She’s outside when I get there. It’s a crappy neighborhood just off 312th in Federal Way. The whole street is just these vacant four-plexes with cars on the lawns. She walks up to the cab and I can see she’s carrying something. At first I think it’s a suitcase but when she gets in I realize its a boombox. One of those old school battery-powered types like Radio Raheem got killed for.
“We going down to 200th street where the jail’s at, “she says. I can tell she looks good even though I don’t turn around. She’s tall and dark. Her skin’s the same color as an oak table if you shined it for an hour straight. I turn the cab around and almost run right through this huge pile of broken glass that’s just sitting in the middle of the road. I jerk the wheel too hard and we spin into a yellow pirouette. I can smell the rubber sizzling on the street.
“Damn,” I say. “Did you see that?”
“What?” she says unimpressed. “Oh you mean all that glass? That’s been there forever.”
Last week my Aunt Rosa called the dispatch desk at Pacific Taxi where I work. Like most everybody else in my family she doesn’t have my home phone number. It’s not personal. I like Rosa. I just haven’t talked to her in six years. Somehow she must have found out I was driving a cab because that morning the girl behind the desk handed me a cream-colored Post It note. It said Rosa: 206-334-9807 important. When I dial the number there’s a raw ache in my teeth. Rosa tells me that my Dad is dead and I say “uh-huh.” Kind of like I was saying “cut to the chase” or something. Housekeeping found him over at the Legend motel in Des Moines. The girl had walked in and seen him lying on the bed. She was about to turn around and leave when she stepped on one of his needles that had rolled all the way to the door. She started screaming then, presumably in Spanish.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Did the girl have on flip-flops?”
“I guess so,” Rosa paused. “Can you imagine? At the Legend? I’d want steel-toed boots just to drive by that place.” My family. Christmas would be a real blast if we ever got around to talking to each other.
“I’m sure he didn’t feel anything,” She tells me.
“Why start now,” I think. But that’s pretty whiny, even for me. So instead I just say “I’m sure he didn’t.”
“You gonna take the highway?” She asks while she smears her lipstick.
“This time of day Pac-highway’s faster.
Pacific Highway is the main drag south of Seattle. It runs through Kent, Des Moines, Burien and few other spots no one cared enough to name. Somewhere near the airport, the name of the street becomes International Bouleveard. There’s some truth in advertising here. You’ve definitely got your representation from every part of the world, particularly the parts where you pay for your wife in goats. Understand, this isn’t the kind of “international” where you sample the different cuisines and you listen to all the pretty languages. If you’re into that sort of thing there’s the International District downtown. The Boulevard is more the “what the hell is that smell,” kind of international. Mostly unfriendly folks running .99 cent stores and their teenage kids who dress like Achmed the missing Beastie Boy. So despite what you might have heard, that’s all Pacific Highway is. Nothing to be scared of. Unless of course, you’re scared of hoes. You can’t talk about the Pac without talking about them. After midnight, if it’s breathing on this street you can probably pay to have sex with it. For people like me, who grew up around here, the tricks are sort of like the de-facto mayors of the neighborhood. The town elders who just happen to give head in the KFC bathroom. Just like the rest of this road they’re dirty not dangerous. I won’t give them rides anymore though. None of them ever think they really have to pay cash.
“We got to get there by 5:30.”
“Is that when they close?” This sounded funnier in my head. She looks through me to the windshield, maybe wishing it would drive. I decide to take it easy on the comedy. “No problem,” I add. “We’ve got time.”
“If you say so,” she says. We pass some cherry-faced white girl in a dirty halter top and mismatching heels. She sticks out her thumb more out of instinct than anything else, but doesn’t seem too disappointed when we don’t stop. Up north the hoes tend to be a little more discrete when they’re working. The Boulevard girls post up at the bus stops or wait on the corners and try to lock eyes with their potential customers. Not Here on Pac-highway. These girls could give a fuck. They’re like the Jehovah Witnesses of selling pussy. They’ll walk single file down the middle of the street if they feel like it, sometimes barefoot. It’s like watching the world’s most deluded supermodels, always with that “you know you want me” look even when they’re throwing up in the grass.
“So, is today visiting day or something,” I ask.
“Huh?…Oh no, none of that. I got some open cases myself I can’t go up in there.” Then, like she figures she owes me an explanation she adds “my man’s up there. Saturday’s I dance for him ’bout this time. They be cleaning the tier on Saturdays til about 5:30. He can see me from there.”
“How long have you been doing that?”
“Every Saturday, nine months now.”
“How’d you get the idea?” Beautiful women make some men crazy and some men stupid. Me, I turn into a reporter for the school paper. I think I can who, what, where, my way into some ass.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “You say something?”
“Nothing,” I tell her. I don’t know much about women, but something tells me the one in my back seat; she could give a fuck about a “good listener.” A block goes by and then she says “he told me he didn’t want no letters.” The words fall out, coins returning from a pay phone.
“Is that right,” I say
“He said ‘letters don’t help nothing.’ Pictures were cool though.”
“What’s he in there for?” She snorts a laugh when I ask this.
“Same thing all those motherfuckers are up in there for. Getting caught.” The city hates Pac-highway. Its a big embarrassment having an open air ass market all the tourists notice when they get off the plane. Wanna see one of those whales everybody gets so excited about? Drive two hours through some old Navy base, pay fifty bucks, jump on a ferry, wait another hour, if it’s not too foggy you might see his tail. Want to see what chlamydia looks like if you don’t treat it for forty five years? Turn left. Without the hoes though, I’d die of boredom. Take them away and this is just twenty-five miles of airport parking and karaoke bars named after fish. Plus, me personally, I could give a fuck about the tourists. Every single one jumping in my cab, making the same stupid jokes about the rain. All of them thinking they’re some kind of hot shit philosopher kings because their business card has the word “designer” in it. Fuck you, Michelangelo. I hope someone throws you a fish with Ebola.
“I hear federal time’s the easiest to do.” I flex my street muscle. She doesn’t notice.
“It ain’t” she says. “People say that but nah…they feed you a little better but that’s about it. Plus, they make you do like eighty percent of your bid.”
“Better than those state pens though.”
“The way I heard it,” she says, “time is time.” She starts to fiddle with her boombox but then she stops. She’s looking at me with a big green smile in her eyes. All of the sudden, I got no place to run.
“Why? You ever caught a bid baby boy?” The more I drive this road the less I notice the mountains or the water. It all starts to blend with the planes flying out of Sea-Tac. Just another life passing by. Just another light changing colors.
“Once,” I say. “When I was younger.” I don’t know why I tell her this. It isn’t true at all.
I surprise myself by going to the funeral. Aunt Rosa practically begged me to come. When that doesn’t work, she does beg me. Finally I say yes and even though I’m lying when I say it, I still show up at St. Ezekiel’s in Burien. There’s a white guy outside that I don’t recognize in a dark suit. At first I think he’s one of Dad’s NA buddies, but he’s actually from the funeral home.
“Are you the 2:00?” He asks. He nods me into the church and I find a pew in the back. About twelve people show up. A few of them I make as uncles or cousins, the rest are strangers. None of the other kids are here. In fact I’m probably the only one that even knows he’s dead. My brother JJ’s been AWOL for years now. More than likely he’s out somewhere trying to scoop up whatever smack Dad couldn’t fit in his 2go box. I got a half sister somewhere in New Jersey whose name, I think, is Carol. Someone’ll probably get around to calling her next week.
I didn’t meet my Dad until I was fourteen. He spent the first eleven years of my life in Monroe on a weapons charge. We really only hung out a few times off and on. Those were decent memories, I guess. He was a skinny little guy with a bunch of tattoos. He always seemed pretty harmless even if he had shot two people. We’d drink beer up in his motel room and watch basketball games (he still called it the “ABA”.). He had a lot of funny stories about prison, which to hear him tell it was a pretty hilarious place, all things considered.
When the preacher asks who would like to share a remembrance of the deceased all you hear is some toe tapping. I feel kind of bad for the preacher. But he’s not getting any help from me. The only other memories I’ve got are from my sophmore year of high school when he showed up on campus trying to buy weed. And my senior year when he beat the shit out of me in front of my girlfriend because I still owed him $20 for the brakes he put on my car. When I graduated, I got a check in the mail from him for fifty dollars. The check bounced and so did he, violating parole like a motherfucker out in California. A few years later he got popped again on a conspiracy case and took himself out for another four years. To be honest, if my Aunt hadn’t called my job last week I’d have assumed he was still there.
Finally a few people do try to speak. A few others cry politely. About the time the preacher drops his fourth chorus of “God loving God’s children and the way God’s love is in His holy plan,” I make for the door. On my way out I pass by Aunt Rosa. I wave goodbye but she doesn’t see me. She’s being yelled at by a dark, frizzy-haired lady. The woman is wearing a very long t-shirt that covers her ankles. It has a picture of some rabbits and the caption reads: SOME BUNNY LOVES ME VERY MUCH. As I leave, I hear her yelling at Rosa. “Yes bitch, I know he’s dead. I’m not stupid. That don’t change things. Five hundred dollars is five hundred dollars and best believe I’m a get my money.”
We pass by the Legend and I point it out.
“You giving a tour now?” She laughs. It’s a real pretty laugh. Prettier than I would have thought.
“My father died up there last week.”
“Oh, for real? I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s all good. I didn’t really know him all that well anyhow.”
“He get killed up or something?”
“OD, fucking with that ‘ron.” See baby, see where I’m from. She looks out the window again.
“I remember back in the day, me and my homegirls would be up at Cafe Arizona then after it closed we’d be partying over at the Legend. That place was cracking,” She shakes her head a little.
“Yeah, I had to go and see all my family. I hadn’t seen them in like forever.”
“You don’t talk to your family?”
“Not so much to talk about,” I tell her. “They pretty much all strangers to me. Unless one of ’em needs an alibi or a kidney.” I must be hilarious because that gets another laugh. A good long laugh that stuns me for a second.
“I hear that, baby. Where you going I done been.” She says this so soft I almost think I imagine it. Her voice puts air in my lungs. We’re at a red light. All the traffic’s stopped.
“Damn, The Legend. I ain’t thought about that place in hella,” she says. And then it’s all gone. She steps back into wherever she came from. Her eyes start to read the street signs. 224, 216, 204.
“Hey,” she says. “You got to turn here.”
“Yeah,” I snap, “I know where it is.”
She pays me and says “wait here.” There’s a field about a hundred yards away. I watch from the road as she walks into the grass and sets the boombox down. From here it looks more like a hospital than a jail, but I’m not getting any closer. She takes a minute choosing her spot, trying to find the place where she can be seen. I don’t know how she can tell if there’s anyone back there. The sunshine is pasting those windows, blinding it. A spiderweb of dirty lightning jumps off the building and slices something inside my eye. She starts dancing then. The CD skips a little at first, like it’s as nervous as I am. It’s one of those tired girl-rap songs they play constantly on the radio and in the clubs. So I don’t pay much attention to the music. Everybody I know has heard this song a million times. But, I do watch her. I won’t lie about that.
She’s killing the beat, bullying it almost. And she’s beautiful, but not the way you’d think. I don’t know how her man could stand to watch something like this. I picture him in there propping his head on a broom, face against…the glass? The bars? What do they have in there? Who are you, my man? Is this ecstasy or torture for you watching her in that field? I don’t know, but she is dancing like it matters. She starts popping her chest and popping her ass, making it twitch. She drops in the grass and then comes back up. Hurricane rolling her hips, like those Puerto Rican girls roll their eyes. I mean she’s sexy, but this ain’t about all that. This is like watching the wind move through the rain. I guess I’m a little tired because there’s a second, a split second, that she disappears. Straight vanishes in the sunlight. Then she’s back, arching and flipping, making things scream. This bitch is made of shadows. When it’s over, she puts her hand over her eyes and stares up into that gray glass. It’s impossible to see if anyone besides me caught her act. The windows are just big vertical swamps burning in the spotlight. So, no, she can’t see anything. But she stands like that for a long time.
My Dad had one good story. That’s about how it works. Live forty-seven years, get three kids, a couple of diseases and one really great story. Don’t like it? Get your money back at the door. I only heard him tell it once. The time that he got picked up on the weapons charge he’d been wearing this old black coat. It was a cheap tired type coat with big pockets and a wide zipper a lot like the kind little kids wear. Dad had bought it at the Salvation Army for two dollars. Anyway, he’d been coming back from his supplier’s house when these two rollers (he called them “jumpouts”) popped him for the old warrant. This was downtown near the space needle.
Somewhere, deep in that coat pocket my Dad had a fresh ounce of dope. Already rocked up and ready for sale. For some reason, Dad kept toilet paper in his coat pockets. Lots of toilet paper. I have absolutely no idea why. When the duty officer took his coat for inventory he started emptying out the pockets and he kept pulling back sheet after sheet. The cops all laughed, made some jokes and finally set the coat aside as inventory. They never found the rocks. My Dad did those eleven years at Monroe knowing that at the end of his bid, the state was holding another six minimum on him in a dusty storage unit somewhere. They tell you horror stories in prison. Stories about how on your last day they’d process you and walk you to the gate. And then just before they’d release you, the warden’s voice would come over the intercom and call you back. They’d find some infraction, usually minor (a recommendation for parole got filed late. Something like that.) and you’d get put back in the system, sometimes for another couple of years. My Dad knew that on his last day he was going to take a brand new charge for what was in that coat. Possession with intent-six to eight automatic. When his release date finally came, they walked my father into a small room on the far end of the prison. They gave him all his things. They brought out a cardboard box with his inmate number and the words PERSONAL BELONGINGS written across. They let him change into the same clothes he’d been arrested in; they said goodbye and they walked him to the door. My dad said he wasn’t even excited. He knew that at any moment the deputy warden’s voice would come crackling over the loudspeaker “and this nigga gonna have to do that shit all over again.” He kept his eyes on the ground, trying not to look at anything on the other side of that fence. He was still looking down, when they rolled away the gate.
At Monroe, once the gate opens you walk about a half mile down a wooded trail and then you board a bus. Dad said “I got a little ways down that trail and then I reached real deep into that coat pocket. It’s summertime, right, and I’m already sweating and I’m wearing this bigass heavy black coat. But I reach in it real deep anyway…and Damn! Ain’t nothing changed!” His sack was still there. No different than the day he’d gone in. He didn’t take his hand out of that coat until the bus reached Seattle.
I quit the job at Pacific Taxi about a month later. I had about $4,000 saved up which turned out not to be as much money as it sounded like. I’m working in a restaurant now, bar backing, waiting on the slow nights. Its called Puesto’s a Mexican fusion joint, part of the “new White Center” they’re trying so hard to sell. It clears about a hundred bucks a shift, which ain’t all that but its safer than the cab. My back doesn’t hurt the same way either at the end of the day. And for what its worth I’m less angry. Anyhow, she came in a couple days ago. Took me a second to recognize her without the radio. She sat at the bar and ordered something that she sent back. She wasn’t as pretty as I remembered. Not bad looking, but tired and kind of pushed together. And there was that tell-tale slow eye when she sipped her apple-tini. Of course, she didn’t recognize me, and after a few minutes it started busying up and I forgot all about her. She left a crappy, if passable tip and disappeared. Somewhere shortly after that I decided to write all this down.
“Hey George,” I say to the chief bartender. “You know that girl that was just here?”
“Blondie with the four-top by the window?”
“Naw, the black girl sitting right here.” He makes an uninterested sound and his eyes roll up in his skull. He looks like a center fielder trying to determine whether its really worth it to give chase to this long fly ball. “If you say so.”
Once, I asked my dad if he still had that coat. I was laid up on the bed in one of his shithole weeklies while he shaved into the sink.
“The one they let you out with. The one that had, you know, had your shit in it.” I was probably fifteen but even I knew a junkie fairy tale when I heard one.
“You talking about that? Hell no. Look around. If it ain’t in here, I don’t got it.” The room smelled like dust, and beer and the unflushed piss in the toilet. I changed the channel back to the game.
“You don’t believe me, huh?” The razor pauses under his jaw. He’s shirtless, facing me, quiet.
“I believe you,” I said too fast. Both of us knowing I’ve fucked up. He turns back around dipping the blade into the water. For a second the only sound in the room is the referee’s whistle from the T.V.
“Let me ask you a question, son.” My Dad’s voice is polite, mild, lethal. “You ever stood at a gate?” He’s looking in the mirror. I push past him to the bathroom. Before I shut the door he asks again. “You ever done that, boy?”
I hovered over the toilet. It was four o’clock on a Saturday. Outside, the Highway’s girls were getting started. Checking their reflections, looking for police.
I tried to imagine my father at that gate in Monroe. Steeling himself against hope. His whole life inside his pockets. Instead, I just see the water on the floor; the pen caps and razor blades. A phone number written on a scrap of paper by the shower curtain. When I walk out he’s flopped on the bed, a hand over both ears. His gaze is unfocused. Like he’s staring at the corner of me and something else. “See, that’s your problem,” my father said. “Don’t know the truth when you hear it.”
“I got to get going,” I say to her.
“Then go if you want to,” she snaps without even looking at me. “The 174 bus runs every half hour. I’m gonna be here for a minute. I’m right here.”