"Hey, Jernigan. I have a young man here who needs a ride to the car rental at the airport."
The caller was my artist friend Katharine, phoning from her studio/store across from Burlington's City Hall Park. She's mostly known for her sublime watercolor renderings of the Vermont landscape, and I'm a huge fan of her work. If she'd have me, I would gladly be her groupie — cleaning her brushes, mixing paints, sweeping up the shop, fawning over her. I may have actually broached the idea with her at some point, but she said her husband would likely frown on it. So I've (mostly) let go of that particular fantasy.
Katharine introduced me to Milo, a handsome, lanky 22-year-old Aussie on an extended American vacation. Climbing into the shotgun seat of my taxi, he appeared effortlessly hip with his all-black attire, rough-and-tumble beard and shock of curly black hair. We smiled at each other, and he struck me as carefree and game for adventure — reminiscent of me in my own salad days, or perhaps the salad days of my imagination.
"So I'm taking you up to rent a car?" I confirmed as we hooked a left onto Main Street. "Where are you off to?"
"Well, for the next part of my trip, I'm driving cross-country, and there's this potential car I'm checking out in the town of Graniteville."
I internally ran the logistics and said, "I see. So you're renting the car to drive to Graniteville to look at a car you might wanna buy. But if you do decide to pull the trigger, you'll have to first return the rental car to Burlington and get a ride back the next day with somebody? This plan sounds kind of unwieldy. I could drive you all the way by taxi, and it would probably be more efficient and cheaper."
"Yeah, I was actually thinking the same thing," Milo said. "Could you give me a price for this?"
I pulled over and computed the taxi fare to Graniteville, and my customer went for it. Score! I thought — a good fare on a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon in the merry month of May.
Merging onto the highway, I asked Milo about his heritage, and specifically if he had Aborigine ancestors in his bloodline. He replied, "No, but I do hear that a lot, probably because I'm so dark. My parents are both from Estonia. They immigrated to Australia when I was a baby, in the years when the Soviet Union was breaking up. Because they had skills that were needed — my dad is a physicist and my mom's a nurse — they were welcomed with open arms. They hit the ground running and never looked back."
"So are you here on a break from school or something?"
"Yeah, that's exactly it. My school pension is quite meager, but it's enough to travel a bit, if you don't mind scrambling now and then."
"And school 'pension' — that's, like, what we would call a school loan?"
"No, it's better than that — it's a grant that every student receives."
"What's your field of study?"
"I have a few classes left for my architecture degree, but I'm not sure about pursuing it. What I really love is photography. I just don't know if that's still a viable profession in the digital age, with every bloke and his uncle constantly snapping pictures."
"I see what you're saying. Hey, do you have the exact address we're going to?"
Milo nodded, chuckling, and began extracting random paper notes from his pocket. He found the paper napkin on which he had written the name and address of the garage selling the car, and he read it out to me.
"I'll tell you what," I said. "I don't recognize the road off the top of my head. I'm not sure I've ever been through Graniteville, to tell you the truth. Why don't ya plug it into the GPS on your cellphone? That'll make life easy."
"I would if I had a cellphone," Milo replied. My dumbstruck reaction made him grin.
"Traveling in a foreign country without a phone," I noted with a whistle of admiration. "God bless you, man. I like your style. Here's my phone."
Graniteville is just southeast of Barre. As we approached the town, I saw a sight that made me blink: On each side of the road was a series of massive hills of granite slabs, each mound perhaps 100 to 200 feet in height. Would they be considered tailings, castoffs in the granite-mining process? It reminded me — after 35 years in my adopted state — how little I really know about it. I'm always discovering new things that surprise and confound me. And delight me.
With the GPS robotically leading the way, we reached the garage. In front sat the car for sale: a lipstick-red 2002 Dodge Durango with tires worthy of a monster-truck competition. Milo liked what he saw.
I was feeling protective of Milo, not wanting him to get hustled on a subpar vehicle. But when the garage owner came out and introduced himself, my concerns evaporated. He was a burly, bearded, friendly bear of a man decked out in a gray jumpsuit, eyes twinkling like he was privy to a mischievous joke we were all in on — in other words, a bona fide Vermonter. I knew the kid would do fine.
Milo and I took a test ride up past the broken granite mountains, and the Durango performed well. Back at the garage, Milo paid the guy and executed the paperwork, and I drove him to the Montpelier DMV to register the car and pick up temporary plates.
Exchanging goodbyes back at the garage, I said, "Safe journey across the country, Milo. I hope to see you back in Vermont sometime."
"Yes, I bet I'll be back here in the future. My heart tells me so. There's something about this place."
The following Saturday, I stopped by Katharine's place. Her block of St. Paul Street is closed to traffic during the farmers market, and a steady stream of folks filed in and out of the gallery, a combination of friends and art buyers. People love schmoozing with Katharine, me included.
Over bowls of farmers market Tibetan rice and veggies, Katharine asked me how things went with Milo. I told her the whole story, and she said, "Oh, I'm glad it worked out so well. That kid was a sweetie!"
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.