It was a tiny provincial airport in the desert north of town. I had to check the map twice. The land was flat and sandy with not much growing except creosote bush, littered with cactus and loose volcanic rock that looked like it fell there red-hot just yesterday. A litter of jackrabbits bounded on the side of the road. They arced away through the arms of a giant prickly pear, its spiked pads bordered with the bite marks of wild desert pigs. It was a strange place for someone to need a cab.
There was no sign of life at the airport. A few airplanes sat quiet on the tarmac in the blowing dust. I got out of my cab and the heat hit me like a glass door. It was like taking a mouthful of air from an incinerator. My eyes dripped and my sinuses felt like I had sniffed pure bleach.
I saw the sign for the tiny airport restaurant, THE HIDEAWAY, and opened the heavy metal door. Inside it was a little cooler. A big white guy was sitting at the bar alone watching a television with the sound turned off. No one else was there. He heard me open the door and downed a full beer in a long drink. Then he turned and came toward me.
"How's it going?"
"Shitty," he said.
He climbed in my cab and told me an address in Tucson. I knew he wasn't going to like the price. I didn't ask him if he had the money. Somehow I trusted him.
We got moving. The sun glared down on us from a turquoise sky. I cranked the air conditioner.
"Edward," he said, holding his hand out. I shook his hand.
"Matt," I said. "Nice to meet you, Edward."
"Life is fucking crazy, Matt," he said.
"Yup," I said.
He looked out the window for a while and rubbed his hands on the thighs of his dirty blue jeans.
"Hey, do you think I could use your phone?"
I handed him my cell phone. He opened it and used it with such natural ease you would have thought it was his own.
"Gena," he said. "Gena . . . look, Gena, maybe I said some things but I . . . Gena . . . Gena, let me talk to Elizabeth, put Elizabeth on the phone . . . Gena . . . now Gena, I TOLD YOU, that never happened . . . no . . . never . . . Gena . . . Gena? . . . Shit . . . "
She hung up on him. He handed me the phone.
"Thanks," he said.
"She kicked me out last night," he said. "You married?"
"Yes," I said.
"Kids?" he said.
"No," I said.
"Well," he said, "then you don't understand. You just don't understand. I just want to see my baby girl, my baby Elizabeth, and my wife won't let me see her."
"Man," I said.
"I'm going to my brother's now," he said, "I work back there at the restaurant but my brother said come on over, fuck the bitch."
He looked at the meter clicking.
"Oh, Jesus," he said, "what am I going to do?"
I didn't say anything. A plane made a white puffy line across the sky.
"You got a cigarette?" he said.
I handed him one and got one for myself. I lit mine and then gave him the lighter. We rolled the windows down, which created a wind that howled. I could feel my left cheek flapping like I was sky diving, like I was falling through the air. We smoked, mirror images of each other, even in the way we finally tossed our butts out our windows.
When I dropped him at his brother's the fare was 85 dollars. He paid me with greasy bills, reluctantly, and he stood there looking at me.
"Well," he said, "Now I got no money."
I shrugged apologetically, and drove off. That's how the game works. I didn't like the game but if I didn't play it I would end up sleeping in the park again.
A couple minutes later my phone rang. I hoped it was my wife, who told me she would call but hadn't. It had been two days since I heard from her.
"Is Edward there?" a woman's voice said. It was Elizabeth's mother, Gena. She was crying.
"He's at his brother's," I told her.
But she didn't hang up.
"How is he?" she asked.
"He's upset," I said. "He's confused."
"Do you think I should call him at his brother's?" she said.
"He misses Elizabeth," I said.
I heard a baby in the background. She didn't say anything but she didn't hang up either. She started crying harder. Edward was right, I didn't understand. I sat at a red light, frozen.