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Michael Chaney

 

Passengineer

 

You hop in the cab all Rumsfeld grin, your David Duke face in triumphant surmise: the driver’s great-great-to-the-tenth-power monkey’s uncle died in a Caucus mountain cave. You tooth gazeless instructions to LaGuardia cell-phone absorbed. He passes you a folded newspaper and a murmur. His tongue is thick. You wonder if his mouth is full of bumblebees. Then, you decipher what he is saying—How you say circle?

This is not a metaphysical question. You ready your lips to spurt CIRCLE, fearing the muscle memory that wants to attach sarcasm’s ubiquitous suffix—the duh—to your answer, hanging fire in the back of a cab whose vinyl seems a makeshift bench of trash bags. But you don’t say Circle, duh! because you’re not in middle school. Far from it: cum laude proud, East State, ego high on an interview, the agency of your choice. You smiled talking points. And in the eye-wars of the lobby, you convinced yourself the others were Wimbledon in winter—no competition.

Before you can spit Circle, duh! he’s swimming the cab through traffic, a guppy keen on the caudal fins of a school of stop-and-go. He says, How you say, pauses, and then says, circle. Your eyes tumble into the lasso of blue ink on the newspaper. It’s the circled phrase he wants you to pronounce, so you do: hypomanic racing thoughts. His unibrow begs you to speak up in a rear view that crowns a scene of near-collision, so you do. You push the newspaper and the phrase back to him. He surprises you with the clarity of the playback on that first word you don’t know, but then devolves into a cyborg actor of himself on the second word. His face is a cold engine that won’t turn over, gears locking on the slippery differential of R sounds that won’t fire. RRRrrr RRRrrray RRrrrrrace How do you remain calm when a broken robotic actor warms up? While his face steams that frozen rhotacism, you wish for dear life that his dressing room would slow down?

You shift in your diaphragm and you shift in your seat. The catbird that cages you careers cop movie loud. Over the cross Bronx roar of RPM, he gets it out: Racing Thoughts—the latter floats two-syllabled: odd ducks who thaw out on a waterfall as the mist below crashes around stalagmitic cabs in the gloam, up-fendered and monumental. You see yourself still in the backseat of this world’s-end dream and realize that skeletons are stick figure sketches of ourselves in pewter and muck, shut up in our trunks to mark an appointment we hope never to keep but which ticks nevertheless inside, waddling bones behind the glass pants of grandfather clocks. But you don’t think of death.

You can’t shed this metaphor coil. The meter passes a red digit you’re suspicious of. All of this is a ruse to ratchet that number. The ride in didn’t cost this much. This guy thinks you’re a fool. And yet, you can’t help listening to that story. His daughter. Law school star at Yale. It morphs in the Borscht and minarets of his mouth into Aramaic: Yay-el, the angel name intoned at the end of a horror movie to compel demon cabs back to the primordial sludge. They found her naked in a clock tower shrieking a catalog of precedents down to a horrified quad of uplookers, Girl v. Gravity (2012), World v. Sanity (1987-2012), Sympathy v. Suspicion (right the fuck now).

Fear and sarcasm have always been the two horsemen of your anxiety apocalypse, so you share the cab with the Teutonic ghosts of Sigmund Freud and Schadden Freude. You are on the verge of poking a finger at the maudlin eyes, hirsute in the rear view, to ask about the route and the meter’s reddening digits. You don’t get the chance.

While talking about sanatoriums downstate and medications whose names threaten to resurrect the sputtering robotic, he passes you a photo. His voice has its volume knob turned way down in your head. This photo is screaming at you. Tousled by strange and indifferent fingers passengineered before you, its waxy sheen holds a figure you call the Princess of Smiles in the tarot glossary of your heart. And yet you stiffen against the tug of her cloudless eyes, that unbidden grin, that sunny warmth of a face so automatically transmissive of laughter that you withhold the urge to crinkle the offence in your hand and pop it into your mouth, your molars brave against the bitter, pungent swell of the paper, masticating it into a liquid retort of Pull this shitcan over now. Yeah, thirty bucks is my limit so I’ll be getting out here and Yale Law School, huh? Must be nice. Instead, you push the photo back like a shame.

It’s the airport. He ends on her latest meds. They make her hands so stiff she can’t hold anything with a handle. That’s when you realize that photos of people like her have hands and handles and that you desperately wished they didn’t. You brace yourself for the airport, face full of fingerprints.

 

 

Michael Chaney teaches in the English department at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Fugitive Vision (Indiana Univ. Press, 2008) and the editor of Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels (Wisconsin, 2010). A finalist in Yemassee's 2013 William Richey Short Fiction Contest, his fiction has been accepted by Columbia College Literary Review, Blue Lake Review, and Coe Review, among others.

 

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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014