Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Out of Towner

The Out of Towner

By Fran B. Giuffre

Merrill Kowalski took the first taxi that pulled up on Forty Second and Sixth ignoring the driver’s wiry black antennae jutting out from the top of his head. Merrill was happy enough just to get a cab at 5:45 P.M. on a Friday in Manhattan. In New York City you had to be prepared for anyone and anything.

“Main Street, Flushing,” he said wearily, resting his back against the torn leather seating.

“The Bridge is backed up,” the cabbie said. “I’ll take the Tunnel, OK?”

“You can get me to Queens any way that suits you,” Merrill said, hoping the driver would not take too much advantage of his generous comment. “I just finished a sixty hour work week and I’m treating myself to a taxi. No subway crowds for me tonight.”

The taxi rumbled along the Midtown streets moving in a southerly direction toward the East River. Merrill gazed through the dirty, plastic divider separating the front and back seats. He sat up for a moment to see the driver’s photo ID on the dashboard; Merrill wasn't sure he could pronounce the name. The cabbie’s antennae twitched. Was he getting a transmission from someone other than his dispatcher? Merrill was intrigued by the unusual in life; it helped him do his job as a novel editor. What do people say, life is stranger than fiction?

The cab slowed as they entered rush-hour traffic creeping into the outbound lanes of the Queens’ Midtown Tunnel. Merrill cranked his head away from the driver to watch nearby cars inching toward the tunnel then looked again at the cabbie; the driver’s grey eyes were visible in the rearview mirror. Merrill leaned forward saying:

“I guess you are taking me to Flushing. When I got in your cab, I thought you’d lock the doors, drive me to an alley, and beam us up to the mother ship, you know?”

The cabbie laughed loudly. “I love New Yorkers, you’re so blasé. What made you think I was an alien?”

“Your antennae,” Merrill said, wiggling two fingers over his own head.

“Damn,” the driver said, watching Merrill through the rear view mirror. The cabbie banged his forehead twice with the back of his hand; his wiry extensions retracted into the top of his head covered by a muff of thick black hair. “Sometimes I forget to pull them in when I leave for work in the morning, especially when I’ve just gotten back from my home on Alpha Centauri.”

“So why aren’t you abducting me?” Merrill asked, as they emerged from the tunnel into the orange, evening light on the Queens’ side.

“My people don’t do that shtick. We prefer to blend into the populace and observe human behavior. My home planet is pretty sophisticated, kind of the ‘Big Apple’ of the Centauri system, you know? But it’s a mono civilization. We’re totally fascinated by the variety of cultures on Earth.”

“Well then, New York City is the place for you,” Merrill said, laughing.

“You got that right, Mister. Hey, what’s your name?”

“Merrill. How do you say yours?”

“Call me Joe.”

“I’m impressed Joe. You know your way around the city.”

“Oh yeah,” the driver said loudly. “I love this town. I miss it when my vacation is over and I go back to Centauri.”

“This is your vacation?” Merrill asked.

“You bet. It’s the first one I’ve taken in twenty Earth-years.” The cabbie paused as he steered onto Queens Boulevard.

“Lotta traffic,” Merrill said. He wasn’t in a rush, but the sooner he could start his weekend, the better. The cabbie raised his right hand and gestured to get Merrill’s attention.

“I gotta ask you this: so, I’m back in New York last week, driving all over the city: uptown, downtown, the Bronx. I notice people have changed, like something happened while I was gone.”

“There’s always something happening in New York: President at the U.N., big opening at the Met,” Merrill said gazing out the filmy passenger window. A hefty breeze snapped a yellow, sale banner strung across the awning of a music store.

“I know. But this event was bigger, an order of magnitude bigger.” The cabbie let go of the wheel and stretched his hands wide.

“Watch out!” Merrill yelled.

A white van cut off the cab leaving no more than a few inches between his rear
and the cab’s front fender. Joe grabbed the wheel, tires screeching as he switched lanes to avoid the van. He leaned out the window, raising his left hand.

“Hey, buddy, where’d you learn how to drive? On Mars? Sorry ‘bout that, Merrill.”

“Wasn’t your fault. I was watching your hands. You never lost control.”

“I appreciate that. You’re alright, Merrill. You know Queens Boulevard stinks. You mind if I use a trick I learned on Centauri?”

“Go for it, Joe.”

Merrill watched as the cabbie closed his window and extended his head antennae. Outside sounds lowered until the cab was silent. The taxi slimmed until it resembled a long, narrow tube. Merrill pulled in his shoulders then relaxed; there was no apparent change in the physical space he occupied. Joe held the wheel like before, only his antennae twitched rapidly. Merrill was too amazed to speak. He watched as they made a new lane between the traffic, like motorcycles do sometimes, passing in between cars, vans and buses as if those vehicles were standing still.
Gradually the cab expanded into its previous size; Joe eased the taxi into the normal traffic.

“Wow,” Merrill said. “How did you do that?”

“Ain’t that neat?” Joe asked. “Centauri has three suns, you know. With all those gravity wells around us, we learned how to manipulate time and space so we could get to our sister planetary systems fast. That’s how I come and go to New York without too much time passing.

“But let me get back to what I was saying earlier. Whatever happened in New York while I was gone made people different, a lot edgier.”

“You mean the attack on the twin towers,” Merrill said quietly. No one from out of town had asked him about the destruction of the World Trade Center in a long time.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Joe said. “I loved those two monoliths, they reminded me of home. You could see them from everywhere: Brooklyn, Jersey, Staten Island. Those people who crashed the planes into them. Why’d they do that?”

“It’s complicated,” Merrill sighed. Nine-eleven had seeped into the quicksand of Merrill’s memory. His friend Steven had called him from the North Tower as the South Tower collapsed in that hideous time-stopping moment. Thoughts of Steven’s final moments hurt too much to dwell upon; he gave them life once a year, on the anniversary, at the reading of the names of the dead. Joe must be seeing the long term effects of that day. In the faces of people on the street who can’t watch a plane fly overhead without wondering where it was headed, or gazing through a dirty taxicab window at the ghostly apparitions haunting the skies over ground zero.

“Aw, come on,” Joe persisted. “I never met a New Yorker who didn’t have an opinion. “Simplify it for me. Why’d those hijackers do such a mean thing?”

Merrill exhaled a long, hot breath. He leaned forward, into the space between the plastic dividers on the seats. Gazing through the front window, he spoke softly and slowly.

“I think they were mesmerized.”

“Mesmerized? Like under someone’s spell?” Joe asked. He scratched the side of his head then slapped his forehead twice, remembering to retract his antennae. “I guess that’s as good an answer as anything. Sure was a mean thing.”

They had turned onto Main Street. Merrill glanced at the shops along the street, the Italian bakery, the mobile phone store. He smiled. It was good to be in his neighborhood. He leaned to the side and pulled his wallet from a trouser pocket.

“You can drop me off here, Joe.”

Joe pulled the cab out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic and stopped in front of a newsstand.

“Main Street, Flushing. Home of the New York Mets!” he said. “I think we’ve got a shot at the Series this year.”

“We?” Merrill asked, smiling, as he handed Joe his fare and a generous tip.

“Yeah. I want to move here permanently, turn this vacation gig into a regular job. Then I can take a real vacation in the city, see the shows, visit the museums, catch a ballgame at the new stadium. Hey Merrill. Got any advice for an out-of-towner who wants to live in New York City?”

Merrill opened the door and paused with one foot on the pavement. He gazed at the passersby with their red and blue shopping bags and brown briefcases. After a long moment of thought, he turned back and looked into the grey eyes of the cabbie.

“Sure, Joe. Keep your antennae up. For all of us.”
(c) 2009 Fran B. Giuffre


  1. Hi Fran:
    I am impressed. Very timely story, well written, engaging, keeps you reading. Keep up the good work. You have talent. This is a story to submit!!!

  2. I loved this story! For its details and also its open ended philosophy.