In your most recent letter to the old country, you told your parents that you had enrolled at The University and were majoring in Astrophysics. You did not tell them that the closest you ever came to enrolling was flipping through an outdated course catalog on the toilet. But you had to lie, because even though you left the Old Country more than two years ago, you still felt guilty for all the hours you had wasted bumming around your father’s Christian memorabilia store, the reservoirs of motherly pity you had drained with your almost daily drunkenness, and the money she had given you for your plane ticket. After the incident with The Girl, you had become allergic to work, unable to hold a job, a cliché of a heartbroken man. Your parents pitied you, so they let you be.
You … felt it was noble to be a sanitation worker for the living, scooping them from one sidewalk and dumping them onto another, then scooping more from that sidewalk and on and on.
The day before your father would have finally succeeded in convincing your mother to kick you out, a day you had spent nursing a twisted knee after you leapt from a moving minibus to stop someone who turned out not to be The Girl, the wayward God of Immigration smiled into your mailbox with a visa, which at first you assumed was a mistake. You barely remembered applying.
But you’re not the same person you were back then, when you waited at the wrong baggage claim carousel for two hours while your oversize luggage looped and looped on a conveyor a few feet behind you.
You made the decision to become a taxi driver not because you lacked, as your father had said, the desire to grow your mind, but because something about the soft chirping of the meter as it printed out your first receipt on the day you arrived reminded you of The Girl’s voice. You also felt it was noble to be a sanitation worker for the living, scooping them from one sidewalk and dumping them onto another, then scooping more from that sidewalk and on and on.
And then you were robbed. Before it happened, you were still the same sluggish, despondent apparition you had been in the Old Country, leasing your cab from Adem every other week, making just enough. But after seeing the knobby, bone-white handle of the switchblade in the robber’s shaky grip as it danced gently against your jugular, you were changed.
You went home that night and snatched your only photograph of The Girl off the table beside your futon and watched it burn on the fire escape. She had never written you, because she did not care if you lived or died. And until this point, you hadn’t cared either. But this one terrific reminder that death was a moment-to-moment possibility was all you needed to realize that, in the end, you did in fact want to live. Embers caught in the wind and drifted away. You found an empty soup can and wrote Mind Fund on it and stashed it under the sink in your bathroom with the thirty-two cents the robber had left you that night. One cent for every year of the life he had spared.
You started sleeping less, working more. You picked up the latest issue of the course catalog, kept it where her picture used to be, and started to study it in earnest. You became a daily sight at the taxi garage. You took out a longer lease on a taxi that had a pair of furry pink dice hanging from the rearview. People would come to know it as your taxi.
At the garage a few mornings after the robbery, you found Adem leaning on your car, a newspaper spread over the trunk. He was turning the pages daintily, pinching at the corners to avoid getting ink on his hands. Adem would never act as though he had been waiting for you to show up, would always greet you with the same serious nod. But you knew he had been waiting. You knew that you were the only one at the garage who didn’t make jokes behind his back about the oblong shape of his head or the big cartoon sack of a stomach that hung over his belt.
Because you listened, Adem always felt encouraged, even duty-bound, to be your friend, to offer advice such as what brand of deodorant to use because of the frequent compliments you would surely receive from female passengers. And you didn’t mind.
Adem was not much older and had only been in The Big City a year longer than you, but he was wise and tough with experience. He was already a broker at one of the biggest taxi garages—a fact he never tired of mentioning. Usually, you tried to arrive a little later in the morning to cut short, or avoid, a run-in with him, but today you were early and drowsy and happy to be alive and even smiled at the sight of his billowing corduroy haunches.
When you told Adem about the robbery, he clucked sadly, shook his head, and rested his fat hand on your shoulder, though only for a brief, awkward second. Then he folded his arms quickly and returned to being Adem.
Hadn’t he warned you about that neighborhood? Hadn’t he ridden with you on your first week, muttering and fidgeting in the passenger seat like a spy giving away his country’s top secrets? Hadn’t he told you all the best neighborhoods and times for fares, all the so-so ones, all the bad ones, and all the ones so bad that, if you had the misfortune to find yourself driving through them at a certain time of night, you should consider running the reds?
You shrugged and told him he was right. Adem cleared his paper off your trunk, reached into his pocket, and produced a roll of bills. He peeled off several and handed them to you. When you hesitated, he shoved them into your hand. You took them without a word and slunk into the driver’s seat.
Adem leaned into the window and tapped his finger against the top of his bloated hand. At first, you thought he was pointing to his watch, or an imaginary watch, because Adem did not believe in watches, due to his own elaborate theory that they were the source of his high blood pressure.
For your own good, he said, still tapping his hand. Pass us.
Then you realized that he was actually pointing to the skin on his hand—to the brown of the skin on his hand.
It was in that simple gesture that you became a different person all over again. You saw that it was a foolish thing to have compassion in a place that had never shown you any. And soon, during the night shifts, everyone with skin as dark as yours became invisible. Even during the day you started hesitating, rolling up to them with the doors locked and the passenger window narrowly cracked. You asked where they wanted to go, knowing that you had no intention of taking them there.
You did this not knowing who had robbed you. As you told the two skeptical officers who took the report, the suspect had been wearing a Mickey Mouse mask and had whispered only one word: Money.