"If You See Nikki, Give Her My Best" , by Kyle Hemmings.
It's about 7:30 p.m. I'm still beat to shit from last night's run. Grab another swig from the bottle, Komet Kocktail, a concoction of herbs, vitamins, and caffeine that leaves your body wired and numb. Look out past the steering wheel. Manhattan. A jigsaw of bright and flashing lights, a mad dash of pedestrians with their smorgasbord of agendas. My shift started at 6 p.m. Light just turned green.
I'm driving a young couple headed to Staircase 2 Selina, a new hotspot in Chelsea. The girl, with fluffy honey-colored hair, and a bit too much eyeliner, or maybe the new vampire look at clubs, asks me if I'm the same guy on TV who turns around and says "How would you like to earn some money?" And then he would spring Jeopardy-like questions. No, I tell her, I'm not the guy.
"Wow," she says, in this slightly snooty, slightly muted, voice. "You look just like him. I mean the shaved head and all."
"Doesn't he?" says her partner. His voice is louder, somewhat effeminate.
In the rearview, I inspect my face. A fashionable three-day gristle. My head resembling a huge cue ball. I smile. No. I'm not him, and I drop them off in front of a warehouse-like building, a snake-like line of people twirling around a corner.
I get a call from the dispatcher to pick up a customer on 23rd and 6th. Destination: Port Authority. I pull up. The guy is middle-aged and somewhat disheveled. He scurries to the edge of the sidewalk, waving his forefinger like a shy student with an answer for the teacher. He hops in.
His face is round, his head almost bald too, but his lack of hair, a natural fallout. Not like mine. He's dressed in a baggy tan suit, tie loosened, and he seems somewhat short-winded. Perhaps he attempted to walk uptown and gave up—he's somewhat portly. I watch his face in the rearview. He squints his eyes behind a pair of oval, thin designer-frames, and pronounces the name on the square I. D. hanging off the dash. Milos, he mumbles. Hello, Milos. How's business? he asks.
I speed across 9th Avenue. My timing of lights is excellent. I've learned to cut through prison walls of stalled traffic, to withstand insults hurled from open windows. Sometimes, I yell through the closed window, something like "take mass transit, you asshole," or "this is not Jersey, peter-brain." Sometimes, I give them the finger. Mostly, though, I say nothing. Only received one ticket in the past six months. Jumping a light. But I looked. Really did.
I leave the passenger off, opposite the Port, and he tells me to wait. I say sure, but he'll have to pay for the ride to midtown. Nothing personal. But too many people try to stiff you. He fumbles through his wallet while he edges towards the door, hands me the fare, plus a generous tip.
"Milos," he says, "please. In case I don't see her."
I tap my fingers on the steering wheel, watch parades of people pass by, like skeins of birds flocking south or west or east, and I wonder about their destinations, their private lives. Sometimes, I envy them. I'm forty-two, live with my mother and people often ask me if I'm married. I always say yes to get them off my back. People ask too many questions and invent fables when you ask them.
Truth is I'm separated from my wife, Margot. I hate Margot for leaving me, for stealing Lena.
My driving a cab never impressed Margot—she took up with a Korean civil engineer, young, younger than her. Whenever I call, he tells me, she's not there, and I curse and pace for minutes in my closet of a East Village apartment. Wish I could squeeze this world in the palm of my hand. Upon releasing it, I'd make a wish for God to put my family back together. Promised myself I'd go back to law school. I will. Someday. A traffic jam of somedays.
I spot the same customer dodging traffic across 8th Avenue, headed back towards my window. He knocks, asks if I could drive him around the Port. She's not there, he tells me, whoever "she" is. There are tiny sweat beads forming around his flushed cheeks. He sighs and thanks me. He hops back in and tells me his name is Paul. I believe him and don't believe him. After all, does he wear an I. D.?
We drive in circles around Port Authority. Like buzzards. I watch in the rearview his face leaning against the window, his intense scrutiny at the jagged lines of people, waiting on corners, children licking the salt from pretzels, muscle-bound men in tight undershirts, others huddling in members-only groups, women strutting with their summer-slick bodies. Their curves, their walk both entice and anger me. In the rearview, I watch Paul's face crinkle. I can sense his eye strain. It is mine too.
He hands me several twenties and says drive around midtown; he wants to scout the streets looking for this woman named Nikki. A bubble of silence fills the cab. The air hangs thick and heavy. His words puncture that silence, and his voice grows rushed and raspy. He says he met her on an internet date site, one he designed. He says he works at home, does most of his work on the computer, makes good money from his website for singles.
At irregular intervals as we cruise, he admits he's sensitive about his looks, his weight, anxiety when people look at him, as if they're robbing him of some natural birth right. He says he develops ugly red blotches on the side of his face when he sweats. Apart from the flushed skin, I haven't noticed any blotches tonight. But then again, I haven't looked that hard.
I wonder too why is he telling me all this.
We scour the streets, the people traipsing, filing out of shops, restaurants, bars. Sometimes, he tells me to make a left here, or a right there, and I think it will all be futile, just like on the other streets. He hands me more money.
"Would you mind if I smoke?"I ask. No, he says. I light up and ask him what does Nikki look like. Maybe two pairs of eyes searching would be better than one. He clears his throat. He says she kind of looks like Janet Jackson, but maybe not that much. Maybe more like that Mexican pop star—Brettina Olivera.
I glance at him in the rearview. Never heard of that one, I say, but Janet, yeah. Oh, yeah. One hot mama, boy. She must be really special, I say. In the rearview, his lips form tight stretch marks, then angry small circles, as he stares out the window. I am reminded of cellophane pulled too tightly— crackling, tearing.
This was the first date, he says, and she told him to meet her at the front of Port Authority, 8 p.m. He had seen her photo, perhaps retouched, read her dossier of likes and dislikes. She desired an older man, reliable, and wasn't so much into looks as a relationship, hopefully, long term.
I nod and say, it always starts that way.
In the rearview, I watch him lean forward and fold his hands. It makes me edgy the way his glassy-eyed stare lingers, bores through me. Suddenly, they bulge.
"Milos, look out!"
I swerve the car as something shadow-like flashes past the hood. Jam on the brakes. It turns out to be a young woman in black top and skirt. She spreads her hands, grits her teeth as if she just swallowed bits of glass.
"Like it's a red light. You colorblind or something, jerk?"
I tap the steering wheel with my head. It was a close one. Mumble a feeble thank-you to Paul.
I peer in the rearview.
"Yes?"I tilt my face in the rearview.
"You get much sleep? You look tired. I mean, your eyes, sagging, look at them."
No, my friend. Not much sleep. "It's been a long week. Driving a cab— long hours."
We drive. I'm beginning to feel guilty about taking his money, and this endless search, like using binoculars to pick out a star in a galaxy of so many. Do you have her cell phone number, I inquire.
"No. In the email, she said she wouldn't give it out . . ." The sound of his hands slapping against his legs.. . " until she knows the person."
I steal a look in the rearview. He adjusts his tie, makes this scrunched-up face, fumbles with the sleeves. His cheeks like embers.
Daddy? says Lena from the backseat.
It's 10: 30 p. m. and I peer at him through the rearview. He looks tired, dejected, his head slumped back, hands at his sides. He suggests trying the East Side, along 1st and 2nd Avenues, because she had mentioned a great salsa place along there in the email. I say no, that I won't waste any more of his money or time, that he should call it a night, perhaps, go out, get drunk, whatever. And after all, New York is a big city. She could be anywhere. Maybe go home, friend, I tell him, get some rest. Tomorrow, send her an email, send her a goddam email.
"It's over, Milos," says Margot, as she pounds her hand against the backseat.
The sound of Paul's hand rubbing along the seat's vinyl. He agrees and says to drop him off at his apartment on 21st and 6th. We arrive at the address. The back door slams, he walks around to my side, offers me more money. I decline, reiterating that he has already paid too much. We shake hands. Instead of walking into the apartment building, he walks past it. He turns, smiles, waves, then, disappears around a corner. I'm tempted to follow him. But I don't. I'm really tempted.
It proves to be a good night. Racking up tips from couples to and from clubs, restaurants, and a drive to Brooklyn that paid off nicely. For most of that ride, a woman with runs in her panty-hose planted her face square in a man's lap. He blushed when he paid the fare.
Several hours later, I'm rambling down 10th Avenue. A flurry of swirling lights greets me up ahead. EMTs carry a body in a stretcher. I slow up, try to get a glimpse, but I can't make out the face. Surely, the body must have one. All bodies do.
I look in the rearview.
Paul, are you okay?
He smiles at me. Let's keep driving, he says.
Towards morning, I pick up a young woman in front of a after-hours club. She wears pumps, a matching leather jacket and skirt, hair, mahogany brown, a slight facial resemblance to Jennifer Lopez. Her tone is dry and diffident and a slight sneer is etched on his face. She gives me an East Chelsea address.
We're stopped at a red light, my cell goes off. I pick up, answer.
"Who's this? Margot? Margot, that you?"
"Milos, call me when you get home."
"What are you doing up? You're okay, no? Is Lena okay?"
"Call me when you get home. Okay?"
She's not there.
With a loud and harsh grumbling, the passenger in back clears her throat. I peer up. The light has turned green. My palm pounds against the steering wheel. Sorry, I say. I am so sorry.
Passing an all-night diner, I peer in, inspect the stragglers sitting at the counter, one munching on a donut or bagel. Wonder if the one sipping coffee is Paul. I cannot secure a good look. My cab crawls past the shop.
He turns around and waves.
In the rearview, the woman is shooting me an odd stare.
The streets are quiet and barren, ghosts of a life that throbbed only hours before, and I feel the need for more caffeine. I stop the car in the middle of 5th Avenue. These 6-day shifts are killing me. I swing my head around and say, "Nikki?"
"Excuse me?" she says, lifting her head in the rearview.
I didn't do anything wrong.
"You can't stop in the middle of the street," she says. "Is there something wrong?"
In the rearview, she shakes her head from side to side. Her eyebrows arch and her eyes squint.
I pull up in front of a five-story brick-and-mortar apartment building and roll down the window.
Above, the sky turns to a shade of light blue, the sun's eye peeking through orange and red frills at the horizon. A honk squeals from a passing van, a carload of young men and women cheer and clap. From somewhere, a distant police siren blares or is it my mother's tea kettle?
I shift the car in park and say "seven dollars."
Seven dollars, she says in a slow crescendo. For just a few blocks?
"It was more than a few, miss."
I hear the rustle of her hand fumbling through her handbag, her mumbling, her rushed breaths pocketed by a sigh. In the rearview, I watch her lift her head up, her lips sunken and the muscles streaking around her eyes. Our faces meet in the rearview.
"I'm sorry," she says, " I thought I had more. I only have five. Uhm wait." She continues to rummage through her white vinyl purse. "You guys don't take credit cards, do you?"
I study her as she fumbles through her purse, as she grows more frantic, as she wipes from time to time her eyes with the sleeve of the leather jacket. Her voice trembles, no longer the reedy self-assured tone I heard earlier. I imagine tiny streams of make-up mixed with sweat running down her cheeks.
"Wait," she says, "I have some change. Some quarters somewhere. For the tolls to Jersey. Okay. Here's some dimes. Thirty-five, forty. I need more light. Can you put on the inside light?"
"Ma'am . . ."
"Look, just be patient, okay. It's been a bad week. A bad month. Oh, fuck. I know I have it. Just wait, OK?"
I raise one hand in the air and wait for her to look up.
"Ma'am, it's okay. I'll tell you what. The fare's on me. On one condition. "
Her lips quiver and hang open as she watches me in the rearview.
"You have coffee with me sometime. Some small talk. You can tell me about your bad week. Casey's Diner around the corner. I pass it all the time."
"Is this a bribe for a date?"
"Am I that ugly?"
We stare at each other in silence in the rearview. She tilts her head down.
"I don't give out my number to strangers. And as for a date, I'm still getting over someone."
She opens the door, steps out, and sidles around to my window. She hands me a fistful of bills and loose change. I wave her away.
"You think about it. If you change your mind, you can reach me at the station. I'm off on Sundays."
She shakes her head in slight motions and manages to work up a faint smile.
"Thanks for the fare. Maybe. I'll think about it."
"My name is Milos." I stretch out my hand; we shake and smile into each other's face. She turns to walk away, then, flips her head back to steal a look at me. She saunters back to my window.
"My name isn't Nikki, by the way. It's Rosa."
I chew the inside of my lip and nod. Rosa, I repeat. A nice name. Her lips pull to their corners and she nods in return.
Nikki, you have my number.
I watch her as she vanishes into the apartment complex, then take off towards Midtown. Above me, pigeons coo and flap their wings over yawning streets. Street cleaners in orange uniforms disappear around corners. On the sidewalks, stragglers munch on donuts or bagels, or sip coffee from paper cups. A few joggers work their arms like pistons. My eyes grow heavy. I need to get some sleep. I have to call Margot. Worried about Lena.
At a red light, my cab nails the rear end of a blue Ford Galaxy. The light turns green. The driver, some scrawny punk rocker with long, braided hair, tattoos along the neck, steps out and spreads his hands, says, "What the fuck, man." I hope it is only a fender bender, but the noise did jar me.
He scuttles to the back of his car, inspects whatever damage. He runs a hand along the chrome fender, then, turns, and shrugs. He walks back to the driver's side and takes off with a screeching tire spin.
I peep in the rear view. I study my eyes that are drop-droopy and reddened, then, the eyes drift towards the back seat. There are no passengers. No faces or ghosts. The back seat is empty, the way it always is at the end of my shift.
Kyle Hemmings currently works in health care. His other passions include cooking, baking, cartoon art and listening to anything by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. He also likes sleeping late on Saturday mornings.
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