by Matt Perron
I’d already been on the road for more than twelve hours when a young woman with sleek curves and a large white flower in her hair hailed me from across Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. Picking up street passengers is illegal for car service drivers; but considering the price of gas and lack of fares, I’d stopped caring about that law a long time ago. I checked my mirrors for cops, and then swerved across the yellow line to the opposite curb. “Hurry it up,” I said. “I’m facing the wrong way here.”
Necklace beads clacked as she dropped into the seat behind me.
“Left on Third, right on Bond,” she said.
We rolled back onto the street. “Ain’t you too young for this old-man music?” she said.
After two years in a Town Car, I was used to pushy patrons. But there was something different about this one; I thought maybe I’d heard her voice before, but couldn’t place where. “I listen to it when I’m working,” I said. “Classical keeps me calm.”
“How calm do you have to be to sit on your ass all day?”
“Drive one of these things for one night,” I said, “see how calm you feel.”
She grunted, like she figured it’d be easy. “I’m the one paying. And I say change the station.”
That familiar bitchy tone, she must’ve been in my car before. “I’m the one driving, and I say it relaxes me.”
And then I remembered. Could it be her? We reached the intersection at Fourth Avenue. I pressed a button on the driver’s side door and, slowly, the side-view mirror angled toward me, showing the black flank of the car and then finally the window. She was skinnier and the change from tight t- shirts and jeans to the more stylish blouse and leggings had masked her on the curb, but now I recognized the high cheekbones, olive-shaped eyes, and sharp nose. Samantha.
My hands tightened on the wheel. Time and again I’d fantasized about payback, but I never thought I’d actually see her again. And now here she was in my backseat. I locked my eyes onto the road.
* * * * *
It was April and my sophomores were battling rampant lust exacerbated by a spring heat wave hot enough to bead sweat on bare midriffs. Last period had arrived and, as usual for that time of day, it was practically impossible to get the kids to pay attention. Eventually, through some combination of manners and sympathy for me, most of them began to halfheartedly listen to my lesson. I tried to ignore the ones who didn’t, but the girls sitting in the back drawing dress designs in their notebooks and gossiping loudly about the sexy Spanish teacher made it impossible.
“Hey, Samantha,” I said. “They can hear you in Jersey right about now.”
She giggled. “Okay, Mr. Teague,” she said. “You go ahead.”
I turned to write on the dry-erase board.
She must’ve said something under her breath, because the girls burst into laughter again.
I turned. “Samantha, please.”
“What?” she snapped.
I knew this was a troubled kid, and yelling back would be a mistake, so I made an effort to control my building anger. “Sorry,” I said, “but you’re frustrating me right now. Would you please stop interrupting?”
“I didn’t say nuthin’.”
I raised my eyebrows.
She shook her head and sucked her teeth at me. “Whatever.”
I continued the lesson. Three times I had to stop and warn the class that we’d stay after the bell if the work ethic didn’t improve. Finally, after spending most of the period walking from table to table trying in vain to keep everybody focused on writing journals, the end-of-day bell rang. “All right,” I shouted as I moved across the room and stood in front of the door. “You’ve wasted at least ten minutes of my time. And now you’re going to make it up with ten minutes of detention before anyone goes home.”
The students stopped talking, except for Samantha. “Fuck that,” she snapped. “I didn’t do nuthin’. I ain’t staying.”
“Come on, Sam, just be quiet,” somebody said. “I’m going to be late for rehearsal.”
“Yeah, and I have to pick up my little sister,” someone else said.
“I ain’t staying.”
“Samantha,” I said. “You have to know you’re the last one who should be complaining.”
“What the fuck do you know?” She slammed the back of her chair into the table behind her and rose from her seat.
“We can’t start the time until everybody is sitting down,” I said.
A chorus of pleas and sharp demands erupted.
She wheeled around at her classmates. “Shut the fuck up!” Then she walked right at me. “Out of my way!” She grabbed the knob and pulled, but my heel was tight to the bottom. “I’m leaving!” she screamed, suddenly wild-eyed, lower lip quivering. “Get the fuck out of my way!”
Her anger verged on hysteria, and I almost let her go, but I knew that if she skipped out on another detention, she’d be suspended yet again. And I didn’t want to let her out into the community ranting and raving. I held my ground. “Calm down,” I said. “It’s only ten minutes.”
She backed off and kicked the door, narrowly missing my leg. “Let me out!”
“You’ve got to calm down first.”
The other students fidgeted at their tables.
“Everybody line up,” I said.
They lined up along the wall beside the door, shuffling their feet and laughing anxiously.
“Destiny, get the principal,” I said.
She pumped her head.
I opened the door just enough so that the students could fit through one at a time.
Samantha tried to maneuver around me to the opening, but I kept an arm in front of her.
She crashed into my elbow, and then quickly backed off. “Don’t you fucking touch me!”
“You slammed into me.”
“Fuck you!” She sent a chair clattering across the room with a vicious kick.
The last student hustled out of the room and I closed the door.
We were alone. Immediately, I remembered what she’d said about my touching her and wished I’d asked one of the students to stay.
“I’m going to get you for this,” Samantha wheezed and pulled at the knob again. “Let me out!”
I kept my face neutral and avoided eye contact until there was a knock on the door.
Principal Flores looked through the window and rolled her eyes.
I opened the door.
“What’s going on with her now?” she said.
“He touched me!” Samantha screamed and began hyperventilating again.
Flores put a hand on my arm. “She’s never going to calm down with you in here,” she said. “Let me take care of this.”
I hesitated for a moment.
“Mr. Teague, please,” she said.
I went out into the hall to wait.
A group of kids from the class were hanging around outside the door. “Man, she really freaked,” one said. “Bitch is crazy,” said another. “You all right?” Someone patted my shoulder.
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking,” I said. “But I think Ms. Flores has it under control. You guys should head home.”
“You sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
They drifted off down the hallway and left me contemplating the closed door. I snuck a peek through the window, but could only see Flores’ back. She nodded her head and I could hear her soothing tone, but not what she was saying. When I saw her begin to turn, I stepped back.
Flores and Samantha emerged. The girl sauntered past me and down the hallway like she owned the place. Her quick recovery disturbed me further.
“Can I see you in my office?” Flores said.
Following her down the hall, I drew measured breaths through my nose to combat the spreading scraped-hollow feeling in my stomach.
When we arrived, she increased my anxiety by closing the door.
“This is very serious, Derrick,” she said, settling behind her desk.
“I know. I’ve never seen a student act like that before. Is she all right?”
Flores nodded. “How long were you alone in the room with her?”
The hollow feeling spread into my groin and I moved to the edge of the chair. I’d heard horror stories. “Not more than a few minutes.”
“She said you grabbed her breast.”
“That’s an outright lie.”
She leaned toward me and rested her elbows on the desk. “This is going to be one hell of a rodeo,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sure you know there’ve already been a lot of issues with her and her mother.”
“She’d rather believe in problems with our school than face Samantha’s much scarier issues.”
“I think I understand.”
She picked up a pen and tapped it a few times on her blotter. “This kind of stuff comes with the territory. I hope you won’t take it too personally.”
“How should I take it?”
“Just understand if it wasn’t you, it would’ve been someone else. This isn’t your fault.”
“I guess that’s reassuring.”
“Samantha’s got a file a mile long,” she said. “Still, there are procedures and we have to follow them. Just remember that the first year is always the worst.”
She smiled. “Sorry this happened to you. I’ll keep you posted.”
* * * * *
I wanted to drive to East New York and kick her out on the roughest street I could find. That could cost me my job, and I knew all too well the futility of trying to find anything else, but I didn’t care. It’d be worth it. I looked into the slice of mirror and found her staring back at me. “Recognize me?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, seemingly without a trace of self- consciousness. “You, Mr. Bigshot teacher driving a gypsy cab. What’d you go and leave the school for anyways?”
My knuckles went white on the wheel. “You can’t be serious.”
She ignored my tone. “One too many cuties in your class?”
“Namely you.” I checked her reaction in the mirror.
She scrunched her face like I’d told a bad joke.
I wanted to park the car, reach over the seat, and throttle her. “Being lied about sucks,” I said. “Doesn’t take much to get people talking.”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “Like anybody ever listened to me. They found for you, didn’t they?”
“So. You think that’s all that matters?”
“I never thought you’d actually quit.”
I pulled the car to the curb and turned to look at her.
She peered defiantly back. The clicking blinker seemed loud in the closed space of the car.
“Are you admitting that tantrum of yours was an act?” I said.
“Yeah,” she snapped. “What of it? I had plenty to worry about without school.”
“And that gives you the right to mess up my life?”
She rolled her eyes and then looked out the passenger window. “Mess up my life he says.”
“You’re goddamn right. That place meant something to me.”
“Oh, please.” She turned her angry glare on me. “If the place was so goddamned precious to you, you wouldn’t have left. But you did. And now you’ve got no problem laying your dumbass mistake in my lap. After all, I’m only the moron who didn’t graduate.”
Her cell phone rang.
She pulled it from her purse and frowned down at it for a moment before answering. “Aurora here,” she said, suddenly calm again. “No, I don’t think so. It’s been a long night already. Nothing’s gone right.” She closed her eyes. “It’s way past midnight.” She let her head fall back against the seat and sagged lower. “Because, I’m exhausted.” She opened her eyes, saw me looking at her in the mirror, and quickly straightened her posture. “All right then, if you put it that way,” she said. “What’s the address? Apartment?” She put the phone back in her purse. “Have to go to Dumbo instead,” she said.
I’d been driving long enough to know what her conversation meant, and I wanted her to know that I knew. “Meeting a client?” I said.
“None of your business.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“We do what we have to. Don’t we, Mr. Teague? And guess what? You’re the asshole driving me. So put the fucking car in gear.” She stared right into my eyes, daring me to contradict her.
I faced her for a moment, hoping to find some kind of retort, but there was nothing to say. She wasn’t the one who’d lost his cool in the face of impersonal bureaucracy and a callous rumor mill. No, she was far too street-smart to be intimidated by that kind of foolishness. I put the car in gear, and drove her toward the high-rise apartment buildings lining the East River.
Matthew Perron’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cadillac Cicatrix, Sanskrit, The Dos Passos Review, RiverSedge, and G.W. Review. After graduating from Northeastern University in Boston, he worked at an orphanage for traumatized children and for a computer company testing protocol analyzers. A graduate of the Arizona Writer’s Workshop, he now resides in Brooklyn, where he teaches middle school.