published in Volume 1, Issue 5 on November 20th, 1994
Akale is an African from the country of G---, a republic on the Gulf of Gambia. Its primary exports are phosphates and groundnuts. Last year, nearly two thousand people died there in factional violence. The President of G--- called the deaths "a necessary sacrifice."
Akale drives a cab in Washington, D.C.
The taxi gently fishtailed in the slushy snow. The snow had begun earlier, fat flakes falling from a gunmetal sky. The snowplows were nowhere to be seen. The snow would freeze in a few hours with the fall of darkness and the roads would become hard, white ice. Already, traffic had slowed down in deference to the silent storm.
The prospect of sliding down slick streets did not alarm Akale. He regarded snow as an unusual blessing, a sign of the power of the Creator to put a stop to all of man's activities. If He willed it, Akale would not raise his voice in protest. It never snowed in G---; it was a land outside the pale of the Creator.
Akale righted his taxi and turned down the dispatching radio so he could listen to his tires crunching the snow. The flakes were descending at a gentle angle, blurring the hard corners and edges of the office buildings rising up around him. The street lights suddenly lit up, gold lanterns stretching all the way up 19th Street, towards Dupont Circle. Bundled-up pedestrians hurried up the unswept sidewalks; office workers were being sent home early.
"Snow emergency," he heard the radio whisper. That meant fares were doubled: another blessing from the Creator. It would be a long night, but a rewarding one.
Akale turned up "Embassy Row." He paused by the bus stop; no takers. Then he drove slowly past the Georgian and Tudor mansions until he reached the embassy of G---. The embassy was a narrow brick rowhouse with a crumbling turret and a tiny cobblestone drive. The building was shared with an Eastern European country. A bright yellow taxi from "Imperial Cab" was double-parked out front.
"Imperial Cab" was owned by the Railroads Minister of G---; he was a Njem, a northern tribe, as was the President and most of the army. All the cabbies were Njem, most being former military or government officers. "Imperial Cab" was a major source of hard currency for the chronically cash-strapped nation.
Akale glided his "Easy Fast" cab past the embassy, dark eyes fixed on the curtained window. The Njem had blinded his father; Akale fled the country under a student visa secured by a sorrowful Peace Corps volunteer.
The dispatcher barked his cab number. Akale enjoyed the authoritative sound of the American's voice. "Easy Fast" was practically a gypsy operation with its loose manner and multiracial staff: a place where immigrants started off. All the dispatchers were black Americans, however. It was their business. Whites sometimes lumped all blacks together, yet Akale was adamant that he was not black, not American, not even a citizen of G---, rather he was Hrem.
Akale drove through the steadily darkening afternoon to the airport. Planes floated over the bridge. The traffic inched forward. Then the roar of the jet engines washed over them. Akale watched the planes drift down over the India ink river until they met the runway.
Akale's fare was a big, ruddy American. Akale hoisted the heavy garment bag into the trunk while the American settled into the back seat. He listened to the shocks creak as they accepted the new load. The man slammed the door. He named an address in the city.
There was a long wait to get out of the airport. Rush hour had added a new misery to the snow emergency. Taxis and buses crept forward, their brake lights aglow. The American joked that he should have walked.
When they reached the parkway and their speed increased, Akale asked the American if this was his first time in Washington. Akale had learned English from the Peace Corps; his accent only hinted at his origins.
The American cleared his throat--a heavy, uncomfortable sound. "Yea, I'm a first-timer. Visiting my brother. He loves this town. I don't know where Chuck's gonna take me but I wanna do some drinking in Georgetown!"
"I came here six years ago," Akale said. He tried an American aphorism, "It's a great town."
"Yea?" he said, the word a jab. "I'm from Miami. None of this snow shit in Miami. Can't believe it. Must be crazy to come up here in December. Man, I could be jetskiing. Miami, now that's a good town. Hot all the time, and humid too. During the summer it rains every day, like clockwork. Hey, you know, you'd probably like it."
"No, no, no. Where I come from it is dry and hot, not humid, not wet."
"Like Arizona, huh?"
"Yes, but not a desert. Except in the north."
There was a pause. Akale gave him the name of the republic.
"That's near Thailand, right?"
"No, Nigeria... in Africa." The traffic had slowed again. They were directly across the Potomac from the glowing spire of the Washington Monument. The snow was blowing like chaff through the cab's headlights. Not even four, and it was dark as midnight.
"G---!" he shouted, falling back against the seat. "Now the name sounds familiar. You got that guy who shot all those other guys on the boat, right? He was the army chief and told the President that he had a cruise planned for them and then knocked them off."
In the rearview mirror, Akale could see the American smiling and shaking his head, making a bitter joke about it. He knew what the man would say next: "What a fucked-up place."
It was time to explain. "Things weren't good before Masuoko but the government left the tribes in peace. They stole from us, but there was no war against the people," Akale said, his mind racing ahead of him tribal dialect. "Masuoko is a Njem, they control everything in the country. Masuoko hands out jobs, money, concessions, he even decides where the Peace Corps goes. The Peace Corps gave an irrigation project to a neighboring village because they were Njem. Our little stream dried up because of this. No water for us! Of course there was going to be violence!"
Akale remembered when their little trickle of water went dry one summer. The rice paddies created by irrigation glistened, wet, alive, while their village was dry, dusty, mothers stirring only to hike the two miles to the well. The elders of the village, his father included, asked that the Njem of the neighboring village send the water flowing again. They refused, the rice crop was going to make them rich. The District Commissioner had a hand in the project so he would not talk to the Hrem. One night, his father was caught scooping water out of an irrigation ditch. They hit him over the head with a plastic pipe until he was blind.
"Masuoko is a butcher. In the past, things were divided among the tribes. Masuoko took everything for the Njem. That's why all the other tribes fight him."
The American mumbled something, and then, as the traffic reached the bridge he said happily, "Here we go! Spent more time in this cab than on the plane!"
They coasted over the bridge, towards the bright glow of the Lincoln Memorial. Snow poured out of the darkness. In a blur, Akale remembered the wild anarchy of those first days when he and his schoolmates wrecked the irrigation project and the soldiers came by helicopter to hunt them and burn their village and send shells into the hills after them. And bleeding to death, and death by dismemberment, and death by fire.
Akale made his way up the silent side-streets. There was a tense moment as the cab slid perilously close to a line of parked cars before Akale jerked the wheel and the cab went straight. The American continued his happy chatter, speculating on his visit to Washington. He asked Akale: "If I get sick of all this stuff Chuck's going to drag me to--espresso bars, performance art, book stores--you know a good topless place a man can go to?" Akale named a place he had seen from the street.
"Thanks, guy," the American said a moment later as they reached the address. "Thanks for the ride and the tip. Listen, keep the change, I don't need it."
The door swung open and cold air poured in. Akale opened the trunk and the American retrieved his garment bag. Their breath swirled in white clouds around their faces. The American's face was even ruddier with the chill, innocent blue eyes glimmering like sun-struck water. A man called out a name. The American waved to a silhouette in a doorway.
Akale slammed the trunk shut and cautiously made his way around the idling car. The American was making similar ginger steps up the path towards the man in the doorway. When Akale looked up again, the two men were gone, the light had vanished. Snow covered parked cars, brick walls, windowsills.
Akale shook the snow out of his hair as he got in. He recorded the ride in his log book. He drove back to "Embassy Row" and edged his cab into traffic. Preparing to make a turn, Akale checked his rear-view mirror. There, aggressively switching lanes, was a bright yellow cab. Akale slumped down as the taxi flew past, terrified eyes looking sideways. He saw the words "Imperial Cab" and a dark, intent face at the wheel.