Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Fare

Joyce Lee


The cabbie glanced in his rearview mirror at the passenger seated behind him. Recently, he had developed the habit of keeping a closer watch on his customers.

"These days, you can't be too careful," he'd convinced himself.

With the motor running, he had been parked in front of the Greyhound Bus Depot, taking a moment to enjoy the sweet fruity taste of his smoking pipe. He was patiently awaiting his first fare of the day.

At first he didn't notice her, not until she'd walked right up to him. With mousy brown hair, this large-boned woman wore the stubby flattened nose of a prizefighter. Right then, he decided, she had been around the block a few times.

Her skin was grey and colorless, and he thought her dull, a real fugitive from a tanning salon. With clothing loose, dark, and unimpressive, she wore black Oxford shoes that looked like gunboats on her feet.

"Real hard-boiled," he thought. "She could be the matron in a women's prison, straight out of an old "B" movie."

Slyly, he smiled to himself, then for an instant, his eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. Quickly, he glanced away, embarrassed, as though she could read his mind.

Standing directly in front of him with serviceable black luggage in one hand and a dark worn purse in the other, she said, "Can you take me to Sinister?"

"That's twenty miles and at least twenty-five bucks!"

He answered her curtly, trying to discourage her and put her off. Maybe she'd go bother someone else. This morning, he just wanted to make short runs around town. He made more money that way, especially in tips.

But she wouldn't be put off. "Fine," she said and handed him her luggage. The ample woman reached around him and opened the door, climbing awkwardly into the back seat.

"Hum, that woman takes care of herself," he grumbled his impression and stomped to the rear of the car. After placing the bag in the trunk, he returned to his well-worn seat behind the steering wheel.

"What's the address?" he asked, while struggling to fasten the seat belt over his formidable bulk.

"I don't have an address," she answered. "Only instructions on how to get there."

"Lady, I haf' to have somethin' to tell my dispatcher," he volleyed back at her.

"My directions are to go the interstate south to the Sinister exit, get off and turn east. Go two miles to a stoplight intersection, and it's the first street on the right after that."

The cabbie repeated her words into the radio mic. "My dispatcher says that's Camellia Row. Do you know which house?"

She was wasting his time, and he was growing impatient.

"The sixth house on the left."

"Thanks!"

He turned the ignition, started the meter, then wheeled the car toward the interstate.

Ernie, the cab driver, knew the town of Sinister as a classy bedroom community, where all the big company CEO’s and their upwardly mobile employees competed in a cutthroat game of one-ups-manship. He got around, and he heard all of the stories.

He'd heard all about their kids, in private schools and driving fast new cars. They got their kicks with cocaine and keg parties that got out of control. He'd heard a lot about it when the Highway Patrol had to mop up a bunch after they had splattered around a utility pole. Oh well, none of his business. Nothing he could do about it.

Making the drive to Sinister in record time, Ernie followed her directions to Camellia Row. He turned the cab into the designated street, and immediately, he found himself faced with an iron gate and a menacing security guard. Two equally menacing Dobermans stood at attention when the guard stalked from the door of his brick shelter to the window of the Red Checkered Cab.

"Who are you here to see?" he asked, inspecting the interior of the cab and its driver. The man wore a holstered gun on a belt over his stiff grey uniform, and the cabbie sensed that this guard took his job seriously.

"Tell him, it's Miss Simpson. Tell him I'm here to see Mrs. Tremondé," the voice instructed him from the back seat.

Magically, the gates parted and the cab passed through and over a covered bridge onto a vista of landscaped flowering bushes and trees with colorful exotic blooms. The cabbie was notably conscious of his passage into another world. These were not just fine homes; this was an enclave of well-guarded mansions.

"It's the sixth house on the left," the anxious voice reminded him.

"Yes, ma’am."

Sealing his lips, the cabbie drove slowly down the street, looking thoughtfully from side to side. Occasionally, an Oriental gardener could be seen trimming a hedge or digging among the multitude of spring flowers.

Ernie pulled into the circular drive of the sixth house on the left, where he came to a halt between a forest green Jaguar and a white BMW. Quickly releasing the seat belt, he jumped from the cab to open the door for his passenger.

Handing him two twenty-dollar bills, she alighted from the car, and he gave her change in return. She left him with a ten.

"Thank you, ma’am, it's been a pleasure," he said. "My name is Ernie. If you ever need transportation, just call Red Checkers and ask for me, Ernie, Cab 211. That's easy to remember, isn't it?"

He followed her up the short stairway and placed her piece of luggage at her feet. She pressed the ornamental doorbell, and from somewhere deep within the mansion, he could hear the toll of medieval chimes, like a church, the sound of reverence.

"Thank you, Ernie." She dismissed him.

He was standing alongside the cab with hat in hand when a stiff-looking gentleman in black opened the heavy door. The two exchanged a few words, then he stooped, picking up her bag in a sweeping gesture.

The fare turned, looking as far down her stubby nose as she possibly could. At that moment, Ernie thought that he could see the ghost of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Then she turned again, and followed the haughty man carrying her luggage into the Gothic dwelling.

***

JOYCE A. O. LEE is originally from Kansas City, Missouri. She has lived in Tennessee with her family since 1973. She is a full time writer of fiction and poetry.

© Joyce Lee

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012