Azamat was the fastest driver. He knew it. The other drivers knew it. They all respected him for it, too. If a customer needed to get to the Kyrgyzstan border fast, he was their driver. The others liked to haggle for his customers. Sometimes he’d give them away. He was generous like that. Everyone needed money. Times were changing.
Money was scarce these days. Fewer people needed rides to the border. Anara was sick and winter was coming soon so he would need to pay for snow tires. The car was also going to need repairs. The engine’s muzzled growl had grown worse lately. If the car died his hopes for a better life would die with it.
Azamat leaned against the hood of his car and lit a cigarette. The other drivers joined him, some standing, others squatting on the curb. They’d lined their cars up along the road behind him. These drivers all looked the same. Tight-fitting jeans, black leather shoes, stocky figures. They all had tough faces, tough faces that could force a smile. Some had golden teeth. All of them looked overworked. A cloud of puffed smoke rose from them into the misty sky as they gathered to speak of the coming day. All the while, they stood ready to catch any incoming customers.
Today was Friday. Azamat expected he would be able to get two rides in today. If he could find a customer to take to Bishkek, Nurislam would need a ride back to Almaty around lunchtime. Yesterday, he had taken Nurislam to Bishkek. Nurislam preferred Azamat to drive him. Azamat could make a three hour and forty-minute drive as brief as two hours and fifty-three minutes.
When the first customer came, the drivers crowded around him like pigeons desperate for spare seeds. “10,000 tenge!” “Only 8,000! Here!” The customer could hardly breathe. “Come with me! Only 6,000 tenge with me!” This was Rinat. Rinat got the first customer because he charged the lowest price. Rinat always charged the lowest price.
More people soon came looking for rides. Other drivers picked up customers. Azamat wasn’t worried. The day was still young. Besides, these people charged low. He couldn’t afford such low prices.
But the morning began to fade quicker than he expected. He burned through three cigarettes. There were terribly few customers. The smoggy sky cast a pall over the land. The mountains beyond Almaty were sheathed in gray. Every customer demanded low prices. A taxi driver’s gotta live too. He was tired. Tired of the mundane days, the gray weather, the constant scratch for money. Tired because life was difficult. This is why he drove fast. He drove fast because driving was easy, even though life was difficult.
The drivers began to shuffle and snicker where they stood. Azamat did too. A plump middle-aged Kazakh woman across the street clutched a duffle bag like a babe before her. He could see the whites in her eyes from where he stood. Mad woman. She suddenly turned and began to approach them. The drivers did not crowd her. They stared. Her red duffle bag was decorated with blue flowery patterns. Her dress was purple and old, worn through, near to rags. She wore her graying hair up in a thin scarf.
“Bishkek!” she said. She spoke like a stray dog. “I need to go to Bishkek!”
The drivers looked at each other. One of them answered her, “We charge per seat.”
“I’ll pay! I’ll pay!” She said waving her arm. “Who is the fastest driver?”
“Azamat,” someone said. The others nodded their heads.
Azamat cursed them to himself but stepped forward. “You must pay more…” he began but she cut him off.
“30,000 tenge,” she said, and she scuttled over to him and placed in his hand a 10,000 tenge bill, a generous down-payment.
The other drivers jumped. “25,000 tenge! Come with me! I’ll only charge 25,000 tenge!” one said. “20,000 tenge!” “15,000! 15,000 here!” She shooed them away like flies.
Azamat agreed and led her around the car. It was an old Audi 80, a gray tank when he had bought it. Now it was red. When he was young and stupid, he had thrown away 400,000 tenge on a paint job. What a waste. The paint was peeling, worn away from the long rides, hot sun, and dirty road. He would do anything to get that money back now. He grimaced at this thought as he opened the trunk for her.
“Am I supposed to sit in the trunk?” she scowled, unamused.
“For your bag!” He tried to laugh.
“I will hold it.” She went to the back-passenger door, cranked it open and fell onto the seat. The tight metal hinges wailed as she slammed the door shut. Azamat spat. He turned around and looked at the other drivers. They teased him with their smiles. He held the 10,000 tenge bill up to his lips and kissed it to mock them, then seated himself. He groaned as he sat.
The inside of the car was more disappointing than the outside. The walls were stained with the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke. The air conditioner was broken and the right window on the passenger’s side refused to roll down. When the leather seats had become too worn and greasy, he had spent 15,000 tenge on a velour cover. The splotched fabric camouflaged the leather like brown snow leopard spots. Now this too was worn through and greasy. He could even see padding poke through torn holes in the seats. To make things worse, when he sat, he could feel springs stab up into him.
“What’s the hurry?” he asked as he pulled out his keys and meticulously fit them into place.
“I am not paying you to ask me questions,” she said.
Azamat looked back at her. She was still squeezing the bag in her arms, but her eyes now stared up at him with a red, taunting glare. These sunken eyes beamed from her heavy face, a face fat like a dumpling. Azamat turned back and laughed to himself to dismiss her.
He turned the key. The engine stuttered. Again. It coughed for a moment and went out. He held his breath and twisted it, harder this time. The car hummed and let out a clean roar. He sighed in relief and pulled out from the curb, forcing his way onto the busy road.
Kazakhs learned to drive from the Soviets. They’re the ones who came first in those massive metal steeds—trucks, tanks, cars, trains. They’re the ones who built the roads, lines crooked, broken, all in disrepair, but lines nonetheless. They’re the ones who brought the Chechens, Koreans, Karachais, Ingush, Turks. Lined them all up and put them on trains, trains ending here, the middle of nowhere, and started new lines for them. Everyone was taught to wrestle for a spot in line, all for time, time, time. Time they never cared for unless they were waiting in lines. Lines drawn out disordered in the most orderly way. Lines sprawling here and there and through the streets and on the curbs and shouting and honking and cursing. It all was the Soviet way. Kazakhs still followed the old Soviet ways, those old Soviet lines.
But Azamat swerved past twelve cars, riding on the curb. He made his own lines. The light was red, but it didn’t matter. The road was clear. So he dug his foot into the gas pedal, spurring his car on. The others were left to bathe in his dust. He chuckled to himself and glanced back at the woman. She was gazing out her window, still hugging her bag.
“Apai,” he said. “What is in that bag that you hold so tightly?”
“My business is no concern of yours,” she said, refusing to look up. She didn’t blink as she pressed her head up against the tinted window. Her clenched jaw was so tight he thought it might pop.
Azamat smiled to hide his discomfort and returned his attention to the road.
But now the woman looked up to him. “Can you get to the border by 1:00?” she asked.
“Of course!” Azamat said. “I will get to the border by 12:45!” He couldn’t. But she didn’t know that.
She nodded, pleased and pulled out her phone, silently mulling over the glowing brick.
Before long, Azamat broke free from the long, overcrowded city streets. 100 km/h, 110, 120, 130, 140… Azamat sped through the suburbs. Suburbs. Those older, slower towns. Azamat lived in the suburbs. Life was cheaper there. On the roadsides, folks were burning leaves. Smoke filled the chilling air. He swerved past an old white marshrutka, then a rattling truck, then a struggling Lada. If you aren’t fast enough you will be passed, he thought. The old cars can’t keep up, the old ways dying. That’s why he had to be fast, to keep up with the times. Be fast or be passed. Time is ruthless like that.
The old woman pressed her phone to her oily cheek. “Allo?… Allo!… Allo?… Serik! Allo Serik! Yes, this is Gauhar!… Gauhar!… Yes, can you hear me?” Her voice rose over the rumbling engine. “Yes, Serik I’m coming… Yes, I’m coming. I’ll be there at 12:30… Yes, 12:30! I guarantee… Yes, I have it… I have it!… Allo? Allo Serik?…” She growled as she pulled the phone down and muttered incomprehensibly to herself.
“The cell phone signal on this road is very bad,” Azamat said. “It cuts out all the time.”
But the woman did not answer. She was already on the phone again.
“… Medina? Allo!… Yes! How is she?… Tell her that I’m coming!… Yes! 12:30, I’ll be there… tell the doctors too…” She leaned forward and dropped her phone for a moment. “Faster!” she said, “Faster!” She was right. Azamat had slowed to listen to the old woman speak. He leaned on the gas pedal again.
“Medina?… Make sure she’s eating enough… And tell the doctor… Yes! Yes, I have it!… Allo?” Her connection cut out again. She was fuming like a tea pot. She tried again.
Azamat drowned her out now. The land cleared before him. The steppe came into full view. This was his favorite part of the drive. To the south, hills climbed up and rose into sharp peaks, hardly more than a shadow on this musty day. Still, the shadow was tall and glorious. Light peered from behind their silhouettes. The weather hardly ever hid the beauty of the Tien Shan Mountains. It could only change its form. Azamat rolled down his window for a moment and let the cold wind breathe through the car.
The road stretched out long and winding through the smooth foothills. Here, Azamat thought of his ancestors, those ancient nomad warriors raging through the steppe. He imagined them riding their horses, strong and dazzling, out into the wilderness and fighting against the untamed land. Fighting for a place to sleep, for chai and bread. Fighting against all merciless life. He too was a nomad, only his steed was of metal and oil and his road was pavement, prepared by those who were faster than his ancestors.
He remained thus, daydreaming for a while, an hour maybe. His mind wandered like the shifting clouds. He sped to pass them. He would listen to the woman ramble on the phone until her voice would grow dry in his mind and then he shifted his attention to the radio. “Ay ay ay ya ya ya yay! Ruskaya Radio vsyo boodyet xarasho!” The only station he ever played. The old Soviet songs still got stuck in his head.
He was stirred by flashing blue lights. A cop pulled out behind him, siren calling. Azamat groaned and pulled over. He hadn’t seen him.
“Don’t worry,” Azamat said as he glanced back at the woman. “I know all these guys. They will let me off easy. This will be quick.”
Soon the policeman was at his door. Azamat rolled the window down and the two shook hands. It was Arman, generous Arman. He understood the time and the lines. He liked Azamat.
Azamat gave his license and registration to Arman and he disappeared back to his car. Outside, a dark cloud was setting over them. Pale grass like wisps leaned with the wind on the countryside. Azamat watched a shepherd in the distance lead a herd of sheep up a steady hill. The shepherd stopped his horse and bent over his phone, shielding the glare with his hand and squinting his eyes.
“We don’t have time for this,” the woman said, leaning forward again.
Azamat sighed and got out to make his way back to Arman’s car.
Arman was studying the small font of the registration forms. He was a young cop, younger than all the rest. He was the son of a Russian mother, but his Kazakh was fluent. When he saw Azamat, he offered him a cigarette. Azamat refused. The cop lit one for himself.
“Why do you drive so fast, Azamat?” Arman asked him after his bud had caught flame.
“The woman in the car with me,” Azamat said, and he motioned back at her, “she’s in a hurry.”
“No, but you always drive fast. Why?”
Azamat peered again out into the countryside, looking for the shepherd. He, along with his entire herd, had disappeared down into a valley. All Azamat found was the naked hillside.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Times are difficult. Changing. I’m trying to keep up.”
Arman shook his head and chuckled. “Yes,” he said. “Times are difficult. You should be more careful. I can’t let you off this time.”
Azamat laughed. “Arman…”
But Arman was serious. He looked out at the hazy mountains and pulled the cigarette from his lips. “Azamat,” he said, “do you think Allah will punish us for the evil we do if it is for a good purpose?”
Azamat grimaced. “What are you asking?”
“I need money, Azamat.”
“She’s paying me to drive fast. I’m only doing my job.”
“And so am I,” Arman said.
“You could have pulled me over any time…”
“But times are difficult,” Arman said. “I need to keep up.”
Azamat smiled, a mask to cover indignance. He spat and looked Arman in the eye. “How much?”
Arman glanced back at his car. A dashcam hung from the front window like an evil eye. He motioned Azamat to follow him into the car. Once they were seated, Arman unplugged it.
“10,000 tenge,” he said.
“10,000! Arman, that’s how much she’s paying me!”
“Azamat, it’s your choice. Pay 10,000 tenge now or 30,000 tenge in court. They will impound your car too.”
“This is not right.”
Arman only shrugged.
Azamat could not fake a smile anymore. He shook his head as he pulled his wallet out, fishing for a 10,000 tenge note. He handed it to his friend.
“Do you expect me to slow down?”
“Your choice, Azamat. Times are difficult. At least be more careful.”
Azamat slammed the door shut behind him as he left and returned to his car. He cursed to himself, eyeing the woman seated inside. When he sat himself down again, the woman was silent, tucked in the back corner of the car, staring up at him. But as he reached to pull his car into shift, he found a 20,000 tenge bill stuffed in the ash tray between the front seats.
“Keep going,” she said, once noticing he had spotted it. “I’ll pay if you get pulled over again. 12:30!”
He smiled back at her with a nod and then pulled out onto the road again, driving slow until he passed Arman. Soon enough, he was racing on, burning gravel into the empty road behind him. The radio was up again, and the woman was on her phone, shaking and yelling at it as though this would help her connection.
Very soon, however, the woman addressed him. “I need the restroom,” she said.
“There is an outhouse in about a kilometer.”
“Yes,” she said. “Quickly.”
Azamat drove on. The road was eerily empty. Nothing but endless hills on and on and on, hills dry and dead as the day. This outhouse would be the only stop for an hour. Another two and they would reach the border. Nurislam would probably be there soon, waiting for a ride. If Azamat didn’t hurry, Nurislam would find someone else to take him.
Soon enough, the outhouse came into view. It too was a dying scene. A collapsing hut built with planks and brick, rising out of the asphalt and dirt. It was so old you could smell it. The road before them stretched out in a long, straight, unending line. The mountains shrunk and disappeared into faint foothills. There were no bugs or birds to fill the air with singing. Not even stray dogs marauded the gutters. The only sound ever heard in this place was the whine of passing cars and the whisper of wild grass.
Azamat slid to a stop, leaving a cloud behind him. He turned off his car and pulled out a cigarette. The woman was on the phone again. Quickly, she swung open the door. “Serik! I’m almost there…” She fell silent, listening, still. Azamat lit his cigarette and turned to watch her. The woman’s face was pale. Her hand began to tremble as she clutched her phone, now not holding it to her cheek but extending it before her like a grenade. She then shook as if beginning to boil. Her eyes flamed and her grip tightened. Her voice became fierce and desperate. “Serik! You fool! That’s a lie! Idiot! Is Medina there? Shame! Don’t lie to me!”
She struggled to get up. With her phone in one hand and the duffle bag pressed between her arms, she could not see the ground below. As she stepped out, her feet stumbled and she fell, her bag spilling out with her body in the dirt. Azamat saw it then: bills. Bills and bills of tenge poured from the mouth of the duffle bag. Banknotes of 10,000 and 20,000 galore. He had never seen so much money. She cursed and struggled where she lay, trying to stuff the money back into the bag. Her body was covered in dust, powdered in a thin layer like ash. Azamat turned as though he hadn’t seen it, cursing the sight with an excited air. When she recovered, she slammed the door shut and picked up her phone again.
What happened next, Azamat did not see. All he heard was a shriek and then a crack. He jumped. On turning he saw that his passenger window was splintered, broken in place. He flung the door open to shout after the woman, but she was already gone, scurrying down toward the outhouse.
Azamat rounded the vehicle to see the damage. His window was reduced to a spiderweb of glass. The phone lay in the dirt below, shattered and dead. He reached for it, fuming and cursing the woman aloud. What idiot would do such a thing? His heart beat fiercely as he returned to his seat. She would pay, he thought. Pay, pay, pay. That was money in her bag. Where had it come from? What was it for? His mind circled and sank. He cursed again and again as he sat. What evil. What foolishness! How cold and heartless man could be. She was. Arman was. The world was. Faster, faster. But don’t get caught! Be slow for some and fast for others. Mind the law. Faster, faster. Follow the lines. Straight lines. He realized now he hadn’t grabbed the phone. He had grabbed a rock. Faster, faster. Does Allah know? Can Allah see? Will Allah keep up? Faster, faster. Azamat was struggling to breathe. He dropped the stone into the seat beside him. The woman was coming back. What could he do, say? He had to decide. Faster, faster.
By the time Azamat finished smoking his cigarette, the woman had returned. She sat now with the duffle bag held loosely in her arms. Her eyes caught Azamat’s staring at her.
“You broke my window,” Azamat said motioning towards it.
He could see she looked defeated. The skin around her eyes had deflated. Her face was flat and drained. She glanced up at him with air of contempt and said, “I’ll pay, I’ll pay,” and she waved her arm.
Azamat faced forward, fuming still. There were no cars in sight.
“Sir,” she said and she leaned forward. “I need to borrow your phone.”
Azamat did not answer. Mad woman.
“Please, sir. It is very urgent.”
Azamat fetched his phone from his pocket and looked at it. Three missed calls from Anara. He handed it back to the woman and faced forward again. The road was still empty. The stone still sat in the seat beside him. He twisted the keys. The engine stalled.
“Allo?… Allo?… Serik, can you hear me?”
He tried again.
“… Serik?… Allo?…”
The car was dead.