5.08 / August 2010

You Talking to Me?

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Ed wheels his cab around the block and takes a second look. He stubs his weed in the ashtray, sticks a meager plastic bag into the dashboard opening before sliding the radio back in. The girl still stands there, can’t be fifteen.

“Hey, mister!” she calls.

He glances into the rearview, then to either side, makes sure she’s not talking to someone else. He doesn’t need trouble. On the back of the visor is a crumpled picture of a boy he hasn’t seen in a long time.

The Bowery is dark at this time of night, lights out, nobody home. No one on the street even fare-worthy. Only reason he’s here is for a drop-off from the airport, a loft nearby.

Steam undulates from manholes, blurring what life there is. Lumps of fuzzy sleeping bags hog heating grates or cramp inside doorways. Women overdressed in this neighborhood look smeared and off balance.

She wears a Catholic schoolgirl skirt, plaid, Mary Janes. Her socks have lace on them, for crissakes. Doesn’t she know the danger, just being here?

He hates feeling anything. He’s in his sixties, doesn’t need this anymore. He drops his scribbled-up racing form on top of a girlie magazine on the front seat.

“What the hell?” he says, just loud enough. She comes running over as he knew she would.

“Mister, I gotta get a ride. Please?” Her hand shoots for the chrome handle on his hack, but it’s locked, always locked until he says so.

“You got money?”

“A little,” she says. She keeps glancing over her shoulder.

“How much, kid? The ride ain’t free.”

She looks at his lap.

“None of that shit, honey. You think I need statutory?”

“Mister, you gotta let me in.” The girl pounds hard on the back window, harder than any Catholic schoolgirl should.

“Sheeiit,” Ed mumbles. “You hurt my rig, you pay.”

“Please — you have to,” she screeches. She searches behind again. This time a female materializes through the parting steam, heading straight for them. This broad is no little girl. She’s old, his age. He gets only a vague idea of her face, a sharp red valentine of lipstick where her lips should be, her hair big and immobile, her clothes tight and black, her heels a half a foot up from the tarmac. He doesn’t know exactly what the situation is, but the woman’s sureness, her shrillness, her anger make Ed realize the girl pounding on his window can’t stay on the street.

His hand auto pilots to the power button, flips the lock off the back door, and the girl claws her way in. Their heads lurch as they shoot from the curb. The scary woman slaps his back bumper, shouting, “Fuck you!”

“Shit,” Ed says, punching the gas and accelerating toward Canal Street, Chinatown, knocking over garbage pails, the smell of rubber lingering inside the cab.

The girl seems velcroed to the back seat where gravity has thrown her. Her flat chest heaves up and down. She doesn’t take her eyes off the highway.

“So where you going, kid?” he finally says.

“Where are you going?”

“None of that. I don’t need trouble.”

She scrutinizes the cab, his hack license, the picture of the boy rubber banded to the visor. “Who’s he?” she says.

“Could be my son.” Briefly, the taxi swerves out of the white lines, but then he rights it. “That ain’t the point.”

She eyeballs Ed in the rearview until he looks away.

“Take me to Port Authority.”

“Aw, come on, kid. That’s no better than where you’re running from.”

“Times Square.”

“Forget it.”

He lightly taps the power locks again.

“What are you doing?” She leans forward when she hears the click, pounds on the bullet-proof divider.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“You can’t do this!” she shouts. He watches her head tilt toward the bright bulbous lights swaying on the metal cables of the Manhattan Bridge. She slams her weight against the door, tries to force the chrome handle at the same time.   She lifts her body higher, heaves her shoulder at the passenger window. Nothing.

“You’re sick!” she shrieks. “Let me out! I’ll scream!”

“You already are, sweetcakes.”

Outside on Flatbush Avenue, there’s no moon and it’s cold. Pale lighted windows from a nearby hospital pile square after square to the stars. Neons flash, a tree here and there, nightclubs galore.

He turns down a dark street, brownstones, stops at a corner where the bottom floor is lit up.

“Why are you doing this, old man?”

He snaps the locks open, allows himself a glance at the photo. He’s never noticed how heavy his son’s brow is, how much like his grandfather’s it must have become.

She scrambles out, slams the door, but stops when she sees the kids on the stoop. They have Bibles. They smile beatifically. “We want to help,” the sign on their cardboard table says. “At Risk” is magic-markered on a sign in one downstairs’ window, “Advocacy” is pasted into another. Jesus has been nailed to the large wood door for some time.

She turns back, pleading, horror. “Don’t leave me here!” She scratches for the handle, but Ed locks up again and takes off.

5.08 / August 2010