The morning after his old man pressed charges and I bailed Roy out of jail, he asked me about cabbing. Roy’d been to my house a couple times, sometimes nursing a black eye his father had given him when Roy interrupted the fists falling on his mom. We’d talked about taxying before, but he’d said it sounded like slave labor.
I explained about owning my own car and making my own hours and rules, and Roy started coming around. I flashed my wallet and said, “John Chisolm, independent businessman.”
I didn’t tell him about how it’s scary sometimes to have people riding behind you or about the immigrants, the way they stink up your car, Somalis worse than Hmong. I didn’t tell him how they travel in packs or jaw on their cell phones, screeching so fast there’s no way anyone on the other end can understand.
At the kitchen table, Roy used single words for questions cause of his cut and swollen lip. His voice sounded scratched. I gave him a couple of ice cubes to put in his coffee, so he could drink it. I ran my hand over my beard and watched him weigh his options. He was thinking of leaving the plant where his dad worked even though the money was decent. I offered him my couch for as long as he needed it, my place empty, Amber and her cheating long gone by then. By Sunday, he’d written a letter giving his two weeks’ notice, filled out an application for Cab College, and moved a few things from his parents’ house in Anoka to mine while his dad was out and his mom nursed her own split lip. Twin Cities Taxi’s not the best company to work for. They take a huge chunk of your fares, but it’s a place to start because they supply the cabs.
Roy and I might have met having drinks at the bar, or maybe the track. Can’t remember. But I know when we met, he was the same age Buck was when he walked into bullets in Vietnam. Roy and I clicked, probably more than Buck and me ever did. Feels like Roy’s closer to my side of sixty than his side of twenty. He’s got that salt of the earth thing. I like to think that if Buck was around, he’d hang out with Roy and me on Fridays. He’d work the graveyard shift and come over for beers. We’d stop bitching about airport runs and shitty tips and sit by the garden and watch the sun rise over the rotting wooden fence. He’d a liked that.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to Buck. Feels like something a person should remember. It gives me a little cramp in my side that I can’t see it. Now that Mom’s gone, I can’t ask her. Sure as hell can’t ask Dad since he took off long before that. Buck left on a bus, but I don’t remember being at the bus station. Maybe I was in school. Maybe I was sitting in Mrs. Sutton’s algebra class trying to look down Vanessa Beeker’s sweater while my brother boarded a bus, his first steps toward those bullets.
Funny, if that’s true, that now I drive a cab. Kind of similar though hell if I’d be caught dead driving a bus. A cab’s just one step away from a limo. A bus is a slum on wheels. And no bus driver owns his own bus. He’s not an independent businessman.
Near the end of his first Friday night in the cab, I called Roy on my way home from dropping off my last fare. “You finished?” I asked.
Roy showed up around four a.m., after taking his last bunch of yawping college kids from the bars downtown to the apartments near the U. His eyes shined, and he hardly sipped his beer for all the telling me about his customers. “Can’t believe how many of ‘em leave trash in the back, but it’s cool. Some kid left a Hustler.”
I nodded. It reminded me of my own first day. My first passenger— downtown, briefcase, trench coat— to one of the hotels that’s not even there anymore. Polite guy, tipped okay, and luckily didn’t ask for change. I’d forgotten the cash on my dresser. A neat pile of ones and fives, back when ones meant something. Now the pile of fives is as soft and warm in my jeans pocket as the pocket itself. The woman that day, I remember her too. Black woman, dressed in heels and a suit, coming out of the hotel where I dropped the first guy off. Thin, not big like so many of them. “Hennepin and Second, please.” A short drive. Maybe came to five bucks back then. She tipped too.
And it seemed everything would be right for a long, long time.
I remember wiping my first Old Yeller down, using Pine Sol on her interior. On the stone driveway of my old apartment building, I scrubbed her and told her we would have a long time together. I’d spent good money on her, a ‘93 Crown Vic, an old squad car, so she knew a thing about loyalty and reliability. Used all my money for the down payment, and hoped she’d be good to me and bring in what I needed, so some day I could buy a house of my own for someone (not an Amber, even then I knew, not someone like Amber) and maybe some kids and a dog. Turns out I got Roy instead.
Sundays and Mondays we always take off. It’s slower then, and we let rookies have the fares. In winter we play a lot of cards and meet at Scamp’s Bar. Summer’s better; we sit outside drinking beers, bullshitting. We talk about how it feels good to help the old people to their door. Roy always has questions. Little and big ones. He asks a lot about how to fix cars, but he wonders about other stuff too. Once he asked what my happiest memory was, and I had to think for a while. I almost said, “banging Amber,” but that wouldn’t have been true, so I told him about the garden. Being little, seven maybe, laying in the dry dirt, feeling just as light as clumps of soil. Dad weeding the vegetable garden and humming, Mom nipping suckers off tomato plants, so that each time she did, the peppery smell mixed with her cut flowers in the basket nearby. Buck and I snapped ends off beans, tossing the tips at each other, aiming for the small opening that gaped at the neck of our t-shirts. It was close to sunset and real nice.
Roy shook his head. Slurred his words a little and said he couldn’t imagine having a memory like that.
I can’t remember how it went from good in that old garden to bad. Dad, suddenly gone. Though, now older, I guess I can pick out the signs. His too sweet smell of whiskey, his whiskers grown so his hugs, less frequent, scratched instead of soothed. Gone a lot, then just gone. So Mom said Buck and me were the men of the house. And then three years later Buck got on the bus. The Chisolm men, gone except for me, just a boy.
After six months with Twin Cities Taxi, Roy had saved enough to get an apartment and buy his own cab. By then his mom had taken off, fleeing the bastard that beat them. Roy didn’t have anyone else. So when I saw an ad for the auction in March, Roy and I went together. I was real proud of Roy and I knew he had enough money saved, but I told him on the way over that I’d make the down payment. He didn’t say much, just reached over and grabbed my shoulder. He nodded at me as he pulled his hand away.
The auction was jammed, but I knew right away which trooper would be best for Roy. “The ‘04. Can bang that dent right out,” I said, running my hand through my beard.
Roy popped his knuckles. “You sure?”
“Wouldn’t steer you wrong, brother.”
When the car was painted to match Vivid Taxis’ specs, it looked damn close to mine. I smiled at the sight of the two of them sitting next to each other in the driveway. Roy worked on the car at my place because his apartment building didn’t have a hose. The way he was with it, hand washing and waxing, scrubbing the white walls, and polishing the interior brought back all the old pride I’d felt for my first Old Yeller. “What you gonna call her?” I asked.
Roy continued buffing the wax he’d just applied. “Thought I might call her Buck, if it’s okay with you.”
I kicked a pile of grey melting snow and rubbed my hand through my beard. “Shoot.” I walked over and gave Roy three quick slaps on the back. “Hell yeah that’d be okay with me.”
Initially, Roy struggled getting used to someone always sitting behind him. Someone he didn’t know. What with a Dad that beat the shit out of him, it would be tough to trust strangers. I told him to watch the rearview mirror, and after the first few months, he got comfortable. Close to his year anniversary with Buck, some white kid pretending to be black, wearing his pants all low and stupid, pulled a gun on Roy and refused to pay. When Roy told me about it, he shook and his voice cracked, and I wanted to kill the little punk bastard. Afterwards, I told Roy my own gun and knife stories, told him that never once had I been hurt. Just scared. We drank a lot of beer that night, skipped work the next day.
During those first few years of Roy working as a cabby, I thought a lot about how his timing had been off. He didn’t have the same advantage as me, driving close to eight years before the Hmong and Somalis really started buying in. It used to be that I just had to pick them up. They reeked, didn’t tip much, and left garbage on the floor. But then I started counting the immigrant cabbies. More and more of them kept coming, and a bunch of them, sometimes a whole family, got together and bought a car, so they were always out. One of them would sleep, one would drive, and there was always another one waiting to start the moment the other was tired. Even the ones who don’t share, they’re not afraid of working twenty-four hour shifts. Or doing pickups in North Minneapolis at 2:30 in the morning. Can’t compete with that kind of shit. Nothing personal.
It was an accident the initiative ever started. The January cold had been keeping people home, and the weekend had been stale, so I went out on a Monday for the “tight ass shift,” Roy’s name for 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. because all the suits go to their meetings, cocktails, and dinners. Tips aren’t great, but a steady stream of cash passes through. That Hmong was the last one of them I picked up for a long time. Dressed in a suit, his back faced me because he hailed a cab coming from the other direction. The approaching cab was a Twin Cities Taxi, and I always loved screwing those guys out of a fare since they’d screwed Roy out of his due cash his first six months.
When the Hmong got in my car, he said, “Immigration,” all quiet and tentative. I thought he’d be okay. They look as smart as the Japanese and Chinese.
The traffic moved on 35, and I calculated the trip to be about forty bucks. A good lunchtime fare. If the guy tipped. When I pulled up on Metro Drive, gangs of Hmong, Somalis, and Mexicans stood around. Future cabdrivers of America. As if anyone can drive a cab as well as anyone else. From the back, the man said, “Wait. I be back.”
I turned around to face him. “Whoa buddy. I don’t wait without cash. You pay now.” I held my hand and rubbed my thumb and two fingers together.
He smiled and kind of bowed to me and got out of the car, taking his briefcase with him. I got out and met him on the curb. “You pay now.” I said it loud and crossed my arms in front of me. A group of immigrants nearby shut up and watched.
“I be right back.” He tried to step past me.
“You be paying right now.”
He showed me the inside of his pockets, nothing. I grabbed at his briefcase, but he swung it away from me just in time. I lunged again. He swerved and the pack of immigrants laughed. I stepped toward him and swung my fist, but it only glanced off him as he turned and darted through the glass doors. A police officer stood just inside with his back to the door. I was pissed at the cop for not doing anything to help, but he had to keep immigrants in order all day long, so I let the Hmong go. He’d get what was due.
At the curb, a Somali family stood at my cab. The man asked, “You give ride?”
I’d already done my charity work for people who didn’t bother to learn English, so I shook my head, got in, and drove home. I put my window down and let icy air wash over me. I opened my phone and pushed speed dial number one.
“Hey, bro,” Roy answered.
“Coming over?” I asked.
He had planned to work a couple more hours, but when I told him I was done for the day, he said he’d pick up beer on his way over after he dropped his last fare.
Two hours went by before Roy showed. He looked the same way he did when I bailed him out of jail after his dad beat him. His left eye closed, bottom lip fat and eking blood. It was a Somali. Jacked Roy when he stopped for beer.
After Roy told me about the asshole taking off with the cash, I got a bottle of aspirin and told him about the Hmong. We sipped beers and swore. I said, “Not taking them anymore. No matter what. Even if it’s slow. Sick of helping them- they don’t pay taxes, got better health care than we do, living off our hard work. Fuck ‘em.”
Roy listened and messed with the pop top on his beer. I crushed my can and got us two more. As I passed Roy his, he said, “Like those fuckers at Twin Cities Taxi. Just cause the Hmongs own all the damn cabs doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make my cash.” He took a long pull off his beer. “Time to take the initiative. Enough letting them have everything easy.” On board without me ever asking him to be.
“Initiative, I like it,” I said. In bed that night, I thought it over. A kind of pledge for brothers.
Winter passed. We met a few women at Scamp’s. None of them interested me much, and I thought back to Amber and wondered if I should have tried harder to keep her around. Mostly Roy and I drove, late winter and early spring always the busiest. The snow and salt forced a car wash after every shift, and I was itching for some warm days.
I brought out the seeds, grow light, and plastic trays the first week of March. The tomatoes and peppers could start now. I’d bite into the first tomato like it was an apple, let the juice run down my arm right there in the garden. But that was a long ways off yet.
Roy brought beer over and watched as I filled each of the holes with a bit of dirt. He’d looked at me funny the first year he saw my seedlings, but he just watched now. He said, “I been thinking. About the initiative.”
With my finger, I pressed a tomato seed into each plastic depression, sinking it into the dirt.
Roy said, “The problem is, if we aren’t picking them up, and the others are, they’re the ones making money.”
He had a point. It had occurred to me on occasion that I was giving up multiple fares a day cause of the promise I’d made to Roy. And coming into spring, we’d need the fares we could get as people who took a cab all the rest of the year, didn’t when the cold and snow let up. I asked, “Just pick them up like it doesn’t matter they’re taking our jobs?”
Roy shook his head. “No, if we allow them in our cabs, we can teach them. Make things clear for them.”
It was an interesting idea. Tired of watching me plant seeds, Roy flipped on playoff hockey. I’d stopped watching as soon as the Wild blew their chances at the Cup.
I covered the seeds with pinches of good, black dirt and thought about Roy’s plan. A way of educating immigrants, letting them know what it takes to be an American, a way of making up for Buck.
We talked through it. I added my own ideas, and by the time the trays of seeds had been watered and grow lights buzzed, we knew what we’d do.
Only later, after I’d seen a news story about another group of men on a mission on the Texas border did I ask Roy about calling it the evangelical initiative. “Because we’re doing the work of angels. Angelic work.”
“Sounds like a chick job,” said Roy.
“It means publisher of glad tidings.”
We piled the D class rocket engines into our cart at Wal-Mart and moved to the checkout line. The big black woman at the register smiled when she saw the engines and said, “My boys love these things. My husband pretends he hates it, but he loves those rockets. You all got kids?”
I ran my credit card and listened to Roy mumble no. One late night last week after too many brews, he confessed he needed a woman, liked his new girl Becca, said he wanted to be a dad. Hurt me a little, but I remember feeling that way once. Caught myself wishing Buck was still around.
I snatched the bag from the woman’s hand, and we went to my place to break open the engines.
The first teaching I did for the evangelical initiative was for a Somali family I picked up downtown. That morning I’d checked on my tomatoes. They’d grown strong under the false light in April, struggled through thin sunshine in May, even survived a heavy inch of wet snow that came the third week of the month. Now, yellow flowers produced their first fruit, golf ball to baseball size, and in another month they’d begin to blush red. I’d share the crop with Roy.
The second the Somalis got in Old Yeller, I could smell them. They smelled the way they all do, thick and spicy, and I could feel their pores leaking onto Old Yeller’s seats. Only the lemon wipes I had in the trunk would help. I put my window down though the June morning felt cool and damp. The man said, “Immigration first, then the airport please.” I’d been back to immigration a few times since we discussed the initiative, but the timing was never right. But this one, this one I knew would work. I’d be glad to wait. I imagined Roy and I toasting beers, Becca nowhere to be seen.
The operation was smooth. The Somali handed me twenty bucks over the fare he’d already run up, helped his wife and young boy out of the cab, and took his briefcase into immigration with him but left their suitcases in the trunk. “Wait right up there for you,” I said and pointed to a loading zone.
He nodded, and I pulled a few car lengths ahead, put my hazards on, grabbed the plastic margarine container from under my seat, and went to the trunk. The Somalis two bags looked new, none of the zippers broken, and no rips in the black cloth. I checked behind and in front of me and peeled the lid off the margarine container. I shook some of the gun powder we’d collected out of the rocket engines onto the suitcase. Gently, I turned the bags over and sprinkled the other side too.
The powder matched black most closely. When we first discussed the initiative, we started inspecting all luggage. After our shifts, I talked to Roy about what suitcases were best, some blues, some dark greens. I mentioned a U.S. army duffel some Hmong must have bought at the Army Navy store, but drab green looked risky. Blue was good, black best. I assumed Roy had had the same off luck I had until today—opportunities close but not quite right until now. We didn’t talk specifics—might bust the luck.
I snapped the lid back on the margarine container. I got in the car and thought about calling Roy to tell him what was in the works but worried I would jinx myself. On the radio a caller from Blaine bitched about the Twins’ pitching. The meter ticked, already the Somalis were up to fifty-two dollars; by the time we got to the airport, it would be about eighty.
I turned the radio down as they approached. Again the Somali helped his wife and child into the backseat, then slid in himself. I put the car in drive. We cruised on Crosstown. Sun and wind came through open windows. The airport was quiet, and before I could ask what airline, the Somali said, “Northwest.” I pulled up to the door, popped the trunk, and hustled to the suitcases. I sat them on the ground carefully so as not to shake much of the powder off. He gave me the rest of my cash, folded neatly. I watched him roll both suitcases and watched his wife take the boy’s hand, as they walked through the first set of double doors. I wished I could wait around to see the lesson. I closed the trunk and got back in the front seat. He gave me a total of ninety bucks for an eighty-two dollar cab ride. What I expected.
I stayed in the same lane and inched ahead, but kept checking back through rows of glass doors. Soon I lost the Somalis, and by the time I turned my attention back to the road, I had merged into a cluster of cars and cabs. As I was about to reverse, some asshole in an SUV parked me in. I cranked around in my seat to see if I could get one more glimpse of the Somalis and their black luggage, but I couldn’t find them. As I waited, a pack of Hmongs spilled out of a Gopher State van. A man in a blue sport coat lifted two little boys out of the middle seat as two older girls helped a grandmother type out of the front. As the Hmong herded his family through the door to ticketing, the brothers laughed just loud enough so I could hear them over the radio. Some debate about local schools came on, and I turned it off. Finally the SUV pulled away.
I pushed on the gas and flipped open my phone and speed dialed Roy. He didn’t answer. As I merged onto Crosstown, I called again. “I did it,” I said.
“The initiative. Just leaving the airport.” I told him about the Somalis, immigration, the luggage.
“You really did it?” Roy asked.
“Hell yeah, I did.”
Nothing came from Roy’s end, and I pulled my phone from my ear to see if I still had a signal. “You there?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah.” Then nothing.
“You really did it? They’ll be arrested. They have a kid.”
“Good way for him to learn, right?” Again nothing. Again I looked at my phone. “This connection sucks. You coming over?”
“I don’t think so, bro. Seeing Becca,” Roy said.
I snapped the phone closed and punched the gas to pass a minivan. Old Yeller’s engine droned.
At home, I let the door slam, grabbed a beer, and gunned it in the garden. I thought of the black powder but didn’t want to waste it, didn’t want to burn my own shit. I stomped on the can and picked the biggest green tomato, careful at first, prodding it from the stem, but it wouldn’t come loose. I yanked on it and bruised the tight fruit, the spot under my thumb pulpy and slack. I studied the spot, saw a weeping insect hole nearby where some bug had bored, the edges black. The beer’s aftertaste bittered in my mouth. I pulled back my arm and slammed the tomato against the fence. Not even the thwack of it against the dry rotted boards satisfied.
Heather E. Goodman grew up in the woods of Pennsylvania where her family raised raccoons, opossums, kids, and dogs. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Hunger Mountain, The Crab Orchard Review, Minnesota Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune, where her story “His Dog” won the Nelson Algren Award. She lives in a log cabin along a creek in Pennsylvania with her husband Paul and pooch Zane.
What motivates her to create:
“Of course, creative motivation is everywhere: the wren’s scribble song, the magician’s skunk, the elk that got away. But broadly, there are two motivations I always come back to: one, to thank the people I love for the experiences they’ve given me, whether it’s butchering a deer or growing a hellebore. And two, to try to understand different perspectives. If I dismiss an unfamiliar point of view, I contribute to a problem. Through writing, through empathy, I try to riddle how a person might arrive at her belief system, try to figure out where that will lead her. I attempt to see how the world breaks a person and if there’s a way to unbreak her. If not, as in this story, I let her hang herself.”