Vampire Cabbie - Chapter 3


Hired

But wait a sec. Any job you apply at, you gotta go during business hours. I thought vampires can't go out in the sun.

Sunlight. It seems you mortals seems to always wonder about that.Hollywood again, but at least this is one facet of our existence whose accuracy is not butchered by they of the silver screen.

Bob once asked me if the application of sunscreen would allow me to endure sunlight. I replied, quite nebulously, that sunlight affects vampires in a more spiritual way, and therefore, sunscreen would have no discernible effect. However, over the years, I have become less vulnerable, my body seemingly becoming 'harder' and more impervious to such things; when forced to flee Spain during the Inquisition and having no choice but to leave before nightfall, my flesh actually blistered beneath my clothing. Now, it merely stings. Even after 1,000 years, sunrise still will kill me as surely as anything, but once the sun passes its apex in the sky, its power seems to weaken, allowing me to be exposed to its rays.

Thus, I did not despair when they told me that I would have to apply in person between nine and five. Dark glasses, a wide-brimmed fedora and my black leather jacket with the collar turned upward provided ample protection from the waning sun, which, of course, it being late November, hung very low in the sky, even by mid-afternoon.

When I was ushered upstairs to see the operations manager, a nervous, skinny little fellow named Kevin, I was confident of my prospects. Fully prepared, I handed Kevin myNew York driver's license and a copy of my driving record, which the State ofNew York had kindly faxed that afternoon. The operations manager inspected the materials and, with a nod of the head, ushered me into a large room dominated by a mammoth, Arthurian round table. He handed me an application and a test to measure geographic proclivity. I smiled broadly at Kevin. Anticipating such a test, I had studied a map of the city.

Then, the struggle began, first, with the employment application. Education? Well, I did receive that degree fromOxford . Otherwise, I am self-taught. It is quite astonishing what one can learn in a thousand years.

Employment history? How does one explain being independently wealthy for the last 300 years?

Eventually, I decided against mentioning the degree fromOxford , instead merely recording the name of a private school for boys inGermany I know of. As for employment history, I cited my position as president of Farkus Imports for the last fifteen years and stretched the truth by stating that I had taken over the family business. Actually, I had started the business myself, utilizing rare and unusual objects collected over the centuries, a practice many vampires have done (and we are a family of sorts).

The geographic test presented greater problems. First, being an eight-and-one-half by eleven-inch photocopy of aMadison map, it proved quite difficult to read. Second, the street names were missing.

The test covered two pages. On one page, I was required to identify main thoroughfares. My geographic study, along with a superior memory, made this task relatively easy. For instance,Mineral Point Road starts where that sprawling cemetery ends.Randall Street ends at the zoo. Only a cretin would not recognizeUniversity Avenue , especially with those two immense churches.

Part two, however, presented more difficulty, requiring identification of certain landmarks, such as West Towne Mall, South Towne Mall, the State Capitol and various public schools. Without sufficient frames of reference, I had to simply guess.

When the test was complete, I found Kevin at his desk, or what I assumed was a desk; it was difficult to tell, for the object he sat behind was covered by mounds of paper. The operations manager glanced at the application, then the geographical test. His response was most shocking indeed.

"Sorry, Al," he said. "Looks like you didn't quite pass the map test. Sure came damn close."

That ridiculous test would prevent me from being employed while that lout who had picked me up at the airport was able to insult his passengers with impunity? "Ialmost passed?" Incredulous, I simply knew not what else to say.

"Yeah." Kevin picked up the application and studied it further. "I see you just moved here. You did pretty well, considering. Three more right answers and you would've passed. Hell, that's better than some students I've seen who've lived here the better part of four years, who come here looking for jobs 'cuz they got their degree, but don't know what to do with themselves, what with the job market for bachelor degrees gone and taken a shit. Yeah, they walk in here, barely get half the answers on the map test and wonder why we don't wanna hire 'em. But what are we supposed to do when the only streets they know are Langdon and State? Hell, there's more toMadison than frat parties and campus bars."

"In my life, I have lived in many places and have learned how to master a city's geography in a short period of time. It is merely survival."

Kevin leaned back in his chair. "Hey, just spend some time checking the city out. Come back in a week. You're allowed to take the test again. If you want to."

I smiled broadly at the operations manager. "I will do just that. I am grateful for the opportunity. This is really where I want to work."

"That so?"

"Yes. I had moved here for another job, but it was unavailable when I arrived. One of your drivers gave me a ride from the airport. He was so courteous and professional, it just seemed to me that this company would be a good place to work." Yes, a lie, but alas, within all lies, is there not a grain of truth?

"Well, it is." Kevin's smiled, and I noticed a bright twinkle in his eyes. As the Americans say, I had pushed the correct button. "Hey, being a worker-owned-and-operated cooperative makes a big difference in an industry known for its corruption and exploitation. Co-op Cab is probably one of the best cab companies to work for in the whole country."

Co-op Cab. Of course, a cooperative! No wonder this Kevin fellow was so sloppily dressed. No wonder they allow that lout to work. The commoners take over, winning the right to languish in their own mediocrity, just like the collective farms ofEastern Europe . "I have never worked for a cooperative," I said.

"Well, they can be a real challenge. Hell, a real pain in the ass sometimes, but they're worthwhile." Kevin made a show of shuffling through a pile of papers on his desk, and I knew I was occupying too much of his time.

"I will study the city's geography," I said, rising from my seat. "Then I will return and pass your test."

"You betcha." Kevin stood and shook my hand warmly. "Look forward to seeing you again, Al. Nice meeting you."

"My pleasure. I will return in one week." I pulled my hand away, turned and left, wondering exactly what kind of challenges a cooperative could possibly present, and wondering how I, Count Farkus, always Lord and Master, might respond to a place where the serfs are also the masters of the estate.

I redoubled my efforts, attacking the available geographic resources with ferocious ferality, pouring over city and campus maps, utilizing mnemonic techniques learned long ago, stacking associations upon associations to memorize locations of each and every "point of interest" as designated by a tourist map, then weaving the Toyota in a tight tapestry of closely overlapping circles, grateful that Bob had selected a vehicle that burns petrol so efficiently. I drove to West Towne, South Towne andEast Towne . By the four winds of Hades, what determinations will future archaeologists make when they unearth the ruins of this society only to find shopping malls?

I would pass that map test.

In the interim, my books and recordings arrived - old friends able to provide solace to a lonely soul. Moliere, Shakespeare, Camus, Dante, Bizet, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Art Pepper. Alas, why cannot today spawn such giants?

With the arrival of the weekend, it seemed time to once again exploreState Street .

State Street is a bridge connecting the twin pinnacles ofMadison 's power and influence. At the east end, the Capitol erupts, piercing the night with its brilliance. Bascom Hill marks the other end, defining the center of the campus - the epicenter - for upon the top of this glacial blister sits one of the oldest buildings on campus, which houses the university's chancellor. A professor would later tell me there is a secret tunnel that runs underneath Bascom Hill, leading to an elevator that opens within the chancellor's office. However, only tenured professors know about the tunnel and elevator, or so he had said, though this puffery was most assuredly a jest.

On street level, between these icy spires of elitism, the common revelers reside. My previous foray being on a Tuesday, the street was relatively quiet, certainly not betraying the carnival atmosphere of this Saturday night, the bars overflowing, the broad sidewalks dotted with jugglers and troubadours, Christmas wreaths hanging from each and every light post.

Late November, the night was clear and still, the sky a tapestry of twinkling flowers. It was chilly, but obviously not as cold as it would be, though I am no expert on relative temperature; my wardrobe decisions are based on fashion, not utility. This early in the winter, my thin, black leather jacket did not cause me to stand out among legions of heavily bundled, shivering people all dreaming of a warm hearth. The other street inhabitants were dressed in much the same manner as I, hardy folk that they were, well accustomed to the raw clime.

One would think a world renowned university would create a somewhat cosmopolitan atmosphere. Strolling very slowly, letting people course past me, the proof reached my ears. A pair of Chinese couples nearly bumped into me, speaking rapidly among themselves, switching back and forth from Mandarin to Cantonese. A Caucasian male spoke with a tiny Japanese woman, his command of her language astounding; he certainly made himself well enough understood to several times cause her to giggle with her hand covering her mouth.A street labeled

as "Gilman" spoked off at an angle. Through the window of a crowded bar near the intersection, I saw quite the eclectic collection of brown and black faces, perhaps from as many as two dozen countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Eclectic indeed. Much to my surprise, this six block street offered quite the haute cuisine, Greek and Italian perhaps the least exotic as compared with Afghani, Moroccan, Thai, Bolivian and even Nepali, which I do not recall ever seeing outsideKathmandu .

Still, this international variety stood out mostly as a stark contrast to the vast crowds of Europeans, including so many, many Nordic blondes who seemed to be the lightest clothed; a crowd of young women stood outside an establishment called "Stillwaters," and none wore a coat or even the thinnest of jackets.

Ahead, a strapping young university student approached, then exited into an alley (his cardinal red sweatshirt identified his institutional affiliation). I peered into the alley and watched him. The alley was actually a driveway running between a pair of parking garages.

My spine tingled. I had not fed in about five days, and if it was not yet actually time, it would soon be.

With barely a conscious thought, I willed my body to transform from solid matter to mist, chuckling in silent recall at the memory of the first time attempting this feat, fearfully exhilarated, wondering if my body would be able to regain its cohesion, wondering if my arms would not end up where my legs were supposed to be; having been under Francois's tutelage for nearly two centuries, he had finally seen fit to explain that we can do this and taught me how. When I had rematerialized intact and fully clothed, it still seemed unbelievable.

I willed myself to rematerialize just ahead of the fellow's path, around a corner, out of sight. At the proper moment, I emerged ten feet in front of him, my eyes instantly meeting his. My consciousness thrust gently into his, and for a short moment before lowering mental filters, naked coeds danced before my eyes as my will was imposed firmly upon him, but without pain or terror - long ago, before ever having encountered Francois, I fed on terror as much as blood, but I have long since ended that distasteful practice. Bloodis not always enough, but there are emotions far tastier than terror from which a vampire may feed. Besides, it is quite rude to unnecessarily terrify someone who has been kind enough to yield some of their essence.

Instead, I merely took my requisite pint which tasted of barley, hops and yeast, then let the lad off on his merry way, where he surely would replace the fluids he had just lost. He resumed his ambling gate, then stumbled and fell. I hid around a corner and watched him lay on the pavement for a few minutes, his breathing labored. He attempted to push himself up, but failed, his face slapping against the asphalt.

He sat up and pressed his face between his knees. From around the corner, three men spotted him and ran to his aid - friends apparently. They helped him to his feet and lent support as they marched off into the night.

"Pretty hammered!" I heard one yell.

I licked blood off my lips, puzzled at this fellow's reaction. He had definitely been drinking, but not that much. Surely, I had only taken a pint, no more, and almost certainly a little less. He looked large and healthy. Perhaps, he had recently donated blood.

With or without his knowledge or consent.

Monday, on a nicely overcast afternoon, I returned to the cab office and did indeed pass the test. Kevin seemed happy with the result and announced that interviews were to be held Wednesday. I felt quite encouraged, assuming that Kevin would conduct the interview. However, my assumption proved incorrect when the operations manager made a reference to "the Hiring Committee."

"I thought you might be conducting the interview," I replied sheepishly.

"Hey," Kevin said, "this is a co-op. We have committees for everything. But don't worry, they don't bite."

No, I certainly did not think that they did, but as I quickly discovered, they did have teeth. On the appointed day, the waning afternoon sun shone brightly, causing me excruciating pain; I almost turned back halfway through my drive to the office, but instead just gritted my teeth and used long-practiced mental discipline to block out the pain. After a short wait, they ushered me into the room where my geographic proclivity had been tested and sat me down at the round table, the four Hiring Committee members facing me from the other end of the table - four mortals staring at me, scrutinizing me, surely trying to peer deep into my being. I attempted to reassure myself that they would not suspect anything odd about me, that their scrutiny was based solely on the desire to hire the best possible applicants. Certainly this notion was easily intellectualized, but my kind has never liked close scrutiny, has never liked bright lights, though I knew the florescent lights that illuminated this room make everyone ghastly pale. That is why I prefer to wear tans and light browns, as well as muted pastels. These colors tend to offset the effect of my deathly pale flesh. The notion that vampires wear black is simply nothing but drivel.

The oldest member of the committee, a casually dressed, slender, bird-like woman of approximately 40 years, finally broke the silence. I could tell she was a leader, simply by her poise and bearing. "Thanks for coming, Al," she began. "We'll try to make this as painless as possible, but I will let you know, the Hiring Committee takes its responsibility very seriously. I'm Maureen Hellenbrand, general manager of Co-op Cab."

A female manager indeed! How American.

"This is Kern," she continued, pointing to her right. "He drives nights and is an on-the-road trainer."

"Howdy," Kern said, with the kind of grin the Americans might call "goofy." He was long-limbed and stocky with long, thin hair and a scraggly beard that seemed to be bushy just to be sure to cover his whole face, including what would be bare spots had his beard been properly trimmed.

"I'm Carey Antonelli," a rather grim, rather masculine, rather large woman said. "I also drive nights."

"And I'm Dale Simmons," said a neatly dressed man with a proper, closely cropped beard. "I work in the waybill office."

"Bean counter," Kern interjected, fondling the red star pinned to his blue denim jacket. Dale smiled. Maureen glared at Kern. Obviously, Dale must be the fussy, fastidious accounting type, unless this cooperative had diversified into agriculture.

Maureen launched the first salvo. "Please tell us, why do you want to be a cab driver?"

Let the games begin, I thought. "I need a job. I simply need to make money."

"But you were president of your own company," Carey replied quickly. "Why go from that to being a lowly cab driver?"

"My company went out of business. Again, I need a job. And I think I would enjoy the independent aspect of cab driving, so accustomed I am to being my own boss, as it were."

"Ah," Dale said, smiling slyly and stroking his beard, like a chess grandmaster whose opponent had unwittingly just left his queen unguarded. "But surely no cab driver is an island unto him or herself. We don't want free agents. We need people who work and play well with others. You would need to be able to work as a team player with your dispatcher, your fellow drivers and, of course, the staff in the waybill office."

"Of course," I replied, fearing that I had already represented myself in a detrimental manner. What was it they wanted to hear? "I have always enjoyed working with others, sharing ideas, having others share their ideas with me. All of us working together to solve whatever problems there are that require solution."

"How long do you plan on sticking around?" Kern asked gently.

"As you can determine from my employment application, I have just recently moved here inMadison . I find this town quite lovely. And, thus far, all my interactions with the people at Co-op Cab have been quite positive. Certainly, if hired, I think I would stay for a good amount of time."

The committee members nodded their heads, seemingly in unison. "Now, you know we're a cooperative," Maureen said. "Have you ever been employed at a worker-owned-and-operated cooperative?"

"And are you now or have you ever been a member of a cooperative?" Carey added.

Are you now or have you ever been in league with Satan? Is that not what the Grand Inquisitor had asked so many years ago? "My apologies. I would have to answer no to both questions. However, the cooperative model seems ...intriguing. I would certainly look forward to learning more about it." Yes, a lie, but I did need this job.

"I should hope so," Dale said, his words vaguely tinted with sarcasm. "How would you feel about working at a place where sometimes it becomes necessary for you to do certain things where you don't get paid, but because they benefit the whole, they benefit yourself?"

"And there's two other cab companies in town that you could've applied at," Carey said. Maureen craned her neck forward. Kern leaned back, stretching his long legs in front of him. "Why come here?"

Julianne had been my lover, had given herself to me fully and freely. Her whole self. Her body, her essence, her soul. A particularly nefarious strain of the grippe had swept acrossSpain . She was dying until I intervened. But then her brother betrayed us both to the Inquisition. When the Inquisitor questioned me, I could not find the correct answers. Apparently, neither could Julianne.

"I am not sure exactly to what you refer," I answered, blinking back to the present, knowing I had applied for a position at this particular cab company simply because I had no knowledge of the other two. "Certainly, I would expect to get paid a full day's wage for a full day's work. However, if, within the cooperative structure, there is anything I can do to benefit the common good, well, I most certainly would be willing to help in

whatever capacity I could. As for why Co-op Cab - " What had Kevin said? "In an industry known for its corruption and exploitation, it would seem that Co-op Cab, being a cooperative, is probably one of the best cab companies to work for in the whole country."

"Good answer, Al," Kern said with a laugh. He sneered at Dale and Carey. Carey crossed her arms in front of her ample chest. Dale sat back in his chair and rubbed his beard, a sly smile still on his face. Perhaps, he prepared for the next salvo. "You got my vote. What office are you running for anyway?" He paused, laughed again and smiled at me. "Co-ops can be frustrating places, Al. Having owned your own business, you're probably used to having your way. Often, in a co-op, things happen where nobody gets their way. We make progress, but sometimes it's real slow because we try to be as democratic as possible, through majority, if not consensus."

"Democracy is good," I replied, immediately regretting the simplistic nature of that remark. "If people want to run their places of work, then they should have the opportunity to do so." Yes, yet another lie, but once the first lie is told, the rest get shockingly easy.

Heads nodded. I think they liked that answer, but did I believe it myself? Whatwas I getting myself into?

Maureen broke the short silence. "At Co-op Cab, we take pride in being a full-service cab company. No New York-style cabbies here. We're courteous, polite, we open doors, and we don't drive like maniacs. Many of our passengers are elderly or disabled. These customers require greater care and take more time than other customers. As a driver, you would be paid commission, not by the hour, and if you get too many elderly or disabled passengers, you might not make as much money. How do you feel about that?"

"They are paying customers and therefore must be treated with the same degree of respect as all other customers." Surely, this was what they wanted to hear, that is unless they were trying to determine if I was trying to tell them what they wanted to hear. "If customers receive poor service, they will call another cab company, and that would be a bad situation. I would treat all customers with the high degree of respect that I myself would expect to receive."

"You're near two calls," Carey abruptly interjected. "Remember, you only make money when your meter's running. One call is going from one end of town to the other. You know this, but you get the other, and it's some little old lady going about two blocks, and she moves real slow. How do you feel about that?"

"Regardless of how I feel, I would keep my feelings to myself. This woman has done us the honor of calling our company and therefore should be treated accordingly. Besides, that is merely one call. Time, after all, is the great equalizer."

Dale and Maureen nodded. Kern smiled. Carey scowled. "You're assigned a call," Kern said. "You get there as fast as you can, but the person's been waiting a real long time. They're pissed off, and they're being abusive to you, even if this isn't your fault. How would you deal with that?"

The Grand Inquisitor had been correct to brand me as in league with Satan and sentence me to the rack, for who but one in league with Satan could escape his shackles and disappear into thin air. Poor, sweet Julianne was unable to perform such magic. "First," I began, "I would not take any of it personally. Human nature often dictates that people will lash out at the most convenient target, regardless of whether or not that person, place or thing had anything to do with their predicament. Therefore, I would exert great effort to not allow this person to get under my skin, as it were.

"Second, I would do whatever possible to soothe this person, which of course, I would be best equipped to do if I maintain my composure. This person might be a frequent customer, and we would not want to lose their business. Or maybe it is their first time calling us. I would want to do whatever I could to let them know that this situation was an aberration."

"Then, you'd lie," Kern said, laughing loudly.

"Ignore him," Maureen said, her eyes never leaving mine.

"Hey, there's times in the afternoon when calls rot," Kern countered.

"We're working on it," Maureen replied, shooting Kern an angry glance, then turning back toward me, waiting for my answer. Was this not my interview?

Rot. Julianne's sweet soul gone, her body rotting in a mass grave, for I was unable to rescue her, having arrived too late to stop them. Her screams echoed in my skull as I searched for her, knowing her torturers relished her anguished cries, marveling at how many turns she could take beforeeven her spine finally snapped like so much kindling.

"Perhaps," I finally answered, "there are certain times of the day when the volume of business may result in less than optimal service. That being the case, I would attempt to explain it to the customer. Whenever possible, I would explain reasons why we were so late and offer viable suggestions as to how the customer might help rectify the situation."

"As you can tell," Maureen said, nodding at my response, "cab driving can be pretty stressful. How do you deal with stress?"

Ah ha! Do some applicants state that stress presents no problems, an obvious and transparent lie that would surely not go unnoticed by the committee? But what couldI say? Run naked through the woods, stalking deer, bear and other large prey, relishing the hunt before drinking the steaming blood of my quarry? "Stress is a part of life," I said. "One must accept that stress exists. One must yield to stress to overcome it."

"Lao Tsu!" Kern clapped his hands loudly.

"I appreciate your time, Al," Maureen said. "Only one question left." She glanced at the others. "Okay, who wants to ask it this time?" Dale rolled his eyes. Carey rubbed her temples and stared at the ceiling. Kern leaned forward, rubbing his hands vigorously together.

"I'll ask it. I'll ask it," Kern said, squirming excitedly in his chair.

"Go ahead," Maureen replied.

"Okay, Al. If they made a movie of your life, who would you want to play you?"

Motherless spawn of Satan! What kind of question was that? My mind drew an irritated blank, then suddenly I heard my own voice blurt out: "Frank Langella."

Kern laughed out loud, as did the others, even Carey. "Why?" Kern asked.

I was embarrassed and alarmed, then remembered there are no shadows in which to hide, only plain sight. "I admired his work in the nineteen seventy-nine version ofDracula . He brought an unprecedented sensitive sensuality to the role."

"There is no right answer to that question," Maureen said. "It's just something we ask, just because we've always asked it."

"Without tradition," Dale added, "we would be like a fiddler on the roof."

Maureen ignored Dale's remark. "Again, Al, thanks for your time. We'll be in touch."

I rose and shook hands with all the committee members. The way Kern smiled, I firmly believed he would support me. The others were inscrutable, but studying Carey's scowling countenance, I wondered if this had merely been an exercise in folly. Had others performed tasks in my behalf for so long that it would be impossible for me to secure even the most menial of employment?

Immediately following the interview, I braved the sunlight, returned to my apartment and crawled into bed, awaiting the kindness of nightfall while considering the interview and wondering if the future would be a soft mattress and silk sheets or hard, sun-baked earth full of twigs, pebbles and rocks. Except my mattress was now a thin futon, laying atop an unforgiving oak floor, and my sheets were not silk, but itchy linen. Still, even this rather austere comfort was greater than that within hardscrabble earth.

A few days of uncertainty later, the phone rang, awakening me from a deep slumber. It was my first phone call after Bob had arranged for installation.

"I'm calling to offer you a job at Co-op Cab Cooperative," Kevin said.

"Excellent!" I replied, with as much excitement as I could muster at the ungodly hour of one in the afternoon. "I am pleased, Kevin. I do accept your generous offer of employment."

"Great," he said. "Glad to have you aboard. On your application, you said you wanna work nights?"

"That is correct. I am very much a night person. Also, I have a condition...my eyes are very sensitive to sunlight. I can drive during later day hours, but it is quite painful. I was hoping to drive late nights."

"We can accommodate you, Al. I'm always looking for late drivers."

"This is almost too good to be true." Instantly, I regretted my remark.

Kevin laughed. "Just what I like to see. Enthusiasm. When can you start?"

"Ah, immediately."

"Well, first there's training. Can you make Monday at one?"

"Yes," I replied, hoping Monday would be overcast. Maybe there would be a solar eclipse.

"Good. You'll start with in-house training. That session lasts about three hours. Then, we'll see about hooking you up with an on-the-road trainer."

By all the false gods of heaven! How much training would I need? How much training does it take to pick up passengers and take them to their destinations? "I will get on the road sometime, will I not?"

Kevin laughed heartily. "Sure, Al. Our training is pretty extensive, but there's no such thing as too much training. Our rookie drivers are a zillion times better prepared than their counterparts at any of the other companies in town. Don't worry, the trainers'll keep you pretty busy, at least busy enough to keep from getting bored."

I certainly hoped so.