She was supposed to be out for a three mile run while her husband watched the kids, but she felt plenty exercised and she couldn’t resist the nostalgic impulse to flag the cab down as it drove towards her. The cab pulled up to the curb and Vivian ducked into the back seat.
“Where to?” asked the cabbie, turning around in his seat and giving Vivian a grizzled smile. He had a fleshy face and his dull silver hair was buzzed short.
“1402 Maplebaum,” said Vivian. “I know it’s close. I just couldn’t resist flagging you down. I saw you and it took me back.” She laughed. “I’m supposed to be jogging. And I was. That’s why I’m so sweaty.”
“No trip is too short,” said the cabbie. “I really believe that.” He pulled away from the curb.
“My kids are going to flip when I pull up in a cab,” said Vivian. “They get such a kick out of cab rides when we visit my folks in the city.”
“Oh?” said the cabbie. “How old are your kids?”
“Eight and Ten,” said Vivian.
She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. She kind of liked the smell of her own sweat. Even being as objective as she could be, she didn’t think her sweat smelled too badly. She opened her eyes and looked out the window. “Whoa, whoa,” she said. “You took a wrong turn. We’re going the wrong way.”
“Oh,” said the cabbie. “Well, we’ll just go the long way.”
“I don’t want to pay for that,” said Vivian. Then she realized with a stab of concern that there was no meter on the dash of the cab. Nor, now that she thought about it, was there anything else inside the car to distinguish it as a cab. She was really just a woman riding in the backseat of a car driven by a man she didn’t know. “Actually,” said Vivian. “You can just drop me here. This is near where my friend lives. What do I owe you?”
“No, no, no,” said the cabbie, looking back at Vivian over his shoulder as he drove. “The ride’s just a little longer. I won’t charge you for it. In fact, since you’re upset, I won’t charge you anything.”
“Cabs don’t just give free rides,” said Vivian. “What’s your deal, huh?”
“Listen,” said the cabbie. “This isn’t a real cab, OK? This is just my car. I painted it yellow and stuck that light-up number on the roof and that decal on the side to make it look like a real cab.”
“I’m getting out right here,” said Vivian as the cab slowed for a stop sign. She pulled on the door handle but the door wouldn’t open.
“The doors only open from the outside,” said the cabbie as he accelerated through the intersection.
“Am I being kidnapped?” asked Vivian. “Is that what this is? Are you a psychopath?”
“You’re not being kidnapped,” said the cabbie. “I’m not dangerous. I just want to show you something before I take you to your home. Something nice!”
“What is it?” asked Vivian. “What do you want to show me?” She looked around the back seat of the car for something to club the cabbie over the head with. All she found was a crumpled plastic bag from a local drugstore.
“It’s for kids,” said the cabbie. “You said you have young kids, right? They’d love what I’m going to show you.”
“Are you trying to say the most unsettling things possible?” asked Vivian. “If you don’t have a gun, I’m going to come out kicking as soon as you open this back door. I hope you understand that.”
“We’re almost there,” said the cabbie.
“How comforting to know you live so close to me,” said Vivian. The street they were driving down looked exactly like Vivian’s street. The trees were the same sizes and shapes, the sidewalks had the same uneven tilt. The cars in the driveways were maybe a couple years older on average than the cars in the driveways on Vivian’s street.
The cabbie pulled the car into a driveway belonging to a two story house with no porch and peeling gray paint. He drove off of the driveway and around the side of the house through the shaggy grass and into a big back yard shaded from the setting sun by a half dozen massive elm trees. He parked the car a few feet from the base of the second biggest tree and turned in his seat address Vivian. “I don’t have any weapons on me. I just want you to see something. So when I open the door, before you kick me or run away or anything, just look up into this tree. Just take a look before you do anything aggressive. Just one look.”
“Why do you want me to see it, whatever it is?” asked Vivian. “Why do you care what I think? You don’t even know me.”
“People who know me won’t come over,” said the cabbie. “No one wants anything to do with me. I just want someone to see what I made.”
Vivian was curious despite herself. And the cabbie, though his behavior was strange, seemed more pleading than threatening. “Fine,” said Vivian. “Let me out and I’ll look and what you made.”
The cabbie got out and opened the back door for Vivian and then stepped back with his hands half-raised in defense, a wary expression on his face. Vivian pretended not to notice as she exited the car. She gave the cabbie an appraising look and he took another few steps backwards. Finally, not sensing any imminent danger, Vivian looked up. There, nestled in the thick limbs of the elm almost twenty feet off the ground, she saw a small, expertly crafted tree-house with a shingled roof, shutters on the windows and kid-sized rocking chairs on its screened-in front porch. Vivian was impressed.
“How do you get up there?” she asked.
“Well, I use a thirty-foot extension ladder to work on it,” said the cabbie. “But I’m going to add a good, strong rope ladder when the one I ordered comes in the mail. I’m hoping it’ll come tomorrow.” He paused. “So do you think your kids would like it?”
Vivian looked at the cabbie. He was hard to dislike. “I think any kid would like it,” said Vivian. “Why do you want to know if mine would? Don’t you know anyone with kids?”
The cabbie laughed without humor. He spat into the grass and then apologized.
“Well?” asked Vivian. “Why do you have to kidnap strangers to find out if their kids would like your tree house?”
“You wouldn’t have to leave your kids alone,” said the cabbie. “You could just come by every once in a while when the weather’s nice. Your husband too. We could all sit out here in the backyard and have a few drinks while the kids play in the tree house.”
“I don’t think so,” said Vivian. “We don’t know you.”
“Not yet,” said the cabbie. “But you know me a little. You know I can be a safe driver.”
The evening breeze rustled the leaves around the tree house. The back yard was quiet. It was a stillness that felt as if it hadn’t been broken in years, especially not by kids playing.
“Listen,” said the cabbie. “I’ve been in jail. A few times. In and out of jail.”
Vivian wrinkled her nose. “For what?”
“A few things,” said the cabbie. “But they don’t have anything to do with the tree house, right? Me being in and out of jail’s irrelevant to, you know, if your kids would enjoy my tree house.”
“Maybe,” said Vivian. “But it’s not irrelevant to me letting my kids enjoy your tree house.”
“You should see the inside, though,” said the cabbie. “The tree house. It’s carpeted. Brand new carpet.”
“I’m sure it’s nice,” said Vivian.
“My past is behind me,” said the cabbie. “I’ve let it go. I realized that I couldn’t hold onto it forever or it would ruin what time I’ve got left.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Vivian. “We’ve certainly been beaten over the head with that message, haven’t we? Books. Songs. TV shows. Most movies.”
The cabbie shrugged. “Well, OK, it’s cliché. But it motivated me. The tree house wouldn’t be here without me coming to a place where I could stop dwelling on my past.” He looked up at the tree house with his hands on his hips. It looked to Vivian as if he was seeing something that she couldn’t.
“I guess that’s inspiring,” said Vivian. “But I can’t take risks with my kids. I just can’t. Not like this. What if something happened? What if you turned out to be less reformed then you claim? What if you did something to us? Everyone would say, ‘They were spending time with an ex-con. What did they expect?’”
The cabbie clasped his hands behind his neck and heaved a deep sigh.
“It really is a beautiful tree house,” said Vivian. She looked up at it again. It looked good enough to live in. More livable than the cabbie’s real house. It was carefully crafted. Every corner square. Tasteful decorations. Sturdy. Artistic, even. “Should I call my husband to come pick me up?”
“Nah,” said the cabbie. “I can take you home.” He gave Vivian a wry smile. “No charge.”
When the cabbie pulled into Vivian’s driveway, her kids came running out of the house in excitement. “A taxi!” they shouted. “Can we take a taxi ride, mom?”
“No, no,” said Vivian, herding her kids up the walk to the front door.
The cabbie backed into the street and drove away slowly. Vivian didn’t watch him go.
“Why not?” whined her kids. “We want to ride in the taxi!”
Vivian ushered them through the front door. “Maybe when you’re older,” she said. “That cab driver doesn’t like kids.”