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From Russia With Love



“Jernigan, could we make a stop at a liquor store? We need to pick up a housewarming gift for the Russian. What should I get, honey? Maybe a bottle of Grey Goose?”

Debbie answered her partner with no hesitation. “Yeah, that’ll be perfect. All the guy ever drinks is vodka.”

Sean and Debbie, longtime customers, have been a couple for at least five years, and have shared a house in Essex Junction nearly from the beginning of the relationship. Why Sean hasn’t yet put a ring on Deb’s finger is a mystery to me. For one thing, the woman is gorgeous: short and voluptuous, with wavy, blond hair and green eyes. But beyond her good looks, she’s sweet and funny, she has a good, steady job, and — a major miracle for any man — she actually puts up with him. So, I don’t really know the story. Maybe Debbie’s the holdout.

The Russian and his wife’s new home was on Colchester Point, so we stopped at the Winooski Beverage Warehouse — known locally as “the Bevy” — which was more or less on the way. Sean went in for the vodka; Deb waited with me in the cab.

I pivoted to face my customer in the backseat and said, “So, a big Friday night party. You guys got anything else scheduled for the weekend?”

“Do we ever,” Deb said with a chuckle. “Sunday is Sean’s mother’s 70th birthday party. We’re going up to the farmhouse in Swanton. Of course, me and the girls are doing all the planning and cooking. Sean and his brothers are basically useless when it comes to this.”

Sean comes from a farm family of six brothers. So, for family functions, Deb explained, it inevitably falls to the various wives and girlfriends to organize things and make them happen: “The brothers are all like, ‘Just tell us what to do, just tell us what to do.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, right.’”

Sean emerged from the Bevy carrying a bottle of Grey Goose the size and shape of a peg leg on a movie pirate. As he retook his seat next to Debbie, she broke out in laughter. “Dude — that thing is ginormous. It’s perfect, though. The Russian’s gonna love it!”

We found our way to the Russian’s new house to behold a property that was arresting: a lakefront dacha worthy of Vladimir Putin. A few cars were tucked in the spacious driveway; we could hear the party already under way. I told them to have fun, and Sean said they’d call me later.

For a springtime Friday night, business was just average, if that. The problem was the weather. Warm and sunny days have been few and far between. The story this year is the constant rain, which has literally dampened the collective urge to get out to the clubs and restaurants — ergo, there’s less demand for taxis. Not for the first time, I gave silent thanks to my loyal regular customers. If I had to depend strictly on random hailing fares, I’d be in a world of pain — to borrow an expression from Walter, the John Goodman character in The Big Lebowski.

I received the return call from Debbie well north of midnight. When I got back to the dacha, there were just one or two cars left in the driveway. Deb came right out and walked up to the driver’s window. “What’s up?” I asked.

“Well, Sean is hammered. I mean, hammered. The Russian had this collection of these really obscure and expensive vodkas, stuff I don’t think you can even buy in this country. We never even opened the Grey Goose. And Sean was matching him shot for shot. The Russian still looks like he could run a marathon if he wanted to, but Sean can barely stand. So, what I’m saying is, this is gonna take a couple minutes.”

With the relentlessly jolly Russian’s help, we loaded Sean into the backseat and got rolling. Sean immediately dozed off, leaving Deb and me to chat.

“You know,” she said, “I was thinking about what I said to you earlier, and I didn’t want to leave the impression that I, like, resent Sean’s mom in any way. She’s really a doll.”

I said, “No, I didn’t get that at all, Deb.”

“Last year it was my mother who turned 70, and Sean’s mom — her name is Alice, by the way — well, Alice sent this birthday card to my mom with this incredible note where she went on and on praising my mom for raising such a great girl.

In the rearview mirror, I could see Debbie’s eyes were glistening. After six boys, I thought, smiling to myself, it sounds like Alice now has the daughter she always longed for.

We managed to wrangle a discombobulated Sean from the cab into the house. The next afternoon, he called me to apologize for his conduct.

“Deb told me I was, like, totally out of it. Honestly, I don’t remember a friggin’ thing. One thing’s for sure, though — I ain’t ever gonna try to keep up with the Russian again. The guy is a friggin’ machine. Anyway, sorry for all that.”

I said, “Hey, no problem at all, Sean, and I mean it. You were fine. I mean, pretty much comatose, but you conducted yourself with great decorum. Say hello to Deb for me, and please give Alice my birthday regards. Your mom sounds like a great lady.”

“Ayup,” Sean said, his woodchuck roots coming through bright and clear. “That she is.”

?“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email