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By Christopher Haynes
When Shawn called me to hang, I still had no interest in eating—the wounds were still fresh in my mind like the first car accident you had or getting fired from a job when you knew it was not your fault. Amanda had taken what was hers, pulled everything out of our place within my eight hour shift at work; her flock of kitchen gadgets, her massive DVD collection she had alphabetized (and just knew when one of them was out of order) and her coldness. She had ended our shallow affair with a text message, and in the end I knew it was for the best and couldn’t blame her for leaving. I was too ashamed to admit to myself that it was a mistake; that I’d only been with her because I didn’t want to be alone.
I couldn’t hate her. She had been in nursing school for the last year, one of those accelerated programs where she did most of her stuff online and drove across the state once a week to sit in a classroom and prove that she knew the material she had studied religiously.
I spent that weekend getting drunk on Captain Morgan and Bud Light. Then Shawn called and we wound up at Baxter’s, one of the local sports bars, so new and also so familiar to anyone who’s ever been in one. They mostly are the same: beer specials, thirty or more TV’s, flirtatious servers, and a large outdoor patio for smokers and those who wanted to enjoy the fresh air in other ways. That was the first time I saw it. We were on the patio and Shawn going a mile a minute about the latest girl he’d slept with, I was half watching ESPN news and half listening to him.
Michael was managing that night. His red hair a stark contrast to the blue polo he was required to wear. His face, which normally bore the mask of confidence and authority in front of his employees, morphed in front of me and suddenly I saw him as another manager trying to wrestle with his job and manage the everyday crap he saw. He knew he didn’t have to demand respect from me—I gave it freely.
“Hey, Chris! How are you?”
I smiled at him; he tolerated a lot of my crap but knew I treated his employees very well. “I’m okay. How’s the business tonight?”
“Crappy. Nothing to watch on TV. No games until tomorrow. Just college lacrosse and earlier we watched the 1983 college basketball championship…again!”
I grinned at him, seeing all the empty chairs in the place. I hoped it would pick up.
Sal came in and sat next to me. He was about as New York Italian as you could get: he spoke in compact words, no wasting someone’s time with fluff and had a built-in knowledge of cars that was mystifying. Most times, he would come in with Patrick, a stubby guy who looked like he would burn if you even talked about the sun for more than two minutes. Sal once introduced him as his business partner. They would diagnose cars as they went by, giving ideas for what was going on with them mechanically at the moment and what monster was waiting around the next corner for their owners. They would both have their glasses halfway to their mouths, pausing, listening as something sputtered or purred by. Their synchronicity was fun to watch and I think I learned more about vehicles listening to them than I ever got from my old man.
Since we were so close to the tourist strip, we had our fair share of confused drivers who stole side glances at their GPS, clogged intersections and people who would try to cut across two lanes of traffic to make their turns and only make things worse for those behind them.
Then there are the cabs. Mostly yellow, black phone numbers on the sides that only consisted of three different digits. Their names were knock offs of the brand most people knew: Check Her, Cheq’er, etc.
There were also the ones that you can tell people kept in their driveways and most likely didn’t have the proper licenses, but their phone numbers were stenciled or painted on their sides, so I guess that gave them some sense of legitimacy. This was a few years before the ride-sharing revolution allowed anyone to stick a sign on their car and download an app.
The cops never challenged them and I was never sure if there was some unspoken rule on cabbies. A large sheriff’s deputy who looked like he could bench press my car, pulled me over for doing three miles over the limit one day. He wrote the ticket with deliberation while two of them had sped by, trying to bend space and time with the power of their engines and the heaviness of their foot.
This one was different; it was larger, like it was a large van, made for at least a dozen people but with heavily tinted windows and no sign that it was even in business. Shawn was on my right and Sal was on my left. Sal must have had the day off; this wasn’t his usual night to be there. He stopped as it went by, his head cocked slightly, like his ears were hearing a faint tune he barely recognized. I listened with him, the engine was different. It had a faint buzzing to it that seemed to shake you to your bones. I remember my skin breaking out in gooseflesh. Maybe it wasn’t even from this planet; I wish it had been that simple. I watched it go by and I strained to see a driver. My eyes met black tint. I continued with my twelve-ounce curl and took a sip from my glass of Heineken.
“What’s that?” Someone asked.
Shawn looked out on to the street, head three sheets to the wind, and saw nothing unusual. He was dressed in an Adam Ant retro shirt, cuffed jeans and a cheap white belt similar to what my father had worn when he was in the navy back in the eighties. A black vest that looked three sizes too small for me but fit him perfectly completed his ensemble. I couldn’t knock it; it worked for the ladies. He regularly layered alcohol over Xanax whenever he was here and liked to brag about his sexual exploits. The fan blew around his short black hair and did nothing to stop the beads of sweat from his brow. He could sweat bullets in a snowstorm. “Ah, just another cab, Chris!”
Sal asked: “Where’s the sign?”
It went around the slow bend ahead, skirting what was left of the strip mall.
“Where’s the phone number to call dispatch for it?” I interjected, the bug had spread to me. I shifted a little, got up and took a few steps and craned myself over the railing protecting the drunks from the road. This was a glorified strip mall anchored by a local grocery store with inflated prices that peddled to tourists. Baxter’s was close to the end, next to the Argentinian steak house on the end. Behind everything was swamp water, a family of feral cats and probably a monster or two, but there was no proof of the latter. The vehicle was gone.
I sat back down, deciding to get some hot and spicy boneless wings. Shawn called me a couple of days later. I was at a red light.
“Dude, remember the other night we were at Baxter’s? You know a guy disappeared from the grocery store?”
I looked up at that light, the sensors on this one were crappy, I could be here a while. “Really?”
“Yeah. His wife and kid were inside the place. He left his wallet in the car and went out to get it, then boom!”
I wasn’t that interested; I listened politely then turned it around asking him if I could borrow his copy of The Expendables. It wasn’t until I saw the paper the next day that it made me stop and think. Police found out that the guy who had disappeared was a registered sex offender and had been molesting his daughter for a year.
The story exploded, even Nancy Grace got in the act, citing the disappearance as retribution and a way for the family to put the past behind them and begin the healing process. I was neutral; he was gone that’s it. No big loss.
It was that first rainy day and night of the summer when I saw it again. My Pontiac was purring through the rain, the rhythm of the wipers working a great beat against a Steely Dan song as I took the curvy road between the hotels.
Every fifty feet or so, the neon blaring of a sign for the Hilton, Holiday Inn or some other national brand lit up the inside of my car for a microsecond as I cruised through another curve on the road. The sun was dying and the sodium-vapor arcs of the streetlights were casting an eerie, effervescent look as the street wound and stretched between the rows of hotels. I couldn’t imagine the room rates of some of them but you paid for the convenience of being so close to the theme parks.
It came up behind me in the coming dark and stayed on my tail as I drove, wary of the red lights that seemed to be every other hotel. They changed quickly giving everyone a big surprise, dropping brake pedals to the floor in mechanical screams. It had been raining, so it was a really bad idea to have that happen when the oil would be pooled on the surface of the road. You could slide right into someone else’s path and could ruin someone’s day regardless of what the tire shop told you what they would do to your stopping power if you spent the extra eighty bucks a piece. Florida weather doesn’t read warranties, it doesn’t shop for tires—it doesn’t care.
The headlights lit up the inside of my car and I thought I could hear music from inside it. It was playing an old Sinatra tune I didn’t know, but I knew Frank’s voice, even being hung over; I couldn’t mistake it. I tapped my brakes a little to see what would happen and it backed off. Only if I had known then what I know now. I would have attempted to break the sound barrier with my Grand Am getting away from that beast. I would have wiped any cabbies in front of me off the road
The light changed and I toed the brake pedal again, this time for real. I stopped, almost expecting the van to run into the back end of the car, but it stopped with me. I glared at the red light, feeling this pressure on the back of my neck and head. It was like someone was grabbing me in an attempt at a choke out. I looked to the left, then the right. There were no cars at either side of the intersection, so there was no reason for the light to go to red. These were set on sensor, not timer.
I could hear my Steely Dan CD spinning in the player and I felt my mouth go dry. I reached down to turn up “Babylon Sister” when the small red digital readout scrambled. That’s the only way to describe it, strange symbols came across it and Kid Rock blared from my speakers. I fumbled for the knob and killed it, suddenly aware that I was sweating. My stomach did a slow roll like that time I was dragged on my first wooden rollercoaster when I was visiting Hershey Park when I was a kid. The inside of the car had gotten very hot, I reached out and touched the dashboard and it felt like it had been sitting in the sun for several hours without my shades in place. My mouth had become glassy and the air tight.
Like one of those random mental ghost thoughts, my brain leapt back to Sunday Bible school back in New York.
Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed is he who tries to bring Heaven to Earth.
I wish I had paid attention more. I was raised a Methodist, now I wanted to be Catholic and have a crucifix to touch. Maybe not; it would probably explode with all the crap I’ve done. I was once an atheist and said this when asked, but I had a hatred for life at that time. Maybe that black cab was for me, maybe not. Whatever it was, that thing wasn’t of this earth, or even heaven, for that matter. In my mind, there was only one other option.
The light turned green and I hit the gas more than I should have. I wanted that thing away from me. Something blurred by me and I realized that it was gone. My CD had come back on and Walter Becker was tearing out a riff. There was nothing around me and I felt cooler like someone had turned on my a/c. I reached down and turned it on, feeling the pores tighten on my neck and a shudder wrack my body and my great plans to save some money and go straight home went out the window. I needed a drink. The dollar pints of the cheap stuff called me. I went back to Baxter’s. Rachel was behind the bar. Her eyes glowed in the cheap yellow lights.
“Shawn asked me out,” she gushed while setting a pint in front of me.
Bastard. Her tan skin and piercing gray eyes had always mesmerized me. She was mine, not his. I felt my gorge rise as jealousy hit me over the head and pulled my soul out of me. “He’s so gorgeous!”
I smiled at her, attempting to be civil in a situation that has replayed in my life continuously. I was always the friend, the guy who could never buy a date even if I had a thousand bucks cash. Girls would see me withdraw, wrap myself in my life while I began to ignore them. That’s my life. I guess my sin would be envy. I was there too late, drank too much and spent the next day hunched over the toilet, twisted into an emotional knot seeing her face every time I closed mine.
Something clicked within me that day and I looked at myself in the mirror, saw past the acne scars and rolls of fat and made myself a promise.
It was over three weeks later when I returned to Baxter’s. Things were different. I had stopped caring about what I could to do to get someone to sleep with me. I had started with a run/walk routine for about 30 minutes every night and found I could sleep a little better. I let calls from Shawn go unanswered. I didn’t need details of the date and the standard physical act that followed it. He knew what he was doing. The black cab dropped from my consciousness as I reworked my diet to try to lose a few pounds. I had joined a gym that was open a few hours after I got off work and had received some help with a developing a weight lifting routine. I was on a rest day when I showed up at Baxter’s.
Deana was tending bar that night. Her long black hair clamped to the back of her head by a giant hair clip that was leopard spotted. She had streaked it purple and her Batman knee-highs had given her short legs attention they richly deserved. They were gray, the Bat-logo on their fronts and little capes over her calves. They cracked me up the first time I saw them and they still brought a smile to my face no matter how crappy my day was.
“I haven’t seen you for a while.” She smiled at me.
“I’ve been busy.”
She smiled at me again. “Yeah, you’ve been working out. I can tell— you’ve lost weight.”
“I couldn’t do this forever. I needed to change.” I sipped my Blue Moon. No more cheap stuff.
“Yeah. You’ve heard about Rachel?”
That name had not been on my kind in a while. “No, is she okay?’
“She’s been really quiet for a while. Michael had to talk her out of quitting three times this past week, but she wouldn’t say why. I haven’t seen anything of Shawn either.”
I plucked the orange rind from the rim and dropped it into the glass. “They had a date, but I haven’t talked to him lately.”
“She is so smitten with him, but she’s a small town girl and he’s a player. There was nothing but trouble there.” Her eyes sparkled from the glare of the TV’s and her slightly purple hair blew around her head. Her cheeks were sallow, glistening in the lighting beneath the edge of the bar. The bottles of vodka and empty glasses became miniature lights themselves, scattering the light in the dark corners of the coolers, the dishwasher and the small fridges.
“If she was smart, she would have dated you.” She winked at me and I shot her a smile. I wasn’t interested anymore; I had become a work in progress. “She‘s in at seven. Maybe she’ll talk to you.”
I got a game board for one of those TV systems some places have and was trying to boost my pot in poker up to ten thousand in imaginary chips when she came in an hour later. She quickly walked behind the bar, dropped off her bag, ignoring the greetings she was getting. Her eyes tore around the bar when she saw me. Her eyes were laced in pain, and I knew that someone had done something really bad to her.
“Hi.” She was reluctant to have eye contact with me. Now I was worried.
“Hi. Are you okay?”
She shook her head, a tear wandered down her cheek. She turned away from me, but I gently grabbed her hand. I wasn’t giving up on her.
“What happened?” She looked into my baby blues and spilled it. She burst into tears, her body shook as she let it out. I listened to her intently. Black feelings washed over me and I was glad I never took any of Shawn’s calls.
I let her go and she went inside.
I sat there for a long moment, trying to figure out what to do. An itch settled into the inside of my head and I slid off the utilitarian metal stool and looked out into the parking lot. It was there, right on cue. I had been keeping an eye on the paper for the last few weeks. Six people had disappeared from the area, all of them criminals; all of them bad people. Crime had dropped, like social consciousness had shifted and people had decided to become better to each other. I had done some checking and found the Black Cab was seen in different places: Detroit, Camden, Los Angeles. Where thing were at their worst, it suddenly had shown up. There were memes dedicated towards it, warning people that any social faux pas would usher in the Black Cab to their neighborhood to “clean things up”. There were some blurry photographs that perfectly matched what had driven by us that night. Was it a warning from God, like Sodom and Gomorrah? Or was it something else?
Shawn showed up thirty minutes later. He was already a little drunk and plopped down next to me.
“Where have you been?”
“I’ve been getting some stuff done.” I was trying not to drag him off the stool and start punching him. But I had a better idea.
“Dude, I went on a date with Rachel. Man, it was fun!” He pulled out his cell phone and started showing me pictures. She had been abused in a bad way. He gave me a sick grin. “I’m going to sell these pics to one of those porn sites. Man she is so hot when she’s naked!” He grinned.
I heard it coming. The soft hum of the engine made the windows vibrate and made my heart stop. Turning to him, I said, “There’s something in my car I want to show you.”
Deana came around, saw Shawn and walked away. He gave her the finger in response. Rachel walked out the door and froze when she saw him. He spotted her.
Grinning, he said: “Hey baby! Want to hang out again?”
Next thing I knew, she was in top of him, hitting him with rabbit punches, he fell off the barstool, smashing his head on the edge of the bar. He caught himself before he hit the floor, his left hand catching himself on the stool next to him, his sense of self- preservation finally awakening. People began shouting and someone came running. I got between them. She was hysterical and I looked her gently in the eyes and said the most powerful statement I had ever made at that point in my life. “I will take care of this.”
Shawn was shouting how he was being assaulted and I was able to push him out the gates of the place into the road.
“You raped her!” I said it loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear. Beer glasses stopped halfway to mouths and I plucked the phone out of his hand and tossed it at Michael, who was standing outside the gate. He looked like he was ready to throw down with both of us. He looked at it and he stared at Shawn.
“You bastard! I’m calling 911!”
Shawn looked at me, called me a really bad name and headed for his car. Then it was on us. It came up behind Shawn and the door was open. It was only for a second, but that was all I needed to see. I ran at him and gave him a shove that sent him sailing toward the black cab.
Sinatra flooded out into the street as something in black grabbed him. I saw the driver; it was someone I had seen in my past but whose name I couldn’t remember. His face was red, a smell of burnt hamburger and clicking noises filled my senses. I thought I even saw him grin at me and tip a torn, faded, 1940’s cab driver hat in my direction. Then the door was closed and it drove away with Shawn. Sin was sin and if he was not meant to be taken by the black cab, it never would have taken him.
Michael ran up to me. “Why did you let him escape? I’ve got the cops on the way!”
“I didn’t. They’ll never find him, not in this world.”
Stunned, he stood there, his face went red and I stood behind him looking in the direction he was. The black cab rose from the street in a low arc and like a diver, disappeared into the ground. We almost could feel the ground ripple a little like it was a diver dropping into a shallow lake or some pool somewhere. Others saw it happen, they had come out from the patio into the road to watch the show. One burly guy who I had seen there before crossed himself, plucking a crucifix from under his shirt. He kissed it with shaking hands and for a moment, the lights in the parking lot blinked at once.
“Chris, your tab is on me tonight!” Michael wiped his face with his hand, like the rest of us, he didn’t know what to think. My mind hit a blank wall; I couldn’t reconcile what I had seen. Was the fabric between our reality and hell that thin? Could it be pierced that easily? And was it also that thin between us and heaven the same way? I didn’t know.
I sighed. “If you don’t fire Rachel, I’ll let you pay it.”
“Done.” We walked back to bar, Rachel hugged me and a after a few months, she became my girlfriend, and now she’s my fiancée. We’re moving out of the area now, going back to small town New York, my buddy up in Jersey has been left a business by an uncle he hardly knew, in a little town near the base of the Adirondacks called Wings Falls. He’s willing to sell it to me for a cheap price. It turns out Rachel’s family is from Guilderland; it’s just down the road. I have never seen the black cab again and I don’t want to.
Credit: Christopher Haynes