The Lonelyhearts Patrol Group

by

01/13/2003

In a cab in Morningside Heights, NY, NY 10027

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

Pregnant and nauseous, I slid over and rolled down the window. Risa and I had gotten into a cab that smelled of cherry-scented cleaning fluid. I rolled the window fully open and a big fat raindrop splashed me on the forehead. It was one of those wet November days, too dark for normal. At home, we had to turn on a lamp, but lamps during the daytime depress me, so we shut it off and sat there in the half-light of a gloomy Sunday with tires hissing on wet asphalt. I rolled the cab window shut and sat back. Something on the vinyl pinched. I picked a nickel out from under me. “Here—” I handed it to the driver. His hack license stuck to the bulletproof glass said: Joseph Fayerwether. “Hey. Thanks.” He dropped the nickel into a coffee canister plastered with a big red heart.

Risa got in, slammed the door, and stared at me. “What are you, the princess and the pea?” 

Ever since I found out I was pregnant, everything seemed to make me uncomfortable. Especially Risa.

Joseph rattled the canister. He lifted the lid, peeked inside to check how much was in there, then set it back down. Cleared his throat and adjusted his mirror. It squeaked. “Where to, ladies?”

“Anywhere,” Risa said. “Use your good judgment.”

He shifted into gear. “Ah. Voyagers.” And pulled away from the curb.

“Snack bar’s in the back,” he said. I looked around. “I see no snack bar.” Saliva rushed in my mouth. I desperately needed a saltine. Or at least a chiclet. I twisted all the way around. Glued to the back dash were three wicker baskets. A swan-necked reading lamp was duct-taped to the ceiling. I clicked it on. One basket held a heart-shaped box of chocolates, the empty spaces replaced with balled-up wrappers. The next, a bottle of water. And the third, a can of mushroom soup. “Where’s the hot-plate?” I said. “Where’s the can-opener?” I looked into the rear-view mirror but could see only Joe’s forehead, deeply furrowed, five wavy lines like a stave of music with warts for notes.

Dangling from the mirror was a heart-shaped leaflet that matched the one on the canister, The Lonelyhearts Patrol Group emblazoned across it in red.

“Where’s Mr. Right?” he asked me back.

“Hoo-boy,” Risa said. Joe made a sharp turn. I closed my eyes and saw the box of saltines on Risa’s kitchen table slide to the left. We’d spent all morning discussing what I should “do” about “my condition.”

“I just don’t know…” I mumbled, again.

“Well you better give it some thought,” Risa whispered. “Or you’ll end up on welfare.”

I said I needed something to remember him by. I said I needed time. She looked at her watch. “You have one hour.” Then she leaned forward and whispered to Joe. I felt nauseous. A chiclet would help. I clutched the heart-shaped box of chocolates. Lifted the cover and licked one. Bad move. “Feel sick,” I said, and hung my head out the window. Watched asphalt go by. When I looked up, the clouds were splitting and the setting sun was shooting bolts of fire at the buildings.

“Tis the season for dumping people,” Joe said, and pointed. “Mr. Wrong, Mr. Wrong, Mr. Wrong.”

I squinted. They looked alright to me.

“Winter sets in,” he sighed. “That’s when people give up.” He shook his head. “It’s all in the toothpaste cap. All in that stinkin’ little cap. Men don’t do what women ask. And it works both ways. Women too. They don’t know how to behave either. It’s amazing we even exist. It’s not give-and-take anymore. It’s take-and-take. Until there’s nothing left.”

“Well,” I said, grimly. “That’s something I don’t have to worry about.”

Joe caught my eye in the rearview mirror. “A cynic.” He checked his blind spot for traffic, then cut across two whole lanes. “Once the sparkle is over, people think it’s all downhill.” He put on his blinker just as he finished rounding the corner. “If you meet a guy at a bowling alley, why shouldn’t you still go bowling? Why should things end there, on lane 6 and in funny shoes?”

When the cab straightened I was in Risa’s lap. “I don’t get the bowling metaphor.”   

She shrugged. “Neither do I. Have a chocolate.”

“Men. Women. Until they get their act together there’s going to be nothing but trouble. I don’t know the psyche of the woman, but the man’s is pretty simple. He thinks about women thirty-seven times a day. He can’t help it. Take the caveman. He died young. And why?”

Risa rubbed her temples. “Wait. I know this.”

“Raw meat. It was diseased. He just didn’t know any better.”

I looked at the chocolate. “Raw meat killed the caveman?”

Joe nodded. “That’s why women started cooking. Fire. Then came the casserole. It was all her idea. To try and save the people. But it failed.” I bit the chocolate, then spat it back into the wrapper.

“Casseroles killed the caveman?”

“The caveman killed the caveman. Well, cavewoman. Dragging her around by her hair, her furs falling off. Very erotic. He tried to get as many cavewomen as he could pregnant.”

“Cavepeople,” I said, and cracked the seal on the bottle of water.

“But if they all lived in the same cave how could he get all those women pregnant?”

“He moved to a different cave. There were lots of them. Like condominiums.” Joe fell silent. We drove past a manhole with steam coming out. Joe shook his head. “But it didn’t work.” I leaned back. The rain started up again and Joe flicked on the windshield wipers like crab’s claws. “The thing you should never do,” he said, “is greet your husband in a hairnet and one of his old shirts. There’s nothing worse than that. Take my wife.” I thought about Mrs. Fayerwether in a hairnet and one of Joe’s old shirts. “It takes two,” he said. “For the cruise.”

Outside, a man stumbled by clutching a broomstick, his overcoat in tatters.

“Muh-fuh…Muh-fuh…” he mumbled. Passing the bright fluorescent lights of an electronics store, he was suddenly a dark cut-out, a portal to another universe. One I could imagine stepping into if things continued like this. We lurched to a stop. Gridlock. I covered my mouth.

“My friend has to vomit.”

“Plastic bags in the back,” said Joe, and Risa produced a box of Ziplocs from the pocket of the back seat and fumbled one open. I heaved. She zipped it shut, leaned out the window, and tossed it into a wire garbage basket. Two pigeons lifted their chins and watched it fly over their heads.

Risa pointed to the chocolate in my lap. “Get rid of that.” I flicked the bitten square overboard. One pigeon pecked at it, stump-legged, his feathers greasy like anthracite. He shook his head and flung the square onto the other pigeon busy puffing herself up in shades of lavender and gray. She ignored the chocolate hat she now wore and adjusted herself over a crumpled hot-dog wrapper, parchment eyelids at half-mast. It looked like she was nesting.

“Maybe she’s ‘with egg,’” I said.

The bird cooed softly. Risa squinted. “That’s a man-pigeon, and he’s talking in his sleep.”

Joe said, “If it’s not the toothpaste cap, it’s the talking in their sleep.” I wanted a chiclet. Or at least some ginger ale. I took another sip of water. The man with the broomstick stopped, sat down on the pavement, and began talking to the pigeons. He looked familiar.

I nudged Risa. “Remember that mental guy who used to sweep all the storefronts?”

She recognized the memory slowly. “Thin, bald, always talking to himself?” I pointed. A cloud passed over her face. “Mind totally gone.” The cab moved and the pigeon with the chocolate hat opened a sharp eye to watch us go. The broomstick man picked the chocolate off her head and ate it.

“Poor baldy-headed man,” I said.

“And that’s another thing,” Joe said. “Hair.” He scraped something off the windshield with a fingernail. “You know what you should look for? A boring man.” I thought of television and a blue digital clock, me lying awake under the comforter.

“I don’t want a boring man.”

“Or pick a workaholic. Career has a lot to do with it. Take me. I lease this cab twenty-four/seven. I’m in here all day and half the—”

Risa sat up higher. “Stop the cab.”

“What is it?” “Just stop the cab.” She lowered her voice. “Three o’clock.”

Joe and I looked. A middle-aged man was picking through a heap of trash bags. A cap pulled down low revealed only a ravaged nose and grizzled cheeks.

“What, that nut?”

Risa pointed to the heart-shaped cutout hanging from Joe’s mirror. “He’s a Lonely.”

Joe shook his head. “Now, I have to disagree.” He was right. The man looked perfectly normal. Just afflicted. Like the rest of us.

“He lives in that apartment building over there. Throws his own stuff out, hauls it back in. I see it every day.” Risa squinted. “He has no teeth.”

Joe flicked his dentures at us. “Lots of people have no teeth. What are you, twenty? Twenty-two?” He gestured the length of his body. “Preview of coming attractions.”

Risa tugged at my sleeve. “He’s a holy man. He’ll help you figure things out. I guarantee.” But once I had seen her sit for three days at the feet of a drunkard in Washington Square Park she believed was her guru. I folded my arms across my chest.

“There’s no such thing as guarantees, and I’ll have nothing to do with the Lonely guy, thank you.” Risa slitted her eyes and suddenly looked stoned. “You’ll do as I say, little sister. Joe, keep the meter running.”

The grizzled man extended a hand to us. “Solomon,” he said, then he nodded once and shrugged with an easy kind of poker-playing familiarity. “Sol.” Risa bent to inspect his garbage. Some bags were torn, the insides tumbling out. Ladies’ clothes, different fabrics jumbled together. Three tangled wigs. An assortment of medicine bottles. “An estate,” Sol marveled. “Her estate, out here on the sidewalk.”

“Whose?” I said. Risa picked up a paperback, flipped through it. “Some broad.” She dropped the book and rummaged further, extracting a long cloudy IV tube.

“I’ll tell you what kind of woman she was,” Sol said. “Middle-class, well educated. Saw Vanya on 42nd Street sixteen times. Not a career-woman, but no housewife, either.” He picked up a powder-blue bathmat with suction stickies, and let it drop. It clung to one of the plastic bags, then slid down, slowly, over and over itself, like an organism from outer space. Another wave of nausea hit and I sat down on the curb and sipped water. Wondered what time Sol would haul all this stuff back in.

Risa dangled the IV tube from her fingers. “You sure she’s dead?”

Sol studied the garbage. “Oh she’s gone.” He put a ladies’ shirt over his own and buttoned it wrong. Then looked at my face. “The girl is unwell?”

Risa studied me coolly. “She’s just…busy thinking.”

“Ah,” Sol said, and kept buttoning. “Good work, that. Don’t expect any answers, though.”  I really needed a chiclet. Or a saltine.

“Come on, Suki,” Risa urged, lovingly but impatient. “Throw up.” She said it so sweetly I actually tried, just for her. Then pulled my finger out of my throat. Sol was staring.

“Do you always do what people say?”

I was about to say something in self defense when Risa spotted a splintered boat sitting in the crabgrassy no-man’s-land between two tall buildings.

“Hey, what’s up with that boat?”

Sol scanned some distant horizon in his head. “A seafaring people…”

“Who?”

“The Vikings. They came on that boat. Then it went charter.”

Risa stared at him. “Where do you live?”

Sol thought about it. “Everywhere. I’ve metastasized.” He dangled a peach-colored prosthetic brassiere in the air and squinted. “A traveling island, a rhizome, a globule.” Then he set it on his head, foam cups sticking up like cat’s ears, and looked straight at me. “Take my advice. Build a rubber wall. Between you and the world. So you can bounce off people, and they can bounce off you.” He smiled, no teeth. “The ultimate prophylactic.” 

I swallowed. “Our cabdriver said the caveman got all the cavewomen pregnant.” 

“Listen to your cabdriver.”

“Then they ate casserole and died.”

Sol looked shocked.

“And here I am. And I don’t know what to do.”

He adjusted one of the cups on the bra, possibly to receive radio signals. “That’s easy. Pass right through the wall. Like a sperm. Fertilize that egg.”   

“What egg?” I shouted. “Who said anything about an egg?”

Risa took a chocolate out of her pocket and popped it in her mouth. “How high?” she said. “This wall and all.”

“High enough to keep out marauders. Oh they’ll sneak in.” Sol stopped a moment, to ponder sneakiness. Then held up a calloused finger stained amber with nicotine. “Remember: everybody’s out to get you. In some way. But don’t let that make you paranoid.”

Risa thought about it. “A rubber wall would come in handy.”

“Exactly. And the last thing, and this is very important.” Sol pressed his hands together in prayer position. “If a porcelain vase falls off the roof”—he covered his eyes with his sleeve and crouched—“Don’t look at it.” Sol lay unmoving, curled up on the sidewalk. Risa covered him with the blue bathmat.

We left him there and got back into the cab. “Well?” Joe said.

“Step on it.”  Joe made a wrong turn and came to an abrupt halt behind a delivery van. He twisted to look out the back. Two more behind him. “Ah shit,” he said, and turned on the radio. The van’s doors swung open and Risa waved to a figure in blue coveralls. The man looked confused, but waved back. “See?” she told me. “It’s simple. You make things complicated.”

I was adamant. “I’m not getting out of this car.”

“You don’t have to. We’ll let the world come to us.” She looked at me. “It will, you know. Sol’s wrong. There’s no such thing as a hiding place.”

Joe agreed. “I didn’t buy that rubber wall theory. What malarkey is that.”

Risa leaned forward. “He said we should listen to you. I thought you were in cahoots.” 

Joe shook his head. “I work for myself.” He patted his steering wheel. “Twenty-four seven.” Metal clanged, and two men came out of the van lugging a cardboard box the size of a refrigerator. One was skinny, one fat. Their t-shirts said Dubicki’s—The Boiler Repair Guys.

“Hold it up!” the fat one shouted. “Keep your end up!”

Risa watched, chin in her fist. “We need popcorn.”

I handed her the tray of chocolates. She shook her head. “Ick. No.” The men set the box down by the curb. The fat one wiped his face, first with a beefy forearm, then he ripped off his cap and used that, replacing it backwards. The skinny one sliced the sides of the box with a razor blade. The panels fell away revealing a cylindrical boiler with a bright EnergyGuide sticker plastered to the side. They tried lifting it. “Bonehead. Keep your end up.” They dropped the thing. The fat one looked up with infinite patience, then cupped a hand to his mouth. “Yo! Chunky-Boy!”

Risa nudged me. “See? He doesn’t get angry or overwhelmed. He seeks out a solution. You can learn from this.” I watched him operate. “Plus he’s cute. Lose the ponytail, get rid of the cap. Look at that face.” It was nice, but on his arm was a tattoo. Risa squinted to read the blue fuzzy script. “Something something something …together.”

“You can read that far?”

“I have good eyes. I have my father’s eyes.”

I looked at her. “Your father has glasses.”

She tapped her cheekbone. “Built in.”

“This is absurd,” I said. “I’m surviving on saltines and chiclets, which, Joe, you don’t happen have back here in your snack bar. And now we’re trapped by the Dubicki guys.”

Joe spoke quietly. “She has nobody to blame but herself.”

Risa agreed. “You’re a backseat kind of person, Suki. You let the people in front figure out where you’re going. And half the time they’re lost, too.”

Joe looked offended. Risa didn’t care.

“Life is not a cab-ride, Suki.”

“Life is a cab-ride,” said Joe. “She just needs to climb into the front seat a little.”

I blinked at them both. “I can’t believe you guys are using such stupid metaphors.” Chunky-Boy came out of the basement hugging the old boiler. It looked used and spent, and he gently lay the rusted thing by the curb, stooping so that we got a good look at the crack of his ass. He lifted one end of the new boiler. Bonehead grabbed the other. The fat guy, who was starting to look very nice to me, wiped his hands on his jeans and got ready to lift the middle.

“Hey!” I called out, and they all dropped the boiler. Always dodgy, this. I pointed to each Dubicki guy. “You’re Bonehead. You’re Chunky-Boy. Who’re you?”

My man pointed to his chest and looked over his shoulder. Then readjusted his cap and looked proud. “Snapperhead.”

“Well Snapperhead—” I tried to think what to say. Are you and the girl on your tattoo still together? Everyone waited. The old boiler dribbled a thick reddish substance onto the concrete.

“Boiler’s leaking,” I said weakly, and sunk back into my seat.

Snapperhead adjusted his belt on his hips. “That’s a water-heater.”

Risa rose to my defense. “How are we supposed to know that? That’s your job.” She looked beautiful and fierce, so Snapperhead gave it a moment’s consideration.

“True.”

I sighed. There was no justice in the world. Risa sat back and twirled a finger beside her head. “It’s psychological. A little self-confidence goes a long way, Suki.”

Joe nodded. “Listen to your friend.” Now they were ganging up on me. Slowly, the cab started to move past the van, past Bonehead, Snapperhead, and Chunky-Boy dancing the boiler into the building like a fat lady, their hands all over it.

“Let’s leave ’em wondering,” Risa whispered.

Joe said, “I approve. Always leave ’em wondering. I take my hat off to you.” He lifted his toupee.

Traffic on Broadway bottled up again, and we lurched to a stop before a line of Con Ed men marching out of a hole in the street like ants. “Stop and go. Stop and go. Goddam city’s trying to suck the money out of me.” Joe pulled out his wallet and held it out the window. “Here! I’ll make it easy for ya!” I reached behind me and found the can of soup. Hugged it. Coming down the street was Broomstick Man, extending his arm to passing cars like a zebra-gate, oddly hinged. A human tollbooth.

Joe reached past the partition. “Hand me one of them chocolates, would you?”

Risa grabbed one. “Here—”

Joe handed it to the man. “Here buddy.”

“Hey. Thanks.”  Joe rolled up the window and let out a huge sigh, as if some vital life force had just been punched out of him.

“There’s too many Lonelies. Half a million Lonelies. What a Christmas.”

“Hannukah,” Risa grumbled.

“The city’s dead,” he said, and looked at me. “Have you noticed?” I had. Like when the thermometer drops a few degrees, or woman is first disappointed in a man. Everything’s the same, just that much lower. I studied the photograph on Joe’s license, head and shoulders and toupee. A tiny hostage, held captive.

“Doesn’t make sense to me,” the Joe in the picture said.

“Me neither,” I said, and shook my head and sank deep into the seat until I could hardly see out the window. Closed my eyes and thought of the last time there were hostages. All over the city, an array of flags flying at half-mast. But flying.

Joe sped us to where the streets were quiet. The meter said fifteen dollars. Risa handed him a twenty. “Thanks,” she said. “For everything.” Then she hopped out and disappeared inside the building. Joe twisted around, rested an elbow on the partition, and gestured at my stomach.

“Don’t worry so much. When you make up your mind, you’ll know exactly what to do.” I thought of Sol lying on the sidewalk, his wife’s brassiere on his head. Joe patted the can of soup in my arms. “You keep it. For when you get your appetite back.” He reached above the visor cluttered with rubber bands and pens and handed me a Lonelyhearts Patrol Group leaflet. “Care to make a contribution?” I reached into my pocket and passed him three dollars woven loosely in my fingers, like ribbon. He pushed the money into the canister.

“You decide what goes in the basket next.”

The cab windows were trapezoids of light. I got out and shoved my hands deep into my pockets. “Chiclets,” I said, knowing that in a couple of days this would all be over. “Chiclets, and saltines.”

Joe’s voice crackled like dust in the grooves of a record. “Fine. Now do what you have to do. Take your cab into your own hands, and cruise it.” He shifted gears and was gone.

I stood at the curb with the leaflet and unfolded it. It came apart like a valentine.

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