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When the last few hours of your last shift as a taxi driver finally rolled around, the sky was paused between day and evening in a dark, low-wattage light that seemed to be its most natural shade of blue. You spotted a stoop-shouldered man wearing a gray trench coat that caught the strange color of the air and turned it an iridescent purple. He held his long arm out to you, the dark, wizened hand drooping like a dead leaf over the street. A stream of taxis flowed past him with their Off-Duty lights aglow.
When you stopped, you realized that his body had been concealing the tiny figure of a woman beside him. The top of your car hid their faces, so all you could see were the matching silver crucifixes dangling from their necks. They slid into the backseat carrying two modest suitcases, which they placed in the seat between them. Before the man could tell you where they were going, the woman collapsed awkwardly across the luggage, diving face-first into his shoulder. She let out several high, piercing wails. You had never heard anyone cry like that in your car. You reached backward with a packet of tissues in your hand. When the old man grabbed them, muttering a thank you, the ghost of an electric current passed through his touch and his voice.
Staring down, with his gaze lost somewhere in the dim footwell, his jowly face trapped in a desolate grimace, was your father. He rubbed his arm around the heaving shoulders of a woman who you suddenly realized was your mother. Below the sound of her voice, a high shrieking alarm seemed to go off in your ears. You whipped back around.
Your mother’s wails began to cohere into words. He’s gone, she was saying. My son is gone. You started to feel an eerie warmth at your neck, where the white-knuckled handle of the robber’s knife had been.
Above the snake eyes of your pink dice, your father’s hard, hooded eyes stared back at you with a squint of recognition. But the look crumbled away as quickly as it had appeared. To the airport please, he barely said.
$3.90: He is in a better place now, you heard your father say. The rough skin of his hands produced a sharp noise against the cheap, synthetic material of your mother’s coat. He is with the Lord.
$12.20: My son, she kept saying. My son. In the sweet, singsong language of the Old Country she tried to summon you from the dead, from the cemetery where—you seemed to know without needing to ask—they had buried some version of you earlier that day.
$19.10: After she had settled down a bit, and you had tried your best to understand the meaning, the overt significance of this moment, you heard her wonder aloud how you could have done it. How you could have jumped from the roof of your building and left this life. Left them to suffer. There are things we will never know, your father said. His words seemed to press with heat into the back of your neck, like feverish fingers. Things we should never know.
When you got home, after you had shared a good-bye doughnut with Adem and he had taken the keys to your taxi with an indifferent shrug, another letter from your parents was waiting. You sat for an hour staring at it with terror and wonder. Your mother complained about the heat in the Old Country and of missing you, and she signed your father’s name at the bottom of the letter, though you knew that he hadn’t been around when she’d written it. He probably had no idea she had been writing you all these months.
The letter mentioned nothing about your death or the ride you had given them that very day. How could it? Instead, it had news about The Girl. Her rich husband had died and she was quickly wasting away from what your mother was too embarrassed to call The Virus. You read it once, twice, and saw again the deep furrows around your mother’s mouth, vivid in your mind from earlier when she’d drifted away from your cab toward the airport counters. The loneliness you always felt after reading her letters suffocated you now. The room echoed thickly with your breathing, and you sat for a while clutching the letter, upset with yourself for having burned The Girl’s picture, then her letter. Soon, all evidence of your frenzied love would be gone and so would she.
You went to the cupboard and poured yourself a mug of whiskey. You took the drink into the bathroom with a copy of the Free Weekly. You sat on the edge of the tub and flipped to the back of the paper. Full color ads for phone sex and escorts cluttered the pages. You reached into your underwear.
Then one photograph in particular, of a slender woman with black-black hair glancing backward over her bare ass, stopped you. Those thick eyelashes. That long, muscular neck. It was The Girl. You stared at the photograph. First, you thought, I pick up a man on the street who is me; then I pick up two people who are my parents, who believe I have killed myself; now I see a photograph of a prostitute who looks so much like The Girl.
The ad quoted a price for a home visit. You had more than enough from the day’s earnings to afford it. You wouldn’t even have to dip into the Mind Fund. Your father had tipped you well, you realized, looking at the sheaf of bills in your wallet, finding it somewhat funny that money from your father’s holy store was helping you hire a whore. You took this as a sign and dialed the number.
A woman with a husky voice answered and you arranged for her to come over in an hour. You flew about the room, fluffing throw pillows and cleaning the bathroom sink. You refilled your mug and put on a cassette of slow, scratchy ballads from the Old Country that The Girl used to love.
When the buzzer sounded, you stumbled downstairs to open the door, and right away, you saw that she looked nothing like the photograph, or The Girl. In fact, shortly after she took a seat beside you on the futon, straightening her hot pink miniskirt with two huge hands, you realized that she was not even a she.
You offered him a drink, and then you offered food, and then, not knowing what else to offer, you turned on the TV. He was getting annoyed. By way of conversation, you said, I didn’t know you would be a man.
Where’s your bathroom, he asked, getting to his feet and towering over you. You pointed across the room, and he excused himself. While he was gone, you took the opportunity to look again at the ad. In fine print near the bottom were the words Transvestite Escort Service. Without thinking, you drained the rest of your whiskey mug in one gulp and went to the cupboard to refill.
When he returned, you sat together in front of the TV for a few more unbearable minutes. Then, feeling quite drunk, you lifted the remote, switched off the TV, and looked at him meaningfully. You knew he must have been wondering what this was all about, so you tried to explain yourself. You said you had been having a difficult month. You thought his picture had reminded you of someone from back home. Someone you used to love very much. You even told him that she had broken your heart, left you for a rich man who had died of The Virus and had most likely passed it on to her.