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Heart of the Village

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The woman who approached my taxi at the bus terminal was slim, with ruddy, wind-burned features and short, sandy-blonde hair. She was lugging a heavy backpack, and looked older than most people who dress in blue jeans and work boots.

“Are you familiar with a bed-and-breakfast called The Heart of the Village Inn?” she asked me. “Do you know where it is?”

“Ma’am, at this point I pretty much know where everything is. It’s in Shelburne, just down from the museum.”

The woman chuckled and said, “Well, then, I guess you’re my man. Tell me, is it a nice place?”

“It’s a lovely place, a stately Victorian,” I replied. “I actually know the owner, and she does a terrific job.”

“Thanks, that’s reassuring. The name’s Sunny, by the way.”

“Pleased to meet you, Sunny. I’m Jernigan.”

I helped Sunny waggle off the backpack and loaded it into the trunk. At my suggestion, she then got in the front with me. This is standard in Burlington, but if you hail from a big city, the notion of sitting next to your cab driver can be disconcerting. Sunny was game, though. I got the distinct impression she was a when-in-Rome kind of gal.

“So this is Burlington,” she said as we got underway.

I glanced to my right and noticed she had unusually clear blue eyes, almost like a husky’s. I said, “You got it. This is it — the Queen City. What brings you through town, if I may ask?”

“Well,” she said with a smile, “that’s a bit of a long story.”

“It’s 15 minutes to the Inn,” I said. “Go for it.”

Sunny straightened up in her seat, letting her hands drop onto the tops of her thighs with a slight thud. She took a breath and said, “This fall I’m entering into a stint with the Peace Corps. I’ll be going to American Samoa.”

“Really?” I said, perking up. I could hear the thrill in her voice. “I thought the Peace Corps recruits its volunteers just out of college.”

“Yes, most participants are young people, but there’s actually no age limit. I’m turning 70 this summer.”

“That’s fantastic,” I said, as we entered the tangle of Shelburne Road at rush hour. For once, the traffic didn’t irk me; I welcomed the opportunity to hear more about Sunny’s life.

“What will you be doing when you get there — American Samoa, I mean?”

“That hasn’t been determined yet. I was a construction worker back in my youth in Phoenix, and then I taught public school until I retired in ’94. And, of course, I squeezed in raising three sons.” She gazed upward and laughed gently to herself. “So, I suppose they can put me to work in any number of areas.”

Up ahead I could make out the blinking four-ways of a car transporter hauling about eight Luminas. The driver appeared to be attempting a drop-off at Shearer Chevrolet, effectively blocking the right lane of traffic. We weren’t going anywhere fast.

“Well, Sunny, now I know about your upcoming Peace Corps mission, but you still haven’t shared what’s brought you to this town.”

“Wanderlust,” she replied without hesitation. “My husband passed on in ’98 and the boys all moved out of state years ago, so nothing really ties me to Arizona anymore. It’s five months till I ship out to Samoa, and I’ve always wanted to see Yankee country. I’m thinking of renting a room in town and exploring the state, hiking and biking, perhaps.”

“How’d you pick Vermont, though? I mean, I would — but I’m totally prejudiced.”

Sunny laughed, brushing wisps of hair behind her ears with her fingertips. “It was your Con-gressman, Bernie Sanders. I saw him last year debating some right-winger on ‘Crossfire.’ I just loved the way he stuck up for the little guy; they couldn’t budge him. During the course of the show, it came out that he was a former mayor of Burlington.”

“He sure was,” I interjected. “For eight years, if I recall correctly.”

“I remember looking at the TV and thinking, ‘Burlington, Vermont, must be a special place to have elected this man to office.’ That’s when I knew I wanted to visit here someday.”

We finally cleared the car dealerships and were passing the long stretch of strip malls. I was glad Sunny had come up by bus so she had the chance to see that, in Vermont, roads like this are the exception. But even here amidst all the pavement, there were beds of crocuses and daffodils and the occasional budding tree. Spring was bursting out, and I felt swept up in the expansiveness of it all, the sense of possibility.

We arrived at the Inn, and I helped Sunny hoist the backpack onto her shoulders. She turned around and, for a moment, we faced one another.

“Thanks so much for the ride, Jernigan,” she said.

“Sunny, if you don’t mind me saying so, you are one inspiring person. I really mean it.”

Her pale blue eyes shone in the late-afternoon sun. Behind her, I noticed a row of lipstick-red tulips along the base of the grand old white house, a perfect backdrop. “I appreciate the thought,” she said. “Here’s the key, courtesy of this old-timer: Never stop living life. It’s that simple.”

I watched Sunny climb the short staircase into the building. Stepping back to my cab, I leaned against the front fender and inhaled deeply. The air was fragrant with new life. Chuckling to myself, I realized that spring blossoms were everywhere and had been out for probably a couple weeks. Being with Sunny had woken me from my winter slumber.

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