Those who process transactions, the cashiers and bill collectors, hate the driver more than the rest of us. Their ears prick up at his jingling steps, and when they see him approach with a cart full of groceries and pockets near to bursting, they often slump and sigh or, on the bad days, mumble curses under their breath.
The driver does not care.
He simply unloads his groceries, waits for the total, and smiles. When the damage is announced, he reaches a white hand into his khaki pockets and lets the change clatter on the counter. He always has enough, and despite paying bills of one-hundred or two-hundred dollars, the pockets always remain full and taut.
The coins are counted. This takes a long time. The bill is paid in its exact amount. No more, no less. The driver takes pride in this.
The driver’s vehicle changes from day to day—sometimes it is a gaudy red the color of blood with a roaring engine that makes the streets quiver. Other days it is demure of make and model, unnoticeable, insignificant.
Perhaps this change is influenced by driver’s mood or the nature of his passengers. Perhaps there is no reason for this change at all.
No one knows the exact moment they will be a passenger—Sylvia is no exception. When the driver comes to her, he offers his hand and she slaps it away. But she does not run. Though she hates this place, this apartment, she has no desire to leave it. The years spent here were regrettable and safe, and she tells herself that is fine.
“Let’s go for a quick drive,” the driver says.
“No. I don’t have anywhere I want to go.”
“That’s your problem. Come on. I left the car running.”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?”
Sylvia does not like the grin on the driver’s face.
“Where are we going?”
“Out to dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Oh, come on. There’s a place a few blocks away you’ve always wanted to go. Chez something-or-other.”
“Yes,” Sylvia says very slowly. “Yes, that’s right.”
“If you’re really not hungry, we can always skip it and just—”
“No! I’ll go, okay? I’ll go.” She pauses. “You’re paying, right?”
She meant it as a joke, her paltry defiance against the inevitable. But the driver does not laugh; he simply nods.
“It’s the least I can do.”
They sip wine and spit into metallic tins and sample a variety bread and cheeses, and Sylvia can’t help but feel queasy at the cost of such simple fare. Then come the entrees, their proportion the inverse to their price. But the food’s aesthetic is nothing short of art, and it is matched by its taste. Everything, the lights, the attire, is as Sylvia imagined it would be, and none of it is as she feared.
The check arrives.
Sylvia glances at the total. She nearly screams.
The driver does not balk, only reaches into his pockets; the coins clink against the glassware as he drops the change on the table, and what starts as a pile becomes a mound, then a mountain. And the waiter stands by, wide eyed and red faced, but he does nothing for he recognizes the driver as we all do.
Sylvia stares at the mountain of coins. Then she laughs, really laughs for the first time in a long time, and it feels so good that she almost forgets who is sitting across from her.
“Thank you for dinner,” Sylvia says, quieting down. “I know that was terribly expensive.”
The driver shrugs and says, “You can’t take it with you.”
Strange, how the driver pulls in front of Sylvia’s apartment instead of someplace else. Strange, how she finds herself disappointed.
“What are we doing here? I thought we had someplace to go.”
“Where we go is up to you.”
“Will anything change if I go back?”
“No. I’m afraid the time for that has passed.
Sylvia looks up at her apartment building, spots her window on the third story—she can imagine what’s inside, the hollowness, the days filled with encountering people but never being seen by them, the long slog that has been the twilight of her life. The routine misery beckons her; she cannot deny that there is a sick sort of comfort waiting for her in that empty shell.
Sylvia glances at the driver and his easy and unsettling smile. She looks at the road stretching endlessly ahead, leading to all of the places she has never been. And she makes her choice.
“Before we go,” the driver says, “I need something from you.”
Sylvia nods and reaches into her pocket. She drops the penny into the driver’s open palm. He examines the coin, nods his approval, and he takes her away from her home, from her life. There is no knowing whether her destination is better or worse than what came before—all she knows is that it is someplace new, and that is enough.
Blake Johnson writes a lot of fiction. Sometimes he eats and sleeps, too. His work has appeared in the e-zine Grievous Angel and Zizzle Literary Magazine. He currently lives in Florida where he is putting the final editorial touches on a new novel. You can find him hanging out in the Twitterverse under the handle @bjohnsonauthor.