Even at 11:59 p.m., the heat still owned Palm Springs. Emile’s shift had started a couple of hours earlier, and he sat in his taxicab, munching on some stale donut holes, waiting for dispatch to inform him of his next pick-up. He tinkered with the radio and absorbed some mundane news: It was hot. The DOW had fallen. People weren’t watching the Olympics.
Tired of the A/C, he rolled down his window and let the arid wind sweep across his face. Twelve years out here, and his brain still had a hard time associating night with warmth. Emile took a slug of coffee and popped in his last doughnut hole. He stared at the green-lit dashboard clock and studied the pulsing dots between the hours and minutes. He clenched his jaw and ground his molars.
Seconds later, it was midnight, May 24th.
Nothing, of course, had changed. Highway 111 was identical to moments prior: razor-sharp cacti flanking the road, lampposts casting yellow rays onto the black street, and bright gas stations and fast-food restaurants emitting their noxious stink. Once again, he glanced at the time. This day always hurt.
Dispatch crackled through, alerting him of a passenger. Emile grabbed the CB and depressed the switch. “The strip club?” he said.
Emile punched the gas and rushed past banks, liquor stores, and delis. The roads were clear, with only the occasional car or cab. America was turning into one big strip mall. Emile always joked that it was like he was driving on a treadmill, unable to tell one block from another. The faster he drove the harder air came at him, and he savored the way it raced over his arms and rattled his eardrums. 12:02, the clock read. The pulsing dots steady and strong, like a heartbeat. Where was she right now? Was her hair long? Were her fingers clad with rings? What shade was her lipstick? How sweet was her perfume?
Cars jammed the parking lot of the Booby Trap, and Emile waited in the messy line, the back wheels of his cab hanging into the street. He dragged his eyes across the neon sign of a woman kicking one of her legs high above her head. The sign was constructed in three parts: one of a woman standing naturally, wearing cowboy boots, denim shorts, and a low-cut t-shirt; the second part showed her kicking up halfway; and the last frame showcased her leg up by her head. Emile followed the sign through its progression before a parking-lot attendant yelled at him to pull up.
He jutted forward and popped a toothpick between his lips. A young woman and man staggered towards the cab, whipped the door open, and flung themselves into the backseat. They were dizzy with laughter and dragged more heat into the car. Booze permeated the cabin.
“Where to?” Emile asked.
“Head towards Indian Wells,” the man said. His hair was buzzed, and his eyes were wrapped with Buddy Holly glasses. He slammed the door and Emile nodded and drove.
The young woman flicked on the overhead light and dug through her purse. Emile peeked in the rearview mirror, allowing his eyes to roam the woman. She was tight against her door, bursts of breath fogging up the window. She was attractive, around twenty, wearing a black-haired bob and a red tank top. Large hoop earrings dangled from her lobes and swayed whenever the road roughened.
Dispatch asked if Emile had picked up the client, and he confirmed.
“I like your accent,” the young woman said. “Is it French?”
“Yes,” Emile said.
“How long have you been here? In the U.S.? In Palm Springs?”
“I’ve always wanted to go to France,” she said. “Always wanted to walk the cobblestone streets. Are you from Paris?”
“Jesus, baby, leave the man alone. He doesn’t need you breathing down his neck, okay?”
“Shut up,” she said. “You’re such an ass when you drink.”
“Don’t talk to me like that, all right?” the man said.
Emile glanced in the rearview and noticed the man’s hairy hand resting on the girl’s shoulder. The man then reached up and turned off the cabin light.
“It’s fine,” Emile said. “I don’t mind. No, I’m not from Paris. I’m from Corsica, a little leaf-shaped island in the Mediterranean.”
“Do you guys have cobblestones?”
“In important places.”
At least twice a day Emile withstood this conversation. Most of the time, he wished he was American, so that people wouldn’t have access to such an easy topic of conversation, but with this girl, he didn’t mind. He liked her delicate voice, and he had the feeling that speaking with him was the farthest she’d ever traveled.
“You wanna know something?” she said.
“Will you shut up for a second?” the man said. “You wanna marry this man or something? You wanna have his babies? Damn!”
Emile turned on the overhead light and swung his head around. “It’s fine,” he said. “Okay? Let her be.”
The man licked his teeth, and Emile peered down to see the man’s thick hand on the young woman’s knee. He was rough on her skin, not caressing, but gripping and kneading.
“So, yes,” Emile said, “I do want to know something.” He clicked off the light and blackness, once again, swallowed the cabin.
“Today’s my 21st birthday.”
“That’s right,” the man said. “No more fake IDs.”
Emile’s abdomen knotted and his eyes burned. Obviously, he knew that people shared her birthday, but he’d never met another with it.
“Is that gonna get me a free ride?” she asked.
“Nope,” Emile said. “Only an actual birth will do that.”
“In that case,” she said. There was some rustling in the back seat and the girl began to spout impassioned moans. “Just kidding,” she said.
“Don’t play me like that,” the man said. “Got me all excited.”
“Whatever,” the young woman said.
Emile remembered being her age. It was an easy time to sink back into. Back then, he thought he was invincible. All he cared about then was his Citroën and his Gitanes cigarettes. He’d only smoked them because of the design of the package: the silhouette of a seductive woman in a shroud of smolder.
He’d meet Françoise for lunch at the port, and they’d navigate her father’s boat along the coastline, take in the calanques, and stop for a swim when the heat became unbearable. Afterwards, they’d share a towel, and let the rest of their droplets dry in the sun. They’d savor a cigarette or two and do their best to construct interesting designs with their smoke. She’d often paint her toenails aboard the boat, and after some getting used to, Emile made his peace with the chemical smell.
“Hey, buddy, you ever been to that club . . . Booby Trap?” the man asked.
“No,” Emile said.
“Why not? You gay or something?”
“No, I just think a man should have to earn seeing breasts.”
“Some beautiful girls in there, though,” the man said.
“They were beautiful,” the young woman said. “And they smelled so good. I just didn’t like it when they clacked their heels together.”
“I hope you go through with it,” the man said to the young woman. “The manager really seemed interested. You got his number, right? Think of the loot you’ll make.”
“I don’t know,” the young woman said.
Emile cracked his toothpick and tossed it out the window.
“Strange to take your girlfriend to a strip club, don’t you think?” Emile asked.
“What’s strange is me listening to you run your mouth in your weird voice.”
“Be quiet,” the young woman said. “Calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down. Shit. You know how much I hate that.”
“You drank too much,” she said.
Emile cranked the A/C higher. He then turned down the CB and covered the time, 12:18, with a wadded-up paper towel.
“You want one?” Emile heard the man ask.
“No, I told you before . . . I don’t like ’em,” she said.
Emile stopped at red light and turned his head. A nearby Taco Bell lit the surroundings a pale shade of blue and allowed Emile to see into the backseat with ease. The man was holding a small baggy of what looked like pills.
“Not in my cab, okay?” Emile said.
Emile told the young woman to fasten her seatbelt.
The light flipped to green, and Emile accelerated.
The man did as he pleased—Emile knew he would—and popped some pills in his mouth and threw his head back. Emile swung his eyes over to meet the young woman’s. Her mouth stayed tight in a flat line, and she offered a shrug. She then mouthed “sorry.”
Emile nodded and drove hard. He loved being behind the wheel, in total control of the V8, and he glided from lane to lane and watched the money grow on the meter. Up ahead, a green light turned yellow, and he punched the brakes and steadied the wheel. In a clothing store on the right side of 111, a mannequin stood tall under fluorescent lights. She wore a pink bikini and a large-brimmed straw hat. A tote bag dangled from her shoulder, too.
“Pretty lady,” the young woman said. “Don’t you think?”
Emile laughed. “Yes, very.”
“Nice body, right?” she said. “Is she your type?”
“I guess. She doesn’t have any hands. I feel like I need a woman with hands.”
“Yeah, but this way you don’t have to worry about getting slapped.”
“What about dinner, though? It’d be hard to go out to eat.”
“You could feed her. She could be your little baby,” she said.
Emile clamped his teeth, and a bright pain spread through his gums. “Maybe,” he said.
“Have you ever been to Paris?” she asked.
“So you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower?”
“Have you climbed it?”
“No,” Emile said.
The light changed, and again, Emile sped off.
“I’m a small-town guy,” he said.
“How’d you end up in Palm Springs?” she asked.
“I came to California to get away, live by the beach, but it was too expensive, so a friend of mine helped me get a job out here.”
A construction crew smoothed new asphalt with steamrollers and a large sign with a flashing arrow directed drivers into a single lane. Emile rolled down his window and came to a stop. Flares hissed and glowed, and Emile stared at them until his eyes stung. Even when he turned away, he could still see the luster of their burn.
“Baby, just one,” the man said.
“I’ve told you a hundred times that it makes me feel funny,” she said. “You don’t listen.”
Emile wished he could tell the young woman not to take the stripper job—that most people thought they could do something for a little while and then change later in life, but that life wasn’t that convenient and easy to correct.
Emile turned on the radio, and Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” seeped from the speakers. He turned it up a touch. He muttered along best he could, the lyrics snatched by the V8’s growl air. Then the young woman joined in for a verse. When the saxophone came into play, Emile hummed and glanced in the rearview mirror, but it was too dark to see her expression.
“I love this song,” she said.
“I learned English from Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and some from Elvis.”
“I like the way you say Elvis, like El-Veese.”
“Thank you,” Emile said.
The construction crew’s orange vests lit up as the taxi’s headlights brushed over the reflective material. A man held up a sign that said SLOW, and the single lane spread back into three.
When Emile was the girl’s age, he thought love came easy. Even at the time, he knew it wasn’t right to think such a thing, but he was young and handsome; his stomach was ribbed with muscles; his hair was thick; his jokes were funny. But now, thirty years later, he knew with certainty that Françoise was the only women he’d ever loved. And sometimes he’d swim in the thickness of old memories: feel her hot breath against his neck and inhale the olive oil of her soap.
“Just one. Come on,” the man said. His voice was sharp. “You’ll see, you’ll feel good. Trust me.”
Emile knew the man wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and that the girl was, so he made sure no one was behind him and crushed the brakes. The tires squealed, and the steering wheel rattled under his grip. The man jolted forward and his forehead slammed the thick plastic divider.
“Listen,” Emile said. “She’s said ‘no’ twenty times. Are you stupid or something?”
“Shit,” the man said.
“Sir, sir,” the young woman said. “Stop. It’s okay.”
She reached through the opening in the divider and touched Emile on the shoulder. He let out a breath, pulled over, and threw the cab into park.
His mind whirled. It was the first day of autumn, 1970. Church bells clanged in the distance, and sun sliced through flaking shutters. He only had a week before his obligated eighteen months of military service, and he spent as much time with Françoise as possible. They’d planned to sleep together for the first time at her parents’ home. Her parents had left for Bastia to meet up with old friends. Françoise was flat on her bed, nude, her knees up. They took their time, giggled, and heard the mattress squeak with each thrust.
“What is your problem, dude?” the man said.
Emile’s chest heaved, and he turned on the overhead light and faced the man. He started to speak, but caught the girl’s eyes. She seemed scared, with her palms facing forward, and a clammy sheen spread over her skin. “He gets like this when he drinks,” she said. “He doesn’t mean it. Really.”
“Here!” the man said. “I’m having one more! See? See?” He dug into his pocket, rubbed a green pill between his fingers, and popped it into his mouth.
“No!” the young woman said.
“Why are you with this man, this loser?” Emile said.
“Don’t judge me. Don’t judge us. Just drive,” she said. “Please, just drive!”
Emile’s hands shook, and heat seized his chest and flashed up to his throat. He put the car in gear and took off, the needle swinging from thirty to forty to fifty.
Françoise’s parents had come home early—of course they had—and found them coiled under thin sheets. Her father, a stocky man with a thin mustache, had struck Emile in the face repeatedly—till his face had turned scarlet, and his nose had been cracked in three places. To this day, the white of his left eye was stained with a fleck of blood that had never faded like the doctors had said it would.
Emile activated the cruise control and sailed straight through four intersections. The man in the backseat breathed hard, and the young woman consoled him with soft words.
“We’re getting close,” the young woman said to Emile. “Just keep heading straight.”
Emile nodded. The steady stream of A/C dried the sweat on his face. His pulse stayed high, though. He heard the man say something about how sorry he was and how life was short. Emile didn’t say a thing, but he disagreed: Life was long. Long as this highway. And a person was lucky when they finally ran out of gas. He slugged the final ounce of his coffee. It was sweeter than the rest had been, and he crunched on a few of the sugar granules.
“It’s okay. “It’s okay. You’re okay.” The young woman tended to her man.
Emile felt a pang of worry for the girl. Soft murmurs hovered his way as she continued to console him. Emile made out the word “love” a few times, before turning up Janis Joplin. In five hours, his shift would end, and he’d drive home, pull into the carport of his trailer, and head inside. After a coldish shower, he throw some ground beef into a skillet and add whatever was in the fridge to liven it up: peppers, tomatoes, cheese. He’d wash it down with a cold one. Even though he was exhausted after his shift, he couldn’t go straight to bed. He felt that if he went to sleep right away, the next day just began. Usually, he’d flip on the TV and catch an infomercial—something about juicers or knives or mattresses. He always enjoyed the opening minutes of the ads, when they’d show a man or woman having trouble opening a can or hanging a picture, and the scene would be shot in black-and-white. Then, after “there has to be a better way!” was piped in, the product was introduced, and the screen morphed into color. Sometimes the people became more attractive, too. If the infomercial didn’t entertain him, he’d head outside and inhale the sky. Nothing could be compared to the desert night—no skyscrapers, no clouds, no pollution—and all those clusters of stars sparkling, flickering, all feeding the darkness their light.
“This is where it gets a little tricky,” the woman said, leaning forward. “You have to make a right and then a quick left. After that, just take Saguaro all the way up.
“Okay,” Emile said. His heartbeat had steadied, and he could no longer feel his pulse snap in his neck.
Maybe it was for the best. That’s what he always told himself on this day, May 24th. After the beating, Françoise’s father had demanded that Emile never see his daughter again, and he’d made sure of it, sending Françoise to an all-girls’ boarding school in Normandy. The days were hard without anything to look forward to, even harder because Françoise never returned his letters. He could still recall scrawling “Ecole des Roches” on postcards, envelopes, and packages, and waiting in line at the post office to buy the proper stamps. He’d always splurged for speedy service, because he wanted to occupy her mind as soon and as often as possible.
“Just right here,” the young woman said. “Right over there. That one.”
“Nice place,” Emile said, taking in the plain stucco house.
“We just rent the top part,” she said.
Emile brought his window back up and shut off the meter, which read forty-two dollars. He opened his door, and the inside lights cut on. The girl dug through her purse, fed her hand through the divider, and offered fifty bucks.
The man had already left the cab and was standing up ahead, hunched. The taxi’s headlights lit his body, making him seem pale and sick.
Just as the girl was getting out, Emile heard a splat. The girl had fallen hard face-first onto the road. Emile threw his door open and rushed to her side. Her hair was sprawled about the street, and the beep of the open driver’s-side door kept time like a metronome.
“Are you okay? Miss? Are you all right?” Emile said.
Laughs flew from the man’s mouth. “Shit,” he said. “I could hear that from here. It was like thwack!”
Emile hunched over and helped the young woman stand. He inspected her scraped palms and wadded the end of his t-shirt and wiped her hands clean. Emile stared back at the man who was still howling with laughter.
“High heels and rum,” she said. “Not a great combination.”
A thin rill of blood seeped from her chin, and Emile brought his head forward to get a better look.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Seriously.”
“What a lightweight,” the man shouted. He staggered towards them with change rattling in his pockets.
“Can you not be an asshole? Just for a minute?” the young woman said.
“What did you say?” the man said. A crease ran hard between his eyebrows.
“I’m sorry,” she said, angling her gaze towards the street.
“No,” Emile said. “Don’t be sorry.” He shoved his arm in front of the girl and took a step towards the man.
“What the fuck is your problem, man? Leave us alone. Why can’t you just be like other cab drivers and sit in your little yellow car and drive around?” The man’s breath was hard with whiskey. “Now, baby, come here!”
Emile wouldn’t let her move, though. His hand was tight around her wrist now, and she wasn’t pulling very hard. He plunged his teeth into his lower lip.
A passenger had once told him the proper way to throw a punch: with the thumb wrapped around the outside, not tucked inside the palm.
Emile tightened his fingers and stared at the man. He brushed over the man’s large nose and patchy sideburns. Emile inspected the man’s features until they no longer made sense—till they blurred into a messy configuration of hair and colors and skin.
Emile could see himself in the man’s glasses, too, his face jaundiced by the streetlights. He cocked his arm back and brought his fist forward, but the man, even intoxicated, saw the punch coming.
The man ducked, and came back up, blasting Emile across the jaw. Emile went down. His head smacked the concrete. His eyelids fluttered, and he took in the burn of the yellow streetlight above him, like a distant sun, the rays expanding and shrinking.
He shut his eyes. The young woman spoke to him.
He took a deep breath and listened to his heart whang against his ribs. He’d only received a single letter from Françoise, a thin one that he’d used as a bookmark for years in a dusty copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal.
Emile, she’d written, Thank you for all your letters. I have read them so many times that the paper now crinkles like money. I think it is best we no longer write and that we go our separate ways. Don’t you think? It has been almost a year. After I left you, I became very sick. I thought it was heartbreak. And it was, but it was also something else—I was pregnant. I had to give the baby up. It was for the best. A child should not be brought into chaos. She was beautiful, though. I barely got to see her, but I can still remember how warm she smelled. She was born on May 24th. It was rainy that day and cold. I think I would have named her Lucie.
The young woman yelled at her man, told him to stop and to leave. The man continued to laugh. Heat from the concrete warmed Emile’s back, and his thoughts swirled as the young woman’s voice fluttered his way: “Hello? Sir? Are you okay? Sir? Sir?”
Emile’s eyes snapped open, and this time he spotted her face under the lamppost, a halo of orange light surrounding her dark hair. She extended her hand, and Emile reached towards her, gripping her fingers. After he was up, she leaned him against the side of the cab, and he caught his breath.
The man had left them behinds and was trudging up the stairs to his place, still laughing, his hard footsteps thudding against the wood steps.
“Are you all right?” she said. “Are you okay? You’re stronger than I thought.”
Emile nodded. “Been in a few fights now, and I’ve still never landed a punch.”
The girl traced Emile’s jaw with her forefinger and dug through her purse. She pulled out a small pack of tissues and blotted his cheek. Blood saturated the thin paper, and she tossed it to the ground, where it lingered for a few moments before being stolen by the wind.
“You’re going to tell me to leave him now, aren’t you?—that I could do better, right?”
Emile didn’t answer.
“Things aren’t always that simple,” she said. “You know?”
Emile placed his fingertips against his right cheek and grimaced.
The young woman smiled at Emile, and the corners of her eyes creased. One front tooth was chipped, and he wondered how it had happened.
She looked up toward her place, and Emile’s gaze followed. Red Christmas lights were strung up inside the window, and a few feet above the roofline, bent the moon, in something of a horseshoe.
“Well,” she said. “I better be getting inside now.”
Emile patted the girl’s shoulder and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “What’s your name?” he asked.
She placed her hand between his shoulder blades and swished her fingers up and down on his t-shirt. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Really, I am.”
“I am, too,” he said.
Emile walked around to the driver’s side and plopped onto his seat. He slammed the door, and the beeping finally stopped. He’d gotten so used to it, that he still heard the sound echo in his head. Sienna took to the stairs, gripped the banister, and conquered each step, eventually reaching her second-floor home. Emile cracked the window. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“Merci,” the girl said, offering a small wave.
Emile pulled away, giving himself time to make sure she got in safely. He could still smell her fleeting trace of mint dancing about the cab. Sienna, he thought. “Sienna,” he said aloud. Then he put his window all the way down, turned on his rooftop light, and reset the meter.
Mathieu Cailler is the author of six books. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous national and international publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, the Los Angeles Times, and PANK. He is the recipient of a Shakespeare Award, a Short Story America Prize, and a New England Book Festival Award. Heaven and Other Zip Codes, his debut novel and most recently published book, has been hailed “a postmodern masterpiece” by Midwest Book Review and was named the winner of the 2021 Los Angeles Book Festival. For more information, please visit mathieucailler.com.
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Posted in Boudin, Boudin September '22 Edition, Fiction, Uncategorized and tagged in #boudin, #mathieucailler, #September'22Edition, Fiction