The front door opened and a short crippled man limped in with the abnormal frigid air. The sky was dark, even for February. Beer, he muttered at the bartender. The black woman greeted the man with a big smile. How about it, mister? They say it's the biggest freeze ever. What do you think? Will there be snow on the Golden Gate Bridge before the night's through? The cripple limped over to the jukebox without answering. Ludy heard a death-rattle of coins down the slot. Yes, we'll see snow, the woman answered, to no one in particular. On the bridge, on the beaches. The crippled man moved to the far end of the counter, where he sat brooding over his beer as the bartender polished up a couple of shot glasses. A familiar song drifted into the space, a song that only yesterday to Ludy was merely melodyjka, a pleasant tune, a song that now would remind him of yet another ending in his life of many endings, too many endings. His thoughts were of his daughter, of his wife, of his mother: of all the women he once knew. Every nerve in his body quivered. It was strange, this sensation, of being alive with pain. He was not sure what he wanted to do, live or die. Snow on the hills, snow on the streets, the black woman droned. Wherever snow ain't supposed to be, we'll see it. This is a town that likes surprises. On and on she went, a catalog of nonsense, invading his grief like sunshine in a cave. Couldn't she see he wanted peace and quiet? What about that crippled man—his cap pulled over his eyes, hunched over a drink. Couldn't the woman see anything? Yes, mister, she continued, this is a town that don't do what people thinks it should. We'll see snow before daybreak. All them tourists will freeze in their shorts and t-shirts. Betcha even the cable cars will freeze on the tracks. What did she know about snow, living in this land of oranges and palm trees? In Poland, as a young boy, Ludy stood knee-deep in snow for hours to buy shoes or coal or meat. Ludy turned to her. Shut up! he shouted. Shut up, you pig! You cow! She said nothing, just drank the free shot the bartender pushed in front of her. The music stopped and, after a moment of pure silence, another song followed. No one listened and still the jukebox played.
* * *
The bartender had seen the look in men's eyes before, obviously. He poured Ludy another shot of vodka. Leave him be. He maybe don't wanna talk right now. The black woman shifted away, her pearly eye patch glowing in the dark room like a harvest moon.
I understand, man, whispered the bartender to Ludy. Sometimes, it's better not to say a damned thing. His voice was very quiet, like a priest's.
No, Ludy did not want to talk, and that was funny, since he had been trying to talk all day. The vodka was making him nervy, and with the memory of the rude treatment from those swinia, those spoiled girls in his cab, he was afraid that if he opened his mouth he would do something terrible. Scream and curse, strike out, wreck the place like a madman. He had it in him. He had done something like that to a dog once, his faithful companion for many years, cursed at a wrong someone had done to him and beat the dog so hard with a stick he shattered the animal's ribs like twigs. He felt the same way now, all tight inside and mean, like he wanted to rip all the knotted up entrails out of his chest and whip someone raw with it.
* * *
Vodka, Ludy whispered.
Ludy downed the drink and held out his empty glass. The bartender looked at him suspiciously, but the woman leaned over and took the bottle from him. Brother, don't be like that, she chided the bartender, filling Ludy's glass. My man got to have something. It's cold outside. They say the biggest freeze we ever get in this old City by the Bay. There ain't enough heat in this old barn to make a worm wiggle. She turned to Ludy, her good eye glowing. Drink up, mister.
The vodka was warming Ludy now, dulling the pain in his eyes and heart. The woman poured a third shot. Thank you, he whispered without any gratitude.
You are more than welcome. The woman's face was all made up, her one good eye glittery with gold and her lips the color of port. The golden eye was fixed on Ludy's damaged face. So, what happened, my man? Did you get robbed? I got robbed once like that. Or—here she leaned in expectantly—did you do the robbing? She laughed softly. Ludy smelled the sourness of her, perfume from a previous night's outing undercutting the whiskey on her breath.
She would want to hear all about it, of course. Americans, even junkies or whores, were bored with their lives. They liked listening to bad stories, as long as they happened to other people. They would all be eager to have him on a TV show, unfolding the dirty details of his tragedy.
* * *
Ludy slapped on the emergency blinkers and staggered out of the cab. Through searing pain and streaming tears he noticed a neon sign to his right. He went inside and asked for a towel to wipe his face with. He heard the gasp of a woman. Someone, a man judging from the strong grip, placed a cool wet cloth on his eyes and led him to a stool. Here, siddown, buddy. You okay? What happened? You get maced? Want me to call somebody?
Ludy shook his head. The pain was subsiding a little. He took off the towel and blinked. He was in what looked like a bar, one so dark and so small that it contained only a long counter and six barstools, four of which were empty. A black woman with a pearl-white eye patch walked from the other end of the counter and sat next to him. The place smelled of dirty ashtrays and damp wood, and was lit by one small fly-specked window and a gaudy jukebox jammed into one corner, spinning colors like a merry-go-round. You look like you at the end of it. The woman, bedecked in evening clothes that looked crumbled and used, nodded to the bartender, probably the man who had given Ludy the towel. Brother, a drink for my man here. What you want, mister? Whiskey? Gin?
* * *
Stop! Stop the fucking cab!
Ludy could not find a place to stop.
STOP THE FUCKING CAB!
The one with glasses pulled something from her purse, reached over the back of the seat and sprayed something into the air. It caught the right side of his face and burned Ludy's eyes. He moaned. Someone cried out, We're going to have an accident, you stupid cow! Ludy swerved as far to the right as he could and braked. The two smaller girls leaped out, cursing Ludy and each other. You bastard, the girl with the glasses screamed through the closed window. I never even had a father! The third girl chuckled. Don't sweat it, mister, she said on her way out. If your daughter's like me, you're probably better off without her.
* * *
You lost what?
The two smaller girls rustled reprovingly, like disturbed doves. The spiky haired girl didn't say anything for a minute then lay her cheek down, facing Ludy. Cigarette smoke curled from the fingers of her right hand. She reached to stroke his hair with her other hand. Silly man, what a thing to lose, she whispered.
He's a liar. Why would he be driving a cab, if his daughter died today? said the girl, glaring at him through thick black eyeglasses.
I don't know, moaned the girl in the short white jacket. What are we supposed to do?
The spiky haired girl continued to stroke his hair.
I got a telegram. Ludy tried to get it all out, fast. I didn't know her for a while, my daughter. She lived with her mother and new father. Back East, in New Jersey. She's been gone over a month. Nobody remembered to tell me, and—
He squeezed his eyes hard, trying to cry. He wanted to cry. He should cry. But all he felt was dry and empty and as full of heat as a desert.
You're a liar! It was the girl with glasses. Her eyes looked small and mean. He's just jerking our chains . . .
The girl stroking his hair held her cigarette to his lips.
. . . wants us to feel sorry for him.
He felt the sticky, wet cigarette butt between his lips and sputtered in revulsion.
Please! It's true, I'm not myself today. But I only wanted to talk to someone. He began to weep.
The smallest girl tugged at the big girl's sleeve. Let's get outta here, she whispered, pulling her jacket tight around her throat.
Ludy wanted to reassure them; he was not a harmful man. He had only wanted to tell someone of his loss. To say it aloud, to have it outside of his head and in the greater world around him, would make it less of a dream. Once it got outside of his head, he might be able to examine it, like a wound, and start to make it heal. Before he could speak, the girl with the glasses slapped her friend's hand away from his face, smacking his ear in the process.
* * *
The biggest of the girls, the Asian, with short spiky hair and a long nose that splayed at the end like a thumb, spoke first. SOMA. South of Market, a neighborhood across town where there was a large concentration of nightclubs. Ludy nodded and began to drive. Mind if I smoke? she asked, lighting a cigarette before he could answer. She cracked open the window. Her two companions immediately complained about the cold. The spiky haired girl ignored them. She stared at Ludy through the rearview mirror. They drove like that for a few blocks, her staring at him, with little humor and no curiosity. As if he was a draft horse. He adjusted the mirror so he couldn't see her eyes.
The Asian girl kicked the back of Ludy's seat. Hey, mister, she said. You look like you could tell us about a few good places. Salsa club maybe? Or a pool hall? She leaned forward, hanging over the back of the seat. He could smell the liquor on her then, sharp and clear as French perfume. Her nose looked enormous in the mirror.
I . . . I lost my daughter today, Ludy said.
* * *
Ten minutes passed, and Ludy turned off the car engine to save gas. Another ten minutes passed. A knot of knuckles rapped at the window. Three giggling girls stood outside, shivering in short tight skirts and silly furred jackets. Hey, mister! One of them, an Asian girl with hair spiking from her head like black icicles, shouted through the closed glass. You on duty? Ludy put the car in park and reached back to open the passenger door. They blew in with a whiff of cold air and breath mints and the blunt sensation of alcohol. He opened his mouth once, then twice, but his voice seemed stuck in his windpipe. He coughed loudly before he finally managed to bark out, Where to?
* * *
The man handed him a ten-dollar bill for the $8.85 fare, then jumped from the vehicle and disappeared into the waning sunlight without a word. That was the way in America. It was such a big space. People could steer clear of inconvenience as easily as a cloud could avoid hitting a mountain. Ludy idled the engine, letting the heat from the car's loins warm his chilled toes. He had been holding the photo of his daughter in his hand all this time. The edges curled under the heat of his fingers, and he edged them into straightness as carefully as he could. He tried not to look at the dark, sorrowful eyes and the small, downturned mouth that accused him, even in the dimness of the streetlight outside the cab, as he carefully slid the photo into place, under the upturned sun visor. Of course, she was much older than this, a teenager, her face probably tougher and less hurt. Maybe she would even have laughed at him carrying an old snapshot under the sun visor of his taxi.
* * *
The man lifted his hat and scratched at his head, apparently discomfited at such an intimacy from a stranger, and he cleared his throat several times before he said simply and without interest, I'm really very sorry.
She's older now, but not that old. Barely 17, Ludy explained, as if he was asked. A baby, really.
Turn here! Turn here! the man shouted.
Ludy hung an illegal left on Washington to avoid the congestion in Chinatown and swung south onto Columbus, past the neon stripper joints and garlicky tourist restaurants. Within seconds they were in front of the looming Transamerica pyramid.
* * *
My daughter. Ludy pulled from the back of the visor a small square photo, the type hired photographers took in grammar schools, and held it over his shoulder. The man squinted but did not take it. He did not even lean forward. I lost her. Today.
The hard mouth puckered. I beg your pardon?
Ludy was tongue-tied. I-I-I lost my daughter today, he stammered as he urged the car forward in tight little jerks.
Hey, pal, the light is green! Cars honked their horns and swished around them like scornful women. This country was full of big shiny automobiles, vehicles with intrepid names that recalled the Old West: Cherokee, Mustang, Blazer. No one in such vehicles could wait. It would be the same everywhere, even in New Jersey, where his wife was now, maybe even in Poland, where his mother still lived. Only in Poland the cars would be smaller and not so shiny. What's the matter? Are you drunk? Move it!
* * *
It was late afternoon in downtown San Francisco, and the world was cold, hard and cold, like a piece of ice. The weather reminded Ludy of Poland, the country he'd left as a young man but still remembered in detail—flat plains and misty rivers—more clearly than he could recall his apartment here, where he had spent 20 years of his life.
Ludy slumped over the steering wheel of his parked taxi, motionless, purposely not focusing on anything, not the unseasonable weather, which had snapped many a San Francisco water pipe, even ignoring the scrim of winter grit built up on the windshield. This was unusual, as Ludy ordinarily kept his taxicab spotless, even to the point of wiping down the plastic cover that displayed his operator license and photo. In the photo he was a younger man and smiling. Now his face was drawn and wrinkled as a dollar bill. Crumbled over as he was, with his eyes and mustache drooping, he looked like a shot bird.
A man in a heavy dark coat and old-fashioned porkpie hat flagged him. To the Transamerica building. And could you make it quick?
Ludy shifted into gear and the car lurched into oncoming traffic. Now that another person was so close, Ludy wanted to speak, to unload some of the burden that made him so heavy. He would confess it all: the head-on collision, the drunk driver who walked away with a slight concussion, his daughter's seventeeth birthday only two months earlier, the wealthy American man who had married his ex-wife, who took his daughter away when she was only five years old, when she still looked up to him as a daddy. He would tell about the divorce—on the grounds of cruelty, him beating first the dog and then his wife and then—oh, horrible day!—actually slapping his daughter's tiny face. Hard. So hard. He would tell about the day he met his wife in Poland, his first day of high school. He was awkward and skinny with a big nose and she was small, with light hair and pale green eyes, green like an icy sea, and when she laughed, which was all the time, it was like a whispered song. He could not even summon enough courage to ask her for a dance until graduation. Then they fell in love and worked for Solidarity. Why not? They were young, hopeful. All young people did the same. Gave their lives to a cause. Time meant something in those days. It wasn't something to be measured in little increments to determine how much money you got paid. Never enough for his wife, who wanted a big house, a car. She was Polish, maybe, but a born American. Ever since he knew her, she couldn't wait to get to America. When she found out Ludy had an uncle in California, she laughed and set her seawater eyes upon him. Knowing all that he knew, he still married her. He was that young once.
Hey mister, Ludy said. You want to hear something that happened to me today?
In the mirror the man's face looked hard and sour as a lemon drop.
Americans, always in a hurry.