Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Nancy Ford Dugan
Jim growls, “My divorce is final.” No “hello” as I hop into his cab. He has chronic late-night disc jockey voice, even though it’s ten o’clock Saturday morning.
I’m not sure whether to say “Congratulations” or “I’m sorry.” It’s the first full sentence he’s said to me in the six years he’s been picking me up. Unless you count “Your train’s late,” which it often is and he often says, as if I have any control over its schedule. But he is one of the few reliable ones, always waiting for me at the train station and right on time in the afternoon, picking me up to catch the train back to the city.
I go with “Are you happy or sad about it? Or both?” I try to sound neutral, yet polite.
“Well, my wife, she was cheating on me,” he says as he pulls onto I-84. “I got to work two jobs. So I’m never home. Day or night. Weekends, I do the cabs. She was stepping out on me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I stare out the window and feel bad for him. Jim never plays the radio, unlike Eddie who blares The Spinners. But if he did, I sense a country-and-western theme coming on.
“So anyways, I caught her in bed with my friend Harry.” He laughs.
Dear Lord. This may be way more than I need to hear. I’m ashamed. For everyone. And does this mean I need to over-tip?
“But I guess it’s all right. I got the house. She insisted.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Yep. Except, I never have time to cut the grass.”
We ride in silence.
“Now the women are coming out of the woodwork for me!” He’s full of pride. He looks like a demented teacher; his wife fooled around on him, but he’s feeling fine. I feel truly cheered on his behalf.
“Well, good for you!”
“Yep. I got two women after me. And they’re both named Jane.”
“Get out!” I’m positively gleeful.
Jim chuckles. “It gets confusing. I’m never sure who’s calling. Whoops, I better get that.”
He turns on his cell and checks the face. “Yep. Nope. OK.” He ends the call. “I have to check the caller ID to figure out which Jane it is.”
That afternoon, Mike picks me up, and for once, he’s not literally asleep at the wheel when I climb in. He likes to come early and take a nap in the nursing home parking lot. Mike always asks me how I am, in a meaningful way. I appreciate it and always say I’m fine.
Today, Mom’s up to waving good-bye from her window and I’m glad it’s Mike. He pulls out of the driveway real slow, giving Mom and me plenty of time for leisurely mutual waving, my arm extended out the cab door window.
Mike’s respectfully silent for a minute. “So how was your holiday?” I ask, and he describes each dish of his big meal, down to the collard greens and black-eyed peas. He seems surprised I ever had any. He says his girlfriend of twenty years got mad at him for staying up until 4:30 a.m. with his neighbor watching sports tapes. Usually he works as a cabbie till 6:00 p.m., sleeps till 10:30, and then reports to his night counselor job at a home for abused kids. I think how tired he must always be.
“I restrain their demons,” he says.
“It’s tough to be a kid,” I say.
“You said a mouthful,” Mike says. He always takes back roads, as if the highway is just not mellow enough for him.
Next week, I get Gabriel in the morning. Gabriel rides low, with the seat full out, even though he is not very tall. As a result, my knees in the backseat are near my chin. He drives in a pleasant hurry. I don’t understand much of anything he says in his sweet, high-pitched voice, but at certain angles he resembles a maniacal Antonio Banderas, so I don’t care. He tends to hog me and tries to beat the other cabbies picking me up (it’s a good-size fare). If he’s not the one assigned by the dispatcher, this creates awkwardness and a bit of a rumble, like some James Dean scene in Rebel Without a Cause. The drivers start to yell at each other. I stand and wonder what to do and if I’ll be late, while the cabbie testosterone airs itself.
If it’s Eddie, it can get ugly. He and Gabriel don’t get along. Eddie likes Motown and golf and is, like Jim, a growler. He drives a different route each time, which makes me crazy. He’s in power, he’s in charge, he’s the man. But when he’s in a rare good mood, he plays me his old jazz tapes, and they almost make me forgive his quirks.
I’ve never met the dispatcher Susie, but I talk to her every week. She’s very protective. Her scratchy voice comes over the cab’s speakerphone during every ride: “Do you have her?”
“Yeah. I got her,” the cabbies say.
The first year, I guess I was thoughtless to suddenly stop calling for cabs when the golf season ended and my brother started giving me rides. When spring came and I called to arrange the cabs again, Susie let me have it. “We were so worried. We figured, you know, your mom.” She drifted off. “I’m relieved to hear from you!”
I felt guilty and now call Susie every week to let her know if I don’t need rides or if I do. It’s almost too much. I’m just one car-less city woman making a trip up every weekend to see her mom.
In the city, taxi drivers don’t form these kinds of attachments. Except once: The first cab I took after 9/11, the driver started crying and had to pull over. It was early morning, the streets still eerily deserted, the sky foggy gray. Then I started crying as he sat in the front seat in his turban saying “I love America.” We were both wiped out after that exchange and stared straight ahead through the grimy windshield. After a while, he started up the cab again and took me to work. There was no possible music to distract us along our way.
During that ride, I recognized a brand-new fear and dread to accompany the one I already had about Mom. It settled in, tucked against the family stress and loss; it, too, was here to stay.
But my cabbies rescue me each week, and rain or shine, they carry me home. And for now, at least, I can’t get to Mom and back without them. I expect, when the time comes, oh, how I will miss them.
About the Author
Nancy Ford Dugan lives and works in New York City and previously resided in Michigan, Ohio, and Washington, DC. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013, her short stories have appeared in over twenty-five publications, including Blue Lake Review, Cimarron Review, Crack the Spine, Euphony, Lowestoft Chronicle, Passages North, The Minnesota Review, Epiphany, The MacGuffin, Superstition Review, and Tin House’s Open Bar.