Gradient

The Tallier, the Destitute

     Afternoon sunlight pierced through the taxi driver’s windshield and blurred his vision, just as it had every day since he had lost his prescription sunglasses, and just as it would every day until he could afford new ones. By his meticulous count, this would take two more weeks, but he was wrong; it would take three.

     The driver was an amiable man who, despite this small mathematical error, had a deep fascination with numbers. He had been working the airport route for the past six hours—he’d counted—and now, tired with it, had migrated to the pristine and bustling streets of the restaurant district. He was, of course, tired of this place as well, but perhaps he was himself tired.

     His first passengers in the district were a mother and daughter. The mother knew many things: she knew the fare to her daughter’s dance practice was $12.58; she knew to fear strangers; and she knew the taxi driver by the sight of his gray-black beard, though she had forgotten his name.

     The mother hailed the taxi to the side of the road with a thin, bracelet-decorated arm. The driver pulled over and, revealing himself to be exceptionally short, exited the yellow taxi to open the door for his passengers. He felt the October air on his skin and saw it in his breath. The mother tightly clutched her daughter’s hand as they entered the back seat. The woman remembered from her last four rides with this driver that he kept his car immaculately clean, if in slight disrepair. It was the car of a man who was trying his best.

     The driver got back in the car and asked where they were headed. “88th and Wesley,” the woman said, pulling her phone from her pocket as she spoke.

     The driver nodded, checked his left blind spot, shifted the car into first gear (prompting a cacophony of metal-on-metal from under the hood) and drove. He did not use a GPS because he did not have one. Indeed, he could not afford one, but even if he had had the means he still would not have bothered. After half a lifetime spent driving his taxi, the need for such a device seemed almost laughable. At night, lying in his narrow bed, the driver would stare at his out-of-battery analog clock and pick numbers from it, forming street addresses from around the city and trying not only to mentally navigate the route to them but also to picture the street, and, in some cases, the house itself. As he drove, he pictured the dance studio to which he had been directed, flicking his turn-signal upwards; the rhythmic clicking lulled his anxiety.

     This anxiety had everything to do with his current passengers. The last time he had driven the two of them (which, by his count, was the third time he had driven the mother, but the first she had brought her daughter) the mother—whose name he still had not learned—had snapped at him for speaking to her child. Now, he recalled the incident for the ninth time as they drove, still unsure what he had done wrong.

     “I am Reda,” he had said to the child, his words marred with a thick Iraqi accent and a hint of baby-talk.

     The child, clutching a green tubular pillow she had received for her fifth birthday nearly one year prior, had replied by burrowing her head as far as she could under her mother’s right thigh. The mother, scrolling through photos on Instagram, had failed to notice that her daughter was not wearing a seatbelt.

     “A shy one?” Reda had smiled, hoping for a response from the mother. “I was a shy child. It took me 42 days at school before I spoke to another student. I counted. The other boys would call me aḵras.” He had glanced back. “That means ‘mute’.” He had paused for a moment, tapping quickly on the steering wheel, again hoping for a response that would not come. “But you should not worry. You will grow out of it.” The girl had not moved from under her mother’s thigh. “Besides, nobody will make fun. Nowadays, people are much nicer.”

     “Please leave her alone,” the woman had said.

     Now, as Reda drove and remembered, he still could not understand why the mother had ordered against him speaking with her daughter. He forced the issue from his mind and instead watched the road. He counted five cars: two Toyotas, a Kia, a rare and outdated Japanese car of the make “Jinja” (he knew two other taxi drivers who had heard of it) and a rusting Buick. On the sidewalks, a handful of people strolled while homeless men and women slept in the shade of restaurant overhands. The whole landscape, from the sidewalks to the buildings, even to the trees and the people, was draped in a cement-gray hue.

     Approximately three blocks from the destination, the child spoke in a small, certain voice. “Mr. Reeda.”

     Reda went rigid in his seat, but, following the mother’s orders from the week prior, did not reply. The mother, who had forgotten Reda’s name, turned toward her child and said, “What?”

     The child pointed a chubby, tiny-fingered hand toward the driver. “Mr. Reeda.” She sounded like a student reporting an answer to a teacher.

     Reda smiled warmly, though the expression was obstructed by his bushy beard and neither passenger noticed. He held his tongue, pressing it hard into the back of his front teeth. He pushed the turn signal upwards and pulled up to the front of the Allmeier Center for Dance.

     The mother gave Reda a handful of crumpled bills and quarters. As she dragged her daughter from the taxi, the child called, “Bye, Mr. Reeda!” Reda, following orders, did not speak. He only smiled at her.

     When the two had disappeared into a crowd, Reda methodically counted the cash the woman had handed him, straightening the bills. He counted, unexpectantly, two fives, two singles, and three quarters. Subtracting the fare, that left him with a tip of seventeen cents. He marked the number with a blue Bic pen in a notepad on the passenger’s seat. He was now $34.19 from his new pair of prescription sunglasses.

#

     It was evening when the beautiful young woman came to Reda’s taxi. He had been parked near a movie theater, wondering how he had accomplished so little in life, when she knocked on the window.

     The sight of her in the setting sunlight jabbed Reda like a taser; he sat up straight. She was warm looking, with smiling brown eyes. The auburn Autumn leaves drifting through the street complimented her blonde hair, cinnamon and honey. She wore an enormous black overcoat which she had recently claimed from her father’s wardrobe.

     The woman, or girl (she was somewhere between the two) was coming from a college class, though she was still finishing her last year of high school. After she had entered the taxi, greeted Reda, and given him her destination (she had used the word “please”) she looked Westward. The window refracted swathes of tired orange and pink sunlight onto her face.

     “You did not go on your phone,” Reda said matter-of-factly after a block of driving.

     The young woman turned from the window, spreading the sunset across her right cheek, and said, “I don’t like them.” And it was true; she did not like them. She found them bothersome. And as such, she was not put off by Reda’s blatant observation. She thought he seemed like a nice man. She was smiling.

     “People like them too much,” he said. Reda did not have a phone; he could not afford one.

     “Agreed,” she said. She looked back out the window.

     Reda wore the grin of a sailor who had just found land. This was the closest he had been to a real conversation all week, unless one counted the visions of love affairs and child raising that danced behind his eyelids as he awaited sleep. This, though, was real, and that fact alone comforted Reda greatly. Not only that, but the young woman seemed to him, in that moment, to be the most precious creature on the planet. He wanted to count her freckles. He wanted to love her and be loved by her.

     “People must like you too much,” Reda said. With these words, he shattered the friendly atmosphere between them. He realized this as soon as they had left his lips. He could feel the discomfort settle, though he did not understand the reason for it. He felt very much like someone who had just dropped their favorite coffee mug on a tile floor.

     The young woman blushed. It was not a flattered blush, but the result of the rush of blood through the veins that comes when a person suspects their life may be in serious danger.

     “I doubt your wife would appreciate you hitting on a seventeen-year-old,” the young woman snapped, a trembling resilience pervading her tone.

     Reda’s stomach dropped. He felt he had violated the rules of the local culture in some profound way, the gravity of which a foreigner could not begin to comprehend. He wanted to apologize, but how can a person apologize for a misstep they cannot understand?

     Instead, he said, “I never had a wife.”

     Waiting for a response that would not come, Reda gazed out at the steadily dimming streets. The light gray haze of the afternoon had disappeared, giving way to a charcoal blanket of evening that saturated green treetops and dripped down the sides of buildings, filling the streets and skies with little dots of light like diamonds.

     As he listened to car horns and distant sirens, Reda thought on the fact that he had never married. He had loved many times, and each time his woman had left. He did not know whether he was too short, or too stupid, or simply uninteresting. But each time his heart had been broken, he had numbered it in his mind, counting his failures. He no longer thought of the women as people; to him, they were twelve tallies on a prison cell wall. He clutched to these tallies like a mother would a stillborn child.

     The night came in like a cold front; the driver drove the passenger; neither spoke.

     When they reached the destination, the young woman gave Reda her fare plus a small tip. Perhaps she had meant for this tip to say, “Sorry for thinking you were going to kidnap me.” It only confused Reda further as he logged the amount, $1.56, in his sunglasses-fund notepad.

#

     The car’s digital clock read 11:00 PM in bright red numbers and Reda knew he was finished for the day. He felt no relief, no excitement to return to his studio apartment, where he would eat rice and beans before sleeping eight hours, only to awaken and relive the same day.

     He felt no relief. Instead, he felt an emptiness, a longing which might have prompted a wealthier man to go to a bar, or a luckier man to make love to his lover.

     Stopped at a red light, Reda looked out the window and saw a homeless woman trudging slowly up the sidewalk. She dragged behind her a torn tarp filled with her belongings: four greasy shirts; half a bottle of Pepsi; a not-warm-enough jacket; and, most precious to her, a clean pair of socks. These were for dire occasions.

     Reda rolled down his window.

     “Excuse me?”

     His voice echoed down dark allies, imperceptibly rippling almost-frozen puddles. The frail glow of the streetlights somehow made the homeless woman’s silhouette look darker. She did not react. She was already occupied, trying to decide whether she wanted to be cold tonight or hungry tomorrow. She could not afford to avoid both.

     “Ma’am?”

     Though she walked slower than an arthritic old woman, she was only getting farther and farther from Reda’s taxi. She still did not hear him; the sound of her tarp sack scraping against concrete blocked out his voice. The light would turn green soon and Reda would have to go.

     “Homeless lady! Excuse me!”

     The woman turned, her face obscured, and saw Reda waving her toward the taxi with a thick-knuckled hand.

     She approached hesitantly, dragging along her tarp of belongings. She stopped ten feet from the taxi.

     “What do you want?” she asked.

      “Would you like a ride somewhere?”

     “Can’t pay.” The woman shouldered the cord attached to her tarp.

     “There is no charge. I would like to help you.”

     The woman looked right, then left, then back at Reda, who seemed incredibly small slouched in the driver’s seat.

     “What’s the idea here?” she asked.

     Reda held out his hands like a mother trying to calm a child. “There is no idea. I am trying to help you.”

     “Why?”

     He thought for a moment. “You seemed like you needed help.”

     The woman shook her head dismissively. “I’m alright.” She turned and pulled her tarp sack higher on her shoulder, moving to leave.

     “Wait!” Reda called, surprising himself with the volume of his voice.

     The woman looked back.

     “Please,” he said. “There must be somewhere you would like to sleep tonight. Somewhere better than here.” He looked around at the narrow sidewalk, at the lack of overhangs or alleys or any such nooks in which a person might tuck themselves away to rest. “Perhaps a park.”

     The woman sighed. She could see her breath turn misty in the chill Autumn air. Just as the body may reject the life-saving donation of a liver or kidney as a foreign invader, she felt the urge to reject the offer of help. However, the practical part of her mind which had allowed her to survive without income or housing stepped forward and made the decision for her.

     “Can you take me to Werner Park?”

     Reda said he could, and the woman pulled her tarp sack with her into the back seat.

     “You are homeless?” Reda began to drive, the interior of the taxi flickering from dark to light as they passed repeatedly from under streetlights into darkness.

     “How could you tell?” she said with a huff.

     “You carry your belongings in a sack. And you smell like garbage.”

     “I was joking,” she said.

     Reda understood and blushed at his own insensitivity. “I am sorry. I am not good at joking.”

     The woman smiled, momentarily forgetting that she would be sleeping in the cold tonight. She found Reda cute, in a childlike way.

     “What is it like,” Reda asked, “to be homeless?”

     The woman coughed wetly. “I’ve been on the street eight years and four months. I—”

     “You counted?”

     She scratched her face; it was itchy from grime. “If you were in prison you would count. Or hell.”

     “Is that what it is like? Like hell?” Reda shifted into third gear.

     She let out a long sigh. “When I was first on the streets, I thought it was only for a little while. Temporary, you know? ‘Till I could find some help.” She looked out the window and saw a long line outside a night club. “I guess, the dirtier and smellier you get, the less people wanna help you.” She could not bring herself to answer Reda’s question directly.

     Reda felt suddenly very guilty for being dissatisfied with his life. He counted all that he had, from his bed to his sack of rice to the three yellowed novels he could reread in his sparse moments of leisure. Soon he would even have sunglasses.

     Yet this did not help. He still knew that, had things gone differently, he could have had more. He could have had a wife and a home. He could have had a balanced diet and an hour of leisure at the end of each day. But he had none of this, and despite his guilt, he was upset.

     “What is your name?” Reda asked the woman in a full, kind voice. No one had asked what her name was in two months and four days, though she had not been counting that.

     “Lana,” she said.

     “That is a very beautiful name.” He immediately regretted the compliment, worried that Lana would hate him for it, that she would tell him that his wife would not appreciate him flirting with another woman. He moved to apologize, but Lana spoke first.

     “Thank you,” she said with a smile in her voice.

     Reda was filled with relief, and a warm tingling flooded his body. In that moment, life seemed to him wholly precious and all-important—every second of it. He began to speak on a whim.

     “As a homeless person, do you have dreams that did not come true?”

     Lana gave an affirmative grunt.

     “I used to have many dreams. Back when I was young, and not so poor as I am now. What were your dreams?” His voice was quieter than it had been before.

     Lana nodded. “I wanted to own a coffee shop.” She exhaled loudly through her nose, amused by her own self-pity. “It’s a pretty sad dream, since I never even drank coffee. I liked the smell, though. My foster mom used to drink it all the time. One time, I put one of the beans up my nose. To smell it better, you know?” She laughed, but it drifted away in the blink of an eye. Reda laughed too. “That was before I turned 18 and foster care ran out. Long time ago.” This had been, in fact, not as long ago as Lana had implied; she was still young enough to be a college student. “What about you,” she said. “Any big dreams?”

     Reda smiled. “I used to have many. When I first came to America, I wanted to be a fisherman. I wanted to go fishing in all the Great Lakes. I wanted to talk about lures in T.V. interviews. Is that not crazy?” He gestured expressively with one hand as he spoke.

     Lana laughed again, and again it lasted only for a second. It was a high-pitched laugh, full and light. Before this evening, it had not been used in three months and nine days (though no one was counting). “I’ve never heard someone say they want to be a fisherman.” She leaned back in her seat. “You still could…” she trailed off. “What’s your name?” She felt sorry for not asking sooner.

     “I am Reda.”

     “Reda. You could still be a fisherman.”

     Reda placed his gesturing hand back on the steering wheel. They were almost to Werner Park. “No, I do not think I could. I cannot afford a rod and bait. And I do not have any days off, so I cannot go fishing.”

     Lana sat in silence for a moment, watching darkened buildings whiz by through the window. She placed a hand on Reda’s shoulder and squeezed softly. He felt a great warmth resonating from her dirty, malnourished fingers.

     The car was silent until Reda triggered his turn signal and pulled into the parking lot of Werner Park, staring out at the trees and grass and lamps. The click of the blinker was almost inaudibly familiar to Reda, yet Lana, who had not been inside an automobile in three years and four months, found it jarring. This was, in part, because she knew they were pulling into Werner Park and that the ride was over.

     Reda felt possessed by a great tingling in his chest. This tingling was born from a strong feeling, and it was not merely a feeling of generosity. Neither was it simply the shame of lamenting one’s situation while others suffered worse. It was in many ways both of these, but it was above all the desire for a companion similar to oneself. “Lana,” he said, stopping her as she prepared to leave. He turned around to face her. “Would you like to come live with me at my apartment home?”

     No reply came. Lana, eyes wide, could not find words. Her mind was filled not with gratitude, but with a confounding panic. Reda filled the silence. “It is not a large place. But I have cushions for you to sleep, and some food to share. You could use the shower if you will like.”

     Lana pulled her tarp sack from under the seat. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying her hardest to keep the beginnings of tears from showing in her voice. “I can’t. I have to go.” She was already climbing from the car. “Thank you for the ride.” She closed the door with a slam.

     If Lana had been asked why she had declined the offer, she would not have known what to say. A psychologist might have tried to explain the human mind’s inexplicable desire to wallow, to stay down when toppled. He might have explained that it is somehow easier, however horrible one’s situation, to stay than to go. A medical doctor, if she were wise, might have cited that, when freezing to death, a person begins to feel warm; the snow feels like a blanket rather than a grave. Lana, however, would not have been able to say any of this. She would only have shaken her head and, like a rabbit retreating to its hole, avoided wondering why she had turned down food and a home. Neither the doctor nor the psychologist would have judged Lana for this; she was only human.

     She was gone in the time it takes to draw and exhale a deep breath. Reda sat in shock, watching her drag her sack deep into Werner park, lie down near a great silver oak, and cover her body in pieces of tattered clothing.

     He waited, watching her, until the car grew cold. He did not take Lana from his sight, except to blink. He did not love her, but he felt a great deal for the woman. When he was reasonably sure she was asleep, he reached into the glovebox, took the dollars and quarters and dimes he had saved throughout the past week—which totaled $10.60—and walked into Werner Park toward Lana.

     When he reached her, he did not wake her and try to convince her to come home with him. He had heard her tears and he knew, with the kind of wisdom that defies verbalization, that it was hopeless. Even if he did believe there was some hope in the pursuit, he would not have tried again. When Lana had denied his offer, what Reda felt, under all the confusion, was relief. Her burden would not become his.

     Standing over her, he held his sunglasses-money and, like a swimmer gathering courage to leap into a freezing pool, waited for his hand to place it in her tarp sack. But it did not happen. He tried to count down from five, telling himself he would give her the money on one. It did not happen. He thought of new sunglasses, and the way the afternoon sunlight blurred his vision. And it did not happen.

     He stood still and watched Lana sleep until the night air numbed his fingers. He weakly placed the bills and coins back in his own jacket pocket and walked away.

#

     Reda did not want to go back to the taxi—not yet. The yellow sight of it filled him with a pang of dread like a wire wrapped around his neck. It took only seconds for him to turn away from the car, toward the expanse of the park, and begin walking. He crossed through pools of light cast by streetlamps and the waning moon, but the greater part of the walk was spent in darkness.

     As he crossed the park, he made a distraction of counting the trees. Oaks and Elms and Maples, each iteration pushed away thoughts of waking up to drive tomorrow, of what Lana could have bought with $10.60, of what fishing might be like. When he realized he ought to turn back, he increased his pace, wondering idly how many leaves there were in the park if he had counted 79 trees. Soon he would reach the other side, which opened to the ever-bustling entertainment district. It would be filled, he knew, with couples and cliques getting a head start on the weekend’s nights out. He thought of the various establishments on the main street, such as the Glo club, or an expensive-looking bar called “The Alchemist.” He recited their addresses in his head.

     As Reda approached these bustling streets, his mind wandered away from bars and clubs and back to the conversation about dreams he had shared with Lana. He remembered how she had told him he could still be a fisherman. He smiled at the thought. But, as he stepped through the wrought-iron gates and left the park, certain visions killed his smile: visions of his many notepads at home. These notepads were filled with mathematical figures, figures scratched on yellow paper with a blue Bic pen by a shaky hand. The pages bore titles such as “Fisherman Fund” and “New Sunglasses.” In these figures, minus signs were far more plentiful than plus signs. He thought of the vast infinity of lives he could have lived, of women he could have loved, and of children he could have held. If only, he thought, he could ignore the enormity of them all.

     These thoughts flooded Reda’s mind so urgently that he did not notice himself gliding into the dense crowd gathered outside the city’s most popular evening venues. It seemed to him that the shouting and bumping of the crowd had woken him from a deep sleep. As if dropped into a deep ocean, he was suddenly and fully submerged in the sea of people. They pushed and shoved, most of them young and most of them drunk. Reda hardly noticed them rubbing against him and accosting his balance; physically, he felt numb.

     The crowd pressed against him. Voices shouted over each other and Reda’s ears rang. The people moved in waves, no individual able to wittingly direct themselves. Realizing this, he began to feel lost and uneasy. This uneasiness turned quickly to panic; taking in short, fast breaths of rank air, he felt as if he could not breathe. He stood up on his toes, trying to see over heads and find a way out, but he was far too short. The crowd surged, shouting and shoving. It was dense and vast, swirling with people: too many to count.

Published by The Plentitudes.  July 2021.