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Hackie: Driving to Bombay

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"Apparently, an early landowner named the town in tribute to his wife, who grew up in Bombay, India. That's the story, anyway."

I was conversing with Renee Capaldi as we drove west across the northern tier of New York State, en route to a town with the unlikely name of Bombay. She was returning home after heart surgery at the University of Vermont Medical Center. For someone who had just undergone a major operation, Renee didn't appear too worse for wear. Having spent the past hour with the woman, I attributed that to her fighting spirit: Life might knock her down, but she refused to stay down.

Most people just released from the hospital let vanity go by the wayside. Not Renee. Her black hair was attractively pinned up, and her face made up. She had rings on her fingers and two or three necklaces. I couldn't help but notice her snug knit top, which revealed some nifty cleavage. I admit to appreciating that touch, especially from what I affectionately refer to as an "older broad."

"Did you actually grow up in Bombay?" I asked.

"No, that's where my daughter is living. I'm going to spend a few weeks at her home while I recover. I live a couple of towns over."

"Have you spent your whole life in the North Country?"

"All of it with the exception of a few years in California. When I graduated high school, I wanted to go to college and become a doctor. My dad was an electrician, but there was very little money in the family, and he said we just couldn't afford to pay for it. So I took off and drove to the West Coast. I took the classes and worked as an LPN. Then my mother died suddenly from an aneurysm, and I returned home to help my dad care for my three younger siblings."

We passed through town after town — Mooers, Irona and Ellenburg with those tracts of massive windmills. Compared with Vermont, rural New York seems — I don't know, forlorn is the word that comes to mind. So many shuttered storefronts, neglected fields and ramshackle properties.

I would say that the area has seen better times, but I don't even know if that's true. Vermont's small towns have declined as well over the past few decades, but all over the state, I see promising signs of life, and the landscape is dotted with new development, both business and agricultural.

At Burke, we cut northwest onto Route 122. A memory of the Dannemora prison-break saga of 2015 came to mind. That was all anybody talked about during that summer two years ago. "Aren't we near where they caught the second Dannemora prison escapee?" I asked Renee. "I guess the Lifetime TV channel just released a movie about it."

"Yeah, they caught him in a trailer just up the road from here. I knew Joyce, the prison guard who helped them escape. She was a beautician before she went to work in the jail. She cut my hair once or twice. My idea is that she never got any attention from men and she was starved for it. That's how those two guys manipulated her for help."

Renee let out an audible sigh as we drove through the town of Constable. "OK," she said, motioning to the right. "Do you see that small house and garage set back behind the stream? I lived there for two great years with this guy. He was a 'bad boy,' you could say, when I met him. A biker and a drinker. But he was gorgeous, and I knew he had a good heart.

"I told him, if he wanted to get with me, I wouldn't put up with the rowdiness and the drinking — I didn't want a life like that. So he quit partying, and we moved in together and had great times. We bought this pair of wicked Harleys, and we'd take these awesome road trips. But, after two years, he went back to the drinking.

"I came home late one morning, and he was still in bed, totally hungover. He looked up at me and said, 'I'm so sorry I can't be the man you need me to be.' I moved out the next week."

"Life's like that, you know," I said. "We think we can, but no one can truly change another person. If only it was possible, but I don't think it is. It sucks, but everyone is responsible for their own behavior. That's my experience, anyway."

"I agree with everything you said, but I still consider Rick the love of my life. I was married two times afterward, but I never experienced that kind of connection with either of them. That's probably why the marriages both ended."

Renee was unsure of the route to her daughter's place, because, she told me, her daughter always did the driving when she visited. I used my GPS, but it just took us to a dead end; apparently, the disembodied narrator who lives in my cellphone didn't know a bridge was out for repairs. Luckily, we ran into a road worker operating a brush-clearing vehicle. He got out, removed his soundproof headphones and, with a friendly smile, gave us clear directions to where we needed to go.

"That was Greg," she said, as we got under way again. "He didn't recognize me, but I went to high school with him. He was a senior when I was a sophomore."

With an ETA about 10 minutes away, I asked Renee if her dad was still around. "No, he passed away two years ago this June, it will be," she said. "On his death bed, he told me, 'Button' — that's what he called me — 'my one regret is that I didn't come up with the money to send you to college. You would have made a great doctor.'"

Only a lucky few get to hear something like that from a dying parent, I thought. Renee had endured a tough life, but she lived long enough to experience her dad's apology and acknowledgment before he was gone from this world.

"Renee, I bet that meant a lot to you," I said.

"Yes, it did," she said, her eyes misting up. "It meant everything."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

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