“You’re the cabdriver and you’re going to do as I say.”
He was tanked, babbling on how he didn’t want the cab in the first place but his friends — “And aren’t they assholes!” …
Two minutes on our way to Lakeside and already I wanted to fork out his eyes like the yolks of eggs. It would be fair to say we both started out twisted up.
He pounded on the headrest. “You’re over the limit? That’s it — I’m not paying for this.”
Those words out of his mouth sounded like magic to my ears, and I felt the shift, instant and meaningfully brutal, as if I had lurking within me Astaroth waiting for this summons: I pounced on the e-brake, pedal crunching underfoot and causing the cab to pitch into a howling forward slide as I turned sharply left, up from the bottom of the wheel.
This was out on the bypass at Sycamore, back when they’d just put in those funky turn lanes. The lighting had been updated with harsh halogen white, and the paint was fresh. No one was out that late on a Tuesday as my cab swept in a rainbow arc around the divider island, while in the rearview my passenger clutched both headrests to keep from tumbling ass over teakettle, the spring zinging in my hand as I released the brake.
I wasn’t always this quick on the draw. In the beginning, there were times I never drew. Back when I was yet a healthful sport, meeting every tumbledown halfway shitbag with a grin, letting them carry on with bad behavior, letting them infect me with their tales of woe, really believing that any helpful action on my part would somehow better their plight.
Unfortunate for that part of me, this job forces a lot of hard left turns.
“Take us home now.”
They were three college bros out at the end of South Lucas where, instead of turning around before my fares showed up, I was parked facing the short part of the dead-end, probably wondering about my bright future. And here came the fine fellows, thick-necked and plodding as crabs, their leader peeled out of his shirt and waving it like a flag.
“I said take us home,” the shirtless leader shouted before telling his bros we were hitting up Hardees.
Somebody had illegally parked down in South Lucas so I had to make a million-point turn to get out, with my three riders jeering the entire time, the leader winding up his shirt and swatting his friends, even snapping me on the ear. I laughed right along — why not!?
I had turned onto Burlington to head for Coralville and was passing through the light at Dodge when the t-shirt came over my face, and my head was yanked back into the headrest, BAM BAM BAM, three hard raps on the back of my skull that caused me to see stars.
To my credit, I brought it to the roadside without hitting the curb.
“Knock it off,” I scolded once I got my head out of the t-shirt, incredulous of what just happened.
“What’re you going to do, bitch?”
The shirtless dude was seething and sweating, undoubtedly high on cocaine, though I’ve only since realized it, and mad-dogging me with his watery blue eyes.
I warned them firmly, pouring fuel: “You hit me again and I’ll throw you the hell out of here.”
“You won’t do that because you’re a pussy.”
He again slapped the back of my head.
“I just think you’re a goddamned homo,” said the one in front.
“Fuck off, alright?”
That sealed it: My blood was in the water and they came after me, relentless.
“Poor fucking moron. Bet if you work hard enough you can go to school and get a real job.”
This was early enough on that I hadn’t realized I had any powers. I was too worried about getting paid. “Always get paid, #22,” because this bullshit was only worth it if you get paid.
“I bet you suck dicks for money too, you scumbag. I’ll fill your asshole for ten bucks, how about it?”
I just kept driving, knuckles white on top of the wheel all the way to Coralville with my face burning and my heart pounding in my neck and my eyes swelling like they’d pop.
“Did I say the drive-thru? Pull up to the fucking door.”
I just let it bear out, a suffering to be endured, watching them grabass in the Hardees lobby, knocking shit out of the soda kiosk. Why did I keep driving? And why did I wait at Hardees? Why had I not already thrown them out and made meaningful attempts to hit them?
I have two older brothers that were absolute cocks so I suppose that burn of brotherly love had something to do with it. Or the softness that hadn’t yet been cured of me. There were later nights I spent hating myself for not taking a stand. Wondering, if I didn’t know any better, didn’t I deserve the abuse?
It was a broken feeling, as if a bit of rib had snapped off and was floating dangerously inside me.
The ruckus died after Hardees, replaced by the slurp and gnash of pigs taking down supper, until one of them ordered that I halt at the bottom of Valley and Hwy 6.
I’d done the math in the Hardees lot, and said, “This ride is fifteen bucks.”
And as I dropped into park, just like a rookie would, my three bros split out every door to run in three directions, leaving me with their trash and no money and a hundred nights of wondering if they hadn’t pegged me dead-on.
Back to the bypass and Sycamore, back to that other one hanging on the headrests.
Actually, back to the dozens of times I’ve retold the glory: “And I came sweeping around the divider island like fucking Steve McQueen,” showing it with my hand, “and he’s screaming that I’m a maniac. That son bitch wanted to fight.”
I tell how I pulled right over and let dude out in the shoulder then plunged the throttle to shower him in a fan of gravel, laughing away with my fuckface as I tell the tale, cackling despite not having taken any money on the fare.
Yet all these miles later it still stings.
So, “Always get paid, #22.” Because everything costs.
Sean Preciado Genell is author of the Vic Pasternak novel ‘All the Help You Need,’ available now at Prairie Lights. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 198.