James was short and skinny, with a peninsula of purple eczema running along his right forearm. He had gray stubble on his chin and eyes which crossed once in a while. His diet consisted of fried chicken, hamburgers, and cheese pizza. He had some kind of digestive disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, and a bad back. Also, he was also manic-depressive. And he got migraines.

He lived with his mother and her 11 cats. Driving a taxi got him out of the house.

One hot Saturday morning, he was sitting in his taxi in the parking lot of Walmart. The cab’s two-way radio blurted to life.

“Cab 232?” the female dispatcher said through static.

He grabbed the radio microphone and it seemed to jump from his hand like a fish. It landed on the floor. He lifted his right foot and the long curly black cord got tangled around his ankle. Leaning over, his face pressed into the steering wheel as he blindly unwound the cord. In the awkward position, his calf cramped and he moaned as he sat up and reeled in the microphone, hand over hand.

“232 here, James here,” he wheezed through yellow teeth.

“232, how ya doing today?”

“Purty good.”

She laughed. “Okay, go to the Hampton on Oracle. A woman named Sara. She’s going you-know-where.”

There was only one reason why a cab driver would be sent to the Hampton on Oracle: to pick up a passenger and take them to Cottonwood. Cottonwood is a drug rehabilitation center out near Saguaro National Park, in the middle of the desert, and the Hampton Inn on Oracle Road is, so to speak, the jumping-off place for many visitors on their way to Cottonwood because it is the closest swanky hotel. Cottonwood has a minor fee of $5,000 a month and includes massages, mud baths, acupuncture, chef-prepared meals, and horseback riding.

James pulled his taxi up to the front doors of the Hampton. He didn’t see anybody, so he got out to wait. He lit a cigarette and leaned against his cab. While he was smoking, a woman came out and looked at him. She had a bag around her shoulder and pulled another bag on wheels. She wore a long green dress, which was sexy and expensive-looking. Her black hair fell in her face and her eyes were tired and red.

“Are you my taxi?” she said in a British accent.

“Are you Sara?” James said. He threw his cigarette down on the ground.

“Oh, no,” she said.

“You’re not Sara?” he said, bending down to retrieve his smoke.

“Oh, I’m Sara,” she said.

He stood up quickly and again threw the cigarette away.

“Can I take your bag?” he said.

“I can’t ride with you,” she said, standing straight and firm in the walkway.

“Why not?”

“The cigarette smoke,” she said. “I’ll smell it on you all the way there.”

“Uh…” he said.

“How far is it from here, this…this place I’m going?”

“It’s a long ways,” he said, pointing out into the desert west of town.

“No, I can’t ride with you,” she said, looking off toward where he pointed. “The smoke is in your shirt; I’ll smell it all the way there, I’m allergic.”

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “You want me to take my shirt off?” He laughed.

A confused look came over her face. She cocked her head and looked at his skinny frame. He was a nervous little rat of a man.

“Well,” she said, thinking. “I suppose that would…yes, okay, that’ll do.”

“You mean…?” James said. He didn’t want to lose the fare. It was a 30-minute drive to Cottonwood; 45 bucks at least. “All right,” he shrugged. He took off his shirt and stood under the roof of the entryway to the hotel. The weather was fine and hot. He grinned at her, but she didn’t smile. He bent his ribbed body over and stuffed his shirt under his driver’s seat.

“Don’t put it down there,” Sara said. “I’ll smell it from there.”

James looked at her. She was full of designer pills. James was full of pills, too. He was on blood pressure pills, pills to go to sleep, pills to wake up, pills before he ate, pills after he ate, pills for depression, pills for aggression, pills for pain. He also smoked marijuana each morning and drank a 12-pack of highly-caffeinated soft drinks every day.

He walked around and put his shirt in the trunk, making a display of showing her. She nodded. Then he shut the trunk and got in the cab.

She leaned over and stuck her nose into the back seat. She clutched her bag to her breast and her nostrils twitched. She looked around at the torn brown seat, the empty pack of gum in the crease, footprints from the recent rain on the grimy floor mats.

“Lovely,” she said with that sarcastic British accent.

She looked at the hotel doors one last time and finally got in and closed the door.

James inched up to the edge of Oracle Road and stopped, looking to all the world like a nudist, and activated his right blinker. It ticked like a clock as the traffic flew by. Oracle Road was fast and busy and the trucks created a wind that rocked them. He finally eased out and made a couple of successful lane changes. Sara looked out the window at the summer day.

“So, what’s your name?” she said after a few minutes.

“James.”

“I’m Sara,” she said. “But you know that.”

“He he, yeah.”

“You ever been to the Grand Canyon, James?”

“Nope.”

“How long have you lived in Arizona?”

“All my life.”

“What are you, about 45?” she said.

“33,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. “I figured as long as I was coming all this goddamned way across the goddamned world, I might as well see the Grand Canyon.”

“You’re from England?”

“How’d you guess?” she said.

He looked at her in the rearview mirror. She avoided his eyes.

“So, how was it?”

“It was outstanding,” Sara said. “I cried. I really did. I stood there on the edge of that great big hole in the earth and cried like a baby. It was a real catharsis.”

“I’ve heard that,” James said, even though he had no idea what “catharsis” meant.

“Everyone should see the Grand Canyon before they die,” she said.

Her eyes got redder and bugged out a little bit and she began to cry again, quietly. She rolled down the window halfway and smelled the desert air.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Do you mind so much if we just not talk, James?” she said. “Would that be all right?”

“Of course, Sara.”

25 minutes later, James turned his taxi right onto Cottonwood Drive and followed it for two curving miles until he came to a security gate with a little building next to it. The Cottonwood trees were shedding like crematory ash. A neckless flunky in a blue uniform poked his head out his window and looked down at James.

“Where’s your shirt?”

“It’s in the trunk.”

“Why?”

“I can explain everything, officer!” Sara said loudly from the back seat. “I asked him to do it; no problem, my name is Sara Worthington, I should be on the list.”

He scowled, hesitated, and looked at a clipboard.

“Okay, Miss Worthington,” he said. Then he turned to James. “Just drop her off and get out of here.”

The 12-foot tall wrought iron gates opened slowly and James eased his taxi through. It was like entering a different world, a heavenly world: acres of deep green, shoe-swallowing grass, scrupulous landscaping, lavish Spanish Colonial Revivalism architecture, flowers and fish ponds. There was a feng shui lyricism to the layout of the little bungalows, gurgling fountains, walkways, benches, cactus, acutely raked rock gardens, rapturous sculpture, lapping palms, old gnarly mesquites, fairyland palo verdes, and of course, the dry-weeping cottonwoods. Marmalade melodies filled the air from a three-piece band set up on an adorable knoll. The pastel green of tennis courts flashed to the left. People walked and milled around in their country club whites and $200 hats, most of them smiling and laughing like a family reunion.

James eased the cab halfway around a vast circular drive and stopped along the curbing.

“Here we are,” James said.

“What do I owe you?” Sara said.

“$49.50.”

“$49.50?” she said. “Highway robbery!”

“Make it 49 even,” he said.

“Jesus Christ,” she said, digging into her designer bag.

“Here’s a 50.”

She looked at the bill as she handed it to him.

“Your money is so ugly,” she said.

James took it.

“Keep the change,” she said. Her tone was insinuating, as if she expected that favor returned to her someday.

She yanked her bag out and stood there in the sun, straightening herself.

“Good luck!” he said.

He slowly pulled away, circling the gigantic roundabout. He passed the guard house and waved to the guard, who scowled again. He thought about putting his shirt back on, but he liked the feel of his bare back on the seat and the air on his chest with the window down. Out on the desert highway, he lit a cigarette, thinking about the Grand Canyon. He decided he should go and see it someday.

***

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