[Missed Part 1? Click here.]
I got off the plane at LAX and retrieved my crappy suitcase from baggage claim. Then I headed for the cab line outside the terminal.
My cab driver was gifted with a terrific amount of neck hair. He glanced at me in the rearview mirror, waiting for me to tell him where to take me to.
I had Maryanne's address (my friend's mom who I would be staying with) written down on a piece of scrap paper. I was about to hand him the address, when I realized that giving a cab driver an address on a piece of paper would basically reveal me as the equivalent of a banjo-plucking rube begging to be taken advantage of.
"Santa Monica, sir," I said, with as much confidence as I could muster. The driver peered at me in the rearview. I looked out the window, trying to look bored and content, like I had been looking out of dirty cab windows for many decades now. He started the meter and sped away from the curb.
The sun was low on the horizon, setting in the West. And since we were driving West, it appeared as if we were driving straight into a huge ball of fire.
We got onto a freeway--the 101? the 405? man, I don't know--and found ourselves in L.A. traffic. It wasn't a "jam," not in the way that traffic in New York usually means being in a OK-now-it's-a-parking-lot "jam." Traffic in L.A. meant that we'd drive a few feet at a very slow speed. We'd stop very briefly. Then we'd drive a few more feet. We were moving towards the fire ball, making progress, but at an agonizingly slow pace.
I was so distracted, so mesmerized by the fireball (I'd never see the sun so huge and ominous and beautiful before) that I hadn't noticed the cab's meter. It felt like we'd left the airport only moments ago, but already the meter was at $80. And before I even had a chance to allow this terrible bit of information to register, it was at $84.
I'd never seen a cab meter climb like this before.
I panicked and peered into my wallet. I had a total of $80 with me, which was supposed to be enough to get me through my week. I leaned forward and asked the driver's neck hair if we were getting close to my destination.
He laughed knowingly, as if a thousand banjo-plucking rubes had asked him this question a thousand times before. It was a question that he obviously never got tired of hearing. As the meter reached $92--then $96--he said, "Just relax, cowboy, I'll get you there," he said.
I was in a strange city--a big, sprawling city filled with six-lane roadways, and where an alien fireball hung in the sky--in a cab that I couldn't afford to pay for, heading towards a key wrapped in tinfoil and buried beneath a small tree that either would or would not be there.
The prudent thing to do here would be to turn around, to have the driver take me back to the airport, to call off this lark--this unaffordable, indulgent farce--before things got worse than they already were.
And then, suddenly, without warning, the cab broke free of the stop-and-go traffic. The driver hit the gas. We were moving, really moving, barreling along. We were going too fast, the meter was climbing too high, but I thought, "Fuck it. Fuck it all."
When we arrived in Santa Monica, the driver took me to a cash machine. I got the machine to cough up a few more 20-dollar bills. I paid him and he drove off. I stood alone on Santa Monica Boulevard, across from a Jack In The Box restaurant. The sun was going down. Shadows grew long.
I felt an unexpected chill in the air. Who knew that L.A. would be so cold at night? It was time to find that tinfoil-wrapped key, and to see if my fuck-it-all moment was the right way to go after all.
But first, I'd use a few of the dollars left in my pocket to buy a sandwich from the Jack In The Box, the only fast-food chain that has a mascot even more unnerving than Ronald McDonald. Key or no key, I had to eat something.