By Paul H. Curtis

She wore a suit the color of brightmorning rivertop and on it a ruby brooch like a dragon’s eye, which watched him in the mirror, though she herself did not look at him. Her eyes swept from phone to window and back while she spoke. She was saying to him that it had to be taken as normal now, all of it. By “normal,” she meant real, forever-forward real but also always having been real, no matter what might have been taken for ‘real’ before. Each morning she woke to a new universe: in today’s universe for example there was no 91st Street, and snow in September was not unusual, and so 91st Street and snowless Septembers were not just no longer normal; they were no longer real, and there was no point in thinking of them as things which had ever been real at all. “Stop fooling yourself,” she said. “This is the new normal. The sooner you get that, the happier you’ll be.”

He having not said anything to her besides “Good morning” knew that she didn’t mean that he specifically was fooling himself, nor was she concerned with his own particular happiness; she herself, despite the accusatory dragoneye stare of her brooch, had hardly noticed him. Likely her advice about the nature of reality she pressed with similar vehemence upon anyone near her. All the same, he was willing to believe that he might indeed be fooling himself; it was something he frequently suspected to be the case.

“Here,” she said at 90th Street, interrupting herself mid-monologue, and he pulled to the icebound curb. The card reader beeped, and she swung herself out of the back without offering any tip or further advice, and he watched her totter in thick boots through the snow without an overcoat toward a gap in the big bedrock tongues where 91st Street had been in another universe which had never existed, her bag squeezed under an arm.

All conditioned things, he knew, had the nature of vanishing—such with 91st Street; such with snowless Septembers; such with his customers and so their fares and so his returns and so his livelihood. There wasn’t another fare until the evening. Yellow Cab 4M71, which was an expression useful to describe a certain ever-shifting set of constituent parts and scents and sounds and obligations, took up knocking again in the afternoon, and he suspected that he ought to have the engine bearings replaced, which meant new configurations both parts-wise and obligations-wise. And he did not suppose, really, that it would be the birth of a new universe when there were fresh engine bearings for 4M71 and he was three thousand dollars poorer and further underwater on his medallion loan. He did not believe the universe so brittle that any change would end it; to the contrary, it seemed to him that the universe would end only when it ceased to change.

ॐ मणि पद्मे हुँ, he said to himself.

The evening fare was elderly, a little man in the dusklight closing-petal stage of life, who asked for an address in Brooklyn and paid his fare with crumpled singles he pulled one-by-one from a fanny pack. All the lamps on the old man’s street had gone out. With a whisper of thanks the passenger gave himself to the darkness, and 4M71 was empty again. 

There was another fare, it happened, only blocks away. It was an airport fare in a bright green jacket with a rolling suitcase she offered apologetically with a gesture. He lifted it into the trunk for her, brushing snow off the little plastic wheels. She was young, and she was meant to fly very soon. He saw that she trusted him to find a way, which pained him because he, himself, did not trust that there was a way. One by one, the ways were disappearing. This vanishing of ways had at first escaped his attention. There was a time, some years after his arrival in this new country, when having grown accustomed to the proliferation of options throughout all the aspects of his life, he had found himself nearly overwhelmed by the task of managing them all. Each of the decisions he made cleaved certain possibilities into the material world: the roads and lovers and business opportunities taken, as opposed to those he had left to the realm of the theoretical. And with their materiality came their consequences. But there were so many possibilities, and such was the fever of life in this city of ways, that in time he was blinded both to the impermanence of the real and to the reality of the immaterial. Having thus grown so attached to himself, the maker of the choices, he was too preoccupied to notice how the world’s ways, independent of his own decisions, had ceased to proliferate and begun to disappear. It was odd, in retrospect, that one whose livelihood depended upon knowledge and exploitation of the world’s ways should fail to see that they were vanishing, but wasn’t this just another lapse into material thinking? Shouldn’t he let go of this business of counting ways, this clinging to form; Shouldn’t he acknowledge the illusory nature of all bodies; shouldn’t he admit that the dream-state which seemed to be overtaking the world was, in fact, the nature of the world in the first place? Perhaps, but with the ways went away the fares, and without the fares, he was left with the stubborn materiality of an underwater medallion and three thousand dollars in un-financeable auto repairs.

What had become of the ways? Some of them were meadows now. Some were streams. Some, he thought, had turned to woods, though from his vantage point it was difficult to tell. One saw a stand of trees, and behind it a sunless green hollow where the road had been, but further investigation was impossible as long as one remained at the wheel of 4M71. One had only the option of turning away, of seeking some alternative way to satisfy a fare or find one. And lately, the turning away was more common than the finding of alternatives. Lately the world was more to be turned away from than to be navigated. 

All of this was too much to tell the fare in the bright green jacket, and he was not a verbose man; nor was his grasp of the language, even after all these years, strong enough to get the point across without sounding as though he was simply being difficult.

“Okay,” he said. “JFK.”

The Van Wyck Expressway, he knew, was gone. The Belt Parkway had become flowers and stones. Rockaway Boulevard was nothing anymore but a terrible whiteness. He nosed 4M71 onto Atlantic Avenue, which was still perhaps too ugly, too dreamless to succumb. He saw the young woman watching him in the mirror. 

“Where are you from?” she asked him.

Sometimes, to this question, he described the orchard: rows of saplings lashed to bamboo stakes; the crooked sturdy boughs of the mature trees, embossed with lichen; the twinkle of leaves in the sunlit breeze; the red-gold fruit of the upland soil. Sometimes he described the gray gravel riverbed; sometimes the wide yellow canyons pocked with caves where his ancestors dwelled. Sometimes he spoke about the sky. He might have come closer to clarity had he said simply “a bright place,” or “an empty place,” though even here—how could one describe, especially in a foreign language, how overfull it was, this emptiness, how jammed with memory and meaning, crowded like his little steam-warm apartment in the home-beyond-home building in Queens, where lived the last speakers of his dying tongue? He did not blame anyone for the unanswerability of the question, though it continued to perplex him how often it was asked and how casually. Tonight, he spoke about the mountains: how strange it was, even after so many years in this low-lying city, to look to the horizon and see no giants presiding. His fare did not respond. She seemed already to have forgotten asking the question. In the mirror, he saw her peering out the window.

“Is this the right way?” she asked.

In truth, the idea of fromness made him uneasy. How much of his suffering arose from this habit of locating himself in a lost place? The orchards and the river and the mountains had less to do with him than the grief, the whiteness, which had overcome him on Rockaway Boulevard and closed that way for him forever. In some respects, he knew this foreign city better than he knew his home country. He had been here longer, done more here, had more here, lost more here. And though the worst of the losses had come only recently, he felt as though he had lived forever in the world that loss had made. 

“It’s okay,” he said. “Okay, we are going there.”

Grief and aging were such similar experiences; they were practically the same thing. And what was worst about them was how difficult they made it to distinguish between the internal and the external, to know whether it was the world that was turning to flowers and stone or whether all of this was happening within him. Of course, there was said to be no difference; everything, of course, was not-self. He had no basis but illusion for distinguishing his own suffering from the suffering of the world, except that he might permit himself to surrender his own craving for happiness, which did entail a sort of distinction, didn’t it? In all the universe of loss, there was a certain set of losses which he himself mourned, and it was these particular losses that made it impossible for him to escape himself. He missed her terribly. He did. It struck him as a monstrous thing, this idea that her loss should not count for more than any other. Like 4M71, the loss was stubbornly material; it was physical; it was with him everywhere. It made his stomach bleed, literally bleed. The world was all in white; the world was all in mourning, and the ways were disappearing. He turned south on 111th Street, and already he knew that he would never be able to go this way again.

A few blocks on, he made a left, and then a right on 130th Street, hoping to find a way past Rockaway Boulevard, some gap in the nothingness. He was aware of his fare shifting in her seat, uneasy at this circuitous route through outer Queens. Now that she had lost interest in the question of his fromness, he had slipped back into his customary invisibility, which made it easier to observe his fare but harder to communicate with her. She might have been twenty years old, with the white skin and accentless speech of someone whose fromness was never questioned. Her brow was bunched and a frown tugged at her mouth. Once, he might have thought her too young to wear such worry on her face, but he knew well enough by now that even the very young had no immunity to suffering. He tried to imagine where she might be travelling, and why, but he could think of nothing but that she was someone’s daughter. Someone’s daughter, he thought. Someone’s daughter.

So consumed was he by this thought that he nearly drove into a creek. 

The water rushed through the lightless night where Foch Boulevard had been, a rippling void between two snowy banks, and he spotted it with hardly enough time to keep his front wheels from plunging in. He heard his fare exclaim something as 4M71 juddered and slid, and in the same moment he remembered how Foch Boulevard had gone from the world, in the flash flood of a memory, in the unasked-for visitation of a gone day in the park, five small fingers, leaves, eyes, voices. It had been months ago, the vanishing of Foch Boulevard; it had happened in the first days after the loss, just after the terrible going, and now it was falling further to pieces, now the bank was crumbling beneath him. He threw the car into reverse and backed up 130th Street without looking behind him. 

His fare asked him whether everything was okay. She was leaning forward, her eyes bright with alarm.

“Everything,” he said, watching his hands shake on the wheel. “Everything is.”

Two blocks backward he went, to 115th Avenue, and then east toward the Van Wyck, but the Van Wyck was gone, and so he turned south, but Foch Boulevard was gone, and so he turned west. He could not tell whether his fare saw what he was seeing. Perhaps she simply figured it all for real, all of it more real already than anything had ever been, no matter how long it had been another way before. Perhaps, like his morning fare, she with the dragon’s eye brooch, this someone’s daughter was at home in each new reality; perhaps for such a young one it was effortless, not even a matter of waking in the morning, but of slipping from one new universe to the next with each moment. And if she trusted in the reality of each moment, then he supposed she trusted him to navigate that reality, since navigation was the nature of his job. Perhaps she did not see how much these changes bewildered him. The nerves at his temples and behind his eyes were swelling with shame.

“The airport, right?” she said. “We are going to the airport?”

“We are going,” he said, but 130th Street was gone, as he knew it would be, and so he turned north again, and then east, and thus he found himself caught in a narrowing gyre, driving in circles among the dark-eyed houses as the last of the ways slipped away, cursing himself for his incurable inbetweenness, for his ferocious devotion to his own suffering. 4M71 shivered and knocked. He turned south. “We are going,” he said. “We are going.”