The cab sped through the horizontal desert night. The driver had taken a different route out of Mountain Meadows. He drove to the end of Isaiah Way, down the row of neat lawns to where the yards were now rough dirt. Then came the houses that were but frames, and finally it was all concrete slabs and stubbed out pipes. The pavement gave way to rock and gravel and scrub. They rode in silence, save for the clatter of ill-set tappets and the rumble of the wheels on dirt.
Hubbard schemed. His mind really was getting clearer. "A small town booster," the cabbie had said. Was he screwing with him, trying to scare him? This couldn't be Mohammed. Not the Mohammed. But then again, he just had a sandwich with Joseph Smith, so there was that. Maybe he should charm him with some anecdote or put him at ease with a joke? Find his ruin? Probably not.
"So, Habibi, you know the way back to my hotel?" Hubbard asked casually.
"How many did you get?" said the driver sliding open the scratched, plexiglass partition.
"Beg pardon? How many whats did I get?"
"Followers, El Ron. How many followers did you get?" the driver clarified through his thick accent. "In Scientology. How many?"
"Uh, well, I don't know, a couple of million I suppose, give or take a few . . . hard to tell" he said with false modesty.
"Two billion, nine hundred eighty seven million, seven hundred forty four thousand, two hundred seven . . . and counting." the driver boasted thumping his chest.
"Well, that's . . . um . . . impressive."
"Who's the small town booster now? Plonk!" the driver was bouncing in his seat and laughing hysterically now, so much so that he veered into the ditch, correcting violently back onto the road bed.
Hubbard pulled himself off the floor. His heart was really pounding now. "Alright Habibi, take it easy there . . ."
The driver's laughter tapered off and he said "Heaven and hell! Hubbard, heaven and hell. You know the difference, my friend?"
"To be honest, I don't know much about anything right now . . . friend."
"Heaven is having a follower. Hell is having billions of them. Count yourself lucky in your failure."
They rode in silence while Hubbard digested that last statement. What the hell was this com cycle all about? Irritation began to simmer.
The driver continued, "You're so very lucky that none of your offspring wanted to take over the family business. Such quarrels. Such quarrels! I too thought that my wishes would be clear to follow when my time came. But as you no doubt know . . . such a mess. Such. A. Mess. Only Moon had it worse! I know how you must feel my friend, even though it's on a much, much tinier scale. If there's anything I can do, you know . . ." he trailed off, shrugging. The driver was clearly pleased with himself.
"Alright, so I suppose you're supposed to be Mohammed and you're cheesed off about my little description of you, the whole 'Kansas, Middle-east, booster' business. Well look here. I'm not interested in buying what you're selling, mister."
"Yes, my friend if you need anything from me to make your trip more comfortable, you just let me know. Music? Some Chiclets? I love them! Food that never goes away! Well, except for the taste . . . so sad when that goes away, so sad . . . " the cabbie trailed off again.
"Just drive, already. That's all the help I need." huffed Hubbard.
" As the old saying goes . . . your wish . . . my command!" More cackling from the front seat.
Hubbard wished he could sleep, but he was too irritated. After about an hour, the ride smoothed out with a sudden thump. Pavement again. Not a freeway, but at least a highway. "This brown clown had better know where he's going" he thought to himself. He was particularly proud of his rhyme. "Brown clown." He'd have to write about that later. If only he had a pencil and some paper.
"Here you go, boss!" The driver said in a perfect imitation of Jack Benny's Rochester whilst handing a small pad and a pencil through the separation.
Hubbard fell back into the mohair seat and stewed for the next hundred miles.
He was finally beginning to doze off when he felt them decelerate and heard the bite of the tires on gravel, then pavement again and the familiar double-ring of an air bell. A young arab boy in black trousers, a crisp white, short sleeve shirt, red bow tie and a paper garrison cap with a red flying horse logo on it appeared in the doorway to the old gas station. He saluted the driver and they exchanged pleasantries in blazing fast Arabic, punctuated with loud guffaws. The attendant had clearly told the cab driver a joke that had left him holding his sides with laughter. The boy went about filling the car with fluids and checking the tires. Just as the driver's laughter would subside he'd look back at Hubbard, barely get out an Arabic word and the mirth cycle would start all over again. Finally, the boy came back around to the window and asked the driver a question. The cabbie stopped laughing and turned to Hubbard, asking "bathroom, my friend?"
It was weird. Did he still go to the bathroom? He hadn't since the Mormon boys showed up, when was that? Yesterday? "Uh, no. No thanks. I'm alright."
"Ah, this place! You'll get used to it." the cabbie said and turned back to the attendant at his window. He touched the boy's cheek. The boy clasped his hand and pulled it to his face. He was in tears. Hubbard felt uncomfortable with this strange display of emotion. "For the love of Mike, couldn't we just get on with it?" he thought to himself.
"Yes, yes, of course. The road calls, does it not? So much to see. So much to see!" There was another rapid-fire exchange with the attendant, more laughter, and the lumbering taxi peeled into the night in a hail of gravel and blue exhaust. Hubbard watched the gas station as it shrunk with the passing seconds. Soon the animated, neon, flying horse was all he could see, and then it too, was gone.
They were in the deep desert now. Rock outcroppings and the occasional Joshua tree. There was bright moonlight, but he didn't see a moon. He craned his head to find it. Nothing, just a blaze of stars. He rolled the window down and the desert air was dry and cool. It felt good on his face. He sat back in the soft mohair seat to try to recapture his drowsiness.
The next thing he knew they had turned off the highway and were driving down another, smaller two-lane road. They came upon a wide clearing, a dirt parking lot near a chain link fence, and the cab came to a halt. Hubbard could make out another darkened car in the moonlight about 20 yards away from them.
"We'll rest here, my friend. I need to stretch my legs." said the driver, and as he pushed open the car door the dome light blazed, hurting Hubbards eyes. Ron shielded them and stepped out in the silent night. The driver, ever animated, walked off stretching theatrically, singing some tune Hubbard didn't recognize. He wanted to get away from that dreadful, little man and walked in the opposite direction toward what he could now see was a white, Pontiac Sunbird. It seemed to be running but it looked empty. Beyond the car, he could make out the blue lights of a runway in the distance. They must be near an airport, but that silence. No planes in the air.
Something felt wrong. He couldn't put his finger on it, but something was . . . wrong and familiar. For the second time since coming-to at his ratty card table, he felt an icy dread. He kept walking toward the car. Then he saw it. The hose from the exhaust pipe. He froze in place. He felt as though his heart would burst out of his chest when suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Dad, don't freak out now, it's just me."