"Hey, it's Lance," the caller announced. "How long for a ride to the bar?"
Lance has been a customer long enough that he needn't specify which bar. His gin mill of choice started out life as a private "social club" before transforming into a regular bar. (It was a switch, truth be told, hardly worthy of the word "transforming," as the physical space — along with the bartenders and customers — didn't change a whit.) Most of its clientele, including my guy Lance, still seemed to refer to the place by its passé social-club name — a decidedly modest forest creature, nothing with the grandeur of an elk or a moose, to name a couple of imposing animals adopted as monikers by other well-known social clubs.
"Well, let me think for a second," I replied into the air space connected magically to my Bluetooth ear bud. If I live to be 100, I'll never get accustomed to the thing, which makes me feel like a doofus every time I use it. Alas, such is now the law: no handheld devices while driving.
"This is a crazy-busy night; plus, it's snowing," I explained. "Let's say a half hour. Does that work for you?"
"That'll work fine, Jernigan. It's not like I have an appointment or anything."
Events were converging this weekend to produce a flood of taxi business. Valentine's Day was coinciding with Presidents' Day weekend, filling the town with lovers and ski tourists. Also, there were a couple of shows at the Flynn and the annual pond-hockey tournament out at Malletts Bay. I was driving flat-out, which is lucrative but hectic.
On the way over to the bar, Lance asked, "You working late tonight? Because chances are I'll be closing the place down."
"Sure, Lance — you just call and I'll come get ya."
The night flew by; that's the way it feels when it's busy. My favorite customers were a young couple spending the weekend in Burlington on a delayed honeymoon.
"This cold is something else, isn't it?" I threw out as they cuddled in the backseat. "My cell is telling me that it's seven freaking degrees below zero."
"That's nothing," said the husband. "We're from Watertown, N.Y., and when we left yesterday, the Weather Channel said we were the coldest place in the lower 48. How about 29 below zero? And that's before wind chill."
"So seven below is nice and warm," the wife added with a charming giggle.
It's all nice and warm when you're young and in love, I thought, probably with a tinge of jealousy.
It was just past midnight when Lance called for his ride home. Guess he didn't close the place down, I thought as I headed over to pick him up.
When Lance hit the shotgun seat, he was agitated and fuming, a condition I'd not witnessed before in this happy-go-lucky man. "What's going on?" I asked, with your basic open-ended conversation starter.
"I'm so fucking pissed at the bartender. Earlier in the evening, a guy at the bar slapped his girlfriend — I mean, totally bitch-slapped her, nearly knocking her off her stool. I immediately went off on the guy. I actually know the dude — he's kind of a friend — but there's no reason ever to hit a woman. You know what I'm saying?"
"Well, yeah — I agree with that."
"There were a couple swings, and I ended up with a cut lip." Mentioning the injury prompted him to pause and give it an exploratory rub with his forefinger. "The bartender told him to leave, which he did, but then he came back, like, an hour later, and they let him stay! What the hell is up with that? He had just hit a woman in full view of the whole place, and he's invited back in? That's when I called you to take me home before I did something completely stupid."
"A guy brazen enough to hit a woman in public," I said, taken aback by the notion — though, sadly, I knew I shouldn't be. "Could you even imagine what he must do behind closed doors? Jeez Louise."
"I grew up around that crap. My old man used to smack my mom around, so I can't stomach it, I really can't. A few years ago, I nearly beat the daylights out of a guy at a party who knocked down his wife. Got my nose busted, but it was worth it."
"Well, I'm glad you called," I said. "I sympathize with your instincts, but you just would've landed in jail for the night. I don't know about vigilante justice. It kinda works in the movies, but in real life, I'm not so sure."
That was my last word on the subject, as I recognized my hypocrisy. The truth was, in the same situation I'd likely deck the guy, too. Or at least tackle him.
"Yeah, you're probably right about that," Lance said with a chuckle. "Anyway, I'm getting too old for this shit. You know what I'm saying? Hanging out in these rough-and-tumble beer joints, trouble's gonna find me — if not one thing, then another."
"That's why you keep my number on you at all times," I kidded him. "And I recommend getting it tattooed, maybe on your biceps. If you're too drunk to call, you just roll up your shirt and point to it, and the bartender can call me for ya."
"Hell, yeah!" Lance declared, and we both laughed. "Is Yankee Tattoo open this late? Because I want to get right on that."