Jared Abraham, To Afford a Life

Mahmud sat outside the airport, with the car running. He squinted his eyes against the blue glow of his phone, but he didn’t let it go dark.

What if I miss the chance, he thought whenever the screen dimmed, and his finger darted out to bring the screen back to full glow.

Sitting in the soft driver’s seat, his eyelids began to droop but before they closed all the way, he snapped them open again and sat forward. He bounced up and down in the seat a few times and shook his head, but a bone-tiredness remained, waiting for him to relax. He choked down a gulp of gas station coffee.

Just need some caffeine. You’ll be alright with some caffeine.

Without warning, the screen of his phone changed, as a pop-up appeared. Mahmud’s hand moved to hit “Accept,” but before he could push the button, it disappeared. A moment later, a car parked behind him pulled out and drove into the airport.

Hitting the steering wheel, he shouted “Gotta be faster!”

On its own, his hand picked up the coffee again but he put it down without taking a drink.

Take it slow or you’ll have to stop all night long!

Time passed and still nothing else came through.

Wednesday nights are always slow, Mahmud reassured himself, but he was starting to worry whether he’d make enough tonight to cobble together the month’s car payment.

Then, another pop-up appeared, and he hit “Accept” after just a glance at the screen.

Only a 4.5, he noticed on the phone, as he passed through the tollbooth on the way to the terminal.

When he arrived at terminal D, Mahmud found his rider by identifying the person glancing from his phone to the cars and back. He was about Mahmud’s age, wearing a blazer with a trendy hat. As soon as he parked, Mahmud jumped out of the car, popping the trunk before closing the door.

“Good evening,” he called, making sure to plaster a wide smile on his face. Americans seemed to like smiles.

“How’s it going,” the rider replied, though he didn’t wait for Mahmud to tell him how it was going.

Mahmud first opened the door to the backseat. After his passenger climbed in, he grabbed his suit case and put it in the trunk.

“There is bottled water and phone chargers in the middle seat if you please,” Mahmud told his passenger when he was back behind the wheel.

“I’m good,” the passenger said, glancing up for a second from his phone, though he took the bottled water and still took a single drink. Mahmud told the app that they were ready to go, then they were on their way.

It might’ve been fast enough, he thought as he passed through the tollbooth; sometimes he got charged, sometimes he didn’t.

“Were your travels good?” Mahmud asked. He’d read that Americans liked to make friends, and his experience mostly backed that up, though he never really knew how to make friends with them.

“Not bad,” the passenger answered. And that was that.

Guess we’re not talking, Mahmud thought. How do you know who wants to talk and who doesn’t? The app told him that they were going to Fort Worth, so he took highway 121 out of the airport and accelerated up to sixty-five miles an hour, matching the speed of the surrounding traffic.

It’s a Wednesday; I should get lucky on a Wednesday night. This trip should cost him a little more than forty dollars. No surge on a Wednesday. So, I’ll make…maybe thirty dollars, he calculated, reducing the overall pay by the commission that would be taken off the top of his check.

A smile spread across Mahmud’s face, and he settled into the driver’s seat, letting his back rest now that he had a fare.

The hum of the car and the darkness of the highway were comforting. Mahmud’s eyes began to shut on their own, but he snapped them open again and only had to swerve a little to stay in his lane. He glanced at the coffee to his right but chose instead to risk turning the radio on, scowling as country music filled the car.

Who could sleep with that playing! he laughed to himself. Plus, they seem to like it.

Mahmud’s hopes panned out, and they didn’t hit any traffic that was worse than a slight slow down. From 121, they took I-35W South. From there, they took I-30 West and after another few minutes exited at Camp Bowie. A few turns later, and they pulled in front of the passenger’s house. The green lawn stretched up to a wide porch, with white columns rising on each side of the steps. The house stood two stories tall, and a welcoming light shown through the windows. It would have been a mansion by Tashkent standards but in Texas, it was just normal.

Aziza would love to climb that tree, Mahmud thought about the oak towering over the yard. A window at the top of the house looked like a perfect place for Hasan to do his drawings too. The moment that the car was in park, Mahmud jumped out and ran around to open the backdoor. Then, from the trunk he took the suitcase and brought it to his passenger.

“Have a good evening,” Mahmud said.

“Yeah, thanks for the ride,” the passenger replied, taking the suitcase and moving up the path to his house.

Figures! Mahmud thought as he watched the man walk away. He opened the backdoor and took out the bottle of water; a drink or two were missing, so he dropped it in the front seat in case he got thirsty later.

Water’s cheap, he reminded himself as he took another bottle out of the trunk and replaced it in the backseat. It was a good fare, good start! Back in the car, he sat in the street while he pulled the app up again.

Might as well give him five, he thought as his finger hovered over the passenger rating screen. Just self-absorbed, not a jerk. Next, he told the app that he was ready for another passenger. Nothing came up.

Gotta move to a better spot, he decided and put the car in drive.

Back on Camp Bowie, he headed in the direction of downtown Fort Worth.

It’s early still for the bars…maybe an early night for someone though. It is Wednesday!

As he got close to the Seventh Street area, his next fare popped up. Glancing at the screen, Mahmud saw that this rider had a perfect five star rating. He hit accept.

It’s probably too early for them to be drunk, he hoped.

He found his passengers in front of a burger and beer joint. As Mahmud got out, he paid close attention to the state of the man and woman waiting for him. Not leaning on each other.

“Good evening,” he called as he came around to open their door.

“Hello.” The lady smiled. “How’s your night going?”

I don’t think she’s slurring her words, Mahmud observed. “I’m well. Thank you for asking,” he replied, not having to force the smile this time.

The couple climbed in, and he closed the door behind them. When he was back behind the wheel, he told the app he had picked them up and received the destination.

Just a short trip; maybe cost them eight dollars—might make four, he calculated as he put the car in gear and moved forward.

“There are bottles of water and phone chargers in the middle seat if you please,” he called as he drove forward.

Still, that’s two gallons. What else would you be doing?

“Thanks,” the man replied.

“Have you been busy tonight, or are we your first pickup?” the lady asked.

“I started at the airport and dropped that passenger off. Then, it’s just been you.”

They’re not going to be trouble, Mahmud decided, and he smiled as he glanced at the passengers in the rear-view mirror.

“What else do you have planned tonight?” he asked. The forums agreed that keeping conversations going was the best way to get five-star ratings.

“Nothing!” The man replied with a smile. “Not too wild tonight.”

“That’s good, to have a quiet evening,” Mahmud said, not sure how best to respond but wanting to say something.

“Have you been a driver for long?” the lady asked.

“Only for a few weeks,” Mahmud answered. “We came to America…close to a year ago and only got a car recently.”

“Where did you come from,” the man asked, straining against the seat belt as he leaned forward.

“From Uzbekistan. Do you know it?”

“No, I don’t know much about it. Where is it?”

“Just below Kazakhstan and above Afghanistan,” Mahmud replied with a smile. He enjoyed talking about home.

“What brought you to America?” the lady asked.

“We were looking for safety. The government was against us,” he answered honestly. “I was the pastor of an illegal home-church, and the government hired an informant to infiltrate. It was either leave the country or go to prison, so we went to Turkey. Lived in a camp there while we applied for refugee status.”

There was a long silence that was only broken when the lady said, “Well welcome to America.”

Guess she doesn’t want to know more, flashed through Mahmud’s mind without his intention.

“Thank you,” he limited himself to saying.

I always say too much. Hard to know what’s too much or not enough with these Americans. They’re nice though, still. They drove in silence for the final few minutes until they arrived in front of their destination. He started to run around the car to open their door, but the couple was out on their own before he could.

“Have a good evening,” he called.

“Thanks for the ride,” the man said, as he held out a bill.

“Thank you very much,” Mahmud replied. Back behind the wheel, he looked in his hand and was startled to see a five dollar bill.

Thank you Lord, he rejoiced. Without deliberation, he hit a five star rating for the couple, then told the app that he was ready for the next passenger.

Waiting for the next fare, he pulled away from the curb and drove out of the neighborhood. The hospital district was close, so he drove that direction. It was after 10:00 now, and he hoped that there would be some requests from the bars along Magnolia Street. He reached Magnolia without any requests, so he parked his car across from a trendy bar and sat there with the engine running.

Sitting still, the lateness of the hour came crashing down on Mahmud. His seat felt so comfortable, and his eyelids became so heavy. They closed for a second, and Mahmud didn’t open them right away. He could still hear the country music playing in the background, but it felt so good to have his eyes closed.

Just before he drifted off, Remember why you’re out here! flashed through his mind. His eyes burned as he forced them open. Taking his palms, he pressed hard on his eyes, doing his best to rub the sleep away. He took a drink of the cold coffee and forced himself to swallow.

What did you miss? he wondered as he looked at the phone. I don’t remember what time it was when I got here. Does the gas gauge look lower? Nothing you can do about it now. He cringed as he turned the country music a little louder, then took another drink of what used to be coffee.

The pop-up finally came. The destination was close, right across the street at the bar, a ride for three. But it was requested by an account with a 3.7 rating.

Mahmud looked across the street and saw a group of three guys huddled around a phone. They were standing right in front of the bar’s door. As Mahmud watched, one member of the group swayed into the man on his left, and the two nearly fell over. When they righted themselves, they were laughing.

I don’t want to drive them anywhere, Mahmud thought, but he pushed the “Accept” button and stepped out of the car.

“Hello,” he called. “I’m your driver tonight.”

“Hey bro,” the least intoxicated of the three called. “Give me a hand.”

Mahmud hurried across the street and put the left arm of the drunkest man over his shoulder, then he and the first man walked him across the street and poured him into the backseat. The other passenger had followed across the street behind them, and Mahmud ran to the other side to open his door, opening the front passenger door at the same time. When they were all inside, Mahmud got back behind the wheel and told the app that they were ready to go.

South Fort Worth, he read as the destination popped up. Should be a good fare, if we can make it fast. He began the navigation and put the car in drive.

“There are bottles…” he started to tell the passengers, but he cut off, thinking, Dead phones are the least of their problems. “Did you have a good night?” he asked the passenger to his right instead. Even 3.7s still rate you, he reminded himself.

“It was great, bro, can’t you tell?” the man said, with a motion to his two friends. In the rear-view mirror,

Mahmud saw that they were both passing out in the backseat and wasn’t sure about how to interpret the comment. He pulled onto Rosedale, heading south.

I’d better take the tollway, he decided. Get this over with.

“Do you have a big day tomorrow?” Mahmud asked, not sure what else to talk about.

“Nah, just some classes. Probably won’t go. No big deal.”

“Do you go to TCU?”

“Yeah,” the passenger replied, watching the buildings pass outside the window.

“What do you study?”

“Business.”

“I studied that too, back in my country,” Mahmud replied with excitement. “What field?”

“A little of everything,” he answered, and the conversation died.

Mahmud was trying to think of something else to talk about, when the retching started. “There’s a bag on the floor board,” he suggested to the passenger.

“Jason, you ok bro,” the passenger called to the man sitting behind Mahmud, ignoring the plastic bag by his feet.

Mahmud’s knuckles turned white as they gripped the steering wheel. His rage only grew as the rancid stench of vomit wafted to the front seat. He twisted his head around, trying to get a look in the rear-view mirror but in the dark couldn’t see anything.

“How bad is it?” he asked.

“Smells pretty bad!” the passenger joked. “He looks like he’ll be ok though.”

“Is there a lot of it?” Mahmud tried again. I’m never gonna get the smell out! he yelled in his head. What’s this going to do to my ratings!

Their exit was coming up, so he moved to the right lane, and took the exit as fast as he could. He sped down the rest of the streets, heedless of his ratings, only wanting to get this fare dropped off. When he pulled in front of the house, he slammed the car into park, then jumped out and opened the door behind him.

Grabbing the sick man under the arm, he pulled with all his might, trying to not get his hands in the mess. The man tumbled out of the car, but Mahmud steadied him and led him to the house’s front door. The other passenger had already helped out their final friend, who looked nearly as green as the man Mahmud was holding.

Mahmud helped the man he was holding to sit down on a bench beside the door, then he turned and said, “I’ll leave him here. Have a good night.” He didn’t wait for a reply.

As Mahmud stormed toward his car, behind him he heard a voice call, “Sorry!”

His only answer was to slam the car door. He pounded in a one-star rating on his phone, and shut down the app. None of the earlier exhaustion bothered Mahmud on the drive home.

I’ll never get five stars again with the car smelling like this! Without this job, we’ll lose the car. Without the car, we’ll be stuck again, in this horrible, huge city.

A tear made its way down his cheek, as he sped home.

This city has nowhere to walk! There’s no metro! We need the car!

The tears were streaming down Mahmud’s cheeks by the time he pulled into an open spot on the street at his apartment complex. Through the apartment window, a light was still shining. Yulduz had waited up for him, again.

He didn’t get out and go up yet, though. Instead, he sat in the vomit-reeking car, until his tears stopped. Then, wiping them on a sleeve that had some transferred vomit, he did what he did at the end of every night and unlocked his phone to check his driver rating. He entered his information and hit “Submit” to wait for the page to load. 4.71 glared at him off the screen, and he hit the steering wheel over and over again.

When I started, it was 4.79! How! Who only gave me four?

He would never know.

When he’d gained control of himself, he climbed out of the car and went up to the apartment to get cleaning supplies. His exhaustion had returned, but he knew the smell would only be worse if it was left until morning.

When he opened the door, Yulduz looked up from her seat on the couch. “What’s wrong?” she asked in Uzbek. Rising, she took him in her arms.

“The car. It’s…it’s everywhere.”

“What is? What’s that smell?” Her eyes grew wide as she recognized the smell rising from Mahmud’s sleeve. He didn’t answer, instead melting into her arms.

“It’ll be ok,” she soothed, stroking his hair. “We’ve made it work so far and we’ve been through worse.”

Silence filled the room around them, until Mahmud had again cried himself dry.

“How will we make it without this job,” he asked, breaking the silence.

“Do you remember back when we were in the camp?” Yulduz asked.

“Of course I do. What does that have to do…”

“Did we have a car then? After we’d burned through the little we’d brought, did we have anything?” A tear rolled down Yulduz’s cheek also.

“No, but…”

“A year in, when we were waiting and waiting and waiting to hear from the embassy, we were desperate. We lived. We lived in…I don’t know what it was. A shack? We ate…we ate whatever we could.”

“Just trying to get enough for Hasan and Aziza was hard,” Mahmud whispered.

“And all we had was hope. Hope for something better.” Moving back, Yulduz spread her arms. “And now look at us. We’ve got a safe home. We’ve got plenty of food. Do we want more? Of course! But is it enough?”

“Even in the camp, you and the kids were enough,” Mahmud answered, and he kissed Yulduz long and hard.

“If vomit is the worst thing we have to face, then we’ll face that too,” Yulduz finished after she surfaced from the kiss.

The two of them worked through the night to clean the car, and by the next night, Mahmud was back at the airport. Waiting for his next fare. Waiting to get above 4.8.

7 thoughts on “Jared Abraham, To Afford a Life

  1. Hi Jared,

    As a quasi-native “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could” Texan who has driven the Metroplex for many years, I “rode” with Mahmud (and you) in the car and I must say I enjoyed the trip!
    “Gratitude for what we have is the balm for what we have lost.” I appreciate you reminding me of this truth.

    Thanks for writing it.
    Stoary

    Liked by 2 people

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