I get out of the cab and step into the oven of a normal Arizona summer day. I can’t find her, I can’t find her. My passenger is supposed to be at the “hypnotism clinic” at 5499 N. La Cholla. The orders are clear on my computer screen: name, phone number, pick-up address, destination address, amount I will be paid. I look inside and I call out her name. Several people sit in the waiting room and they all turn their eyes to me as if asking for help, but no one stands up. I go to the receptionist window. No one there. Back outside, I look around the area. Sometimes they wander off; I find them hiding behind bushes. I dial her phone number once again, but it’s the same mechanical female voice: “The number you have dialed is a non-working number, please check the number and dial again…”

I’m about ready to give up when I see a woman coming from around the outside of the building waving at me.

“Carol Dingee?” I say.

“That’s me.”

She is five feet tall, thin, maybe 55 years old, Italian descent. Her smile is like the smile of a real estate broker on a billboard. Brown pants, purple blouse. She carries a white purse that probably cost more my car.

I get behind the wheel of the cab and she gets in the back.

“Well, that was a waste of time!” she says. “They put me in a chair and put these little glasses on me and they attached two electrodes on the sides of my head. They had some music playing, too. I honestly don’t know if I was hypnotized or not.”

“No pocket watch on a chain?”

“I have driving anxiety. I can’t drive, I just can’t drive. Driving is too stressful.”

She is on the free cab ride voucher system, which was designed to be a service for the severely disabled and elderly. But there are loopholes. I get paid either way. I’m part of the system.

“That’s how I got on this ride program,” she says. “At first, they were sending a van to pick me up, and I had to share the ride with other people. One time, I had to sit across from a guy who was picking his nose the whole time. Can you imagine?”

“I don’t have to imagine.”

“I had to sit there and watch him pick his nose. I was trapped there watching him pick his nose. It was absolutely disturbing. When I got home, I took off all my clothes and threw them away. I felt so dirty. I took an hour-long shower, and I called them up. I told them I don’t want that van anymore, you send me a cab.”

“We transport a lot of mentally challenged people. I’m sure he wasn’t doing it to annoy you.”

“Irregardless. God damned, they charged me 1,200 bucks back there at that place. What a bunch of quacks! I honestly don’t know if I was hypnotized or not, I honestly don’t know.”

“Maybe you’re still hypnotized? Maybe this is all a dream?”

“I just want to improve myself,” she says. “I’m into self-improvement. I’m always improving myself. It’s a habit of mine. I saw their commercial on TV. I thought, I’ll try it. I’m open-minded.”

Maybe I’m the one who’s hypnotized? I think. Or maybe I’m insane? Maybe the narrative of my life is one long illusion? Maybe I’m actually strapped to a bed in a loony bin somewhere, drugged and drooling and picking my nose without true awareness?

She can’t keep her mouth closed. She is addicted to the sound of her own voice. She rambles about everything under the sun: her dog, the quality of avocados, her husband’s suicide, the weather, real estate, turn lanes, her son who lives in New York, her daughter who lives in Minnesota, Valium, the human brain, canaries, flat feet…

I think, maybe they could do something about your motor mouth the next time they hypnotize you. I think, maybe your husband killed himself so he wouldn’t have to listen to you yap anymore. I have these cruel thoughts sometimes. Voices in my head. Maybe they don’t belong, but there they are.

…chicken breasts, Sweden, computers, garlic, the Arizona state bird (which she said was the road runner but is actually the cactus wren), the fact that men in Arizona don’t shave right…

Maybe I should write a story about this? Life is confusing, that’s all I know, life is very confusing and maybe writing about it would help. Writing as therapy, self-expansion. It is important for the main character to be changed at the end of a story. That is crucial, I had read that on the Internet. A person named Sharon wrote it in her latest blog, “9 Crucial Elements of a Successful Story.” Like when a person goes to a clinic to be hypnotized, they should come out changed somehow, preferably improved. Two-dimensional characters who do not change: that’s simply bad writing. Static. My passenger is 1200 dollars poorer, but for her that is just a drop in the bucket, a twitch of an eye.

“Can you turn that radio down? I can’t even hear myself think back here.”

I turn down NPR. Thousands of Syrians are being hanged to death by their own government. Mexicans are picking heads of lettuce in Yuma. A dam is ready to bust in northern California.

“Those libtards don’t know what they’re talking about,” she says.

…the incompetence of her gardener, cell phone service providers, the full moon, the new 10- dollar bill, Wellbutrin, tile roofs, saguaro cacti, anxiety…

Anxiety, I think. How do you get rid of that crap? Having someone drive you around for free might be a good start, and someone to mow your grass and someone to hypnotize you and tell you everything’s going to be fine. The main character of a story should fight his/her way through anxiety and come out the other side. There should be a struggle. I would like to ask Sharon about the issue of anxiety on her blog, but her comments have been disabled.

…hairspray, cosmetic surgery, shoes, Alaska, Gavi Italian restaurant (terrible), the Korean War, Trader Joe’s…

A brand-new Mercedes swerves into my lane in front of my cab. I slam on the brakes. This is how people drive: like nutcases. Everybody’s in a mad-eyed hurry to get to the next red light. Everybody is angry. One car-length ahead: victory! That’s all people have, it seems; that’s how they get through the day, that’s what bolsters them, that’s their purpose. A world of one-uppers. People relocate from places like Boston and New York to Arizona. You’d think they would come here to relax, to get away from the hustle and bustle of those places, but they just bring their spastic mentality with them. They bring their disease. And after a while, it rubs off on me. I’m infected. I start driving like that, too. Fuck you! I blow my horn! Let’s GO, moron! I cut people off, screw the turn signal. We have everything, but it’s never enough. Nothing makes any sense.

…night sweats, New Jersey, where she’s from (couldn’t have guessed), the beach, the internet, Fox News (only non-fake news on TV), coffee, airplanes, illegals, ISIS, turnpikes, Macy’s, the fact that everyone speaks with bad grammar these days…

There comes a time when the protagonist in a story has to assert himself.

I say, “You mean like the president’s grammar?”

That gets her. That’s a line I shouldn’t have crossed. Conflict is good. People enjoy conflict. I mean, people sitting comfortably reading a story enjoy conflict.

“I’ve never noticed anything wrong with Trump’s grammar,” she says. “And I’m good at English, I’m very good at English; if there’s anyone who’s good at English, it’s me! I was a quick learner in school. Besides, look at what that OTHER guy did for the last eight years!”

She had been hypnotized after all.

“How’d we get on Obama?”

“You brought it up. I was just trying to have a conversation.”

I ease up to a red light and sit there looking to my right at the man in the BMW. He is

picking his nose. He won’t look at me. It is like a face in a dream you think you recognize, but you can’t be sure.

My cell phone rings.

“Pardon me, that’s my wife.”

“Hola guapa.”

“Hola, como estas? Ya llege a la casa.”

“Bueno. Estoy bien, ocupado. Una vieja loca. Me cae gorda. Te llamo al ratito.”

I hang up.

“What language were you speaking?”

“Spanish. My wife’s from Mexico.”

“Don’t you think she should learn English if she wants to live in this country?”

“She does speak English.”

“Then why were you speaking Spanish?”

“Because we want to. She’s teaching me.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Eight years.”

“And she’s just now getting around to teaching you?”

“She’s been teaching me the whole time. It’s hard.”

“Is she teaching you real Spanish or some dialect?”

“They have certain words and expressions that are particular to Sonora, Mexico, but it’s still Spanish.”

“I mean, is she teaching you real Spanish? I took Spanish in high school.”

“You didn’t even recognize Spanish when you heard it.”

“Sounded strange, that’s all. Didn’t sound like Spanish to me. Did your wife go to school?”

“When you hear someone speaking English from New Orleans or Australia, you can understand them, right? It’s still English. Why don’t you stop insulting my wife; how’s that sound? How about some quiet time; you’re almost home.”

One tiny risk like that and I could lose my job. That’s how it is nowadays. She could call my boss, tell them I was rude. That easy. I’m out of work, broke, fucked. The protagonist spirals out of control, ends up selling meth. The stories that have touched me most in my life are written by, or about, people who have dropped out of the rat race altogether, people who try to be as free as they can, who value freedom above all else. Of course, they always suffer for it. Oh, the balls that would require, to just say to hell with it, to hell with life in harness. But I’m too afraid, too timid. I had a dream the other night where I was driving my cab and there were two tigers running along beside me, two gloriously orange and black-striped tigers just running along beside me. Dreams are confusing, almost as confusing as life.

“Hey, don’t get the idea I’m a bigot!” she says. “It’s just that they come here and they don’t learn English. They speak Spanish in the stores because they don’t want you to understand all the horrible things they’re saying about you. It happens all the time!”

“Now, now, I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Well, I’m no bigot, if that’s what you think! I happen to have a Mexican maid right now, and the last one was BLACK!”

Somebody snap their fingers. Somebody say the magic word.  Somebody shake me. I drop her off at her $300,000 house, big American flag waving in the front yard, the landscape perfectly groomed. She’s steamed. She’s going to need a massage now, a nap, a cool towel on her forehead.

I drive away. I look at myself for a second in the rearview mirror. Am I changed? Does a bit more cynical count? Does 30 minutes older count? Does $11 richer count? Amateur stuff, not very significant or meaningful. Maybe I will need to add a fictional element to the story. Maybe some sex? Space aliens? A police shoot-out? Baby in an oven? Don’t neglect to describe the environment. Sharon made that clear in last week’s writing blog. The desert is there, stretched out beyond the fancy houses towards the mountains which are hunched in shadowed wrinkles, massive stone tigers with hatchet backs. What I really want to do is write a story that has eternity in it, a story that is not an escape from reality but a light within it, a story that is not a cage but a key. No traps, no tricks. But who could do that? The thought of it floods me with a sense of power, but every time I try to do it, I am handicapped with anxiety and the fear of failure and inadequacy. At least I am still alive and there is no mushroom cloud rising in front of me. That isn’t much of an epiphany. Maybe in the split second while my face melts away from the force of a nuclear explosion I experience what seems to be a cab ride with a crazy person, and this has been it, and the crazy person is me? Or the crazy person is God? Maybe my body is just a pile of black charcoal back there in the parking lot outside the hypnotist clinic? I sit at a red light in the traffic and look around. I give it a minute. I almost zone out. When the light turns green, I’m still here. And we all lurch forward.

***

For all installments from 6 to 6, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Traveling Mercies
  2. Next Time, Take Skyline
  3. Suicide Lane
  4. Morenci in My Rear-View Mirror
  5. A Spiritual Adventure
  6. Sonja’s Ring
  7. A Pair to Draw To
  8. Grocery Day
  9. A Day with Melanie
  10. The Hot Light
  11. Drano
  12. The Cab Knows the Way
  13. Dodi’s Luck
  14. Don’t Die Before Your Mother
  15. Bob’s Big Day
  16. Nothing But a Human Being
  17. John’s Dream
  18. God Didn’t Get Me No Weed
  19. Ramirez
  20. What’s Going to Happen to Me?
  21. Do I Look Like an Indian to You?
  22. The Maze
  23. Fun with Ruby
  24. Portrait of the Artist as a Certified Loony
  25. Turn Around, Dumbass
  26. Red Bull Blues
  27. The Great Desert Palms Escape
  28. Bitcoin
  29. At Least it Isn’t Raining
  30. Marshmallows on Everything
  31. Mermaid with Doctor’s Mask
  32. My Other Jacket
  33. Late
  34. The Hideaway
  35. You Can Have a Seat, Sir
  36. Book People
  37. 112 Degrees
  38. No Way
  39. El Pendejo
  40. Batman
  41. Plasma
  42. The Jumping-Off Place
  43. November in July
  44. The Double
  45. The Road to the Casino Del Sol
  46. The Standard
  47. Thinking’s Got Nothing to Do with It
  48. This Shit Kicks Viagra’s Ass
  49. And Deliver Us from the Vikings, Amen