The aging diesel sedan rested next to the curb like a tired draft horse that had served its master well for many years but now needed to lie down and take it easy. Brodsky scrubbed the scratched and dented fenders with warm soap and water until the surface, scratches and all, gleamed. Brodsky too looked like an aging warhorse, far older than his thirty-eight or thirty-nine years, with lines around his tired eyes and strands of gray in his thick dark hair.
Brodsky’s dog Anton, a mixed breed with curly brown hair, half-slept on the sidewalk, soaking up the morning sun and keeping one eye open to watch his own master wash the car.
“Well, Anton, taking a rest?” the man said to the dog. “It’s only been a month, and here we are washing the car and breathing the fresh morning air as if nothing has happened.”
Anton opened his eye wider and yawned.
For all intents and purposes, Brodsky was homeless. He lived out of his car in a rundown neighborhood with pockets of incipient gentrification. Aging, decrepit apartments vied with small but sleek condos for housing space. Starbucks cafés, specialty food stores, and overpriced fashion boutiques coexisted with automobile repair shops, check-cashing outlets, cut-rate liquor stores, and cavelike bars. One didn’t find homeless people sleeping in doorways and begging for change on street corners, but the invisible poor such as Brodsky camped in their vehicles, took refuge in the spacious park not too many blocks away, or just kept on moving.
The neighborhood was not too far from the ocean. At night Brodsky imagined that he could hear the steady lapping of the waves, but maybe it was just the traffic on nearby streets. When he was still living with his wife Elena, they hoped that the salt air would help her respiratory problem, but the main result of the salt was that it caused the old sedan to rust.
Brodsky rinsed the car and dried it off. A call came in over the two-way radio. He leaned in and picked up the speaker.
“Hey, Russky, got a job for you. Ready to go?”
“Ready, Central. What you have?”
Brodsky was a cab driver. The company he worked for was housed in an office on the other side of the city, and some of his fares came through the dispatcher.
“Lady wants to go shopping. Downtown.”
The dispatcher gave him the destination, and Brodsky turned to the napping dog.
“Come on, old boy. Are you ready for another day?”
Sleepily, Anton opened his other eye, yawned again, and pushed himself up from the ground.
When the cabbie arrived at the address, he found that there were two women instead of one. Heavily made up and dressed nicely for a day of shopping, they looked so similar that Brodsky thought they might be twins.
“Do you know how to get to Macy’s?” said the first woman.
“Yes, yes. I know,” said Brodsky and switched on the meter.
“What’s that? A dog?” said the twin, screwing up her face.
“Dog not bother,” said the cabbie. “He just sleep.”
In the rear view mirror he saw the two women looking at each other.
He drove through back streets, over pot holes, up and down hills.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” said one of the twins.
The fare was mounting up.
“Yes, yes. No problem.”
The first woman glanced at Brodsky, then whispered to her twin, “These Russians. If you don’t keep an eye on them, they’ll steal you blind.”
Blind? Did they think he was deaf too?
The woman continued, “I don’t know where he’s taking us. It’s so dirty down here. Do you see those warehouses? Maybe he’s going to kidnap us.”
Anton murmured in his sleep.
“Shh. You’re insulting him,” the twin said, laughing nervously.
They stopped at a red light.
At least one of them paid attention to other people’s feelings, thought Brodsky. But it didn’t matter; he didn’t care. Last month it might have been different, but now it was too late.
The light turned green. Pretty soon he arrived at the store and dropped them off. He shook his head.
Brodsky found a parking space near the small neighborhood park where he often ate lunch. He switched off the on-duty sign, picked up a brown bag and a cold thermos, and climbed out of the venerable taxi. Anton followed. He trudged two short blocks with the dog at his heels and sat down on a vacant green bench. Anton nestled next to him under the bench.
The park wasn’t crowded. A few toddlers were being pushed on swings by their mothers or their nannies. One young man was shooting hoops. A couple of older people walked slowly on the paths. An old man and a young man were playing chess.
Just then a shapely young woman in tight black bicycle shorts and a red, green, and yellow Italian racing top zipped by on a sleek road bike.
The paper bag contained pieces of herring, onions, and crackers, the same lunch that Elena used to prepare for him. He gave some of the herring to Anton, who wolfed it down in a couple of quick bites. The dog liked whatever Brodsky liked; he was unusual in that respect. Elena also used to make him borscht, cold shredded beet soup mixed with cabbage, onion, and a little sour cream. He missed the pinkish red nectar. It reminded him of Russia. And his wife.
Either the thought of the borscht or the laughter of the toddlers on the swings reminded him of a conversation, not long ago, with his wife and son. They had just finished dinner and were sitting around the kitchen table in their cramped apartment when Sasha, almost ten years old, asked for a bike as a birthday present. It wasn’t an unreasonable request. Sasha was an active boy, and most of his friends had bikes. They rode around the neighborhood and even down to the beach. The trouble was that bikes were expensive, at least the kind that Sasha wanted, with multiple gears, a light frame, and special tires.
“You not Lance Strongarm,” Brodsky had told him.
“Armstrong,” Elena corrected him. “Lance Armstrong.”
“I know, Papa,” Sasha replied, “but all the other kids have bikes like that.”
Brodsky found that hard to believe, but there was no use arguing about it.
“We never get him anything,” Elena pointed out, coughing into her napkin. She used to work in a Russian-language bookstore, but when she got sick they laid her off. “He wears clothes from the thrift shop, studies second-hand books, and sleeps in a room no bigger than a closet.”
She spoke in Russian, but Sasha picked up the gist.
“It’s okay, Mama. I don’t mind. I just want a nice bike.”
Elena patted his hand.
“Maybe we go back to Russia,” Brodsky threatened. He banged the table, and Anton, hearing the noise, barked.
“Shh, it’s all right,” said Sasha, petting the dog.
“Russia!” insisted Brodsky. “You think children ride fancy bikes in Russia?”
“Things are different now,” murmured Elena.
“Then we go back,” repeated Brodsky.
“I know,” suggested Sasha, “I can get a paper route. Deliver papers with my bike.”
“You’re too young for a paper route,” said Elena. “You need to go to school and do your homework.”
Sasha sighed. Anton yawned. No one said anything for a long minute. Elena coughed and drank the last bit of water in her glass.
“I have an idea,” said Brodsky, snapping his fingers. “I give chess lessons.”
“Would be good idea,” said Elena in English, “but Americans don’t care ’bout chess. Is just football and beisbol in America.”
Why was she always so negative, Brodsky wondered. Whatever he suggested, she found something wrong with it.
“Then I give lessons to the Russians. Plenty of Russians in America.”
“Yes, but they play chess better than you.”
Brodsky threw up his hands.
“It’s okay,” said Sasha, getting up from the table. “I have homework to do.”
“Don’t hurt your eyes, sweetheart,” said his mother.
“I won’t, Mama.”
Anton followed him into his room.
Recalling the conversation now, Brodsky reached down and stroked Anton’s furry head. The dog half-growled, half-squealed contentedly.
“Life is good. Hah, Anton?”
He ate some more of the herring and sighed.
“What you know, old friend? What you know?”
Later that afternoon a man dressed entirely in black knocked on Brodsky’s window as he was stopped in traffic.
“Train station. All right?”
Brodsky nodded. The man hopped into the back seat. The cabbie noticed that he was carrying a black bag, like an old-fashioned doctor.
“What you got there? Bomb?” joked Brodsky, but the man didn’t crack a smile.
‘What? This? Tools of the trade.”
As Brodsky inched forward, the man seemed to close his eyes and go to sleep. After a few blocks, the cab driver turned onto a cross street.
The passenger opened his eyes and asked the driver for a deck of cards.
“Carts?” said Brodsky. “No, I got no carts.”
“Not carts. Cards. You know, ace, king, queen. Playing cards.”
“Oh,” said the cabbie. “Poker carts. Are you gambler?”
“Nah, I never take risks. I’m a magician. I do tricks.”
Brodsky glanced back at the magician. “Wait. Maybe I haff carts.”
He rummaged around in the glove compartment until he found a sticky deck of playing cards. He handed them to the other man, who turned them over several times.
“What’s this?” said the magician.
“Carts. You said you wanted deck of carts.”
The magician shook his head. “Yeah, but these aren’t the right kind. I use only official Bicycle brand playing cards.”
At the word bicycle, a sudden emotional jolt ran through Brodsky’s body like an electric shock, and the image of a gleaming silver bicycle resting against a red brick wall flashed into his mind.
“What? What did you say?” mumbled Brodsky.
“I said these aren’t the right kind.”
The cabbie took them back. “Sorry.”
Traffic was fierce outside the train station as taxis and other vehicles jockeyed for position.
The magician paid his fare and disappeared underground to find his train.
“Bicycle,” the cabbie muttered. “Not right kind.”
The sun was sinking lower in the sky when Brodsky spotted a tall, thin man in a black-and-white skeleton costume lazily waving his hand in the air. Oh, yes. Halloween. And then—what they call it?—Day of Dead.
Brodsky pulled over and the man hopped in. The cabbie flipped up the meter and took off. The man gazed out the back window with a serene expression on his face.
“Where you go?” asked Brodsky.
“Going to hell,” said the bone man. “Going to hell in a handbasket.”
“Give me address. I take you there.”
“Just keep going. I’ll let you know the way.”
It was rush hour, and traffic was heavy. They made slow progress.
Anton raised his head, yawned, and looked beseechingly into Brodsky’s eyes, as if to say that it had been a long day and it was time to head back.
“Yes, yes,” said Brodsky, petting the dog. “We go home in little while.”
A few minutes later the man asked Brodsky if he knew where the bridge was.
“The big rusty one that goes over the water,” said the bone man.
“You want this side or cross over?”
“Just drop me on the bridge. I’ll take it from there.”
Brodsky had encountered many bizarre customers who wanted to go to a lot of unusual places over the years, but he began to worry that the bone man want to jump. It was common enough. Either that or blow it up. That was becoming more common, too.
“Sometimes I don’t care whether I live or die,” said the man.
Brodsky sighed, then glanced in the rear view mirror. The bone man pulled something out of some invisible pocket and pointed it at his own head.
“Wait! Wait!” shouted the cabbie, his heart beating fast.
He steered with one hand and turned halfway around just as the bone man pulled the trigger, spraying his face with a jet of water. The water dripped off his face onto the skeleton suit, and a few drops fell onto the vinyl seat of the taxi.
So he was a clown as well as a skeleton. Maybe he was in the circus.
“You scare me,” said Brodsky.
“Oh, this,” said the man, looking at the water pistol.
“I know how you fill. My son—”
“No, you don’t, man. No you don’t.”
“You have kitts?” Brodsky persisted.
“Kids? Oh, could be. Hard to say. Hard to keep track.”
He wiped some water off of his face.
“You sure you want to go bridge?” asked the taxi driver.
“Bridge? No, never mind. You can let me off here.”
“Here?” said Brodsky.
The block consisted of corner grocery stores and all-night laundromats. A woman in high heels and a short dress was leaning in a doorway.
“Yeah, here,” said the man.
Brodsky pulled over and let him out. The bone man fished a bill out of the same secret pocket and handed it to the cabbie. Brodsky examined it, turned it over, looked at it again. It was a five dollar bill, but play money.
Darkness had descended. Brodsky was parked on a side street, listening to romantic but melancholy Russian music on the radio. Little ghosts and goblins in white sheets or store-bought costumes were being shepherded up and down the block by their proud parents.
The simple but beautiful image of the gleaming bicycle resting against the brick wall entered the cabbie’s consciousness. Leafy, low-hanging branches swayed in the gentle breeze, almost tickling the bike’s handlebars. Brodsky saw himself entering the frame, glancing around nervously, then walking away. A minute later he reentered the picture, hopped on the bike, and rode off, his knees almost striking his chest as if he were Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians.
Brodsky switched off the radio. The dog raised his curly head and looked at him beseechingly.
“Soon, Anton. Go home soon,” said Brodsky, though he knew they had no place to go home to.
He and Elana had started bickering about insignificant things, and then one day as she was preparing dinner she suddenly turned to him and said, “It’s your fault, you know. If you hadn’t stolen that bicycle …” He started to answer and then just gave up. The next day he drove off in his old taxi and never came back.
After making sure that the window was open a crack, Brodsky stepped out of the car.
“You be good dog,” he said.
The cabbie rounded the corner and found a hole-in-the-wall bar with a flashing neon sign in the window.
“What’ll it be, pal?” said the bartender, who was wiping down the smooth surface of the bar.
“Stolichnaya. Over ice.”
“You got it.”
A soccer match was playing on the television set above the bar. Tiny men in colorful uniforms ran up and down a brilliant green field. Brodsky felt tired just watching them.
The bartender brought him his drink.
“I don’t like this Halloween. It scare me,” said the taxi driver.
“Relax, pal. Watch the game.”
“No relax,” insisted Brodsky.
The bartender gave him a quizzical look, then strolled to the other end of the bar, where two young women in bright red lipstick had requested refills.
Brodsky finished his drink, left some money on the bar, and headed out into the night.
Anton was waiting for him in the cab.
“Good boy, Anton. Good boy.” The dog licked his hand as he ruffled the animal’s fur.
Brodsky sat down in the driver’s seat and gripped the steering wheel without turning on the ignition. He turned to the dog.
“You remember Sasha? Play with you? Throw ball, scratch tummy?”
Anton looked up at his master, trying to grasp the meaning of the words.
“Killed last month. Riding his bike. Do you understand, Anton? Run over. He was only ten.”
Brodsky scratched Anton between the ears. The dog panted happily.
“How is possible, Anton? How is possible?”
The dog continued to look into his master’s face, trying to understand what he was saying.