Immoral Woman

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“I don’t know where we’re going,” I told him.

“The entrance of heaven,” said the driver, so nonchalantly that I looked into the rearview mirror for the first time. The man had no reflection. “It’s in the Bronx,” he added.

On the West Side Highway he told me to open the money tray. I swung out the spring-mounted aluminum drawer in the partition and found a heavy black blindfold.

“Crack the window if you get carsick,” said the driver. “But you’ve got to wear it. Rules are rules.”

Once I was blindfolded, the driver became more talkative, as if to compensate me for the absence of sight. He’d been running this route a long time, he said, a long time — here he gave another cough — and had collected some interesting coins from his passengers over the years. He told me to open the money tray again, and as the cab sped along — there was a sensation of speed, though the road became so smooth it seemed simply to drop away from beneath us — I felt octagonal coins, coins with lettering instead of reeding on the edges, and some angular chunks of metal.

“Pieces of eight,” the driver said. “And that little one about the size of a nickel? It’s a drachma. Solid gold. Should have showed you when we were downtown so you could have got a look. That’s the way the ducat crumbles.”

In a short time the cab stopped, and the driver announced that we had arrived. I removed the blindfold. We were in a part of the Bronx so godforsaken that no one had even bothered to graffiti the boarded-up, burned-out brownstones.

“Go to the fourth floor” — the driver turned and braced a meaty forearm up on the partition, flattening the thick black hairs against his skin — “and when they ask where you want to go, you say Uptown.”

“Uptown.” I put a foot on the pavement.

“Mister!” the driver called. “Aren’t you forgetting to feed the monkey?” He tapped the meter.

“Nineteen and a quarter?” I came around to his side window.

“One hundred nineteen and a quarter, plus tip,” he corrected. “You turned the meter.”

One hundred and nineteen dollars?

“We made good time on the highway.” He gave a private smile. “We really flew.”

I gave him seven twenty-dollar bills and asked for ten back. “Got anything smaller?” he said. It was the motto of cabbies everywhere.

“Sorry,” I told him, not without a small sense of satisfaction.

He handed me a single coin and said, “I don’t have a ten, so here’s Pericles. Don’t spend him all in one place.”

The portrait of Pericles on the obverse stood out in bas-relief as crisp as if the ancient gold drachma had been newly minted. “See now?” the driver asked as I examined it. “Everybody’s happy. Need a receipt?”

The front door of the deserted building was open, and the lobby was dark. My shoes potched through puddles on the floor. I took the stairs to the fourth floor and knocked.

The peephole slid open and an unblinking blue eye swam against it. “Where, please, do you wish to go?” a muffled voice asked.

“Uptown,” I said.

The door opened onto a gaslit room cluttered with a hodgepodge of furniture, none of it so recent as the turn of the century. A very tall, very thin gentleman with fine white hair closed the door behind me and said in an almost inaudibly gentle aspiration, “You may, if you choose, repose there” — he fluttered his long bony white fingers toward a high-backed Queen Anne chair in threadbare green velvet — “where you will find a current gazette for your divertissement during what is liable to be a considerable wait. An absinthe?” he asked, but without waiting for an answer, slowly,
silently, stiff-leggedly left the room.



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