrians could hear him and shot puzzling looks in his direction.
“Did my request tickle you that much?” the woman shot back. “I’m sincerely sorry that secondhand smoke and lung cancer don’t amuse me as much as they do you but, whatever you may think of my—”
“Frances, shush,” her sister told her as Linwood tried to catch his breath.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” Linwood spluttered out. “It—it’s just that—” Linwood collapsed into another fit of laughter.
Lucinda, don’t shush me,” Frances snapped. “I’m trying to make this young man understand that—”
“Okay, okay,” Linwood struggled to compose himself. It had been ages since he had laughed so hard, but there was no way he could tell these women what really tickled him. He took several deep breaths to buy time and come up with a lie.
“I’m sorry, miss,” he said. “I wasn’t laughin’ at what you said, I promise you. It’s just that—”
“It’s you,” Lucinda said. “You’re that boy from the train this morning, the one with the… The…”
Linwood stopped laughing and the cab shrunk back into silence as he checked their faces through the rear-view mirror. The women craned their necks to inspect his license picture pasted to the Plexiglas behind him, a picture that stared the bulldog-woman in the face from the moment she got in the cab, a picture Linwood had forgotten was even there.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Linwood spat out, this time with no laughter in the way. “It’s just that this morning, that—that woman… And—and she wh—whispered i—in my…” Now it was the old women’s turn to laugh at Linwood, and they laughed just as hard as he had done.
“I can’t believe it’s actually you, boy,” Lucinda said. “The way you ran from that train you’d think the hounds were after you.” She cackled again. “Now, now, uh… Linwood,” Frances said. “Nothing to be ashamed of. My sister and I have lived in this city for more than fifty years, and I can assure you we’ve seen much, much worse.”
Linwood came to a red light at West 72nd, flushed from embarrassment and sweating in spite of the rainy chill. He shot a few glances into the rear-view mirror and found the sisters eyeing him with curiosity. “You were saying?” Frances coaxed him. “Something about ‘that woman’ and ‘whispering’… Afraid I didn’t catch it through all the stammering.” She and her sister giggled again.
“I—uh… Well, she—she, umm…” Linwood couldn’t get the words out and more than ever he wanted a cigarette to shield himself from the impromptu interrogation.
“Don’t torture the boy, Frances,” Lucinda said. “He’s almost a child, really. How old are you, Linwood?”
“Twenty-three,” Linwood answered. The light finally turned green and he lurched into the intersection.
“See? Just a boy. Come off it, Linwood,” Lucinda said to him. “Do you have any idea how old my sister and I are?”
“Lucinda, please,” Frances said in exasperation.
“Do you know how many stiffies we’ve actually seen? What you’ve got there is hardly anything special. A million of them walk up and down the streets every single day.” Lucinda began to laugh as her sister scolded her again, more forcefully this time.
Linwood merged onto Amsterdam, reeling from the decidedly strange turn of events. In twenty minutes’ time he’d gone from voyeur to specimen, the subject of interest under his fares’ microscope, and had had his very manhood called into question as a bonus. For the life of him he couldn’t understand why God had seen fit to have these two women come to laugh at him today, now for the second time.
“Listen, sir,” Frances told him, “there’s no need to be so defensive. We’re just having a bit of fun, that’s all. Maybe we had better let him alone, Lucinda.”
“Why? He knows what happened. He was there just as we were. If anybody should think it was funny, it should be him. Right, boy?” he shot at Linwood.
“I—I’m sorry,” he apologized again.
Why are you apologizing?” Lucinda asked him. “We’ve already said there’s nothing to feel ashamed about. That attractive woman saw an opportunity and she took it. Surely this isn’t the first time the thought had occurred to you? If you ask me, you should have given back as good as you got.” Linwood thought about this last as he continued through the Upper West Side.
The cab came to another red light and Linwood looked up in the mirror again. “I wasn’t apologizin’ about… this mornin’,” he said. “It was about why I was laughin’ before. I—I had a picture in myhead of what would’a happened if you had a cabbie that did drugs in front’a you instead of lightin’ a cigarette, that’s all.”
“Well, are you planning on doing that in front of us?” Frances asked him.
“No,” Linwood replied.
“Then I don’t see how it would be funny, either way,” she answered back. “Really, I don’t understand the sense of humor you children come up with these days, all about drugs and sex and violent, nasty things. Times really are passing us by.”
“You’re just now realizing that?” her sister answered matter-of-factly.
“You know, there’s no need to be so short with me, sister,” Frances shot back. “I simply asked you a rhetorical question. You do know what rhetorical means, I trust?”
“And you wonder why I’m so short with you,” Lucinda curtly responded. “If you weren’t such a stick in the mud maybe I wouldn’t have to be,” she volleyed back. The two commenced to squabbling, and Linwood and his erection phased into the background once again.
After a few more minutes of point/counterpoint argument and potshot Linwood came to an upscale apartment building on Amsterdam, just across West 95th. Lucinda gathered up their bags as Frances fished around in her purse and came up with the fare, which she gave to Linwood. “You seem like a nice boy,” she said as she waited for her change. “I hope we didn’t harass you too soundly.”
Linwood laughed lightly. “No, not at all,” he answered. “It’s not too often I find fares like you two.”
“And how’s that?” Lucinda demanded.
“Interesting. Insightful, even.” He handed Frances her change and recorded the fare in his logbook as they stepped out of the cab. “You ladies have a nice one,” he called out as they shut the door. As soon as they were gone he pulled out a cigarette and struck a match on the dashboard, taking a huge drag and exhaling the smoke in a sigh.