Read by Katy Darby
“Slow down,” the woman in the back seat says to the driver as he guides the cab onto West 42nd Street from Seventh Avenue.
“It’s a lousy part of town, Miss,” the driver says, cleaning smudges from his glasses with his shirt. “Eden to some, end of the road to others. Why’s a genteel little-old like you wanting to slow down at this time of night in Times Square?”
“Your job is to drive,” the little-old says, with a flash of anger, “mine is to tell you where to go and heavily tip you.” She’s Angel Walker, AKA Lady York in the good days in England, an old beauty with sketchy repute, and when she can’t sleep, like now, she rides in a cab for hours, until drowsy. She’ll watch the working girls and doesn’t care what the drivers think. It’s been a half-century since she cared what anybody thought. She’s all couture these days, though. Not much else to do but dress well and ride around in cabs at 3 AM.
She drinks champagne in the back seat of the cab, drinks from the bottle. She’s alone except when driven around the city in a cab, alone since Bridget left for California three months ago. A daughter’s both a blessing and a curse, Angel once said, but now she’s come to realize that a daughter’s a blessing, and she desperately misses her.
“What’s the celebration?” the driver asks. He’s a pale young man with an abundant frizz of shoulder-length hair and a sandy beard that he fondles now and then.
“I can smell the bubbly.”
“It’s my birthday and don’t ask me how old I am,” she says.
She looks at his driver identification hanging from the dashboard.
“They call me J. J.”
“So, J. J., you’re pretty bold, asking for some of my booze.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
He empties what’s left in a soggy paper cup, turns and reaches the cup back for the gift. His hand is splattered with a mosaic of broken reds and greens.
“What’s with your hand?”
“Paint,” he says, in a low-pitched voice.
“I need my drawing room painted. What’re you doing tomorrow?”
“Not that kind of painting.” He shakes the cup.
Angel fills it halfway with champagne.
He gulps it down and then reaches back for more and she obliges and now he sips.
She stares out the window at working women and their tiny dresses and leathered skin. Their glittery heels are like comets of light as they strut.
It’s May 22, 1970, and Angel is startled by the promiscuity blasted in the newspapers and on TV. Not just the street girls - that’s gone on since there were streets - but it’s the unexpected flower children and free love she’s seen in the news and read about. It’s as if the conflict between virtue and vice never existed. We drift seamlessly from morals to sin and back, she’s thinking, as if one plays no part in driving the other.
The fissured, filmy window of the cab squeaks as she rolls it down to feel the late-spring air. She rearranges her wide silk scarf high across her shoulder. This is done out of habit, not because she cares who’ll watch her grow old.
She removes a cigar from her purse and gold clipper and snips off the tip. The driver watches in his rearview mirror and clears his throat.
“I suppose you want a cigar, too.” she says.
“I’d never turn it down.”
She pulls out another one, clips the tip, then digs through her purse.
“Ask one of the girls for a match,” she says. “My lighter’s back home.”
“He punches open his glove compartment, revealing a lighter. “I’m not much of a smoker, but I’m never without it.”
“Why carry it, then?”
She hands him the cigar; he lights up.
“When I’m on edge, I pull out the Zippo, flick it open and shut.” He demonstrates and the lighter becomes a steady drumbeat to the street melodies. “I love the sound of the hollow click,” he says. “It’s relaxing.”
He brakes at a red light, and lights her cigar. She sees him full face now. He’s doe-eyed, and oddly boyish for a night cabbie.
“Are you an art student?” she asks.
“Anyone interested in art is an art student.”
He watches her in the rearview mirror and she grins and he seems pleased with himself.
“Where to now?” He dawdles along 42nd Street.
“Circle the block. I’m in no hurry.”
One girl after another signals Angel, each gesturing her own slant, each with the same remote façade. She waves them away. She’s neither offended nor judgmental, knowing since childhood about the eccentricities and imperatives of human lives, above all, the lives of women.
Times Square embraces the night. It’s schooled in meeting the needs of the unorthodox, she’s thinking, dispatching whimsy for the restless and the bored. The restless and the bored. She laughs aloud thinking it sounds like the name of a TV soap opera. Angel loves anarchic, vivid places, settings with anonymous, character-provoked seediness, milieus in which she should feel most at home because of the steep contrast with the featureless Kansas plains of her birth.
“The eyes go with age,” she says. “The better not to see the shape your body’s in.”
“What?” The driver endeavors to hear his fare, keeping his eyes on the road.
“The ears go, too,” she says, “the better not to hear the squeaks of old joints that mount the stairs. Nature’s pity, don’t you think?”
He slams on his brakes to avoid a cyclist, and curses at the boy. To Angel, he says “Excuse me, Miss.”
He had his charm, this cabbie.
“What happens to your hands and fingers when you get old?” He spreads the digits wide in Angel’s view. “I’ll need them for painting.”
“Do you want the truth or a lie?”
Lies are believed, she thinks. The truth is too complicated.
She says, “Seems to me you’d want to speculate about the endurance of the male sex drive. I’m old enough to know about such things.”
He says “I’d choose art over sex, given the option but the sex drive never wanes in a man; that much I know.”
Yes, indeed, the truth is too complicated.
The sex drive should wane, she’s thinking. There are other tasks to address at this age besides screwing: Amending memories, for one; learning to live with remorse, for another; remaining hopeful for the future; deciding what to do about Bridget, the fearsome, unknowing child of rape. Angel hadn’t been the one to raise her and refuses to be the one to tell her the truth. Their rocky relationship sent Bridget packing.
She clings to her dark glasses thinking about it, then puts them on.
The driver watches. He pulls a linen handkerchief from his pocket and hands it to her.
“Are you OK, Miss?”
She dabs her eyes and blots her nose.
A barker approaches the cab. On his legs, he wears the skin of a viper. He holds a brightly-colored jack-in-the-box and cranks its handle. Pop Goes The Weasel. When the tune peaks, a phallus ejects, and the barker looks to her eyes for instructions. She shakes her head and he moves on.
She glances at a huddle of street-girls who smoke and chat. They’re cursed with the highest courage, yet the lowest caste. Less rank than a house girl who needs the comfort of the tribe, much like Angel did in the early days, less stature than a call girl who travels to others’ beds, less than the mistress who stays home, in love with her patron. Angel is Queen of the Frail Sisterhood. She uses their plight to bolster hers, to rise like smoke above them. She needs the cab junkets like people need air.
Cabbie pulls to the curb and parks.
“Want some?” he asks.
Angel blinks and rubs her eyes.
He gestures toward the diner and it’s packed with customers. “Coffee?”
“I never turn it down,” she says. “Strong, hot. Make sure it’s fresh.”
He turns off the meter, waits in line, and brings them both a cup. They sit in the cab and drink.
“Got another cigar for me?” he asks, accustomed, now, to gifts from the back seat.
Angel smiles and her wrinkles vanish and she pulls another Cuban from her purse. He lights up. The cab has taken on the many odors of driver and passenger and their shared products and Angel finds the mixed scent pleasurable. Smells are magnets to memories. They’re your best companions. The cab was reminiscent of the slow train from Wichita to New York when she was 12, before she knew that hope was a malleable commodity.
She’s reminded, too, of her psychiatrist’s office, his French cigarettes; a different
odor. The gamy scent of dark tobacco. Her last appointment, two weeks ago.
“Where were you when the dream died?” the shrink had said, a bull-necked earnest physician.
“We did this before, Doc.”
“We’ll do it again, Miss Walker.” He inhaled the glamorous cigarette, and exhaled as he spoke. “You want to reconcile with your daughter. Take the first step.”
“I was on the Brooklyn Bridge throwing pennies into the water when the dream died. The pennies slapped the surface of the water, then sank into the muck.”
“So, what’s the dream?”
“I have no dream. It died with my husband.”
“You did once. Now, was it animal, vegetable, or mineral, this dream?”
“Animal, I think. It featured a group of mammals.”
“Family or friends?”
“Too many or too few?”
“Day or night?”
“Night. Always night. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
The cabbie licks his lips, inhales the cigar, then engorges the cab with a swirl of smoke.
“No two fares are ever alike,” he says, “but you’re the most unusual, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“I’m flattered,” she says.
She thinks to be conventional is to disable oneself.
Daybreak approaches, and the sun colors the low sky. She watches the change of shift. The ladies hobble home, droopy-eyed, wages in their pockets. In their place, the street-sweeps arrive; they push brooms along the sidewalks and tidy up the rubble.
The driver stops the cab, turns to speak
“Can I show you something?
“What is it?”
“It’s not far,” he promises, “but I’ll turn off the meter again. Are you game?”
He cuts through an alley and stops at a rundown warehouse by the sidewalk. There’s a mural on the bottom wedge of the building, a striking painting of a field of sunflowers. Face-lift for a sagging structure.
“What do you think?” His voice cracks. “It’s mine.”
She stares at the butter yellow field which glows in a spotlight of early dawn. The memories flood.
“I grew up near a field of sunflowers, played hide and seek.”
“You’re a country girl? Who would’ve thought?”
“The high stalks shielded us from the sudden rains, like a doting family.” She must remember to write Bridget about it.
Angel sees “J. J.” on the painting’s edge, pleases him with compliments, then orders him to take her home. She’s tired enough to sleep.
In her bedroom, Angel stares at her naked body in the full length mirror. She tries to look outside herself, to see her image as if it’s someone else. The more she struggles to do so, the more frightened she becomes, fearful she might actually succeed in doing it. And what if, then, she could not reunite the two selves? She wonders if this is madness.
Using her lipstick, she makes an outline of her body on the mirror. The outline will hold her together.
She sits at her desk and begins a letter to Bridget. This time, she will finish it.
Night by Gerri George was read at the Liars' League Sex & The City event at The Wheatsheaf in London on Tuesday 10 November 2009
Gerri George's stories, which often portray the human side of outsiders of all ages, appeared in Literal Latte, Penn Review Literary Magazine, and The Bucks County Writer. "A Rose by Any Other Name" was a Pushcart Prize nominee. Soon in Wild River Review: “Henry Moore and the Bookstore Clerk.”
Katy Darby has appeared in over 30 productions at various London and Edinburgh Fringe and regional theatres, including the Soho Theatre, the Gilded Balloon and the Oxford Playhouse. Her previous roles include Lady Macbeth, Lysistrata, Titania, Medea and Beverly in Abigail's Party. She is the co-founder of Liars' League.