“Where is seat belt?” my customer, Nikolai Yegorov, inquired from the shotgun seat. He was short and stocky, with dark, deep-set eyes and a closely cropped, almost bald-head. We were idling at Fletcher Allen hospital’s main entrance.
“Sorry, it’s a little tricky,” I replied. “It’s connected to the seat, not the door post. Do you see it?”
“Aha, yes, I get it,” he said, the click affirming his success.
“What happened to your shirt?” I asked as we made our way off the hospital grounds. Beneath an unzipped, light jacket, he was wearing a buttonless hospital top with a sky-blue cloud pattern. Somewhere, I imagined, there was a study demonstrating the beneficial effect of pastel colors on the psyches of hospital patients.
“I’m not sure,” Nikolai replied. “I think it gets lost when they transfer me from Plattsburgh hospital in helicopter.”
“Wow, what was that like? I’ve never been in a helicopter.”
“I don’t much remember. I have heart attack and I think they put me on drugs. I feel better now.”
“Well, that’s good news. So I guess I’m taking you to Lake Placid? You know the address once we get there, I assume?”
“Yes, yes. We go to my house. I surprise my wife. She does not know what day I get released.”
I had plotted out the route before I picked up my customer. On Lake Placid or Saranac Lake runs, it’s a close call whether to take the Champlain Bridge or the Charlotte ferry. The ferry option entails less mileage, but there’s the waiting time and cost of the ferry. I decided to take the bridge, mostly because I enjoy the visual experience. It’s a gorgeous structure and still so new, with its slender arch balanced precisely and gracefully over the fresh water. I got goose bumps the first time I crossed it last winter, and I’m not a very goose-bumpy guy.
“So where did you grow up?” I asked, picking up the conversation once we made it onto Route 7’s steady ride south. “Russia? Or I guess it would have been the USSR?”
“I was born in Ukraine in 1944, in small town, maybe 3000 peoples. My father had farm — pigs, horses. I come here 10 years ago with my wife. I cook at big Lake Placid hotel.”
“That’s a huge change for any man to go through,” I said. “Did you speak much English when you arrived?”
“Not one word. I learn by watching TV.” Nikolai stopped and chuckled for a while before going on. “That’s how I learn the secret to good, long marriage. I watch this English TV show where the husband is saying all the time, ‘Yes, dear.’ So always I say this to my wife and we are happy.”
I laughed and said, “Maybe that and also ‘I’m sorry,’ and you got it all covered.”
Nikolai laughed, saying, “Yes, ‘I’m sorry’ — that is good, too.”
At Vergennes we swung over to 22A, en route to Crown Point and the bridge to New York. “So tell me about your wife,” I said. “Where is she from?”
“Nataliya is also from Ukraine. Her family had money when she was little child. Her father owned flour factory, and they have servants and everything beautiful. When she was 4, the communists came and arrested her parents and grandmother and sent them to Siberia prison farm, the Gulag. Nataliya was taken to orphanage, where she had to scrub cement floor every day, and they beat her. She never see her parents again, but her grandmother came back in couple years and they live together through the war and later, but very, very poor.”
“What a story,” I said. “The things people live through, it’s hard to believe.”
“It’s true, but my wife is very strong woman. She became singer and dancer, and together we get out of Soviet Republic just as it is breaking apart. For a while, we live in Europe, in different countries, but then move to America.”
The bridge was as grand as I remembered, as was the ride into the Adirondacks and across to Lake Placid. Nikolai and I talked the entire time. Despite a rough history, parts of which I could barely imagine, he maintained an optimistic, almost jolly, approach to life. Apparently, no heart attack was going to change that.
Near the village center, a couple of turns took us to the small townhouse development where Nikolai and his wife resided. The place was in a state of shabby decline — peeling paint, dilapidated shingles, pocket-sized scruffy lawns.
Nikolai removed his small bag from the rear seat and instructed me, “You wait. My wife have cakes and cookies for you, traditional Ukrainian.”
Before I could tell him that was kind but unnecessary, Nataliya came running out the door, tears streaming down her cheeks. “My Nicky, my Nicky,” she cried, wrapping her arms around her husband and showering him with kisses. They talked for a moment, and she ran inside and came out with two large, sealed bags, both of which were stuffed with at least a couple of dozen sugar-powdered pastries. They looked exquisite and quite delectable.
I stepped out of the cab to meet her. Nataliya’s lips were bright red, her graying blonde hair piled high on her head, with wisps escaping everywhere. She was a fading beauty, yet noble and proud, and lovely still.
Tears still falling, she handed me the bags, saying, “Thank you, thank you, for returning my Nicky to me.”
Nikolai walked over to embrace his wife again, and then, before I knew it, I was swept into a group hug. Now both of them were crying.
I thanked Nataliya profusely for her beautiful baked goods and stepped back in the cab to make my exit. Nikolai rushed to my window and handed me some money, saying, “Take this. Please, take this.”
“Nikolai, the fare is paid by the hospital,” I protested, but he persisted. I realized I would be insulting his generous nature if I refused the tip, so I acquiesced, stuffing the bills into my shirt pocket. Only on the ferry ride back (having opted for the shorter driving distance) did I check my pocket, expecting to find perhaps $10 or $15. Instead, I found a fifty, a ten and some ones. The man had tipped me $68.
I put down the cookie — my 10th by now, at least — and, wiping the powder from my lips, took a deep breath, sending Nataliya and Nikolai Yegorov another heartfelt thank-you through the ether.