"Holiday Inn, please. The one up by the interstate, not Route 7. I know there's two of 'em."
And with that, the affable, thirtysomething fellow hopped into the backseat of my taxi. It was 2:30 in the morning, the heart of Burlington's Saturday night, taxi rush hour. At two, the bars shut down and all hell breaks loose.
I turned the cab around to see a couple in the street hailing me a half block ahead. "Mind if I see where these folks are headed?" I asked my customer.
"No problem, dude," he replied. "Make your money."
I pulled up to them, lowered the passenger window and asked, "Where you folks going?"
"Shunpike Road in Williston," the woman answered.
"Great, jump in."
Surprisingly, the man directed his partner to step into the backseat while he took shotgun. Normally in these situations, the guy will volunteer to join the stranger in the back, and seat his partner next to the (presumably) less strange and safer cabdriver. Chivalry.
Glancing over at my brand-new seatmate — a tall, handsome and muscular man — I took him for Russian, or some other nationality with a heavily Slavic population. He had the prominent cheekbones and blue, slightly slanted eyes common to that ethnicity. There was also a piercing, guarded quality in his eyes, tinged with bitterness, as if the world was not a safe and welcoming place. A cursory scan of Russian history offers ample reason for such a bleak outlook.
"How are you doing?" he asked me as we drove up Main Street. His accent was, indeed, Russian.
"You mean now?" I replied.
The previous week, I had heard an old Vermonter give that response to the young checkout girl at a supermarket and thought it hilarious. As soon as it left my mouth, however, I recognized that this was probably not a person to josh with. The man had an edge.
He flashed me a look of disdain, lasting but a millisecond; the next thing I knew, he had switched to a broad grin. This was a hard man to read.
"How about you, my friend?" he asked, pivoting to face the man in the back. "What's you do tonight? Do you have fun?"
"Yeah, I hit a few clubs and bars. I guess I had some fun."
"Zat's good, zat's good," said the Russian. "You know what?" he added, his voice suddenly a whisper. "I slit your throat."
"What did you say?" the backseat guy asked. I might have imagined it, but I'd swear I could hear the gulp.
It's said that, of the five senses, smell carries the most potent emotional charge. Whether or not that's accurate, that was how the moment hit me: the scent of menace flooded the cab — disturbing, sour and slightly surreal. The fact that it rose out of nowhere — during a perfectly banal conversational exchange — just intensified the sense of threat.
"Uh, yeah," I said, my eyes now fixed on the road straight ahead, "did you just say what I think you said?"
"Jesus, Anton," the Russian's girlfriend said blandly, more bored than upset. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Oh, is all good, is all good," Anton replied, laughing sardonically. "We're all friends here. No problem. Cabdriver, why we turning into the Holiday Inn?"
"That's where this first customer is going, man," I replied, now acutely aware of each word I was saying. I didn't think Anton was actually a psycho killer, but who knows?
"How much?" the first guy asked, money already in hand. It was obvious he wanted to be out of this cab yesterday.
"I cover him, cabdriver," Anton interjected. "No problem."
"You sure about that?" I asked. "You're paying this guy's share of the fare?"
"No problem," he replied.
While not exactly a direct answer to the question, it was definitive enough for my first customer, who jumped out of the cab with a quick and cool "thanks," and nearly sprinted into the hotel.
Great, I thought, now he can slaughter me with only his girlfriend as a witness. Yes, I was joking to myself, undoubtedly as a defense mechanism. In truth, I was unsure what to think. I just knew Anton was a loose cannon and that I wanted this fare to be over.
We drove the seven minutes to Shunpike Road in a weird silence. The girlfriend got out the moment I pulled to a stop in front of their place and walked into the house. Which left me and Anton. Oh, joy.
"So, it'll be 17 bucks. That includes you and the guy we dropped at the hotel."
"Why should I pay for that guy?" Anton asked.
"Because you said you would, and I asked you twice."
His lips curled into a half smile. He whispered, "I slit your throat, man."
In that moment, I somehow knew the threat wasn't real, but I could imagine him punching me in the face and leaving without paying. In any event, the time for dilly-dallying was over.
I said, "You know, brother, you're being really aggressive and there's no need for it. There really isn't."
"I'm not your brother," he said.
"OK, then," I said. "Well, how about 'comrade'?"
Anton laughed. "Yes, comrades. We can be comrades." Still chuckling, he took out his wallet, paid me and left the cab.
I shivered like a terrier just out of a pond. Vermont is a haven, and, driving a cab here, I am rarely confronted with dangerous people. But when I am, all I can do is face the situation head on and not shy away. That, and mentally recite the Lord's Prayer.