James is this month’s winner of $455.00 for his story about choices, agency, and responsibility. This story sits comfortably in the grey.
Bio: James Keeney Hill is a writer, biologist, budding ceramist, and self-employed environmental consultant living in Onekama, Michigan. His work has appeared in Slugfest and the Grand Rapids Magazine. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and an environmental memoir.
Without further ado, “Cruising for Prostitutes” by James Hill.
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.”
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