An abrupt rush of cold air whistles through the front window of the cab, wrenching Edward de Vere from his gloomy ruminations.
"You do not mind?" The driver adjusts the rearview mirror and, smiling, clamps the smoldering butt of a cigarette between his tragic stumps of teeth.
De Vere shakes his head. No, the smoke doesn't bother him, not really. After the violent confrontation that morning with his thieving son and the subsequent argument with his wife about their financial difficulties, de Vere discovers that he has become almost completely numb to pain, to pleasure, to the unvarying drone of his own thoughts.
Reaching into the pocket of his camelhair coat, he retrieves the flask inscribed with his initials (a gift from another utterly forgettable mistress) and with a wistful smile takes a hearty swig. Absinthe. De Vere has come to rely on the stuff. The effects are strictly spiritual, of course, not particularly good for his ulcer or for his reasoning faculties, enemies of the mystical experience, but somehow it makes these evenings a little more interesting, less predictable. The liquor sears his esophagus, ignites the walls of his gut, spreads like an oil fire across the surface of his consciousness, illuminating the murkiest depths of his soul like little tongues of Pentecostal fire.
"Where are you going tonight, sir?" asks the driver.
"Oh, nowhere in particular." Because de Vere doesn't want to sound like an ordinary drunk in the back of a cab during the midnight hour, he attempts to enunciate each word, lifts his chin and purses his lips, but he can't help but slur that last one. Par-tic-u-lar. Too many damn syllables.
Leaning forward in his seat de Vere, using simple gestures, directs the driver to take him through the city's most desolate quarters. It's only a matter of time now. With a tantalizing mixture of eagerness and dread, he scans each street corner, each shuttered row house, each forbidding alley that tunnels into the depths of poverty and despair, threatening to collapse under the immense weight of the black sky. In this neighborhood people are nocturnal by nature and wait for the right moment to emerge from the shanties and squalid apartment blocks to scavenge the streets for love and laughter. Right now things are a bit desolate, a few desultory figures sleep on park benches, but soon this little preserve will be positively teeming with game.
The idea—of a hunter and his quarry—makes de Vere truly wonder if in a former life he was an aristocrat, a gentleman of quality who frequented the private hunting grounds of the king, invited by His Majesty to stay in the castle and spend the weekend picking off quail and deer and, at day's end, violating young wenches. He envisions himself trotting along the edge of a serene lake on a hunter horse with a fine sorrel coat and plaited chestnut main. In the distance, he spies a stag with impressive antlers emerging from a stand of blue pines to forage on the tall grass. Quietly he dismounts, raises his gun, takes aim, fires.
De Vere's wife is convinced that he's an old soul. After her weekly consultation with the local necromancer, she informs him that he has undergone innumerable incarnations as insect, beast, man and god. If only that moronic soothsayer, when gazing into her crystal ball, could divine a simple solution to his financial problems—maybe right now he'd be in Paris, in Copenhagen, in Amsterdam instead of riding in the back of a yellow cab that rumbles like a tank in the final cataclysmic scene of some generic wartime melodrama, the rusted muffler scraping the pavement, the breaks screeching and grinding at every turn, the radio hissing and crackling and occasionally exploding with an obscene outburst from a dispatcher. After months of traveling abroad he has returned at long last to the city of his birth.
From the rearview mirror dark eyes observe and study him. They blink in rapid succession, trying to untangle his snarled storyline, the profusion of lives he's lived.
De Vere lowers the flask. "Why do you ask?"
"I have been driving this cab for many years now, yes, many years. Women, children, they take their toll on a man. I have come to recognize the symptoms."
"Perhaps you can describe these. . . symptoms."
The driver chuckles, flicks the butt of his cigarette out the window. "Well, for one, you have a certain look of resignation. Also, a look of distrust in your eyes. But of course a man can never trust the people he loves, no, not entirely."
"I don't trust anyone these days. My son is a thief, my best friend is a credulous fool, and I think my wife is trying to poison me. She's developed a fascination for alternative medicine. A witch is what she is." He sighs and stuffs his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, letting his fingertips flip through the last of his cash. "It's a cliché, I know, but only my dog is still loyal to me."
The driver nods. "Why do we trouble ourselves over such things, eh? They are of little consequence. Life is merely something to endure. Like a disease. Repose will come soon enough."
De Vere nods. "Repose, yes, or absolution. I would settle for that."
"You are a man with deep religious convictions?"
De Vere considers this for a moment, notices the small statue of Saint Fiacre on the dashboard. "I thought about becoming an atheist. But then I realized atheism requires more devotion."
The driver laughs, a low gritty sound like the crunch and grind of crumbling asphalt beneath the tires. It makes de Vere shift uneasily in the backseat. Suddenly he feels not like a gentleman of means but a magician's assistant stuffed into a tiny black box, waiting to be impaled by sharp objects sharp.
"Indeed, an atheist must be diligent," says the driver. "There is always the temptation to believe in a god or in a tempting devil. And any nightmarish circumstance can quickly cure a man of his apostasy."
De Vere doesn't respond. He isn't interested in advice, if that's what this man is offering. No one can convince him that what he is doing is wrong, certainly not this meddlesome cabdriver who will soon discover the truth for himself; not the abstinence-stricken priest who with his crafty eyes concealed behind the thin wooden lattice listens to de Vere's confession on Saturday afternoons and waits for the right moment to beg him for more money; not his wife who suspects him of every kind of misdeed and then attempts to exorcize the demons of jealousy by ingesting a hundred different homeopathic potions that are as evil-smelling as they are useless; not even his perpetually dour best friend in whom he confides every wretched detail late at night in the disquieting calm of his study.
Suddenly there are too many moral crusaders in the world, each with an equally improbable scheme to lead a man to salvation, a million cures for a million vices—through prayer, repentance, self-flagellation—but when he looks through the portal that separates reality from the hereafter, de Vere sees not the promise of paradise but the fiery pools of hell. Having already dipped his toes in the scalding waters, he wonders if he can finally muster the courage to submerge himself fully in what the Jesuits warn is "total depravity." Of course most people have no way of knowing just how sublime the river of sin can be, how thrilling to be swept away and carried off to a place you never intended to go. Or maybe they do. The world is full of hypocrites.
Six months ago, when he first embarked on these adventures, de Vere preferred to use his own car, but then late one evening while idling at a red light a group of teenagers materialized from the shadows and accosted him. They made lewd gestures and spat on his windshield. Phlegm hung in heavy green beads from the tinted glass. An intolerable situation. He wasn't about to let this gang of little brown bastards fuck with his lady. That would never do. Aside from these forbidden excursions into the city, de Vere's sleek and elegant European touring car may be the only thing that offers him some satisfaction in this world. He read somewhere that cars are modeled on the female form, and there is, he finds, something rather arousing about the exaggerated curves of the rear end, the heady scent of leather, the breathless moans of the V6 engine. With mounting agitation, he put his hand on the door handle, fully prepared to kick some ass, but from the corner of his eye he caught the glimmer of a knife blade, the flash of a sinister smile. De Vere hit the gas hard and thundered away. In the end victory always belongs to the man with the most torque and horsepower. Gloating with triumph, he opened the sunroof and raised his middle finger. From this little incident de Vere has learned an invaluable lesson—it's best to take a taxi to and from the hunting grounds.
Now, mellow from drink, he slides further down on the backseat of the cab and rests his forehead head against the cold window. The world becomes hazy, the streetlights blur and spiral into pools of kaleidoscopic color. He relishes the sensation. Tonight is Halloween, and the moon, riding low on the horizon, slices like a pendulum through the thick clouds. Soon the crazies, decked out in wild costumes, will burst from their malodorous and overcrowded lairs to dance and sing under the cobweb of bare branches. Suddenly de Vere sees a deeper pattern and believes it doesn't really matter what night or hour it happens to be. The crazies are everywhere, a never-ending parade of them, a plague cast down from heaven in a way that hints at god's indifference to the world.
After circling a particularly desolate block for the third time, he glimpses a pack of stray dogs, hairless, scarred, limping. They stare at the cab and snarl their disapproval. De Vere feels a close connection to these animals. Nature has conferred upon them some special power for reading the minds of men. He wonders if they can sniff out the stench of debauchery and desperation that drips from his pores and clings to his shirt, his cashmere sweater, his indispensable silk boxers. In their tireless quest for food the dogs topple a trashcan outside a vaguely familiar apartment building and fight over a container of cookies, a headless doll, a sheet of wax paper dripping with the red juices of ground beef.
"Mongrels," the driver mutters, swerving to avoid the empty beer bottles that roll into the street.
De Vere sits up, adjusts his collar and sleeves. He glides a practiced finger across his bleached teeth. "Stop the cab," he orders.
"I said stop the cab."
"Sir, there are troublemakers about."
De Vere is familiar with the terrain. A proud graduate of the Jesuit school only a few blocks away, he can still recall how as a boy of sixteen he used to hurry through these streets, his head down, his heart racing for fear that one of the ladies would proposition him or, worse still, taunt him. "What's wrong, sweetie, you a fag or something? You a cocksucker? Whyn't you come over here and have a taste of mama's titty." Was he ever so innocent? He can't quite believe it.
Now he stands on the corner, clears his throat and boldly addresses the woman who has just emerged from the apartment building. "Excuse me, miss."
The driver leans across the seat, whispers through the window, "Sir, she is chattel, a loathsome thing. Vile."
"Miss, a moment of your time please."
"I beg of you, sir, I cannot possibly... "
The woman, either drunk or high, certainly half mad, struts across the street on her treacherous stilettos and walks into oncoming traffic. A pickup swerves to avoid her. In the bed of the truck several men shout at her with malice. "Puta! Mujerzuela! Almeja!" Fascinated, de Vere watches her and wonders what has gone wrong in her life, why she doesn't work in an office building like the rest of the women he knows; it takes next to nothing to sit in a gray cubicle and pretend to be busy for most of the day. Of course, in the business world one's appearance means everything, and she can't very well show up to an important meeting dressed in a black leather miniskirt, her cheeks smeared with rouge, her eyes ringed with mascara like warm wet ash. Though he has often thought of playing the part of Professor Higgins, he knows his interest in such a complicated project would be limited to a few terse lessons. After thirty minutes he usually becomes bored with such women and tosses them to the curb.
"Hey, sweet thing. You lookin' for a little company?"
De Vere smiles. "As a matter of fact. . . "
He's feeling generous tonight and offers the woman a swig from his flask.
"Oh, that's some good shit, baby," she rasps, scratching the back of her neck.
"Isn't that something. A woman who appreciates absinthe. I think I'm in love." He strokes the woman's arm. "What's your name, darling?"
"Name's Tamar, baby."
"Tamar. How unusual. You're not busy this evening, are you, Tamar?"
"Just came from a little soiree. Right up there." She points to the window at the Zanzibar Towers and Gardens. "But I'm free now. Well, maybe not free. . . " She suppresses a belch.
The driver hisses. "Sir, I will not be a party to this kind of thing."
De Vere clicks his tongue, waves a hand. By now his response has become automatic, a maddeningly predictable exchange between master and servant. He passes the customary amount of money through the window and watches the driver carefully count the bills one at a time. It always surprises him how readily these men of conscience transform themselves into purveyors of pleasure.
"Very well then," says the driver. "But one day, sir, one day soon, when she is no longer useful, the police will find this woman in an alley with her throat slashed. No questions will be asked. No investigation will be conducted. Here life is a brief visitor. It's just as well. For more time on this earth would bring little in the way of happiness to such a creature."
Among the nouveau riche, serial monogamy is tolerated but frowned upon, and to de Vere's surprise a comfortable lifestyle doesn't necessarily entitle a man to possess a secret harem of pretty women (or even a few plain ones for that matter), who in exchange for the creature comforts they lack in their own loveless marriages—a vial of perfume, a diamond tennis bracelet, spa treatments, wine tastings—will submit to his desires and then conveniently disappear. In suburbia all eroticism is crushed to a fine powder and scattered in the wind like ashes from a funeral pyre, the burnt offerings of impetuous youth, and any lingering impetuosity in a man de Vere's age is regarded as perversion, plain and simple. Company parties and gala dinners, it turns out, are not exactly conducive to casual encounters with members of the opposite sex, especially when the tiny breasted ladies, with their taut puritanical faces and severe frowns, waste so much of his time droning on and on about their insipid duties as accountants or project managers, their learning disabled children, their sick parents, their apathetic husbands.
Pleasure, if it is to be found at all, comes from these late night excursions through the streets of this exhausted, post-industrial wasteland. Here things are different. Sex remains a constant fount of miracles; it's what keeps de Vere in a state of mortal sin. Like a lot of people, too many really, he has become more and more involved in his own problems; he cultivates them, multiplies them, makes them deeper and richer than if left entirely to chance. He pays attention to the details. He selects his booze for its novelty as well as its illegality, and he carries on with common streetwalkers rather than high-class call girls. In this way he hopes to infect his wife with a horrible disease so that she in turn might pass it on to his best friend, his old school chum, the best man at his wedding, his sole confidante. Strangely, de Vere feels no jealousy, no burning need to seek vengeance. Giving them both a bout of syphilis is merely his idea of a practical joke.
He is well aware that he has mismanaged the melancholy business of his own marriage, but his wife isn't exactly innocent either. In this world, who is? Marriage, as they say, is a two-way street, and over the years his wife has become irreparably tarnished, another decaying object d'art in a collection that in its vastness resembles the long neglected storehouse of Charles Foster Kane, and her new sex life is simply a continuation of what his own used to be—boring, pedestrian, another tedious obligation like walking the dog or attending mass on Sunday morning. He thought about getting his lawyer involved, but now is not the time to take action. He is already on the brink of financial collapse, and a messy divorce would only hasten his destruction.
Vaguely, he becomes aware of the driver watching him in the rearview mirror, but he is used to this; they always watch, these drivers, they are depraved, the whole goddamned world is depraved. De Vere decides to give the man a show. He unzips his pants and lets the woman go to work. He bunches her tangled black hair in his fist and forces her into a syncopated rhythm. She stinks to high heaven, this bleak, wind-ravaged scarecrow of a woman. She reeks of chemicals, lighter fluid, formaldehyde. He can't quite place it. She probably hasn't bathed in days. This in itself doesn't bother him. There is something strangely erotic about her filthiness. It makes his knees tremble. Besides, he always comes prepared to deal with such foulness. From the other pocket, he produces the bottle of eau de toilette and spritzes the back of her neck.
She lifts her head. "The fuck you doin?"
"Shut up and keep going."
"Why you gotta talk that way?"
"Finish the goddamn job."
The woman resumes bobbing up and down in de Vere's lap, her movements so wild, so relentless, that he is afraid she might tear into him with her teeth. He groans, rocks his hips back and forth. Then de Vere feels the taxi shudder violently and almost stall. He cracks open an eye.
"What the hell is it now? Why are you slowing down?"
"I think they're following us," the driver informs him. "Yes, there is no doubt about it. They are definitely following us."
"What are you talking about?"
"You see, this is what they do. They lurk in the shadows and then trounce on their prey. Ruthless."
De Vere turns his head, sees a cruiser riding the back bumper. "Dammit, your taillight is out."
"Are you calling me a liar? I noticed it when I got into this fucking tin can."
The driver laughs. "They obviously spotted you luring that slut into my cab. I cannot afford go to jail again. Please, sir, ask her to stop."
But he can't do that, not now, not even as the cruiser pursues them through these tangled streets, not even when the blue and white lights blind him and the terrible siren begins to wail. He digs his nails into the seat and cries out with rapture, "Oh, God! Maybe this is my road to Damascus!"
The driver hits the breaks, puts the cab in park. "Drunken fool, keep your mouth shut. Or I promise. . . things will not go well for you."
An officer approaches the cab, but instead of interrogating the driver he opens the back door and grabs the woman by the wrist and drags her over to the sidewalk. She wipes her chin with the back of her hand and pulls the hem of skirt down so her panties don't show.
"Still turning tricks, eh, Tamar? Funny. Thought we told you we didn't want to see you around here anymore. Didn't we tell you that? You gonna answer me? I know you ain't deaf, Tamar. Stupid yes, deaf no."
A German shepherd bounds toward the cab, its teeth barred, a long rope of saliva swinging in a wide arc from its snapping jaws. Another patrol car arrives. Radio scanners screech and croak and erupt with high, thin whistles. The officer turns his flashlights on de Vere who is so overcome with dread that he can only sit there like a bewildered toddler, pants around his ankles, a look of drooling incomprehension on his face.
"Whatcha doing in this neighborhood, pal? You like coming to this part of town? You a regular?" Impatient with de Vere's infantile sputtering, the officer yanks him from the cab and pushes him against the trunk. "Christ almighty, pull up your pants! Now, put your hands behind your back." He slaps the cuffs on, reaches into de Vere's camelhair coat, confiscates his flask, his wallet, the perfume.
"Wait a minute," says de Vere, "this isn't the road to Damascus."
"Damascus? No, bud, we're taking you downtown."
"You're making a grave mistake. I'm warning you. I know people."
De Vere's voice is shrill, manic. He can no longer suppress his old accent, can't soften the working class consonants that for so many years marked him as a poseur. Lost is the patrician affectation that he has fine-tuned since his days in graduate school. His words lack authority, carry no more weight than if they'd been spoken by any predacious degenerate born and raised in this blighted section of the city. The ruse is up. Just as in the days of his youth he finds that he is at the mercy of an uneducated thug. He struggles, thrashes his legs, but the officer slings an arm around his neck and squeezes tight until de Vere begins to choke and gasp for air.
"Just cooperate, okay, buddy? Don't make this any harder on yourself. You don't want an assault charge tacked on, do ya?"
He hears laughter. The cab, it appears, has been going in circles, and once again de Vere is standing in front of the Zanzibar Towers and Gardens. Outside the double doors of the building, a crowd has gathered to watch, priests and nuns and a whole convocation of lepers draped in rags. They drink and smoke and dance, some of them grinding violently against each other, feigning copulation. On the sidewalk a man whirls round and round like a dervish in the throws of an ecstatic trance, his dreadlocks rising above him like the tentacles of some fabled sea creature. Last to emerge from the building is a tall figure in the ghastly red robes of a cardinal or an inquisitor, a sagacious and unreasonably cruel arbiter of the laws of god and the laws of man. With a subtle wave of his hand he silences the discordant howls and jeers of his grotesque entourage. All stop to listen.
De Vere turns to them. "Listen to me! Would you please listen? Tomorrow morning I'll go straight to the chapel. I'll light a candle before a statue of the Virgin. I'll make a vow before the Lord to live the life of a celibate!"
He elbows the officer in the ribs and dashes across the street where he falls to his knees before the inquisitor.
"Sanctuary. . . " de Vere gasps, but he can't finish his sentence. The officer has him by the throat. De Vere's head starts to spin. The absinthe, now a warm green sludge, percolates in his stomach and surges up his throat, splattering the officer's polished black shoes.
The other officers laugh. "Have fun cleaning up that shit, Berry."
"Fuck you. I ain't touching it."
De Vere slumps to his knees, whispers, "I'm sorry, so sorry. . . "
Then he feels a sharp crack against his spine and things go dark.
Barely conscious, mumbling, sobbing, fighting against the cuffs that dig into his wrists, de Vere lets his eyes flutter open and finds that he has been magically transported across the great steel bridge that spans the crooked river and hurtles along the bustling downtown streets. Here the buildings are bright and shining with billboards for booze and cigarettes and a beaming politician begging for votes. Outside the restaurants and cafés of the entertainment district junkies and panhandlers accost portly men in pinstriped suits and women in black cocktail dresses. De Vere drifts in and out of consciousness, and for one incredible moment he hovers above the city's church spires and the bell tower of the Jesuit school. Out over the lake a storm rages. The gathering clouds descend and drape him in strange colors, cadmium reds and yellows.
Seconds later, he feels a sharp lightning bolt of pain race through his shoulders and down to his toes. He is pulled from the cruiser, lifted to his feet, dragged into headquarters. At the front desk he is made to stand at attention. Boiling white light seeps behind his eye sockets and scalds the last functioning sliver of his brain. He stands there, for hours it seems, but eventually, mercifully he is booked on charges of indecent exposure, public intoxication, solicitation of sex. He hears the words, but they do not make any sense to him, and at this point he doesn't really care what they mean. He is photographed, fingerprinted, his body searched for contraband. A finger probes his mouth, his asshole. Manacled, moaning, gibbering like an idiot that lurches from some horror movie dungeon, he is led through a series of endless corridors that echo with shrieks and curses. The place reeks of shit and sweaty flesh.
An alarm sounds. A steel door rolls opens. He is shoved into a large holding cell swarming with flies. He slumps to the floor, dimly aware that he is not alone. Other men, dozens of them, each indistinguishable from the other, materialize like shades from the underworld to stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside a river of piss that trickles toward a drain in the center of the cell. All suffer the afflictions and burdens of anonymity, their brindled faces transformed into primitive masks, wooden idols with wooden scowls. The men do not hesitate. They close in around him.
"Gonna get me some slop on my knob."
"Mmmm, yeah, get my salad tossed, that's what I'm talkin' 'bout."
"Yeah, you like that, don't you, bitch?"
"You like gettin' your ass beat."
Unlike the police, these men do not ask him to cooperate. They taunt him, playfully at first as children sometimes will with a puppy or a kitten to see what it will do, and once they determine that he is harmless they begin to slap and punch him in earnest, jab him in the kidneys, yank him by the hair, stomp on his fingers. He doesn't struggle for very long. He submits to the beating, is forced to his knees, told to open wide, not to bite.
"Do a good job," they say, "or the cops will have to carry you out in a body bag."
With this warning they line up ten deep, some massaging themselves in preparation, spirits of the damned eager to douse him in ectoplasm. He lifts his face and recognizes the small, feral eyes of the man standing at the head of the line.
"Good evening, my friend," says the cabdriver. "Life, as you know, consists of little more than the ebb and flow of excessive pleasure and pain, wave upon wave of joys and sorrows. Unfortunately, you have found yourself in a deep trough. But do not fear. It will not always be so for you. Fate is ever changing. Oblivion alone is imperishable."
Then the driver unbuckles his belt and with a smile that reveals those unsightly gray stumps whispers, "And now, if you please, there are many men waiting . . ."
Kevin P. Keating writes and teaches in Ohio. His fiction has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Fiction Warehouse, The Plum Ruby Review, Double Dare Press, and Tattoo Highway. His short story "The Deer Park" has since been incorporated into his novel The Natural Order of Things
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