The call came in late Friday night, my generic ringtone mixing with the song on the radio and echoing over the voices of the customers in the backseat. I simultaneously muted the radio and grabbed for my cellphone, which I keep perched on the dashboard. I don't know what I'm going to do when the "hands-free only" rule comes into effect next fall. Get a Bluetooth? Is that still a thing? I'm always stuck about three years behind the latest technology; that, alas, seems to be my sweet spot.
The caller said, "Jernigan — I'm so glad you're still working. This is Topher. Could you pick up me and Jessica at St. Mike's? I guess the tennis courts would be the best spot."
I replied, "Yeah, I'll be clearing in Essex, and I can get you in about 15. Just be ready to roll, OK? 'Cause it's a busy night."
Topher and Jessica recently moved into their own place after living in a post-college rental in Winooski for several years. They had shared a sprawling, single-family home with any number of housemates, the whole bunch of whom seemed to be tight friends. Despite having driven these kids back and forth on their regular downtown flings for a couple of years, I could never pin down the precise number of tenants. All I know is, the house's sparse lawn and potholed driveway looked like a downscale used-car lot; judging by the cars, I'd guess a population of six at minimum.
When I first hooked up with these young folks, the appropriateness of their living arrangement was immediately evident. It struck me as a way to ease the transition from college life to more independent, adult living, for both financial and social reasons. Their Spring Street pad was in many ways a continuation of dorm life, though they now all had jobs instead of classes.
I quickly developed a genuine affection for the lot of them. When it comes to circles of friends, it's said that like attracts like, and this group was fun, warm and caring. (Plus, they always tipped well, which goes a long way with me.)
When I reached the college and pulled up to the tennis courts, I could see that all was not well with Topher. Even before he took the shotgun seat, I could sense he was fuming. He was a jovial guy — burly and big-hearted — so it was a bit of a shock to witness him visibly angry.
Jessica, along with another couple I knew — Max and Eliza — climbed into the backseat. Max said, "Hey, Jernigan, good to see you. This weekend is our first official college reunion. It's five years now for a bunch of us. God, we're getting old!"
"Yeah, you're ancient," I kidded.
"Could you drive Topher and Jess home first?" Max continued. "And then me and Eliza to our place? You remember where we live? On Sherry Road off Dorset?"
"Sure," I agreed and, turning to Topher, I asked, "and where's your new apartment again? It's up North Street in Winooski, correct?
Topher turned to face me, but could barely speak. Jess filled the gap, saying softly, "Yeah, that's right."
The short ride down the hill into Winooski was tense. When we pulled up to their apartment, Jessica got out immediately and walked into the house. As he paid the fare, Topher said, "Sorry for my lack of conversation. I had to help get my father into a rehab earlier tonight. If that wasn't bad enough, Jess and I got into a really bad fight while we were checking him in."
"Don't worry about it, man," I said. "Sorry you had to go through that."
I took Grove Street to Patchen Road into South Burlington. As we crossed the highway overpass, I said to Max, "Boy, Topher was having a rough night. I don't think I've ever seen him so upset."
"Yeah," Max said, "it's something Topher and I have in common. Both our dads struggle with alcohol and drug abuse."
"That's got to suck," I said. "I mean, your father is supposed to be taking care of you, not the other way around."
"Well, my dad is doing much better now, thank goodness. He had a triple bypass a while back, and that kind of opened his eyes. You know, 'facing his own mortality' is how he put it."
"That's great, I mean for you and your whole family. I hope things get better likewise for Topher and his pops. He seems like a really good person. 'Honorable' is the word that comes to mind."
"Yeah, he is a great person. You know what he does for work?"
"He might have told me, but I forget."
"He works for the state going around talking to high school students, helping them figure out if college is in their future. Some of these kids come from, like, rough family situations, and he really helps them out. I've known Topher many years, and I've got to say that he's a real example to me. The dude has integrity."
"I know just what you mean. You're lucky to have friends like that. I have a couple of old friends that I feel the same way about. Even though we're peers, the same age more or less, they're like role models to me in many ways. Watching them through the years, I've learned something about how to live with some — well, nobility, if that's not too old-fashioned a concept."
Eliza was asleep on Max's shoulder when we pulled up to their house. "Wake up, honey — wake up," he whispered into her ear, chuckling. "It's been a long day, and a lot of partying," he told me as he paid the fare.
"Hey, you're old now. You got to pace yourself," I instructed. "And let me tell you — I know from whence I speak."
The following weekend, I again got a call from Topher and Jessica. They were all smiles — at me and at each other — as they stepped into the cab.
"Last weekend was a nightmare," Topher acknowledged, snuggling with his girlfriend in the backseat. "But we worked things out."
"Well, that's just what I want to hear," I said. "You crazy kids."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.