“Naw naw, I’m back here by the shed.”
“I don’t see you.”
“I’m wavin’ ”
I look in my rearview mirror.
“Oh, ok ok, I’ll be right there.”
The door opens, a lanky man in a neon shirt and headband, noise protection earbuds dangling around his neck, slides into the backseat.
“What do they make in there?”
I motion to the series of industrial buildings disappearing behind us.
“Cardboard boxes. All sizes, big ones n’ little ones, for all sortsa things.”
I nod and turn on my blinker, watch the little arrow on my phone, mounted to the AC vent, tell me where to go. Navigate me away from the warehouses and out onto a main road littered with vape shops and Burger Kings and Sally’s Beauty Supply.
The man in the back sits low in the seat, looking at his phone. My hair is still wet from the shower and I pull a long strand of it across my face to smell the shampoo.
“Do you always take a Lyft to work?”
“Ay, I’m a -
He moves his head to the side and shakes it back and forth, like the words aren’t sure if they want to come out.
- can’t drive yet. I’m stayin’ over in a, halfway house.”
“Are you getting off of drugs or something?”
“No I just got outta prison.”
“Oh… how long ago?”
“How long were you in there for?”
“Jesus, that’s a long time.”
“What’d you do?”
Something about my now coming up on three weeks as a Lyft driver has given me an enormous capacity for candid conversation.
“Using them or selling them?”
I pull up to a stoplight, and watch an elderly woman on a motorized scooter, a bright orange flag sticking up behind her, glide through the crosswalk, looking like another species, half woman half wheel.
“Weed, and crack, and I had a gun on me wasn’t registered.”
“Twelve years just for that?”
“Does it bother you that weed is legal now?”
He shrugs in the backseat.
“Maaaan’ I mean, it wutn’t at the time I guess, you know. That’s how you gotta be about it.”
I just say “yeah,” because I don’t know what to say, or how to be about it, how I would be about it, or how I think he should be about it.
We both watch the wheel of the woman’s scooter catch the lip of the sidewalk, not quite able to mount it. She goes for it again, but the forces of physics are against her.
The light changes, her wheel still caught only halfway up the curb, and a line of traffic waiting. Unhurried, she applies more horsepower and eventually makes it up onto the sidewalk, the orange flag shaking behind her.
“There she goes.” He says from the backseat.
I laugh, and say it too.
“There she goes.”
And then he laughs.
And a warmth spreads through the car.
We ride in silence for awhile and then he asks me if I have a boyfriend.
“Uhhhhhh, hard to say.”
I notice him sizing me up in the rearview mirror.
“Your picture popped up in here I was like damn.”
I give a small smile and nod, but stay silent.
“What about you?”
“Yeahhhhhhhh” He says. “She been waitin’ for me.”
“For twelve years?!”
“I mean, she was with another man, but anytime I call her, she talk on the phone, never wanted to get off the phone or didn’t take my call. She even came to see me, when I was moved out in, uh, Louisiana.”
“That’s really sweet. She loves you.”
He nods, proud.
“When I sprung I called her up and said, tell yo man ya real man’s back.”
“Just like that huh?”
He shakes his head, grinning.
“Just like that.”
A wave of happiness moves through the car. It is yellow and feels like Laffy Taffy or cartoon bubble letters, a pathway unfolding out the window and into forever.
“So are you guys gonna have babies?”
“Well, she a little bit older, she forty four, and her kids grown. I told her what we gonna do when we sixty, we gonna need some people to take care a us. But she don’t wanna be havin’ babies when her babies are havin’ granbabies. “
“Yeah I guess I can see that. But you’re gonna propose?”
“Yeah, shit, she ask me all the time. But it’s like, gotta go in order. I just bought a car, can’t even drive it yet, but I gotta car.”
“Because of the halfway house?”
“Yeah, they don’t let you drive, well except on the weekends, but she drivin’ it now. So I don’t want to buy the ring just yet, go into debt on that, and gotta house, sittin’ there, waitin’, we gonna move into it in…
He counts on his fingers.
…eight more months. So, got that.”
“Yeah, I guess it’d be nice to wait, til you’re done at the halfway house and and you guys can move in together.”
“Yeah, I think that’d be the order.”
I smile, “if she can wait that long.”
His voice goes low.
“She been waitin’ a long time already.”
He shifts in the backseat, stretching out his legs.
I glance at the map, guiding me, us, via satellite, towards his final destination. I think about free will, and how a series of patterns and invisible information traveling through the air is controlling my arms that are controlling the car. My limbs just actors, an extension of this information.
“What was like, the first thing you wanted to do when you got out?”
“Shit, just like, go to Wal-Mart. Look at everything in there. Get what you want, and not have to say ‘yes ma’am, yes sir’ and all that. S’weird though because now I’m real antsy like in public. And my girl be like, ‘you gotta calm down, why you always movin’ your leg like that…?’ you know and I tell her you gotta give me time to adjust. You been living out in the real world these last twelve years, I’m still gettin’, reacquainted, you know.”
“I can see that. I bet it’ll go away pretty quick though. It’s crazy how fast we adjust, like soon you won’t be able to remember most of the details of being in prison.”
“Maaan I hope not.”
I smile at him in the rearview mirror and wonder how much of this conversation I will remember. The fleeting sights and sounds crumbling up like the wildflowers I picked, resting on the dashboard, and eventually drying out and flaking away in pieces out the window, into the humid gulf air.
I ask him about fights, if there were lots of fights?
“Of course. everybody in there, they girl just broke up with ‘em, family ashamed of ‘em. Somebody miss a birthday, somebody grandma died, everybody in there just upset you know.”
Everybody just upset, you know.
That one I will hang onto. I imagine pressing it like honeysuckle to dry between the pages of a book.
Everybody is just upset.
“But what can you do. You know that feeling when you have to like, just get through something, you’re not enjoying it, but you just gotta like, get through it, wait til it’s done…”
I say, “shit I only have to make it to midnight.”
He leans forward, draping his arms over the headrest of the front passenger seat.
“Now imagine that feeling never goes away. All the time, just waiting. Twelve years, and every minute is that feeling. Nothing you can do. You just gotta do it, get through it.”
We are stopped in front of a used car lot, and an inflatable tube man flails against the sky. It bends at the waist and then ripples wildly back upright.
“Man all these things happening and you’re so powerless.”
He leans back and shakes his head. I watch the tube man dance against the clouds, constantly controlled by the force of air underneath it that never lets up, never turns off.
“It smells good in your car, what you got some type a air freshener?”
“No, I think It might be sage. Sometimes I burn sage in it before I start driving.”
“Is that like a herb?”
“Yeah, it’s supposed to like clear out the energy. Since so many people sit back there, I’ll just burn some sage and roll the windows down to kind of, clear it out.
I laugh nervously.
“You get that at a head shop?”
“No, lots of places, but like, you know those witchy shops that sell crystals and stuff?”
“Yeah, I heard about that actually. In prison.”
“Heard about it in prison if you can believe that.”
“Well it’s nice, it’s nice back here.”
Fuck yeah it is sir, if you’re gonna do something do it right, I think to myself knowing full well I will quit being a Lyft driver in a few months and do something else and something else and tick tock tick tock if you think about your heart having to beat til you die it starts to beat faster.
“I gotta daughter.”
He leans forward to show me a picture of a pretty adolescent girl wearing a jean jumper over an orange shirt and knee high orange boots to match, smiling wide as the sun with a ponytail on the top of her head.
“This was just at her birthday party, thirteen. I ain’t been to one a her birthday parties. She was just about two weeks from bein’ born when I copped. Yeah, so, yeah, I missed all her birthdays.”
“Not the next one though,” I smile.
“Yeah she just got her period. Her moms told me and now she all shy and embarrassed and don’t want to talk to me.”
He looks at the picture again and smiles.
“She cute though right.”
I tell him I like her outfit and he laughs, looks at the phone again and puts it away.
He rolls down the window.
The clouds are turning to sherbert, it’s late spring, I watch him watching the strip malls roll by, and wonder what he’s thinking, what he’s counting, how many boxes he makes in a day, how many days ’til he’s not counting the days.
My phone says turn right in 200 feet.
“You’re going to the Goodwill?”
"No, round back, behind it."
I turn in and circle behind. A man in an Orlando Magic jersey and socks with sandals sits on a picnic table, elbows on his knees. He nods to the man in my backseat as I pull to a stop.
I hear him suck in air behind me.
“Now just gotta stay out.”
“That’ll be easy.”
He shakes his head.
“Not when hustlin’s all you know.”
I turn around and look at him, his hand perched on the door handle.
“Ya but you’ve got something to lose now. She waited for you for so long, you can’t let her down.”
He nods and then holds my gaze.
“Yeah I think you might be right.”
“I am right. You’ve got something to lose.”
We both smile and it feels nice. Acknowledgment, an exchange.
This tiny interaction gets boxed and rolls down a conveyor belt with all the other moments happening all over the world simultaneously. Folded up by pairs of hands that then take off work boots and splash water on faces. And all the units of time and images blur together into a vibration that feels like a soundless scream.
“Alright, you be good mama.”
“Yeah, you too.”
He nods and gets out of the car. I push the button on my phone to end the ride. It buzzes almost instantly with another ride request and a timer starts counting down. I accept the ride and look at the clock, Six fifty-seven pm, five more hours.
The man from the picnic table gets up and fist bumps the man who was in my backseat. I watch them both for a moment, backlit and glowing. The man turns back to look at me, but I can’t quite make out his face. The last rays of the sun blind me momentarily. I squint and he comes into focus, smiling and waving goodbye with two fingers.