"Look at you, Jernigan — you've grown a beard."
"Yeah, and it's mostly white. I've gone full geezer, brother. You don't like the way it looks?"
"No, it's not that. It's just that I can't kiss you anymore."
"Well, that settles it, then — it's coming off."
I was sitting next to Chris Brodowski, a 20-year customer. I don't know how I pulled up his given name, because I can't remember the last time I heard anyone use it. The man is universally known as "Brodie." And "universally" aptly evokes Brodie's profile in the Burlington community: Everybody seems to know him and consider him a friend. He's just a big, and bighearted, guy.
"Jernigan, have you met my friends back here? Arnie and Amy?"
I pivoted in my seat to make eye contact with the couple. "Great to meet ya," I said.
"Same here," Arnie said. "Brodie's told us many a story about you. I guess you've rescued his sorry ass more than a few times through the years."
"Ain't that the truth," I said with a chuckle.
"Well, you don't need to worry about him tonight, because we're babysitting the big galoot," Amy informed me. "You know how he gets when Gracie is away — slightly unhinged."
"Where's Grace this weekend?" I asked Brodie.
"She's up in Québec City for a hockey tournament with our eldest. He's become, like, a real athlete. He's formidable on the ice, man. Truly."
"I have no doubt. Your mom got the two younger kids?"
"Yup, I'm on my own, which is not the best thing."
I was driving the group from the Pour House (I've always loved the pun) to On Tap, located at Five Corners in Essex Junction. "You gonna be around later tonight?" Arnie asked when we pulled into the bar's parking lot.
"Most definitely," I replied. "Call me when you need me."
For the next few hours, I continued working, driving my usual combination of regular customers, who call in for service, and random people off the streets, who either hail me from the curb or catch me at a taxi stand. Downtown was buzzing — it being graduation weekend for UVM — but the "random" category of fares was down significantly from past years. The decrease was due to that dreadful four-letter word: Uber. In common with every city where Uber has established service, Burlington has seen its traditional cab industry devastated. It's like the fucking plague, the Hackie Black Death. Not that I'm bitter.
At 1:30, Arnie called from On Tap for the return pickup home, and I hustled out to Essex. When the trio entered the cab, I could see they hadn't skimped on the tap: All three were nicely lubricated, particularly Brodie.
"I am hungry!" Amy announced. "What say you, guys? Let's stop for some food."
"Fabulous idea," Brodie agreed. "Jernigan, what's open this late? Is the McDonald's on Williston Road 24 hours? That's on the way."
"Yup, it is," I confirmed, and steered the vehicle toward Mickey D's. Years ago, I remember, they used to have a sign in front of each store boasting "millions served." In short order, the number reached "billions," before, I believe, the company dropped the sign altogether when the total surpassed 100 billion. Speaking personally, I'll take Al's French Frys any day of the week, misspelling and all.
We pulled into McDonald's, and Brodie entered the joint with Amy, while I waited in the cab with Arnie. "Not getting any food?" I asked him.
"Oh, I'm getting food. Amy'll pick me up a Number Three. That's my jam. So, you know Brodie for years, I guess? He is the most generous dude, isn't he? The kind of guy, you get in a jam, you can call at three in the morning and he'll come running, not a moment's hesitation."
"I know that to be true," I said. "I've witnessed it myself. Check it out — what the heck is he up to now in there?"
From where we were parked, we could see through the window that Brodie was deep in conversation with a diminutive older lady. "I wonder what that's about?" I said. "I mean, I know Brodie talks to everybody."
Amy returned with her bagged food for her and her man. "What's holding up Brodie?" Arnie asked her.
"Well, you won't believe it — or, actually, maybe you will. He's finishing up with his new friend. I think he just gave this random woman all the money in his wallet."
A couple of minutes passed, and Brodie stepped into the shotgun seat. "Jeez Louise, Brodie — how much money did you give that lady?" Arnie asked.
"Oh, so Amy told ya? I don't know — about 180 bucks."
Arnie shook his head. "And what, pray tell, prompted that?"
"She was telling me about her life. She commutes every day up to St. Albans to work at the Peerless Clothing warehouse. Her weekly check is, like, $381. She shares a one-bedroom apartment with her grown son, who has some kind of special needs."
"So you gave her all the cash in your wallet?" Arnie asked. He was incredulous.
"I don't know," Brodie replied. "I thought she could really use the money."
"Brodie, my man," I said, "when you get to the pearly gates, you are going through the speed-pass lane, no questions asked."
"Oh, and Arnie," Brodie said, turning in his seat, a big, crooked grin on his face. "I'm afraid you're gonna have to cover this cab fare. I don't have any money on me."
Arnie and Amy laughed. "Sure thing, big fella," Arnie said. "We got you covered."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.