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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Caveat Emptor
by Dan Fante
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For once the firing squad in my head was quiet. The result of three hours of solid sleep and no hangover. It was 5:30 AM. Just dawn. The long subway ride from mid-town to my taxi garage in the South Bronx had been made easier by revisiting a thin volume of e.e. cummings' early poetry.
     It was mid-July in Manhattan, already seventy-five degrees at street level. By six o'clock that night I would lose another five to seven pounds of sweat. Ten or eleven hours on the seat grinding out a living in the boiling New York heat in an un air-conditioned fucking cab.
     I picked up my trip sheet and found #371 parked in the sea of yellow in the lot next to the taxi dispatch office. For once, the inside of the rear passenger area was fairly clean. Only a handful of cigarette butts and a crumpled McDonald's Hamburger bag. Whoever had driven the cab the night before had had a slow night.
     Rolling all the windows down, I started the car. So far so good. No clunking in the engine or screeching fan belt noises. I checked the radiator and the oil dipstick. They were both okay. Inside the cab behind the wheel, my next order of business was to copy the odometer mileage on the top of my trip sheet in the slot provided. I read the numbers off the dash and transposed them to the red box on the card: 184,261. #371 had been a new Dodge taxi thirteen months ago. These days it gasped and wheezed and regularly overheated twice a week.
     It was now fully daylight. The blazing orange fireball in the east was working its way up between the tenements across the East River in Long Island City. My boom box was on the seat next to me beside my poetry notebook and my cummings volume. I clicked the "on" button then dialed to the "all news" station to get the day's forecasts: 90-93 degrees and humid. Another seven pounds of sweat. Forcing #371's gear shift down into "D," I punched the gas pedal.
     In ten minutes I was down The Bronx's Grand Concourse and across the Madison Avenue Bridge into Harlem on my way to mid-town where the fast money is. My two daily steadies, both Wall Street guys, weren't due for their pick ups until after eight o'clock so I was in the hunt for my first fare. With no one hailing me, at 96th Street, I turned east toward Lexington Avenue. That's when I saw her.
     Being a New York City cabby requires a highly-tuned sense of danger. Vibes and street smarts are everything. After five years on the seat, after being held up and knifed, I was no exception. The woman on the curb looked okay. No problem. In her late twenties, Latin or European, lipsticked, and dressed in a maroon warm-up outfit. Her died-blond hair was combed straight back and tied with a ribbon. But there was something else as she got in and recited her destination. It may have been her smile, or the way she said the words with the trace of a Puerto Rican accent. Something genuine and open. Special. Different. For me, a guy always on his guard against people, a guy who spent his days and nights alone as much as possible, drinking and reading and typing, or just drinking, it felt like walking into a flower shop for the first time.
     I make it an imperative to say as little as possible to passengers, but a conversation started anyway. The name tag on her jacket spelled out Leslee. I learned that she was a massage therapist at BLOW UP, a high-rent gym on 57th Street, and a college dropout art major. Born and raised in Spanish Harlem.
     When we got to 57th and she paid her fare, her smile filled the back of my cab. "Thanks," she said, swinging the door open; "jou're a nice guy, Bruno. Hab a wonda-ful gooo day. I mean it." "Ditto," my inarticulate idiot mouth replied. "You too." Then she was gone.
      As it turned out, the next day was a repeat of the first, only ten minutes later in the morning. I had gotten a slow start because #371 needed a gallon of radiator coolant. On my way down 5th Avenue, after no one hailed me, I again turned left at 96th Street. There was Leslee. This time she looked rushed. But the smile was there like the sweet blast of air conditioning. "Hi Bruno," she said, in her wispy Puerto Rican accent, remembering my name. "Wha a nice surprise. Goo to zee jou?" I nodded and tried on my best to return the smile.
     "Can we hurry. I'm late. I been burnin' my cannle ah bot ends."
     This time my unsophisticated yap did better. A hip, literary answer, courtesy of Edna St. Vincent Mallay herself. "Oh," says I, quoting: "Your candle burns at both endsÖit will not last the nightÖBut ah, your foes, and oh, your friends, it gives a lovely light."
     Her smile back said it all.     
     So that was the beginning.
     Leslee's fist massage client of the day would be an intense Madison Avenue CEO who arrived at 6:15 sharp every morning. A hundred bucks plus tip. She wanted to know if I would be willing to pick her up on a daily basis so she wouldn't have to worry about being late for the guy and finding a cab so early in the morning? "Okay. Sure. No problem," said my glib mouth. "That'd be fine. I'd like that." So that's how it started. That first, deep penetration of the ice pick.
     I began to open up to her. In the beginning it was tough for me, this sudden, clumsy candidness. But by week's end, after a coffee date in our free time, and a couple of endless phone conversations about who and how rich her massage clients were, and her wanting to see my poetry and me viewing two books of her drawings, eventually, rebelling against my own prescribed isolation, weary of vodka and porno videos and my seething, genocidal thoughts, I convinced myself that I might somehow be starting to care about somebody else.
     Then, on Friday, a clammy, drizzling New York morning, as I was dropping Leslee off, she leaned forward across the back of my seat to pay, as usual, and I got a surprise. A kiss. A firm, determined tongue forced itself between my lips then withdrew quickly. "I been wantin' to do tha all week," she breathed. "Me too," my throat croaked.
     Then came the time, the only time as it turned out, that we made it. It was in my cab. That too was another ad-lib surprise. I had picked her up from work at five o'clock and we were heading north on 3rd Avenue in the heavy rush-hour traffic. "Hey," she whispered, "jou wana see somethin'? I been keeping it cool for jou?"
     At the next red light I turned and looked back over the seat. My passenger was naked in the bumper to bumper traffic. Shaved pink crotch. Legs apart, wearing only her beaming, million-peso grin.
     I should have known. The flashing orange caution light going off in my brain was delivering a sweaty message: THIS IS ALL TOO EASYÖSOMETHING'S WRONGÖ But, in truth, in hindsight, I know I was lost. Nothing else but that wondrous thing resting itself lovingly on the vinyl of my back seat mattered. I had never gotten-it-on with anyone in a cab in open daylight before. Between parked cars.
     It was the following Monday that I had my first visitation. A redness between my legs. An itching. A blotch in my pubic hair that by the end of the day became a coin-sized sore.
     When I mentioned my problem to Leslee on our ride downtown the next day, her response was blasé. No big deal. Whatever it was would go away. Then the smile. The no prisoners - gimme all your cash and credit cards - I love you forever - smile.
     By the following morning my herpes sore was in full blossom, oozing and burning like mad. My taxi company's HMO witchdoctor took one look and diagnosed it immediately. Along with his free medical opinion came a stern unsolicited warning to ease up on the booze, a flash of brilliance I'd put together for myself years earlier.
     Leslee denied everything then unaccountably disappeared.
     By the end of the week when none of my phone calls were returned, and she was no longer on the corner of 96th Street in the morning, I took matters into my own hands, stopping by her gym after parking #371 in a hotel hack stand five blocks away.
     The desk guy at BLOW UP eyed me up and down as I walked in. He was muscular, smiling, stupid, and unhelpful. I was a slob. He buzzed into the massage area on the intercom. After hanging up his George Clooney charm was gone. He announced dryly that Leslee was "occupied" with a client. I said I had all day. I would wait.
     So, for the next hour, I sat in one of the expensive gray leather chairs outside the spa area keeping my eyes on the little window in the massage room door. Finally, another guy in a towel sat down next to me.
     "Who you waiting for?" he whispered. "Which girl?"
     "Leslee," I said back. "Hey, me too. Jesus! Shit! Maybe she double-booked herself!"
     "I don't have an appointment," I said.
     His eyes narrowed, then he snickered.
     "Well," he whispered, "you should sign up and get in line. "You won't be sorry. For an extra fifty she'll give you the whole deal, the total-body massage. And, for fifty more, what do you think you get?"
     "I already know," I said.

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