"Oh, Christ — the cellphone service is horrendous in Vermont!" In the back seat of my taxi, my customer, Fern Burns, was trying to reach her teenage daughter back in South Carolina. Her phone was not cooperating. I was driving Fern to the Burlington airport after her completion of a weeklong yoga seminar held at a hotel near the Sugarbush ski area.
"Yeah, it can be spotty," I commiserated. "You wanna try mine? It usually works for me here in Waitsfield."
"No, I'll call her from the airport. It's already been such a disaster this week."
"How old's your daughter?"
"She's 14. The last time I left her with her older brother, the house flooded. So that was just great. This time, a couple of days ago she fell at the school-bus stop. I talked to my son, who played it down, but I think she may have a concussion. I know she didn't go to school today."
Fern didn't sound like a person who had just completed a yoga retreat. I got that she was upset about her kid, but she'd seemed just as anxious and irritated when I drove her one week earlier, at the start of her stay in Vermont. She had barely spoken to me on the trip down. Not that I minded. My customers just have to pay me; they needn't provide companionship.
No, I was simply noticing that this woman was not a happy soul. Maybe it started with her parents. When the family surname is "Burns," what possesses you to name your daughter "Fern"? I can't dream up a less felicitous pairing. With that moniker, it probably was hell for her in grade school. Then again, it could have been her married name, so who knows?
I said, "Well, with teenagers, you know, they got to make mistakes and learn from them. There's only so much you can do as a parent. I mean, you can't watch 'em 24 hours a day."
In the rearview mirror, I saw Fern's face grow dark. "It's more than that," she said. "About two years ago, my husband divorced me, and the kids took it hard. Particularly my daughter."
"Sorry to hear that," I said. "Are things beginning to settle down? I know divorce hits like a tsunami through a family with children, even in the best of circumstances."
"Well, my circumstances are the worst. It couldn't be worse, actually, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"Really?" I said. "It sounds rough."
"My husband divorced me and immediately moved in with my best friend. Now they're married and living in my old house with her three kids. I actually had to move to a whole other town. I couldn't take it. My husband is a prominent psychiatrist, and everybody loves and respects him. He has the whole town bamboozled. I would call him a master manipulator."
"So if you got custody of the kids, why didn't you end up with the house? Isn't that the way these things usually play out?"
"I didn't want it. I had to get out of there. I settled instead for alimony payments. But now I'm at the mercy of him and his new wife because they're always threatening to sue for custody of my daughter, and if that happened, I'd lose most of the alimony. It's a nightmare, to tell you the truth."
The sun was shining as we cruised north on Route 100. After the winter we'd had, it felt like liquid gold. I cracked my window for the first time in 2014. The fresh air streamed in, bracing and invigorating, a tonic I needed to stay with this conversation. This woman's life described a black hole, and while I was willing to hear her out, I needed to avoid the vortex.
"Have you tried counseling?" I asked.
"The judge ordered it during the divorce proceedings. We had two sessions, with two different counselors. Both of them spoke to me afterward and told me that I was lucky to be getting this man out of my life. That was great to hear, because it made me feel like I wasn't so crazy."
"But why move out of town?" I asked. "I mean, away from your friends, people who would support you."
"That's just the thing," she replied, her voice betraying the anguish. "The two of them turned all our friends against me. God knows what they told them about me. I just couldn't defend myself."
I knew there had to be much more to this story than my customer was revealing, but still, it sent shivers up my spine. I had visions of a hell town where the witch is accused and torched at the stake — Fern Burns, indeed. It's the dark side of human community: the lust for a scapegoat. In this small-town melodrama, Fern had found herself served up on a platter.
I drove at a steady pace, the cool air streaming into my nostrils as if I were wearing an oxygen mask in a pressurized cabin. I had no idea what to say to this woman — what, if anything, might help.
"I guess, if the divorce counselors were right, this can actually be a fresh start for you and your kids. But I imagine it's going to take a long while to let go of all the anger."
"Oh, I'm not angry," she said, her tone suddenly flat.
I'm not so sure about that, I thought, but didn't say a word. To me, it looked like the anger had calcified into bitterness, an even more harrowing emotion. And, underneath it all, I could sense an ocean of hurt, pain and betrayal. I felt for this woman, I really did, but what was her responsibility? Her apparent willingness to embrace the role of victim was frightening to me.
And that's when I realized there was nothing more to say. The vortex was swirling, and I could feel myself being sucked in. Time to nip that in the bud, I instructed myself. In time, Fern either would or would not find her way out of the dark place her life had become. Inwardly, I wished her well on that journey.
"So, if you feel like it, I'd like to hear about your yoga seminar," I said as we swung through downtown Waterbury. m