Fiction: A Lady in the Night

By Mather Schneider

One morning I was down on the corner of Water and Second looking at the help wanted sign on the Yellow Cab building. It was the beginning of October, overcast. I went in. The big open garage was cold. It smelled like oily rags, cigarettes and wet coats.

            They hired me. They hired anyone with a clean driving record. 

My first day I was trained by a veteran driver named Kermit. Kermit was tall and thin and walked with a model’s gait. He was 42 years old and his hair was dyed black, short and greased straight back against his skull. He had scars from teenage acne, which he tried to conceal with make-up. He was thin but well built, with a chiseled face like a mummy. He wore dark sunglasses constantly, even though it rained in that town 300 days of the year. Bellingham, Washington, where mushrooms sprouted out of my shower grout.
            Kermit showed me how to check the oil and do a car inspection to see if the previous driver had left the vehicle in proper condition. Then we were on the road.
            “Do you like driving a cab?” I said.
            “I love it. I meet lots of interesting people, and I’m my own boss.”
            “Make any money?”
            “Sure, there’s money. But you have to think out here.” 

He tapped his temple and then lit up another Camel. The cab was an old police car. The seats were black vinyl and made a certain official scrunching sound when you sat down on them. 

“Most people assume any idiot could do this job, but if you want to do it well, and believe me it can be done well, you have to think.”
            “I didn’t realize.”
            “You’ve got to be thinking all the time, all the time. You’ve got to be able to train your mind and senses to the task at hand. You have to listen to the dispatcher and learn the quickest routes and know where the people will be.” He paused, then added: “It’s also an instinct, which you’ll eventually develop, if you’re lucky.”
            “How long have you been doing this?”
            “5 years. I worked in Seattle. At first I was terrible, but I learned, just like you will.” He gave me a paternal smile. “But I do other things too.”
            “I’m also a writer and an inventor.”
            “Did you invent something?”
            “As a matter of fact, I did.” 

He took something out of his coat. He handed me a comb carved out of a piece of wood that had a way of folding over like a pocket knife into a protective covering. I had seen the same thing in a Walgreen’s bargain bin a week before.
            “It’s just a prototype,” he said.
            “Are you sure they don’t already have these on the market?”
             He jerked the comb out of my hand and looked at it. We came to a stop sign. I thought for a moment he was going to throw it out the window.
            “I’ve invented other things too.” He waved his cigarette in the air. “I have many things that I’m working on that are very close to being finished.”
            “I imagine it’s a slow process.”
            “Sometimes it comes to me in a flash.” He snapped his fingers. He snapped his fingers a lot, and he could do it with a cigarette in his hand. I tried this once in my cab and ended up flipping the cigarette away and burning a hole in the back seat. Kermit could snap his fingers with the sound of a whip cracking. “And other times it comes to me slowly, like a lady in the night.”
            He showed me where it was best to park your cab to have the best chance of getting “walk-ups.” The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting at the tiny airport watching the scattered passengers emerge from the tiny, toy-like terminal, hoping they’d need a ride somewhere. No jets could land there, only small planes that held maybe 20 people.
            “Just like a lion waiting on the grassy plain,” Kermit said.
            The airport was so small the luggage claim was just a big hole in a wall with a kind of oversized mud flap hanging over it. Passengers stood outside and waited for a couple of hairy arms to throw their bags through the hole in the wall. 
            I’d arrived at that same airport a few days earlier when I got back to town from Illinois. Amy picked me up. Amy and I had met in the 3-B Tavern 4 years ago, and had been together ever since. But one night I got shitfaced and chased everybody out of one of Amy’s parties. After that I broke a door and then fell into the firepit that was raging out in the yard, burning my hand. I ended up in the hospital and then had to spend 3 months in a Seattle rehab center to learn to use my hand again. It was all scarred discolored and shaped funny, but I could still do basic things.

            When I came back to town, and to Amy, I touched nothing stronger than coffee and cigarettes. I had just celebrated my 36th birthday with a cake from Albertson’s and a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling cider.
            My driving shift was 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. I was an independent contractor. I leased the vehicle from the company for 60 bucks per 12-hour period, during which I was placed in a rotation of 5 cabs that would be fed calls by a radio dispatch operator. Aside from this, any pick-ups off the street were fair game. It was a lottery. Most of my time was spent sitting around watching traffic signals change. There was a lot of waiting. It wasn’t romantic at all. No one paid me in kisses. 

            It became a routine. I would drive all night, trudge into the apartment at 7:30 or so, toss my loose bills onto the counter where Amy would see them, and then get in bed. It was hard to fall asleep without relaxing and winding down a little, but there was nothing to do at that hour. The sun was coming up. I knew where there were bars open that time of day, but I tried to put those out of my mind. Amy always felt warm and smelled good and made a little moan when I came to bed and patted her, and it calmed my body, but it didn’t calm my mind. I always lay awake for a long time looking at the ceiling, or the walls, or the window.
            Amy and I had a quiet life for a while. She didn’t like the hours I kept, but she did like the idea of me driving a taxi. One of the lead characters on one of her favorite television dramas was a young man who was driving a taxi to make a living until he sold his first novel. It made me feel good to know she was proud of me. I wasn’t a writer, but I was at least halfway to being cool.
            Amy was the kind of girl to whom everyone else’s life always looked better than her own.
            “Look at that,” she would say, pointing at a rich couple standing on the deck of their yacht on a television commercial. “Wouldn’t it be great to be there instead of stuck here?”
            After I came home and went to bed she would get up to go to work. She was a cashier at Woolworth’s. She would give me a peck on the cheek and leave me to my dreams. In the afternoon we would have a couple hours together and then I would leave for work.
            There were people who needed a cab on a regular basis. They had a permanent “time call,” a request for a taxi to be at their house at the same time every day. One lady had to go to the hospital every morning for her kidney dialysis, which took nearly all day, and then would require another ride home. Sometimes I got her coming and going. She was about 47 but looked 80. Her name was Susan. She was as thin as a sad little bird, with wrinkled skin that fell from her body. She hardly talked but I got to know her a little. I got to know her well enough to understand she was utterly alone. She sat in the back seat and stared out the window, her gray eyes wet. 
            Every time I dropped her off at her house and helped her up her 3 concrete steps, she always said, “Thank you.” I always wondered how she managed in that small house alone, the curtains always closed, and how she found the courage to get up in the morning just to lay hooked to a machine all day, a machine that was supposed to make her healthier but instead seemed to leave her older and closer to death. She had the faint hope of a kidney donor coming miraculously from nowhere someday. I guess that was enough. 
            I had to work on New Year’s Eve so Amy and I got dressed up and went to a nice seafood restaurant the night before. I had decided to have a glass of champagne to celebrate and even though Amy didn’t like it, she didn’t make a fuss. She looked beautiful that night, slim, sleek, happy. Her hair was up and her neck was lovely. We clinked glasses at midnight. She smiled at me nervously as she watched me drink that champagne, but then drank hers and relaxed. She told me she loved me that night and I told her I loved her too. Then we killed the bottle, went home and made love, just like we were supposed to. Just like on tv.
            After that I started drinking again. Eventually I was driving people around all day in the taxi with a beer buzz. There were times when I got so bold I would just stop at bars during my shift, parking the taxi around the corner. 

3 months later I came home one day to find Amy with two strange men helping to haul the last of her belongings out of the apartment. It’s amazing how many men line up to help a pretty woman move out of her boyfriend’s apartment. When all of her stuff was out, the apartment was almost completely empty. I walked into the bedroom and the two good Samaritans were trying to lift the futon off the wooden floor. We had no frame. The futon gave a sound like pulling off duct tape. When they had the futon loose and up, everybody looked at the underside. There was a huge water stain on it, except it wasn’t made by water. I still wince at the thought of the night when Amy had awakened in a pool of my urine. She had pushed me off the futon and flipped it over. I had stayed on the floor. I was passed out from booze and couldn’t be awakened. 
            “Oh, god,” she told the two men. “Just leave it.”
            One night soon after she left I had a night off from work and went out to a bar with a few friends. These were old drinking friends. By the end of the night it was down to me, Dax and Robin.
            “Let’s go to the lake,” Robin said, even though it was early spring and not very warm outside. We bought some beer and headed to Hamilton Lake, about 20 minutes out of town. Robin drove. Dax and I were both out of our heads from beer and tequila. Down on the dock of the lake I put one foot on a paddle boat and kept the other foot on the dock, holding my beer up. It was like something from a cartoon the way I did the splits and then fell into the water. I climbed out to the sound of Dax and Robin’s laughter. Dax reached out with his hand and pulled in the paddle boat, and he and Robin climbed in.
            “Coming?” Dax asked.
            I climbed up onto the dock. 

“No,” I said, and went to get another beer out of the car.
            Freezing, I watched them. In order to turn the paddle boat to face the middle of the lake, Dax peddled his side while Robin just sat there. They turned clockwise, very slowly. They turned so slowly it was like they were sitting still while the earth turned beneath them.
            The lake water was melted snow from the mountains. My wet body was heavy. I did some jumping jacks and then walked out to the road. I jogged for a while down the road to get my circulation going. My feet slid around inside my wet shoes, which squished on the pavement. I started running faster until I was in a dead sprint. My teeth were chattering like a telegraph.
            The adrenaline from the shock of falling in the water combined with the massive dose of alcohol in my system and then the exercise did something to my mind. If you would have looked into my eyes at that time you would have seen someone else, someone you didn’t know. I was moving and I was awake but I soon forgot where I was or how to get back to anything familiar. I ran, in a daze. Eventually I slowed down and walked. Then I stopped. The stars rained down like when I fell into the fire and burned my hand. My hand was hurting and I looked at it, thinking for the thousandth time that it could have been my face. There were a few country houses here and there. I remembered I had been swimming. A lake. I thought that I only had to retrace my steps and I would return to something and remember. I looked behind me and then turned around again. I had no idea which direction I had come from.
            I crossed the yard of the next house I came to. The lawn was a range of dirt mounds with holes and trenches everywhere. I had a terrible time negotiating the muddy, rocky surface, but I made it to the door of the house. I was planning to ask to use a telephone. I had my hand cocked and was ready to knock when I looked up and realized the house was under construction and no one lived there. The moon shone through the bare frame.
            Back out on the road I kept walking and running. Trying to lay the ghost. When the houses dwindled, I came to a small fire station, out by itself. I knocked on the door. No one answered. I walked all around it looking for a way in. I found a window that opened and I crawled in, crashed down on a desk in the dark and landed on the floor. I sat there breathing, making sure I was alone. 
            I found a phone and called Kermit at Yellow Cab. He said he would come and pick me up. The clock on the wall said 4 a.m.
            Light came in the windows from a streetlamp. I saw a few cots in a corner. In the next room I saw the gleaming red hulk of the fire truck. I walked over to it. It was deathly silent. I ran my hand along it. It was like touching some kind of giant sea creature. I expected it to bristle at any moment. It was like the firetruck that had come when I fell into the fire. They had doused the fire while I was put into an ambulance. I remember it all, though at the time it wasn’t clear what was happening.
            Kermit’s cab crunched to the side of the road. The heater was on and it felt good. I immediately wanted to go to sleep. He looked at me and laughed, then he got serious.
            “You’ve got to take better care of yourself,” he said.
            “I know. You got a cigarette?” 

He gave me one and looked forward, driving silently for a while.
            “How’d you get out here?” he asked.
            “Where are they?”
            “I don’t know, I lost them. There’s a lake somewhere.”
            I leaned my head back on the seat.
            “I know what it’s like,” he said.
            “It’s my own fault.” 
            “You don’t know what you want.”
            “I was going with a girl from Kentucky,” he said. “Sheila. She was a great girl. Beautiful. One day I went to work and...” 

He stopped talking. He gripped the steering wheel and then lit another Camel.

We drove along as the sun rose in front of us. It was piercing. It was the first day in a month that the sky wasn’t covered in clouds. I kept trying to pull the visor lower and lower like a window shade.
            “It’s hard to keep it together,” he said.
            The next night I was in my cab, hung-over. I parked outside a popular gay and lesbian bar that was usually good for a walk-up or two. I was tired and just wanted an easy night. I wanted it to be over. I had a bag of potato chips and a cup of coffee from a gas station. My stomach was in knots. It was a slow night. In about 20 minutes I fell asleep. I dreamed that Amy was a sexy genie who lived in a whiskey bottle and would make all my wishes come true. I stared down the bottleneck at her and I tried to think of what to wish for. I couldn’t think of one thing. 

All of a sudden the door of the bar exploded open and a small woman with short spiked hair came out and then right on her heels a larger, more masculine woman came out chasing her. The small one came over to my cab and jumped in.
            “Get me out of here!” the girl screamed at me, but before she could even get the door closed the other woman reached her meaty hand in and grabbed a handful of spiky hair. The little one was yanked out and onto the sidewalk, leaving the car door open.
            “Don’t you run out on me!” the big one yelled.

The little one screamed again and somehow squirreled away and began running around my cab. She got the cab between her and the other woman and soon they were running around me in circles. I reached over and pulled the passenger door shut and locked it. Then I locked all the other doors too.
            The lesbos stopped circling. They looked at each other over the top of my cab, catching their breath, before racing around again. They kept putting their greasy hands all over the windows. Then the big one pulled a small knife out and waved it menacingly over the car hood.
            “Come here, you little bitch!”
            “You don’t own me!”
            I started the engine and moved forward a couple feet. The big girl was still in front of me. I moved slowly, inch by inch, until I forced her to the sidewalk. She stopped looking at the smaller girl and then looked at me, as if noticing me for the first time. I eased down the street, watching them in my rearview. The little one ran over to the big one as if to see if she was injured. They put their arms around each other and kissed. Then they flipped me off in perfect unison, middle fingers extended, before walking back into the bar holding hands.
            I turned north onto Old Makensie Drive and headed out to the airport to watch the planes 
come in.

Mather Schneider's poetry and prose have appeared in many places since 1994. He has 6 books available and lives in Mexico.


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