Gracie is a self-described "party girl." I'm not sure precisely what that means. She must be in her forties; I've been driving her for as long as I remember, and she was already beyond her twenties when she first started calling my cab. Despite the partying - however defined - she still looks great, and by great, I mean hot. Not smoking hot any longer, but still hot. For as long as I've known her, she's worked out daily, so that partially explains her still turning heads. Her total blondage, as I've heard it called, is the other part: The woman is tall, curvy and blond. Good genes can take you a long way, whether it's brains or beauty.
"Jernigan, can you come pick up Janet at my place?" Gracie was calling on my cell. "You know, my friend who lives on Gosse Court? She needs to get home."
"Sure, I'll be right out there," I replied.
Gracie lives in one of those compact single-family homes out by the airport with her husband - whom I've never seen, let alone spoken to. Her friend Janet is part of a coterie of similar-aged girlfriends - all working-class, all inveterate bar-hoppers, all party girls, I suppose.
Janet jumped in front with me. The years have not treated her as gently as they have Gracie, especially without the bolstering effect of favorable genes and a gym regimen. Her brown hair is shoulder length and shag cut - a carry-over, I'd guess, from an earlier decade. Much of her look, actually, seems frozen in some late-'80s heyday. When she briefly smiled, tight lines appeared around her mouth and eyes. As some folks age, a softness emerges; with Janet, everything appears to be growing harder, calcifying.
"You mind if I smoke?" she asked before we had traveled 100 yards.
"I do, Janet. I'm sorry - I just can't take the smoke in the vehicle."
"You can't, huh?" she scoffed.
"What can I tell you?" I tried to placate her. "I used to smoke myself, for years - Camels, non-filters. But since I stopped, the smoke really gets to me."
Janet rolled her eyes, slowly rotated her head to face me, and said, "Sheesh," succinctly summing up all her feelings about reformed smokers.
We rolled down Patchen Road toward Barrett Street and the connection with Riverside Avenue and the north points of Burlington. Last week, in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a long line of traffic backed up on Barrett, I impulsively yanked a right into the back entrance to the Chace Mill. Except it wasn't the back entrance to the Chace Mill; it was the steep and completely iced-over driveway of an abandoned house. After spending a futile half-hour stripping what's left of my Lumina's already croupy transmission, I bit the bullet and called Spillane's. The grizzled tow truck driver surveyed the situation, suppressed a laugh, and winched me out. Seventy-five bucks, please. A week later, it still stings.
"Are you married?" Janet asked, apropos of nothing.
"I am," I replied, not knowing exactly where she was going with this. It could be anywhere.
"I don't believe you," she said.
"Janet, if you don't believe me, why bother asking?"
"Great point," she replied, nodding her head a few times. We looked at each other and laughed. It was like a dark cloud had lifted in this little journey we were on together.
"Ya like Janis?" she asked.
"Lord, won't ya buy me a Mercedes Benz," she began singing. "My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends."
Her voice was spot-on, probably the product of a thousand karaoke nights. I have a soft spot for any woman who can evoke the soul of Janis Joplin.
When she finished the song, I asked, "How about you? You married?"
"I was," she began. "I was married to Dave, my high school sweetheart in Rutland. He was in the first Gulf War, and it fucked him up. He killed himself in 1994. He said he couldn't deal with the fear."
"Oh, man, Janet - that sucks. What is it about life? You know - things get so tragic. It really ain't fair."
"Ya know any Dylan?" she asked, mercifully cutting short my rumination. "I'm a huge fan."
"Of course," I replied. "You talking about old or new?"
"I'm talking about old."
"Well, you can't go wrong with 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.'"
"Yup, I know that one: 'Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls to you. Forget the dead you've left behind, they will not follow you.'" I joined in, and we sang together: "'Strike another match, go start anew. And it's all over now, Baby Blue.'"
Things are different once the stars have fallen from your eyes. Maybe that's when life begins in earnest - when the veil is lifted and the spell is broken. Philo of Alexandria said that life is a great battle, and not one of us is exempt. Count me with Philo on that one.
"You sing great, Janet," I said, hooking the right onto Gosse Court. "It's a good tune."
"Yeah, it really is," she said with a wistful tenderness that made me wish I had let her smoke the stupid cigarette. "It really is."