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Frankie Bond had never claimed to be a saint. He drank like a frat boy, cursed like a sailor, and hadn’t set foot near a church since his mother’s death five years ago. In spite of this, however, Frankie understood that there was definitely a limit, one which had surely been crossed long ago by the young woman seated in the back of his cab. He knew what she was, and was surprised to see one of her kind hailing a taxi at three o’clock in the afternoon. Usually they were his late-night passengers, turning in around midnight after an evening of prowling the streets soliciting customers.
“Where to?” He had asked in his gravelly voice, roughened by years of smoking.
“Broadway ‘n 47th,” she answered, her tone scarcely smoother than his. Frankie peered into his rearview mirror to study her. He guessed she was not a day over 30, judging by the scarcity of fine lines etched into her heavily made-up face. But the years, and perhaps the things they brought, had not been kind to her. Even hidden beneath a thick layer of foundation, the bruise-like circles under her eyes were clearly visible. Garishly bright lipstick and eye-shadow did nothing to conceal the sallow grayness shadowing her face. “Broadway it is.” Frankie said easily, and stepped on the gas.
“You don’t mind if I smoke in here?” The cigarettes were already out, lighter half-raised. Frankie shrugged. “No difference.” Closing her eyes, the woman took a long drag and blew out a stream of wispy smoke. “I tried out that patch thing. A few months back. That sh** don’t work though. Only one real thing, nothing else will cut it.” She released another puff, looking expectantly towards Frankie’s back. Noticing this through the mirror, Frankie answered, “No, I don’t suppose it would.” He twisted the radio’s volume knob ever so slightly. Brooklyn Beef & Ale, first choice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, an announcer boasted. Suddenly, the blue minivan in front of him screeched to a halt, and Frankie slammed on the brakes. “Jesus Christ!” he hissed, his face inches from the dashboard. In the backseat, his passenger narrowly avoided singeing her hair with her cigarette.
“People these days,” she began, taking another drag, “people these days just don’t know how to drive.” she adjusted her ridiculous-looking spandex top before continuing, “I’d bet they’d let a friggin’ monkey drive nowadays. ‘N that monkey would probably drive better than some of these people on these roads,”
Frankie mumbled an agreement and turned sharply to avoid a middle-aged, wiry man on a bicycle. But the woman wasn’t finished.
“The other day I almost got hit by a taxi. Coming home after work. Just trying to cross the goddamn street.”
Frankie felt a jolt of surprise at the mention of employment. He had never heard someone of her profession touch, however briefly, on the subject of their job. It was a blaring taboo. The elephant in the cab. Frankie tossed a quick glance towards her through his mirror. She seemed to have realized her faux pas, having begun nervously raking her long fingernails through her fried, bleached blond hair. “I’m uh, I’m a waitress at a little diner in the East Village. It’s…” She paused, urgently tapping her cigarette. A flurry of black ash rained down to the cab floor. “It’s called Eddy’s. You heard of it?”
“Huh? No,” Frankie answered quickly, all but squirming with discomfort. In his anguish, he was unable to think of a convenient subject change. Tension fogged the air as thickly as the smoke flowing from the woman’s cigarette.
“Been working there since I was sixteen.” She said softly. The words chilled Frankie to the bone, as he realized that part of that statement was likely to be true.
“You been driving a cab your whole life?” She asked, eager to shift the focus from her own grim reality.
“Eh, yeah,” Frankie responded. No way was he going to tell this woman about the failed experiment of art school. No way was he about to explain how close he was to becoming something, being somebody. That was almost 20 years ago anyway. It barely seemed real to himself anymore. In fact, he had only just gotten his license when the dream shattered.
In the back seat, the passenger tapped another flurry of ash from the end of her cigarette. Frankie felt compelled to continue, perhaps only to ensure the conversation would not derail onto its previous forbidden trail. “My father was a cabby. Always knew I would do the same thing. It was the only road I thought about, and there was nothing else to do anyways.” The lies came easily, flowing from his lips without an instant’s pause. Frankie knew that a cab driver with broken dreams was too messy a character to fit into the scripts of those around him. People needed him to be clear-cut and one-dimensional, acting only to fill this or that empty space. It would be inconvenient for his passengers to view him as a person with a life outside the current drive. It’s much too distracting, much too complicating for most to see every stranger as anything more than a silhouette. Despite this utter conviction, Frankie felt free to speculate on the lives of others. Every passenger was a puzzle, easy to solve within the short time they sat in his cab. Hearts were worn plainly on sleeves, failures etched into flesh, souls nothing more than open books.
Finally, Frankie turned onto Broadway and 47th, pulling over beside a non-de-script brick building. His passenger stepped onto the curb and carefully counted out her fare in crumpled bills from a blood-red sequined bag. Frankie stared straight ahead, unable to look at her without the protection of his rearview mirror or the netted barrier separating him from those in the back seats. As he counted the wad of wrinkled bills, she ground out the cigarette with the 5 inch heel of her stiletto and started to walk away.
“Hey, hold on! You only gave me nine. The fare is thirteen,” Still unwilling to make eye contact, Frankie directed his hostile glare towards the windshield. The woman turned at his voice.
“There’s another twenty in there.” She insisted, taking the money from Frankie and unfolding a faded one to reveal a twenty dollar bill, crisp and less ragged than the rest of the cash. She handed the money back to Frankie and disappeared into the throng of people.
The cab driver sat stone still, continuing to stare down at the money in his hands long after the woman had disappeared around a corner. After a few long moments, Frankie tentatively turned his rearview mirror to face him. The engine was still running, the tinny sound of the radio drifting through the clouds of smoke still haunting the cab as Frankie pored over his reflection, taking in the steely blue eyes, thinning black waves, and deep furrows creasing his forehead as prominently as streaks of ink. Or perhaps a coded message deliberately engraved onto his face, becoming bolder and bolder with each new worry. There’s another twenty in there, Frankie repeated to himself. An awfully big tip and she’s the one who needs help. Not me. Not me. So Frankie slammed down on the gas pedal and sped off, tires screeching, leaving behind what he was too scared to learn.