"Jernigan, this is Connie. I got somebody here who needs to get up to Greyhound at the airport."
"Sure, I can do that. Where are you — at work, I take it?" Connie is an old friend.
"Yeah, I'm at the Radio Deli. The woman's name is Galina."
I motored over to Pearl Street, where the deli sits across the street from Bove's, the venerable Italian restaurant that opened in 1941. Bove's is the last remaining commercial establishment that harks back to the bustling Italian American community of small homes, apartments and businesses — an entire neighborhood leveled in the '60s in the name of "urban renewal." Arrivederci, Little Italy; hello, Burlington Square Mall.
Alas, Bove's — sniff, sniff — will close at the end of this year, two days before Christmas. I propose the mayor issue a proclamation and — on the day the eatery serves up its final antipasto, minestrone and lasagna — dye Burlington Bay tomato-sauce red.
Galina stood in front of the deli with a wheeled suitcase. She was a slender woman with black spiked hair and a sly smile.
"You can sit in the front with me, if you like," I suggested to her as I popped the trunk to stow her one piece of luggage.
"Fine with me," she said in a charming Russian accent, reminiscent of Natasha from the "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." Yes, I am 1,000 years old.
"So, did you enjoy your time in Burlington?" I asked, pulling away from the curb.
"I was only here for a few hours," she explained. "My husband owns a home across the lake. Now I have to fly back to Ukraine. I'm taking bus to JFK airport. It's really a long, long story."
"Well, it's 15 minutes to the Burlington airport," I said with a chuckle. "It's not like I have any other pressing business. And, Ukraine — my gosh. You guys have been through so much."
"So, you know something of situation? We were living in Donetsk when the Russians invaded. Donetsk was the nicest, most peaceful city. Very cosmopolitan. And in few months it became Silent Hill. Civil society broke down completely. Not even post office was operating. Overnight it became a nightmare."
Galina's reference to Silent Hill threw me for a moment. Then I recalled seeing the film based on the video game on late-night cable — a horror movie depicting a harrowing survival scenario in an otherworldly community. The thought that she had lived this as a reality gave me the shivers, even on this sun-drenched late summer afternoon.
"That's horrible," I said. "How did you get out?"
"I had a relative in Odessa who took us in, thank God. And we had recently been married. My husband and I each had two young children from previous relationships, so it was six of us. Now he's back living outside of Plattsburgh with his kids, while I'm still working on visas back in Ukraine for me and my children."
"I thought it was automatic when you marry an American."
"Nothing is automatic, but it should be coming through within a few weeks. You know — God willing."
"So, how did you meet your husband — an American, I'm guessing?"
"Yes, he was teaching English in Donetsk, and a friend introduced us."
"Were you pursuing a career yourself?"
"I was cardiologist, but that's all over. Now I'll be lucky if I can get a nursing license in the States. But I'm not complaining. I'm really not."
Galina's life put my own in stark perspective. There are so many things I worry about, but I get to wake up each morning in tranquil Vermont. Every single day I should bow my head and give thanks for my great fortune.
We descended Colchester Avenue and took the right turn onto Chase Street, which quickly leads to Patchen Road. I don't know if this route qualifies as an actual "shortcut" to the airport, but it avoids the congestive miasma that is Williston Road. I live for the avoidance of traffic and traffic lights. It's a meager raison d'être, but it sure beats dodging Russian shock troops.
Attempting a mood lightener, I asked, "So, coming from your part of the world, are you a big borscht eater?"
"Oh, yes, but Russian version, not Ukrainian. I actually grew up in Russia."
"What do you think of American food?"
Galina laughed. "You Americans put too much salt in everything! I can't get used to it. It's my one complaint."
"Now, is that you as a cardiologist speaking?" I kidded her.
"It could be," she conceded. "But your food is still way too salty."
I drove my customer up to the far entrance of the airport, the one where the Greyhound counter is situated. "You know what?" I said, pulling to a stop and shifting into park. "With all you've been through, with all life has thrown at you, it seems you're well on your way to finding some peace and stability in this chaotic world, so good for you. I wish you the very best."
"Thank you for that," Galina said. Smiling ear to ear, she added, "But it's more than that, my friend. You see, I've met the man I love."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.