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The Scenic Route and the Numbers Station « back

"Where to?" the cab driver asks.

The interior of the cab is done up in walnut paneling and leather with a raised paisley imprint. Thin threads of smoke drift from the silver incense cone mounted on the dash. The cabbie wears a baseball cap, pulled down low across his forehead. It is worn and stained enough that I can't make out the logo on the front. Beneath the cap, his head is wrapped with linen as if he has recently suffered a head wound. Strips of linen lie against his neck, obscuring the cracked texture of his skin. It must be scales or something similar because some of them have fallen off, and when he turns his head, something glitters underneath.

"What's worth seeing?" I ask.

A rooster clucks on the floor behind the driver's seat, pecking at the dirt and grit caught in the rubber mat. A strip of black cloth-covered with crocheted sunflowers-is tied around its neck like a loose cravat.

The cabbie makes a noise with his tongue. A tock-tock that isn't quite the same sound as the chicken's sounds. "Didn't take you for a tourist," he says.

I am wearing the same overcoat as in my train dream, and I slide my hands into the pockets to see if a note has been left. All I find is a rectangular object that, as I pull it out, I realize is a switchblade. The chicken clucks nervously as my finger touches the tarnished button on the side of the handle.

"Aren't we all tourists?" I ask the cab driver.

He laughs, and his hands tap against the steering wheel. He is wearing yellow leather gloves, soft and supple against against his rigid fingers. "True. Though I had a guy last week who knew his destination. No question. Yelled at me when I got off the freeway an exit early. He had been gone awhile; didn't know about the construction."

"Where did you take him?"

"To his House."

"Can you take me there?"

He shakes his head. "The construction . . ."

The rooster peers at me, making a sound in the back of its throat. I put the unopened knife back into my pocket. The chicken tries to flap its wings, but the space behind the driver's seat is narrow, so the movement is a confusion of feathers.

"What sort of construction?" I ask.

"They're building a temple."

"Next to the freeway?"

He tilts his head and shrugs.

"You said it forced you off an exit earlier," I note. "But you still reached your destination. Why can't you follow that same route?"

He leans forward and trips the meter. The red LED display lights up with three symbols. A triangle, a cross and something vaguely like one of the symbols from the cover of Led Zeppelin IV.

"It won't be there. The construction is spreading."

"Spreading? Why?"

"They're building a zoo too."

"Who is? The temple owners?"

"The architects."

I thrust my tongue against my cheek, aborting my inane question. It doesn't matter what the firm's name is, or whether they even have a name. Who they are isn't as important—names and faces are mutable anyway; what matters is that they are building. The name of the project is equally inconsequential. Call it a menagerie, a garden, or a terraced temple; it doesn't matter. The critical detail is their presence and their persistence. They are part of the fabric, not easily excised or subverted.

He touches the radio dial, and I realize the underlying sound in the cab is the rustle of static, electronic snow that mirrors the white sky outside the warm cab. His fingers twist the dial, and a woman's voice suddenly catches. "9 20 23 9 12 12 8 . . ."

"Meter's started," the cabbie reminds me.

The woman's voice rises and falls, and for a second, I think about creating a tool to capture her sequences, but by the time I do, I will have probably missed too much of her transmission. If, indeed, there is a message in her voice, and it isn't gibberish floating down from the ether.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a distraction and a clue.

I need to focus on the architects. Their temple is just an anchor anyway, a spike grounding them in this dream. It's a fixed point. The zoo is the key. It is the representation of their intent. The temple gives them license; the zoo is the realization of their plan.

Zoos are filled with animals in cages. It seems pretty obvious, as symbols go.

"When are they expecting to open the zoo?"

The cabbie fiddles with the radio dial. "I haven't heard," he admits. "Soon, though, I suspect."

Soon. What is the meaning of the zoo? Do I need to admit myself? Confess to my basal animal instincts and allow myself to be caged? Let them strip away the layers of my humanity, thereby losing the strata imposed by society. Become a wolf boy. Then, feral and wild, I can be tamed—reformed and repressed into their image.

No. Wait. My direction has not been set. The cabbie drove his previous fare to the House, but is refusing to follow that same path now. But, as he's waiting for me to direct him—"Where to?"—I am otherwise free to act in this dream. If I can't go forward, can I go back? "The place where you picked up this other fare. Can you take me there?"

"Sure." He puts the car in gear, and as we pull away from the curb, the rooster flutters onto the seat next to me.

The cab trundles through narrow and empty city streets like a tottering old man. We pass into a district of bridges and canals, a fog-shrouded version of Amsterdam without the flickering warmth of the streetlights and clustered familiarity of the buildings. The bridges in this city are cracked and poorly maintained; there are gaps between the unlit buildings, dark holes where dogs go to die.

"Have you been driving a cab long?" I ask.

"All my life," the driver replies. "This is my father's cab."

"Will you pass it on to your son?"

He shakes his head. "No. I have no children." He glances back at me, and the back of his neck scintillates. "No wife either. You think a woman want a man like me?"

Interesting. I had thought his reptilian nature was an anthropomorphic expression on my part. "No," I say, "I imagine it must be difficult."

"You have no idea," he mutters. He leans forward and turns up the radio. "She would have me. She's the only one."

"The announcer?" The voice has been just background noise, a lulling litany in a code I had dismissed as incomprehensible. "You can understand her?"

He laughs. "Don't listen to the individual numbers. Listen to how she says them." He shifts in his seat, plucking at the seatbelt strap across his chest. "Do you know those pictures that seem like a random assortment of dots? The ones with the hidden picture. When you un-focus your eyes, another image rises to the surface." He leans forward and tweaks the volume again, bringing her into our conversation. "It's the same thing. Stop listening for sequences, and just listen to her voice."

She speaks with passion, whoever she is; her voice is filled with the invective of the possessed, as if she were proselytizing from a revival tent instead of a pirate radio studio. She speaks with the vigor of an arithmomaniac. "6 15 18 20 25 . . ."

"What is she saying?"

"The same thing she says every night."

"It's a recording?"

"No. She's out there. Right now. Talking to us."

"But she's not actually speaking to us if she's just repeating the same thing over and over." Part of my brain wonders how he can even tell.

He smiles at me. "You're still trying to find sequences."

"There aren't any. It's just random numbers."

His smile breaks, and his hands tremble on the steering wheel. "Just . . . random . . ." His previous friendliness fades, replaced with something akin to fear and outrage. "No, you don't . . . you are testing—"

"Never mind," I interrupt him. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry. It was rude of me to speak like that. Such nonsense."

His hands relax, fitting around the wheel again, and he nods, reluctantly taking his eyes off me.

"Yes," I continue. "Nonsense like you'd hear from a . . ." I pick up the bird on the seat next to me. "—a chicken." I wave it at him. "Cluck, cluck."

He stares at me via the rearview mirror for a long time. "I'll need to charge you for the extra passenger," he says finally.

"It's not mine," I argue. "It was here when I got in your cab."

He shakes his head as he returns his attention to the road. "Do you think I drive around with a live chicken in my car?"

The rooster pecks at my hand, and I drop him back onto the seat. "I thought it might be a local idiosyncrasy."

"They're foul," he says, and then laughs at his own joke. "Demons of the dawn," he explains when he finishes chuckling. "They are too eager to greet the day and to quit the night."

It starts to snow, and the world retreats. The light becomes spectral, indistinct will-o-the-wisps, and the buildings lose their geometric definitions. The road vanishes beneath a layer of white paste, and the cab's headlights make the snowfall glitter as if we were plunging into a rain of needles.

The cabbie leans forward and peers up at the blank sky. "Here it comes," he whispers. He sits back in his seat and shakes his head at the radio. "Just like you said . . ."

The woman's voice doesn't react. She continues, unabated, with her recitation. "2 12 5 1 11 26 5 18 15 . . ."

He nods once, and slows the cab to a stop. He twists his head to fully look at me, and I see the broken edge of his left cheek. Beneath the craggy surface of his skin, he seems to be jeweled. Rhinestones and diamonds, emeralds and pearls. "We're here," he says, nodding to the world outside the cab.

I look and can vaguely make out the shape of a building with arches and tall windows. The snow on the sidewalk is unmarked and puffy like meringue. "Thanks." I open the door, the weather immediately caressing my face, and get out of the cab.

"Hey," the cabbie leans his head back over the front seat. He nods towards the clucking fowl. "Don't forget your chicken."

"It isn't mine," I reiterate.

"Nothing is."

A gift, then. However obscured. I lean back into the cab and scoop up the annoyed rooster. It squirms in my hands, its claws digging into my forearm.

The cab driver struggles with a smile, the dead light in his eyes belying his effort. His cheek twinkles. "Good luck," he offers. The cab door shuts without me touching it, and the vehicle glides away, fading into a yellow stain in the snowstorm.

I have a feeling his last words were for the chicken.

I tuck the animal under my arm and go into the building.

It isn't the same station. That one was a central hub, with multiple tracks and platforms; this one is a terminus station, and the arches and pillars of its architecture seem to be overcompensation for its satellite nature. A ruined engine rusts on the single track, its windows broken and its paint scratched. The reader board mounted over the ticket counter is chaotic. Letters are missing, and those that remain are jumbled together as if they are seeking warmth. A tiny placard hangs off the lower right edge of the board. Its text is distressed, broken and twisted as if from the heat death of civilization, but I can puzzle out the words. "In case of emergency, call . . ."

The sequence is 232.

There's a pay phone in the corner of the station's wide staging area. It's a red and yellow box—open on the front. Graffiti has been cut on either side, thin words carved out with a steady hand. A black rotary phone sits on a shelf, and there is a slot below the dial for coins. I lift the receiver and hear the drone of a tone, but the dial is stiff, locked in place until I feed coins into its narrow slot.

I slip my right hand into my pocket and feel nothing but the cold shaft of the knife. The chicken squirms out of my grip as I extricate the switchblade, and it sprints away from me as I push the button to extend the blade.

I chase it awhile, until I finally get a hand on one wing and jerk it hard enough to snap the joint. The rooster shrieks at me, a surprisingly human sound, and tries to claw my hands as I hold it down. When I cut it open, it continues to scream and fight. Ribbons and candy and plastic toys spill out of its belly.

I find several chocolate coins. I don't bother trying to stuff the other prizes back into the angry rooster. It crows and flaps about on the floor, trying to peck at my hands and ankles. It leaves a trail of prizes in its wake.

I return to the phone and feed it the chocolate currency. When the first coin rattles into the belly of the instrument, the dial unlocks with a noisy clank. I feed several more of the gilded coins into the phone and dial the emergency number listed over the ticket counter (and I see that the same number is cut in the side of the box in Roman numerals). As the rotary dial spins, there is a clicking noise in the handset, like teeth being broken.

The phone rings once, and then someone picks up. I can hear breathing, but the person doesn't speak.


Distantly, in the background, I can hear a scratchy recording of a brass band. The sound warbles as if it being played underwater or on an old Victrola phonograph.

"Hello?" I say again. "Hello?"

When she speaks, the dream splinters into snowflakes. Every flake is different—fractal infinity—and I am lost, struggling to find the one tiny crystal shape that is the key which will unlock the cipher of her voice.

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