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vol v, issue 2 < ToC
Drivers and Their Fares
by
Lawrence Buentello
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Drivers and Their Fares
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Lawrence Buentello
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Drivers and Their Fares
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Drivers and Their Fares
 by Lawrence Buentello
Drivers and Their Fares
 by Lawrence Buentello
You want to know.”

Oncoming headlights flashed briefly in Montero’s eyes and woke him from the meditation into which he’d fallen after picking up his fare.

He regripped the steering wheel, noticing the sweat on his palms, and studied the street traffic. Not much happened after midnight in that part of the city, save for the occasional wreck caused by a drunk driver, but it was nearing the end of the month and surely the local police were anxious to make their quotas for moving violations. He glanced at the speedometer, then into the rearview mirror.

The man—if it was a man—met his gaze as if anticipating the act.

Montero refocused on the street, trying unsuccessfully to subdue the chill rolling across his shoulders. “Excuse me?”

“Everyone does.” The voice emanating from the back seat hovered in the air like an echo. “That is, everyone who doesn’t already know.”

I’m going to quit. Montero had told this to himself many times before; his motivation for wanting to do so didn’t come from the spectral reflection in the mirror, though the man’s pale skin and sunken black eyes might have been enough to motivate another driver. He’d been ferrying passengers of similar appearance for the last three months, so he was fairly used to the physical characteristics of his clientele. His dissatisfaction with the job was purely philosophical.

Montero glanced at his passenger in the rearview mirror again, trying to read the expression on the gaunt face. Hairless, the man’s head seemed artificial, like a mannequin’s. Unnatural shadows disguised his lips and nose, so only his eyes remained in the reflection.

“I have no interest in knowing,” Montero replied as casually as possible. “What makes you think that I do?”

“One doesn’t think about these things, my friend. One only follows one’s instincts.”

“And you think all people have an instinctual desire to know?”

“You tell me.” The man sat silently for a moment. Then said, “What did you feel when you were met by those people carrying signs?”

Montero had been met by seven or eight people who were loitering on the sidewalk when he drove up to the man’s house. Some ordinary citizens, some still dressed in the uniforms of their religious office—shouting protests and prayers, waving signs of instruction for repentance and atonement. He’d seen many a priest and imam demanding compliance with religious principles from his fares. He held nothing against these protesters personally, and even respected their determination to demonstrate their convictions in a practical way, though their efforts didn’t seem to be making any impression on the social fabric. And their appearances never actually impeded his business with his clientele, since his clientele were now a protected class.

“I felt nothing,” he said, depressing the brake as they approached a stoplight. “They have their beliefs, just as you have yours. And I have mine.”

“They hate you for being neutral. Sooner or later, every neutral man or woman begins to believe in one philosophy or the other. It’s inevitable.”

“And you believe I’m no longer neutral?”

“That’s for you to decide. But I see a preference in your eyes.”

The light turned green. As Montero shifted his foot to the accelerator, he resisted the urge to glance in the rearview mirror again, irrationally so. It was undoubtedly too dark in the car to see his eyes reflected clearly. Still, the man’s conversation was beginning to unnerve him.

“Why are you a driver for those like me?” the man asked.

“It fits my schedule,” Montero said, anxious to change the subject. “I’m a student. The pay is good, and it’s mostly night work.”

The man laughed drily, and now Montero glanced in the mirror to see the man’s porcelain teeth gleaming in the streetlights.

“Yes, most of our engagements take place after sundown. Not always out of necessity. Atmosphere is an important aspect of our social gatherings.”

Company policy instructed its drivers to refrain from commenting on the interests of their clientele; Montero said nothing.

“What are you studying?”

“Civil Engineering.”

“Then you are a practically minded young man. You wish to live in the material world, is that correct?”

“I do live in the material world. Most people do.”

“That is of their choosing. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Silence fell between them as the car briefly entered the freeway onramp and Montero concentrated on the night traffic. He’d been a conventional driver before signing on with Corbin—but too often the road was commanded by trucks during the day, imposing more stress than he desired, and his class schedule interfered with a consistent paycheck. In the evening, though, he felt much freer and actually enjoyed sitting behind the steering wheel.

When they left the freeway, meandering through an ugly industrial strip full of shadow-dressed warehouses and disused manufactories, the man apparently decided their silence had endured long enough.

“There are many night jobs you could have taken,” the man said. “You could be working in one of these warehouses driving a forklift or a delivery truck. No, I believe you gravitated toward this occupation for other reasons. Subconscious reasons, perhaps.”

Montero smiled, though nervously. “You aren’t trying to recruit me, are you? I’m afraid my soul is spoken for.”

The man laughed again, obviously enjoying the conversation. “While you’re alive on this earth, your soul is never spoken for.”

Temptation everlasting, as Montero’s father might have said when he was alive. To what realm the man’s soul had flown when he died was still a mystery to his son. His father hadn’t handled his temptations competently.

“For now,” he said, trying to placate his fare, “my soul belongs to the mind and body of a college student pursuing a mundane career and a prosaic life. Things may change for me in the future, but right now that’s my reality.”

“Right now,” the man echoed.

Montero turned onto a side street and guided the car before a building disturbingly left in blackness. Once parked, he turned his head to study the front of the building, now flecked with aberrant light from the headlights. The parking lot appeared empty, the surroundings abandoned, the building dilapidated. He was glad he’d left the car running.

“This is the address my dispatcher gave me,” Montero said, halfway turning. “Are you sure there’s someone here?”

“Yes, they’re here,” the man said, opening the door and stepping out of the car. “Very much so.”

Montero thumbed a button and the driver’s side window slipped into the door. “I’ll wait until you’re inside, just to be safe.”

The man turned his spectral face to Montero, grinning. “If I wanted to be safe—”

The man said nothing more as he walked through the irregular patches of light from the headlights and approached a large metal door. He knocked confidently with a bony fist, and almost at once the door opened with a cry of rusty hinges. All Montero could discern from where he sat was a blood-red light emanating from a source within the building and the silhouette of the willowy figure that had opened the door. His client stepped across the threshold and became a silhouette himself; then both silhouettes vanished as the door closed on the night.

Montero sat staring at the unmarked building, wondering what activities were transpiring inside. His nerves were beginning to bother him. What little sleep he managed to get was frequently interrupted by unpleasant dreams.

I’m going to quit.

He raised the parking brake and turned out of the lot.

*     *     *
The garage had been converted from a standard taxi business into a specialized car service. Over time, ordinary taxis began refusing service to night riders—drivers found themselves too uncomfortable in the presence of those with darker spiritual beliefs to reliably serve their needs. Because of this circumstance, Earl Corbin had transformed a failing taxi service into a solvent enterprise. And he seemed to have no problem serving his clientele.

Montero sat on one of the three plastic chairs in the cramped waiting area inside the garage adjacent to Corbin’s office. The old man had silvered the window facing the garage, no doubt so he could monitor his drivers without being seen. In the bright lighting of the garage Montero could see his reflection clearly in the glass, the haggard features of a young man not yet twenty-three—his black hair needed cutting, his sunken cheeks a shave. His eyes were red—he needed sleep.

He’d come to speak to Corbin, despite the late hour, intending to resign.

When the old man finally opened his door, dense cigar smoke drifting from the office aromatically, Montero rose from his chair and shook his supervisor’s hand. Corbin, a head shorter than Montero and stooped with age, waved him into the office and directed him to a more comfortable chair. Montero sat. The old man returned to the chair behind his desk before plucking a smoldering cigar from an ashtray and placing it between his lips.

“Now what’s so urgent?” Corbin said before taking a puff of the cigar and returning it to the ashtray.

Montero rubbed his face wearily, then said, “I think I need to quit.”

Corbin stared at him for a moment, his small, blue eyes gazing intimidatingly from a series of heavy wrinkles. “Why, Gilbert?”

“Personal reasons.”

“The money is good, isn’t it?”

“Yes, really good.”

“Then why quit?”

Montero felt he didn’t need a reason. He wasn’t beholden to Corbin for anything—he was certain he’d been a good driver. But the old man had been generous enough to give him the job when he really needed the money, so he didn’t want to be rude. Still, he wasn’t sure he could put his objections into words.

“I don’t feel as if I should be driving these people around anymore,” he said.

“They’re people like everyone else.”

“I’m not sure that’s true.” Surely Corbin couldn’t have thought of them as just ordinary people, either. “I’ve been having bad dreams.”

“It happens,” Corbin said. He picked up his cigar again, but only gazed at it curiously before replacing it in the ashtray. Then his eyes met Montero’s again. “Are you sure your dreams are a consequence of working for me?”

“No,” Montero said, honestly. “But I do know that I’ve been increasingly stressed since I began working for you.”

“And it’s not the pressure from your studies?”

“No, I don’t think so. Knowing these people existed didn’t bother me before I began driving them. I knew they were out there, I knew their numbers were growing all the time, but that didn’t concern me. But after I started working here, I began to think about them, about where they were coming from and where they were going. What they were doing in those places.”

“Exercising their religious freedom,” Corbin said, smiling. “Do you remember our interview before I hired you?”

Montero nodded.

“Don’t you remember me asking you if you had any problem serving people with objectionable religious practices?”

Again, Montero nodded.

“You told me that none of that bothered you. That you didn’t really have religious beliefs of your own and didn’t care how these people conducted their social affairs.”

“I remember,” Montero said. “And I didn’t care, not then. But now I feel a little differently. I can’t help wondering about them. What they do, why they do it. Don’t you ever wonder, Mr. Corbin?”

The old man shrugged. “For me, it’s been purely a matter of free enterprise. I recognized a need and moved to fill it. My association with these people is nearly exclusive, not to mention lucrative, and that’s good for business. They had a need, and I had no objection to fulfilling it. I neither think about them nor about what they do in the privacy of their meeting places. It’s that simple.”

Montero considered this philosophy and wondered how the old man could remain neutral. Perhaps he possessed a stronger mind than Montero initially believed. But he also suspected his own beliefs were problematic. Sometimes he wondered if he’d taken the job for reasons other than the money.

“I think my problem is that I am curious,” he said, holding his hands up in faux surrender. “Wouldn’t you like to know what’s so seductive about their way of life? How they convert to it? What they become, after they do?”

“They made a simple choice,” Corbin said. “It’s the same choice we all face. You can try to embrace the classical virtues and live a moral life according to a given cultural viewpoint, or you can give yourself over to those beliefs and practices that cultural viewpoint considers corrupt. It just so happens that the version of corruption we’re talking about is now a protected way of life. I, myself, find it desirable to live with one foot in the virtues that were described to me as a child. Or, at least, I try to live that way. I haven’t changed my mind.”

“But you’re still willing to earn a dollar by associating with the corrupt?”

The old man laughed, his laughter soon transforming into an asthmatic wheeze. “The definition of corruption depends on the person giving it, doesn’t it?”

Montero smiled in spite of his feelings. “I suppose so, Mr. Corbin.”

“It’s your choice, Gilbert. I won’t try to keep you on if you feel threatened. Just know that if you keep a clear perspective on what you want in life you won’t have a problem. Why don’t you take a night or two off so you can catch up on your sleep? Then decide whether or not you really want to quit.”

Montero sat back in his chair, having lost his resolve. He watched cigar smoke wreathe the old man’s face, as a sinner or a saint, he wasn’t certain. Perhaps Corbin was right; perhaps he needed to clarify his thoughts on the matter. Enough sleep would clear his mind. The money, after all, was very good.

*     *     *
After two days he returned to work for Corbin.

With sufficient sleep had come a sense of control over his body and mind. Rejuvenated, he dismissed the nagging worry that had been plaguing him over the last few weeks and laughed off his irrational fears. He was young, after all, he felt strong, and a natural curiosity wasn’t about to keep him from executing his long-term plans.

At midnight of the third night, Montero drove up to a solitary house in a quiet neighborhood expecting his typical fare—a disillusioned, middle-aged man bereft of hair and youthful ambitions resigned to an ill-advised path to potency. He didn’t expect to see her stepping out of the house and approaching his car.

Tall, pale, but translucently so, she walked slowly in the moonlight, her long black hair strangely darkened by the streetlights. She wore a sleeveless black evening gown over her thin body, her bare shoulders glowing; a black bib necklace, adorned with shimmering blue stones, hung around her neck, accentuating her breasts. When she came near enough, he noticed her bright green eyes watching him. She wore long black gloves, and opened the door without making a sound. He’d been so preoccupied staring into her eyes that he’d forgotten proper protocol.

“I should have opened the door for you,” he said, waiting for her to settle into the back seat before taking the car out of park. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry for anything in this life,” she said. A small smile met his gaze in the rearview mirror. “I’m a big girl, I can fend for myself.”

He had to force himself to look away from her. He pulled the car out into the street and chastised himself for staring. He found her absolutely beautiful, but cautioned himself to remember that she was also a night rider, despite her beauty.

“It’s a little chilly tonight,” he said after a while. He wanted to hear her voice again; initiating a harmless conversation wouldn’t violate any company policies. “Aren’t you cold?”

She shook her head. “A little chill is good for a person. It wakes you up to the world around you.”

Her voice was deep but feminine, a lovely voice. If she hadn’t been his fare for that hour, he was certain he would have made of fool of himself complimenting her with the hope of sparking an acquaintance. Under the circumstances, he forced himself to acknowledge the company’s rules of etiquette between drivers and their fares.

“Do you like your job?” she asked.

The question surprised him. He delayed answering while he turned onto the freeway and carefully merged with the late night traffic.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s convenient for my needs.”

“What are your needs?”

He grinned at the question, but remained polite. He told her about his classes and time requirements; he enjoyed telling people that he was a student, hoping to give them the impression that he was constructing a worthwhile life. She didn’t have to know that he often felt like an imposter while doing so; she didn’t have to know his secret feelings.

“So you have your life all planned out?” she said. “You know what you’ll be doing when you’re sixty?”

“I don’t know about sixty, but I’m pretty sure about thirty, possibly forty. I enjoy this job, but I want a career, not just a job.”

“Security is important to you?”

“I suppose.”

“I don’t want security in my life.” Her voice assumed a dreamy tone. “I want experience, I want spontaneity. I have no idea what I’ll be doing tomorrow, let alone twenty years from today.”

Montero desperately wanted to ask her about her life, and her reasons for wanting to find herself in their company. She wasn’t much older than Montero, perhaps thirty—why had she chosen that life?

“Everyone is different,” he said, glancing at her again in the mirror. He focused on her eyes, then her luminous red lips, and finally the shining necklace suspended above her pale breasts. He looked away, worried that she would be able to read his mind without much effort.

“I’m not sure that’s true,” she said. “The yin and yang of the universe seems to say that you’re either in the light or in the darkness at any given time. That’s only two places to be. But you don’t sound unintelligent to me, you must know that.”

“Thank you. I try my best.”

She laughed, a sound that warmed his chest and left a fissure in his resistance.

“You’re very good at repartee,” she said. “I’m Alma. What’s your name?”

“Gilbert, but most people call me Gil.”

“I like you, Gil.”

I like you, too, Alma. He left the thought unspoken. Their conversation was becoming decidedly flirtatious, and he was enjoying it too much. She was his fare, nothing more. He had to remember the dangers of temptation.

“May I ask you a question?” she said.

“Sure, Alma.”

“Do you think I’m evil?”

Montero laughed at the impossibility of offering a politic response.

“What are you laughing at?”

He glanced at her in the rearview mirror again. She hadn’t taken offense; she was smiling warmly. “I’m not egotistical enough to think I can judge a person good or evil.”

“But surely you must know the reputation of the people you ferry around the city.”

“Yes.”

“Do you think that reputation is deserved?”

He shook his head. “I honestly couldn’t say. I really don’t know your beliefs or activities.”

“So you feel you can’t judge people you don’t understand?”

Montero suspected he was crossing a line unambiguously drawn by Corbin’s policies. Still—he really wanted to know about her

“No. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“But you’ve heard the stories about us.”

“Yes, I’ve heard the stories.”

She leaned forward far enough for him to feel her breath on his neck. “Do you think they’re true?”

Her breath felt like a light kiss on his neck. He forced himself to concentrate on the traffic until he could think clearly again. “I couldn’t say for certain.”

He watched her in the mirror as she leaned back into her seat. Her eyes sparkled in the light of the passing streetlights.

“They say we worship the devil,” she said, her voice still pleasant. “That we participate in blood sacrifices to gain the favor of demons and dark spirits. That we try to influence our social status in the world by martialing the assistance of evil forces, catering to their desires. Mass fornications with the spirits of hell, borrowing out our souls for the desires of demons, cursing all that’s holy and pure for the sake of material gain!”

She laughed enthusiastically, as if overcome by the humor of an absurdity too unnatural to be true.

Montero swallowed down his discomfort. He felt as if he were walking down a dark, dangerous alley.

“People try to discredit what doesn’t conform to their understanding of morality and grace,” she said. “Don’t you agree?”

“I’m not sure that I do,” he said, trying to regain a neutral position. As beautiful as he found her, he was beginning to suspect her of manipulating his responses. To what end, he couldn’t say. “Is any of that true?”

“I’m sworn to secrecy, Gil. On pain of death.”

She laughed again, and now he felt less victimized. She was only joking, surely.

The car exited the freeway at last and Montero began maneuvering through the surface streets on their way to their destination. She remained silent in the back seat while he considered what she’d said. Or, more to the point, what she’d implied. Perhaps their “culture” was as depraved as the media portrayed. Or perhaps it really was only a lifestyle choice. But if that was the case, why was he still so curious?

No, there was no need for curiosity. He’d already carefully planned his life—an enlightening education, a successful career—and yet, he couldn’t keep his own dark desires from calling out from the secure place in his mind where he kept them locked away.

As if reading his thoughts, she said, “You know, good and evil are only arbitrary judgments, Gil.”

Her sudden interruption of the silence startled him. “I’m not a philosopher,” he said defensively.

“It’s not a matter of philosophy. It’s a matter of judgment. People say that one act is good and another evil, but in different contexts those definitions can be reversed. What is good can be evil, and what is evil can be good.”

“I don’t understand. The virtues are—”

“The law of averages is what the virtues rely on for their good reputation. Let’s say you see a poor man on the street and he begs you for money. You feel charity in your heart and give him every cent in your pocket to ease his suffering. You’d consider your act good, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course.”

“But what if he buys a gun with the money you gave him and kills other people for their money? You’d have to say that your generous act was responsible for the murder of other people. Which is evil, right?”

“But I’m only responsible for my acts, not the acts of others.”

“Are you? Because of you, evil has manifested. You are the source of this evil. But you deny it because you wish to interpret it differently. Every human act falls into the same category. We can either proclaim it to be a good act, under the circumstances, or an evil act. We justify everything we do that way. Just wars, for example, or doing what’s good for others even when they don’t think so. But it’s still oppression.”

“What’s the point then, Alma?”

“Only that what people say about me and others like me is an arbitrary judgment. If you asked me, what I’m doing is very good for me. And that’s enough to justify my participation in it.”

Damn it, why did he get drawn into this conversation? Of course he saw her point, but he also knew he shouldn’t examine that point too closely. Like Corbin, he had to keep one foot in the virtues. At the moment, he had a difficult time explaining to himself why it was important; perhaps he was only recalling his father’s example.

Montero noted the passing street numbers.

“We’re almost there,” he said.

“Pull over for a moment.”

He stared at her in the rearview mirror. “I beg your pardon?”

“Pull over for a moment, Gil. I want to ask you a question.”

“It’s really against company policy—”

“To hell with the rules. Please, Gil.”

He pulled the car over in front of one of the houses on the street, slipped the gear into park, and waited.

He heard her move forward again and turned to look at her. Her eyes held him; her long, black hair settled over her white shoulders like a shroud.

“I would love to have a protege,” she said. “Someone who could share my experiences with me. I see something in you, Gil, I feel it in my soul. You want to learn new things, you want to break away from your ordinary life. I can’t tell you how I know, but I do. I see the desire in your eyes, too.”

“I’m sorry, but—”

“Don’t answer me now.” She leaned back, settling in shadows. “Just know that I’m sincere. If you ever wanted to know about our way of life, I’d love to give you that knowledge.”

Montero turned, troubled by his feelings for her.

He pulled away from the curb and drove on to the house to which he was delivering her. They drove in silence, but his mind was full of sounds, impressions, sensations.

Before she opened the passenger door she leaned forward again and whispered in his ear, “You would have me, too, Gil.”

She gently kissed his ear while he sat frozen in place, then she exited the car and gracefully walked up to the door of the house and knocked. He watched the door open on a painfully red light which engulfed her before closing.

Now alone, he reviewed everything that had transpired that night and wondered why he wasn’t driving away. A question lingered in his mind, but it was hazy and unformed. He sat for a long time trying to define it, and when he finally did it emerged in his thoughts as a question: why hadn’t he been able to quit his job as a driver?

He sat staring at his own eyes in the rearview mirror, trying to see what she’d seen in them. But all he could see were her eyes, green and dazzling, in a face that held the answer to the question of his desire.

Montero waited for her all night.

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