On a gray afternoon, I pulled into the driveway of a regular customer in the airport neighborhood of South Burlington. Kenny was outside waiting for me and jumped into the front seat. As I backed out, we both noticed a woman standing on the sidewalk waiting for the bus. “She looks real cold,” Kenny said. “Why dont cha take her, too?”
That sentiment was totally in character for Kenny, a man I’ve been driving for 15 years. He’s always ready to help out a friend or stranger. I had no doubt he’d offer to pick up her taxi fare if it came down to it.
Easing up to the curb where the woman stood, I lowered Kenny’s window and asked her, “We’re headed downtown — you wanna lift? It’s on the house.”
“Well, thanks so much,” she replied with a smile. “I need to catch the Shelburne bus at Cherry Street. Do you think you could drop me there?”
On the ride into town, Kenny and the woman chatted. Her name was Dawn-Marie, and the two of them knew each other slightly from the neighborhood. She was petite, with an aquiline nose and dark, doleful eyes. Unlike many women, who cut their hair shorter as they age, Dawn-Marie had kept hers long. Parted in the middle and tumbling onto her shoulders, the black locks attractively framed her face.
After dropping Kenny off at Esox on Main Street, I asked Dawn-Marie, “Exactly where in Shelburne are ya headed?”
“I need to get to the Mobil station right in the village. I just had a new alternator put in.”
“I’ll tell you what — if you want, I’ll take you all the way there for eight bucks, tip included.” This was about half price; inspired by Kenny, I wanted to continue helping this lady out.
“Really, just $8?” she said. “That would be great.”
As we cruised south on Shelburne Road, I said, “Cars are a pain in the ass, aren’t they? If it’s not one thing, it’s another. I just put about $500 into my cab yesterday.”
“I’ll say,” Dawn-Marie replied. “I can barely afford it, either.”
“What are you doing for work?”
“Nothing now. I had to quit my job a couple of months ago.”
“Well, that’s rough,” I said. “What precipitated that?”
I watched in the rearview mirror as my customer hesitated. In the awkward moment, I realized my question was a bit forward. If I’d been paying closer attention, her phrasing, “had to quit my job,” would have been a red flag. Clearly, I have yet to master locating the line between friendliness and nosiness. The delicate and dicey thing about human communication is, you can never truly take anything back. So it’s best to think before you speak.
“I was having weakness in my joints,” she said. “Last fall I was diagnosed with MS.”
“My goodness,” I said. “I’m sorry. That is something.”
“Yeah, it changes a lot of things, and really quickly.”
“Do you have family or friends you can count on?”
“I have two sons. One’s 13 and one’s 20, and they’ve both been great. I’ve got friends who are there for me, too. My boyfriend, unfortunately, has been another story. He’s having a hard time since I’ve ‘changed,’ as he puts it. We’ve been through a lot. We had a miscarriage about a year ago. He’s had a lot to deal with. I do get that.”
I was thinking what a creep she had for a partner, and that she was being too easy on him. But who knows how I would act faced with a similar challenge? It’s so easy to judge.
“The main thing now,” Dawn-Marie continued, “is that I’ve got to be around supportive people. In my new life, that’s all I have room for.”
Later that night, as I sat idling on the corner of Church and Main, I found myself still thinking about Dawn-Marie. Life is so tentative, so fragile — though most of us tend to bury that reality for the sake of our psychic health. It’s kind of depressing, I thought, the way everything we hold near and dear can be swept away in the blink of an eye. Sometimes I feel it’s not a question of if the tsunami will arrive, but when.
Mired in melancholia, I noticed a handsome couple walking up to the corner and coming to a stop. The man was tall and well built, and the woman — a stunner — was wearing a full-length, camel-colored woolen coat, her thick blond mane tucked inside the collar. From where I sat, I could see the man’s face as he grasped her arms, his eyes shining with love as he spoke to her.
They kissed — pretty passionately, I thought, given the public setting — and talked a little more before smooching a few more times. Then the man slid down to one knee, pulled a small box from his jacket pocket and looked up at the woman to ask her a question. She brought her hand to her mouth and nodded vigorously. He rose, and they kissed and embraced again.
The pair was suddenly surrounded by more than a dozen people — some old, some young, including kids, one of whom was operating a video camera. They seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I lowered the passenger window in time to hear an older man in the group ask the proposal maker — his son? — “Well, what did she say?”
“She said, ‘yes’!” he replied, and the pack exploded in cheers and laughter. There was much hugging all around, and all the females wanted to see the ring.
As the jubilant group began to mosey up Church Street, I noticed a few in the party pausing to look down and smile at a particular spot on the sidewalk. When they had all gone, I got out of the cab and walked over. Drawn in rose-colored chalk was a big heart with the inscription “A + S.”
Tsunamis come and go; earthquakes, too. And yet, somehow, the world never lacks for optimism and joy. “Good luck, A and S,” I whispered in the night, “and don’t stop believing.”