The man sitting next to me was quite the physical specimen. He had buzz-cut blond hair and slim, black-framed eyeglasses and looked stunning in his skin-tight blue tank top - a look I could never pull off even when I was young and full of brio. I did have my moments back in the day, but "Jernigan" and "hunk" were never used in the same sentence. Not that I'm jealous, or even wistful; I can admire a good hottie, male or female, without taking it personally.
My customer shifted in his seat and said, "Man, I can't remember the last time I was out this late. If I get out once or twice a year, that's a lot."
It was easy to deduce what that was about. I said, "You're a family man, I bet."
He smiled and said, "Yup, that I am. Me and my wife have two little girls, 3 and 5. Don't get me wrong - I love my girls, but once in a while you need some serious guy-time."
"Let me guess. Didja go to the fights at Memorial?"
"Bingo that," he confirmed with a laugh. "Those mixed martial arts are awesome."
"Any good matches?"
"A couple towards the end, but the early fights - jeez. I mean, we're not expecting Muhammad Ali up here in Vermont, but some of those three-rounders were lasting all of 20 seconds."
Re-scanning his physique, I asked, "Do you fight yourself?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do, but not this style, dude. I practice judo, which is a more defensive approach to the martial arts."
Another classic Burlington weekend, I thought. While the martial artists were pummeling each other at Memorial Auditorium, John Prine - the venerable, scraggly old songwriter - was strumming his tunes about loss and love at the Flynn. In B-town, there's something for everybody.
We motored north on Route 7 in Colchester, which took us through Sunny Hollow, a misnamed stretch of road. They got the "hollow" part right; it's the "sunny" that's anything but. The road plummets like a rollercoaster into a canyon-like pass between two thickly forested hills. Even during the height of summer, the scoot through this section is a short visit to another temperate zone, with a drop of about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. For the sake of accuracy, it should be written "Sunny (sic) Hollow."
I turned my head and stole a glance at this young father. He looked like he had enjoyed his night out, but the closer we got to his home, the wider his smile grew. It's easy to bemoan the burdens and stress of parenthood, but what about the sheer joy? What's better than that little face looking up at you, followed by the jump into your arms?
"So, back to the house of women," I offered, throwing out a bit of manly commiseration. "You ever think about having a boy or two?"
"Well, that ain't gonna happen. I got my tubes tied after the second girl."
I'm sure he meant that something was snipped, but I got the idea.
"Anyway," he continued, "how can you afford it? My wife came from a family of eight kids and mine was nearly as big, but these days . . . I work full-time and then some so my wife can stay home with the girls. We're just getting by, but we don't qualify for Dr. Dynasaur or any other state help. It's hard to make ends meet."
We came to where Route 7 crosses Bay Road and Main Street, home to the Spanked Puppy, a popular local pub. At the next blinking light, we turned left onto Creek Farm Road. On the north side of the blacktop, the Breezy Acres trailers were laid out like a small village. On the south side stood a rambling neighborhood of modest single-family homes, one of which belonged to my customer.
We pulled to a stop in front of an aluminum-sided Cape. A porch light illuminated the manicured lawn, which was spring green and strewn with brightly colored kids' toys. I said, "You own a nice place here, man."
"Thanks," he said. For a silent moment, the two of us gazed out on his little slice of Colchester. "Though, to be accurate," he added, "I own, like, 5 percent of it. The Northfield Savings Bank owns the rest."
The guy was veering between a well-earned pride and contentment with the life he had forged with his partner, and the cynicism that gave him a buffer he needed when contemplating the fragility of it all. In short, I was witnessing the dicey mind-set of your average modern man.
As my customer counted out the fare, it was as if he had read my mind. "You know something?" he spoke up quietly. "I can bitch about this or that - money problems, whatever. But when I get woken up much too early tomorrow morning, there will be two little angels jumping around our bed, and, you know, it just doesn't get better than that."