An orange cab headed south through the pocked intersection at Kipling Avenue and Bloor Street, a white cloud pluming from its exhaust. From the curb, Rebecca spotted the vacancy and lifted her hand tentatively to hail it down. She watched the cab driver scan the sidewalks, the overcast sky stinging sleepy pedestrians with diffused light. He focused on a crew of safety vests and steel-toed boots walking into the Coffee Time at the corner before nodding in her direction. Rebecca dropped her arm and grabbed her son’s wrist as the cab pulled up.
Sometimes Rebecca had difficulty finding a cab to take her midtown. In the past, she had a few drivers confide in her that a handful of customers doing small trips is more profitable than one going the distance. “The payout’s all in the starting rate, lady,” they told her. With this in mind, Rebecca never revealed her destination until the wheels were turning beneath her, in hopes that her ejection became more inconvenient than her request.
The driver waited patiently as a sleepy-eyed boy crawled in, followed by his mother who slammed the door shut, causing the hanging pine scent to shake its stiff hips. Rebecca read the card in the plastic sleeve on the passenger’s headrest: Henry R. Knobs, operator since 2002. After merging into the left lane, Mr. Knobs finally asked where they were headed beneath his ungroomed mustache.
“45 Mount Pleasant Road,” she answered flatly. The driver rolled his eyes and set the fare meter glowing.
Rebecca’s son placed his Thomas & Friends knapsack on her lap and lay across the bench to nap. The seatbelts hung helplessly in their corners. The cab driver’s eyebrows danced like pinball guards in suspicion, she could see them swelling each time he glanced from the road to the mirror. A waving pedestrian, whose unlatched briefcase spilled over with mishandled reports, went ignored as Mr. Knobs continued to peer at his passengers.
Rebecca remained composed under the obvious scrutiny. The split-ends of her hair were curved tusks next to her jaw. Her high and round cheeks read more sallow than their broadness promised. Between the dark-circles beneath her eyes and the premature creases at their sides, a thin-lipped smile was her best disguise. She was a faded photo of a girl in her prime.
At a red light Mr. Knobs grabbed a pistachio from a container on the seat next to him, and adjusted his posture on his beaded seat cover.
“Heading to work?” he asked, discarding the husk into his armrest and grabbing another nut. Rebecca looked to the plastic bag nestled between the seat and the triangle made by Eddie’s bent knees. Her yellow rubber glove pointed skyward, as if attempting to make an interjection. Rebecca inhaled the stale scent of weathered leather, stuffed the glove back in and nodded a timid confirmation.
“Ma was a cleaner too,” Mr. Knobs managed to share through his vigorous chewing. “Made the mistake of never wearing those gloves. All those chemicals seeping into her hands, all day long,” he shook his head. “Left her hands as cracked and rough as the desert floor.”
Rebecca ran her hand over her son’s soft hair. The resurgence of guilt was insurmountable; the 24-year-old mother knew her world was a last grasp at a last grasp, every hold precarious. A passing car’s glare made her wince. She caught the driver’s expectant eyes in the rearview.
“Isn’t that right?” the driver turned his cheek to look at her.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Cleanliness is next godliness is what my ma always said.”
Rebecca gave another appeasing smile to the overused adage that was regularly flung at her.
“How come you’re driving out so far anyway? If I remember correctly, we didn’t make enough money to spend on luxurious rides downtown.”
The cabbie’s chin jutted into the air in a zealous nod and hum, and then flicked his left-turn signal on.
“Could you make a left at the next light, it’s a bit shorter.”
Mr. Knobs perked up at the instruction and turned the signal off, “Sure thing miss. Been late before I take it?”
“The babysitter isn’t always reliable,” she lied. There were always a few days a month she had to sacrifice the service after paying rent.
“Ah,” he nodded. “Ma never trusted us with anyone. She would’ve dressed us up as mops and hidden us in pails to keep us nearby. I can’t be sure if it’s because she was more worried about us or about the people she was going to leave us with.” He gave a hearty laugh, “Come to think of it, she might’ve just wanted to put us to work too.” She watched his smile fall with the high viscosity of longing as they crawled to another red light.
Rebecca embraced the muted reality of the cab: a silent radio, a blurred idyllic daydream. For a moment she did not regret the waning morality of it all. A second or two that did not rely on wit and luck to propel them forward was a welcomed relief. She scanned the roads with the careless ease of window-shopping.
In the entrance of an abandoned storefront, a group of drifters lounged on a flattened cardboard box. They were the vagrant youths who used their lifestyles as a statement to rally against the institution. As a parent, Rebecca spends every day trying to cram into the shallow pockets of the stingy system. She knows the frustrated shakes following a discarded plea for help, and the wafer-thin dignity that remained to quell the temptation to ask for more. Just to gain enough. In some ways, she envied their freed spirits, whilst neglecting the cold winter nights, the fights and abuse they endured for a communal rebellion.
Blue-eyed Eddie. Rebecca looked down at her son. His eyes moved left and right behind his translucent lids. She resented that beauty could be born from empty promises, that a lifetime could be bred from indifferent encounters. She lifted her eyes to the corner to see the bearded boy kiss a girl before turning to take a drag of a joint. A rolled sleeping pad buckled at the backpack’s base kept the leverage in the reclining boy’s favour. The taste of spite coated her unarmed tongue. But the bitterness was hers alone. Rebecca looked over her shoulder to keep sight of the smiling girl as the cab moaned forward. The young mother felt compelled to warn the girl of her own hardships. But perhaps she wouldn’t agree to take them on; indifference didn’t scatter at the sight of responsibility in all its victims.
Rebecca wondered if after all her errs and fruitless attempts at a good life, her son would avoid the daily uncertainty of being in luck’s good favour. If he rolled doubles maybe he could choose his fate. Two phantom die with twelve unmarked sides rattled in her pocket as they lurched to another red light.
An orange cab pulled up beside them. Rebecca was parallel with the attractive woman in the backseat. The young mother propped her elbow on the doorsill, and eyed the passenger safely behind her partially hidden face. It was difficult for her to swallow the envy that awoke at the sight of the woman’s sheening hair and rouged cheeks. Rebecca traced the woman’s posture and mindlessly straightened her own. She looked to see if there was a child across her lap, holding her breath so as not to fog up her view. But, before she could confirm her suspicions, Mr. Knobs inched the car forward, and Rebecca met the suspicious stare from the suited woman.
The warm wave of embarrassment that rolled through her was quickly doused when she came parallel to the icy stare of the other driver. She caught his eyes cinching in recollection, as his mind flipped through a frequently visited blacklist of passengers. Her hand instinctively tightened around the bicep of her son’s cotton sweater. She turned her face away to stave off his recognition. Leaning passed the passenger seat headrest she searched for the countdown. Pedestrians jogged to make it safely across in the last few seconds before the orange palm appeared. Below the wheel, she looked at her driver’s right loafer giving a tight-lipped scream for it to move. The car pulled forward. Rebecca’s back remained rigid with tension, unmoved by the increasing horsepower. The boy pulled open one eye and lifted his cheek from Thomas’ inviting smile. He watched, as she looked hard at the road ahead driving the cab with her stare. His forehead was pulled together at the brow in angst.
With the cab behind them, she ran her soft hand over her son’s eyes after winking a consolation. His strange blue eyes resumed their imitation of sleep. A crackling disturbed the silence as Rebecca’s hands fidgeted with the plastic bag, and then, self-conscious, moved to the strands hanging at the base of her neck to calm her.
They travelled west on St. Clair, the streetcars whining ahead, passed the jade awnings of Rolex headquarters. The digital clock read 8:28 a.m.
“It would be real mean of them to fire you for being late,” said the cab driver. “Especially knowing full well you have a little boy to clothe and feed.”
She nodded knowing Eddie was a debt she’d agreed too. A thin smile returned.
“It ain’t easy to gain the loyalty of people who don’t think too much of you,” Mr. Knobs continued. “But it can be done with some hard work and integrity. Ma raised three of us on the pay of cleaning jobs. Don’t know how, but she did.”
On Yonge Street the cab turned left and slowed unexpectedly; the driver whistled at the queue of traffic ahead. Siren lights. An accident.
“This might be a while,” the driver said over his shoulder. He grabbed another pistachio and tossed its shell into the mass grave at his elbow.
Rebecca looked out the window; the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery was less than a half-block away. The meter read $27.25.
Rebecca whispered to her son. “Babe, we’re here.”
The boy pulled himself up, the tracks of Thomas & Friends pressed into his clear skin. Straining to see above the dashboard he asked, “What happened mommy?”
Mr. Knobs opened the car door and placed one foot on the pavement, squinting passed the gleaming car roofs to the accident. She looked back at the long line of idling cars inches away from the left side of the cab. Gridlock. Guilt drowned in the high tides of adrenaline.
Rebecca opened the door and helped her son leap onto the asphalt, before following. She closed the door lightly behind her, and walked a couple of meters backward to avoid being spotted in Mr. Knobs’ periphery. He scanned the roads, staring into the car windows of the slow procession coming toward them for signs of an explanation. They slipped between two stopped cars in the left lane.
The boy ran ahead of her. He knew what was at stake.
At the stone pillars, she watched Thomas the Tank Engine pull in. Over her shoulder, she caught the conflicted expression on Mr. Knobs’ face. She cringed under his ceaseless stare; his eyes became an unsettling sight of retribution cowering beneath pity. Integrity was a luxury she could not afford. She listened for the cries of justice; she, too, was desperate for fairness. But none came. The distress in his brow vanished. He picked at something between his teeth and crouched back behind the wheel. Rebecca memorized the “451” decal on the car door and, with shame curling her shoulders, ran into the cemetery to catch up to Eddie.
She followed Eddie’s racing ankles as they blinked in and out of sight beneath the frays of his pant cuffs. His knapsack jostled, as he turned left into Section A, the eastern most point of the property. The sharp turn didn’t cause his momentum to falter, and Rebecca began to run faster to keep him in her sight. The car horns echoed against the tombstones and were absorbed into the grassy plots. Passing under a pair of quivering red oaks, Rebecca watched Eddie as he flew past the chain link fence to access Moor Park Ravine. She was impressed he remembered the route since the last time. But the checkpoint was an unsecured paddock beyond where her tending could reach.
Unease came over her as she entered the shaded canopy and tiptoed down the hill. She could barely follow the brief glimpses of blue sprinting toward the abandoned iron bridge. Rebecca licked her dry lips, panting to keep up. Overcoming her was the subtle panic of waiting for something that should have already come. As when a bystander waits for a diver to break the water’s surface, every moment of refrain coddles doubt. Eddie should have looked back to spot her, but he pummeled onward. She feared the cutting glare of the betrayed when he turned, a look to tip the teetering wall of misplaced faults.
She watched him brush the curls from his eyes before smiling back at the gap between him and his opponent. He kept his lead as he sprinted up the steel staircase to her client’s street. Rebecca eased a bit; she feared that someday he wouldn’t look back. That he’d finally caught onto her. Realizing that his mother was a thief, he’d feel too betrayed to understand her trials. If he knew that she was ashamed would that turn his judgment onto the system that caught her in an infinite game of cat and mouse? Rebecca was certain however, that someday he’d realize she was merely the shadow of a mother.
Eddie, flushed with exertion, waved to her from the finish line at the top of the staircase.
“I win again!” he grinned as Rebecca reached him. She tucked her apprehensions into the corners of her curled mouth and took his hand.
There was so little for him to brag about. “That’s right baby.” She glanced left and right along the street before turning down to house number 37 with unnatural prowess.
“It’s three – nothing,” he boasted, unaware of the cab coming toward them. Rebecca instinctively tightened her grip to keep her son from running.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Cristina De Miranda is a Toronto-based fiction writer.