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The Shadow Lifts Off Before You

We were speeding at a rate some might consider reckless. But I’m a cabbie, so I know what I’m doing. The man was late and it’s just common courtesy to get him to his destination on time.

To quote fellow cabbie Austin Barnett who practiced unplugged electric bass in his cab during down time: “To inhale lateness and exhale punctuality.”

I looked in the rearview at my ride gazing out the side window, adjusting a bow tie, seemingly mesmerized by the shadow of my taxi caressing the barren contours of the late-autumn earth – not of this earth but not quite airborne either. And just as the shadow seemed to be hijacking his dream, it vanished in the gully where the heavy runoff always finds its conclusion.

Shadow Lifts Off Before You bart plantenga
photo illustration: bart plantenga, “Marble Dove, Buitenveldert Cemetery,” 2021.

His dream was about his two children, now both dead he’d already told me. His dream was dragging them by the hand like two buckets filled with a bright, cheery drink usually reserved for festive occasions. He told me. The pink shoe toes dragging along the pavement like 4 erasers across a largely unread page. He told me.

Gradually his attention fixed on a point just beyond the horizon where the remnants of the disturbance were still evident: a dim fiery glow, a low rumble. It was not my place to ask whether he was fleeing this or any other scene. He drew a thin, uneven smile across his face.

You can never learn the entire man during a 25-mile drive from Ann Arbor to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. But what I did learn: 1. his bow tie was a proud signal of someone who fancied himself as slightly peculiar, 2. he was the inventor of something we use every day, 3. he had two children, both dead, 4. he’s a U of M professor, teaches “the mysteries of transmigration and what physical evidence there may be of it,” 5. three cups of coffee had him flying, and 6. he never discussed his ideas about astral projection with airline staff prior to boarding.

He eventually faded, grew pensive, forehead pressed to the clammy window, gazing at nothing in particular. I turned up WJZZ, Detroit jazz radio – Ella Fitzgerald singing: “Flying home at last / Flying home / I’ve got the freedom in my soul …” And, yes, synchronicity still spooks the hell out of me.

I was sure he’d start singing along with Ella. Instead, he dismissively declared: “JAZZ IS MUSIC OF THE DEVIL.”

“The devil sure’s got all the good songs on his jukebox,” I countered with a lighthearted gesture to maintain the peace, an essential survival strategy among cabbies. Indeed, with that, he fell back into his forehead-to-side-window reverie only to again, a minute later, jolt upright declaring: “LOOK.”

I gazed left with my left eye, keeping my right fixed on the slight curvature of roadway, the broken lines guiding us to our destination, like a finger traveling up the backbone that soon reaches the place where dreams of floating and flying are assembled – Terminal Hippocampus.

“Those crows are ascending to heaven, carrying our souls,” he declared with an air of self-assured reasonableness. “But they’re actually the devil’s messengers and will suddenly change course to take them to hell instead.” As if he’d done empirical research, knew the precise angle of ascent.

We double parked near the terminal entrance; my brilliant surgical maneuvering going largely unnoticed. Travelers being dropped off by families in gleaming cars, luggage carts crashing into one another, some hurried poses, some hurried photos.

I leaped out to retrieve his luggage at about the same instant that he slid out of the backseat, displaying a certain disequilibrium or maybe pain. I lifted the battered portmanteau out of the trunk to hopefully augment my tip. I noticed it was light. Very, very light, like the kind actors carry in movies. Unrealistically light. Intriguingly light.

He shuffled over to the revolving doors. Leaned against the glass. I was still holding his empty suitcase, a bit miffed. Should I have asked: Are you flying to an unstable throwrug of a failed state, reenacting scenes from a Graham Greene novel, filling your suitcase with cocaine or gold bricks or body parts or knock-off luxury wear or crucial evidence?

He opened his wallet, made a grand gesture implying he was about to grace me with his generosity and pay the fare handsomely. But then mid-motion, mid-pinch of paper money – my cab trunk still open – his body suddenly appeared to be nothing more than a projection, a bitmapped mosaic of interwoven dark and light like a Shroud of Turin motif on a handkerchief. Could one say: less a man than a convergence of shadow and reflection? Certain tribes, as he no doubt knew, do believe that when your shadow meets your reflection you will be complete like when you draw the last line on the connect-the-dots puzzle and it reveals exactly what soul is supposed to look like. Or was it just me in need of a candybar or juice?

My old roommate, Edna, a poet of sorts, once described a shadow as a kind of “inside-out ghost … Imagine your best tight pants going inside out as you peel them off.”

He stepped toward me – his oxfords strangely battered and worn – to offer me the fare. But the wad of bills was in a bright currency I had never seen before. He presented this play money with an expectant smile, large as a serving dish. This had obviously been his favorite joke for the past 30 years. In the other hand, he waved a slender fan of proper greenbacks just to the right, behind his ear.


It was the exact amount, Six 5 dollar bills. No tip.

“Don’t worry, son. God’ll tip you beyond your wildest dreams up in heaven.”

And suddenly, mid-goodbye, he became distracted – as did I – by a swarm of squawking crows and seagulls bickering over a patch of puke on the sidewalk a few feet from where we stood, him still waving the fan of six fives.

“You cannot alter the DNA of human nature with a few laws,” he observed. “That’s what my research concludes. Blacks and whites, no matter where in the animal kingdom, will continue to squabble, come to blows. The resolution of this dilemma may necessitate accelerating these conflicts through the exacerbation of scarity, ensuring the pitting of one against another. As my colleague Martin Moomin once said: ‘The infinite importance of a tiny drop of water is better appreciated by the thirsty bird in the desert’.”

“So, no happy Hollywood ending, then?”

“Nope. I’m more Götterdämmerung.”

Suddenly he realized he’d better hustle if he was going to catch his flight. So, with a meek smile, he tipped his imaginary hat and lunged through the revolving doors and evaporated into the reflection of me and my cab cradled in the unceremonial swath of destitute land that surrounded the airport with a despair few ever acknowledge.

I left my cab double-parked with the blinkers on, trunk open, right rear door open and, risking a steep fine, followed him inside to the gate he was limp-scurrying to … Terminal N, Gate P22, LAS VEGAS, DL1966, Boarding Now.

I had only once been to Vegas where I gambled for a quarter of an hour before realizing that a gambling addiction was not going to ever adequately insulate me from our collective existential plight. Vegas, I had read in the paper, was also where Christian Krank was arrested in the Mandaly Hotel lobby with several suitcases filled with various unregistered firearms, a machine gun, 1500 rounds of ammo, flammable liquids, a bayonet, a machete, the address and phone number for the Christian Defense Leagues secret training camp, stacks of Wake Up Americans pamphlets that espouses apocalypse acceleration and the arming of whites for civil war, and hand-drawn maps of targets including a casino purportedly popular among Jews and Blacks. The story ending with police bungling and his unfortunate escape.

I heard frantic, belligerent honking outside and so turned to attend to the situation at hand that would no doubt pit me against another indignant someone with his own set of indefensible interests and inalienable rights. The guy was pounding on the trunk as I got into my cab, locked the doors, and turned up the radio to shut out the noise of dispirited folks overturning luggage trolleys and yelling profanities, and obscure my uneven breathing.

WJZZ was playing something they seldom play – jazz poetry. I heard the poet,* with jazzy reed and flute accompaniment, declaim: “I carry the music inside me,” ending with the line: “I live where the sky is lowest,” my cue to bob my head in a groovy way to further incense the man who had been pounding hard objects for a while now, reaping only a swollen fist and the lost face of his wife sitting in the passenger seat. I reentered heavy traffic, headed back down onto I-94 West, into a tricky chiaroscuro of shimmering traces, helter skelter refractions, reflections, and inside-out ghosts, making driving more treacherous than most were willing to admit.

* “If Cars Could Fly,” Steve Dalachinsky, Incomplete Directions, Knitting Factory, 1999.

–bart plantenga


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1 thought on “The Shadow Lifts Off Before You

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