Authors: Alexander Yates
HIS HEAD A LITTLE CLEARER NOW
, he decides to go only as far as Gil Puyat and then flag the next empty taxi that passes. He reaches the end of the promenade—the bay beyond this point reclaimed by artificial land with artificial buildings on it—and crosses Roxas again. About halfway across the wide boulevard he realizes that the three stray dogs have been matching his pace on the opposite side, and he turns back. The dogs come upon an upturned trashcan and circle it like a kill, nipping at one another’s hindquarters. From the pried-open lid and strewn debris, Howard can tell that squatters have already been through it. There won’t be any food. The strays realize this after some searching
and then just stare dumbly at the can. They bark at it, and at each other. Their bodies tighten and expand—each animal pulsing.
He has no desire to get near them when they’re worked up, and decides to wait for a taxi on this side. He sits on the crumbling curb. It’s a whole process—lowering himself down. A stoplight above the dogs flashes red at irregular intervals. Power lines spanning the intersection buzz in the wet, sooty air. A jeepney—one of the stretch passenger jeeps decked out with flags and streamers and shining like pounded foil—speeds by with the crack of fuel cut with kerosene. It slows, but Howard waves it on. He sees a white taxi and tries to flag it but the driver ignores him, swerving slightly before making a hard left at the intersection. Howard waits.
The sound of his phone ringing makes him jump and he shifts his weight to get at his belt loop. He’s disappointed to see that it’s just Hon. “Hallo Howie!” Hon yells. “Getting off the horn with Jack, you got a sec for me?”
“It’s late,” Howard says, not liking the way his voice carries over the empty promenade. “Can this wait?”
“Yup,” Hon says, sounding very cheerful. “But you’re not asleep. I got a couple questions for you in your e-mail. You get them?”
“No.” Howard speaks in a near whisper. “Haven’t had a chance to read them, yet.”
“Oh Howie … am I a cock blocker? Listen, just take a sec, there’s plenty of you to go around. I got them all listed out for you, just put something together and send to me so I can have Jack stop calling. Don’t CC him, though. He’s a schmuck. I haven’t been able to shit in peace since he got my digits!”
“It’ll have to wait. I’m not at the hotel.”
“Howard Bridgewater, you are a very wild man, and I admire you.”
Another white taxi rolls past. It looks like it could even be the same one. Howard flags it and it slows but doesn’t stop. He says “motherfucker” and then he says “not you” to Hon. “Fucking taxis in this city.”
“Taxis? Where’s your boy?”
“Sent him home. It’s late.”
“You do know it’s his J-O-B,
, don’t you?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Howard looks down Roxas, toward Gil Puyat and sees the white taxi stopped at the curb some hundred yards down. After idling a few seconds it reverses toward him, slowly. He pushes himself up and waves at it. “Hey, I’ve got to go. I should be back at the hotel in twenty or thirty.”
“Don’t rush on my account, baby.”
Howard hangs up. The taxi inches backward, reverse lights red as embers. It takes awhile and he begins walking to meet it halfway. He jumps right in so the driver won’t have a chance to turn him down on account of the destination being too far, or off his route, or some other bullshit. The cab smells of orange peels and the seats are coated in plastic. “Makati Avenue, corner of Ayala,” Howard announces.
They sit idle, the driver eyeing him in the rearview mirror. He’s thin and has bags under his eyes. There’s a small green Mary statuette on the dashboard, as well as a cluster of bright feathers from a parrot or something. The driver looks from Howard, to the street, to Howard again. An empty bus passes, the shirtless conductor leaning out a window like a silent banshee. Howard puts his fingers under the door handle. “Makati Ave, you know the way?” he asks in a polite voice.
The driver smiles, revealing a mouth full of nubby gray teeth. He switches the meter on with a skinny finger and bright red numbers spring up on the dash.
“Meter plus fifty, boss?”
“Meter plus a hundred if you get me home soon,” Howard says. The bargaining puts him at ease.
“Very nice,” the driver says. “Very nice of you.” He smiles again and eases onto the accelerator. The taxi continues in reverse, back to the intersection with the dogs, and then turns left hard. The animals are startled and chase after, nipping at the air behind the tires. Howard watches them out the back window—watches the bay lights fall away and then disappear as they make another turn. This doesn’t feel like the most direct way, but what the hell. Obscure shortcuts are a point of pride with these taxi drivers. And if he’s trying to run up the meter—who cares? Howard can afford it.
Hon calls back a few blocks later, and they speak as the car weaves through side streets. Richard in London wants figures on materials and labor for the restaurant, and Hon can’t talk him out of sending his own cocksucker architect down. “You back home yet?” he asks. “I need the kind of nasty message that only Howie can write.”
“I’m not back yet, but I can see Makati up ahead,” Howard says, lying just a bit. Makati is actually to his right, receding. This driver is pushing his luck.
“Are you all the way out in Ermita again?” Hon asks. “I told you not to take the Aussies to that place. It’s not classy.”
“The Aussies didn’t mind,” Howard says.
“Well shit. What am I supposed to say to Richard?”
Howard tells Hon to open up his e-mail. He dictates a nasty message.
“Fuck me. That’s filthy,” Hon says, delighted.
“Can I go now?”
The taxi hits a speed bump too fast and Howard lurches forward and drops his phone. It lands on the floor mat, illuminating the bottom of the cab. Reaching down, he sees that the floor is blanketed with green feathers—the same feathers that decorate the dash. When he puts the phone back to his ear he finds that Hon has hung up.
“Easy buddy,” Howard says to the driver, forcing a smile. “You’ll get what’s on the meter plus a hundred no problem. No need to rush so much.”
The driver sniffs. He rubs his face with his wrist. They come to a red light and stop beside a little white cathedral in stucco Gothic style—
Iglesia Ni Kristo
written in grand yellow letters above the door. The light turns green, but the taxi does not move. The driver looks down each street, as though making up his mind, and then turns. Makati is ahead of them now, the skyline blurred by smog. He must have decided to stop jerking Howard around.
The road widens and it begins to drizzle. A cloth billboard advertising skin whitener whips and drips like a sail. The taxi driver tailgates a brightly decorated jeepney—the only other vehicle on the road. Even through the rain Howard can clearly read
hand-painted on the rear mudflaps. Then, just as they emerge from under a series of overpasses, just as Howard recognizes the pink obelisk of his hotel not two miles away, the driver turns onto a quiet residential side street.
“Enough,” Howard says, his patience at its end. “Makati Ave is back that way. You want your hundred, or not?”
The driver ignores him. The rain thickens and the taxi slows. It shudders to a sudden halt beneath a broken streetlight. The driver stares at the wheel. He stomps on the clutch and shifts jerkily through each gear.
“You hear me?”
“Something’s wrong,” the driver says.
The driver gives a kind of shrug. “Broken,” he says. He scratches his cheeks and upper lip. He looks out the windows. The rain sounds like stones on the dented taxi roof. The street is quiet and dark, little town-houses on each side sealed up like ship hulls against the ocean.
“It’s not broken,” Howard says, unable to believe he has to go through this bullshit again. He’s been robbed twice this year already—three times if you count pickpockets. “Let’s get this over with,” he says. “How much do you want?”
The driver smiles sheepishly and says: “Wait. I fix it.” Without another word he jumps out and hurries across the street. He pounds hard on a closed door, yelling something in Tagalog, getting soaked by the rain.
Howard looks out the back for signs of life, but everything is empty. He calls the police and tells them he’s getting robbed. No, he hasn’t been hurt. He doesn’t think he will be. Where is he? In a taxi. Somewhere north of Makati—he can see the Shangri-La from here. The license plate? Hold on, he’ll check.
Howard puts a foot out of the taxi, keeping an eye on the driver as he does so. The banged-upon door suddenly opens and light pours out from inside, illuminating a corridor of raindrops. A large, rectangular face juts out into the rain. The two men speak and look back at
the taxi. The large man disappears and emerges seconds later with a length of PVC pipe in his hand. Nausea hits Howard hard. This is not a petty-theft situation. The depth to which he’s misjudged it opens below him like a hole in the asphalt. He has just enough time to slip his foot back inside and lock all four doors before the driver and his enormous friend reach the cab. They try each of the handles, tugging hard and cursing. Howard realizes that the driver, in his haste, has left the keys in the ignition. He reaches and stretches, but it’s no use. He’s too big to slide up to the wheel; he’ll never fit between the seats.
“They’re going to kill me,” Howard says to the dispatcher. “They’re going to kill me.”
“You’ll have to stop shouting,” the dispatcher says. “I can’t understand you.”
But it’s not Howard that’s shouting. It’s the men outside the taxi. Saying: “Open the door or we open you!”
“I’m sorry sir,” the dispatcher says, “will you please stay on the line, please?”
Howard does not stay on the line. He hangs up and begins scrolling through numbers again. Why are there so fucking many of them? Why save the numbers for
florists? Why not just pick his favorite florist—would that be so hard? Outside the big man kicks Howard’s door and the taxi bobbles on its shocks. It gets hard for Howard to see because his contacts are hurting him and because he’s crying a lot. His big, stupid fingers have trouble finding the buttons.
The large man kicks the cab again, and then whips the rear passenger window with the length of PVC pipe. Howard puts his free hand on his ear to block out the sound of cracking glass. Through his tears he finds Benny’s number and calls again. It rings once, twice, how many times before he hears his son’s recorded voice? “Sorry! I’m away right now. I’ll do my best to hit you back!” The window shatters before the beep. Chips of glass and raindrops rush onto his lap. A big hand reaches in, opens the door from the inside and grabs the phone from him. The men pull Howard out into the street. He tries to land on his elbows so he won’t cut his palms up on the glass. They whip the pipe along his
back, and legs. He pushes himself up and the pipe catches his cheek, breaking skin and knocking the molars loose. “You don’t need to,” he tries to shout, his hands in the air to demonstrate how he’s not fighting. “You don’t need to.” They hit his hands and the air around his hands. They hit him in the ribs and on his knees. They stop for moment and talk to each other—or rather the big one gets talked at by the little one. Howard closes his eyes and opens them. He feels rain, and glass, and everything falling.
There was something that Benicio had never told Alice about his mother. He’d shared it with no one, not even with Howard back when the two of them still spoke—not just regularly, but with warmth and eagerness. His mother was off. She thought she could see the future in her dreams. She believed it the same way that she believed that communion wine became the blood of Christ before passing through her lips, which is to say, with every ounce of her conviction. Benicio couldn’t remember when she’d first told him about what she called her
, but it must have been when he was very young because for the longest time he’d believed it, too. Maybe that was why he’d never told the story to Alice—or to his father, which was conceivable now that the two were speaking again, however tentatively—because there was no way of telling it without including the fact that until his middle teens he’d believed something so foolish. Something that belonged to comic books or the summer movies based on them. He’d believed in superpowers.
His mother insisted that her dreams weren’t just symbolic premonitions open to interpretation—Benicio had since come to find that Catholics, and Latinas chief among them, were especially skilled at this kind
of kitchen-table fortune-telling—but visions of real people in real places doing things that would come to pass days, months and even years after the night they first marched into her sleeping head. He remembered a sunless afternoon, his mother tearing plastic wrap and translucent skin from a store-bought chicken, telling him with a rapt expression the story of how she met Howard in a dream before meeting him in San José. “It was three years,” she said. “Three years before I ever saw him, and I knew exactly what he would look like. I wasn’t even properly sleeping. It happened during a nap.” She dropped a handful of skin into the wastebasket and began to cut the bird in half with a knife from the drawer Benicio wasn’t allowed to open, working the heels of her palms over the back of the blade, throwing her shoulders into the job. They were just back from Christmas with his aunts, and as usual she returned from Costa Rica firmly resolved to cook more often and to experiment less while doing so. Benicio, who had been watching from the doorway, pulled up a stool and put his elbows on the cool marble slab of their kitchen island.