I had the honor this past weekend of flying to New Orleans to attend the annual Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, where I signed a few books and listened to people much smarter than myself. It was a great time with great people, and I left with more stories than I know what to do with (I spoke with friend Karen Spears Zacharias and a man she introduced as “Paul” for nearly half an hour, only to find out when they left that Paul was William Paul Young, author of The Shack. To me, he was just Paul, the guy in the jeans and polo shirt who said he liked my hat).
Yes, lots of stories. But for now, I want to tell you just this one about my cab driver:
She grabs my bag at the airport and chucks it into the trunk, smiles and calls herself Antoinette. It’s a pretty smile that’s all white teeth and kindness, and when I tell her I’m Billy she says, “You ain’t from nowheres around here, is you?”
“No’m,” I say.
She looks at me up and down and gives a sad shake of her head. “Careful child,” she says, “this town’ll chew you up and spit you out. Good thing Antoinette’s here.”
And even though I don’t know this lady and have never seen her before, I think that’s right. I think that’s exactly so.
She settles me in the backseat and climbs in behind the wheel, all arms and legs and long, braided hair. We exchange the bustle of the airport for the bustle of the freeway. I’m gawking like a tourist, trying to see everything. She’s watching in the rearview and shaking her head.
“Just you, son?” she asks. I say yes, that my family’s back home. “Well, ain’t no thing. It be just me and my cab.” She nods and gives me half a smile in the mirror, as if what she’s just stated makes her happy only because things are what they are. They are what they are, and there’s no changing them. “Kids gone, man gone.”
“Gone where?” I ask her.
Antoinette says “One in the ground” like she’s saying the hotel is just up the road a piece—all fact, little emotion. She makes the sign of the cross. I don’t know if it’s for the kids or the man. “Other’n done left.”
I don’t say anything. Buildings blur outside the window. Beyond them the sky touches the ground in a straight line that ends at my eye level. A crazy thought enters my mind that if Antoinette takes a wrong turn somewhere, we may just tumble off the edge of the world. For not the first time today, I miss my mountains.
“Man gone, too,” she says finally. Another nod, a bigger smile. This time, she really is happy that things are what they are. She’s happier that there’s no changing them. “Done took off with some floozy. She can have’m. Twenty year we together. Twenty year.”
She looks at me again. I bend my head down and study the hat in my hands, not knowing what to say. I’m sorry seems too petty, even though I am just that. One in the ground, one more done left. Another taken off. Just her now. Antoinette and her cab.
“You learn,” she tells me. Her eyes are still in the mirror when I look up. Still looking at me. The cab is cutting through traffic at over ninety miles an hour, but Antoinette’s eyes don’t have to see the road because the cab knows the way.
“Learn what?” I ask her.
“You learn to get by. Keep goin. Dream on. You got the faith, son?”
Now she looks away (and just in time, another second and we’d have met the back end of a dump truck). I can’t see her mouth, but Antoinette’s eyes wrinkle at the corners.
“There you go,” she says. “There . . . you . . . go. You might be alright, Willie. Cause all we got’s in the end’s our faith. This town can get hard on’ya, but you be alright. I be alright. One in the ground, one gone, one shacked up with Susie-spread-your-legs. We all got pain, don’t we?”
“We do,” she agrees, then rubs the silver cross dangling from the mirror. The front of it is dull, almost the color of pewter. I think to myself that cross has been rubbed a lot over the years. It’s like Antoinette’s faith—beautiful because it’s so worn.
“I’m sorry for your trials, Antoinette.”
The words come out sudden, so fast that I can’t pull them back in even if I want. I think maybe I should. Antoinette doesn’t seem the sort of person who’d take the pity of another, no matter how well-intentioned that pity would be.
She shakes her head. “No sir,” she says. “Don’t you be sorry no way. I ain’t. I know the secret, you see.”
“And what’s that?”
She looks at me again. “Ain’t no trials, Willie, no matter how much we call our troubles that. Hard times, they just God’s mercies in disguise.”