The Passenger

Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab along the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard. It had been four days of peanut butter sandwiches, and he was hoping that today wouldn’t be the fifth. The tin container rattled open, and unwrapping the parchment paper revealed a jelly sandwich. “If that woman don’t beat all,” he chuckled.

   The city of Chicago and its citizens were alive and buzzing around Rudy like a hive of bees. The sun was affectionately combing its fingers through the heights of concrete and steel, down along the avenues, and toward the hidden lakefront. Checking his watch, he estimated that he still had about two minutes and quickly tore away the crust, stuffing a quarter of the sandwich into his mouth. As he chewed deliberately, Rudy considered what the monetary repercussions would be if he sucked it up and put down the fifty cents it would cost for a soup and sandwich at the diner on 5th Avenue.

   “Hiya, Rudy,” a young woman’s voice said through the window. Looking up, Rudy returned the greeting as he cranked the window down. “We should be ready in just a minute.”

   “No rush,” he said. “How you been, Margaret? Busy week so far?”

   “Not as much as last week,” she shrugged. “It’s only Tuesday, though.”

   “Sure is a pretty day,” Rudy commented. “I was thinkin’ about fishin’ on the lake tomorrow if it keeps up.

   “Yeah, it’s really nice out.”

   “Did you know that spring is my favorite season?”

   “I didn’t know that.”

   “Not too hot, not too cold. And you know what? Gloria was even out for a walk this morning.”

   “Really? How’s she been doing?” Margaret leaned one hand on the roof of the car.

   “Some days are better than others, days like today.” Rudy looked pensively ahead down the street. “Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this,” he admitted, wagging his thumb over his shoulder. “Wouldn’t be any good days if I did.”

   “Makes sense.”

   “Hey, Margaret, she’s ready. You all set?” Another woman had poked her head out from the door of the apartment building beyond them. “Oh, and we got two more calls.”

   “Two?” Margaret repeated.

   “Yeah, so we’re gonna need you to take one,” she confirmed before disappearing back inside.

  “I guess I spoke to soon,” Margaret said, handing him a folded piece of paper. “Here’s the address.”

  “What do you mean, here’s the address? You mean you ain’t comin’?” Rudy asked, suddenly anxious.

  “I’ve gotta stay for these other ladies.”

  “What about the one you got right now?” he demanded. “I ain’t one of ya’ll. I don’t know how to talk to these women.”

   “Nobody said you have to talk. Just drive her there like any other passenger.”

   “South Shore?” Rudy asked, looking at the scribbled address. “That’s near a half hour. Ain’t no woman can be quiet that long.”

   “Just turn on the radio.”

   “What if she doesn’t want no radio on?”

   “Here’s five extra dollars, okay?” Rudy glared at the folded bill in Margaret’s hand.

   “Fine,” he conceded, accepting the money. “But this ain’t gonna be no regular thing, you hear? I’m gettin’ too old to be consolin’ women and all that.”

   “Here she comes,” Margaret said. “Just drive.”

“Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this.”

Aggravated, Rudy inhaled another quarter of his sandwich before returning the rest to the lunchbox, muttering under his breath about the new generation and their ridiculous expectations on people his age. At least he would be able to get that soup and sandwich, now. What time did they stop serving that lunch special, though? In an hour, maybe? His estimation of the fastest route to take was paused as the woman he was to drive opened the door and took her seat in the back. She wore a pressed, blue dress, black flats, and one of the little hats all the women seemed to be wearing those days. Gloved hands tightly clutched a small, cloth purse over the edge of her knees.

   “All right, Jane, this is Rudy,” introduced Margaret. “He’s gonna drive you to the location just like we talked about. If you need anything, just tell him. Okay?”

   “Okay,” Jane nodded timidly.

   “You’re sure you want to do this?” Margaret squinted as she waited for a response. Jane nodded again, only silently this time, and with down-turned eyes. Margaret stood straight, closed the door, and hit twice on the roof.

Rudy pulled away from the sidewalk and began navigating toward the highway, the engine humming a different tone with each shift of the gears. He found himself occasionally glancing at her in the rear view. She didn’t seem but twenty years old. Maybe twenty-five. It was impossible to tell those days with all the young kids looking like adults. Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

   “Where are we going?” Jane’s question broke him from his thoughts.

   “South Shore,” he answered curtly.

   “I’ve never been down that way. How far is it?”

   “Gonna be about twenty-five minutes, give or take. Depends on traffic.”

   “Is there a lot today?” she asked, with a hint of hope.

   “Roads are lookin’ pretty clear so far.” Rudy hoped this would be the extent of the conversation, and to help ensure it was, he asked, “Want to listen to the radio?”

   “Not right now,” she answered quietly. Rudy frowned. “Is it a nice place?”

   “You mean South Shore?”

   “The place we’re going.”

   “I don’t know. Ain’t never been there.” He couldn’t understand why she needed to talk to him, or better yet, why she couldn’t just listen to the radio.

   “Do you do this a lot?”

   “Well, I’m a cab driver, so…”

   “I mean for this,” she specified.

   “I ain’t part of what they do, but, sure, sometimes.”

   “So,” Jane began slowly, “you know what this is all for, then?”

   “I got a good idea.” Rudy cleared his throat uncomfortably.

   “And it doesn’t bother you at all?”

   “It ain’t my business to be bothered by.”

   “A friend of mine did this last year, you know. Maybe you remember her. Her name was Catherine—or Cathy, I guess. We all called her Cathy… and she had thick brown hair, always bobbed real nice. Pretty, straight teeth, too. A real nice smile. All the boys were—”

   “I don’t remember,” Rudy interrupted.

   “Oh, of course. I’m sure you see hundreds of people every day. Thousands maybe. I guess you couldn’t be expected to remember one.” Jane rubbed her thumbs along the strap of her purse. “I doubt you’ll remember me, even.”

   “There’s a lot of people in Chicago,” Rudy said, as if to imply that it was no fault of hers that she would be forgotten and in turn make up for his previous abrasiveness. Judging by her expression, however, his words seemed to have little effect. “What I mean is, I probably won’t remember you any more than I won’t remember anyone else. You know? There’s a lot of people.”

   “I knew what you meant,” she said. “Nobody’s special.”

   “I wouldn’t say all that,” he replied. “Nobody’s special to everyone, but everyone should be special to someone.”

   “Even if they haven’t been born yet?” asked Jane. Rudy remained silent, watching the lines on the road move slowly toward them, ever-increasing in speed until they jumped by and were gone. Like life, he thought to himself. It seems like everything to come is a slow haul until it arrives. Then, it’s over as if it never happened at all. “Who’s special to you?”

   “What’s that?” he asked, stealing a glance at his watch.

   “I said, who’s special to you?” Jane was studying him in the mirror, now.

   “I’m married.” Rudy focused on avoiding her gaze.

   “Oh? How long?”

   “Longer than you been alive. I married Gloria back in 1921,” he said proudly. “Ain’t looked back since.”

Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

“That sounds wonderful. You two must really love each other.”

   “I love her. She tolerates me,” Rudy smiled. “No, I suppose we love and tolerate each other about equal parts. Marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know, but it’s worth a hell of a lot more than folks like to admit.” At this, Jane blinked and looked blankly out the window. “I don’t suppose you’re married, are you?”

   “I’m engaged.”

   “Ah. Does he know about…”

   “No.”

   “I realize I’m just some old cab driver, but,” Rudy began, “don’t you think that maybe he might want a say in this, too? If he’s the man you’re marrying, he might actually want—”

   “He can’t know,” Jane interrupted. “It would ruin him.”

Rudy nodded, surprised at himself for feeling surprised at all. This was a grown woman, wasn’t she? She was as capable of infidelity as anyone else. For some reason, though, she didn’t strike him as the type. He’d lived long enough to understand that people are more than their appearances. But what does ‘the type’ even look like, he wondered. This lady appeared about as innocent as a baby jay. Although, wouldn’t an innocent appearance be advantageous for a cheater? “You’re doing this for his sake, then…”

   “What’s it any of your business why I’m doing this?” Jane snapped. “Maybe I’m doing it for me. Maybe I’m doing it for the baby. Did you ever think of that?”

   “No, I guess not,” he said, wishing like hell he’d taken Margaret’s advice. “Just seems like, if you got this far, you’d know why.”

   “I can’t take care of a baby on my own, no matter how much I might want to. What kind of life do you think some bastard child would have in this world? And I would be the one who let it happen. I would be the cause of it all, and I couldn’t live with that on my conscience.”

   “I’m confused, now. Is this for the child’s sake or for your conscience’s sake?”

   “Who says it can’t be both?”

   “Nobody, but I figure one’s gotta carry more weight than the other. Who says this baby can’t end up being somebody special? Don’t matter what other people say about him or who his father is if he decides to be someone special.”

   “No one is special to everyone, remember?” Jane shot back.

   “No one should want to be,” Rudy said. “Anyone that special is doomed to fail.”

   “So, you don’t think I should do this,” said Jane. “You think I’m going to hell? That I’m committing a horrible sin?”

   “Now, I didn’t say anything like that, but if that’s how you feel, then that’s on you,” said Rudy. “I ain’t no preacher to be tellin’ you how to live your life. It’s your decision to make. It’s your life unless you decide to have the baby, and then it’s his life, too. And if the father steps up, well then, I suppose it’s all three of your lives.”

   “He can’t know, I already told you.”

   “You mean… this is your fiancé’s baby?” Jane stared silently away. “I don’t understand why a man wouldn’t want to have a baby with the woman he loves.”

   “Because he’s a minister,” she confessed, “but we’re not married yet, and he’ll lose his position in the church if anyone were to find out. Like I said, it’ll ruin him. Everything he’s ever worked for will be gone.”

   “You’re saying he would want you to do this?” Rudy asked.

   “Of course not! If he knew I was here right now, he’d never speak to me again. This is a sin. Unforgivable.”

   “And if you kept the baby?”

   “I don’t know that he’d ever admit it was his. He’s a man of God, and a men of God don’t have babies out of wedlock. If I have the baby so I don’t commit a sin, he’ll leave me, and if I don’t have the baby and commit a sin and he finds out, he’ll leave me—even if it is to save his reputation.” Rudy watched Jane exhale from beneath the weight of this reality.

   “Last time I checked, there ain’t no sin that’s unforgiveable. It don’t matter what anyone tries to tell you, and, boy, don’t they ever try to tell you. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I quit goin’ to church. Ain’t no such thing as a man of God. A man’s a man, a woman’s a woman… either we’re all of God or no one is… nobody’s better than anyone else, no matter what position they got… whole damn thing is a scheme, and we—” Rudy was silenced by a sniffle from the backseat.

   As he listened to her whispered crying and considered the source of her tears, a foreign thought suddenly entered his mind. Perhaps this decision wasn’t simply a matter of having an abortion. That was the easy part. The choice that she must make, whether to sacrifice her soul, her conscience, or the one she loves, perhaps that was where the difficulty truly lay. And who could ever lightly make that decision for their own self much less for another person?

   Jane never responded to his words. The remainder of the ride was silent, and fourteen long minutes later—still leaving him a solid half hour to buy his soup and sandwich—Rudy was driving alone back towards the heart of Chicago, the tires drumming quietly down the road. He contemplated Jane until his stomach rumbled at him, and his thoughts returned to the diner. “Decisions, decisions,” he sighed.

    Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab next to the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard.


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BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

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