Click here for past issues of the Globe Magazine, dating back to June 22, 1997
Click here for past issues of the Globe Magazine, dating back to June 22, 1997
The Boston Tangler
By Roland Merullo
Louis had been married once (it seemed a lifetime ago; it was, in fact, four years), but the passion in that marriage had flashed and faded like headlights washing across a window in the night. Friends said the divorce had left him a more guarded man, secretly cynical about love. He hoped they were wrong. He hoped his feelings for the Red Sox didn't, in some funny way, mirror his feelings about marriage, about life. He'd been a devoted fan at one time but had pretty much given up on them now. Too much hurt. Too much disappointment and betrayal.
Since the divorce, since Alicia, he'd learned to discipline himself to the penance of solitude: dinners out alone; wedding invitations that read: "Louis Robinson and Guest"; the awkwardness of traveling solo in a world made for pairs. He was used to all that now.
Used to it, sure. But living without a woman had proved harder than his more embittered men friends claimed it would. Women had always seemed attracted to him, and, looking in the mirror, there were certain days when he could see maybe why, and others when it was only another mystery on life's long list.
Since Alicia, in addition to some fine female friends, there had been a number of lovers. Fleeting entanglements, really: one week or a few weeks, sometimes as long as a couple of months. Dinners and movies, lovemaking and laughs, the hope for something more enduring always waving there in the background like a weathered pennant in the wind.
After a series of disappointments, though, Louis had just about given up on the hope of a long-lasting love in his life.
He was 34; an honest cabdriver, a loyal friend, a decent citizen and neighbor. But marriage, fatherhood - those things just weren't in the cards for him, it seemed.
Still, perhaps it wasn't really the case that love was the last thing on his mind on that sticky Boston night. It would be truer to say that the last thing on his mind was the idea of Louis Robinson as a key player in some greater drama. He didn't see himself that way, didn't see the world as revolving around him (maybe that was what women found attractive). If someone had been able to present him with Boston newspaper headlines from later in the summer and show him that, not only was he going to be very close to the center of something, but that this something had very much to do with love, as well as with a string of the most mysterious crimes in the city's history - well, he would have taken it as a joke. His friends playing around. The print shop down the block having a chuckle at his expense.
We have a central idea about ourselves - that we are sophisticated, sexy, ugly, powerful, timid, likable or not. We dress according to that idea, speak in accordance with it, carry its mark in our very posture. It influences our choice of everything from mate to underwear. Louis Robinson had an idea of himself, too, like everyone. But, over the course of that summer, the city, the world, life, fate, God, karma, would take that idea and smash it into tiny pieces - a modest earthenware vase tossed hard against a granite wall.
But we never see the next chapter beginning in our lives until three or four pages have already been written. And, in this, Louis was no exception. That night he slept well, as he most often did. He rose to the alarm at a quarter to four the next morning, showered, shaved, enjoyed his regular breakfast of two cups of Jamaican coffee, two hard-boiled eggs, and two pieces of pumpernickel toast, dialed the All-Right Taxi Co., and said: "Eight-ninety-eight Linden Street, Allston, for a driver coming in." He put on his tattered Mets cap, walked downstairs, and stood on the sidewalk in the sweet failing darkness until his ride appeared.
At the garage, Louis signed for his keys, found his cab, and drove out into the breaking day. It was a brilliant July morning, considerably cooler than the night before. Fresh breezes swirled grit and bits of litter in the gutters; fair-weather clouds sailed by overhead. Mothers pushed strollers and seniors walked dogs, and the buildings, lampposts, and buses seemed to have been washed clean overnight, as if by a storm.
This was what Louis loved about driving cab: this sense of being out in the weather, loose on the streets, a part of everything and yet half-free.
Extraordinary as it would turn out to be, this particular working day began in completely unsurprising fashion. He drove a pilot and two stewardesses from the Lenox Hotel to Logan and spent some time in the taxi pool there, waiting to be called. He had a fare out to Quincy from the American terminal. Came back empty, in heavy traffic (was there any other kind of traffic on the South Shore?), and plied the streets of downtown for the remainder of the morning, standing at curbsides, watching for the raised arm, making small talk, making change, keeping a written log of every fare: time of day, pickup, destination. This last duty was imposed upon all taxicab drivers by the Hackney Division of the Boston Police Department and had occasionally proven useful in criminal investigations. For the most part, though, nobody gave them much thought. The clipboard to which his trip sheet was attached seemed as integral to the front-seat ambience as the dispatcher's chatter on the two-way and the scarred leatherette seat back against his spine.
Not long after noon, the tone of the day changed abruptly, and, with it, Louis's quiet life. He had just squirmed free of the Big Dig (or, as his colleagues called it, the Large Garage) and was parked at his regular cab stand on Atlantic Avenue. A woman came striding down the sidewalk, opened the rear passenger door, and climbed in. "Fenway Park, please," she said, and Louis punched the meter with his index finger and started off. A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times, this type of scene had played itself out in his taxi. It was as unsurprising as breathing.
And yet, even in those first few seconds, there was something not quite ordinary about it. To begin with, his passenger had a wonderful presence, something entirely un-citylike about her posture and gait, a certain regal dignity that seemed to defy the bustle and rush of the street.
And, for some reason or other, you couldn't really get a fix on her nationality or race. As they made their way toward Storrow Drive, Louis glanced back in the mirror several times: green, slightly almond-shaped eyes, light brown skin, full lips - she seemed to be a hybrid of all the genes carried to this shore from Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. Her voice was beribboned with a slight accent he could not identify. Something about the way she said "Fenway," for instance, placed her just outside the orbit of his experience.
"Going to the game?" he asked in a casual way, shifting his eyes to the mirror.
"You're going to Fenway. Do you have tickets for the game?"
She gazed back at him for a long moment without speaking, and then said: "Are you trying to pick me up?"
"Never mind. Just making conversation."
She grinned at him in the mirror, as if this "conversation" were only a raincoat he'd wrapped around the naked truth of who he really was. For a few minutes, replaying her remark, he read it as cool, arrogant, superior. Really, though, there had been no meanness in the tone. And, as he turned onto Storrow Drive it seemed to him that probably she was right. He had, in a way, been trying to pick her up. Throw out an innocent question and get a little flash of human fellowship in return. After all, who knew where the bird of love made its nest, and when it would flutter up at you?
The game-day traffic was its usual disastrous self on Brookline Avenue, so he dropped her in Kenmore Square. The meter read $9.20. She passed a ten and then a one through the slot in the plastic barrier and climbed out. He folded the bills onto his roll, and was sitting there, jotting down the details on his trip sheet, when he was startled by a knock on the glass beside his ear. It was the woman again. Come back to give him a sermon, no doubt, on the offensiveness of the mating habits of males. He sighed, zipped the window down three inches, waited for her to take her best shot.
She brought her green eyes in close, almost smiled, and said, "I happen to have an extra ticket - want to go? Box seats."
This offer so startled Louis that it took him several seconds to squeeze a word out. The woman watched as he struggled, smiling at him still. At last he managed: "I have to work, I have the cab signed out for the day, I ..."
"See ya, then." She glanced at his Mets cap, smirked, and strode off into the crowd.
From the second he lost sight of her, Louis began to curse himself bitterly. Signed out the cab for the day! Park the damn cab on the median strip and go with her, for God's sake! Drive the cab out into the middle of the Mass Pike and abandon it! How many times was a woman like that going to ask out a guy like this?
He went through the remainder of his shift in a small agony of regret, picking up, dropping off, stopping, going. Figuring her, at moments, for just another nutcase and, at other moments, not. At the end of the day, he cashed in, washed up, and went for his customary ice cream with his Belorussian pal Maxim Maximov. Max Twice, everybody called him. Head like a concrete block, eyes like Sinatra, the usual heart-of-gold tough-guy story, only Max Twice had been a prisoner in the Soviet Union's notorious labor camps. Seven years of copper mining for the heinous crime of sabotaging the sauna at Party Headquarters in Minsk. Smarter than all the other drivers combined, funny, dignified, a bit of a know-it-all, Max Twice was Louis's only real friend among All-Right employees. They sat in Brigham's, and, in as nonchalant a voice as he could summon, Louis told him about the woman.
"Executive woman, Louie?" was the first thing Max Twice said.
"I couldn't tell - a dancer, maybe."
"Sure, yes, you can tell."
"I couldn't, really. What difference does it make?"
"You are designed for executive woman is what difference. You are college graduate. Driving cab" - Max pronounced it kyeb - "is wrong work for you. How many times I have to say?"
"I like the freedom, I told you."
"From what, freedom?" Max said. "You don't want to be attached. In the subconscious, you don't think you deserve steady job."
"Thirteen years seems pretty steady to me."
"You don't want in your life steady woman. Because of Alicia."
"Thank you, Dr. Freud," Louis said, but the remark rattled him. The truth was, since the messy end of his marriage, he tended to give at least some credence to any negative thing anyone said about him. Obsessive, had been a word Alicia liked to use.
Obsessive, untrustworthy, goofy, a coffee addict, a man who had closed his mind to the miracles of the New Age.
These were his special sensitive spots.
But Max's new analysis hit close to the bone as well - always protecting himself, never taking a risk.
"Alicia make you afraid of love, Louie. Open up. Let in to yourself the world. You are making for you in this life your own little gulag."
"Nothing maybe, my good pal."
On the way home, Louis could not seem to chase Max Twice's words from his mind.
If he hadn't been so careful, so self-protective, wouldn't he have reacted differently when such an enchanting woman asked him to the game?
He wanted to see her again - he knew that, and also knew that the chances of such a thing happening were the rough equivalent of a World Series parade on the streets of Boston in his lifetime. Besides, even if he did manage, by some quirk of fate, to find her in his cab again, then what? You'll try to make small talk, he said to himself, and get your knees broken.
It was hopeless, a fantasy, a joke.
Even so, and probably against his will, he dreamed of the woman that night, a swirling, lyrical dream in which she stepped out of a crowd, pushed her face close to the window of his cab, and said, "Aren't energy patterns wonderful?"
It made absolutely no sense. He did not care in the slightest about energy patterns. After Alicia - the aromatherapist, the crystallographer - energy patterns were the last thing he wanted to hear about. The next day, he went through his morning routine - shower, shave, coffee, hard-boiled eggs, more coffee - and the dream was still making no sense to him when he arrived at the garage and found two police officers there, a man and a woman, waiting to talk with, of all people, Louis Robinson.
"We've been checking the trip sheets," the fellow started off, "and we see that you had a fare to Kenmore Square yesterday, shortly after noon." He must have been 6-foot-10, a black man with a huge head, big shoulders, poet's eyes. The name tag on his chest said SMALL. Rendered rather careless by his morning dose of caffeine, as always, Louis was having an extremely hard time keeping a straight face. The female officer - BELLA was the name on her chest - worked a wad of gum around inside her freckled cheek and fixed upon him a pair of rather mean-looking gray eyes.
"Man or woman?" she asked.
All Louis could think was: Small, Bella. Small, Bella. I have a small bella, medium-size bum. It was the caffeine working on him; Alicia had probably been right about the goofiness.
"Woman," he answered.
"Do you happen to know whether she went to the ballgame or not?"
"Why, what difference does it make?"
Small frowned down at him. Bella tucked the gum between cheek and molars and said, in what seemed to Louis a needlessly suspicious way: "You didn't hear what happened at Fenway Park yesterday?"
What could have happened at Fenway, he wondered, to bring in the police? Riots? What could cause a riot at the old ball yard? Garciaparra traded? Some nutcase running onto the field, naked, with CURSE OF THE BAMBINO tattooed on his rear?
No, he said, no, he hadn't heard. But he was eager to find out.
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