57. Silence

THE ONLY JOB I’VE ever had other than driving a cab is a tour of duty in Vietnam and that was 20 years ago or more. Always right here in our little town of Providence, our inconsequential little town with a name that at times, like all names, seems to mock us. For most of those 20 years I’ve been the only cabdriver in Providence. There isn’t a street in this town I haven’t driven down a dozen times. I know just about every house, just about every resident of every house. Yet on that Sunday afternoon, with a January snowstorm on the horizon, I was called to a house near the Interstate, an old timber house that I’d never stopped at before, that I’d never even really noticed. I waited outside for a few minutes with the engine idling and was about to pull away when a woman I’d never seen before got into the back seat of the cab. She was wearing an expensive-looking white fur coat and sunglasses even though it wasn’t exactly a sunny afternoon. I guessed her to be in her late twenties. She told me she needed to get to Richmond. When I replied the fare would cost her several hundred dollars, she told me to leave the meter on and she would give me a tip to make it worth my while. I told her that she would have to pay me twice what was on the meter, plus a hundred in expenses for a hotel room as there was a snowstorm coming in and I didn’t feel like getting stuck in it in the middle of the night. She reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of old crumpled up banknotes in tens and twenties and slapped it into my hand and said it was a down payment and there was plenty more where that came from. To prove it she showed me what was in her bag. It was full of money wrapped up in rubber bands. She said she needed to get to Richmond and she had no other way of getting there short of hitchhiking. Even though she seemed flinty and cool her voice trembled as if she had just seen something that terrified her or received news that she could not begin to understand. I called my wife and told her what had happened and that I would be home the following day. It wasn’t the first time. Though no one had ever asked me to take them to Richmond, every now and then someone asks me to drive them to a nearby town, and the deal is always the same: twice the fare on the meter plus expenses. I don’t like to talk to my customers that much, I prefer talk radio while I drive, but the woman asked me to turn the radio off, and so we drove in perfect silence for the whole three and a half hours it took to drive to Richmond. Soon after we set out she pulled out a pack of menthol cigarettes and lit one. I told her she couldn't smoke in the car and she rolled down the window some and threw the cigarette out. Instead of smoking, she chewed gum the whole away without offering me any. We drove in the same direction as the snowstorm, staying ahead of it almost all the way to Richmond. When the snow began to fall, it fell gently, in heavy flakes. The streets were near deserted, the city hushed. She gave me an address in the Church Hill neighbourhood – 2800 M Street – but where 2800 should have been we found only some tennis courts and a carpark, all covered in an inch of snow. With her sunglasses now perched on her hair, she opened the window to see better. The cold air clawed at my skin. Although there had been something tightly wound about her from the start, she seemed increasingly agitated, making me drive around the neighbourhood in ever wider circles in search of the address that didn’t exist. Try it again, she'd say, or, Go round once more. Eventually I stopped the car and turned my head toward the back seat and said clearly there was no such place as 2800 M Street, was there someplace else I could take her. She said no, take me back to Providence. I told her it was late, that I wasn't driving back to Providence in the snow, that we ought to find a hotel to stay in the night. She thought about this for a while and finally she agreed. I drove downtown and found a Marriott. While I called my wife on a payphone to set her mind at ease, the woman got us a room each on different floors, signing in as Elizabeth Peel and paying in cash. When I rejoined her at the reception desk I noticed the handle of a gun in the left pocket of her fur coat. She held her pen with her right hand. Underneath her fur coat she wore a thin white dress. She herself was twig-like. After paying the receptionist she turned to me and, placing bills down on the counter and mouthing the numbers silently, counted out the fare, and then counted it out a second time and added a hundred dollars, as we’d agreed. I told her I was going to get a drink at the bar before turning in for the night. She followed me there. When she ordered us both a bourbon, the barman asked her for ID. She showed him a Florida driver's licence. She was twenty-two, exactly half my age, and she lived in Miami. We drank in silence. I guess I could have tried to make some conversation, but I'm never conversational after a day spent driving. Anyway, by this time we had been keeping silent company for some hours and it had gotten to the point that it was almost a comfort. We got in the lift together and rode it in silence. Her room was on the floor above mine but she stepped out of the lift with me and followed me to my room in silence. She stepped inside in silence and we began to fuck right away. We fucked more or less in silence. Sex is never completely silent, but this was as close as I've ever known it. Afterwards, when I stepped out of the shower, she was gone. I woke up late the next morning and opened the curtain. Everything was covered in snow. The city was a black and white city. I dressed and went down to reception and asked them to buzz Elizabeth Peel in room 2014, but there was no answer. I asked to be let in the room and a bellhop rode with me in the lift and let me into her room. It was empty. The bed hadn't been slept in and the bathroom hadn't been washed in, but on my way out, don't ask me why, I opened the wardrobe door. Inside it hung the white fur coat. When I checked the pockets they were empty.