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By Bob Pfeifer

Sitting in the emergency room in Italy was strange. We couldn't really understand much of what they were saying. I guess Juan could understand more than me, given that he's Latino. Some of the words make sense. But still I don't think he gets much. It goes by so fast.

The driver of the other taxi, a thin guy in his 20s, sat across from us, staring at the floor. Juan and I weren't hurt, just a few bruises. Both cars were mangled. We wanted to leave, but were told we had to stay for X-rays. Our driver was in examination. Juan was done. I was next. Juan nursed some coffee. I wanted to sleep. The hospital took my want to sleep as a sign that I might be hurt.

I thought, we should be tired. It was two in the morning. It's been three hours since the accident. The nurse warned me not to sleep. The doctor told Juan the same thing.

We were wet and cold. That's why we had blankets over us. That was nice of them to give us covers. I figured it meant we weren't going to be arrested.

We landed from L.A. via Madrid yesterday. Took a bus into Rome proper to get something to eat. That was all great. Found a cheap local place that served great pasta and mediocre wine. We didn't drink, so that part wasn't a problem. Walked around a little to see the sights. As it got later, we thought it best to just catch a cab to the train station. We wanted to catch the evening train to Perugia.

We had a little trouble with the cab driver. He didn't work his English much and we didn't know Italian. I said to Juan I thought he was high or something. And Juan said he thought so too. I wondered if it wasn't me or us jet-lagged -- maybe our judgment was off. He said no, that wasn't it, this guy was fucked up.

That's when it hit me, and I said it to Juan, "This guy is going to get us killed." We have no control over that, Branko, it's in the hands of God. Juan said it just like that. I looked at him like, what is he talking about, and told him something about our having a choice and we can get out of the taxi right now. Nothing's stopping us.

The guy looked to be nodding at the wheel. We tried to switch cabs, but the other cabbies in the line refused to take us. He was next in line. That's how it worked. We got back in. So much for our having a choice. We pulled a map out and pointed to the train station.

"OK, OK," he said. "Alright, he's got it," I thought. In the maze of streets, we had no idea where he was going, but 15 minutes into the ride, he pulls over and gets out. We look at him like, what are you doing now?

"One minute, OK?" He just says something like no worry, no pay. He gets out next to a park. He's yelling something at some street hooker. Another one comes by and pokes her head in the taxi window. She's so close I can smell her perfume. And we make signs like, no, we aren't interested.

The cabbie pushes her away from the door. She half-heartedly swings her purse at him. He makes a fist like he's going to slug her, but he's really not going to and everyone knows he's not. He's talking to the first girl, who finally opens up a little black pocketbook and hands him something, not money. He shoves it in his jacket pocket and gets back in the cab.

"OK, we go now," he tells us, looking in the rearview mirror. He's not all there.

We drive a few more blocks and he stops at a bar. Double parks. Cars honk. He flips them off and walks in, waving back to us "One minuto, eh? No problema." Finger in the air. I don't bother calling him on the meter.

It starts to rain.

What's this guy doing? No doubt something having to do with whatever he got off the hooker. One minute turns into 15 and we get out of the cab and walk.

We turn the first corner, so he doesn't happen to come out and chase us down.

Screw him.

It's pouring now, and all the cabs are full or not stopping. It's raining too hard to tell. Our bags are getting heavy, but we make it to a hotel. There's a line of cabs out front and we get in one -- luggage, us, everything wet in the backseat. This driver speaks English.

"Train station," I tell him. "OK, good. American? What kind of the music you like?" "Rock." "OK." He flips stations. And some Italian rock music comes on that sounds like '60s movie music. The guitar sounds like bad Dick Dale. The drums go bah-bah bah-bah. One and two, one and two, all the way I'm waiting for Goldie Hawn to pop in wearing an itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie Polka Dot bikini like we're on "Laugh-In" with Sergio Leone and a rock polka band.

We're moving. Finally. Start and stop. Honks.

Intersections jammed. Noise. Raindrops loud on our car.

We're wet. My bags are on my lap. I can barely see out the front. Juan's wiping the water off his shaved head with a T-shirt from his knapsack.

"It be to train 45 minutes. OK for you?"

"Yes, OK." We have about an hour and a half to make it, so we're OK. Juan sits upright, eyes closed. I put my knapsack against my window and close my eyes. Jet lag hitting. I wake up. We're stopped in an intersection. A second later our taxi gets hit from behind. Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe we get hit and then I wake up. But I think I wake up first.

The luggage on my lap blocks my going forward. Look over: Juan's OK. The driver's out the door yelling. We get out. The car behind us is smashed up, steam coming out of the hood. The passenger, a woman, went through the windshield. Blood. Rain coming down. Juan and I become observers. We almost fade away. Maybe I'm in shock. The cop directing traffic is there in a second. He's pissed off and on his mobile. We hear sirens in another two or three. They pull her out. Ambulance. She looks familiar.

I tell Juan she's the girl on the street. He asks me what girl I'm talking about, and I say the hooker who gave the stuff to the cab driver by the park. He says he remembers, but I'm wrong. It's the one who came up to our window and took a swing at him with her purse. He's right and says, "She's messed up, man."

The other driver, the first one who crashed into the back of our cab, comes up to us and starts yelling. He spits at us. Juan puts his fists up, like let's go. He used to box for the Mexican national team -- lightweight. Our driver runs over and gets in the guy's face. The cops break it up. They put the girl on a stretcher and rush her into an ambulance. I have no idea if there's any hope for her. It looks bad. Blood makes things look bad, but blood doesn't always mean it is bad. It just means it's not good.

"Oh, shit." I just put it all together.

"Yes, this is shit, Branko."

"No. I mean the guy who hit us is the first cab driver. The one we left."

"Motherfucker. He want to fight. Branko, I kick his ass."

I knew it, I think.

The police cuff the first cabbie, uncovering the track marks on his arm to show us what's up. Druggie. They tell us the girl is dead and take him away. Our cab driver gives the finger and shrugs his shoulders. Our driver, being helpful, asks if he can call us a ride, probably angling for a tip, but still it's nice of him.

I look over the train schedule. No way we'll make the next one now, and there isn't another for four hours. Ask the cops how far the train station is. They're helpful. We just don't understand their answer. The rain stopped. We decide to walk. Everything is wet. Puddles to avoid in the dark. We know we're going to feel lousy on the train to Perugia.

When you don't sleep you dread the sun coming up. No shops, restaurants. Nothing's open.

Just keep walking.

Bob Pfeifer was a founding member of the pioneering indie band Human Switchboard and later was president of Disney's Hollywood Records. Pfeifer's debut novel, 'University of Strangers,' excerpted above, is available from Power City Press. The book includes a drop card to download songs by Pfeifer's current band, the Tabby Chinos.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 20, 2011