“Can’t we just sit down?” Paul replied.
“We can sit down when we get there. You’ll love it, trust me.”
Jackson put both index fingers into his mouth and blew hard. He reached his hand high in the air and drew the attention of a cabbie three cars back in the taxi stand line.
“Where can I take you?” the cabbie said through a thick West African accent.
“21st and 6th, there’s a great Italian place there. I’m sure people ask about it all the time,” Jackson said confidently.
“He’s not going to know where the place is,” Paul interjected.
“Everyone in the city is talking about this place Paul. I’m sure he drives there two or three times a day.”
Paul planted his forehead against the cold glass of the window and took a deep breath. Jackson leaned forward grinning, sticking his head up through the divider and engaging the driver.
“Where from friend?”
The driver didn’t respond.
“Jackson, it’s important, can we please just talk?” Paul tugged at his shirt.
“Where are you from?”
“Bronx,” the cabbie replied.
“No, I mean where did you come to New York from?”
The cabbie looked at Paul through the rear view, probing him with weary eyes. He wanted to know if Jackson was for real. Paul moved his eyes from side to side, hoping the driver would get the message.
“Sit down at least, we’ll be there in a minute,” Paul finally dragged Jackson back into his seat.
“Accra,” the driver said before shutting the divider.
The cab flew down 4th Street, flying through the intersections with 15th and 16th. The traffic lights were a flame beneath Jackson’s anticipation.
“Oooh, I can almost taste it, you are going to love this Paul,” Jackson licked his lips.
Paul had both hands over his face, rubbing it back into shape. A thin line of pain pulsated at the top of his balding head. He went back to resting it on the cold glass, hoping it would go away.
“I’m sure I will.”
The driver cruised past 19th street, but when it came time to turn, he found himself shut out of the left lane. He rolled down the window and hurled foreign obscenities at the driver of a yellow cab who refused to yield.
“Just drop us off on the corner of 4th and 23rd, we’ll take it from there,” Jackson said.
The driver didn’t respond but he heard the command. He continued to curse under his breath as he bulled his way into the left lane and stopped at the curb.
Jackson looked for cash in his pockets and wallet in a rehearsed way, knowing he would find none.
“Paul, I don’t have any cash on me, put this on the corporate card alright?” he said.
Paul sighed and reluctantly handed it over.
“Make sure to get a receipt,” Jackson smiled as he stepped out into the city. Paul scooted out of the cab in three uncomfortable movements and chased after Jackson, already halfway down to the next corner.
Jackson saw Paul dragging and slowed his stride. He held out his arms and tilted his head to the sky, tossing his slick black hair from side to side as he reveled in the beauty of fall in the city. The sun highlighted the salt in his black coif and the wrinkles around his eyes.
“Sometimes Paul, I can’t believe we made it here. It’s truly unbelievable.”
Paul just nodded and waited for the next move.
“Let’s hustle, I’m famished,” Jackson said, taking off down the street. Paul trudged behind for the next several blocks until they reached the corner of 6th and 21st. Jackson stopped there and turned around, waiting for Paul to catch up.
“Come on, come on, we’re so close,” Jackson shouted with glee.
Paul drew up alongside him and together they walked slowly down 6th Street.
“Now I don’t quite remember the name but I’ve still got this to guide me,” Jackson said, pointing to his nose. “That aroma is unmistakable. We’ll smell it before we can see it.”
“Just like Seacaucus,” Paul muttered under his breath.
“What?” Jackson asked.
“Are you sure it’s even on 6th? Or on this side of it?”
“Relax Paul, I promise you will not be disappointed no matter how long we have to look.”
Jackson’s nose took two trips down each side of 6th, one down 21st and another up 7th. With each block, Paul’s pace had him a few more steps behind Jackson. Finally, when they reached 7th and 23rd, they stopped.
“Can we just stop here please? I’m tired and we need to talk,” Paul said, pointing at a deli promising corned beef, chips and a drink for $6.95.
“We’re beyond that Paul. I don’t think you realize how lucky we are. The greatest restaurants in the world are at our disposal, any one we choose. I’ve chosen, we’re going. Besides, I think I remember where it is now.”
“It wasn’t 6th and 21st, it was 2nd and 16th.”
“I’m not walking all the way there, that’s nine more blocks.”
Jackson again put his fingers in his mouth and whistled. No one stopped immediately, so he whistled again, a shrill high-pitched beacon that cab drivers two towns over could hear.
“Jackson, let’s just take the subway.”
“I’m sure someone will stop in a minute.”
“I don’t want to pay for another cab ride. Besides, there’s a stop right there, it’ll take us to 2ndand 18th, almost there.”
Tickets for the subway were dispensed from machines in the corner of the station. Jackson repeated his cash-strapped dance in front of the ticket machine. Paul rolled his eyes and pushed him aside.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said.
“Thank you Paul.”
Paul struggled with the touch screen, having to start over twice before finally getting the option he wanted. The pain in his head expanded down to his eye in the front and his neck in the back. It pulsed with every beat of his heart. He couldn’t wait to sit down.
They crammed into the train, packed in so tightly that it was a challenge to stay upright. Jackson smiled at the crowd, reaching over them to grab a hand rail. The shorter Paul squabbled with an old Chinese woman carrying bags of vegetables for handhold.
“Don’t get any funny ideas,” Jackson flirted with the elderly woman to his right. The long reach to the handrail partially exposed his abdomen to them. They giggled.
The train lurched forward. Paul lost his grip and slammed into the Chinese woman, who gave him the stink eye. More of Jackson became exposed as he leaned forward, eliciting an “ooh la la” from his septuagenarian cheering section. It stopped just as abruptly at 2nd and 18th; the blue hairs were sad to see him go.
“That wasn’t so bad, maybe I should ride the subway more often,” Jackson remarked as Paul tried to massage the pain out of his head.
As they started to walk up the steps and back onto the street, Jackson paused.
“What, what is it?” Paul asked, walking up an extra step to see eye-level with the taller man.
“How far does this train go?” Jackson asked.
“It goes straight to the northernmost part of the city. Last stop is probably the suburbs.”
“Does it stop at 60th?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“It’s not 16th, it’s 60th.”
Paul’s head throbbed.
“Let me ask you. You love this restaurant, it’s one of your favorites, but you don’t know it’s name and you’re on your third guess for where it is?”
“No more guesses, it’s 2nd and 60th, I’m sure. I maybe had too much fun that night, but it’s coming back to me now.”
“Too much fun?”
“What we should be having every night Paul.”
The next train arrived five minutes later, not half as full as the last one. Paul rushed to a seat and collapsed into it, letting his head rest against the window. Jackson grabbed hold of the railing above the seat.
“How long do you think it takes?” Jackson asked.
“I don’t know,” Paul responded.
“Why so aggravated?”
“Because you’re dragging me around to nowhere.”
“You’ll see clearly once we sit down at the restaurant, trust me.”
Twenty-two stops later they arrived. Paul had nodded off, Jackson was still wide-eyed. He shook Paul, who cringed as is eyes opened and the pain returned.
“Almost there. Come on.”
They walked up the steps and out onto 60th Street. The sun had dipped behind the buildings and the air had gotten a few degrees colder and crisp. The wind nipped at Paul’s ears and gently ruffled Jackson’s hair as they wandered up the street. Jackson carefully examined the menus of the restaurants on the street, carefully reviewing them and hoping one would reveal itself as his place. Paul was just happy they found food.
“See anything you like?” Paul asked.
“It’s not a question of like it’s a question of my place.”
Three more examinations and Jackson stopped. He walked back past Paul, back down the street to the second restaurant they looked at. He said something to the hostess that Paul couldn’t hear. She nodded in affirmation and an enormous grin appeared on Jackson’s face. He ran over to Paul and nearly picked him up with a hug.
“Emilio’s, Emilio’s of course, it had to be Emilio’s. This is the place, we’re here. Finally.”
Jackson skipped back to the hostess and asked for a table. She led a giddy Jackson and a weary Paul to the back of the restaurant, placing menus in front of them. Jackson immediately scanned his, searching for the long-awaited perfect meal.
“Can we finally talk?” Paul asked.
“Ah, here it is, this is what we’ll have.”
“I don’t care what it is. Get it, but can we talk now?”
“Let’s order first.”
Before Paul could protest, the waiter swooped in, having heard the word order.
“What can I get for you gentleman?” the waiter asked.
Paul could hold the words in no longer.
“You don’t have…” he started before Jackson cut him off.
“After we order.”
Jackson pointed to the wine menu as the waiter leaned in.
“Would you excuse us please?” Paul said to the waiter.
Jackson rolled his eyes as the waiter bowed his head and walked away.
“Paul, give it a rest. We’re here to eat, whatever you have to say can wait.”
Jackson motioned to the waiter to come back to the table. As he walked up to the two men, Paul’s anger boiled out of his aching head.
“We’re broke,” Paul yelled, unable to contain himself.
The waiter’s face turned milk white. Jackson furrowed his brow.
“What do you mean?” Jackson asked.
“You know what I mean. You’ve been walking around with your head in the clouds for months now, but I know you know. There’s no way you couldn’t know.”
Jackson’s mirth gave way to rage. His face flushed red as he put his elbows on the table and drew nose to nose with Paul.
“What don’t I know?”
“The company isn’t doing so well,” Paul said nervously. Jackson’s serious face pushed him back in his chair.
“How not so well?”
“It’s over Jackson.”
“How the hell could you let this happen?” Jackson nearly leaped over the table. Paul was up to the challenge, finding his backbone before screaming a response.
“You’ve had your head in the clouds while the company collapsed. You were so ready to be the big man, you never had a damned idea what we had to do to make this thing work. It is over, the dream is done. We’ll be lucky if that cab ride even clears on the corporate card.”
“Over?” Jackson’s face returned to its well-tanned color. His anger subsided, he had no more barks or barbs to send Paul’s way.
The heated emotions of the moment dissipated. Paul’s pulsating enmity vanished, replaced with the realization that he was going down with Jackson.
“I’m sorry Jackson, but yes. We’re out.”
They both fell silent. Paul crumbled into his chair and rubbed at his eyes. Jackson straightened up in his chair and composed himself. The waiter took their silence as an invitation.
“Have you gentleman decided?”
Paul shook his head, letting out a snide chortle as he massaged the bridge of his nose. Jackson didn’t blink. He took a sip from his water, batted his lips together twice and gently placed the glass on the table. He rubbed his hands over the tablecloth, carefully smoothing out any wrinkles. Then he cocked his head to the side, looked the waiter in the eyes and smiled.
“I’ll have the Chicken Valdostana.”