[Readings] Numero Uno, By Myriam J. A. Chancy | Harper's Magazine

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From What Storm, What Thunder, which will be published in October by Tin House.

I’m usually talkative, you see. Not in an annoying, over-the-top kind of way, but I have people skills. In the first days of driving the cab, after a few lifts, I realized that I was supposed to be as quiet and as invisible as a fly. If I talked too much, the women clutched their purses a little closer to their bodies. The men glared at me through the rearview mirror, thinking I was insane.

The worst fares I get are from the ones who come into the car with their pet dogs. Little rat dogs: terriers, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, wieners, cockers. You name it, they have it, in zip-up carriers or with their heads hanging out of handbags as if they’re blankets these people are going to wrap around their shoulders, like live minks. The only little dogs I like are the Jack Russells. Jack Russell owners tend to keep them on a leash. Some are talkative, some are not; they don’t cause trouble. The other passengers with dogs seem a bit crazy to me. They’re kinder to the dogs than they are to people. They bark on the phone to their associates and lovers, bark at me. They tip like shit. They act like they care more about their little dogs than anything else in the world, but they care about nothing more than themselves, and appearances. Some of them feed the dogs in the car from little hidden treat bags they keep in a pocket even though the back of the cab has a sign that clearly states no food. I guess dog treats aren’t food to these people. I pointed this out a few times at the beginning but simply got nasty stares for my trouble, as if I’d taken a mother’s milk out of a starving baby’s mouth. These people don’t know what it means to starve.

After a while, I started envying the dogs. They had homes, and treats, and some kind of sick love that meant that they were carried off the ground in a satchel or purse from one place to the next. My goodness, these people with their trench coats and fancy boots, their shades, and their ability to hop in and out of cabs, still have to pick up dog poop. It’s a city ordinance. Those dogs bring them to their knees, literally. Those dogs are the kings and queens of the city.

But I know all this is an illusion, as so many things are. I realized it the day I was on the highway coming back into the city after a long drive that had gotten me a $20 tip. I had been behind the same cars for a while, had memorized their decals, noted the ability of the drivers from the way they rushed through traffic or braked when they got too close to another car. There was a low-riding red hatchback about three cars ahead with the head of a dog popping up and down in the back seat; the driver was gesticulating and kept looking back. I assumed he was on the phone with someone. There were cars with whole families, little kids turning around to give me the finger. There were the single girls whose minds seemed elsewhere, driving with a mission but weaving up and over the yellow lines, checking their text messages. There were the loose guys in big trucks, with their arms hanging out the driver’s-side window (they always drove Fords), true patriots, the good old boys, men I wouldn’t want to meet in the dark, especially those who had Confederate-flag bumper stickers. I hadn’t been here long, but I knew that spelled trouble. I was watching all of them, thinking about the fact that there were other cars behind me, with drivers doing the same, watching ahead and wondering about the lives all around.

But there I was on the highway, thanking God for granting me the good luck to pick up this ride, pondering whether I could afford to get a drink out that night, when something incredible—no, I mean unimaginable—happened. The red lowrider that had been a few cars ahead of me swerved in and out of its lane. Sitting up in my seat, gripping the steering wheel with both hands, placing my foot on the brake, I got ready for whatever would come next. The traffic slowed only a little bit and then more cars started to swerve, and I saw that there was a dog in the middle of the highway, trying to figure out which way to go. It was a big dog, a long-haired setter. The dog had been thrown out of the red lowrider. I was too far away to stop and grab it, but I could see it ahead in traffic, running, confused, stopping, turning around. A car that hadn’t seen the commotion came up behind me, to my right, and ran over it. At first the dog was stunned, popped back up, hobbled a bit; then another car that hadn’t seen it ran over it again, and that was that—roadkill.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead dog on the highway, or, I guess I should say, dog parts. Sometimes you see something that resembles a furry femur on the median. You wonder how it got there, where the rest of the animal might be, but then you forget and go on. Highways are like that: They don’t invite stops and speculation. Things happen. Shit happens. This time, I knew that someone had thrown a live animal into oncoming traffic, as if he had wanted to see the animal die, punish it for some misdeed rather than give it away to someone who might care for it. It was no mistake.

I had seen only the back of the head of the guy in the red car. Hadn’t seen whether the arm throwing the dog was white or brown. It was a shadow like so many shadows. The car had had stickers of skulls on its rear bumper, and a university crest. That could mean anything and nothing. Cars changed hands like tissue here.

After that day, I eyed my dog customers with suspicion. I pointed out that the no food sign included dog food. I told them they’d better be good to their dogs and not be putting on an act. I envied the dog owners too, the companionship, the loyalty they got from those dogs. At home, dogs wandered the streets aimlessly in search of food. They were a breed I’d never seen anywhere else: tan dogs with small bodies. It was hard to believe that they were descendants of dogs that had been trained to track and kill enslaved Africans in Cuba, to dismember them alive. I supposed that this was why no one looked after them. Generally, in Haiti, man and dog ignore each other. We have a quarrel with the dog as a species. We don’t want them around. We kick them when they’re down. They’ve become too much like us, in a way. They remind us of our weaknesses. The people who keep dogs usually have them guard their houses, though some who travel to the exterior quite a bit, mostly women, keep them as pets. Those women are bored to death with their lives and shower their pet dogs with unrestrained adoration. They barely speak to their maids and give the leftover food to their dogs while the maids starve on the little corn porridge they’re allotted. Those pet dogs don’t last long. The heat usually gets to them and then the whole household has to hold a silent vigil in the backyard. These are the same women who never even ask after maids who disappear from work. They prefer to think the maids—women like my mother—are lazy rather than wonder whether one of their children has taken sick. They take an afternoon off from their social calendar to bury their dead dogs, but the maid loses her job if she has to bury a child.

If I could afford it, I thought, I would get a dog. It would ride up in the front of the cab with me, in the passenger seat, and stare back at the clients. Watch out, it would seem to say, panting: I’m watching you; one wrong move, and I’ll bite your head off! I would even let it bark if it wanted. I would feed it jerky—pet food would be allowed in the front of the cab. If it had to go to the bathroom when I was on a job, I would excuse myself and pull over and let it out to do its business. I also would let it know that “God” is “dog” spelled backward and give it its props. Who knows, God might be in one of them, judging us, laughing, watching us pick up its poop. “I’m the boss,” I would say to it, “but you’ve got to atone for what you did to my people, God-dog; you have to prove that you’re man’s best friend and I’ll be your friend too, dakò? Okay?”

I came home forlorn the day of the highway incident. I even forgot to return the car. I couldn’t think straight. The man I’d borrowed it from, Guy, my best friend, an African American born and raised in this city, had to call me looking for it. He and his wife didn’t live that far away. He walked over to get it. I told him about the dog over a finger of three-star Haitian rum I kept in the pantry for when I had guests, which was never. Guy was the first, though he and his wife had had me over a handful of times. When I finished the story, he laughed. I stared at him. Guy and I aren’t wired the same way.

“Welcome to America,” he said, swallowing the rum in one long draw and grimacing as it hit the back of his throat. “America, where people are as liable to let their dog loose on the freeway as to give it to a neighbor. Why would you want to make a neighbor happy? Love thy neighbor as thyself.” He leaned over the coffee table and wagged his long index finger close to my nose. He was already buzzed. “Remember that a neighbor here in America is a stranger. You have to watch out for number one.”

“Number one?” I asked.

“Numero uno, buddy.” Guy pointed to himself. “The guy taking up space behind your eyeballs.”

After Guy went on his way without giving me any part of the tip I’d brought back from the last run, because he’d had to come for the car, I realized that America was like those wealthy women back home: bored out of its mind and careless to the point of cruelty. I took a second shot, then a third.

Numero uno, Guy had said.

I’ll be the dog, I thought. Someday I’ll be the dog. Not one of those measly Cuban castoffs slinking around in the streets looking for a morsel to eat, but a mastiff sitting in the front seat of a car, barking its head off at those who dare cross its path. A dog with a mission, unlike the ones sitting primly in purses, hand-fed one morsel at a time. A dog that poops where it wants, runs free, barks atop heaps of sweltering garbage. A dog no one dares throw a rock at.


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