Dispatch sent me to a house in the Tucson foothills. It was a typical foothills community full of upper class false-adobe houses all painted the same sallow desert tan. No real color was allowed by the neighborhood ordinance. It was 111 degrees and there hadn’t even been a cloud in 4 days.
When I arrived in my cab I heard loud music inside the house. I didn’t see anybody. No phone number had been provided. I got out of the cab and knocked on the door several times. A man grunted: “RIGHT OUT!” I waited on the sunny driveway and looked at my watch: 2:15 p.m.
The door opened and a Rottweiller leaped out at me. A man inside caught the dog by the scruff of the neck.
“You son of a BITCH!” he screamed, and kicked the dog viciously back inside.
He was Hispanic, around fifty, black hair slicked back into a tiny, perfectly tight ponytail. He wore sunglasses, brown wool sports jacket, new blue jeans and walnut colored dress shoes. And he was BUILT. Not tall, but wide. He had a confidence. He held a glass of beer and walked toward the cab.
In the cab, he said: “I’m Carlos.”
“Very sad about Big John,” Carlos said.
Big John had been a cab driver for many years. He had died a few weeks before of a kidney infection. He had complained about pain for days but he wouldn’t go to the doctor, he said he didn’t have the money. That’s what sitting in these vehicles day after day can do to you. One day he drove his cab to the hospital and walked into the emergency room. He was dead 7 hours later.
“He was a friend of yours?” I said.
“Of course!” Carlos said. “He was my driver for ten years. I’ve been…out of town. I just heard about his death. Big John was a good man.”
I had never liked Big John much.
“Where we headed?” I said.
Carlos looked at me as if he had been offended.
“Craycroft and Pima.”
The east side. That meant at least thirty five dollars on the meter.
“You want me to take the freeway?” I said.
“Whatever you want.”
“Or maybe Skyline Drive?”
I sat there a moment. I was nervous. I was just a middle aged guy with a studio apartment, I didn’t want any trouble. Carlos took a hand gun out of his coat pocket and sat it on the seat beside him.
“I’ll take the freeway,” I said.
Carlos had cans of beer in the pockets of his sports jacket. He finished his glass and took a can out and filled it again. He was perfectly shaved except for a little hair under the middle of his lower lip.
A piece of rubber tire came upon us on the highway. I swerved to miss it and Carlos nearly spilled his beer.
“Take it easy,” he said.
Halfway there Carlos said, “Next time take Skyline.”
Carlos told me to pull into the parking lot of a pawn shop. He got out slowly and strutted into the store. He stayed inside for at least twenty minutes. My palms were wet. I should leave, I should leave, I thought. Carlos had taken his gun with him.
After a while, I got out of the cab and looked in the glass doors of the pawn shop. At that moment Carlos came out, almost hitting me in the nose with the door.
“I see how you are,” Carlos said.
“Just checking my hair,” I told him.
“I need a beer,” Carlos said. “Take me to the south side.”
The south side was another twenty minutes away, and once we got there he wanted me to go to a gas station, where he bought a twelve pack of beer. Then he instructed me to park in an alley looking out onto the street, right next to a Mexican guy selling corn out of the back of his truck. The corn nearly steamed in its husks sitting there in boxes in the sun. The meter clicked more slowly as we sat. I watched it like the doomsday clock.
Carlos drank his beer.
I turned around and looked at him.
“Can I ask a question?” I said. Carlos nodded and lifted his hand.
“What exactly are we doing?” I said.
Carlos smiled and shook his head.
“In life you must be flexible,” he said.
“But what is our ultimate destination?”
“You’ll have to ask God that question, my friend. Just drive.”
He wanted me to drive when he told me to drive and to turn where he told me to turn and to listen when he talked. Carlos measured my reactions.
“You have a girlfriend?” Carlos asked.
“Are you a man, or what?” he said.
“I think so.”
“I have four girlfriends,” Carlos said. “One in New York, one in Brazil, and two in Mexico.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Not really,” he said.
“They like the money,” I said.
“No!” Carlos said. “It’s more than the money.”
Carlos wanted the music turned up. Then he talked in whispers.
“A man needs to have some fun once in a while,” he said.
I knew what he meant.
“You know what I mean?” he said.
The whole thing was some kind of test.
“Can you keep a secret?” Carlos said.
I didn’t want any secrets, I’d had enough of secrets. My heart was racing and I was sweating all over. My fear was mixed with anger.
“I mean,” he said, “you know where I live, you know all this about me.”
“You haven’t told me anything.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say you were stupid.”
“I don’t want to wake up with an ice pick in the back of my neck,” Carlos said. “You have to be careful. Just like driving this cab around, you never know who you’re going to pick up.”
“Can you keep your mouth shut is what I’m asking you,” Carlos said.
“If I have to.”
“One day a man might come up to you,” Carlos said.
“This man may look just like me, this man may even claim to be me. What will you tell him?”
“Nothing, Carlos.”“Pull over here.”
We sat on 12th Ave., which was Carlos’s street. He “ran” it. One of the perks of running a street is he never had to pay for anything and could supposedly walk up to any woman he saw and take her to a hotel.
It was all about something he called “protection”. Big John had been his driver for nearly ten years. Carlos was never in Tucson long enough to have his own car, so he used Big John. Big John was driving a cab around hell right about then, which was probably not much hotter than Tucson.
“Nobody’s gonna take care of you,” Carlos said. “You’ve got to take care of yourself. A man’s got to take care of himself, you know what I mean?”
“Look around you,” he said. “That guy selling corn out of the back of his god damned truck back there, he’s got an old lady at home and four kids, man. Who’s gonna take care of them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me!” Carlos said. “Nobody else is gonna do it! I take care of them. They are like my children. I would do anything for them. I mean, sometimes you gotta kick ass, but that’s just how it goes.”
He held out his right arm and flexed his biceps.
“Go ahead,” he said, “feel it. Eighteen fucking inches.”
Carlos looked at me. He liked me, but he didn’t like me.
“You don’t understand anything, do you?”
“I’m not from this world,” I said.
Carlos laughed. He shook my hand about twenty times and said he wanted me to be his new driver. My hand was still sweaty and when Carlos let go, he wiped his hand on his jeans and smiled viciously.
Intimidation vibrated from Carlos. He sat back there, ensconced in malignant ego, completely full of himself, ready to kill at any moment, or ready to die. He was a man you just did not fuck with. And his gun sat there the whole time.
The next part of the afternoon was spent going to various places. He kept barking at me.
“Pull over there! Not here, there! Do what I tell you!”
At one point I pulled the cab over outside of a little taco stand. I told Carlos he was wearing me out, and that I was tired of his mouth. My fear had been exhausted and I was just plain pissed. Plus I was hungry. Carlos looked at me with shock. I figured I was done for. But Carlos softened. He grinned and patted me on the shoulder.
“You have some balls after all, my friend,” he said.
After that, he was quiet, and more polite.
We stopped at many pawn shops and bars, so Carlos could collect protection money or just throw his weight around. He was never in these places more than a few minutes. Sometimes he returned slightly winded or with a layer of perspiration on his upper lip. Other times I heard loud voices from inside the buildings, and one time a muffled gun shot. I sat behind the wheel and stared through my sunglasses into the sunshine, at the palms and cactus and dusty alleys. I just could not leave. Carlos knew what company I worked for and unless I was willing to leave the city, I was afraid Carlos would find me if I just drove off and left him.
Outside of one Mexican restaurants there were four Mexican musicians unloading their musical instruments from a truck. Four old Mexican men, dressed like farmers. They were preparing to play in the restaurant.
“Stop the car,” Carlos said.
He got out and walked over to the musicians, snapped something in Spanish. They jumped like Satan’s jesters. Carlos walked back and climbed into the cab, leaving the door open. The windows were down. The musicians scrambled over and stood right next to the cab. Carlos named a song and they exploded into it. They played their hearts out. The instruments that they strummed and pounded were held together by duct tape and carpentry nails, too beat up and old to even interest a pawn shop.
They were more scared than I was. They knew this Carlos. I could see it on their faces. They were all sweating in the afternoon sun. Everybody was sweating except Carlos. There was no joy in that music, only fear of hitting a wrong note. After about five songs, Carlos tired of them, waved them off. Not a dime tip.
When he walked out of yet another pawn shop, he told me he would be staying there for a while, and that I was free to leave. I had been held hostage for over four hours.
“Whatever you want,” I said.
“I’m a man,” Carlos said. “I do what I want.”
The rest of his twelve pack of beer sat on the floor of the cab.
“You want your beer?”
“Fuck the beer.”
“You’re my driver, right?” Carlos said. “You will take me here and there, sometimes?”
There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.
The fare was one hundred and eighty dollars. Carlos took out an inch-thick fold of bills and handed me the exact amount. Then he made theatrics about giving me a five dollar tip.
“I always pay my debts,” he said. “Remember that.”
He said he would be calling, and warned me again about keeping my mouth shut. I drove, my heart beating like a rabbit’s, very much alive. I found a shady spot on the north side of town, rolled the window down and turned off the engine. I sat there thinking about those skin-and-bone musicians, their strained smiles, their yellow teeth, their long brown fingers plucking the guitar strings, tapping the drum, holding the horn that shined golden in the sun. The sweat rolling down their faces like laborers in a field. The lone singer who closed his eyes and lifted his head and prayed his voice would not crack. I could not remember the songs he sang, not a word of them, not a note, only his courage, his bared throat.