ON FEBRUARY 29 AROUND 2AM, CARLOS SMITH WAS STOPPED AT A RED LIGHT ON A DESERTED STRETCH OF LAFAYETTE STREET. His taxi shift had been ordinary and unremarkable and he had no premonition this day would be different from any other. A big winter storm had just begun to lay its false peace on the city. Snow fell steadily. Carlos caught an incident in the corner of his eye. A young woman in high heels rushed out of a bar across the street. A moment later, a drunken man not wearing a jacket followed her out. She hurried up the empty sidewalk, keeping close to the curb where the sheltering street light was brightest, and the man followed, keeping a safe distance back. Her clipped steps echoed between the loft building that lined the gloomy street, and the man’s long shadow heightened his menace.
Carlos was tired, it was late. His shift was over. This wasn’t his problem. The mind is a funny thing. Out of nowhere, he flashed on another snowy night, a missed cell call from his sister, guilt he couldn’t shed. Carlos pulled along side the woman and called out through the passenger window, “Where’re you headed?”
She approached his cab, stooped slightly and peered in. She wore a lined raincoat cinched tightly at the waist, and gripped a canvas tote bag that hung over her shoulder. She was five foot two, maybe less, her black hair was cropped short and a rainbow choker set off the pale skin of her throat. Her right eye was puffy and her lip was bleeding.
“Downtown,” she said. “I’m broke.”
Carlos pondered whether to use that as his excuse to drive off. “How far?”
“I’m headed back to the garage.” He looked at her again. “Get in.”
He thought she’d get in the back, like other passengers, but she surprised him by taking the shotgun seat. He made room, closing his notebook and moving his left-over dinner of wilted tacos and a half-finished diet coke. She settled into the seat and held the tote bag to her chest, clutching it. She brushed fresh snow from her coat, legs and bag, keeping her head turned, self conscious of her face. He drove half a block to Spring Street and stopped for the red light. Vibrations shook the idling engine.
“Your lip is bleeding,” he said.
“I know.” She touched her lip softly with the back of her hand.
“You should ice it. That’ll stop the bleeding.”
“What about your coke? Is there ice in there?” She took the lidded container and fished for cubes with her fingers, pressing the melting remnants to her lip, wincing.
“I was done with the coke,” he said, “in case you were wondering.” He made a mental note to tell the drivers back in the garage. Funny things he overheard in the cab went in his notebook. That was his tic. A kitchen shelf in his lower east side studio apartment was stacked with notebooks for the novel he was going to write one day. He handed her his handkerchief. “Here.”
She dabbed her lip twice, inspecting the size of the red stain. Blood soaked through several layers of folded cotton. She handed it back.
“Keep it,” he said.
“I don’t need it.”
“It’s no good to me. It’s got your blood on it.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it. What happened?”
“I was mugged.”
“In the bar?”
“I wasn’t in the bar. I didn’t go into the bar. I was on Canal Street when a Chinese kid jumped me. I hit him. I’m pretty good with karate.”
Just like that, Carlos knew she was unreliable. He could ask her to get out of the cab and that would end his day. He’d go home to his walk-up apartment, kick back with a beer, watch TV, jerk off. But, where was the fun in that? No, he had a live thing here. He would play it out, see what happened. His fingers tapped out a favorite tune on the steering wheel as he waited for the red light to change. Vibrations shook the engine and the dashboard’s service light blinked yellow. An awkward silence descended on the darkened car. He remembered the meter and hit the button. $2.50 glowed red. He looked at her, acknowledging his error. Their eyes met.
“You were being followed,” he said.
She glanced in the car’s side mirror. “I don’t see him.”
“Half-a-block back.” Carlos liked the idea of provoking her. Stir it up a little. See what happened. Carlos looked again in his rear view mirror but all he saw were blind spots, deep shadows and dark doorways. The guy was gone. “What’s your name?”
“Why do you want to know my name?”
She considered his question. “Phoenix.”
Nothing rises from the ashes, he thought.
“You don’t like it?” she asked.
“I don’t have to like it. It’s your name. You have to like it.”
“Okay. What else do you want to know about me? Go ahead. Ask me another question.”
He looked at her, wondering what game she was playing. “What were you doing in the bar?”
She looked at him suspiciously.
“I know you were in the bar,” he said. “I saw the guy follow you out.”
“Is that a problem?” she asked.
“That you lied to me?”
Carlos looked away. He started thinking of all the things he hated about driving a taxi. He hated liars like her. He hated bad tippers, high gas prices, long hours, stalled traffic, endless honking; hated the city’s lack of civility. He hated passengers who talked down to him, assuming he was semi-literate when in fact he has a master’s degree; hated passengers who gave him directions thinking he didn’t know the way; hated the ones who handed him a hundred dollar bill on a five dollar fare. Something had gone out of the job--its spark, its novelty, its ability to excite.
“The light’s broken,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“I’m not running a red light.”
“I see him,” she said.
“Who?” Then Carlos remembered. He looked in his rear view mirror and saw the drunken man approach his stopped taxi. The man peered in the taxi’s window. Carlos laughed to himself when he saw his hair -- sparse, combed straight back, thin strands sutured into the top of his scalp. There was something wrong with a man who couldn’t accept his baldness and felt compelled to repair the aging process with something so obviously false. He’d retouched his face to make him look young again – or younger. A loser, Carlos thought. He looked at the man’s retouched face and thought, drunk, but not falling down drunk; more like a four martini stagger.
The man rapped the glass with his knuckles to her attention. His breath fogged. “Get out of the car,” he said.
She looked straight ahead and didn’t respond.
The drunk tried the door handle but it was locked. “Get out of the car.”
She kept her eyes straight ahead, jaw clenched. He tried the door again using both hands, and when that failed, he put his face near the glass. He slapped the window with his palm.
“Don’t ever call my home again,” the drunk said. “Hear me?”
She didn’t respond.
“Look at me.” He slapped the window again, harder.
“Hey,” Carlos intervened. “Come on. Don’t hit the car. Step away from the vehicle.”
“Stay out of this,” the drunk said. “It has nothing to do with you.”
She cupped her ears and squeezed her eyes shut, withdrawing into herself. She rocked gently in her seat.
“Don’t come to the office. Don’t call my home. Don’t follow me. Understand?”
“Motherfucker,” she whispered.
The drunk staggered up the block to an idling car service limo whose exhaust plumed in the night air. Carlos was confused by the conflicting signals – was she stalking him or the other way around?
Carlos closed his eyes. One beat up girl riding shot gun. A guy with bad hair. He already had enough material for a good story, and he was still waiting for the light to change. He took advantage of the red light to write in his notebook. His memory for dialogue was poor so he wrote down the passenger’s best lines while they were still fresh in his memory.
“What’re you doing?” she asked. She offered him a jelly donut from a Dunkin’ Donuts box she’d taken from her tote bag.
“Making notes,” he said. He looked at the donut. “What’s this?”
“How do you stay so thin eating donuts for dinner?”
“I don’t eat the dough, just the jelly. Notes, huh. How often do you do this type of thing?”
“Notes aren’t a type of thing. They’re a particular thing. They’re notes.”
She licked jelly from a donut, holding it to her mouth like a starved predator devouring her first kill of the week. She caught him staring. “Am I grossing you out?”
“It hurts to open my mouth.”
“Chew on the other side.”
“I can’t open my mouth that wide. He really got me. My tooth is loose.” She pushed her tongue against her upper jaw and let out a cry. “Can you believe it?” She spit a bloody molar into the handkerchief where it lay like evidence. She wrapped the tooth in the handkerchief and put it in her tote bag. “Motherfucker,” she hissed.
She clutched her tote bag and gently rocked back and forth lost in a sort of depressed reverie. Her head collapsed onto her chest and she drifted into a world of her own, cut off, dark. She was wracked with spasms of self-pity and then she fell quiet, and stayed that way for a moment. She opened her eyes and they were turned in on themselves -- set, resolute and cold.
“I made a mistake. I need to do one thing I can feel good about, one thing I can take pride in, one thing to fix my mistake.”
Carlos wanted to know more specifics. Try and get her to talk. But he didn’t have to. She went on by herself in an earnest voice that got his full attention.
“I know what I’m going to do,” she said. “Something no one can take away. On TV they’ll say I did the right thing. How many people ever do the right thing? How many people ever make the evening news?” She looked at him. “You need to stop taking notes. You need to get a life.”
Wasn’t that the truth, he thought. Here was a crazy girl giving him advice.
“Here he comes,” she said.
Carlos saw the drunken man approach wearing a snow-dusted overcoat, black leather gloves and a red ski cap. He motioned for Carlos to drive across the deserted intersection, and he pointed at a spot. He wanted Carlos to stop at the curb.
“You ready?” she asked.
“Ready for what?”
“You’re my accomplice.”
“I’m not your accomplice. I’m a taxi driver.”
“You agreed to be my accomplice. I said there comes a time in your life when you have to do the right thing. Remember?”
“I didn’t agree! I drive a taxi. That’s all I do. I saw you on the street. I thought you needed help.”
“I said there’s one thing I need to do. Remember that? Weren’t you listening? Don’t tell me you weren’t listening. Fuck it, man.” She pulled a small chrome .22 caliber pistol from her tote bag. She brushed confectionary sugar from the short barrel. “We had a deal. I’m gonna whack him. You’re my getaway car.” She flipped off the safety and squinted through her puffy eye. “I ought to feel sorry for him, but I don’t. Are you with the program?”
Carlos considered the events that had brought him to this unlikely fork in the evening, and he wondered if his careless provocations were affecting the outcome. He felt a headache coming on. “Put the gun down,” he said.
“Shut up,” she said. “He won’t know what hit him.”
She lowered the window and lifted the pistol. The drunk was a well lit target in the taxi’s headlights. He raised his arm to shade his blinded eyes.
Carlos’s mind flashed forward, imagining a .22 caliber bullet speed across the twenty yards of dark night to drill a tiny red hole in the man’s forehead. Carlos blinked, recalibrating his place in time, and pressed the gas pedal to the floor. The taxi lurched forward, choked, and stalled. Carlos stared at the dashboard’s blinking service light. The one night he needed a reasonable car he’d gotten a carbon-choked, mis-calibrated, run-down piece of shit. Carlos felt a giant hand squeeze his heart and pump blood into his thinking skull. He gently turned the key in the ignition and said a prayer that died on his lips when the engine started. He cautiously depressed the gas and pulled the steering wheel to his left.
She was thrown into the passenger side door and the collision knocked the pistol onto the floor. Carlos blinked his eyes to better discern the snow swept street ahead and map an escape route against the city grid in his mind. Cobblestones rattled the taxi as he followed the labyrinth of lower Manhattan streets, turning from one to another, and then another, to make it difficult for a pursuer to follow. He stayed vigilant for pot holes, police cars and unforeseen street repairs. Instinctively, he deciphered the dangers the city constantly devised. He came to a final stop on an alley of somber buildings and insufferable gloom. Fire escapes climbed the dark facades like black metal vines choking the feeble light that bled through half-closed Venetian blinds. There was iciness, bleakness, an unearthly glow that came from a street lamp that cast light on puddles of yesterday’s frozen rain. A subway rattled somewhere underground. Hissing vapor rose from a manhole at the end of the block and the venting steam spread, moved, reshaped itself into a diaphanous cloud. Carlos kept all the detail in his head. He knew he would use it later.
The engine shook and died. Carlos recognized the sound of total mechanical failure. He tried the ignition but got nothing. He rested his head on the steering wheel. At least there were only two of them now. The permutations of the evening’s outcomes had been substantially reduced. He looked up when he heard scrabbling in the well of the front seat, and saw her holding the lady-like, small caliber pistol. Her swollen eye opened, blinked, squinted and then lazily closed shut. Her soul was hard. There was no tenderness in her expression.
“You’re home,” he said, affecting a jaunty tone. “Howard Street.”
“This isn’t what I wanted.”
“I know.” He looked away. He didn’t want to provoke her.
“You didn’t do me a favor,” she said.
“I was thinking about myself.”
“What should I do to you?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“That’s not an option.”
“You should thank me. I stopped you from doing something stupid. You might have shot the guy.”
“That was the plan.”
“The car is dead,” he said. “I need a tow.” He turned the key again. Nothing. Snow blanketed the sidewalk and covered the mounds of bagged garbage. Flakes swirled in the alley, rising and falling in the venting steam, changing, moving, shifting in the most unpredictable ways. Vagaries of fate, Carlos thought.
“I need to call the garage.”
“Come up,” she said. “Use the phone. Have a beer.”
Carlos kept eye contact. Her fingers were child-like and chafed from the cold. He watched her release the cocked hammer and set the pistol’s safety.
He looked at her, then off into the storm, relieved. A moment later he turned back and found her staring at him. Their eyes met. She smiled but looked away, embarrassed. She reminded him of his sister, same full lips, same nervous smile, same habit of stroking her hair. He knitted his brow, murmuring and whispering in sync with the interior monologue that wholly preoccupied him. He’d already begun to see what would happen next.
“We don’t have to do anything,” she said.
“Hey,” she called. She knelt at a small coffee table in her studio apartment and crumpled weed. Incense burned. She smoothed the crushed marijuana in rolling paper and drew the finished joint across her swollen lip.
Carlos turned, abandoning his view of the heavy snow covering his taxi, and watched her suck tightly on the joint. The tip glowed.
“Want a hit?” she asked, holding her breath.
Nothing beat the smell of marijuana, he thought. “Sure.”
She blew two smoke rings. She handed the joint to him and then slid low on the wide sofa, taking a pillow in her lap. Carlos took a hit and handed it back. He returned to the window and looked down to the street where their footsteps had been erased by the heavy snow fall.
“No one’s going to hot wire a dead car,” she said.
He withdrew from the window, rebuked. How could he predict that the storm would close the garage, stranding him? He inhaled and handed her the joint. He felt the first startling rush and then the drug settled in like an old friend.
“”Keep it,” she said.
He let the drug calm his anxieties. He remembered some unpaid bills he’d left on his kitchen table, a check he’d forgotten to deposit. His cat would be waiting to be fed.
“Nervous?” she asked.
“No,” he lied.
She stood. She dropped the large bath towel she’d wrapped around herself. Underneath she wore only panties. She climbed under the covers. “I’m keeping my underwear on.”
“Me too,” he said. He removed his shirt, his undershirt. Removed his shoes, socks, pants. He kept on his white boxer shorts and slipped under the comforter beside her.
She propped herself on her elbow and looked into his eyes. “I like you.” She lay down beside him and stared up at the ceiling, hands folded on her chest.
Carlos saw in her face the private thoughts of someone contemplating the whole course of her life. He waited for her to speak. The silence made him uncomfortable. He began recounting things about himself, hoping she’d take over the conversation and relieve him of the work of relating. He recounted how he planned to move to Florida. He’d saved enough money for the down payment on a used forty-two foot Adios Gamefisherman that he planned charter for deepwater Marlin excursions. A nice life, he said. Quiet. No taxis. No traffic. See the stars at night. Listen to the cicadas. Smell the salt air. Smoke a little weed. That was the future he dreamed of. The future he deserved.
He recounted all this without his usual enthusiasm for leaving New York. He wondered what it would be like to hold her, kiss her, but he decided he didn’t have the appetite for sex. Once he crossed that line things changed, got complicated. He wasn’t ready for that.
“I saved your life,” she said.
At first he didn’t understand. He faked a smile. “Thanks.”
“I’m not angry,” she said. “We can be friends. How long will you be gone?”
“Couple of years.”
“That’s a long time”
“How old are you?” he asked. He needed this detail for the story.
She stared. “Let’s not go there.”
He looked at her, undeterred. “I don’t know anything about you.”
“You know my name. You know where I live. I didn’t shoot you. What more is there?” She leaned over and kissed his cheek.
Had she intended to shoot him? He wanted to believe that she had because it made a good story. Of course, she might be lying, and that too would make a good story. It would be a better story if they fucked, but he wasn’t ready for the consequences. He could lie to the drivers in the garage and say they had. That was the best story. It would be mostly true. The details were true; the gun was real; the storm happened. Only the outcome was false. The evening felt dream-like, but not his dream. More like a dream dreamed by her that she could turn into her own story that one day he’d hear being told by a stranger, and he’d think, wait, that’s me in that story. Anything was possible.