Mercifully, another Saturday night had drawn to a close. Nine straight hours behind the wheel, and God knows how many fares — 20, 30? This is an intense, physically demanding job I’ve taken on as my life’s work. At times like this, the cliché is a truth that bites at me: I ain’t getting any younger.
It was four in the morning when I pulled into the Riverside Avenue Cumby’s to gas up. As I got out and began the pump procedure, a sandy-haired man wandered up to me. He was perhaps 40 and garbed in backwoods attire: clunky work boots, worn jeans and a flannel shirt. His demeanor was unthreatening, though he clearly wanted something from me.
“Hey, are you still working?” he asked. “Could you take me out to Essex Junction?”
I didn’t hesitate. Like an opera, my workday is not over ’til the fat lady sings, and this guy had just hooked her off the stage. “Sure,” I replied. “Just let me gas up, and I’ll take ya.”
“Wait — before you get the gas. I got 12 bucks on this prepaid debit card. A Benways cab was just here, and the dispatcher couldn’t run the card. But I’m pretty sure I can use it at this station to buy your gas. Would that work for ya — if I gotcha $12 in gas?”
The whole thing sounded convoluted, but it would take only a moment to test his offer. I said, “Yeah, go in there, and let’s see what happens.”
He walked into the store and, in less than a minute, the pump display screen registered, “Begin pumping.” I did, and it cut off automatically at $12. I swiped my own card to complete the fill-up.
“Oh, what a friggin’ day,” my now-customer volunteered as he took the shotgun seat and we got rolling. “I just came back to Vermont for my cousin’s funeral, and then this morning my aunt died.”
“I guess that’s a rough day,” I commiserated. “Where’d all this happen? Here in Burlington?”
“Nope, the whole family’s up in Irasburg. I got a ride in earlier today, and I’ve been hitting the bars. I got a niece who lives in Essex Junction, and she’s letting me crash at her place tonight. I called her to try to get a ride, but she was sleeping and had to get up for work at seven. I shouldn’a even called her. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.”
In short order, we crossed the bridge, swung around the Winooski circle and onto Route 15. That’s the great thing about 4 a.m. traffic: There is none.
Fatigue doesn’t put much of a damper on my gabbiness. Indeed, some nights the effect is quite the opposite: It’s the conversation that keeps me chugging along. I asked my seatmate, “So, you said you came back to Vermont? Where ya been living?”
“I been living for ’bout six months in Appleton, Wisconsin, with my girlfriend, who’s from there. She’s pregnant now. Her ex-husband lives in Appleton with her two kids. That’s why we went out there — so she could spend more time with her kids. Also, her mom’s there, and she could help out when the baby comes.”
“Did she come east with you for this trip?”
“Nope, she’s due in a couple of months, so she stayed put in Appleton. I really need to get back as soon as I can.”
“Did ya find work out there?”
“Yeah, it was the craziest thing. In the classifieds I found this roofer who needed help. He was a Vermonter who had also moved out there, and we knew some of the same folks back in Vermont. So that was all peachy keen, but it turned out his operation was kinda sketchy. I was always having to run after him to get paid, and then half the time the checks would bounce. So I quit that, and I’ve just been digging up odd jobs since then.”
“So, this Wisconsin girl — she was in Vermont? That’s where you met her?”
“Yeah, that’s a crazy thing, too. She had moved to the Kingdom and was seeing a friend of mine from Lowell. I guess he got to pushing her around, and I took her in to offer some protection. I mean, the guy is a good guy, but he’s also kind of an asshole. Anyway, one thing led to another, and now we’re having a baby.”
“Wow, that’s funny how life goes, isn’t it? Sometimes the biggest things in life just kinda happen. So, you’re trying to make a life together with the woman?”
“I am. I’ve already screwed up one marriage, and I don’t want to repeat that. I did get two kids out of the marriage, and they’re great. My two girls live with their mom in Irasburg.”
We reached the five-way lights of Five Corners just as ours turned red. Sometimes the powers that be speed up the change sequence for the late hours, and sometimes — like on this night — they don’t. I sat there as each of the other four carless roads got its full and exclusive share of green — three minutes of my life I shall never get back.
My customer directed me to his niece’s home, a side street off Maple. I wished him good luck as we parted, asking, “Where do you think you’ll ultimately end up living? Between the two of you, you got kids in Vermont and Wisconsin.”
He replied, “I couldn’t really say at this point.” He shook his head, and a wistful look came over his face. “Jeezum, I sure hope we end up back in Vermont.”
Passing the Essex fairgrounds on the way home, I could swear I heard the warbling of a high soprano voice drifting over from the grandstand. Now thoroughly beat, I thought, Could that be my favorite gal, the fat lady? Jeezum, I hope so.
#8220;Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.