Five Stars by Ronald Schulte

In New York, a cab driver picks up a dead woman; by Ronald Schulte.

She's dead.

The thought flashes through my mind even before she's done fastening her seatbelt. It isn't anything super-obvious; she doesn't reek, her complexion is normal. No maggots, okay? It's subtler than that. The lack of sparkle in her eyes, maybe. The unusual smoothness of her movements. Her bizarrely classic sense of fashion. It is all of these things and something more, something no one else seems to notice but me. Maybe five decades of pickups from Grand Central has made me hypersensitive to such nuance, but I know guys who've been doing it longer who've never experienced what I'm talking about.

As I ease away from the terminal onto East 42nd, I risk a glance through the rearview. She's too thin, maybe a little pale, although her makeup mostly obscures both of these facts. Her long blond hair hangs across the left shoulder of her fur coat in wavy wisps as she gazes silently out the side window. In her lap she clutches a black purse, perfectly manicured ivory fingernails practically glowing against the backdrop of the dark-colored item.

I'm terrified, of course I am. I haven't seen a passenger like this in years, not since my yellow cab days. It's a jolt to my system, but that's okay because I'm basically on autopilot. Let's be honest; in this day and age there isn't much to it. The app tells me who to pick up, where to pick them up, and where to take them; and on their side, it gives them enough information to verify my identity and decide if I'm a safe choice. Interaction between driver and passenger is almost completely unnecessary. Still, as a professional I always try to say a few words to my passengers - the ones that haven't explicitly opted out of conversation, at least - to give them the sense they're in good hands. I open my mouth to do just that... and find I can't speak at all. My mouth is completely dry.

What do you say to a dead person?

"Do you mind if I smoke?" she asks.

"Be my guest," I respond, grateful she's broken the ice. I don't usually allow smoking in my car but my gut tells me to roll with it. The smell might buy me a few negative reviews until I have a chance to air out the car, but reviews are the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. What's on my mind is the funny-looking thing she's just pulled from her purse. When she affixes her cigarette to the business end, I realize that it's an old-fashioned cigarette holder.

"Where's the lighter?" she asks, searching the back of the car.

"Lady, I haven't seen a built-in lighter in a car since the '90s."

"Oh." She blinks. "How silly of me."

"Here. This might still work." I pull an old Bic lighter from my glove box and hand it to her. I haven't smoked in years but for some reason I've never gotten around to throwing the damn thing away.

"Thank you." The Bic does work. She lights up and hands the lighter back to me. I'm struck immediately by the smell of her cigarette. I haven't smelled anything like it in a long time. It reminds me of my grandpa, of smoke-filled restaurants, of ashes on bed sheets and burn holes in pillowcases. It's an anachronism, but at this moment, in this Corolla, it fits perfectly.

We ride in silence for a bit. I turn north onto Madison, then make my way back to the FDR, ignoring the GPS, using the force to navigate the one-way streets and read the minds of unpredictable pedestrians. The FDR teases me with smooth sailing for a few blocks before slowing to a halt. I sigh and glance in the rearview to check on my passenger.

She's trembling.

"Too cold, miss?" I ask.

"I'm fine."

She isn't fine. There's a tear running down the side of her cheek, making a track through her makeup. I reach into my pocket, pull out one of my clean hankies and hand it back to her. She takes it without comment.

"Want to talk about it?" I ask.

She shakes her head so I shrug and leave it alone. As she dabs her face with the handkerchief the traffic breaks up a little and we're moving again. My phone pings - another fare opportunity near this lady's destination. I reject the ride, then after a moment's hesitation I set the app to go offline after this ride.

I don't think I'll be able to handle any more work tonight.

We meander under the Queensboro Bridge. She gazes up wonderingly at the tramcars of the Roosevelt Island Tramway that runs parallel to the bridge on the northern side. She opens her mouth, then closes it. I want to say something - "Ain't it a beaut?" or "There are no stupid questions," or maybe "That's funny, lady, I was thinking the same thing!" - but the moment passes before I can settle on a winner.

I get off the FDR at East 96th. Not much further now. I'm not going to tell you the exact destination. She seems to know we're getting close because she finishes up her cigarette and tosses the stub out the window. I wince, but I suppose I'd rather have her littering than setting fire to the upholstery in my ashtray-less backseat. She gives her face a final dab with the handkerchief, then folds it up into a tidy little bundle and sticks it in her purse. That's fine; I had no intention of asking for it back anyway. I could never blow my nose into a handkerchief that caught a dead woman's tears; it would feel like a desecration or something.

I pull onto a relatively quiet side street and parallel park between a taco truck and a CRV.

"How much do I owe you?" she asks.

"Already paid for, ma'am. You know... through the app?"

"Through the app. Right." She reaches into her purse, pulls out a couple of quarters and hands them to me. "For you."

"Thank you." The meager tip doesn't bother me in the slightest. I pocket it without comment.

The lady reaches for the door handle, then retracts her hand.

"How did you know to bring me here?" she asks. "I don't remember giving you an address."

"You gave the address when you requested the ride through the app. Right? We know where you're going before we pick you up."

She nods slowly, even glances at the iPhone I have secured to my dash, but I can tell from her blank expression that she doesn't have the slightest clue which app we're talking about, or what an app even is. I wonder if it would be rude to ask how, exactly, she booked this ride. I seriously doubt she's ever used a smartphone, and I'd be shocked if she had an iPhone or Android stashed away in her purse or coat.

As if reading my thoughts, she opens the purse, rummages around a bit.

And comes out with a gun.

It's a pretty little revolver. The metal parts have blackened slightly with age, but the dark brown wooden grip is polished to a lustrous sheen. It looks like a .38, a Colt perhaps or maybe a Smith & Wesson. Whatever it is, I'm sure it is more than capable of blowing my brains out through the windshield at this range. Cold sweat dribbles down my neck as I wait to see what she's planning to do with it.

"He's old now. But he's still alive," she says as she checks the gun's cylinder, confirms it is fully loaded.

I exhale, unaware until this moment that I've been holding my breath. It would appear that she has plans for that gun, plans that have nothing to do with me. Still, I need to be careful. If she shoots me by accident I'm just as dead as if she does it on purpose, right?

She's watching me now. I think she expects a response.

"Still alive," I say. I lock eyes with her. "But maybe not for long."

She smiles a smile that will haunt my dreams until my dying day.

"Thanks for the ride."

She lets herself out.

I glance in the side-view to watch her go... and she isn't there.

I jump out of the car; I can't help it. This is a new one for me. None of my passengers - living or dead - have ever just vanished into thin air like this. Where could she have gone? There's a little alley across the way; could she have covered that distance so quickly? I start jogging in that direction but almost immediately I realize this is a terrible idea. Chasing after a vengeful dead lady with a loaded gun... what could possibly go wrong?

I return to the car in a daze. As I get back in, the smell of the interior hits me immediately... and it smells fresher than it did on the day I picked it up from the dealer. Not even a trace of cigarette smoke lingers.

I'm almost convinced I've imagined it all when my phone pings. A notification appears in my driver app: new feedback. As I stare at the screen, my overall driver rating increases by a hundredth of a point. My jaw drops. There's only one way that could have happened, given that all my prior fares have already sent ratings. I shake my head but I'm grinning. It makes no sense. She doesn't know apps from donuts.

Yet she's given me a five-star rating.

Somehow.

I realize I'm still staring at the app out of habit, waiting to see if a tip is coming so I can thank her right away...

Oh. Right.

I fish the quarters out of my pocket. One is a 1961, the other a 1952. Not so old as far as coins go; one occasionally sees coins older than that in everyday circulation. It doesn't necessarily prove anything.

It doesn't need to.

I already know what I believe.

I toss the quarters into an empty cup holder and turn my attention back to the driver app on my phone. I return the favor and give her a five-star passenger rating of her own. Normally I'd deduct a point or two for the smoking and the loaded weapon, but this time I think I'll let it slide.

Just in case she books another ride with me after she's dealt with her unfinished business.

22 comments:

  1. Nicely done, almost a, "day in the life," kind of thing except for you know, the ghost. Really enjoyed this.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, David! Glad you enjoyed the story.

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  2. What a cool story, loved it.

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  3. Another good one Ron. I enjoyed reading it! Ron Schulte Sr

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  4. This is the kind of thing that Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury used to write sixty years ago; nice company to keep.

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    1. Thank you Bill. Was definitely going for a vintage feel with this piece. Perhaps someday I'll deserve to be compared to such masters of the craft. ;)

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  5. I really enjoyed this story. I'm partial to stories that draw from everyday events, while infusing an element of speculative fiction. To me, it makes the story more relatable and engaging. Nice job!

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    1. Agreed Kevin, just the sort of tale I enjoy. Thanks for commenting!

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  6. Enjoyed the ride, Ron, especially this line: "but at this moment, in this Corolla, it fits perfectly." The newer than new car smell was another nice touch. Cheers.

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    1. Thanks Jim, glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

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  7. Great story. Good pacing. The characterizations are interesting and well done.

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  8. I was dropped into the story from the first sentence. I enjoyed the tension between the narrator's blunt, matter-of-fact voice and the fantastical situation he found himself in; another workday for him nonetheless. The story flowed smoothly to to a very satisfying conclusion for me--that one statement from his passenger told a story of its own about what had happened to her, and what was going to happen, letting me fill in the details on my own. Thank you for a great read!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Barbara. I imagined that there's probably very little this aging NYC cab driver hasn't seen, making him uniquely equipped to deal with this situation. Glad you enjoyed the story. :)

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  9. I like the way the artifacts of another time/era are juxtaposed in the modern era. I agree with another commenter as to the Bradbury-like feel of the story. Nice tension throughout.

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    1. Thanks Barry, glad to hear the story resonated with you!

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  10. I loved your story. Cool vibe that a dead person riding a cab is not the most common thing, but not totally unheard of either.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Parker, that's exactly the balance I was trying to strike. :)

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  11. A great 21st Century take on the ghost story! It held my interest from start to finish, and I have no more experience with ride sharing apps than the ghost.

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    1. Thanks Jim. I was in the same boat until the last couple years when I started spending a good deal of time in NYC and discovered the wonderful worlds of Uber and Lyft (and the seeds of this story were planted).

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