Paul was a child when Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” first came out. He has exactly one memory of the song from back then. He’s in the kitchen with his mother. She turns up the volume on the radio when the song comes on, and takes Paul by the hands. They dance around the kitchen; her, singing along, Paul, trying to keep up with her quick steps. The sun shines brightly into the room. The shadows of the kitchen chairs make perfect chair shapes on the floor. They dance until Paul’s mother, out of breath, sits down and lights a cigarette. That was more than 20 years ago.
Now every time a passenger gets in the backseat of Paul’s cab— Rewind. Every time a young pretty woman gets in the backseat of Paul’s cab, Paul plays “Big Yellow Taxi” on the tape deck. As soon as the woman—the young pretty woman—is settled and has told him where she wants to go, Paul starts the meter and presses play. He waits for the singing to start, for that ethereal voice to fill his cab, then he smiles at the woman in the backseat, and asks if she likes the song. They almost always do.
It began as a tribute to his mother, gone almost ten years. And then it became kind of superstitious. Paul felt somehow that if he didn’t begin every fare with that song, something bad would happen: a flat tire, an accident. Then, later, it turned into a test. Paul hoped that one day he’d play the song for a young pretty woman and she would intuit his sensitivity, his concern for the environment, his in-touch-ness with women and women’s issues, and maybe just maybe, that young woman would climb over the seat while the car was navigating traffic, and she’d sit next to Paul in the front seat—in that big empty space beside him. And in his fantasy, this young pretty woman would reach her long slender arm toward the dash and she’d turn the volume dial up and then up a little more, and she’d smile at Paul, showing off her luminous white teeth.
Luminous. That’s the word that comes to mind in his fantasy, but he’s not sure if it’s the right word. He thinks that it is. And he likes the way it sounds.
The woman in this recurring fantasy is beautiful, but not too beautiful. She has a great smile—how could she not with those luminous teeth? She wears a little bit of make-up. Maybe only lipstick. He’s not fussy about that part of her appearance. She’s younger than him, maybe ten or fifteen years younger.
Paul is a gentleman, so he hardly ever lets this fantasy become sexual in nature. No, instead he imagines a life with the woman: dating, an eventual proposal, marriage, children. He imagines mornings of coffee and toast in bed, hand-in-hand walks around the city and then down to the shore of the lake at sunset. Late night movies, holding hands in the theatre. Holding hands on the way home from the theatre. There is a lot of hand holding and gazing at one another in his fantasy. And sure, some lust. Maybe three or four dates in, they make it to the bedroom, etcetera.
So on this night when three young pretty women get into the backseat of Paul’s taxi, and any one of these three could be his soulmate, Paul is quick to queue up the Joni Mitchell tape and check the mirror to make sure he doesn’t have anything stuck between his teeth.
His teeth look fine, but his hair is sticking up a little in such a way that makes him appear as though he’s just woken up. Which he has. From a nap in a McDonald’s parking lot. While the women are settling into the backseat, Paul pretends to wipe something from his mouth and furtively licks his fingers. With his wet fingers, he casually tamps down the errant tuft of hair on the top of his head. He checks the mirror again. The hair is still sticking up. So be it.
“Where to, ladies?”
The woman on the passenger side answers. She seems to be the leader, the alpha. Looking directly at her in the mirror, Paul reckons that she’s the prettiest one by conventional standards.
“We’re heading to a party just outside of town. Head north on the 5. We’ll give directions as we go. It’s a bit complicated.”
She’s all smiles as she talks. And was that a wink? Paul is pretty sure that was a wink.
“You got it,” he says, and puts the car in gear.
As a gesture of his magnanimous generosity and spirit, Paul holds off starting the meter until he is already driving. He looks in the mirror to see if any of the women have noticed. The woman in the middle appears to have noticed. She gives him a—sad smile? Why a sad smile? Paul is confused by her sad smile. They’re going to a party after all. The other two are garrulous, talking non-stop back there. The woman directly behind his seat is applying lipstick. She has leaned over in her seat and is doing her best to use the rear-view mirror to apply the lipstick.
But the woman in the middle, the sad one, she’s the one who now has Paul’s attention.
He casually hits play on the tape deck.
The acoustic guitar starts up. Paul taps the steering wheel in time. Soon that voice starts singing about paving paradise and putting up parking lots. In his mind, Paul skips ahead a little and pictures the three in the back doing the Shoo-bop-bop-bop-bop part.
He looks in the mirror to see if any of the women are bobbing their heads. Sometimes the women in the backseat of his cab sing along. These three barely register that the music is playing. After a while, the alpha asks him to turn it down a bit.
Paul obliges wordlessly.
He glances at the woman in the middle seat. Her hair is long and straight. Her eyes large, with long lashes. She blinks slowly. So mesmerized by the slowness of her blinks, Paul inadvertently lets the car drift out of its lane. He straightens out the wheel and shakes his head. Slow blinks. Maybe she’s on drugs, he thinks. He takes another quick glance before they get on the highway. Her pupils are not unnaturally dilated. But it’s hard to tell. He notices her nose. She has the nose of a child: small, rounded ever so slightly. A button nose. He rolls the term around in his head. Button nose. He’s not so sure about it, this term, but he thinks that’s how some people would refer to her nose.
“Big party?” Paul asks.
“Big-ish,” says the woman directly behind him.
It sounds like she’s brushing her hair, but he can’t see her in the mirror.
The tape deck is playing “Woodstock” now. Paul doesn’t like that song. He turns off the music.
“Do you have a way of getting home or do you want me to come back out later and pick you up?”
An indication of a thoughtful and magnanimous spirit.
“Nah, we’re good,” says the alpha.
They drive in silence for a little while. The women have all stopped talking. The one in the middle, the sad one, is now resting her chin between her hands. It fits perfectly in her palms. She is staring straight ahead. Paul checks the mirror once, twice, three times before she finally meets his eyes.
He smiles. She blinks slowly.
She’s gorgeous, he thinks. Just gorgeous. And wouldn’t it be something if she climbed over the seat and sat down beside me? Wouldn’t that be something?
She goes on blinking slowly, staring out at the road unfolding before them.
They’ve been driving for about fifteen minutes. There’s not a house in sight.
“You’re sure this is the way?”
“Yep. As a matter of fact, pull onto that turn-off up ahead. There, on the right.”
Paul sees the turn-off: a driveway or small dirt road, he’s not sure which. He checks his mirror and slows down. Once he’s got the taxi on the dirt road or driveway, he looks around. There are no lights indicating that a house is up ahead.
After Paul has driven about forty feet in, the alpha says, “You can stop right here.”
There is nothing but darkness around them.
“Bush party?” he asks.
“Something like that,” says the alpha.
The car slowly rolls to a stop and Paul puts it in park. As he’s turning in his seat to announce the fare, the woman behind him—the one with the lipstick— puts a knife to his neck and tells him to hand over the keys.
“Is this a joke?” Paul asks. Because it has to be a joke.
“Nope,” says the alpha.
He still thinks it’s a joke. But he hands over the keys and asks, “What now?”
He unbuckles his seatbelt and opens his door. The women open the rear doors and step outside.
Paul, still thinking that somehow this is a bit, a gag, gets out with one of those smiles on his face that says, This’ll be a story to tell.
The air is warm, slightly damp. Paul hears crickets, the sound of a passing car somewhere on the highway forty or fifty feet away. And what was that? An owl? He listens for it to call again but it doesn’t.
He left the headlights on. They illuminate a narrow dirt road with tall grass on either side. Beyond the reach of the headlight beams, the road seems to simply vanish into the darkness. He looks up. Stars. So many stars, he can see them even with the headlights on. When was the last time he saw so many stars? It’s been awhile.
He feels a hand on his back and then a push.
“Stand in front of the car.”
He makes his way into the swath of light cast by the headlights.
The women are standing in the shadows. But he catches a glimpse of the light reflected off the knife blade.
“Come on,” he says. “I just started my shift. I’ve got maybe twenty bucks. It’s yours. Just let me get back to work. I’ll gladly drop you off somewhere.”
The alpha laughs, but the other two don’t.
“Just give us all the money you have. Better yet, give me your pants. Leave the wallet in your pocket.”
“Yes, for real.”
“What if I don’t?”
The one with the knife takes a few steps into the light, the knife held low in front of her.
“I’ll cut off your dick,” she says.
Paul starts taking off his pants. In his haste, he doesn’t remove his shoes, and now he is awkwardly trying to pull his pants off over his shoes, and it’s too late to turn back. After several humiliations, he gets his pants all the way off and holds them out in front of him. He wants to look down to see what pair of underwear he is wearing, but he keeps his eyes forward.
The sad one—the one who sat in the middle, the one with the child’s nose—steps forward and takes the pants from him.
“Wallet in there?” asks the alpha.
Paul watches the sad one frisk his pants, watches her hand skim across the crotch as she checks the pockets.
“Yes,” says the sad one, removing Paul’s wallet from the pocket of his pants. She hands the wallet into the darkness behind her. The one with the knife is still standing half in the light, knife pointed down toward Paul’s penis.
The knife makes a little slashing movement in the headlights’ gleam.
Paul reluctantly takes off his shoes, and thrusts them into the gloom.
The sad one steps forward to take the shoes from Paul.
Even though she is lit from behind, Paul can make out her features. Her sad slow-blinking eyes. Her nose, less childlike in this light he notices. He watches as her thin lips tremble. Are they trembling? Paul focuses on her mouth. He squints his eyes a little. She is mouthing the word Sorry. She then turns away with his pants and now shoes in her hands.
Standing there in the headlight beams, Paul thinks: If she had been the sole passenger, maybe she would have climbed over the seat. Maybe she would have sung along to “Big Yellow Taxi”. Maybe she would have laughed like Joni does at the end of that song.
He’s thinking about this as his taxi backs away. The sad one is in the middle of the backseat again. Her chin is resting between her hands; she’s staring straight ahead. Paul can’t tell if she’s looking at him or past him or through him or at some middle distance. He watches her eyes close and then open slowly one last time before she gets erased by the darkness.
A window rolls down on the passenger side and a hand reaches out. He thinks maybe they’ll return his pants and shoes. He takes a step forward. Something gets tossed out of the car. Something small, not shoes, not pants. His wallet? He rushes to the spot and searches while there’s still light. It’s his Joni Mitchell tape. He picks it up slowly, keeps his eyes on the dark outlines of the women in the car, in his car, backing away from him. He goes to put the tape in his pocket, but he’s not wearing any pants, so it falls back down to the ground. He picks it up a second time and puts it in his shirt pocket.
Soon the car—his car—gets back on the highway and peels away. He thinks about his tires. The black marks likely left on the road. Would he be able to find this spot in daylight?
He’s alone in the quiet darkness. For some reason, he wants desperately to hear that owl hoot again: he thinks that would be a good omen. It does not hoot again. But the stars are out, the air is warm and damp, and Paul can hear crickets. He takes one step forward in his sock feet, and then another, and another, and soon he becomes accustomed to the feeling of gravel on the soles of his feet. He follows the sound of the highway. What will passing drivers think when they see a man in his underwear by the side of road?
He wouldn’t stop to pick up a man in his underwear by the side of the road.
Then again, maybe now he would.
He thinks about the sad woman in the backseat. He wonders if maybe he’ll see her again. It’s a small city, so it’s entirely possible. He closes his eyes and does a little trick his mother taught him to remember a face: once the image is clear in his mind—the eyes, the nose, the mouth—he takes a sort of snapshot, even makes a clicking sound with his tongue. But this one is a moving image: the woman’s eyes blink slowly; her lips move to form the word sorry. But Paul changes it to ‘hello’. Hello. Hello. Hello. If he does see her again, they’ll laugh about this. And months from now, years from now, it’ll be the story he tells about how they met. She’ll look away, embarrassed, whenever new friends ask, How did you two meet? But Paul will take her hand reassuringly and give it a little squeeze. He’ll look into her eyes, her slowly-blinking eyes, and he’ll say, “That was the best day of my life.”