And here’s part nine. And, at last, I have a clear vision of how I see “Matchstick” coming to a close. But that’s a ways away, yet. There are a few clues in this part. Let’s see if you’ll spot them in the coming weeks.
The rain fell in sheets again as Linwood pulled up to the closed bay doors fronting the garage. He let himself in through the unlocked business door, and immediately the sounds of Ricky and Dennis’ strange argument fell upon his ears.
“I ain’t scared’a you, fat man.” Ricky’s sniffling leaked through Dennis’ closed office door.
“Jus’ shaddup, jagoff. Why’dya tonight ta knock a fuckin’ screw loose? Huh?” It sounded as if Dennis had already started drinking. Linwood cracked a smile, imagining Dennis’ head cradled in his huge hands, trying in vain to stave away the migraine that was well on its way.
He opened the door and Ricky wheeled on him, sighting Linwood with a small revolver. His nose was bleeding, he’d been crying, and a shiner had begun to swell his right eye shut. Startled, Linwood dropped his smile and put his hands up, but he did notice that the pistol’s hammer wasn’t cocked. He looked over to Dennis, puzzled. The man took a long draw from a bottle of bourbon.
“That bitch… this bitch,” Ricky growled. He pointed the gun at Dennis again, sitting at the desk with a finger to his temple, angry now. “The big bossman’s been fuckin’ my wife, newbie. Been fuckin’ her for a long time, too.” Ricky wiped the tears and blood and mucus from his face with a wrinkled shirtsleeve. Sweat fell in drops from his hair, and his body trembled and shook so much the rattling of the bullets in the gun was audible. “I ain’t scared’a you,” Ricky repeated. He pulled the hammer back, and it clicked once, but Dennis didn’t flinch.
“Wha’? If ya gonna shoot me den do it, ya pussy,” Dennis taunted with a laugh. He stood, and reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette. “Y’know why I started seein’ Maria? ‘Cause’a you, ya basehead. You went’ta prison fa six years. You got out an’ still kept gettin’ inta shit. You made her cry ev’ry single day you was gone. It’s your fault I started up wit’ her, Rick.” He motioned for a light from Linwood, standing behind Ricky in the doorframe. He tossed a match over Ricky’s shoulder, and after Dennis lit the cigarette he exhaled the smoke into Ricky’s face.
“Fuck you, Dennis,” Ricky said through clenched teeth. “She’s a cunt, a fuckin’ cunt, man.” At this, and with surprising speed, the big man scrambled around the desk and stood in front of the smaller one. As Ricky stood there and quaked Dennis slapped the gun from his hand.
“Say dat again,” Dennis threatened him. He wrapped a hand around his throat, lifted him up against the wall and throttled him. Dennis moved in close, and the cigarette in his teeth touched Ricky’s nose, making him gurgle in pain. The small man writhed and thrashed between the wall and Dennis’ grip, and when he felt sure Ricky got the message the big man let go.
Ricky fell to the floor in a ball, took two enormous, hacking breaths, and fell to sobbing again. Linwood held out a hand to help him up, but he slapped it away and spat out a curse instead. Linwood shrugged his shoulders, and pulled out a cigarette himself. “Is that what you two’re arguin’ about?” he asked as he lit it.
Dennis sank into the creaky chair again. “Dat, an’ I axed his ass dis mornin’.” He ashed the cigarette, but thought better of it and crushed it out. “But dis was som’thiin’ that jus’ happened,” he said sadly. “I wasn’t tryin’ta be a mothafucka. But he was neva dere, wit’ Maria an’ dem kids. Always out scorin’ ‘stead’a raisin’ his family. I wanted her, yeah, but they needed me.” He pulled a bottle of painkillers out of a drawer. “I don’ feel bad about it, neitha. Dat cocksucka can burn in hell fa all I care. Ya hear dat, asshole?” Dennis took a long pull from the liquor bottle. “Come in here’ta talk shit ’bout Mimi an’ pull a fuckin’ piece on me. On me!” Dennis roared. “You lucky shitstain.” He tried to open the pill bottle, but quickly grew tired of struggling with the child-resistant cap and tossed it to Linwood. “Here, open dis for me, will ya, kid?”
Dennis’ toss arced high, and the bottle bounced off of Linwood’s fingertips when he tried to catch it. He stepped out into the garage to retrieve it, and when he came back Ricky was standing, shaking, and again pointing the revolver at Dennis. Dennis stared him down from across the desk but made no move to stand again.
Linwood stood there and watched, watched and listened as five times the hammer clicked—pairs of clicks this time—and five times a shot rang through the dark garage. The first bullet struck Dennis in the chest, and the big man collapsed on the desk. The second, third, and fourth went through the crown of his head. The fifth missed. Ricky wheeled on Linwood again, and lowered the revolver.
“You wanna send the cops after me, newbie?” he asked. “Do what you feel. But you saw it. That motherfucker deserved just what he got.” He grimaced, threw the empty revolver at Dennis’ rapidly-cooling body, and brushed past Linwood out into the garage. A few beats later the back door opened and closed.
The cigarette fell from Linwood’s lips as he stood there, and heard the blood gurgle and ooze its way out of Dennis’ body. He stepped forward, watching as it pooled at the edge of the desk and trickled down onto the floor. Linwood’s breath came in ragged pulses, and tears collected on his eyelashes.
Dennis was gone. And so was Ricky.
It took three EMTs to carry Dennis’ body away in a bag. Cops milled around, taking pictures of everything and searching all the cabs. The other four cabbies on shift came back to dispatch to be questioned by the cops, and were sent home for the night. Linwood tried calling Jamieson, and didn’t get an answer. For the past hour he had been questioned and quizzed and queried by police. Now he was too angry and annoyed to feign cooperation any longer, and left through the back door when he found a chance.
He slipped his backpack from his back onto the ground between his feet, and pulled the bottle of rum from the bag. He opened it, and took two long pulls. Linwood reached into the bag again, this time for the rolling papers and pot. He stood there and rolled a joint, the simple, practiced motions Zen-like. and when he was done Linwood brought the finished product to his lips and struck a match on the wall behind him.
“So, it’s you again. The arsonist.”
Linwood froze at the intrusion. He hid the joint in a cupped hand at his side as the cop stepped into view. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, as he walked up to stand next to him on the stoop. He was more massive than Linwood remembered—at least six inches taller than he, and thirty pounds heavier without the rain poncho, all of it muscle. He wasn’t wearing the hat, though, so the cop’s ears seemed to stick out even further than they had before. “You think after all that I’m gonna interrogate your ass? Hell no. Just give me a hit and I won’t say anything if you don’t.” Linwood passed him the joint.
The cop took a drag and a grin spread across his face. “Hey, kid. I want to show you something.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a Polaroid, still fresh, which he passed along with the joint to Linwood. His careless glance became tight and focused, and his face flushed into scarlet. The photo was of Ricky, hog-tied and bloodied, lying in the trunk of a car.
He handed the photograph and the joint back to the cop. “Why’d you show me this?” Linwood asked him. He exhaled the smoke through his nostrils like an incensed dragon, and took another draw from the bottle.
The cop laughed. “Do you not see what I’m wearing? I damn near own this city, man.” He took a drag from the joint and choked on the hit, just as Jamieson had done. He passed it back, saying he had had enough. “Let me ask you—how much did you respect the big man?” Linwood looked out into the alley, considering the question. “Come on, kid, I’m being serious,” the cop said through a chuckle. “This isn’t entrapment. I’m not trying to implicate you, accuse you, or trick you in any way, shape, or form. I’m just curious, that’s all. So? You respected him. Right?”
Linwood ignored the question. “Where is he?”
The cop smiled. “I’ll take you to him.” He began walking down the alley. After a pause Linwood picked up his bag and followed behind, casting the roach to the ground and capping the bottle.
The cop pulled a cigarette from the breast pocket on his shirt and patted himself down for a lighter.”Let me have a match, kid.” Linwood grimaced, but did as he was asked. The cop paused to strike it on the sole of his shoe.
“I’m all about justice doled out in the most efficient way possible,” the cop said, exhaling the drag and gesticulating as he strolled. “That coked-out basehead killed your boss. Somebody you trusted. Don’t you think he should pay?” Linwood didn’t answer.
He took a drag from the cigarette. “You watched that sick fuck pop him three times and you didn’t do a damn thing. You couldn’t. But I’m giving you the chance to make amends for such a shameful shortcoming. I’m your savior, kid.”
They came to a stop in front of a beat-up turd-colored sedan a block away from the garage. Linwood looked blankly at the car as the cop crushed out the cigarette underneath a heel. “He’s in there, I promise. Come on, let’s go.”
Here’s part eight. Quickly we’re catching up to where I currently am in writing this beast.
Sunday, 12:20 a.m.
Linwood stopped in at a bodega he frequented in the West Village. He waved hello at the teenaged Indian cashier behind her theft-resistant barrier made from chain-link, and made a beeline for the refrigerated cases lining the back wall. He selected a soda, and a bottle of cheap, strong rum from the rack directly across from it, then brought them over to the cash register. She ran a nervous hand through her hair, making sure that every strand was in place before she spoke.
“So. How’s life been treating you, my friend? Keeping dry and out of trouble?”
Linwood chuckled. “If only you knew, Kiran,” he answered. “Can I get these and a pack of the number sevens, and a box of strike-anywheres?” The cashier did as she was asked, then began ringing up the items. “You and these matches, Linwood. You know, you’re the only one that comes in here and buys these from me.”
“That’s ’cause I’m a special kinda guy. There’s no one like me in this entire world, Kiran. Haven’t you realized that by now?” Linwood flashed a smile as he set two twenty-dollar bills on the counter. Kiran took the money as someone came in the store.
“Well, if it ain’t the young buck.”
Linwood turned and saw Reggie standing at the entrance. He went over to give him a handshake folded into a hug. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Boss man told me you were on a cabbie-killer tonight. Goin’ okay?”
“Yeah, no complaints so far.” Kiran gave him his change, then greeted Reggie. “How’s it goin’ beautiful?” Reggie asked her. He walked the same path Linwood had a few minutes before, to the coolers at the back of the store. “Thanks, Kiran,” Linwood said as he picked up the brown paper bag concealing his purchases inside. “So brother,” he called out to Reggie, “knocked off for the night?”
“Yeah,” Reggie answered, coming back to the counter with a sports drink. “Kinda hungry, though.”
“Hell, I could use a quick bite. Want a little company?”
“Yeah, alright,” Reggie said. “There’s a place I know close to Gramercy Park. Best omelettes in the city.”
“Sounds like a plan, man,” Linwood told him. “I’ll follow you over there. Bye, Kiran,” he called out as he left the store. “Tell your father I’m comin’ back for ya, okay?”
Kiran laughed, and ran a hand through her hair again. “Good night, Linwood.”
Reggie and Linwood sat in a booth at O’Kelly’s Diner, a greasy spoon on 23rd near Lexington. Even at this hour, with the sky threatening to open up again at any moment, the place was packed with groups of hungry diners recollecting their evenings, and waitresses in stained aprons and forced smiles darting across the floor. A plump waitress with brown hair tied back in a ponytail and a sweaty fatigued face brought them coffee and menus, then scurried off to handle a rowdy bunch three booths away.
Linwood picked up his mug and took a sip. “You’ll never guess what I got into tonight, man.”
“What?” Reggie sat back and listened as Linwood gave him an abridged rundown of his and Arlotta’s night.
“So, the young buck finally got him a piece, an’ can’t wait to tell everybody all about it,” Reggie said after. “If I wasn’t so sure I’d’a thought she popped your cherry, Linwood,” he said through a chuckle.
“In a way, that’s jus’ what happened,” Linwood said. “I mean, this girl is somethin’ special, Reggie, I’m tellin’ you.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then stirred the creamer and sugar packets the waitress left him into his coffee.
“It’s been a while, but I know where you’re comin’ from,” Reggie told him. “I been married to Carla for fifteen years now, got two beautiful girls that get bigger every day. Still, sometimes I look at her, an’ she’ll look at me, an’ it’s like we’re still your age, thinkin’ we can take on the whole fuckin’ world. But we know better, now.” Reggie took a sip of the black coffee and scanned the worn, warped menu for his order.
Just then the rowdy bunch at the back of the diner rose in a cacophony of laughter, of loud, drunken speech. The chubby waitress inspected their table for whatever tips they left her, and with a defeated sigh she stopped at Linwood and Reggie’s table. For the first time Linwood got a decent look at her. She was a shorter, rounder, female version of Jamieson, without the glasses.
“Rough night?” Reggie proffered.
“You could say that,” she replied, without looking up from her notepad. “What can I getcha?”
“I’ll have… a Denver omelette an’ hash browns, an’ the kid’ll have the same,” Reggie said. Linwood began to protest but Reggie cut him off. “You’ll thank me for it, an’ besides, I’m the one payin’.” They handed the waitress their menus and watched her stumble away on weary feet.
“Thanks, Reggie,” Linwood told him through a sip of coffee.
“No prob.” Reggie looked around. “Yo, Linwood. Didn’t she look like Jamieson? A lot like Jamieson?”
“You saw it too?” The two men laughed, trying not to get the waitress’ attention.
“So tell me, man. How’s the cabbie-killer comin’? Got any stories for us, yet?”
At once the insane fare from the Williamsburg Bridge came to mind. “I—I jus’ told ya ’bout Arlotta, man,” Linwood said. “What could be more excitin’ than that?”
“More excitin’ than random pussy? As a cabbie? In New York? Everythin’, prob’ly.” Reggie’s cellular phone rang just then. “The wife. Sorry man, I gotta take this.” Linwood nodded as he stood and answered it. “Hey honey. Nah, I’m havin’ a bite wit’ Linwood…” Reggie stepped outside. The plate glass trumped Linwood’s eavesdropping abilities.
Got any stories for us yet? Linwood couldn’t get past the uncanniness of it all. He’d begged for this shift and the most unlikely things kept happening to him—or at least in front of him. “Pay attention to the oddities,” he said aloud to himself, paraphrasing what Jamieson had said to him outside of Renduto’s. “What if everything is a fuckin’ oddity. What then?” For the hundredth time Linwood jumped out of his skin; the waitress crept up as he spoke to himself and cleared her throat, her arms full with two plates of steaming food. He didn’t know how much she had heard, but he judged from the look she wore she caught just enough to be put off.
She put the plates down and the two shared an uneasy moment. “You… want some more coffee?” the waitress asked him. Tightlipped and embarrassed, Linwood nodded. With renewed vigor she hurried away from the table.
Linwood let out a sigh and turned to watch Reggie talk to his wife. The Jamieson-esque woman came back to the table with the carafe of coffee, poured as quickly as possible, then left again as Reggie came back inside. Linwood didn’t think he had ever been so happy to see anyone.
“Carla,” he said as he sat, with a slight worried look. “Apparently her brother was killed today. The guy on the Williamsburg Bridge, the one that got run over by the M, ya know?” Linwood froze. “What wit’ this terrorism shit goin’ on they only jus’ identified the body an hour ago, an’ now she gotta come down to make it official. Damn.” Reggie looked down at the plate in front of him, then back up at Linwood. “You alright, young buck?” he asked. Linwood nodded. “Yeah, I’m cool.”
“I know Carla’s hurtin’ right now, but to be honest that little motherfucker wasn’t doin’ the world no favors ‘cept bad ones,” Reggie said, picking up his fork. “Look at this spread, man. I’m tellin’ ya, you’ll thank me for it.” Reggie reached for the pepper shaker and the ketchup bottle, using both liberally as he prepared his omelette to some secret specification. He shoved a huge forkful into his mouth and let out a hum. “Fuckin’ delicious. Eat up, young buck, eat up,” Reggie prodded. Linwood forced a smile and did as ordered, but thoughts of the fare on the bridge tracked through his brain. The two sat in silence, eating.
“So,” Reggie said, placing his fork on the chipped plate with an audible clink. “Stories. Gimme one.”
“Uh… okay,” Linwood said, trying to clear his throat around a forkful of egg. “Well, this cop, right? H—he came…” He trailed off, watching a little blond girl wearing a pink backpack walk past the picture window. “I know her,” he told Reggie, confused.
“Really?” Reggie said incredulously. “What kid you know would be walkin’ the streets at one in the mornin’, Linwood? On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t answer that an’ incriminate yourself, man,” he added with a chuckle.
“Look, you asked for a story, right?” Linwood asked. “Gimme a sec and I’ll bring it back for you.” He squirmed out of the booth and bolted from the table, out onto the sidewalk behind the girl. She was still within earshot when Linwood spotted her. “Hey!” he called out. “Hey, kid!” The girl stopped and turned to face him, but made no other move to indicate she recognized him.
“It’s okay, I’m not a pervert or anythin’ like that. I won’t hurt you,” he reassured her. “You remember me? From the train this mornin’? I sat next to you when that guy farted.” The little girl smiled. “Yeah, I remember you,” she answered.
Linwood walked up to her and knelt so they were at eye level. “Ya know, you shouldn’t be out here this time’a night, kid. Kid,” he said with a scoff. “I hate to be called that. Even when I was a kid I hated it. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
The girl hesitated, then said “Veronica” in a voice Linwood barely caught.
“Well, Veronica,” Linwood said, “you gotta be hungry, right? You wanna eat wit’ me and my friend? He’s a nice guy. Hell, he might even buy your breakfast for you. Wha’ddya say, huh?”
The two of them walked back into the diner and sat down in the booth next to one another. “Well now, what’s this, young buck? You really know this kid?”
“Yeah, kinda,” Linwood answered. “Her name’s Veronica. I saw her on the train into work this mornin’. Jesus, this’s been a weird day.” He called to their waitress, then turned to the little girl, still clutching her backpack to her chest as if her life depended on it. The waitress came to their booth again, and for the second time shot Linwood a strange look.
“You need me to bring another menu for ya?” she inquired.
Linwood nodded. “Can you bring her a glass of orange juice too, please?” The waitress scurried off to do as she was asked. “I’ll leave the tip if you catch the check, deal? That chick’s gotta be tired of me by now, so I’ll be generous,” Linwood said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, okay, man,” Reggie said. He looked at the scared little girl sitting across the table from him. “My name’s Reggie, sweetheart. It’s nice to meet ya,” he said with a smile. “Apparently you know my friend here, so I won’t drill ya. Trust me, I know how tough it is for some kids. I was there once too, ya know.”
“So was I,” Linwood interjected. “You act like I was born wit’ a silver tea set in my mouth, Reggie.”
Reggie laughed as the waitress returned with the juice and another ratty menu. She set them both down in front of the little girl and eyed Linwood warily as she spoke to Veronica. The little girl pointed to something in the menu without saying a word, and the waitress wrote it down, took the menu when the girl handed it back, and left with it.
Linwood waited for Veronica to finish her glass of juice. “Tell me. Why are you out this late at night? Where’s your mother?”
“I don’t have a mother,” the little girl answered matter-of-factly. “I live at St. Anthony’s.”
“The orphanage in Flatbush?” Reggie asked her. “You’re a hell of a long way from home, little one.”
“How old are you?” Linwood pushed.
“Eight,” Linwood echoed. “Jesus. Why’d you leave the orphanage?”
Veronica looked into Linwood’s eyes, and a few beats passed before she spoke. “I… just don’t like being there. The nuns always beat me and the kids there hate me. My mother’s dead and I don’t know who my father is, and I’m alone all the time.” She spoke the way a zombie might, flat and without inflection.
“So did you just ride the subway all day?” Linwood asked her. Veronica reached into a pocket on the front of her backpack and pulled out a paper transit pass. “I ask for money in Times Square and buy one of these every Thursday,” she answered before either man could ask.
The waitress returned to the booth laden with another fumarole, this one a huge plate of scrambled eggs, four sausage links, and a small mound of hashed potatoes. Immediately Veronica tucked into the food.
“Seriously?” Reggie asked the waitress. “This is what you bring this tiny girl to eat?”
“She’s obviously enjoyin’ herself, Reggie,” Linwood interjected before the waitress could react. “She picked it. And she’s smarter that we’re givin’ her credit for. Could you bring her another glass of OJ, and another refill on our coffees, please?” he asked her. “And the check, too,” he added as the waitress stalked away.
The two men watched with interest as Veronica made headway into the huge plate of food in front of her. At length she put down her fork and looked up at them.
“Thank you,” she said. She gave them a smile, then went back to her food.
The waitress came back just then, with the carafe again and another glass of juice, and the check. As she poured the coffee Linwood handed Reggie the check without looking at it, then pulled out his wallet and set two bills on the table, a twenty and a ten. Reggie set the same amount on top of the check. For the first time that night Linwood saw the moon-faced waitress crack a smile, and walk away from the table with an even gait.
Reggie turned to the girl. “Lemme ask you a question, Veronica. How do you get past the nuns?”
She looked up at him. “Like I told you, they don’t care. I leave in the morning and come back early the next day. At night I just leave through a window on the first floor. Nobody ever notices me.”
“What are you lookin’ for out here?”
“Something else. Anything else.” She finished her orange juice as the men watched her in awed silence.
Linwood rose from the table. “Let me hit the head, then we can get outta here,” he said to Reggie. When he came out he saw Reggie and Veronica on the sidewalk outside. Reggie was on the phone again.
“… an’ we’ll make sure she’s comfortable, just for tonight. We’ll straighten all this out in the mornin’, Carla. You say who’s watchin’ the girls? Ah, okay. Yeah. Yeah, I’m comin’ down now. I’ll see you in a few. Okay.” He hung up and turned to Linwood. “We settled things while you were gone, young buck. She’ll stay wit’ me an’ the girls tonight.”
Linwood sighed with more relief than he meant to let on. He didn’t want to be saddled with a kid for the rest of the night, even if she was even-headed and far more mature than she should have been. But he didn’t want to drop her off at some godforsaken orphanage in the middle of the night, either—especially since Veronica didn’t want to be there in the first place. He walked the both of them to Reggie’s car, and made sure Veronica was buckled in the backseat. Already she was comfortable enough to drift off to sleep.
“An’ you think gettin’ some strange beats this shit,” Reggie said through the window to Linwood. “Sometimes I forget the world’s still new to you, Linwood.”
“Not so new anymore, brother,” Linwood replied. “Listen, you two get home safe, okay? I’ll see you Monday, probably.”
“I gotcha,” Reggie told him with a chortle. “Catch ya later.” Linwood watched the two of them pull away from the damp curb as a fine, misty rain began to fall again. He got in his cab, frisking himself for his cigarettes as the radio crackled to life.
“Callin’ cab two-eight, where da… Sit da fuck down, ya goon!” Dennis roared into the radio, and a beat afterward a crash exploded through the two-way. Linwood abandoned his search and snatched up the receiver.
“This is 3C28, come back dispatch,” he rattled off. “Jus’ got back from a food break…”
“Listen, Linwood,” said Dennis, out of breath and breaking protocol, “I needya ta come back’ta da garage an’ take dis shit-fa-brains home.” Linwood knew at once he was talking about Ricky.
“On the way, boss,” Linwood said. The radio went dead, and he remembered the paper bag from the bodega on the seat next to him. He replaced the receiver in its cradle, found the fresh pack of cigarettes in the bag, and started the cab.
Here’s lucky number seven, a little past the halfway point of the entire novella. Is it intriguing thus far, or at least interesting?
“So. Linwood. Tell me precisely how you knew I would be at that restaurant tonight.” Linwood studied her face for a beat, but it gave away nothing.
“What makes you think I knew you’d be there? Maybe it was… serendipitous.”
Arlotta laughed. “Serendipitous? In New York? Nothing here is as random as all that. Try again, buddy.”
Linwood chuckled at the inaccuracy of Arlotta’s statement. “I overheard you this mornin’ on the train, talkin’ to somebody on your cell phone,” he replied without hesitation. “I remembered where you said you were goin’ and what time you’d be there. It came wit’ the job, I guess—a sort of eavesdroppin’ skill I picked up. I’m still new to it all, so I can’t fully control it yet.”
Arlotta scoffed. “Some superpower. How long you been a cabbie?”
“A little over six months.”
“Is it as scary as I think it is?”
“Scarier, probably.” Linwood merged onto Varick Street. “Case-in-point. You remember those two old ladies on the train this mornin’? The twins I gave my seat to.”
Arlotta thought for a few beats. “Vaguely.”
“Picked them up earlier. Weirdest fare ever. What would you call that?”
“Well, that might have been serendipitous. This is a set-up if ever there was one.” Linwood laughed. “Sounds more interesting than what I do, that’s for sure,” Arlotta said. “I’m an interior decorator.”
“Really. I’ve heard of it, but I can’t say I’m exactly certain of what an interior decorator actually does.”
Arlotta laughed. “In a nutshell I draw up contracts with clients to decorate their homes, their offices. I pick out fabrics, furniture, art. Stuff like that. Sometimes I have to wine and dine a client before I can get them to sign the damn contract. That’s what my business partner and I were doing at Renduto’s what you happened to show up.”
“You get him to sign?”
Arlotta put her head in her hands. “No, not tonight. And after three weeks I’m tired of chasing his fat commission of a carrot.” She looked up at Linwood again with a start. “How’d you know he was the client, and not she?”
“Not too sound overtly sexist but, beyond the fact that the title interior decorator sounds tailor-made to be held by a woman, I don’t know too many guys named Sandy,” Linwood said. “Eavesdropping,” they said at once after a pause. “Yeah. Sorry about that,” he said with a laugh.
Linwood let a few blocks pass by. “So,” he began, “about what you said on the train this mornin’. You were right, I was starin’ at you.”
“At my tits, you mean.” Arlotta shot him a glance.
“At all of you is what I meant,” Linwood answered. They came to a red at Canal Street.
Arllotta laughed again, watching the traffic cross in front of them. “I should have asked if you wanted to see ’em,” she replied. She turned to him again, and flashed him a smile. “How old are you, Linwood?”
“I’m twenty-three,” he replied.
“Twenty-three. I gotta tell you, you’re an interesting twenty-three-year-old.” The light turned green.
“I try,” he said. “Becomin’ a cabbie saw to that. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Who old are you? You aren’t so old that it’s rude to ask. Are you?”
Arlotta smiled. “I’m thirty-one, nosy.” She searched the front seat of the cab, examined the dark meter, held the radio receiver, inspected the strange scratches all over the dashboard, and spotted Linwood’s canvas backpack on the floor underneath his legs. “I bet that your backpack is the same as my purse—it’ll say more about you than you ever would. Would it be okay if… I took a peek inside?”
Linwood glanced at her face again, then laughed. “Yeah, okay. Go grab it.” A split second afterward he remembered the pistol was still underneath the seat behind it.
Arlotta reached down under Linwood’s legs and pulled the backpack free. She opened it in silence and shifted around the items inside, pulling out the spiral notebook. She didn’t open it or ask what it was, only held it up for Linwood to explain.
“It’s a kinda journal I keep. It’s okay, you can look inside it.” Arlotta opened the front over and read the first few scribblings Linwood had made. “Does this mean I get to go through your purse?” he asked with a smirk.
“I don’t think so, cowboy,” Arlotta answered bluntly. “Sat. 7 May. 1:14 a.m.,” she read aloud. “Drunk suit, wailing b/c of boss.” She flipped a few pages ahead. “Wed. 15 July. 4:28 p.m. Couple, two women. Arguing re: choice of bar to go to.” A few more pages. “Mon. 4 Sept. 7:30 p.m. Woman, two kids. Headed home from Central Park. What, are you tracking your fares and women on the subway?”
“Only the interestin’ ones.”
“Interesting,” she echoed. “I wonder what you’ll write about me.” Arlotta replaced the notebook and went into the depths of the bag again. She came up with the small silver case of matches. “May I?” she asked. Linwood nodded and she found them inside. “Matches outside of a kitchen usually mean cigarettes. Mind if I ask for one?”
“Not at all,” Linwood replied. She searched the bag again but he pulled two out of the pocket on the front of his hoodie. Arlotta laughed and took one. “They stay on my person at all times. I’m a true addict.” Arlotta pulled one of the matches from the case. “Where’s the box to strike ’em on?”
Linwood smiled. “No need. They’re strike-anywhere matches.” They came to another red light, this one at Houston. He took the matchstick from her and struck it on a thumbnail. He held it awkwardly though, and burned himself with the flame. He let out a mild curse an hunted the matchstick down to make sure it went out.
Arlotta giggles. “I guess these explain all those scratch marks on the dash,” she said. “Strike anywhere, huh? Let me try.” Arlotta pulled another from the case, cinched up the hem of her dress like a winch—confirming to Linwood she wasn’t wearing any panties—and struck it on a copper-colored thigh. She first lit the surprised Linwood’s cigarette with it, then her own. Linwood lowered the windows and she flicked the spent matchstick outside.
“Man. You’re a pro, lady.”
“I try.” The light changed. “So. You smoke, too? Pot, I mean.”
“Yeah, I smoke ganja. You?”
“I don’t personally, but as long as it doesn’t burn in my house I don’t have a problem with it.”
“Good to know.” Linwood flicked ash from his cigarette out of the window.
“Why’s that good to know?”
“Don’t know. Just is. Maybe it means that you’re a decent, acceptin’ kinda person.”
Arlotta took a drag from the cigarette. “Maybe, maybe not.” A few more blocks went by and they crossed 14th Street.
“How far are you from Penn Station? Just curious, is all,” Linwood added.
“Not far, three blocks away.”
“Still, walkin’ the streets this time of night? I’m a worrier, Arlotta.” They both chuckled. “Nah, I”ll be okay,” she said. “Let you in on a secret—I keep a stun gun in my purse. Been doin’ a good job so far.”
“How many times you had to use it?” Linwood asked.
“Three.” She thought for a moment. “Once outside of Christopher Street Station, twice inside the same parking garage close to Washington Square.”
“Jesus. Maybe you should stay outta the Village,” Linwood teased.
“Please,” Arlotta replied. “These fuckers know not to mess with me and Betty Boop.” They both laughed again. “What about you?”
“Yeah, I’ve been held up twice. The first time… Was—” Linwood stopped himself, shocked at the ease with which he was about to tell this total stranger something he had never said to anyone else.
“Yeah? ‘The first time’?”
Linwood hesitated. “Two months after I started drivin’ for Colminetti’s I dropped off a fare at Central Park. ‘stead of gettin’ out he stuck a syringe in my neck and threatened to kill me. Before he could do that my friend came on the radio lookin’ for me and scared him off, somehow. I was held up for the second time earlier today. This time some crazy motherfucker on his way to murder his girlfriend decided to try me instead.”
My God,” Arlotta breathed. “Were—are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Everythin’ checked out okay. The damnedest thing is this’s the first time I ever told that to anybody. Never even told it to my buddy Jamieson, and he was the one that saved my life.”
“Well, I’m sure you had a reason not to do it. I imagine you were scared shitless.”
Linwood gave her a smile. “Yeah. But I wonder why I had to tell you that.”
A few more beats of silence passed before Arlotta spoke up. “You weren’t kidding when you said this job was dangerous, were you? Say no more. I’ve seen that nasty taxi show before.”
Linwood laughed. “It’s like that sometimes. I’ve had people spout outrageous things back there, I’ve had people have sex back there. I’ve had people break down back there. I’m the cheapest shrink in the city, no bullshit.”
Arlotta laughed. The cab crossed 23rd Street, ten blocks out from Penn Station.
“Do you have a boyfriend or anythin’?” Linwood asked flatly. Arlotta looked up, expecting that question.
“What if I did? Or a husband?”
Linwood thought about both questions. “Well, I’d have to wonder if I should cut our fantastic conversation short. It would be a tough call.”
“So what do you think?”
“I think there’s a fifty-fifty chance you got one or the other—either you do or you don’t. But I’m seventy-thirty that if you do he ain’t within twenty blocks of your place.”
26th Street passed by, then 27th. “Kinda cocksure, Linwood. You’re sure about that?”
“”Sure, I’m sure. And you’re not sportin’ that telltale shackle tan. I know. I’ve checked twice already.”
“Shackle tan? Astute, and a charmer.” She spent the last two blocks studying Linwood’s face as he drove.
They came to the busy electrified entrance beneath Madison Square Garden and Linwood brought the cab to a stop, but he didn’t put it in park and Arlotta didn’t make any move to get out. Thirty seconds of impasse passed before she spoke.
“I’m on West 31st between Dyer and Tenth, a couple blocks north of the park.”
“Perfect,” Linwood said. “I think I can spare an hour.”
Linwood and Arlotta lay next to one another on the rough tan carpet in her dark living room, afterglow in full pulsating effect. Silence thundered through the entire apartment, marred only by the rain that had begun to fall in sheets against the windows. without a sound Arlotta reached into Linwood’s Rangers hoodie rumpled on the floor above her head, pulled out the pack of cigarettes and the match case, and lit one. Linwood rolled onto his side and rested his head in a hand, watching her smoke. The scent of their lovemaking diffused into the darkness, and after three drags on the cigarette it still overpowered the burning tobacco.
With effort Linwood turned his attention away from Arlotta and scanned the living room in detail for the first time. Various articles of their clothing lay like lumpy islands piled across the floor in the dark. A sofa and a loveseat, both untouched, stood sentinel on either side of them. Her sweater dress was thrown across the simple wooden coffee table between the chairs, and her charm bracelet lay beside it. A small overstuffed bookcase stood against the wall opposite the front door. Three picture frames hung on the adjacent wall, the images contained within obscured in the far darkness. Two large windows took up most of the space on the wall opposite. The curtains were wide open, and the blinds were as well. Yellow light from the street five stories below still made it inside and the blinds sliced it into ribbons on the floor. A small table stood against the fourth wall, next to the door, and a large unpainted ceramic elephant rested on top of it.
Linwood rolled over and crawled to the coffee table, searching for and finding the ashtray underneath Arlotta’s dress. He brought it back to her, she ashed the cigarette, and she gave it to him. Linwood sat cross-legged and took a drag as Arlotta moved onto her back to stretch. Linwood watched her lithe body move, the brown outline still tactile and soft on his chest, his lips, his fingertips. His eyes traced it—from her toenails, freshly painted, to her pubis, neatly trimmed; from her taut, flat stomach to the wide, chocolate-brown areolas on both of her firm, full breasts. Her hair fanned itself out on the floor and framed her face. Just then a flash of lightning photographed the entire living room, and a second later a huge peal of thunder shattered the still scene. Linwood crushed out the cigarette and stood to get dressed, pulling off the spent condom as he did so.
“Recovered that quickly? I pulled out my best stuff for you, too.” Arlotta rose as well, but made no moves to get dressed. “I figured you wouldn’t be able to move for at least thirty minutes.”
Linwood chuckled. “Funny stuff, lady.” He put on his jockeys, then sat on the loveseat to put his socks back on. “Jesus, you’re beautiful,” he said, looking up at her. He walked over to his pants rumpled on the floor. “I don’t get it. Women mess wit’ guys heads all the time, and it never seems to get them where they wanna go,” he said as he put them on. He stood and pocketed the cigarettes, the matchcase, the condom. Then he picked up the bracelet, turning it in the sallow light from the post far below them. “Guys check girls out all the time, and four times outta five they get ignored. Imagine if everybody’d cut the games and just talk to each other, really converse. There’d be a lot more fulfilled people in the world. ya know?”
Arlotta put her hands on her hips an walked over to Linwood, stopping when her breasts met his diaphragm. “Sex is the only game that guys and girls play against one another. It’s been that way since men have been hunters an women have been gatherers, and it’ll stay that way till the sun burns out.” Another huge thunderclap rattled the windows. Arlotta took a step back and looked up at Linwood.
He wrapped an arm around Arlotta’s shoulder, the other around her waist. His fingertips ran down her spine, he caressed her hips and her ass, he took in the scent of the skin just below her right ear. And he kissed her. Arlotta responded, pressing her naked body into his, her arms bronzed tendrils around his slight waist. The kiss, a nascent understanding leveled between the two, filled the dark apartment with a profound attraction, a oneness. and then it ended. Linwood put the bracelet on Arlotta’s right wrist, and held out his left palm, upturned.
“What’s this?” Arlotta asked through a chuckle. She looked down at Linwood’s palm, then up at Linwood again. He reached into the right pocket of his jeans and produced a black permanent marker.
“If you want me to tell ya what I wrote about you in my notebook, I’m gonna needta be able to find you again, right?” Linwood held out the marker for Arlotta, and she took it. Without a word she wrote her number on his palm, capped the marker, and returned it to his pocket. He put on his shoes and his hoodie, and went to the door.
“Be careful out there, Linwood.”
“Always.” He opened the door and a beat later was gone.