The two female friends sitting in the rear of my taxi had had it with Burlington and were going to try their luck at a couple of Essex Junction watering holes. Lest there be any confusion, water was the last thing they were after.
“That bouncer at JP’s, what a fuckin’ asshole. I mean it, Crystal — what the fuck did I do? I did’n do nothin’. If I wanna get my ass kicked out a bar, I know what to do. You know I know what to do!”
Crystal’s cackling laugh affirmed her friend’s logic. She said, “Fuck ’em, Doreen. That place is a fucking dump, anyways. We always have more fun at the Lincoln Inn. And if that don’t work, we’ll just walk over to the Back Stage and chill.”
As we rolled onto the interstate, “Don’t Stop Believing” came on the radio, and my customers were not about to pass up the ultimate karaoke song. In unison, more or less, they belted out the chorus with the gusto of a Super Bowl half-time performer who has inexplicably lost all ability to hold a tune.
“Well, that was something,” I observed truthfully, when they ended the dissonant duet.
Ignoring me, Doreen suggested to her friend, “Crystal, let’s stop and grab some beer. It’s not 11 yet, right?”
As Doreen spoke, she kept pulling her long locks into a ponytail that she never actually fastened. Her frazzled hair was a mottled version of brunette. I’d guess that at various stages of her life — she could have been anywhere between 30 and 50 — she’d tried every hue from blonde to red and back again.
“How’s that work to buy beer?” Crystal asked. “Aren’t we going to hit the bars?”
“Oh, fuck the bars. Let’s just drink at my place.” Of the two friends, Doreen was clearly the elder, and she was calling the shots, so to speak. “Hey, cabbie, could ya stop at the Gulf station just past the fairgrounds?”
“Sure thing,” I assented, and pulled into the place a few minutes later. As she climbed out of the cab, Doreen asked her friend, “You want that Jäger?”
“Naw, fuck that. It’s too expensive. Besides, I think you can only get it at the liquor store. Just stick with the Bud Lite — whatever they got on sale.”
The instant Doreen closed the door, it became evident that Crystal had a lot to tell me. Although virtually all of it fell into the “TMI” category, I didn’t look at it that way. Sure, this young woman — I doubted she was over 25 — had a problem with personal boundaries. But so what? Whatever her reasons, if she saw fit to share a dispatch from her life’s journey with me, I was going to listen.
“You know,” she began, “I’m doing a study at UVM.”
“You mean, you’re in a study at UVM?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” she said. “I’m what they call a ‘subject.’ The professor at the medical school is studying people like me. I got wet brain.”
“Is that right?” I said. “Do they pay ya for that?”
“Yup. Not a lot, though, but it’s something and every little bit helps. I’m supposed to start a new job up at Wal-Mart on Monday, but I’m real nervous. I got, like, low self-esteem, and that gives me brain freeze. Usually I can be really good at the register, but then my brain will, like, freeze up on me, and I just can’t think right. That’s why I keep losing jobs.
“I’m not supposed to drink, you know, but my stepfather died yesterday, so . . . He was kind of a perv, but still, I feel real bad for my two stepbrothers. They’re still just kids, and now they got no dad.”
“Jeez,” I said, “that sounds rough.”
“Aw, it’s all right. Life goes on, right?”
“Well, good luck at Wal-Mart. I’ll bet you do fine.”
“I sure hope so,” she said, lifting both her hands, crossing her fingers and scrunching up her eyes. Just in that moment, this rugged, ragged woman looked like the cute and hopeful kid she probably never had the chance to be. Life is throwing it all at her, I thought, but she still hasn’t given up the fight.
Doreen returned to the cab and plopped back in her seat next to Crystal. Holding up the goods, she said, “Well, girl, we got ourselves a 12-pack.”
“That’s great, Doreen,” said Crystal. “How much do I owe ya?”
“You don’t owe me nothin’, kid,” Doreen replied with a big grin. “You can make it up when that Wal-Mart money starts rolling in.”