First off, allow me to apologize for taking so long to post this installment of “Matchstick”—my computer spazzed out unexpectedly, then repaired itself just as suddenly, and I’ve started a new job on top of it all.
Oh, and another thing—
I’ve settled on a permanent title for the novella. It’s “The Pros of a Matchstick; or, Most Unlikely Things”.
One more point. I’ve decided this will be the final post for this work until I complete it, then I’ll post the entire ending here. It could be tomorrow before I’m done, it could be Christmas before I’m done (hopefully not, though). I’m just as excited as you are to see how it all comes to an end, but not even I know that yet. Well, not exactly.
In any case, here’s installment ten.
The three men were headed south on the FDR. The cop’s sustained prattling and Ricky’s persistent moaning seeping through the trunk prodded Linwood into lighting another cigarette.
The cop looked over at Linwood, then back out at traffic in front of the car. “This is kinda cool,” he stated. He unbuttoned his cuffs and took off his jacket as he steered with a knee. “Like you’re the fare and I’m the cabbie. I understand you better now, I think.”
Linwood gave him a look of incredulity—and noticed the cop’s watch. He paused on it for a beat before returning to his cigarette with a strangled scoff.
“I’m being serious here,” the cop said, lowering his voice. “It’s because of you I understand what makes a cab driver tick. It’s not the danger, or the stories you get to tell your buddies. And it’s not the money, that’s for damn sure. It’s the near-constant companionship, the desire to make that one intimate connection, however brief, with every stranger you come across and, conversely, the rage when you never really do. It’s that hope and that despair, in even, hard-hitting cycles. That’s what drives you—all of us, really.” Neither man said a word as the East River and Brooklyn beyond scrolled by in the dark.
Ricky’s stifled cries became rhythmic thumping—him kicking the roof of the trunk. “Don’t worry about him,” the cop said with a grin. “He’ll get tired. Eventually.”
Linwood flicked the cigarette butt out of the window. He snuck a glance at the big green wristwatch again, and for the first time had second thoughts about teaming with this man in delivering justice to Ricky.
“I’m the best kind of cop, you know—one that refuses to tie justice together with conscience. You do realize I’m here to help, don’t you, kid?”
“Well, I don’t want your fuckin’ help then, bacon bits,” Linwood spat at him.
“Bacon bits.” The cop laughed. “That’s pretty… sophomoric, actually. But still, it made me laugh. Tell you what. Let’s make a little detour.”
The two men stood at Church and Vesey streets, peering through the chain-link at the still-smoldering ruin that was once the center of the world. The day-traders and secretaries and janitors and tourists were long gone, replaced by excavators and volunteers and firemen and policemen, all searching—with decreasing desperation, these days—for the remains of those lost in the attacks two-and-a-half months before. Work lights scattered their beams through the cloud of smoky dust kicked up by dump trucks and backhoes rumbling across the site. Tons and tons of mangled scorched steel were being piled and sorted—patient, round-the-clock work. The buildings closest to ground zero were outfitted in red mesh screening to further protect them from the sad work below, and to Linwood they looked like mourning robes.
“You heard ’bout that guy on the bridge today,” he said to the cop, sotto voce. “He ran from my cab before that train took him out. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
The cop turned to look at him. “What makes you say that?” he said with a smirk.
Linwood looked out at the site below. “‘Cause you’re a fuckin’ cop. And the guy that tried to kill me in July.”
The cop’s smirk became a broad smile. He turned to face the hazy intersection behind them.
“Can’t you see how much hate there is in the world?” he asked. “These people in their turbans and dresses and pinkie rings funded and armed this attack with money and guns we gave them. It took them three hours and these people changed the world, forever and ever. And now we have this brand-new crater to remind us of that.”
He clenched his fists and turned back to Linwood, who had been sadly watching the goings-on below, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips again. The cop unrolled his hands, reached into a pocket, and pulled out a cigarette—along with a lighter. “It was the watch tipped you off, wasn’t it? It belonged to my twin brother Diran,” he began, exhaling the first drag in a sigh. “He was a combat diver in the Navy.
“God, he loved the water. We grew up in Cayuga, a half-hour walk away from the lake, and damned if we weren’t out there every day in the summer as kids. He could swim for hours and never get tired. But like all brothers we grew up, and apart. He went to Annapolis, and I came to the filthy City to… you know. When he graduated my mother went to an army surplus store and bought for him this diving watch, she was so proud of her son the frogman.” He knocked the long column of ash from his cigarette.
“Diran went through all the training, he learned what they said he needed to learn. I asked him what it was he did, once. He told me he specialized in clandestine ops—landing first on enemy beaches, scoping them out for trailing ground troops, and planting explosives and tracking devices on ships, all without being detected. He was good, apparently—got lots of commendations and medals. He was so good they thought he’d be a great help in the Gulf, so they sent him to scout a small island in the Strait of Hormuz. He walked into an ambush but the watch survived, almost unscathed.” He ashed the cigarette again and showed a dent in the watchface to Linwood, who paid no attention.
“Somebody found the watch on that island, figured out it belonged to Diran, and mailed it back to my mother. She cried and cried the day it came, and for the entire week after. My father had died when we were kids and now Diran was gone, and it broke my mother’s heart that all she had left was me. She was dead six months after that.
“I don’t wear it to honor my brother’s memory. I don’t wear it because my mother treasured it so much. It’s because this monstrosity and I are all that’s left.” He threw the butt on the ground as he exhaled the final drag, and crushed it out.
The cop stood up, straight and tall, and walked over to Linwood, smirking again. “Of course it was a lie. Everything around you is a lie, all the time. But every story has a grain of truth at its heart.” His reflexes dulled by the liquor, Linwood couldn’t block in time the rib-fracturing punch that landed squarely on his solar plexus. He fell to his knees, promptly vomited up the half-bottle of rum he’d drunk, and struggled to take a breath as he writhed on the ground. “I’m sure you’ve realized it by now, but you’re gonna be my 9/11. My crater.”
“Fu—fuck you,” Linwood wheezed, still dribbling. “Either you kill me now, or I’m gonna go home and go to sleep.” He wobbled to his feet.
“You can leave, if that’s what you want. But that sack of shit in the trunk and the tall hippie are both mine if you do.” Linwood wrinkled his face in consternation and discomfort, and when the words sank in he turned white as a sheet.
The cop drove through the West Village, north along Hudson Street. As he had predicted Ricky had fallen silent in the trunk. Linwood was quiet too, and nauseous still.
“Remember how I came across you two at that restaurant in TriBeCa? I wasn’t really writing your friend a ticket. I was planting a tracking device on his cab, same as I did yours when I stopped you today.” The cop reached into his pocket and pulled out an electronic device similar to a black television remote. “This is the transceiver, right here. I followed him until he found a spot I liked, and then I took him—with a little help.” He chuckled as he returned the transceiver to his pocket. “It’s also how I know about you and that unfortunate nigger on the bridge.”
“Is… is Jamieson still alive?” Linwood asked in a small voice.
The cop ignored the question. “Perhaps it would be best if I began at the beginning.” He reached in his breast pocket for a cigarette, but came up empty. “Hey, where’re your cigs? Huh?” He frisked Linwood, and took one when he found them. The cop took a drag from the cigarette, and then another. They came to a red light at Watts Street.
“I really did have a twin brother named Diran. We were the smartest Armenians Brighton Beach had ever seen. But he always wanted to be different, and not just from everyone else—from me, too. He’d cut his hair different from mine, he got his ear pierced. He bought an obnoxious green watch, just so everybody else would be able to tell us apart. He wore it every day, and every day I hated him for it.
“I went to Yale to study medicine, and he blew off a scholarship to MIT to stay here and drive a taxicab. And it made me angry, you know? It made me angry that Diran would rather slum it with junkies and whores and niggers, and waste the potential he knew he had. He wasn’t ever going to touch any of them because he was better than they were. He—we could have been so much more than we turned out to be.” He threw the butt out of the window as the light turned green.
“So I graduated, and I became an anesthesiologist. A good one, too. I had a residency in a little hospital in Yonkers, then moved to a bigger one in D.C. After that I did a four-year stint with Doctors Without Borders.
“I found the first in Pak Kret, a lady boy. Sheeny black hair, missing a lower canine, the right one. I did him—her, it, whatever—with a scalpel. Three nicks to the femoral artery behind a salapao stand. He was dead in ten seconds.
“They found the body the next day. The papers ran with the story for a week. It was glorious. Empowering.” The cop looked over to Linwood, still huddled in the seat behind him. “You okay, kid? I hope you aren’t fading. Not yet.”
Linwood watched the wet sidewalks pass by. He wasn’t fading, he was numb—numb because Dennis was dead, because Ricky was in the trunk, because somehow he had gotten Jamieson involved, because a sociopath had been tracking him like an elk for four months. The cop poked Linwood in the ribs with an elbow, then shrugged his shoulders when he failed to elicit a response.
“So, where was I… oh, right. After Thailand I went to Kenya, the Sudan, Brazil. I experimented a bit. I stabbed a few. I shot one. I beat one to death.
“But when I came to the syringe…— So unassuming and easily secreted, I knew that was the way to do it. By the time I came back to the States in ’94 my skills were sharp—God, were they sharp. I got a grant and I opened up a clinic in the Bronx. Gotta have a day job, right? And then I settled back to wait.
“It took a full fourteen months to prepare, and not just in finding the uniform and the cruiser an a garage to hide it all in. It took that long to become a cop. I would practice for hours in the mirror. I told the furniture to freeze and read them their rights so often I’d go hoarse. I went to a gun shop and bought a Glock 19, and learned how to use it. I read that handbook they give to Probies cover to cover.
“And while I did all that I got close to my brother again—very, very close. I figured out his routine. I found out all his favorite fare haunts. We’d go to Mets games together, we’d eat together, all in the name of research. When the time got close I planted a bug on his cab. I watched him, followed and waited, for three weeks.
“Diran was in Ozone Park when I pulled him. His expression when he recognized me… I’ll never forget it. I can’t even describe it to you now, not even if I wanted to. But he laughed when he saw me in uniform. Laughed. I didn’t say a word as I stuck the syringe in his shoulder and gave him the injection, a huge dose of pure succinylcholine. And then he was gone. I took his watch, this watch. My twin brother was the first one, the first cabbie.”
They came to a red at 23rd Street and Linwood sat up straight, slowly scanning the intersection as worry flooded his face.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
The cop paused, then steamrolled over the question. “It’s only because Diran became a cabbie that I started killing them, you know. Had he been a greengrocer, or a mechanic, or—”
“I asked you a question. Where are we going?”
“My ignoring your stupid question should have answered it for you, kid,” the cop stated. “If you want to make—” Before he could finish the answer Linwood tore out of the car and sprinted up Ninth avenue toward Chelsea Park, toward Arlotta’s apartment.
“Stupid kid,” the cop muttered as he shut the door Linwood had left open. “He’s going to beat me there.”
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.
Firstly, to those who observed it, I hope you had an awesome Memorial Day. I did, which is why I’m only now posting this week’s installment. Secondly, I’ve made a bit of a change to the title within the last week. It’s now “Cabbie-Killer, or The Pros of a Matchstick”.
I like it. For now.
“I’m tellin’ you, it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever been part of, Jamieson,” Linwood told him.
Jamieson and Linwood leaned against Linwood’s cab, parked at the curb in front of Renduto’s Trattoria, a posh Italian bistro in TriBeCa. The rain had stopped again and the crowds walking on Chambers Street moved along the lit sidewalk in front of them in twos and threes, looking for an interesting place to pass a few hours. The two cabbies smoked and people-watched as Linwood told Jamieson how the old women from the N train heckled him.
“It is odd,” Jamieson told him after he finished. “But shouldn’t it be the oddities we pay attention to in this life?” He took a drag and exhaled a cloud of smoke as an attractive girl walked past them, and through the cloud. “Sorry ’bout that, sweetheart,” he called after her. The girl slowed her stride and flashed him a smile, brushing a hand through her hair before continuing up the sidewalk. “You see that?” Jamieson asked. “If I’d’a done that, she probably would’a cursed me out,” Linwood answered.
Jamieson laughed, then crushed the cigarette out underneath his foot. “I suppose it’s all in the delivery, young Linwood,” he said. “That reminds me of a joke. You wanna hear it?” Jamieson stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Of course,” Linwood said. “Lay it on me, man.”
“A dwarf carryin’ a suitcase walks up to a hooker chewin’ gum on a street corner. The suitcase is a little bit bigger than he is an’ he’s havin’ a bitch of a time wit’ it, but he makes it to the hooker an’ he drops it at her feet. The hooker asks him how’s he doin’ if he needs any help, what he’s lookin’ for, ya know. He asks her, ‘Will you do what I say wit’out question?’
‘That’s what I’m out here to do, baby,’ she answers.
‘I want you to throw me around the room in this suitcase,’ he says. The hooker thinks about it, chewin’ on the gum, an’ says, ‘Yeah, all right.’
‘I want you to fuck me like my life is endin’,’ he tells her. The hooker thinks about that an’ says, ‘Fifty bucks, plus the hotel room. You hafta wear a rubber. I’ll do anal for a hundred more.’
‘A hundred?’ he asks. ‘How ’bout fifty?’
‘Nope,’ the hooker tells him. ‘A hunsky.’ The hotel’s just across the street, so the dwarf picks up the suitcase an’ the two of ’em wait for the light to change so’s they can cross. The hooker asks him if this is his first time payin’ for sex, and the dwarf says, ‘No, I’ve been married for ten years.'”
Linwood laughed. “That’s not the punchline, idiot,” Jamieson said.
“So? It was still funny, man.”
Jamieson sighed and shook his head. “Anyway, the two of ’em are standin’ at the corner, right, an’ the hooker’s starin’ down at the suitcase, then the guy.
‘You goin’ on a trip?’ she asks him.
‘No,’ he says.
‘You get kicked outta the house’ she asks. He says no again. ‘Well, why do you want inside the suitcase so bad, then?’
‘You’ll see when we get to the room,’ he answers.
“It takes five minutes longer than it should’a, but the three of ’em make it to the front office at the hotel. The greaseball behind the counter looks the two of ’em over—the girl chompin’ her gum into putty and the dwarf wit’ his man-sized suitcase—an’ tells him it’ll be twenty-five for the room, for forty minutes. The dwarf pays, gets a room key, they go to the room.
Immediately the hooker gets naked. Her tits are perfect, she’s got an ass you can serve tea on, she’s the whole package, right? Before they get down to brass tacks she tells the guy to put the money on the nightstand. He puts down three crisp fifties, then he strips. He’s got a massive dick, big an’ floppy, almost as long as he’s tall seems like, an’ it catches the hooker by surprise. She takes the gum from her mouth an’ puts it on the nightstand next to the money, an’ she starts givin’ him a blowjob, really puts some elbow grease into it, ya know?
“Just when she gets it good an’ hard he pulls out of her mouth an’ goes to get the suitcase. He lays it on the bed an’ he opens it, an’ jus’ like he said it’s empty. The hooker she’s confused by the suitcase again, an’ she asks him, ‘Whatcha gonna do wit’ that?’
‘Before I can come I hafta get in my suitcase. It’s the only way I’m able to do it.’
“The hooker she don’t understand, but she don’t really give a shit. She sees strange shit all the time ’cause she’s a hooker. Ya know.
“Then the two of ’em start goin’ at it, I mean really goin’ at it, an’ all with the open suitcase as a third. She’s ridin’ him, he’s on top fuckin’ her, she’s actually tryin’ to fuck all signs of life outta this guy. They get close to finishin’ an’ the guy says, ‘Okay, I’m gonna get in the suitcase. I want ya to zip it shut, then bounce it on the bed while I jack off inside.’ The hooker laughs an’ says, “Alright, if that’s whatcha want.’ He gets in, she zips it up, an’ he starts jackin’ it.
‘Bounce me, bounce me,’ he says from inside. She does what he asks. ‘It’s not enough,’ she hears him say. ‘Toss me around the room a little bit.’ She heaves the heavy suitcase up off the bed an’ swings it around in a big circle, tits an’ ass bouncin’ everywhere, really workin’ up a sweat, right? And he’s screamin’ by this point, it feels so good. ‘Keep doin’ it, keep it up! Harder, harder!’ he says.
“She goes crazy, throwin’ the damn suitcase off the walls, the floor, the bed. At first she don’t notice that the sounds from inside the suitcase’ve stopped. When she does the hooker throws it down on the bed an’ unzips it, an’ finds the dwarf inside the damn thing, dick in hand, twitchin’ his little heart out, his eyes rolled back in his head, twisted backwards.
“Naturally the hooker starts to freak. She sits down on the bed to think of a next move when she hears bangin’ on the door. She throws on her clothes, collects the money and pops the gum in her mouth again, then zips the suitcase shut again an’ hides it under the bed before answerin’ the door. There’s a woman standin’ there, tall an’ blonde an’ hot, an’ mad as hell, too. ‘I’m lookin’ for my husband,’ she tells the hooker. ‘The greaseball at the counter said he came back here wit’ you and his suitcase. Where is he?’ The hooker hauls ass in response.
“The wife searches the room an’ eventually finds the suitcase under the bed. She pulls it out an’ opens it, an’ finds her husband’s twisted-up body in it. She starts cryin’, then screamin’, an’ finally gets so upset she starts slappin’ the corpse—which, it turns out, isn’t a corpse, ’cause he’s only knocked unconscious from the beatin’ the hooker gave him, an’ his wife’s beatin’ brought him to again. He sits up in the suitcase, naked an’ covered in jizz, scratchin’ his head. Then he spots his wife.
‘Hi honey,’ he says. ‘Whatcha doin’ down here?’
‘What’m I doin’ here!”‘ The wife, she flips. ‘You leave in the middle’a the night’ta come find hookers an’ God knows what else, an’ you ask me why I came down here!?’ She starts cryin’ then asks him, ‘Why? Why would you do this?’
He looks at her an’ he says, ‘She said she’d do what I said wit’out any questions, an’ that’s what she did.’
‘I try my best, baby,’ the wife says, snifflin’ a little bit.
‘She said she’s throw me around the room in my suitcase, an’ that’s what she did,’ he says.
‘I could’a done that if you’d’a jus’ asked me,’ she says, wipin’ the tears from her eyes.
He says, ‘She said she’d fuck me like my life was endin’, an’ that’s what she did.’
‘I would’a done that for you baby, for free,’ she tells her husband. ‘I coluld fuck you like the world was endin’. The universe even.’
‘Bullshit, for free,’ he says. ‘I pay the mortgage an’ all the bills, an’ you still won’t give me any anal.'” Jamieson pulled a hand from a jacket pocket with a cigarette in his fingers, and lit it with the lighter in the other.
Linwood laughed out loud, and so did a few others within earshot who had been listening to Jamieson tell the joke. “That’s some sick, slick shit man,” Linwood said. “Where the hell did you pick that up?”
“Just around,” Jamieson answered simply. “I said I like payin’ attention to oddities, an’ this was one of ’em.” He checked his watch. “We been out here for twenty minutes, Linwood,” he said. “You sure the train chick’s in there?”
“No,” Linwood answered him, “but I’m positive this is where she said she would be tonight. Just give it five more minutes then you can go, alright?”
“No can do, Linwood,” Jamieson said. He had turned to check on his cab across the street and spotted a policeman walking around it, preparing to write a parking citation. “I gotta get him to rip that fuckin’ ticket to shreds, man. I’ll catch up wit’ you later, okay?” He took off across the street, narrowly avoiding being struck by a silver sedan in his haste. Linwood watched Jamieson plead with the cop—and at once recognized the floppy ears protruding from either side of his head. Jamieson gestured in his direction, and when the crooked cop looked up Linwood looked away and crouched, using his own cab as a shield. The cop never came across the street, and after a minute he allowed Jamieson to leave, apparently without a ticket. The cop pulled away as well, and Linwood heaved a sigh of relief. He turned back to the entryway of the tiny trattoria. A minute, then five, then ten passed, all without any sign of the woman. He got in his cab and was about to drive away when he spotted her.
She wore a knee-length black sweater dress, as form-fitting as the paisley sweater; Linwood was sure there were no panties or bra bolstering the curves beneath it. She wore black high-heeled boots with no stockings, all matching perfectly the same black purse she carried from before. In stark contrast to that morning she had accentuated the features in her face by applying subtle makeup highlights around her cheeks and eyes—accents Linwood noticed from ten yards away. Her lipstick was bright red this time, the same hue as her hair, which hung in curly locks to her shoulder blades.
She came out with an Asian woman and a tall white man. The three of them stood in front of the restaurant and chatted for a bit before she hailed two cabs, first for the man, then for the woman. Then she turned to find one for herself. This was the chance Linwood had been waiting for all day long. She wasn’t going to catch him off balance this time.
“Excuse me,” Linwood called out to her. She looked around, and when she spotted him she walked up to the front passenger window and leaned in. “Well, if it isn’t Mr. Peepers from the N train. Are you stalking me? And did you steal this cab?” she teased.
“It looks like you could use a cab, is all. Needa lift? I’ll take you wherever ya need to be,” he said. She started to get in the back but Linwood stopped her. “It’s not strictly in line wit’ company policy, but if you like you can ride upfront. It’ll be our little secret.” He winked at her.
The woman laughed at him. “If I agree to ride in front will you promise never to wink at me again?” Linwood laughed, but quickly nodded his head. “Yeah, alright then.” She opened the door and at once the entire cab filled with the scent of jasmine, of her perfume. She slid into the cab and shut the door, and studied Linwood’s face for a moment before a fetching grin spread across her face.
“Where do you need to go?” Linwood asked.
“I live in Chelsea, but you can drop me at Penn Station if it isn’t too much trouble,” she said as Linwood started the cab. “My name is Arlotta, by the way. If you’re going to be my chauffeur, I should at least know what you’re called.”
He smiled. “It’s Linwood, Arlotta. Linwood Rouxlard.” He put the cab in gear and made a right onto West Broadway.
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.
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.