Variation on a Legend
“Our most illustrious gardens, cathedrals, waterfalls, stone angels and so forth,” said the cabbie, leading us through the dark streets of the Tenderloin. I saw a man relieving himself under the caged light of a tenement building, and I gripped the sides of Stewart’s little copper urn, seeing as I couldn’t grip his hand. “Champagne, madam?” said the cabbie, raising a bottle. “No, thank you,” I said, “—I’m in mourning.” He steered with his knee, poured champagne into a flute, then handed it back to me. I saw a woman lean out of a high window, flapping a white sheet, and I drank instinctively. “Ahh, the scent of roast duck after a rainstorm,” said the cabbie, stepping out at the next red light. I stroked Stewart’s urn in my lap—as if I was stroking back his hair, soothing him, as I used to, after a nightmare. I felt the faintest mist settling around my ankles, the red light leaning into my eyes. “How much farther to the Jacksonville Hotel?” I asked the cabbie. “Just over the drawbridge, madam,” he said, crawling back in behind the wheel. The light turned green. The cab moved on. I saw a prostitute smoking under a neon-lit marquee, her brown skin flickering. When we pulled to the curb, it took me a moment to even see the place, so dark it was, so utterly black against the night sky. “I’m supposed to scatter my husband’s ashes in there, in a fountain,” I said. “I assumed as much, madam,” he said, opening the door for me. “Thank you for the champagne,” I said. “Please—it is our job to help you through this difficult time,” he said. Out of the darkness behind me, I heard a distant scream, then an awful retching—like a bucket sloshing up a well—and I clutched Stew’s urn to my chest. “I’m afraid of the dark,” I said. “Well, I might suggest you lift your veil, then, madam,” he said, reaching toward me. He lifted the veil, the darkness, from my face. I saw the sun breaking over the Jacksonville Hotel, a celestial outpouring over the picture windows, over the white façade, and I stepped out of the cab. My mule stood waiting. Golden mule in the white sunlight. The cabbie hoisted me up. “To the fountain on a path of violet petals,” he said, patting the animal’s rump. “You’ve been very kind,” I said. “Madam, your husband would be proud.” He bowed. The mule shifted beneath me. I spent a moment balancing Stewart’s urn up against the horn of the saddle, figuring we might as well enjoy this view together. Then I said, “Goodbye,” and disappeared at a brisk trot.