“When we get to St. J, you’ll know where you’re going, right?”
I was questioning Mickey, the man sitting next to me in the shotgun seat. He was short and slender with a thick but neatly trimmed moustache. His shorts were a deep shade of green — teal, I believe, or is that a type of duck? (I still remember mixing up “mallet” and “mallard” on my high school SATs, so ducks continue to vex me linguistically.) The shorts were splattered with faded white paint from a long-ago job. On his sockless feet he wore new black sneakers — not the highest-end kind, but not the cheapest, either.
“Oh, yeah,” Mick replied. “We’re going to my place. My housemate should be home. Hey, if it’s OK, though, could we first swing by the town hospital? They have my wallet from when they transferred me by ambulance to the Fletcher Allen.”
“Sure, if you can direct me there, too, that’ll be no problem. I’ve been to St. Johnsbury a few times, but I’ll definitely need your help.”
I really should bite the bullet and install a GPS, but that’s not going to happen. Chalk it up to misplaced pride. Whenever someone asks me about this, I point to my head and say, “There’s my GPS.”
With Montpelier in the rearview mirror, we continued east on Route 2. I asked my customer, “So, did your stay at Fletcher Allen do any good? Are you feeling any better?” Mick had told me this was his third visit to the medical center since last fall. I didn’t know the nature of his illness, but he was obviously weak.
“It helped some. I’m well enough to go home, which is great. HIV, man — I’ve had it for years, but the last few it’s really been a bitch. I just can’t work anymore, and I’ve worked my whole life.”
How’d he get it? flashed through my brain. And then I thought, What a stupid, petty question. In my bid to become a more compassionate person, I seem to be regularly confounded by the callousness lurking in the recesses of my mind. And on certain days, it’s not merely the recesses.
“What kinda work do you do when you’re working?” I asked.
“Oh, I do it all. Jack-of-all-trades kind of deal. Carpentry, painting — you name it. I used to do a lot of body work. I’ve restored some gorgeous classic cars. I just don’t got the energy anymore. I grew up in Dublin, New Hampshire, on a farm, and our dad would have us boys out doing everything.” Mick laughed and added, “I think he had me on the friggin’ tractor at about 9.”
“Is your dad still at it?”
“No, he died in a plane crash a few years ago, when he was 70. The last 25 years of his life he worked as a tour guide and would take customers on his plane up into Canada. I mean, the far north, like, to the Arctic Circle sometimes. He loved fishing and hunting and being out in nature, and there was more money in it than farming. Anyway, the thing is, he died doing what he loves, and that’s something. I love it, too. I’m still able to fish, thank God.”
As we cleared Cabot, halfway to Danville, we hit the traffic. Route 2, the main thoroughfare in this part of the state, was down to one lane. I asked Mickey, “You know what’s going on here, man?”
“Yeah, I guess they’re expanding the lanes. They’ve been talking about doing this for a few years.”
Danville itself was the worst: The downtown area was being entirely resurfaced. As we finally made it through, I counted the number of vehicles backed up waiting to continue west. “I got 93 cars, Mickey,” I reported.
He replied, “Holy shit,” and I agreed.
“So, Mick, when did you move to St. Johnsbury?”
“I came here in 2005, I guess. My brother had moved here years ago, and he thought it might be a nice place for me to locate. He was right. I love it up here in Vermont.”
“And you share a house with somebody?”
“Yeah, Ralph’s a great guy. He helps me out when I need it. Most important, he looks after my dog when I’m in the hospital. Well, it’s really a wolf.”
“Excuse me, did you say, ‘wolf’? Is that even legal in Vermont, to keep a wolf?”
“I can’t really tell you that. Anyway, he’s better trained than any dog. I’ve raised him since he was, like, a day old.”
“How on earth did you get possession of a wolf pup?”
“Dude — that is a story. I heard about this old Indian woman who raised wolves up this mountain in some national forest in Idaho. Her main female was about to have a litter, and I arranged to travel there and take one of the pups. So I flew into Boise, and got a call from her in the middle of the night in my hotel room. She told me the mother had died during the birth and I would have to get up there right away because the pups might not survive too much longer. I drove all night and got there in the morning. It was the saddest sight — all these tiny wolf pups with no mother. A little black one immediately caught my eye, and that was it. For months I had to bottle-feed her. For the first few days, I actually used an eyedropper.”
I could see that telling the story of the wolf had tired Mickey out. He didn’t speak again until we came into St. J, crossing over a beautiful river. “That’s the Passumpsic,” he said. “Great fishing. Maybe I’ll get out there tomorrow.”
That struck me as overly optimistic, but who’s to say? Maybe he would.
With Mick’s directions, we made it to the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital and picked up his wallet. From there, he directed me to his home. When we pulled into the driveway, Ralph was working in the yard and came right over to help out.
Before he got out of the taxi, Mick smiled at me and said, “I don’t know how to say this, man, but I hope I don’t see you again.”
I returned the smile, saying, “I get it, Mick. And catch a fish for me tomorrow.”