"Eight If He's Lucky"
In the coffee shop on Third and Grand, I realized that I wanted to be myself. At the same time, I wanted to be somebody, somebody people knew and wanted to know. I hated that I was thirty. The reality was that my life was like the Forrest Sherman Class Destroyer model I tried completing when I was ten, missing a gunner's turret and an anchor. There were friends I knew who had figured out their lives in their twenties, so I spent years trying to figure people out, watched them, listened to them, ultimately wanting their lives.
I wasn't a rude person, but I would stare at folks. I would make inference into their lives. I walked by hundreds of stories each day, stories I would never know. I suppose I just wanted to know someone's story or to have someone know mine.
"Do you have a light?" A man with long black hair asked me. He had a cigarette hanging on his lip.
"No. I don't smoke. Sorry." I wanted to be polite, but the other side of me was hoping he wouldn't be sitting next to me after he smoked. I know it's wrong of me, but I associate people with their habits, ones I don't care to know much about but am chary enough to know they have.
The man moved to the next customer, a man in his sixties, and asked him for a light. The older man reached his hand into his overcoat pocket and pulled out a lighter, holding the flame up so the man could take a quick drag to get it going, the orange ember trail around the cigarette retreating from the tip. The man sat outside at a table with his friends.
I was officially distracted from my journaling now and focused on the older man. I wondered about him. Had he ever been to war? I noticed Chinese lettering in the tattoo on his neck as he returned his lighter to his jacket. Not a businessman, unless he made his way on his own. How long had it been since he last worked? Was he married?
Zoning in and out of thought, I stared at the older man, sitting at a table across from me. The man had short hair that dissipated gray from the hairline toward his crown. He was holding a paperback novel in the crick of his hand, his elbow touching his knee, legs crossed. He turned pages fast. I was amazed at how quickly he turned them and speculated as to whether he was reading or just skimming.
What does an older man think about? That summer, the one before I moved to New Orleans , I spent a lot of time in that coffee shop and saw many an elderly person walk in on the arm of a spouse and purchase a drink to muse over with their life partner. A man's life spans a good amount of time, though it's a lot shorter when you think of it in decades. Seven. Eight if he's lucky.
He turned another page.
I realized he was alone, he and his book. Does he think about his daughter? She'd have been in her thirties, forties perhaps. She married right out of college. She moved out east with her husband to Boston because of his work. The scorn of their family. I've known some parents to whom family is an ideological god. It was easy to understand why they believed that but more difficult to comprehend why they insisted on forcing that belief on their children.
I still lived down the street from my parents, a three bedroom place that I had all to myself, though I would rather have shared it. I never had the nerve to move away, lest that sort of continuing ridicule trouble me the remainder of my life. I could have used a woman that would take me places, someone who would introduce me to myself. My life to this point had been a drab reminder that everything of substance happened elsewhere and to other people. I didn't even get a phone call after skipping work yesterday. It was likely that no one even poked their head into my cubicle.
There was no way for me to figure how long the older man had been here today. He was here when I arrived. He stood near his table and turned left and right, stretching his back. He grabbed the side of his hip as he turned and moved slowly to the side, turning as far as his body would let him. He tried it again the other direction. He looked as if he was having some trouble with his movements, maybe a hip injury from the war or sports. When he played in high school, they would have had leather helmets, cleats too if they could afford it.
He was probably widowed. It was the only explanation to why he was here alone on a Saturday, a man his age. I wondered how she passed away, if she had to battle cancer for years, piling medical bills that the older man ignored. He would have spent nights on end awake at her bedside, dreaming about what would have been if she hadn't contracted such an illness. They would have bought a motor home and toured the country, stopping wherever they liked along the way to rest and enjoy each other. But dreams vanish. People do too.
If I was him, I would miss having her next to me. It must be great to feel loved. He has felt it at some point in his life. He feels it every Father's Day when his children call. He felt it when he made love to his wife. Every one has to go at some time though. It is the law of nature, a time for everything under the sun.
I wrote in my journal, a square black spiral-bound collection of my days alone. Its simple, plain look was fitting for a man like me.
Self: What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Marriage? A relationship with your father? A new job? What do you want? Success. To know someone closer than I know anyone right now. To really know anybody. To feel like I could have things together if just a few things changed. It's knowing what to change that is difficult. To just have somebody who would tell me what to do. An opinion would be great.
A woman entered the shop, and noise from outside the shop invaded our space for a short second, pulling the older man's attention from his reading to the raucous. The guy with the cigarette was turning in circles outside, flailing his arms in front of his table of friends, who were all laughing. He stopped and stood as he gestured at one of the ladies to come join him. She stood with him, and he resumed his spinning, this time with the girl. His friends laughed to each other, their mouths wide open. One of them rocked in his chair. I could hear them through the front window now.
I would have used to think that inconsiderate of them, that if they were going to be so loud they should go somewhere else. This time, for some reason, I decided to say something. I closed my journal and left it on the table. I walked toward the exit, pausing when I touched the door handle to gather my thoughts.
"Excuse me," I hesitated.
The two of them stopped spinning. Without much effort at all, I had the attention of the entire group. So many eyes all at once unnerved me.
"Do you think you could keep it down out here? You're bothering some people inside."
They looked at me and then at each other, quietly, as if asking each other 'Is this guy for real?'
"The thing is.at first we couldn't hear you, but now the noise is coming through the window," I explained further. They looked at me like the strangers at the public pool when I was nine and my bathing suit fell off.
"We're just having some fun."
I didn't know what to say. After all, what he said was true. Sometimes truth comes from unlikely places. They were just having fun.
"I was having trouble thinking is all, and your noise wasn't helping things. Maybe you could lower it just a bit." I dropped the matter at that point. They didn't care what any of us wanted. They were kids. I thought about what I had just said. I was having trouble thinking? I didn't have to turn around to know they were mocking me outside. Upon returning inside, I noticed that I had also drawn a mass of attention in the store. I almost wished I hadn't said anything, but they did end up sitting down outside.
The older man was gone. He wasn't at his table anymore. I looked around at the other chairs and tables in the shop. He wasn't at any of them. At first, I thought maybe he had gone to use the toilet, but his book was gone. Maybe he took it with him.
I reoccupied myself with my journal. I read the line I had written last and looked back out at the room. I wanted to see the older man. I imagined a woman with silk white, curly hair bending over his shoulder and kissing his cheek, him reaching his arms up around her neck and returning her affection with a hug. He stood. Checking his pockets and picking up his satchel from the floor, he put his arm around her as they left through the coffee shop doors. But there wasn't any woman. The man was alone like me.
I closed my journal and walked into the attached Barnes and Noble bookstore. The travel section stood by the door to the coffee shop, the renewed classics display on the right, up front by the cash register. I wandered the aisles looking for him. I checked the music listening area as well, customers listening to head phones at various stations. I doubled back past the escalators to the front of the store. He could have been upstairs, but my intuition told me otherwise. He was old.
I asked a worker sweeping the floor by the entrance if she had seen an older man, about sixty. She said 'no' but that she never really paid attention to who came and went, that he could have passed her and she wouldn't have noticed.
While she was talking, I was looking out the window panels behind the register. A young couple let go of each others hands and separated for a moment to walk around an older man. It was him. He was making his way toward the street.
I told her 'thank you' and darted for the exit. Just as I opened the door he stepped out into the street. An aged model Chevy pealed around the corner by the coffee shop. My chest got tight as I realized what might be happening. I was too far away to do anything. They'd have street lights along here if they cared about anyone. The man had moved into the shadow of a large overhanging tree. The truck hit him. His body thrashed with a thub-ub-bub up the hood and off to the passenger side.
The truck stopped, engine running, and the man who had the cigarette earlier got out of the driver side. He ran around the front of the truck and looked at the older man lying still in the shadows. He couldn't have paused for more than a second when he returned to his truck and drove off.
I didn't have a phone with me. There had never been a reason. So I held the door ajar and yelled inside to the worker to call the paramedics, that there had been an accident. In that few moments, a crowd had begun to form. I ran to the older man and knelt over him. I wanted to roll him over so I could see him, but I didn't. I knew I wasn't supposed to touch him, but applying CPR entered my mind. I waited over him until the ambulance arrived. It was there within minutes.
Three EMT's emerged, bringing a stretcher and other supplies to him. One of them pushed me back and took my place over him. They checked his vitals and neck and turned him over. His forehead and chin were scraped, and blood was coming out of the corner of his eye.
I covered my mouth in shock. He'd left a blank stare for the world to remember him by, his eyes gazing past the shadow of the tree into the sky.
The police arrived minutes later as the older man was being carted to the ambulance. It hadn't been long at all when they left with him. A few officers began taking statements from the witnesses.
I thought about the man's daughter. Who would tell her? It took me a second to figure that they would find his identification and look up his records. Things would work themselves out in that regard.
One of the officers approached me.
"Were you here to see the accident?" He asked me.
"Yeah. I was standing over by the doors. I saw the whole thing." I wanted to be with the older man in the back of the ambulance driving with them to the hospital. He probably had a variety of hoses affixed to his chest and head, monitoring his signs. I felt I needed to understand his gaze, what it was he was looking for, or at. He needed someone there with him if he was going to die, someone he knew, someone who cared for him.
I told the officer about the truck that hit him and how the guy had gotten out of his truck to look at the older man and then drove off. I told him what he looked like. He said I would have to wait with him, so they could get a sketch officer to work with me. They needed a description of the guy. He asked me to sit over at one of the tables that lined the front of the bookstore.
I sat at the one that didn't have any ashtrays on it and took out my journal. I was having trouble grappling with the clarity of the images that were rewinding through my mind, playing him over and over, in enduring, persistent clips, his body buckling from the impact of the truck. I couldn't tell that to the family though, but I felt like I owed them something. The need overwhelmed me to write something to these people I knew might not even exist. My response confused me even while in the midst of my actions. I knew I wasn't making sense, that my actions were futile and foolish, but I indulged myself anyway. I wrote quickly.
Dear Family, I was a witness to the accident. I was in the coffee shop the hours before he was hit. I wish I could rewind the last few hours. I want to picture him getting into his car across the street, sitting down, double checking his mirror, putting on his seatbelts. Thinking back on today and my time that I spent watching him, I find it hard to believe how fleeting time is. I know that must sound strange that I was watching him, but please know that I respected.
I stopped writing. I realized that I didn't know the older man's name. I wondered if the police or anyone would be able or willing to deliver this letter if I continued it. I needed to continue. They needed to deliver it. It was something we both had to do. The family might want to know.
[back to top]