I could tell Gerald was trying very hard to hold it together, but the week’s physical and emotional events had left him dazed.
I don’t know what to call the men working at the main entrance of Fletcher Allen hospital — doormen? bellhops? — but, whatever their job title, I find them unfailingly helpful every time I pick up there.
Today was no exception. I gave one of them the name of my customer, and minutes later he returned through the oversized revolving doors pushing Gerald Kapalka in a wheelchair. The guy didn’t look great.
Every now and then, the hospital calls me to transport a discharged patient, usually back to his or her home. While the staff doesn’t divulge privileged information, I’m usually told something about the circumstances, so I can better provide any special care the person may require.
Gerald Kapalka had had a bad week. It started with suffering a traumatic brain injury that necessitated a two-day hospital stay. A couple of days after that, while caring for him at their home, his wife of 45 years collapsed and died in their bedroom. That landed Gerald back at Fletcher Allen for another couple days. Now I was taking him back to his empty house. As I said, a bad week.
Still a little shaky on his feet, Gerald managed to climb into the front seat. He was a dark-haired, short and muscular man, or at least solidly built. To the side of his left eye, his temple was seriously purpled, though the skin wasn’t broken.
When he had settled and buckled into his seat, I looked at Gerald, and he at me. I could tell he was trying very hard to hold it together, but the week’s physical and emotional events had left him dazed. “D’ya know where we’re going?” he asked politely.
“Well, I know you live below Middlebury. They told me you could guide me to your home.”
“I live in Hortonia,” he said. “It’s quite a bit south of Middlebury, but don’t take Route 7 all the way. They’re puttin’ in a new bridge in Middlebury, and the traffic is a beast. So I’d say take 22A.”
“Makes sense to me,” I said, and off we went. I thought I was familiar with all the towns in Addison County, but Hortonia didn’t ring a bell. It sounded like a place out of a Marx Brothers movie, or perhaps a character in a Dr. Seuss story.
As we cleared the hospital grounds, I said, “Hey, I’m sorry about your loss.”
I had thought about whether I was going to say anything about his wife’s death. Why bring his attention back to his devastating loss? I considered. But, knowing I was going to be with this guy for about an hour, I felt it would be unconscionable to leave it unacknowledged.
Gerald turned his head slightly, giving a barely perceptible nod. I realized my trepidation was beside the point. His wife had been gone for 48 hours — what else could he be thinking of?
“Is a memorial service scheduled?”
“Gosh, no. I don’t even know if the kids have been notified. I guess I got to take care of that when I get home.”
We drove in silence for quite a while. I try to remain aware of the impermanence of everything in this world, but is that really feasible? I mean, is it possible to get out of bed in the morning and go through the day knowing that the things nearest and dearest to your heart could be swept away before your head hits the pillow that night? This week it just happened to be Gerald’s turn; next week could be mine.
The long stretch along 22A is one of my favorites, nice and straight, with extensive passing zones. The farmers down this way have managed to persevere, and the land is lush and fertile. As we cruised past the apple warehouses of Shoreham, Gerald spoke again.
“I used to do a fair amount of farming when I was a kid.”
“Is that right? Are you a Vermonter?”
“Nope. I moved up here in the early ’60s from Connecticut. By then I was doing air conditioning and heatin’. I had a nice little business.”
“You always lived in Hortonia?”
“Well, my wife and I bought the land there early on. Then, over … hmm, I wanna say three years, I built our house. Worked every weekend and all the holidays.”
“That’s an accomplishment, man. Not many men or women have the complete set of skills to pull that off. That’s really something.”
At Orwell, we cut east on 73, and then south on Route 30. On our right, a huge blue lake came into view. I said, “Jeez, I don’t remember this body of water. What’s it called?”
“That’s Lake Hortonia,” Gerald replied. “Gosh, the milfoil is back again.That’s too bad.”
Within a few miles, Gerald had me turn onto a dirt road, and then onto another and another. When the asphalt disappears, it feels like another country. We passed a man tilling a field with a team of two horses, an anachronism I thought long vanished from the Vermont landscape. At another point, a girl driving a four-wheeler came toward us on the left side of the road. A little blondie, she couldn’t have been more than 14. As we passed, we could see three smaller girls squashed behind her on the big seat. All four of them waved to Gerald, who managed a wave back.
“The Carlson girls,” he said quietly. “The father’s in the Special Forces — I think he might be in Afghanistan — and their mom teaches up in Brandon.”
After yet more dips and turns, we arrived at the end of the road. Gerald’s one-story house had been constructed atop a crested peninsula jutting about 50 yards into Lake Hortonia, and it was surrounded by a deck extending over the water on three sides. It was an amazing, one-of-a-kind homestead.
Gerald thought he would have to break in through one of the windows, because he had forgotten to take his keys. But I prevailed on him to walk around the deck with me and check the many sliding doors to see if one had been left open.
One after another, they proved to be locked, until we got to the very last door. It slid open, and we walked together into his bedroom, where he thanked me for the ride and we shook hands. There was nothing more to be said.