Dawn, and Mustafa stood in the front office, a hothouse of cigarette smoke and old magazines. Mornings were tense. He had worked for himself in Delhi, driving his motor rickshaw ten hours a day, but here in Dallas, he was at the mercy of other men.
The other drivers sat in the dark corners and took long drags on their cigarettes, the fiery ends blinking in shadows. Mustafa stared out through the tinted glass at the rising sun. He had no friends and was stranded here -- driving a cab for the Salmon Taxi Company where "Going Upstream is all Downhill" -- until he earned the money to get home.
His boss, Mr. Fogg, burst out of the back room. Cigar smoke rolled off him like mist off a Himalayan mountain. Mr. Fogg stunk like the bacon he fried every morning on the hot plate in his office.
"Mo!" he barked, tossing a duffel at Mustafa. "I got a job for you!"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Fogg," replied Mustafa.
A driver mimicked his accent. Laughter from the shadows.
Mustafa was to go to the airport and give the duffel to Susan at the Southwest Airlines counter by ten a.m.
Every two or three mornings, duffels sailed over the counter and flopped at some driver's feet. Mr. Fogg said the bags were forgotten by hurried customers, and the drivers would get bonuses for returning them. This was Mustafa's first errand of this kind, and, needing the bonus for the ticket to India, he didn't dare question Mr. Fogg. No one did. The other drivers only joked about the Salmon Taxi Company and something about going "up the river."
An envelope was taped to Mustafa's dashboard, and he ceremoniously touched it every time he entered his cab. It was a letter from his father. "You must succeed and come home," his father had written, two years after Mustafa had come to Dallas. "We have finally married you." Mustafa touched the envelope partly to respect his father and partly to begin his feelings for the woman he had never met. For her, he was earning money for the ticket home. For her, he would endure any work. Even driving a Salmon Taxi Cab. Which was a dull, diluted pink.
As he drove, he noticed churches on every corner, churches where Texans got married. But he knew of no Hindu temple in the area -- a fact his father would interpret as an excuse. He had considered lying to his father, describing in a letter a temple that did not exist, but he decided against it. Lying was surely a consequence of failing to attend temple.
As he checked on the duffel in the back seat, he could hear his father's voice, practical and cold. In the mornings in India, wrapping his turban, his father was the strongest presence in the house, a figure of patience and forbearance. When he spoke, Mustafa listened. In Dallas, his father spoke through the anti-litter signs on the roads. Mustafa repeated the warning: "Don't Mess with Texas."
It was nine-thirty a.m. Up ahead, residents of a black neighborhood gathered outside a Baptist Church, one man waving violently while women formed a small resistance group. As Mustafa approached, he could see the man was older, wore his sweat-stained dress shirt buttoned once above his potbelly, and held something in a paper bag. The women advanced as a group, and the man retreated into the street.
Mustafa stopped. The man eased along the cab, holding it down as if it were going to float away. Mustafa tapped the accelerator, but it didn't feel right. He let the man open the door, fall in, and vomit on the floor of his cab.
"Don't you worry," said the man, rising. "I'm good."
"I'm off-duty," Mustafa said.
"Oh, hell," assured the man. He shut the door and sat between his mess and the duffel bag. "George," he said, extending his hand.
"I can't take you anywhere, " insisted Mustafa, nevertheless accepting his hand. "I'm sorry."
"What did you say your name was?"
"Well, now, Mo, I ain't going far."
The women were dispersing down the street. Mustafa felt abandoned. He did not know how to get this man out. So he waited.
"Ain't you going to drive?"
Mustafa turned off the air conditioning.
"I got my own money. I ain't no nigger going to rob you. I'm thirty-five years old, I got a job. I just ain't got no transportation. Now that's real business, you know? That's real business."
Desperate, Mustafa blasted the heat.
"Now what is you doing? You crazy?"
"I can't --" Mustafa began, determined, though dizzy.
"Look here, Brother," interrupted the man, pulling himself up behind the front seat. "I'm only going up the road a bit. Have pity now."
The eyes in the rearview mirror were giant, suggesting a face bigger than the windshield. Mustafa ran a finger over the mango-colored envelope. Then he did what the man said.
The neighborhood was not part of his route. They crossed wide four-lane avenues and plunged into dismal residential drives. They did this repeatedly and still had not reached where the man wanted to go. The air conditioner was blasting, giving Mustafa the chills. His sweat hadn't dried. He was feeling faint. He was being directed toward the heat waves rising off the pavement, and he had lost track of where he was. The clock read nine-fifty. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. He draped an arm across the seat. George was taking swigs from his bottle in the paper bag, wiping his mouth, patting his belly. He was in no hurry. Where did he want to go? Texas was a big state.
"Hey," said George, unzipping the duffel bag. "This your stuff?"
Mustafa decided against pushing through a stale yellow light. "No," he answered. "Please no touching. That is not your property. Please."
Cars lined up behind them.
"Christ!" hollered George. "This here is some real goddamn business!"
Mustafa turned around. The contents spilled out around George's lap. Shirt, toothbrush, soap, razor. The duffel was big, red nylon, lots of zippered compartments able to hold much more, and they did: dozens of plastic bags. George cradled two of the see-through bags of white powder, cooing at them as if they were his newborn children.
The light turned green.
"Damn," sang George. "You got to share the wealth. You get these from your homeland?"
Mustafa didn't understand. Wealth, homeland: these words were absorbed by those little white bags which seemed to multiply as he watched. Cars honked, and that noise, too, was absorbed. George was poking through each bag, sniffing, smiling, stacking a few on his belly like sacks of grain. Panic cut deep grooves into Mustafa. He didn't breathe. Time had stopped. Gravity softened so that he was loosed into space. He had watched too long, had let things happen too long without him, and now he was dead. He felt dead. A bag slid off George's belly, and the sirens of a dozen cars exploded into the cab.
"Light's green," George laughed.
Mustafa spun around. The light was yellow. The radio cackled with the voices of the dead. He checked the time: ten o'clock. He floored it through the intersection.
"That light," George said, almost admiringly. "Was a bright red."
When the cop pulled them over into a convenience-store parking lot half a block down the avenue, Mustafa was a wreck. He was riffling through his memories, but he couldn't find anything helpful.
George stashed the bags and stuffed the duffel under the seat. "You be good to me," he said. "I ain't afraid to use a knife. I'm a mean nigger, so you believe it. I'll turn you in for this shit. You never know what I'll do."
Mustafa exhaled and did not believe it was in his power to inhale. He folded his hands in his lap and bowed his head. A knock at the window, and he rolled it down.
Struck by the odor of vomit, the officer asked them to step out of the vehicle.
"You ran that red light, Mr. Pay-tel," said the officer, having his way with Mustafa's last name.
Mustafa nodded, feeling the sun on his neck, the asphalt melting to liquid beneath him. He leaned against the cab.
"We got laws here in Texas," said the officer, who asked George to surrender the duffel.
As George obeyed, Mustafa resigned himself to fate. He would, somehow, prove his innocence. They would, somehow, arrest the right people: the owner of the duffel, whoever that was. Or Mr. Fogg. Tonight, he might have to spend in jail. He could endure that. He could even endure a week provided George was not in his cell. That would be his one request. He would give up the customary phone call for that privilege. He would give up meals. As he slid down the cab, sinking into the hot gooey asphalt, he saw the horizon come up like a tidal wave, breaking into white at the top, turning dreamy as it descended, burying him beneath the weight of a whole country.
"Get up, Boy," ordered the officer.
Dazed, Mustafa extended his wrists for the cuffs.
The officer, ripping a ticket out of his notebook, said, "This here's a little something to remind you we got laws here in Texas."
"What happened?" Mustafa asked.
"I hid the shit," said George, sliding into the passenger seat. "Now make the next left. We got to go to Mama's house. She'll take good care of you."
After a while, Mustafa started counting churches, and their abundance seemed conspiratorial. "Mama" must be a sinister drug connection. Churches were the fronts. Frowning through the broken stained-glass windows of a hundred ravaged churches were the scarred and bearded faces of "Mama." One door -- nothing but plywood and spray-painted omens -- swallowed him into darkness. Organ music pulsed with spite. Insects and mice nested in rotting wood. Cigarette smoke settled in his hair, stuck fingers in his throat, squeezed his lungs. Slicing through a hymn of dead voices, a deck of cards was being cut. Gold crosses shimmered and shone, dripping with muscular sweat. The dream thrust itself upon him.
George had stowed the red duffel on the floor. He had his shirt buttoned, except over the peak of his belly, and was surveying the streets. Impatient, he snatched Mustafa's envelope.
They passed flat white houses, brown fields, and telephone poles. If he were to bail out, Mustafa imagined, there would be nowhere to hide. This did not disappoint him as much as knowing that even the flat landscape of his imagination didn't let him play out the possibilities.
"Arranged marriage?" cried George. "Shit, that's a blind date for life, Brother. I knew you was crazy."
They turned into a neighborhood where little gangs of black children roamed the street, riding their bikes or accumulating at the curbs. Men were drinking in lawn chairs, plywood was nailed into window panes, and the chain-link fences all had Beware-of-Dog signs. Mustafa heard his father's voice. "Beware of the dog, Mustafa. Beware of the dog."
Mustafa pulled into "Mama's" driveway and shifted into reverse.
"What you want to do that for?" George asked. "You got to meet Mama."
"I have to get to the airport," Mustafa said.
"She's going to like you," George continued, gripping Mustafa's forearm. "You got to show her your round face and tell her about the wife you never seen."
George got out, circled the cab, and tugged on Mustafa's door handle.
"I'll wait," said Mustafa. The duffel sat in the dark of the floor.
"You wait then," ordered George, reaching in and shifting the transmission. His elbow jabbed Mustafa in the chest.
On the porch, George was checking his breath.
Mustafa timed his shift into reverse with George's knocks. He checked the street for children. He focused on the duffel bag. Mr. Fogg. It was eleven-fifteen. He took a last look at George as the front door opened and an old woman appeared. Short and fat, she was bulging in a yellow apron, and her hair looked tired and startled. Mustafa felt a surge of compassion.
George was tucking in his shirt. When George pointed to the cab, Mustafa prepared to wave. Mustafa decided against it when George's mother slammed the door.
George knocked, simmered, knocked again. For Mustafa, he had a What-can-you-do? look. For his mother, he had the answer: kicking in the bottom of the screen door.
In the street, kids were playing tag, laughing. The sun was warm, tightened Mustafa's face, and the grass had a perfume to it.
But the passenger door flew open, like a trapdoor giving way, and Mustafa's heart sank.
George directed Mustafa out of the neighborhood. When they reached the airport, he attacked. He demanded two of the bags. He bargained down to one, then to a drink. Mustafa stayed light on his feet, wiping off the duffel with tissues. Promising a meal and a ride home, Mustafa escaped into the terminal.
"Mr. Fogg called, wondering where the hell you were," whispered Susan at the Southwest Airlines counter. She smiled and added, "His words." She attached to the duffel a special tag. "You're to use this ticket at the baggage claim," Susan continued. "One of your customers forgot his garment bag. It's beige."
"What?" Mustafa shrieked, pricking the ears of security guards. "Are you kidding?"
Susan with the long red nails explained that no, she was not kidding, and here was the ticket stub, and would you please go now?
Riding and tumbling along the conveyor belt, the hulks of luggage were bloated and obscene as if in each one were stuffed a dead body. He mistook several pieces before matching his ticket with the one on the garment bag. Susan was wrong. It wasn't beige. It was dark brown.
Across the terminal, beyond the leather vests and cowboy hats, tanned skin and sequined blouses, faces and bodies energized by time schedules, Mustafa glimpsed his cab. He caught half the slogan printed over the white fish-shaped oval: "Going Upstream is . . ." He responded automatically, "'All Downhill.'"
Just as automatically, he asked if anyone needed a cab. A young woman and her son accepted. Mustafa was leading them when he dropped the garment bag and spread his arms to protect the two trusting people behind him. Something terrible was out there, like a past life. It was George. He had commandeered the pink cab. He was sitting at the wheel, hanging out his thick arm and banging the outside of the door.
The woman told Mustafa that her son had to use the restroom. Mustafa watched the boy pass through the door. The woman asked if anything was wrong and if he was really a cab driver. Mustafa picked up his bag and took her aside, prepared to explain, when he saw George -- out of the cab and hustling toward the entrance. Mustafa said, "Sorry," and bolted.
In a restroom stall, Mustafa discovered nothing in the garment bag he did not expect to. He impressed himself with his intuition, and his imagination was running like a movie, in his favor. His father would say he didn't deserve it. He hadn't yet sacrificed enough. His father would list reasons, devalue Mustafa's experiences, and he would offer as proof the lives of others who had sacrificed everything and had not once, ever, been tempted by selfishness. He could hear his father's voice, contained to a measured whisper in the bare rooms of his home. "Not today," it said. "You are too young," it said. "Rewards are earned when debts are paid." And finally it boomed: "Don't mess with Texas!"
Mustafa argued with this voice, with all the voices, and what he said was, "Screw it."
And besides, he reasoned. His father had never met George.
He took enough to cover the traffic ticket, his plane ticket to India, and he even took a couple hundred extra for his troubles. He splashed water on his face and reviewed his reflection. Not so round. Not so little. The woman's son was watching him. Mustafa gave the boy a fifty-dollar bill and apologized. Then he returned the bag to Susan, explaining that his cab had been stolen.
Mustafa took a different exit, one that opened onto the airport drive. Clean, he noticed. The cars were clean. Everyone outside seemed to enjoy being clean and having a purpose and a destination. He ran a hand over the bills in his pocket. He would make reservations this afternoon, pack what he needed, and leave tonight. Soon, he would be in India. He walked past airport employees lugging other people's bags, and he imagined being introduced to his bride. What a delicious moment! He stepped to the curb as a cab approached and found himself imagining the ceremony. In the Hindu wedding ceremony, the groom arrives on a white horse. Texas would approve, he thought. The cab raced toward him. Mustafa thrust an arm into the air.
About the author:
David Barringer was driving through Flint, Michigan, when his supposed friends in the back seat opened the door to let in the man who would inspire the "George" in this story. In Corpus Christi, Texas, a cop pulled him and his Spring-Break buddies over into a party-store parking lot to inform them that they "got laws here in Texas." As for the cocaine, well, my goodness, that is, was, and remains pure fiction. Really.