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Friends With Benefits

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When it comes to finding my way around the major Vermont ski towns — Warren, Killington, Stowe and the like — I know the basics, if not every nook and cranny. A recent morning pickup was in Stowe’s northeastern district — up Route 100, in the hills above the old egg farm, a neighborhood with which I was vaguely familiar.

Monica, my customer, was finishing up a weekend visit with friends she knew from back in South Carolina, where she lives, and she needed a ride to the Burlington airport. Setting up the ride, she’d told me that her friends — the Conways, Colby and Ally – maintain this home in Stowe as a vacation getaway.

Well, bully for them, I remember thinking. I myself keep a villa outside Paris, a Fifth Avenue duplex in NYC and a small game preserve in the Congo. (I do enjoy the occasional zebra hunt.) Seriously, when not overcome with envy, I genuinely appreciate well-heeled flatlanders putting their money into Vermont. For one thing, given my occupation, some of it inevitably finds its way into my wallet.

When I reached the Conways’ home and got out to stretch my legs, a man emerged from the two-car garage carrying Monica’s suitcase. “Hi, I’m Colby,” he said, extending a hand, which I shook. “Let me pay my friend’s fare,” he offered, and then did just that, throwing in an excellent tip.

Monica came out a moment later, and she and Colby hugged and exchanged good-byes. On my invitation, she settled into the front seat, and we took off. She looked to be in her forties, with lush, black hair and long, well-manicured, bright-red fingernails.

My favorite aunt used to have nails like this. When I was a little kid, I’d beg her to scratch my back. After some mock reluctance, she’d indulge me, and afterward we’d share Chiclets from her large leather pocketbook. When I got a little older, this same aunt introduced me to Scrabble, from which I got my love of words. So right away, I liked Monica. Funny how the mind works.

“What wonderful people,” Monica said as we wended our way down to Route 100. “They wouldn’t let me pay for a thing. I wanted to pay for dinner, but finally Ally said, ‘Just stop even trying, ’cause we won’t hear of it.’ I mean, of course they can afford it, but still.”

“How do you know these folks?” I asked.

“Ally has had me to their home in South Carolina, near where I live. They have a magnificent lake property. I’m a sales rep for a Texas jewelry company, which she came across online. The way we do business is all in person. The website is like the showroom, but you can only purchase personally through one of the dealers, like me.”

“Really luxurious stuff, I imagine?”

“No, it’s actually what’s known in the trade as ‘high-end fashion.’ It’s higher quality than costume jewelry, but not, like, real jewelry. The pieces might sell for, say, $50 to a $100. It’s real beautiful stuff, though, and Ally fell in love with the whole line. She had me over to do a show at her home and invited all her friends. I actually heard her say, ‘Now open your purses, ladies, because I want you all to spend at least $400 with this woman.’ And they did!

“Anyway, she and I really hit it off, and they invited me up to visit them in Vermont. I’ve had a great time. Ally and I talked all night last night. At about two in the morning, Colby wandered into the living room and said, ‘What are you girls talking about?’ And Ally’s like, ‘We’re plotting against all the men in our lives, dear.’”

Monica paused, chuckling softly at these new memories she’d be taking back with her to South Carolina. She continued, “Yesterday, right off the back porch, we saw six deer and about 30 wild turkeys. Vermont really takes your breath away. I had no idea.”

We were passing through Stowe Village, not quite teeming with tourists but busy enough. This precocious spring has put the kibosh on any extended ski season, yet people are still drawn to Vermont, thank goodness.

“Your friends seem like great people,” I said. “Really generous.”

“They are that,” Monica agreed. “There’s this restaurant and bar everyone in town hangs out in back in South Carolina. And there’s this one bartender, Ronnie, that Colby really likes. This past Christmas, they were hosting a big party up here in Stowe, so they asked Ronnie if he’d come up to bartend. They told him to bring his girlfriend to help, if he’d like, all expenses paid.”

For the rest of the trip we were mostly silent, just taking in the Green Mountains — early spring, the fields and mountains poised to bloom and blossom. I could almost hear Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land.”

I thought about Monica’s wealthy friends. In my experience, some people of means exude an aura of entitlement, as if they’re members of an exclusive club in which, as Jackson Browne wrote in one of his songs, “power and position are equated with the grace of God.” But I’ve known other rich folks who live with a profound sense of gratitude for all their material bounty and seize every opportunity to “spread it around.” That kind of humility combined with generosity touches my heart, and seemed to describe the Conways.

As we came within range of the airport, Monica said, “Do you think I’m early enough?”

“Oh, yeah,” I replied. “Burlington airport is a piece of cake.”

“I’m a little nervous because I was randomly screened on my way up, and they found gunpowder residue on my fingers. The previous day, my boyfriend had taken me to a firing range. Once they found the residue, that was it. They checked every single piece of my luggage, not to mention every square inch of my body!”

“Hmm … so, yesterday, did you fire any shots at those deer or turkeys?”

“Nope,” Monica said with a laugh, “not a one.”

I said, “Well, then — I think you’re good to go.”

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