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[Readings]

Ride or Die

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From The Last Taxi Driver. The novel, which tells the story of a cab company in Northern Mississippi, was published last month by Tin House Books.

They never tell you what they were in for—only that they just got out. This one’s a handsome white dude—mid-thirties, a few missing teeth, a few prison tats—who’s in a fantastic mood. He’s carrying a twelve-pack of Bud Light when he slides into the back of my Town Car and tells me he’s just been released from Parchman and then gives me the name of some street in the Bethune Woods Project, says it’s an old girlfriend’s house.

“Man, is she gonna be surprised to see me,” he adds.

We’re at the Mobil station near West Gentry Loop waiting to pull into traffic.

“Maybe you should call her first?” I suggest, looking into the rearview.

“Man, I don’t even know her number been so long. She’s probably been married and divorced twice.”

We hit the four-lane and head east toward the largest of the five projects, which I didn’t know existed before I started driving a cab. These projects are arranged like black moons around a white planet, and it’s my job to ferry kitchen workers into the city square or wherever it is they work, a twenty-dollar bookend on a job that pays them maybe nine bucks an hour.

It’s a late spring midafternoon but already feels like summer as I drive under the Fordice Bridge past campus. As I do this I’m wondering if Uber will steal all my rides from the projects. I’ve never used an Uber and don’t understand how that works, but my hope is that when they come into town next month—it’s not just a rumor anymore—they’ll shun the projects the same way all the other cab companies in town do.

Bethune Woods is one of our nicer projects. It has a suburban facade fronting the grim rows of public housing.

“Damn,” my fare says, as the Lincoln bottoms out on a speed bump.

“You get used to it,” I tell him.

“Is it yours?”

“Nah, company car. I get to keep it at my house. I mean, as long as I put in my seventy a week, I do.”

“Seventy hours? Man, that sounds kinda dangerous.”

I laugh and tell him, “I know guys drive ninety.”

Our destination turns out to be a beater house. Somebody has stolen the garage door, and a plastic wave of kid junk is cresting into the driveway. The lawn is that bright-green ryegrass with brown jigsaw pieces where somebody sprayed ant poison. The one catalpa tree is either blighted or a late bloomer. No cars. All the lights off.

“Man, can you wait here a minute? I’m just gonna look-see inside.”

Leaving his beers on the floorboard, he rings the bell and waits, combs his hair back with his fingers, then knocks and waits some more. Finally, after glancing back at me, he wanders into the garage, pokes around in there, and then opens the side door and disappears into the house.

I sit there thinking, Well, I didn’t see that coming, and once again I find myself wondering what makes an accomplice an accomplice. At what moment do you stop being a taxi driver and start being a getaway driver? But I don’t leave, not yet. For one thing, I haven’t been paid. Also I happen to like the guy. He looks like a discarded version of my friend Earl, who hustles golf for fun. This guy is like Earl’s prison twin—Rich Earl, Poor Earl—the Earl who owns nothing and has lost a few teeth in Parchman. Same year, same model: opposite fates.

Opposite Earl gets back into the cab lugging a pilfered six-pack of High Life to add to his floorboard collection.

“Man, she ain’t even here. You mind taking me out to 243? I know this other girl. I can’t remember the street but I can point you there.”

“Pays the same,” I say, my way of letting him know I’m not taking him there for free. I should tell him it’s two bucks a mile outside city limits, plus two bucks for each additional stop, but instead I start telling him about my friend Earl.

“He drinks Bud Light, too. Y’all look so much alike it’s crazy. When I first saw you standing there I was sure you were him.”

“All he does is play golf?”

“Yeah, I guess. He wins all the local tournaments—they call them scrambles—and he doesn’t even practice. I don’t think he even likes golf.”

“That how he got rich, hustling golf?”

“No. He was born that way.”

“We really look that much alike?”

“Twins,” I say, and then think, Well, except for that neck tat depicting the great state of Mississippi.

“So where’s this guy live at?”

I hesitate and then tell him, “Out on 40.”

“What’d you say his name was?”

“Earl. Earl Jones.”

I am a bad liar. It always sounds like I’m asking a question.

“Huh. You think I could fool his wife?”

I don’t comment on that. Earl’s wife is my friend Kyla, who does not fool easily. We turn onto 243 near the Soul Food Stop and wind our way into some suburb near the county middle school. It’s a much nicer house this time but has a ramped driveway that causes the Lincoln to bottom out again. Like I said, you get used to it. He knocks on the front door, does his hair again, then removes a key from under the doormat and goes inside. This time, he comes out with a corked bottle of red wine and an orange.

“Maggie ain’t home, either,” he tells me, and a moment later I hear the cork pop. “Man, I ain’t had wine in fuck forever. Ain’t the only thing I ain’t had.”

“Please don’t peel that orange back there,” I say.

“No, sir,” he replies, in what I assume to be the voice he used in prison to talk to guards.

I’ve started driving us toward the house of this third girl he knows when we are passed on the road by a robin’s-egg-blue ’57 Chevy convertible.

“Wow,” I say.

I never cared about cars before driving a cab. Now I like them better than I like most people.

“That’s her!” he yells. “That’s Maggie’s Chevy—catch her!”

I gun the twenty-year-old, broke-dick Lincoln. It takes about ten minutes and five gallons to catch up, and right as we do the Chevy turns into a gas station and it becomes clear the platinum blonde behind the wheel is accompanied by some guy with the largest bald head I’ve ever seen. His meaty arm, draped over the passenger door, is covered in those Japanese gangster tattoos, like sleeves that end at the wrist.

“Fuck. Man, let’s get outta here.”

Opposite Earl stays glum for a few miles but then rallies and still wants to go to this other girl’s house. I tell him I won’t take him there unless he promises not to steal anything. In total he has four ex-girlfriends. Either that or he’s just scouting houses to ransack later. None of the women are home. Finally he makes me take him back to the first house, the one in the project. I charge him twenty bucks—the freedom-is-sweet special—and leave him sitting in a lawn chair in front of the doorless garage drinking wine and looking happy. That’s what she’ll see when she pulls into the driveway that evening with her kids.

As I coast away, he grins and lifts his wine bottle. I start to honk but then remember my horn doesn’t work. Then I start to wave before remembering the tinted glass. Then I wave anyway.


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April 2020