A cabbie faces extortion, the lottery, and sexual congress with a bottle of scotch.
|Desperation plays for 215
“Alright Erskine. Here we go. I had this dream last night. I dreamt I had someone by my side. It was this open Jack Daniels bottle with tits. Something like that should have scared me. I mean, life size, anatomically correct bottles have no place in the bedroom, even in the dirty boarding room of a recovering alcoholic. But in my dream, I remember feeling so damn comfortable. It was like this bottle of Jack had its own key, its own toothbrush, and a drawer for all its clothes and underwear. The bottle looked like it belonged there.”
“And I could smell the sour mash whiskey through the bottle’s open label. My mouth was dry and I had an erection.”
“Getting morning wood from a bottle of liquor? Young Buck, you got problems,” Erskine says.
“Well, then we’re both glad my dream switched locations. Now see, if I could have special ordered my dream, I would have chosen sunny Acapulco or some other warm and friendly open port where the Love Boat always went. I bet that brother Isaac would have made a hell of a drink too. And he must have drank as much as he poured, otherwise he would have felt like an ass for playing such a corny role on a dumb sitcom, knowing he wasn’t going to get any work anyplace else after doing a job like that. I don’t even think that brother could catch a job as a member of the Psychic Friends Network. I think of Isaac every time I think I’ve hit rock bottom and it always cheers me up.”
“Back to the dream, rummy!”
“Okay, okay. I didn’t get that dream vacation of sun and sand and naked white women. Instead, here I am stumbling down a cold, dank staircase with my head on fire. There’s this door in front of me at the bottom of the stairs. I’m feeling a little woozy, so I know there’s no way I’m making it back up that staircase anytime soon. I try the handle and, to my surprise, the door is unlocked. Instead of being a warehouse or a garage or someplace I could rest my eyes for a minute, I realize that I’ve finally caught a break. I’m in a bar. I’d like to think I would have preferred that sandy beach with the naked white women, but I don’t want to seem ungrateful to my subconscious, so of course I staggered my way in.”
“Yeah, boy. I ain’t seen you walk out of too many bars, but I done seen you get carried out of a whole lot of ‘em.”
“But see, Erskine, that’s when things got unfunny. Behind the bar is that bald peckerwood Ted Danson. Next to him is that dumb white boy, Woody. Both of them have horns on their heads and neither of them is wearing their toupees. Danson looks at me and turns up his nose. He asks me do I have any idea where I am. I tell him yes, that I’m in the place where everybody knows my name and that I want a Crown and coke.”
“You figure since your dreamin’, you might as well order some of the good stuff, huh?”
“Damn right. I even lie and tell him that if he makes it quick, there might even be a tip in it for him. Ted tells me that he knows my name all right, and that it’s Toby, and that I’m his boy. Ted tells me that I’m in Sam Malone’s bar and Sam Malone doesn’t serve drinks to coloreds in his bar. Then he asks me why I haven’t bought a stolen television with my food stamps instead of trying to spend them in here? Don’t I know that there are never any Black folks on this show? That why it got such good ratings. What kind of jerk am I, walking in here and trying to ruin his good thing?”
“Now the whole while he’s saying this, Kirstie Alley is behind him, making sexy eyes at me with a bottle of scotch in her hand. I decide I’m going to ignore this no-talent bartender and follow Kirstie Alley to this secluded corner of the bar to see what her bottle of scotch is talking about. We sit at one of the those cozy leather booths, the kind that’s rounded like a half circle so that you have to sit crooked if you want to eat with your elbows on the table. Kirstie Alley starts trying to play with my thigh and fiddle with my zipper. I can’t pay her much attention, because I’m too disappointed now that I’ve realized that this scotch is only the cheap well brand.”
“All of a sudden, Kirstie puts this big, wet kiss on me, and starts teasing her tongue into my mouth. I’m hoping this means she’ll bring some premium scotch back for the next round of drinks, when I notice that Kirstie’s mouth is starting to feel real strange. In fact, her mouth is feeling like less of a mouth and more like flat paper. I open my eyes—I’d closed them when we were tongue wrestling, because I’ve always believed that sex and alcohol feel better when my eyes are closed—and see that Kirstie Alley has turned into a life size bottle of Cutty Sark. I feel a familiar stirring between my legs as I smile with anticipation at cracking open this bottle of good stuff. This bottle-of-Cutty-Sark-that-once-was-Kirstie-Alley puts a glass in my hand and asks me if I have protection. I shove my hand in my pocket and all I pull out is lint and this damn blue poker chip. Now I’m wondering if I have unprotected sex with this bottle of scotch, will I be violating the rules of my twelve-step program. That thought must have upset my silent partner, because he’s lost all vim and vigor, and is now dropping like a wet shoestring. That’s when I woke up in the back of my taxicab and it hits me that I’ve spent all night in the company garage. I decided that it’s just as well that I woke up, since I’ve always figured Kirstie Alley had artificial breasts anyway.”
“So that’s why you was making all of that damn noise last night in the back of that cab? The way you was thumping around and carrying on, I damn near thought you had some company back there with you. All you was having was one of them crazy, rum-headed dreams. Cain’t even have a normal wet dream like the rest of us. That’s a sign boy. You need to put that bottle down and pick up a pint of Jesus. He got the cure for what ails you.”
Mingus stares at Erskine and shakes his head with disbelief. The old man is the only person Mingus knows who could discuss the Lamb of God and nocturnal emissions in the same breath and pull it off with a straight face.
“Erskine, now you’re trying to get me to trade one addiction for another."
“Boy, you know the world would be a better place if we had a few less crack heads and a few more Jesus junkies. Shooting up with a little Holy Ghost never hurt nobody! Hallelujah!”
“I’d rather take a shot at being a functioning alcoholic than a functioning Christian. And it’s too early for all of that church shouting. So what do you have for me with this dream?”
The old man pulled a tattered tan booklet out of his back pocket. On its cover grinned a red caricature with a sharp nose and thin moustache, holding a pitchfork.
“Less see what the Red Devil book of numbers has to say. I got the Three Wise Men with me too, but I been hittin’ more numbers off that Red Devil, so we should go with that one. Says here liquor plays for 548 in the three digit. If I were you, I’d consider going for drunk instead. That’s 821. Bartender goes for 410, and T.V. show goes for 567. But if you gonna play heavy, lay your dollar down on desperation, 215, and fornication, 688. Play them in the box, ‘cause those double digits’ll eat you up if you ain’t careful. Of course you could play impotent for 283, but I don’t recommend temptin’ fate by playin’ that one.”
“Mingus Hill and Erskine Walker!” thunders a loud and angry voice from across the garage.
“Damn,” Mingus grumbles to his friend. “That fat man Wahler decided to come in early this morning.”
“Naw boy,” Erskine corrects, “your butt just slept in late. Fat man don’t never come in early. He may show up late once in a while, but that’s one manager that do not believe in puttin’ in any work that ain’t necessary. Least not when he knows nobody important is lookin’.”
“Erskine, you know you on my time clock. You wanna run that street lottery in here, you do it on your own time. I got over fifty drivers coming through here in an hour’s time. It’s your job to make preparations. This ain’t no goddamn fish fry. You blue-gum Negroes need to get your asses to work.”
“Yeah,” Mingus mutters underneath his breath, “if it was a fish fry, we’d have seen your fat, sweaty face at the front of the line with a plate in each hand.”
“You got something you want to say to me, Mingus? I hear ya muttering back there. You just keep sellin’ them woof tickets and see if it don’t cost you a job. Bring your skinny ass in this office. We got business, you and me.” George Wahler shuffles back into his office.
“Looks like you ‘bout to go see the principal, young buck,” cautions Erskine. It’s gonna take more than one of them shiny red apples to get him off your case.”
“As long as he doesn’t try putting me across his greasy-ass knee. Just make sure you hit me off on the numbers. T.V. show straight. Desperation and fornicate in the box.”
“What about them numbers for liquor, bartender, and drunk?”
“Keep ‘em. I don’t play drunk anymore. Lemme go talk to this fat man.”
Mingus walks past rows of battered and aging Crown Victorias. Drivers are charged for the damage done to the cars they drive, and it’s a wonder the company manages to be so annoyingly accurate about new damage done to such old cabs. Of course none of the money seems to go back into mending the damaged vehicle. Maybe Wahler eats the money.
“You wanted to see me, Wahler?”
“That’s Mr. Wahler to you, Hill. Yeah, I want to see your ass. Get in here and close the door.” Wahler sits back in a worn leather chair. Over his left shoulder is a metal folding chair that provides elevation and comfort for a box of fried barbeque pig skins.
The room is lit by a single lamp and what looks like a forty-watt bulb. The smell of fish, cigar, funk, and hot sauce invades the nostrils and works its way into Mingus’ clothing. The lack of light and stench of Wahler’s office, coupled with the man’s disposition always makes Mingus imagine that the words “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter” appear above the doorway.
Mingus looks around in vain for a chair to sit in. He tries to calm his mind and control his tongue as he stands in front of Wahler’s desk. Mingus’ pupils widen as he takes his mind to more pleasant thoughts, sitting courtside with Spike Lee at the Garden, images of beautiful women with round hips and exhausted bras
“I see you checked your happy ass into one of our rooms last night. Couldn’t make it home, huh? You drinking again, Mingus?”
“I leave the bottle alone, and I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same with me.”
“I don’t give a damn what you appreciate, Mingus! There’s only one thing that keeps you working here. Fifteen percent of what you make, in cash, in my hand each week. That’s what keeps you here. That’s what keeps me from throwing that narrow butt and that smart-ass mouth of yours out on the street. Now if you start drinking again, that changes the terms of our agreement. I’m going to need more of a cash incentive to look the other way and keep a drunk like you behind the wheel of one of Mr. Swindell’s cars.”
“I leave the bottle alone,” Mingus protests. “And fifteen percent is all I got to give. It’s all I can do to come up off of that. With what you bleed from me each week, I don’t see how there’s enough left to pay for booze anyway.”
“I see you make enough to put down numbers with Erskine. I know it don’t cost much to play the street numbers, but if something’s gotta go, then it’s either food, shelter, or the lottery, ‘cause if I don’t get paid, nobody does.”
Again Mingus tries to purify his thoughts and disguise his disposition with thoughts of Pistons championships and pictures of Jesse Jackson leaning back behind the desk in the Oval Office. “I have to get on the street. There’s fares out there waiting on me.” Brown nipples. Thigh high boots.
“Well then, you go out there and bring me back that paper. Remember, I’m counting on you to provide for my retirement.
Mingus wonders how he’s suppose to make any money driving around in a car that says Swindell’s Taxi Cab Co on its door, as even when wearing his most sincere communion face, he has to go over fares with some customers three and five times and give them a receipt.
“Is there anything else you want, Hill? ‘Cause if not, you got some driving to do.” Wahler smiles. “Your time is my money.”
* * *
Mingus barely drives a block when he spots his first fare. He’s never picked up a fare this close to the garage and he feels as if he’s just violated one of those unspoken but immutable laws that explained things like why kids never have to go to the bathroom when they are actually near a bathroom or why a woman could be generous or beautiful but never both at the same time. Mingus considers dismissing the figure with the outstretched arm as another hallucination, until he sees how large the man’s head is. From a distance, the man had a good size afro, but with a start realizes that what he’d thought was hair is all flesh and bone. The man has the audacity to have a baldhead, as if he was daring people to say something about his shiny, brown skull. On his bare mountain of a head rests a box-like leather hat made out of what seems to be red, black, and green leather. While Mingus may dream of intercourse with liquor bottles, he finds an odd reassurance in knowing, drunk or sober, his imagination could never conjure up a Black man with such an impossibly big head.
“Where you headed to?”
“Black man! It’s good to see you, god.” The man leans forward with a wide smile that still can’t manage to take up even half of his face. “I’m trying to get to the corner of Livernois and Davison. Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore. You know how to get there?”
“Yeah, I’ve been there once or twice,” answers Mingus.
“That’s lovely, brother. My name is Wallace. I’m in town from New York, and brother, it sure is nice to be in a city where a Black Asiatic King can catch a cab. Say, god, tell me straight. You ever have one of those days where you just straight out for some reciprocity and shit? Where you try to get even for your people and just drive past white folks and don’t pick them up at all?”
“If folks don’t ride, I don’t get paid. I drive for whoever pays.” Mingus pauses, thinking how close driving a cab is to prostition and adds “I drive twice as fast if they look like they might tip.”
“I feel you. I was just thinking how it could be like that one book, Black Like Moses, Black Like Molasses, something like that. You know, let them see how it feels to be given the nigger treatment for a day. You ever read that book, Black Like Mayberry?”
“You mean Black Like Me,” Mingus responds tersely.
“Yeah! That’s it! The one with the ofay that flips the script and goes incognito as a Negro, know what I’m sayin’? Black Like Mayberry. What was I thinkin’. All those episodes of Aunt Bee, Opie, and D.W. Griffith, I should know there ain’t nothing Black about Mayberry. Funny too, as many of us live down there in the Carolinas, and that show was whiter than a Ron Howard movie.”
Disappointed that even embarrassment won’t shut up his fare, Mingus begins thinking of side streets he can take to Davison faster and get the man up out of his cab.
“So god, have you read that book?”
“The one about the white boy that tries dippin’ his toe into some color for a minute. That Black Like Me joint.”
“That was our keep Black folks happy book for February back when I was in school.”
“See, god, that’s the problem. We need to get more of our young soldiers back into reading books. ‘Specially the kind of knowledge they’re passing out of the Shrine bookstore. We gots to get back into the business of building strong minds! We need mental warriors to lead the coming revolution!”
Mingus wonders what happened to the quiet fares he used to get, the shirt and tie fares that sat I the back of the cab and felt too superior to speak, and instead simply read their copies of National Review.
“Swindell? That don’t sound like one of Aunt Hagar’s children. Does a Black man own this car?”
“You’ve got brown hands grippin’ the steering wheel. That’s about as close as you’re gonna get. Hey Wallace, I know it’s Nation Time, but we’re at your stop.”
“Man, that ride was quick. Seems like we just started politicin’. How much I owe you, cousin?”
“Twelve dollars and fifteen cents.”
“That’s almost the daily mathematic. Two fifteen. Unity, inner-strength, and abstinence. That’s the number for the day.”
“Come on now, god. Don’t tell me no one’s ever pulled your coat to this. Each day has a number. Each number has its own principle. Today’s the fifteenth of February. Two, one, five. Unity, inner-strength, and abstinence. I could school you on all the higher sciences Black man. Take that devil’s car off the meter and come inside the
“Uh, thanks, but I’ve got to earn enough money to keep a very fat wolf off of my door. Maybe I’ll make it back some other time.”
“You do that, god. Keep strong, Original Man. Keep Strong!”
Hearing Erskine’s number repeated back to him catches Mingus off guard. He quickly wonders if big-headed Wallace has somehow used his swollen mutant brain to pull the number 215 out of his head somehow. Whether Wallace is full of shit or science fiction, Mingus knows he has to put some money on that number.