By Laurel Dammann
“The Edge, please.”
Miriam runs through the long list of Los Angeles establishments she keeps catalogued in her head.
“’Scuse me, ma’am. Never heard of it.”
The woman looks up from her handbag, wriggling her nose until the oversized cat-eyed sunglasses perched there scoot back up the bridge. They are huge, dominating her pale, pointed face, the tops of the frames disappearing into her gray bob which hangs in kinks that remind Miriam of seaweed. Though the woman’s hands are maps of ropey veins and discolored spots, the gray of her hair isn’t speckled with old age, but solid like a sheet of steel. It has the same metal sheen too, and in the sunlight it looks almost wet.
“Silly me, of course you haven’t,” the woman says, voice so low Miriam is surprised it doesn’t disappear into the engine of the taxi. It carries effortlessly through the car despite the wind of L.A. traffic around them, as if she is sitting right beside Miriam and they are parked in the quieter hills overlooking the city.
“Just drive West then, until we’re out of all of this,” the passenger gestures to the stacks of buildings around them. “Until you reach water.”
Miriam feels a tick of irritation. This is going to be her last ride of the day and she’s eager to finish so she can get home to the kids. Her husband has been working overtime lately, so if she doesn’t get home within the hour their dinner will be uncomfortably late again. This woman is beginning to sound like trouble and time Miriam can’t afford to spend. She watches the passenger tap at her sunglasses with one long, unpainted fingernail and thinks of how much they actually need the money. The ocean was far enough away and through enough traffic to pay the electric bill.
“There’s no ‘out’ of this city, not really,” Miriam can’t keep the cut from her voice and judging by the way the passenger cocks her head she’s noticed the mood has changed. “If it stops, it’s only at the water’s edge.”
“That’s fine. It’ll get me where I need to go. Thank you,” the woman says, the token of gratitude an afterthought, not an apology, though she offers a strange smile that Miriam can’t read.
In fact, Miriam can’t stop her breath from catching in her throat at how inhuman it looks. The woman doesn’t show even a sliver of her teeth when she smiles, just stretches her mouth up and out towards her ears, the shape of her lips somehow remaining the same, but terribly elongated. The corners of her mouth stop parallel to where the corner of her eyes must be hidden beneath her sunglasses, yet she imagines the woman could keep expanding her mouth until it engulfs her entire face.
Miriam’s phone flickers with a text from her husband. She bets he’s asking about dinner for the children, returning her to normality with stress she’s suddenly grateful for. She’s tired and her mind is playing tricks on her with the fading sun.
The city has begun to change as twilight cast its spells. The hot colors of the afternoon soften and the side streets Miriam navigates by become dappled with the shadows of shedding palms and jacaranda. The white stucco and red tile houses between the mismatched bungalows are wrapped with bougainvillea that darkens from magenta to violet as the evening dances on. Miriam cracks her window open and smells the first traces of night blooming jasmine, the scent intertwining with the chile from the Mexican joints dotting the street. She remembers that she had no time for lunch and breakfast had been milky coffee her husband had left on his way out, a peace offering since he’d missed kissing her goodbye. Her stomach growls.
Miriam startles at the passenger’s voice, surprised she’d even heard her gnashing belly with the city rolling loudly by around them. She has the eerie feeling that it wasn’t by accident — the woman has been observing her.
“I could eat,” Miriam says noncommittally, sitting up a little straighter in her seat. “But I’ll wait ‘till I get home so I can feed my kids.”
“We can stop and get food on the way. You can keep the meter running,” the woman suggests, pulling out a wad of bills from her purse and eyeing them with detached interest. Miriam notes the number of zeros and suddenly thinks that just because the woman makes her uneasy doesn’t mean things can’t work out.
“You hungry, ma’am?” she asks.
In a moment she wishes she hadn’t. The sudden stillness that fills the car is so swift it chills and the madhouse of L.A. around them seems to mute, as if the entire taxi has sunk underwater. Miriam recalls feeling like this once before, back when she was first old enough to swim in the ocean by herself and had not yet met her limits. She had been too eager and paddled far out into the Pacific until the shore became an afterthought, the journey back an illusion. Then something large and heavy had brushed her toes, sliding by so that she could feel its length, and it hit her that out here things only came from below. Frozen, suspended in deep blue, she had been too afraid to look beneath the waves, surrounded by her own spiraling nightmares and others of the ocean’s design.
The woman’s tone is fathomless when she finally answers, as if from leagues away, “Always.”
They pull into a bodega held together by Telemundo advertisements and punk rock flyers that Miriam appreciates for its not necessarily up-to-grade kitchen in the back. Amidst the racks of stale candy and canned vegetables, Pedro, an aging immigrant from Baja with more tattoos than bare skin, and his son Julio, a young man who’d had to drop out of college to help his sickening father, roll dense and salty burritos for two fifty each. With the kids waiting at home Miriam knows she should just keep driving, but the more she watches the woman through the rearview mirror the more she needs to take a deep breath away from her.
They hadn’t spoken again in the ten minutes it had taken them to get to Pedro’s, but Miriam hadn’t pressed conversation. Instead she’d followed the woman’s every move with a curiosity and heightened awareness that made her feel like prey. She is mystified by how the woman continuously moves, never holding still for more than a second. On someone else it might have come across as twitchiness, yet, though scattered in direction, every movement the woman makes is purposeful and sleek. It reminds Miriam of swimming, bullet-like strokes through an airless world.
At one point a fly had flown too close — the passenger had reached up and struck it from the air from below, crushing it in her palm as if her hand was a gaping maw. Now, as the woman emerges from the taxi and into Pedro’s bodega she glides, her limbs moving with a synchrony Miriam didn’t think humans were capable of. She has to look away because the more she watches the woman the more she begins to wonder if she’s going insane.
“What do you want?” she asks, eyeing the peeling menu hanging by the register.
“Not my kind of food. Get yourself and the family something,” the passenger insists and gives another one of her frightening elastic smiles, sliding a couple of bills into Miriam’s hand. “I’m going to go to the restroom,” she says, gliding away.
Miriam thinks of saying “no,” of chasing after her and pretending pride, but she’s distracted by the dampness of the woman’s touch. More than that, she’s hungry and she knows her children would love surprise take out enough to forgive the wait.
“Where’s Julio?” Miriam asks Pedro, tossing the money onto the counter. He grins at her, the black tears inked onto his cheek wrinkling away. “Whatever you can feed me with that. You know how I like it.”
“He’s cleaning the bathrooms, what a good boy. We had some junkies break into them last night and mess ‘em up real good,” he laughs at the money. “That’s twenty dollars you know, right? We haven’t had to raise our prices yet,” He whispers conspiratorially. “Or is your fancy customer bribing you?”
It’s a joke, but the question stops Miriam in her tracks. For some stupid reason she hadn’t thought to dig deeper into the woman’s generosity, to ask if it comes at a price. She’s lived long and hard enough to know that most things do and her stomach drops as she imagines what this stranger’s price could be. Miriam remembers the way she swallowed the fly with her hand, her fingers sharp as teeth.
“She’s paying,” she says to herself as much as Pedro. “I’m not asking questions when I’ve got babies to feed.”
“True, true,” Pedro nods. “But she’s a bit of a strange one, right? She reminds me of the big fish we’d pull up in the nets sometimes back home. How do you say? The ones with all the teeth and the fin that makes you scream?”
When Miriam re-emerges into the dwindling light with a bag full of burritos she can feed the family on for another day, the woman is already waiting by the car. She’s checking her face in the driver’s side mirror even though her sunglasses cover most of it, turning her chin to evaluate her profile.
“You sure you’re not hungry?” Miriam asks, gesturing to the bag of food. “There’s a lot in here.” She wants the woman to say yes; if she says yes the food is hers too and it’s no longer a knife balanced against Miriam’s wrist. It’s safe.
“No. I’m fine, for the moment,” the woman replies smoothly with a tone of satisfaction that makes Miriam’s skin crawl.
She glances toward the bathrooms, expecting to see Julio waving at her with both hands like he always does, but the door is closed with a mop and bucket propped against it.
“You able to use the toilet? Sounds like Julio had a mess to clean up,” she isn’t sure why she suddenly feels the need to make small talk, but she notices it helps counterbalance her suddenly urgent need to walk towards the bathrooms, fling open the doors, and take in Julio alive and well. There’s no more time to spare though and she can’t shake the voice in her head telling her she’s being foolish.
The woman slips into the seat behind her and Miriam watches her run a finger around her edges of her mouth, mimicking the licking of lips.
“Yes, he was very sweet.”
“We’re close now. Which way to this place, The Edge?” Miriam asks between bites of her burrito, inhaling the food from nerves more than hunger at this point. She’d brought up everything from soccer to beauty salons to current politics and each time the woman has dismissed her attempts at conversation with a “What’s that?” “Who’s that?” or, in the case of Miriam’s quest for a cheap massage parlor, an “I don’t do that anymore.” Her answers remain ominously vague and Miriam is beginning to build stories from excuses for the stranger to compensate for her ever-escalating imagination: she’s from a tiny, foreign country removed from civilization, or the fabulously wealthy and suffocated spawn of old money, or maybe just a former addict who went on a trip and never came back.
“It’s a busy sandbar here. Go south a bit,” the woman says, indicating the beach ahead dotted with people setting up to watch the sunset. “Go to where the water is quietest.”
“Sure,” Miriam skids sharply left, reassured by the thunk the woman makes as she slams into the car door. It’s human sounding enough to make her brave, or stupid.
“You’re not from this city, are you?” she asks. Her hands begin to shake, because of what she can’t be sure anymore.
The woman turns from gazing out the window to regard Miriam, leaning forward just enough to make Miriam aware of how small the taxi truly is. Despite the sunglasses, Miriam knows she’s focused entirely on her. The hair on her arms prickles and she remembers what Pedro said about the sharks.
“What makes you say that?” the woman finally replies, finishing each word carefully, almost biting them off.
“Well, a lot of people that live here aren’t from here, so a safe guess, I suppose. And you have a way of speaking…” Miriam knows she is on the verge of babbling, a nervous tick her husband teases her for. The woman interrupts before she can lose it.
“Ah, yes. Speaking,” she nodded and Miriam notices her visibly relax. “I’ve always used my mouth a bit unusually, at least by human standards.”
“Like that, right there,” Miriam slams on the brakes, nearly running a red light. “What does that mean, ‘by human standards?’”
The drop-off is near, she knows it, and it’s making her reckless. At the end of this ride she’ll either know that she’s a mad woman or that there are things out there she never wants to pick up again.
The response is another one of those hair-raising, toothless smiles, but this time it stretches far enough to reveal a glimpse of her inner lips. For the first time in years, Miriam murmurs a prayer.
They were red, almost like blood. Miriam has a lipstick that color, but she is on the verge of betting that color isn’t from lipstick, not there, not now. Julio scrubbing dirty tiles flashes through her mind and she wishes with all her heart that she’d kept driving. It seems so far away now, that decision to stop, to take the money from the woman’s hand without doing herself or her family the justice of suspicion.
Leaning back, the passenger settles into the leather seats, the texture blending with her skin, both smooth, taut, hard to damage. She crosses her legs, then uncrosses them, then crosses them again. Miriam, eyes trained to the rearview mirror, knows she’s testing her, judging her driver’s focus.
“You like to look, don’t you?” Miriam jolts at the woman’s words and swerves a bit on the road. Her voice comes like the tidal waves that snatch children when they’re too caught up in building sand castles to remember that the ocean is alive.
Miriam shakes her head, but then nonsensically remembers how she always tells the kids not to lie. The feel of the woman’s eyes on her neck remind her that side-stepping probably won’t work.
“Yeah, I suppose I do,” Miriam shrugs. “I’ve been told I have a bad habit of staring.”
“No, not staring,” the woman says, curling one finger up to pull her sunglasses down just enough so that she can make certain Miriam knows that she is still fixated on her. “Watching. You are the kind that watches. I need someone like that up here.”
She shakes her head, as if sensing her driver’s mounting fear. The sharp slash of her head as she moves it right and left reminds Miriam of a shark fin cutting through water. “Don’t worry, I’m not bothered. It’s not a bad habit unless you do it to the wrong person.”
The taxi screeches to a stop in front of the sidewalk, the soft thump of the waves coming from somewhere beyond the swiftly darkening beach. The smell of salt and oceanic decay saturates everything to the point of taste.
Miriam is amazed at how fast her heart can beat without killing her. The rest of her burrito sags forgotten on the dashboard, the children’s food going cold in the passenger’s seat. She is underwater again, the rest of the world too far away to help.
“Are you the wrong person?” it’s a risky question, but she’s waded past the point of return now. The meter is still running, but this is no longer her world.
The woman smiles widely and this time, for the first time and maybe the last, there are teeth: pointed, pearly white teeth framed by gums traced with red. Serrated.
“Let’s just say I have bad habits too.”