The following story was published in Short Story Substack
A stocky man with a bristly, barbed wire haircut entered my cab with a pint of Jim Beam, and immediately told me to cruise down Division Street to look for prostitutes. He spoke with the same clenched throat my friend Mack did after joining the Marines.
I’d only been driving for a couple of weeks and wondered if more experienced drivers would allow this or would they kick him out. I wasn’t sure what choice I had. The longer we drove the more money I made, which I was desperate for. A heat wave had been crawling across the country, and when it found us, it settled in. Everyone was staying inside or on their porches waiting for the sanity of a breeze. I was barely making enough to cover the cost of the cab.
My air-conditioner squealed like a hamster wheel, occasionally letting out a whisp of cool air. I kept all four windows down but left the A/C on, hoping it would come back to life.
We’d only driven a couple of blocks when he sat up and let his bottle of whiskey dangle over the seat, penetrating the imaginary barrier between us that every customer before him had respected. “Let’s get us a couple of ladies,” he said. “I’ll pay.”
He was forceful about it, as if saying no wasn’t an option.
“No thanks,” I said, pretending to be the voice of authority. “Trying to behave myself these days.”
“You got nothing to worry about. You’ll see. We’re going to have a good time. I insist.”
After a four-year long drunk, which started in my first year of college and caused me to drop out, I’d been sober for nearly four months and was starting to become comfortable facing my passengers that way, not that I’d lost the desire. I still wanted to live in a place where the fairies came out at night so I could laugh at their antics and play till morning. Luckily, I’d managed to share a little camaraderie with a couple of my passengers, which was helping me transition back into the world. But this man had forced himself out of the backseat and into my world, and I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t want anything to do with him. He wasn’t the type I could ever have a good time with, not even during the past four years.
“Can’t do it,” I said.
He tipped his bottle of whiskey back and drank it like water. I knew the feeling. He wanted the fairies to appear as quickly as possible, to be out of this world and into the next, only I imagined he was the type that would expect them to dance over his own roaring fire.
We drove down Division Street with its dive bars and gas stations and boarded-up office buildings, all of them in various states of disrepair. A couple of brick and concrete warehouses extended the length of a few blocks, though they never emitted any evidence of life. They looked warn out in the daylight, and like prison walls at night, keeping something out. The exception was a taco restaurant, lit up so brightly it appeared unnatural, as if a nuclear reaction was being used to ward off the enveloping night.
Behind Division Street were rows of two- and three-story duplexes where the women dwelled. From a distance, the houses were as still as old factories that had once churned out nocturnal inhabitants, most of whom didn’t make it, and so the night was about as dead as the day. When the sun came out, the majority of activity centered around the 7-Eleven store. A couple of auto repair shops were sometimes busy, too, and an occasional customer could be spotted at a used car lot. At night, a few people gathered outside the bars, and once in a while a woman appeared at a corner. The man in my backseat was a predator, coming out at night to feed on anything that moved.
We made a few passes without any luck.
“You’re a bit early,” I told him.
“Just keep driving,” he said, “I’ve got all night.” He’d already handed me a twenty to cover the meter.
He offered his bottle across the seat. “Take a hit,” he said. “I insist.”
“Can’t do it, man, not while driving.”
“So you never take any risks? I guess that’s why you drive a cab.”
“I guess so,” I said. I thought about explaining the risks of cab driving but didn’t want to give him any ideas. I tried to be amiable instead. “I always get caught whenever I do something illegal. I swear, you don’t want me with you unless you want to spend the night in the slammer.”
He sat back. He had heavy eyelids, with the gaze of a cadaver come back to life. He met my eyes every time I looked in the mirror. If he still had a body I could no longer see it.
Despite wanting him out of my cab, a part of me was excited by the prospect of a prostitute, someone who eliminated the rituals and games between us and went straight to our physical needs. I’d never had the courage to talk to one and was curious to see what they were like and what they would say. I wanted to experience the wildness of having such a creature in the back of my cab, and if she could tame him or at least keep him human, what was the harm? Maybe the world would be better off.
He sat up again and held his bottle in front of me. “Here, have a sip, you need this more than I do.”
“I can’t. Like I said, I get caught at everything. I can’t afford to lose this job for drinking. But you go ahead. I guess taking risks has been beaten out of me.”
“By who, your old man? He the one who beat you?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, sure, he got in his licks, but I was speaking metaphorically.”
He sat back again. “I see…metaphorically. You don’t live around here, do you?”
“I do now.”
“You’re too clean, metaphorically I mean. You go to college?”
“Sometimes, when I can come up with the funds.”
“How’d you end up here? You wanted to see how the other half lived?”
“Something like that.”
He waited for me to elaborate.
When we stopped at the next light, the sound of his breathing was like listening to the heat breathe, and it crossed my mind that he was the source of the heat. Ridiculous, but I thought it anyway. When the light changed, I drove slowly. The tires hummed wearily against the softened asphalt. As long as he was in my cab, it was better for him to talk.
“Life seems more real here,” I said. “It’s raw, people are people without the games.”
“People are people,” he repeated. He sat up close again. “Let me tell you something, it’s all games wherever you go. You want raw? Give up your cab and income and live on the streets. Or move to a third-world country, see if you can survive in the middle of a war. You’re a long way from raw.” He sat back again.
“I suppose,” I said.
“No, no, no,” he said, coming close again. “On second thought, you’d never make it in those places on your own. You know what a guy like you should do?”
“Join the Peace Corp. You’d get raw, my friend, but you’d have the security you need.”
“Sounds like too much work to me. I’m comfortable in my cab.”
He collapsed back. “Too much work,” he repeated, talking to himself more than me. Then loudly, “No women, no whiskey, no Peace Corp. Just a comfortable cab man.”
“Works for me.”
“Wow, you’re weird for a cabdriver. We need to get you laid.” He tipped his bottle back and drank the last of it before throwing it out the window with enough force to make sure it smashed.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “I’ll have to throw you out.”
“No you won’t.”
“You don’t want me calling the police, do you?”
“What are you, the good guy? I was a good guy once.”
“But you’re not now?”
“Not in the way I’m supposed to be.”
He slid from the middle to directly behind me. I could feel his eyes drilling into the back of my neck. Most fares knew to sit in the middle or on the right side and would slide to it even if they entered from the street side instead of the curb. That way our eyes could meet, or I could glance over my shoulder. I thought about telling him to slide to the right but didn’t want the confrontation or to reveal my anxiety.
We passed the 7-Eleven for the second time. Two black women were standing in the parking lot, so he slid to the right and told me to go slow. He slapped the outside of the door. The women were talking, getting ready to get into their cars, but one of them glanced at him before looking away. The hot air stuck to my face and pressed against me. I swear it was trying to fry me from the inside out. I liked to drive, but I didn’t like customers, at least not most of them. Having a passenger was similar to riding in an elevator with a stranger. The longer the ride, the more the discomfort. Most rides were short, a few miles across town, or twenty minutes on an airport run. Businessmen ignored me, busy with their documents or thoughts. Tourists watched closely, convinced I was taking them for a ride. I couldn’t tell them I was in a hurry to get them out of my cab.
The man slid behind me again and when he slapped the outside of his door, I flinched hard. “There,” he said. He reached over my seat and pointed. “Pull over, see her?”
I slowed down, spotting the young petite black girl on the other side of the street. I did a U-turn and pulled up next to her. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. She’d covered up what he wanted with blue jeans and tennis shoes and a brown, ruffled tank top.
She gave me a look of concern and then of reassurance before talking to him, and I realized my presence made her feel safe. I was aiding him in his trap.
“Why don’t you get in,” he said, suddenly jolly. “We’ll have us a party.”
“Where do you want to go,” she asked, like a child to a parent.
“Alright,” she said. She got in the car and he nuzzled up to her.
“Hold on,” she said, and it became obvious this was her first time. She remembered what she was supposed to say. “You got money, right?”
“How about fifty dollars?”
“Really? Fifty?” She was all smiles. She couldn’t believe her luck. She had no idea he likely would have paid her twice as much.
“Find an alley,” he said to me.
“That’s not going to happen,” I said. I again wondered what experienced drivers would do. Would they park the car and step outside while the meter ran?
“We don’t need long. Just find an alley or a dead end.”
“Not going to happen.” I couldn’t stomach the thought of him having a go at her in the back of my cab while I waited for him to finish.
“For fuck’s sake.” He smoldered for a bit. “Tell you what, you can have her, too.”
“What,” the girl said.
“He’ll pay. You can do both of us, right? Twice the money.”
“I guess so.”
She looked at me. I used the rearview mirror as a wall between us. Her eyes were nearly gold, a color I’d never seen before. They absorbed what little light there was and reflected back her fear. They hadn’t yet been dulled or deadened. It wasn’t her I wanted—she was still a child—but the light she still had.
“See, he wants you.”
“No,” I said.
“I see right through you,” he said. He’d probably seen some military action, exposed to more than I could imagine, so he wasn’t fooled by external facades. He knew I was a cabbie not because of bad luck or any other such circumstances, but because of my own poor choices. He could see my plight was self-inflicted. I was a spoiled white boy with all the chances one could ask for, and I’d blown it. Working my way out of it was my only choice. If I kept on the right path those chances would fall my way again. He could see it because he was likely the same. His choice took him down a path he wanted, it just turned out differently than he expected.
“You want her, I know you do. You’ve already got the twenty I gave you. I owe you another ten. I’ll throw in the remaining twenty.”
“Can’t do it,” I said.
“You want to go first?”
“No, where do you want me to take you.”
“You’ve got to take what you want, man. Otherwise, you’ll never be happy. You’ll die with regrets.”
“We don’t all want the same things,” I said, still using the mirror.
“He doesn’t want to,” the girl said.
“Yes,” he does. “He just doesn’t know why he’s here. Why are you even here, man? This is why.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Unbelievable. You’re a sad sack, man.”
I put the car in gear.
“Fine,” he said. “Take us to that motel up the street. We’ve passed it several times.”
“I can do that.”
I headed towards the motel. He smothered her out of my view, the passing lights flashing against the back of his shirt. Occasionally their muffled voices migrated over the seat.
“Not on the mouth,” she whispered.
“You want the money or not?”
She relented, but it wasn’t long before there was some kind of skirmish between them.
“That’s got to go,” she said loudly, again breaking the barrier between our two worlds.
“Give it to the driver.”
“You don’t need to worry about it.”
She wrestled away from him and sat up close to me. “He’s got a knife,” she said, addressing me as the local authority. She must have been going through his pockets.
“Settle down,” he said. “Here, take this,” and a pocket jackknife with a long-folded blade fell into my lap. I didn’t want to touch it.
We pulled into the motel’s lot. The building was C-shaped with a second floor. The few lights were losing their battle with the dark, and several men lingered on the catwalk above us, most with embers glowing from their cigarettes.
I pulled up next to the office and they got out. She stood behind him as he bent over to put his massive block face in my window.
I pointed at the meter. “Eleven-fifty,” I said.
He took out a ten and two ones and held it between his fingers. When I reached for it, he pulled away. “Give me my knife back.”
“You don’t need that.”
“I’m not going to use it, give it back.”
I looked at the girl. She was a fairy, as innocent as a small bird. She stood on the sidewalk and mouthed the word no.
He waited next to my window. He wasn’t going anywhere. Who was I to stand in his way? He’d come from hell breathing fire. Like her, I needed the money. I returned his knife and saw the disappointment in the girl’s eyes. She shook her head why, as if Superman had let her down. She had me confused with someone else. Just then the earth gave us a moment and stopped, but neither of us took the opportunity to get off, so I drove away knowing her eyes would haunt me forever.
I thought about her all night long. I bought a twelve pack and downed eight of them before the night ended. It wasn’t enough. I remained visible to the world, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. How do you escape when no matter what you do you can’t escape yourself, when the eyes of another find yours and without even knowing it plead for help? The fairies would never forgive me if I didn’t change my ways.
In the morning I flipped on the news, just a typical shooting, no kids stabbed in a motel.
Before returning to work, I drank half a beer to kill the hangover and bought a pint of whiskey to take along for my shift.
I worked the hotel to airport run and made enough money to avoid working late into the night, but that didn’t stop me from taking a couple of trips down Division Street to take a look. She was nowhere to be seen, though I wasn’t really looking for her. I wanted to get back to where the earth had stopped so I could make a different choice, but I was too late. I went home and counted my cash. She was probably doing the same, enjoying her rewards from the night before, something we’d be doing for the rest of our lives.