They stood at the end of the tobacco row, just beyond where the north end of the field met the woods. They stood in the shadows, perfectly still, watching only her. They reminded her of deer: thin... [+]
Harold Gates slowed the snow-topped yellow taxi and edged it along the slushy curb to a stop where she stood, shivering in a tattered wool coat in a January blizzard on the steps of her unlit apartment building. He watched as she sidestepped a few crushed beer cans strewn on the sidewalk, pulling open the heavy door and sliding into the backseat.
“Evenin’, missy.” The driver gave his cap a polite lift, showing a shock of white hair matching his thin moustache. “Where to, missy?”
A slim hand reached forward with a slip of paper between two fingers.
He read it and knuckled up his cap and scratched his head. “Are you sure, missy?”
She took the paper back. “Yes, I’m sure.”
He pegged her at first glance. It was easy after thirty years. She was a talker. He listened to talkers the way all New York cabbies listened, with one ear, enough to know when to say “Uh-huh” or “No kidding.” Enough not to jeopardize the tip. But he was at the end of his shift, tired, not in a listening mood, and young girls weren’t good tippers anyway.
A furtive peek into the rear-view mirror showed a slender face and neck glowing stark white in the cab’s darkness and a scarf covering blond hair. She was at best semi-attractive but bore an angelic, innocent quality the driver likened to his own daughter. Something else, too, as she sat stiffly erect, staring out her window. She seemed a little off to him, like there was a vacancy or two upstairs. It didn’t take long for her to prove him right.
“Do you like cartoons, sir?”
“Yes, missy, I do like cartoons.”
“What’s your favorite cartoon?”
“Well now I’d have to think about that.” Each time he spoke he lifted his glance to the mirror so his tired gray eyes could make polite contact.
“Mine’s Tom and Jerry.”
“No kidding? I think that’s mine, too, missy. How about that.”
He navigated conversations as well as he did the city streets. Late-night presented less of a challenge for both. The streets were relatively clear and the passengers usually too done in from a day in the city to want to do anything but sit quietly, like he wished she would.
“I think I like Tom and Jerry because I like cats. Do you like cats?”
“Can’t say that I do, missy. I’m allergic.”
“I had three cats. I loved when they purred. I could have a bad day and feel sad and when I got home and they ran to me and purred happily it gave me a good feeling inside.” She smiled for the first time and he saw that she had a pretty smile. “Like I’m wanted, you know?”
“Yes, I think I do, missy.” He surprised himself with his sincerity. “You don’t have cats anymore?”
He saw her shake her head. “Momma made me give them away. I cried.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, missy.” More surprising sincerity.
The cab sped away from the city lights for the darker four-lane to the suburbs, zooming down Interstate 495 for Long Island. With her palm she wiped away a thin fog that had formed on her window. “Isn’t the snow beautiful?”
“It’s a little tough to drive in but yeah I guess it’s nice.”
He took the exit for Sands Point and presently ornate iron gates glided by.
“We’re in the high rent district now, missy. Mansions, uppity rich people.”
“I used to work here.”
“You did? What did you do?”
“I cleaned. I’m a cleaning person. I’m good, too.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“I’m going to live here. It’s my dream come true. Momma will be so proud of me.” She paused before saying with obvious sadness, “She doesn’t like me much.”
Harold told himself nobody with a heart could let that go. “Oh now, missy, I find that truly hard to believe, a nice girl like you.”
“No, it’s true. She says so a lot. Calls me ugly and stupid. Stupid because of my condition. But don’t worry, I work and I have money and I know how to count.”
“I’m not worried, missy. And your mother should be ashamed. You’re pretty and you’re not stupid.”
“I graduated high school last year. Right on time. Some of my friends were held back.”
“Well, there you are, then. That proves it.”
Slowing down as he approached the address she gave him, he became troubled.
“So, are you a live-in housekeeper or something at this place?”
“I was. Trevor said his wife made him get rid of me, so I had to move back in with my mom. He gave me a job cleaning his office. It’s a really nice office.” She paused again. “I don’t like cleaning toilets.”
“I don’t blame you, missy.”
In a day on the job he chauffeured around many reminders of how lucky he was. This girl was one.
“I don’t want to keep calling you missy. I call every girl missy. I like you and I’d like to call you by your name, sweetie, what’s your name?”
She announced it proudly. “Ellie Jean Richards. Soon to be Ellie Jean Harris.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Ellie Jean Richards soon to be Harris. I’m Harold Gates.”
“Nice to meet you, Harold Gates.” There was a smile in her voice.
“And how old are you, honey?”
“I am nineteen.”
“And you’re getting married. Congratulations.” He saw her nod in the rearview mirror.
The address she gave him was at hand and he slowed to see through the night and the blowing snow and eventually eased the cab through a black-iron gate onto a circular driveway far removed from the city dirt.
From the back seat she craned her lean, white neck to see ahead. Noisy wipers stuttering across the windshield scraped it only clear enough for her to see white flakes whipping through the coned beams of the cab’s headlights until, closer, a lighted portico emerged through the flurries. He felt her excitement as a massive Georgian-style mansion materialized with dramatic suddenness behind the portico.
“Isn’t it beautiful, Harold?”
“That it is, Ellie Jean,” he said, slowing the cab to a stop. “But I’m confused, sweetie, so why are you coming here now? It’s after ten. Do they know you’re coming?”
“No, it’s gonna— going to be a surprise.” She counted out the amount on the meter carefully as she laid the bills and coins into the cabbie’s outstretched palm and added a tip, taking a while to be sure what was expected. “If I’m going to marry Trevor, he said I need to learn to speak properly.”
Reaching his right elbow over the back of the front seat he twisted himself around to face her. “Marry Trevor? Isn’t he already married?”
“He’s getting a divorce. He told me.”
“He did.” Harold measured his words though it hardly seemed necessary. “But his wife still lives here?”
“Is she here now?”
Ellie Jean shrugged. “Why?”
Harold looked hard into her brown eyes and the last thing he wanted to do was destroy the gleam in them. “Ellie Jean, are you sure this is a good idea, your coming here tonight?”
She opened the cab door and slid from the seat, saying as she did, “Yes it is, it’s a very good idea. Goodbye, Harold Gates.”
He rolled down his window and called after her, compelled by a mix of sympathy and apprehension. “Are you sure I can’t talk you out of this?”
“No. I have really wonderful news to tell him. I found out tonight I’m pregnant.”
Harold Gates watched her run toward the light, then rolled up his window. No matter how much he told himself it was none of his business, his heart broke for Ellie Jean Richards and it was quite some time before he could stop thinking about the girl who liked cats.