The old man relished time spent with his friends. Yes, maybe his relationship with them wasn’t very healthy, and he knew this. Maybe, they were even killing him. They probably weren’t very good friends after all, however, the familiar comfort of their presence against his lips made him swear to a life of loyalty. Cigarettes, after all, couldn’t speak- which was a quality the old man greatly treasured.
He kicked a pebble to the side of the cement sidewalk with his dusty, leather boots and stubbed out one of his old friends on a cement bench. He took in a deep breath of chilly air as he looked out upon the street before him, wet from the rain. He liked to stand under the awning of his favorite neighborhood bar and smoke a cigarette, especially while it was raining. He found something oddly consoling about the rain.
The door was either heavier today or he was just getting older, he thought, as he struggled to let himself back into that reassuring world of dim lighting and the scent of cheap beer. The only bad thing about this place, he thought, was that they no longer allowed cigarette smoking indoors anymore. Other than that: the sports channel was always on the television, the bartender wasn’t too pushy, there were never many young people or annoying patrons around who spoke or laughed too loudly; and generally, people left him alone there. He did have one or two other regulars at the pub that he had become somewhat friendly with; however, by his standards, this meant they said hello and goodbye to each other and exchanged a few sentences on occasion.
As he headed back to his usual stool, he noticed a young lady now at the neighboring stool. She wasn’t there prior to him stepping out for a cigarette, and he was sure he had never seen her there before, because he certainly would have noticed her. For one, she was wearing the most colorful clothing he had seen since the seventies, and secondly, this wasn’t the type of happening place that you’d frequently encounter young ladies. She looked to be in her early twenties, maybe twenty-one or two, he guessed. She was wearing a multi-colored, flowered scarf around her neck and a long flowing, vibrantly patterned dress beneath a bright yellow cable-knit sweater. Her thick, dark hair cascaded down her back and around her shoulders, damp from the rain, as she rested her face in the palm of her right hand, her elbow planted before a glass of whiskey on the dark, wooden bar.
Despite the unusual change in scenery, and even though the old man wasn’t particularly fond of change, especially if it was involving young people, he continued to take a seat at his favorite stool and planned to mind his own business as usual: watching the sports channel and listening to the other men around him make jokes about their bosses and complain about their wives- though he rarely joined in the fun. He’d sometimes smile quietly if a joke was particularly funny or silently think of how grateful he was to no longer be married when he heard an account of a nagging wife; but overall, he preferred to just observe.
After about fifteen minutes he successfully had forgotten the young lady was even still there next to him, until she began to weep. It was a quiet, apologetic weep- it wasn’t the kind of weep which sounded as if she was seeking attention or wanted to be heard, but the kind where you could tell she just couldn’t hold it in any longer. He turned his eyes to examine her but she kept her head sunken low and her gaze resolutely on the drink in front of her. He assumed she didn’t want any attention and he wasn’t so sure he would give her any even if she did, but then the weeping seemed to become deeper and more tragic.
“Here,” he said as he handed her a neatly folded tissue from his pocket.
She looked at him curiously.
“I’m at least ninety-five percent sure that it is unused,” he joked.
She face perked up a bit and a tiny light went on in her eyes, which was gleaming from the tears, as she broke into a weak smile and allowed herself to let out a tiny, defeated chuckle. She reached out for the tissue and replied, “thank you” before she blew her red nose into it.
She had a very warm smile and face, he noticed. Her eyes were a dark bluish-green and seemed different from most of the eyes he came across on a daily basis. They appeared to have some sort of understanding in them, despite the youthful face which contained them. Her skin was pale and smooth like fresh milk and her lips petite with a natural red-wine tint. Her teeth were white and small, and she had a tiny gap in between her two front teeth. Her cheeks were pink and flushed, probably a little from the drinking and her apparent emotional turmoil, but the blush also seemed to be natural to her complexion. Wavy bangs framed her forehead and hung just above her dark, bold eyebrows. A thick strand of hair was tucked behind her left ear, revealing a small studded earring which appeared to be in the shape of a flying bird. A large tan backpack sat on the floor beside her bar stool.
The old man smiled shyly, feeling good to have been able to momentarily pause her expression of grief.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, while returning his eyes to the T.V. screen mounted to the wall opposite to them.
“I’m sorry-I- I don’t mean to disturb you. I’m just not having the best day and I, uh, am having a bit of trouble keeping myself together right now. I apologize you have to be the one sitting next to me.” She returned her gaze to her drink and hung her head in embarrassment.
He wouldn’t typically continue to engage in this type of conversation, but he was unusually curious about this young girl for a reason unknown to him.
“Is some Don Juan to blame for those tears?” He asked her somewhat playfully, trying to lighten the mood.
She smiled weakly, “No. Just life is to blame, that’s all.”
“Ah, I see.” He responded uncomfortably, unsure of how to reply to that statement.
They continued to sit next to each other for the next few minutes, without carrying on any more conversation. The old man didn’t want to be rude by intruding in the young woman’s business, and the young woman didn’t want to be rude by bothering the old man with her sob stories; he clearly seemed the type to enjoy his solitude and silence. After maybe five or six more slightly awkward minutes passed by, the girl stood up, bid the old man a good night and walked out through the front bar door.
That surely was strange, he thought to himself, but tried quickly to forget about the young woman and the pity he strangely felt for those gloomy, tired eyes. He was uncomfortable with these new feelings, as he didn’t often feel sympathy for people. The old man finished his beer and decided it was time to call it a night. He closed his tab and tipped the bartender and headed outside for one last cigarette before his drive home.
As he stepped out into the evening, to his surprise, he noticed that the young woman was standing at the payphone, and seemed to be having a heated conversation with someone.
“Please, I just need to stay for one night. Yes, I heard you say you’re full, and ma’am I do understand that, but please, could you please make one exception just this once? I can sleep on the floor if I need to, I don’t mind.” After a moment, and clearly after receiving an answer she didn’t like, the girl slammed down the receiver angrily and sunk to the ground sobbing. This was no longer a subtle weeping, but a full-blown, heart-wrenching wail of misery and defeat.
The old man watched this unusual display of events as he nervously sucked on his cigarette, his mind racing with thoughts as to how he should properly respond. On one hand, he thought, this girl is clearly in a heap’s worth of trouble of some sort. She was probably caught up in a whole mess of dysfunctions- drugs, abusive partner or family, crime, the whole smorgasbord, he assumed. He probably shouldn’t get himself involved in such a terrible dysfunctional mess. On the other hand though, she seemed so polite and kind in their brief exchange of words. Not to mention, if he just ignored this girl’s obviously desperate need for help, he wondered, what kind of man that would make him? If this girl ended up on the six o’clock news the following day, dead in some ditch, all because his grumpy behind couldn’t be bothered, he surely couldn’t live with the guilt. The old man also considered calling the police to help her, but finally decided it against it, on account of the fact that he didn’t trust the police much anyways- most seemed to be crooked as far as he was concerned. So, he came to an extremely dubious decision.
He threw his cigarette to the ground and extinguished it by scraping it against the pavement with the bottom of his boot. He stuck his hands in his jean pockets and hesitantly approached her sobbing mass just ahead of him.
“Look young lady, uh, well, it seems to me you are in a bit of a trouble—least that’s what I can deduct from the phone call I overheard, and all the crying and such. Well, uh, look, I don’t usually do anything like this, and uh, in fact, I’m thinking myself kind of crazy to even be saying or thinking such a thing, with you being a complete stranger and all. But I, uh, wanted to offer you, I mean if you really need it, well, I’ve got a spare empty guest room in my house and you could sleep there for the night. Just to get out of the rainy, cold weather and all.” he stammered ineloquently.
The young girl choked back a few tears and wiped her eyes, looking up at him. Though her eyes looked to be deeply lined with sadness, there was now a trace of hope in them, along with a small dab of suspicion, as she scanned him over and replied “You would be so kind?”
“Well, err, it’s really nothing. I mean, the room is empty and all. Look, I mean I’m not some halfway house or anything, but I can’t just stand back and watch you sleep on this here filthy pavement tonight. You could get killed out here, people are lunatics.”
Her eyes continued to search him for reassurance that he was trustworthy. His eyes did seem kind and his demeanor appeared to lack any kind of agenda. She knew she could not be fully sure as to whether or not this decision would be one that she would regret- but what choice did she really have? It was either sleeping in his guest room tonight, or in some back alleyway.
She nodded her head slowly and uttered solemnly, “Thank you sir, I’d appreciate that very much.”
“Well, alright then. You can just follow me. I’m parked right over there.”
She lifted herself off of the damp, hard concrete and hoisted her large back pack over her shoulder as she began to follow the old man. In the dim light of the street lamps that lined the sidewalk, she noticed the old man’s round potbelly protruding over his faded jeans, hidden underneath an equally faded navy blue t-shirt. He also donned a pair of black suspenders which seemed to only accentuate the belly in which it contained. He wasn’t very tall- maybe five foot six at the most. The hair he had remaining on his head was completely grey with a large bald patch running through the center of his skull, revealing a shiny patch of skin in the middle. The shallow, beard across his chin was reasonably well manicured. A pack of Marlboro Reds stuck out his front right jean pocket.
His car was a dark green, older Honda that looked as though it had seen better days. She shivered a little as she shut the car door, mostly from the emotions of the evening, but also because of the weather. She wondered as to how he could be comfortable only wearing a t-shirt in the late October temperatures. He noticed her shivering as he started the engine and turned up the heat. The ride back was silent as they both swam through an ocean of thought, wondering what the future had in store for them, and guessing imaginatively as to who the person was sitting beside them.