Monday, January 3, 2011

Last Fare

It was a lousy night. A Tuesday? A Monday? I don't remember. Just another in a long line of lousy nights. Long hours. Shit money. Maybe it was the holidays. Maybe it was the cold. Maybe I'd been driving too long. Whatever. I was tired. I was cranky. I needed a drink. And looking back, perhaps it affected my judgment.

I was gassing up, preparing to finish my shift.

"Shuh?"

Where did that come from? I was the only car in the gas station. I looked up, wondering if it was the lone clerk in the plexiglass booth talking to me over the speaker.

"Y'dake me'd m'rose?"

I leaned across the hose. Hidden behind the advertising tent was a slight man. He was dressed sharply in khakis, an Oxford shirt and sport jacket. He looked like he might have just gotten off work, other than the fact that it was the middle of the night and he had a gaping head wound. He also seemed drunk, really drunk. I took another look at the wound. It was bright red, oozing blood, angry and swollen except for a penumbra of dried blood at the edges. Then I thought: He might not be drunk, but in shock or he had a concussion.

"You need help mister?" I asked.

"Take me'd Melrose?" he said, his arm extended, leaning against the car.

No, he was just drunk, really drunk. Still, that was a nasty gouge on his head.

"Why don't you let me take you to the emergency room," I said.

"Nu-ah... no," he slurred. "No, no, no... NO!" he yelled. "No doctors."

Technically, legally, in the City of Boston you can't refuse to give a ride to anyone, no matter how drunk he or she is unless they have an open container of alcohol, refuse to put out their cigarette or you have a legitimate fear for your own safety. This fellow didn't meet the first two criteria, and given his condition I doubt he was much of a threat. So really, in my mind, I had three options: 1) I could say no, go home and leave him there, and let the guy behind the plexiglass deal with him or just let him wander into the night; 2) I could take him to the hospital against his will, which probably meant no fare, no tip and who knows what else kind of trouble, or; 3) I could just take him to Melrose and hope he had someone to help him and hope he had some money on him to cover the fare. My head told me to just leave him there and go home, make him someone else's problem. But there was no really good choice. I sighed.

"You got an address?"

He gave it to me.

"Okay, get in."

He opened the door, threw one leg in, sat on the edge of the seat and tumbled out onto the pavement.

"I'm s'right!" he shouted, clambering back into the car.

I told him to give the door another slam, just to make sure it was shut, then punched the meter.

"M'wife gonna keel me," he said. I didn't answer. I didn't want to know. My sense was the gaping head wound was the least of his problems. At this time of night there would be no traffic. I could be back within an hour, home within two. I turned the volume up on a late night blues station. I could tell this guy was going to be no company.

He started to snore. I looked in my rear view mirror. His head was resting against the door.

"Hey, buddy, wake up!" I yelled. "You're bleeding all over my car."

"Wha'up?" he snorted. He raised his hand and felt the wound. "Oh mah, I really am bleeding."

"Yes, you'll have to have someone look at that," I said, handing him a wad of napkins from Dunkin' Donuts.

"She gonna keel me," he said again, almost in his sleep. His chin was bobbing against his chest as the car bounced along. I turned the radio back up. Howlin' Wolf was singing "I Asked for Water, She Brought Me Gasoline."

Once out of the city the streets were largely dark and empty. I waited for the lights to change at intersections where there was no traffic. Other than street lamps, nearly all the lights were off. It looked like one of those post-apocalyptic cityscapes you see in the movies. I wanted to go home.

"Whoah. Sto'here!" he yelled. I stopped. It was one of those blocky, brick and glass apartment buildings built in the Sixties and Seventies. I told him the fare, about thirty bucks. He dug into his pockets, one after the other, pulling out whatever he could find: packs of matches, loose change and a few bills. He counted through it, slowly, stopping at times and starting over again. After three or four minutes, he finished.

"Ooo... d'hurts," he moaned, touching his head. He handed over a wad of soggy bills.

I thanked him, not bothering to count the bills. He climbed slowly out of the car, groaning as he did. He could have used help. I didn't offer it.

"D'hanks," he said.

As I pulled away, I looked in my rear view. He stood, teetering on the edge of the curb, staring at the short flight of steps up to the lobby door as if planning a route up the North Face of Mount Everest. By the time I drove up the street, pulled into a driveway to turn around and drove back past, he was still there, pondering his next step. I drove on.

He might never move. He might never make it home. He might fall over, gash open the other side of his head and bleed to death. Or stumble off and pass out under a bush and freeze to death. Maybe I should have taken him to the hospital. I didn't know. Didn't care. Fuck him. Fuck Melrose. I was tired. I was cranky. I needed to get home.