Burlington rocked, swung and generally got down over the second weekend of June. The Jazz Festival drew thousands to town, and, as if that wasn't enough, it coincided with St. Michael's alumni weekend and UVM's orientation for the incoming freshmen. Between my regulars and the tourists, I was flat-out.
Amid the Saturday-night craziness, I paused in front of Nectar's to see what was doing. The sale of this quintessential Burlington night spot a few years ago was just what the old girl needed. The new owners made all the right changes, to the point where Nectar's - in tandem with Metronome, the upstairs dance club - has regained its prominence in the downtown club scene.
Among the sidewalk throng, I noticed, was a man holding a woman by her shoulder and arm. She looked to be in her early twenties, tipsy and reluctant to call it a night. The man was persistent, though, and gradually coaxed her to the curb, where he opened the front door of my taxi.
"Janice," he said, "you got money for this cab?"
"It's Janet," she said.
"Sorry . . . Janet, do you need dough for this?"
"I got money," she replied, lowering her head to my eye level and throwing me a smirk.
"All right, then," the man said, assisting Janet into the shotgun seat. Though he was being genuinely helpful, something in his eyes said that he was glad to be, well, rid of this woman. Before leaving, he added, "Take care of yourself."
Alone with Janet, I asked, "So, where can I take you?"
She named one of the many condo developments along Kellogg Road in Colchester, adding, "Do you know how to get there?"
"I do," I replied, and pulled a U-turn, heading up the hill out of town.
"Whatcha listening to?" Janet asked with a kittenish shimmy of her shoulders. She was slender and wearing a short, brightly patterned cocktail dress, a retro style from the mid-'60s. With her long, straight blonde hair and mauve headband, it was a definite look, but something was off. Not so much in her appearance, I realized, but in her energy field, which felt disturbed, unbalanced.
"What station would you like?" I replied. I learned years ago that when customers ask me what's on the radio, what they really mean is, I don't like what you're playing; please change it.
Janet mumbled, "Ninety-five Triple-X."
I reached down and moved the radio dial to 95.5, the pop station. Immediately the sound of Jamaican speed-rap filled the cab. I couldn't decipher a word of the lyrics, but, man, was there ever an urgency, if not panic, to every word. It struck me as kind of radical for Top 40 radio, but, as I rarely listen to the format, how would I really know?
"Yazzee?" Janet inexplicably burst out over the music.
"I'm sorry," I said turning down the radio volume. "What did you ask me?"
"Do ya play Yahtzee? It's awesome."
"Huh - Yahtzee . . . You know, I never have played Yahtzee. That's with the dice, right? Or maybe I'm confusing it with cribbage."
Janet was staring blankly out the windshield. She had tuned out as quickly as she had tuned in. In silence, we turned onto Susie Wilson Road and then onto Kellogg. Her apartment complex was a series of small units, four to a building. She directed me to a parking spot in front of her place, and I shifted the vehicle into park. "That'll be 12 bucks," I said.
Janet unbuckled her seat belt and adjusted herself in the seat, as if she was settling in for a while. She opened her pocketbook, a large tan sack, and pulled out a small bottle of Jim Beam. The size was odd: It wasn't a tiny bottle like one you might receive on a plane, but it was smaller than the flask-shaped pints you see in liquor stores. Unscrewing the top, she took a swig.
"I know I should, like, pay you now and get out," she said, "but, you know . . ."
I got a sinking feeling. It arrived as a visceral sensation, as if a dark force had tapped into the A/C and was circulating through the vents, ushering in a bleak, heartless atmosphere for the human spirit.
"No, I don't know," I said, trying to get things back on track. "I need to get back downtown, OK?"
A sad, vacant expression came over Janet's face, and, suddenly, she reached down toward the fly of my pants. I saw it coming and grabbed her wrist before she got there.
"None of that, Janet," I said softly. "You're way better than this, honey - way better."
Without a word, she withdrew her hand. The shock of my stopping her seemed to have broken the spell. She took $15 out of her purse, handed it to me and quickly left the cab.
I worked the rest of the night, made my money, but my heart just wasn't in it. I couldn't stop thinking about Janet. She had drawn me into her tortured world, and the heartache had seared me. My one solace, albeit a small one, was the knowledge that I'd be feeling infinitely worse if I hadn't caught her wrist.
Read more of Jernigan Pontiac's adventures on his blog, Yo, Hackie!