The Old Lady Taxi Service
by Christine Lajewski
Omari waited at the top of the stairs until he was sure his parents were in the family room, where they couldn’t see the front door. He carefully placed his feet where the wooden steps would not creak and crept down to the first floor. The plan was to meet Mike and Devan, his friends, and walk to the first basketball game of the season against their biggest rival.
He was reaching for the doorknob when a series of sharp raps came from the other side. It was Mrs. Ansel, his elderly neighbor from across the street. The fluffy silver curls on the top of her head came up just to Omari’s chest, and Omari was not the tallest kid in his 10th grade class. She was nice and she tipped generously when his parents made him shovel her driveway or rake her leaves. But he shuddered every time her bread dough pale skin crinkled around her wide smile and she had to click her dentures back into place before she could ask him what he thought about Kim and Kanye and did he like Straight Out of Compton even though it had all that swearing in it and other clueless questions.
“Hi, Mrs. Ansel. How you doing?” said Omari.
“Just ducky,” she replied. “Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“I told your mother I’d take you to the big game tonight.”
Omari could hear his parents entering the foyer and knew what could happen if he was rude but it was too late. Out slipped, “Oh, hell no.”
His father gave him a light thwack on the back of his head. “Apologize,” Dad demanded, his voice sharp as the crack of a rifle.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Omari, looking down into the old woman’s beaming face. “It’s just. . . I’m meeting Devon and Mike. We’re walking to the game. It’s only a couple miles.”
Mom was not moved. “You know what’s been happening in this town,” she said. “You walk down a street where they don’t know you and the next thing you know, someone’s calling the cops.”
“After all, what could a black kid possibly be doing in a neighborhood like this?” Dad interjected. The squeamishness many of the established neighbors in this lovely suburb felt as the town became less white was a sore point he belabored often.
Mom continued, “Mrs. Ansel and her friends have volunteered to drive kids who might get profiled. I’m happy to take her up on her offer.”
“I’m the perfect demographic,” said Mrs. Ansel. “Older white ladies never get pulled over for anything. I could have a dead body hanging out of my trunk and no one would notice.”
Omari’s parents shook with laughter. Apparently, it was funny because it was true.
Omari tried the philosophical argument. “No disrespect, Mrs. Ansel, but are you all saying black folks need to be rescued by white folks?”
“I’m not rescuing you, dear,” said the old woman. “It’s my small way of addressing a frightening trend in this country. I confess, I was horribly ignorant about the whole thing until those videos started showing up on the news and Snap Face. So my friends and I offered to help. Your mother and I talked it over and she decided to take advantage of our little taxi service.”
Mom folded her arms across her chest. “This is how I want it for now. When you get your license, we’ll discuss it again.”
“Why can’t Dad drive me?” This was Omari’s last hope to avoid death by mortification.
“Same problem, right?” said Dad. “You heard your Mom. It’s settled.”
Mrs. Ansel smiled and waited for her young neighbor to join her on the step. Omari’s feet were rooted to the foyer floor. The old woman turned and walked away. Dad gave him a push and Omari stumbled forward. As she shuffled across the street—an interminable progression—she turned her head repeatedly and smiled, as if to check if he was still following. His heart made one heavy thump as he surveyed the old black Pontiac Bonneville in her driveway—a depressingly pathetic ride. But she continued to her front door and swept her hand wide as if to usher him inside. “Let’s have some tea and cookies first,” she said. She was a great baker so Omari took a deep breath and stepped into old lady-land.
He was anticipating lavender walls and rose-colored upholstery, drooping flowers, brown around the edges and lace-draped everything, even the cat. But her house was not at all what he expected. The living room was painted a vibrant tomato red. The hallway and dining room beyond were gold and green earth tones. Against one wall was a low table made of a wooden slab sliced right off a tree, resting on a tree stump. There were statues of a Greek goddess and Osiris, a crystal skull, black feathers, a leather-bound book, all kinds of colored stones and blue and orange candles.
“Wait a minute, is that a . . .,” said Omari, whirling around to face his hostess as his voice died in his throat.
“Is that a what?” asked Mrs. Ansel, her creepy Edgar Allen Poe, Tell-Tale Heart blue eyes drilling right through him.
“A witch thing,” Omari finished. She smiled, and it wasn’t that vacant, dizzy grin he’d seen so often in the past. This one was knowing, almost wicked. It suddenly occurred to him that he could end up as some sort of sacrifice, never to be seen by his grieving parents again.
As if she’d read his thoughts, Mrs. Ansel sighed and brought a book over to her black leather sofa. She patted the seat and said, “Relax, Omari. I want to show you something.”
It was only a book, not some cultish dagger, so he sat down on the couch. Mrs. Ansel showed him several old wood prints and paintings that depicted woman being burned, imprisoned and tortured. “You know your world history, I’ve been told,” said the witch, “so you’ve learned about the Reformation and the counter-Reformation.”
“But do you know about the witch hysteria and what we call the Burning Times? I won’t give you the whole story now. You can borrow this book and read for yourself. But women like me were persecuted and it went on for decades.” She left him with the book as she went into the kitchen to make tea.
“Like Salem?” said Omari.
Mrs. Ansel spoke from the kitchen as she put a tray together. “Salem was just a piece of it. In Europe, anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 women, men and even children died. Some were just old and ill-tempered or mentally ill or caught in a feud between neighbors. But some were practitioners of healing arts and white magic. They hid and when they could, fled to the New World. We concealed ourselves, passing on the knowledge and the history. A lot of our sisters and brothers now practice openly but many of us still prefer to keep a low profile. We’ve tried to intervene to keep this violence from being visited on others, but we haven’t been as successful as I’d like.”
Omari reflected, sighed and said, “World’s so rotten.”
“Hashtag,” Mrs. Ansel called out.
It was a feeble joke but Omari laughed. “Can’t you just do some kind of big spell?”
“There’s no blanket spell strong enough for fear and hatred,” she said as she returned with tea and cookies. Her Q-Tip pouf of curls had come unwound and settled around her shoulders in frosty waves. “We do prayers and send out energy, but we are better working one-on-one. Hence, the old lady taxi service.”
“My parents know all of this?”
“Your mom does.”
Now Omari could not restrain his curiosity. “Aren’t there any black witches? I mean, African-American, not black magic.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “There’s a coven maybe fifty miles east. And your Mom and some of her friends are learning. It is hard for them to reconcile the craft with their Christian practice, though.”
“My Mom? You serious?”
Mrs. Ansel laughed and Omari noticed the piercing blue eyes had somehow turned multi-hued. They shifted from gray to green to turquoise, like the colors of the ocean. “Smile, Omari, and have a cookie.”
He picked up a cookie and inspected it. “What’s in ‘em? Frog eyes?”
“They’re oatmeal raisin, smart ass. Now finish up and we’ll go.”
Omari studied the toes of his sneakers. “Mrs. Ansel, you’re a nice lady but I really want to walk and meet my friends. Do you know what would happen if my friends saw me riding around with, with . . ..”
“. . . an old lady?” Mrs. Ansel smiled. She rose from the sofa, went to her closet and removed a long, gnarled broom.
“Oh, hell no,” said Omari.
Suddenly, Mrs. Ansel seemed taller and straighter. Her skin was a couple of shades darker, too. She could have been Italian or even Egyptian. Her eyes glowed indigo and her smile was confident and strong. She said, “I guarantee no one will see you. And besides, . . .” She brandished the broom above her head and smiled. “. . . This is one hell of a sweet ride.”
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Christine Lajewski is a writer, retired alternative high school teacher and a naturalist at Massachusetts Audubon. Her first novel, JHATOR, was published in 2014. Her second novel, BONEBELLY, will be published in the fall of 2017. She has had short stories published in Sanitarium, The Flash Fiction Press and Cemetery Moon. She is currently working on a collection of horror short stories.