The vehicle pulling up to the curb seemed to be almost literally held together with duct tape and a prayer. Both side mirrors and a portion of the front bumper were fastened to the black frame with strips of adhesive. Although the door in the rear appeared to be firmly attached to the hinges, its faded surface was pockmarked with a series of softball-sized dents clustered around the handle. As the car came to a stop-- breaks squealing in slow hydraulic agony--Darshan T. Rangan could only hope that this was not going to be his ride back to Washington.
"Son of a bitch!" the driver shouted. "Son of a bitch!"
Darshan watched the driver burst onto the sidewalk to adjust the positioning of his mirror. The man cursed and cajoled as he fidgeted with the plastic arm. When he was satisfied that the mirror would stay in place, he reached into the pocket of his denim jacket and glanced at an address written on a crumpled scrap of paper. He squinted at the numbers inscribed over the glass-door entrance to the Bethesda Sacred Lotus Hindu Temple and Meditation Center.
"Hey Mister," the driver said to Darshan. "You called for a car?"
"Car?" Darshan asked. He was half hoping that if he played dumb the man might curse one last time and drive away. Darshan knew he never should have used one of those tear-off papers tacked onto a bulletin board to call for a ride, but it was impossible to get a cab to DC at this hour on a Sunday afternoon.
"You're the fare to DuPont Circle?" the driver said, brushing back a black mustache that threatened to engulf his entire upper lip.
"DuPont Circle, yes," Darshan said. "That must be me."
"What are you waiting for?" the driver asked. "It's a busy day. Very busy."
Darshan picked up his aluminum attaché case and stepped toward the car. When he tried the rusting handle, it had no effect. The rear door was stuck. The driver had to get into his own seat and reach back to push it open.
"You're sure this thing isn't going to fall apart?" Darshan said as he clambered onto the hot upholstery.
"The way this day is going, sir, I cannot assure you of anything."
The driver tapped one of several business cards fastened onto the sun visor. Each one contained Arabic words and phrases, inscribed in black calligraphy. The driver uttered the indicated expression and then translated it for Darshan.
"We can only do what God wills," he said before inserting the key into the ignition.
"I can catch the bus if you're backed up," Darshan said. "I don't want to cause you any trouble"
"Trouble?" the driver said, trying to get the engine started. "All I have is trouble. Two drivers call in sick, I have to work on my day off and a bastard in a BMW sideswipes my last good mirror."
Darshan glanced at the photograph of the driver on the dashboard. The caption stated that Malik Islam was prepared to assure his guests of a fast and pleasant trip to their chosen destination. Before that trip was to begin, however, Malik unleashed one epithet after the next until the engine finally came to life.
"Cheap American piece of shit," he said. He gestured toward the temple before pulling away from the curb. "So tell me," he said in a more conciliatory tone. "Is that where you pray?"
"Something like that," Darshan said. He was rummaging through his attaché case, hoping he hadn't forgotten to pack his iPod. He had learned long ago that you had to be prepared when hiring a car inside the Beltway. All of the drivers felt that they were hosts of their own personal talk show. And they assumed that their passengers were in fact celebrity guests who couldn't wait to promote their home towns or reveal what petty neurosis had lead to strains in their marriage. Darshan gathered that he had been booked to discuss his faith in a segment titled: Desi Men in the District: Cosmopolitan or Cow Worshippers?
"Tell me," Malik said. "What is it that you pray for?"
Darshan sighed. All he had packed was a laptop, a yellow legal pad and a self-help book recommended by his meditation instructor.
"I don't really pray for anything," he said. "I'm just looking for a few minutes of silence."
Darshan pulled out the legal pad and turned to a clean page, hoping the driver would take the hint.
"You mean you don't ask God to give you anything?" Malik asked. "Nothing at all?"
"I just want to clear my head. If I can forget about my problems, that's enough."
"But don't you want anything from life?"
Darshan tore off the page and folded it into three columns.
"Of course I do," he said.
As he had explained to his meditation instructor, Darshan hoped to experience true emptiness, the moment when he was no longer the eldest son of Ramesh and Kriti, second generation Indian-American and pride of the Rangan family. The instructor kept insisting that it would be helpful to give up these expectations and simply concentrate on breathing, but that was never sufficient. Darshan wanted to step out of the temple one afternoon and know what it felt like to be someone else.
"But how can you get what you want if you don't ask for it?" Malik said. "It's like when you're a child. You have to tell your parents what you want them to give you."
"Isn't that a little simplistic?" Darshan asked.
"Son of a bitch," Malik shouted.
The mirror was drooping out of position again. Malik pulled next to a hydrant to tinker with the frame. When it would not stay in place, he reached for the duct tape and a box cutter on the passenger seat. He cut two long strips and leaned out the window to fasten the mirror.
"Those bastards in their BMWs," Malik said as he eased back into the street. "They think they can do whatever they like. I tell you, there's no respect for private property."
"Or privacy," Darshan said, leafing through some calculations he had made on the previous pages of the legal pad.
"There is no such thing as privacy when you drive a car," Malik said. "You live your whole life in front of your passengers." He gestured at the calligraphy on the visor. "Even when I pray."
Darshan could all too easily picture Malik at prayer while on the job. He saw every detail--head bowed, eyed shut, both hands clutching the wheel as a laundry list of requests was whispered towards heaven: a new carburetor for the engine, a new dress for the wife, new sneakers for the children. Each and every petty need enunciated like a brave but modest child, the requests a thing of beauty in their humility, a delicate song of worship and desire that would only come to an end when Malik veered slightly into the opposing lane and plowed directly into the headlights of an oncoming sixteen-wheeler.
"If you need time for yourself," Darshan said, "I'd be happy to wait for another car."
"Don't be silly," Malik said as he maneuvered onto the ramp of the interstate. "You do what you have to do. Sometimes when you ask God to help you feed your family, all he gives you is a second-hand Buick."
The traffic was bumper-to-bumper. Darshan muttered that it would have been faster to take the streets and then started jotting notes for the presentation he would have to make at work tomorrow. His company was on the verge of landing a contract to provide equipment to a hospital in Baltimore. Darshan was glad that Malik had not yet asked about his career. It would have almost certainly led to the next segment of their talk show: Indian Mothers, Jewish Mothers and the Cult of Medical School. Darshan himself had dropped out after one excruciating semester but immediately found high-paying work promoting cutting edge medical products. It was a compromise his mother could live with as long as he promised to keep an open mind about returning to school in the future.
"So much has changed since I first arrived here," Malik said. He nodded towards a billboard for the DC Ducks tours. An amphibious vehicle was gliding in the Potomac River past the Washington Monument. "I remember when I could pick you up directly from the steps of the Capitol. Now if I drive too close, with the way I look, they probably would arrest me."
Malik glanced at Darshan through the rear-view mirror.
"They would probably arrest you too," he said. "We have that much in common. In the eyes of most Americans we are a pair of terrorists waiting for an opportunity to strike."
Darshan figured this would be the jump to the next segment of the talk show: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Brown-Skinned Brotherhood. He had heard enough of this bullshit at the office. The rumors floated from cubicle to cubicle: how he had been promoted to accounts manager only because Mr. Kapur wanted to sponsor one of his own kind as a protégé.
"There are no bombs in my briefcase," Darshan said.
"That is good to know." Malik said. "Tell me something. What part of India are you from?"
"I was born in St. Louis."
"Ah, Second generation! Or is it third?"
"My family comes from Bangalore."
"The technical support capital," Malik said. "You must be very good with computers."
"I had a laptop in my crib."
"I don't doubt it," Malik said. "I myself am from Karachi."
"Have you even been to Pakistan?" Malik asked.
"And I have never been to India."
"Then we're even."
"This is what I find so funny," Malik said. "To the Anglos in their BMWs, we are nothing but a pair of dusky co-conspirators, plotting to kill them in their sleep. But if we were back in our native lands--me in Pakistan, you in India--the only people we would be plotting to kill would be each other."
Darshan put down the legal pad.
"Let's get off at the next exit."
"That might be our best course of action," Malik replied. "But we may be stuck here for some time."
The car inched along through the traffic. When a gap opened in the adjoining lane, Malik maneuvered into the open space, first accelerating and then slamming on the breaks. Darshan watched the box cutter bouncing inside the roll of duct tape on the passenger seat, the unsheathed blade glinting in the afternoon light.
"So tell me," Malik said, "when did your family arrive here?"
"I don't think we should be having this conversation," Darshan said.
"But this is important," Malik insisted. "More important than you might realize."
"The early seventies," Darshan said. "I think it was 1971."
"Interesting timing," Malik said. "My uncle was killed by Indian soldiers in the war of 1971."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Two cousins were wounded in the war of '86 but both survived."
Darshan put his attaché case on his lap and slipped the legal pad inside. Then he pulled out his phone. The number for the car service was still on the display. Darshan wondered now if it was just a coincidence that he had gotten the number off a bulletin board in the basement of a Hindu Temple.
"Why are you telling me this?" he said.
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I view it as a rare opportunity."
"The opportunity provided by America."
"What kind of opportunity are you talking about?"
"A chance to settle our affairs."
"We don't have any affairs to settle."
"Oh, I beg to differ, sir. Indians and Pakistanis have a great many affairs to deal with."
Darshan began to slide towards the passenger-side door, glimpsing at patches of grass on the shoulder of the interstate. Although he had been entertaining himself with the notion that he was participating in some kind of fictional talk show, he had not considered the possibility that he could become the subject of real talk shows, the sound of his name being broadcast across the country: Darshan T. Rangan, the first casualty of a foreign war brought to America by a deranged car service driver.
"Is that why you picked me up?" Darshan asked.
"I don't understand, sir."
"Is that why you picked me up? To settle the affairs between India and Pakistan?"
"I'm afraid it isn't so simple," Malik said. "There will always be war as long as there is an India and a Pakistan."
"But what does that have to do with us?"
"Perhaps today we can begin to find a solution for the problems of both of our countries."
"India's not my country," Darshan said. "I've never even been there. I'm an American citizen."
"That may be an excuse," Malik said. "But it won't allow you to escape."
"Escape your responsibilities."
At the sound of that final word, a picture began forming in Darshan's mind, a picture of young Malik Islam standing before a shrine to his uncle, a memorial set up in the corner of a living room already stuffed with sofas and saffron cushions. He could see Malik kneeling before the frame of a black-and-white photograph, the last remaining image of a soldier in a starched infantry uniform. The boy would stare at this image every evening, contemplating what obligations he had to avenge an uncle he had never met.
"I never try to run away from my responsibilities," Darshan said, clutching the aluminum case on his lap.
"We are all responsible," Malik replied, "Each of us, even the most humble driver, plays a role in shaping the events of the larger world."
"That's a beautiful thought," Darshan said.
"Beautiful and terrible," Malik said. "We have all helped create the violence of our times. Both you and I are partly to blame for war and its consequences."
"I think you make a good point," Darshan said. "But don't you think the larger share of the blame should go to the people in a position of power--the politicians and the generals?"
"We are in a new century," Malik said. "We no longer need to wait for the politicians and generals. That is why each night I pray for a moment like this."
Before Darshan had an opportunity to question either the motives or the efficacy of such a prayer, Malik jerked the wheel to the left and then just as suddenly pulled to the right. He exploded into furious tirade, slamming on the brakes as a yellow Mazda honked from the adjacent lane. The car came to a halt inches from the rear bumper of a station wagon. Malik was thrown forward and then fell back onto the seat cushion. Still cursing, he reached for the duct tape and box cutter, which had fallen to the floor mat. He was leaning across the armrest separating the two front seats when the metallic edge of the attaché case slammed into the side of his head. Darshan swung the case three times before pulling back, tempered aluminum colliding with the flesh of an unguarded temple.
"What the hell are you doing?" Malik screamed. The driver swung around and flailed at Darshan, smacking at the corner of the case. "Are you fucking crazy?"
Darshan scrambled out the door and stood on the shoulder of the highway, momentarily dazzled by the fury of electric horns. He squinted at the rows of brake lights, extending for what appeared to be miles.
"Are you out of your fucking mind?" Malik shouted. He staggered out of the car, his left arm pressed against the throbbing bruise. He walked along the white dividers, moving slowly towards Darshan, who had already started to back away, retreating against the flow of traffic. "Are you out of your fucking mind?"
"I'm escaping my responsibility," Darshan heard himself say.
"I'm escaping my fucking responsibility," Darshan shouted.
Malik leaned against his rear bumper, muttering about crazy fucking Indians as Darshan turned away and began to walk towards the previous exit.
"If we can't discuss these matters here," Malik screamed, "how are we ever going to find a solution?"
Darshan did not look back. He kept walking, one step after the next, monitoring each breath as he moved. Although he would have difficult matters to consider in the coming minutes--finding the nearest MARC station, deciding whether to contact the police, coming up with a plan of action in case he was tracked back to his apartment--for now, for this moment, it was enough to walk and to breathe--to know he had accomplished something on the shoulder of the interstate that he had not achieved after months of meditation: he no longer felt like Darshan T. Rangan, the elder son of Ramesh and Kriti. If he had anything left to say to Malik, it would be that his prayers had finally been answered.
"We could have been ambassadors!" Malik shouted. "Ambassadors in exile."
As Darshan's form disappeared beneath the overpass, Malik staggered back behind the wheel and slammed the door shut. The impact jarred the arm of the side mirror loose from the patchwork of duct tape. As the frame smacked against the side of the car, the mirror itself came unfastened and fell onto the highway, audibly shattering on the asphalt.
"Son of a bitch!"
BIO: Craig Fishbane's short fiction collection, On the Proper Role of Desire, was published by Big Table Publishing. His work has appeared in the New York Quarterly, the Boston Literary Magazine, Opium, Night Train and The Nervous Breakdown, as well as the Flash Fiction Funny anthology. He can be reached at his website.