Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
MISERY An adaptation from Chekhov by Laban Hill
The jets' relentless roar over Kennedy Airport pollutes the hearing of all nearby as the endless line of waiting yellow cabs exhaust what little breathable air there is. Flood lights positioned every few dozen feet blot out any semblance of twilight. The cold penetrates wherever it can: cracked windows, loosely buttoned coats, exposed skin. Abdullah Mohamet, a cabbie near the front of the line, buries himself in his seat with the heat blasting full force. After ten years in the city, his skin still stings when it comes in contact with even the slightest breeze. He’s a creature of the desert. His dreams are crowded with hot, violent suns that boil the marrow.
He sits immobile, hunched low behind the wheel, giving his cab an appearance of abandonment. Every once in a while a shiver, deeper than any cold could possibly bring on, undulates through his body from his toes through his legs and up his spine to his scalp like dominoes falling in a line. The engine of his cab hums along steadily and monotonously, its soft, warming vibration reminiscent of an embrace.
It's been nearly an hour since Abdullah's cab has stirred. He drove out to the airport to catch the arrival of the first red-eye of the morning. This is where he always begins his day because the fares tip big, and the ride is traffic free. Through the large plate windows the terminals, red caps and other airport staff begin to stir.
"The upper East Side," a passenger yells as he slams the door behind him.
Abdullah slowly inches forward as he glances into the rear view mirror to see the businessman with only a carry-on bag.
"East 86th Street," the man repeats. "Are you deaf? East 86th Street."
"East 86th Street," Abdullah says back, pressing the gas pedal firmly, swinging almost violently around the airport's exit ramps, and hurling his passenger into the opposite door. The cab darts onto the empty expressway and careens toward the center lane as if it had to dodge rush hour traffic.
"Hey, take it easy, pal. There's nobody else on the road." Abdullah listens passively to the passenger. "I'm gonna get sick in your car if you don't slow down."
Abdullah swings to the middle lane and the right tire plows through a deep pothole.
"You son of a bitch! Don't you know how to drive?"
Another cab pulls up along side. The driver honks, seeming to challenge Abdullah to a race back to Manhattan. Abdullah shrugs and lets the cab cut him off into the shoulder.
"Where do cabbies learn to drive?" the businessman mutters more to himself than to Abdullah. "Seems every time I get in a cab something horrible happens." He laughs and taps on the bullet-proof glass. "How did you miss that crazy asshole?"
Abdullah looks in his rear view mirror and tries to speak, but nothing comes out. His voice is parched from long hours of being alone.
"What?" the business man asks.
Abdullah nods and turns his head partway toward the back so that he can see the shadow of the man sitting behind him. His hoarse voice croaks like it has been long out of use. "I...I...I am no longer...a father....You see...you...he died last night, sir....My son."
Startled, the businessman feigns concern. "Uh, what did he die of?"
Abdullah pulls his cab over to the shoulder and stops. He turns his entire body around so that he is kneeling as if in prayer on his seat. He says, "He died of....It was a long time in coming. Too long. I sat with him for months except when I was in this cab...He lay these last weeks a mere shell of himself...no more than 80 pounds of wasted child....He died in the hospital...of A.I.D.S."
"Hey, I've got to get home," a voice from the dark back seat says. "Turn around and step on it."
After a short while, the voice in the back speaks again. "Not that way! Take the Queensborough Bridge! I don't want to have to pay for the toll as well," the businessman urges under his breath.
The cab driver eases onto the exit ramp for the Queensborough Bridge, but he keeps his eyes trained on the passenger framed in his rear view mirror. The passenger closes his eyes, feigning sleep, until Abdullah arrives at East 86th Street.
With his first fare in his pocket, the driver stops at the Papaya King for hot dogs and cruises down Fifth Avenue hoping to catch a fare to midtown and the hotels. It is still too early and Abdullah drives aimlessly through the city, the heat turned all the way up though the cold has already seeped so deep into his joints that he feels like it will take years for him to get warm again.
Just then three youths hop into the cab at a stop light. In the mirror Abdullah can see that one is as wide as half the cab. He seems to dwarf the back seat as if this were some Lilliputian taxi . His companions crowd into the other half, one on the lap of the other.
"Yo yo yo, mister," the giant says as he raps on the dividing glass. "D'ya mind if one of us sits up with you?"
Pushing his newspaper and clipboard aside, Abdullah unlocks the front passenger door. The youth sitting on the other's lap slips into the seat.
"Just under the Williamsburg Bridge on the Brooklyn side."
"Yeah," the one in the front seat adds, "the Lizard Lounge."
The light turns green and the cab surges across the avenue to turn downtown. Normally, Abdullah would refuse to drive to Brooklyn. It was too much out of his way. He wouldn't be able to pick up a fare back to Manhattan. The neighborhood wasn't safe. Its streets were a popular place to abandon cars. Tonight, however, Abdullah simply wants a fare....The behemoth in the back lets out a massive fart to which even the young man in the front responds by opening his window. Cold air spills indiscriminately into the cab.
Abdullah slaps the heat regulator in a futile gesture and pleads, "Please close the windows."
The passenger in front complies and yells to his companions, "Shut the fucking window. My balls are gonna freeze off."
"What balls?... You pussy," the fat one answers. They roll up their windows. Smacking the partition hard behind the driver's head, the fat one says, "Hey, step on it. I don't want you running up the fare by going slow."
"Heh....heh...heh," Abdullah cackles, "can't change a fare by driving fast. Distance is what it goes on."
"Well, then, turn here," the quiet one in the back finally says. "This way's faster to Delancy."
"My balls are gonna burst if I don't get some trim soon," the behemoth says to his friend.
"Shit, homes, when you had a woman? No woman's gonna sleep with some fat, farting, sorry fuck like you. Give it up."
"You don't know what you talkin' 'bout, nigger. You be holin' somebody's dog if I know you."
"Kitty cat, man," the youth in the front yells, "he likes cat, Jojo. That's what he talkin' 'bout when he be braggin' pussy."
"Heh...heh...heh," Abdullah interupts, "Out for the night!" With a blanket of regret, he muses about youth and manhood.
"Shutup, fool," the fat one cries, "Move it! Move it! We don't wanna be sitting in no cab all night. Let's go." The soft, fleshy edge of his fist hits the partition.
Abdullah feels the pounding on the glass behind his head. He hears the abuse heaped on him. He sees people rising from the subways below and cars beginning to fill the streets, and his loneliness quietly lifts like the early fog burning off as the day progresses. The fat one swears at him, until he chokes over a particularly florid string of epithets. The coughing quickly becomes so violent that Abdullah fears the youth will cough up his intestines onto the floor of his cab. His friends seem not to notice and talk of drinking the night before.
"Last night....uh...just before midnight...or just past...my...uh...son died!"
"Everybody bites the dust," the fat one says as he recovers from his coughing fit. "POW! These days you die young or you end up driving some sorry piece of shit like this all night long." He bangs against the window again. "Let's move it. The place'll be closed by the time this cab gets their."
"Malik, show him a little incentive!"
"Hey, old man, we'd get their faster if we walked. Put the pedal to the metal! You want us to throw you out? I could make this crate move, mothafucka!"
Abdullah hears the cocking of a pistol, but doesn't feel the circular impression made by the cold barrel into his temple.
He laughs, "You're out for some real trouble, eh...I just wish you a long and happy life."
"Cabbie, you married?" asks the one in the front seat as he put his gun back in his jacket.
"Me? No! The only woman that would have me now is mother earth....Heh...heh....Six feet under...you understand....My son is already on his way to her bosom and I'm alive....It doesn't make sense, but life is like that. I'll probably outlive you, too....Death is always taking the wrong people....It took my son when it should have taken me."
Abdullah slows and begins to turn around to tell them about his son and the months his son suffered before he died, but the fat one belches a "Thank God!" and tells him to pull over. "We're here."
After counting the money and realizing the youths left him a five dollar tip, Abdullah rolls past the dark, unmarked entrance to the club. He pulls through a stop sign across an empty intersection almost unaware that his cab is moving. With its battered shocks his cab rocks as it passes over worn cobblestones. Again he is alone...not just in the cab...but on the street...the neighborhood....no one is out this early in the morning. He gazes into the faint gray glow regretting the sunrise to come...the first without his son....His utter loneliness swells from some unidentifiable place within...pushing up a misery from somewhere deep within the infrastructure of the city, bursting like a water main or spewing deadly asbestos from a ruptured gas line. His eyes spill tears. The misery that was momentarily eased resumes its vigil.
"Who will listen?....who...." he sobs wishing he had not let his last passengers go. Aimlessly, he cruises the empty streets below the Williamsburg Bridge without a thought of finding his way back across it to Manhattan. The vast silence of the empty cab blots out even the growl of the engine. Desperately he scans the streets for someone to speak to. He drives on looking for anyone...anxious to talk...fearful that perhaps he has been left completely alone.
A man glides out of a brownstone. Dressed in a long black coat and a large fur hat, he skips with a wild determination toward the corner. At first Abdullah believes the man could be singing but quickly realizes the man's steady bowing head more resembles prayer. He swerves to the curb and presses hard on the brake just before his cab rides up on the sidewalk and pins the man against a fence.
Abdullah flings open his door before his cab completely stops. He speaks, "Excuse me, sir...sir...uh..."
Startled out of his reveries, the man whirls toward the driver. The long curls that hang from his sideburns wheel across his face as if they were a veil suddenly drawn up. He rotates away from Abdullah and lumbers without responding up the street.
"Would you like a ride, sir," Abdullah calls after him. "I go to Manhattan anyway. I'll take you no charge." The man hurries along the sidewalk out of hearing as Abdullah finally sighs. "My son died just a few short hours ago." He climbs back into his cab intent on returning to the yard.
The streets of this part of Brooklyn are a maze Abdullah always prided himself in knowing. This morning, though, he turns from one street to another only vaguely aware of his location. He circles. He crisscrosses. He idles through three green lights at a time, until he winds up at an abandoned dock near the Navy Yard. He tries to edge his cab between the cement barriers and onto the decaying platform. The bumper locks between two immobile posts. Abdullah throws the car into reverse and the wheels squeal. He steps out into the smell of burnt rubber.
"Haven't even made the cost of the car, and now this." He spits. "You miserable excuse for a living." He pops the trunk and pulls out a tire iron. "You can't even find your way back to Manhattan...what kind of cabbie is this..."
Abdullah wedges the tire iron between his bumper and the cement barricade. The metal buckles but not enough to free the car.
"LaSalle was so much better at this...I'm simply too old...can't drive anymore..." A pay phone a block away begins to ring. He stumbles over to answer it. No one is on the other end of the line. He takes it as a sign and calls the garage for a tow.
The pale light of a street lamp washes across the cab. Abdullah wanders within its orange arc and feels a sudden compulsion to talk. Like a fool who accidentally steps out on stage of an empty theater, Abdullah nervously feels an obligation to speak. Testing one, two, three....His dry words crack as they tumble thirsting for some drop of comprehension. LaSalle has been dead nearly eight hours, and he has not been able to truly speak about it....to tell about it at length...the moment his son fell ill...the circumstances...which, of course, were unique...the months of waiting...the weeks of withering to a shadow...what he said before he slipped into the last coma...how he suffered no more...how the green line on the machines leveled out...like a landscape that had turned from mountains to desert plain. He has so much to tell now that a listener would no doubt be moved to tears as well. Perhaps, he would sigh along with Abdullah and lament the loss of a son...a good son...for he would understand why all sons are good.
"I'll try you one more time," Abdullah absently says to his cab and cranks the engine. The car lurches and pulls free. "Let's go have a look at the dawn." He puts his car in gear and snakes toward the piers in Redhook to see the sun rise across the bay. A slight hum from the fender rubbing against a tire accompanies their ride across town. Its sound is solemn like prayer in a mosque.
"You sing well," Abdullah comments and quietly hums along as if the noise were a mourning hymn.
Laban Carrick Hill is the author of more than 25 books including the 2004 National Book Award Finalist Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance (Little, Brown 2004). His most recent book America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the Sixties (Little, Brown 2007) was praised byHoward Zinn as "phenomenal" and the New York Times Book Review as"excellent." He is currently a visiting professor in creative writing at theUniversity of Cape Coast, Ghana. He is a member of the core faculty at PineManor College Solstice MFA in Creative Writing.
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