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Our son, the new letter from your parents began, we were glad to hear your decision on Astrophysics. Father believes it is a good field for someone with your strong Mind. We are always proud of you no matter which field you choose. We can tell even by the shortness of your previous letter that you have become very busy these days. We are so happy. We praise Him that He helped you overcome your sadness. We praise Him when we think of the life you would have lived here.
Your Friend, whose name we cannot mention here, has disappeared. We think you know who we speak of.
And you did know whom your mother—it was her handwriting—meant.
You saw Your Friend’s dark, long face: his small pointed ears, which always made you think of radio antennae; the vacant cast of his big sleepy eyes, which concealed a quick and restless mind. He had been Your Friend since you were young, since the days when you would flip a coin to see who would get to stand on whose shoulders to peek into the open-air showers at the town pool. He had been there to see you off at the airport, had pulled a blue knitted scarf out of his duffel bag, the bag he had started carrying everywhere after his father died, and had handed the scarf to you. You had known what it meant, that it was a symbol of The Movement, in which he had risen to a high rank. After you had dropped out of school to work at your father’s store, Your Friend would come by every week while you were on break to light a cigarette, puff it once, and let it turn into a pillar of ash while he carried on about The Movement’s most recent undertakings, about how you needed to help them topple the Old Country’s regime and build it anew.
Your mother’s eyes, wet from crying, had come alive with fear, darting around the dim terminal, checking to see if any of the armed guards had seen. You had quickly stuffed the scarf into your coat pocket.
Honorary revolutionary, he had said. Don’t forget your brothers.
Now you stuffed your parents’ letter into your pillowcase, which was already filling up with earlier ones, and put your hands together to pray for Your Friend. His words echoed hollowly in your apartment, and you were fast asleep before you had gotten to the end of your prayers.
You found yourself inching through a midday jam. Above you, reflected in the windows of the office buildings, a million summer suns glared out of an otherwise empty white sky. Suddenly, without so much as a cloud of warning, a furious storm of wind and slanting rain unleashed itself on the street.
In the taverns of the Old Country, which had become your home after The Girl had left you, superstitious old men would have said that during a storm in which the sun still shone, a man should lick his palm and rub his crotch three times to avoid having twins. As a taxi driver in The Big City, though, you simply had to switch on your wipers and wait for customers to come pouring out of the buildings, to materialize on the sidewalk, a gauntlet of flailing arms.
You heard voices travel faintly across the lanes of traffic, and when you turned to look, you saw two black men, the sleeves of their collared shirts rolled, winding through the stalled cars toward you. One was trying to cover both of them with an umbrella being ravaged by the storm, buckling against the wind and undulating like a jellyfish. Their faces shimmered with sunlight and water.
Are you working, you heard one of them say.
You locked the doors and hit the Off-Duty switch beside your steering wheel. As the traffic began to move, you started to pull away, and a loud bang shook your car under the blow of one of their fists.
A few blocks down, a white man hailed you. You jumped across the lane and sidled up to him. Are you working? the man asked, looking out from under a large blue and white umbrella. His pale knuckles gripped the curved wooden handle. Light says you’re Off-Duty.
You unlocked the doors. My mistake, you said, and switched on the meter.
When you started off toward the address he had given you, you looked back and caught him draining the last amber sip from a tiny bottle, lips puckering tightly over the opening. He let out a soft, whiskey-flavored sigh.
What a shit storm, he said after a while. Never ends, does it?
You sat up very straight. You can say that twice, you said.
The man snorted and eased back into the deep pocket of the seat. You were tense now, because you knew what was coming. Outside, people were cowering under newspapers, coats, and briefcases, hopping large murky puddles into the crosswalk. They were all hailing you wildly. You were heaven’s chariot at Armageddon, passing by hordes of the damned. Inside the taxi lay salvation. In your rearview, you saw him trace a raindrop down the window with his finger.
You know, I always carry an umbrella, the man said. My wife. Well, ex-wife. She used to make fun of me for it. Called me Rain Man. It could be the middle of spring, not a cloud in the sky, ten-day forecast saying sun. He tipped the umbrella handle to his forehead. But I know better. I even knew she was going to leave me. The fucking irony is that we met in a goddamn bar. We conceived our first daughter in the bathroom of a goddamn bar! And all of a sudden I’m a shitty father because I go to the bar? Because every now and then I enjoy a drop?
A drop never hurt, you said.
He threw his hands up in mock frustration and went on to tell you about the school plays his daughters were in, how he was trying to stay sober for them, and how you were actually driving him to his first meeting in a decade.
I’m doing it for them, you heard him say, and he snapped a wallet-sized photograph against the glass partition. There were two young girls standing with their arms around each other in a wide field. They were in sundresses and hats with big, floppy brims. One had the same jutting chin as he did.
Beautiful, you whispered, just as you realized that the storm had disappeared.
something about the exterior of your building always made you wonder if it wasn’t patched together out of salvaged remains. It was a grim, crumbling jigsaw of things: a narrow gray stoop leading up to a steel door, thickly painted brown, which had brass numbers hanging from it in unfastened disarray, like the superscript and subscript of an invisible equation.
You poured yourself half a glass of whiskey and sat silently on your futon for several minutes. Why did passengers feel so comfortable telling you their stories, as though you were an old friend, a shaman, a psychiatrist? You let your meter run; that was the extent of your expertise. Was there something about you, the backward three-quarter profile they all saw, next to the dour face on your license, that gave them unspoken permission to share their deep secrets, confess their sordid vices, prattle on and on about their good ideas, good deeds, vacations? How many earnestly offered business cards cluttered your glove box! Or was it not in fact a mysterious affection they had for you? Was this misplaced trust actually something else, an implicit fear of having their lives in your hands, that manifested as chattiness? Was their desperate need to talk another way of saying, please, sir, don’t kill me today?