Laura Widener | Harbor from the cold

The diner was a chorus of chatting patrons, clanging dishes, and yelping kitchen appliances when the young man in the tattered coat took a seat at the bar that morning. Baltimore’s winter mornings were unforgiving, and chilled bodies craving warmth occupied most of the diner’s seats. Despite the activity, the waiter behind the bar with the nametag “Eric” noticed the young man instantly: the hair styled in dirt and grease stemming from beneath a frayed knit hat, the way body odor mixed with the crispness of cold air embedded into the fibers of the young man’s jacket.

As if wanting to be small and unnoticed, the young man slumped in the seat—the one at the end of the bar’s L shape. He studied the specials flyer intently with stone eyes, his lips pressed together and framed by a thick brown beard. His hand trembled as he moved toward his pocket, jingling the coins within. He withdrew a handful of tarnished copper and silver, and then set it on the bar top in front of him, his lips moving soundlessly as he slid the coins into piles.

I watched from two seats down, barely curling the corner of The Baltimore Sun and peering above reading lenses to watch the exchange between the men. I gave up reading over my horoscope again after losing my place three times just to watch Eric’s upper lip curl at the sight of the young man calculating his chances at getting a hot breakfast. His lip trembled above the beard in a way that made me want to stroke my own chin, smooth by choice, one that I wondered when the young man had last had the chance to make.

Eric finally approached the young man, but didn’t hold up his pad as he did for the other customers.

“Come on, man, you’ve got to get out of here,” Eric told him.

“I haven’t ordered yet,” the young man said, still focused on his coins. “How much is a side of toast? I think I’ve got enough for that.”

“This isn’t the place for you, buddy. Try the soup kitchen four blocks down.”

The short exchange demolished the levy retaining memories that flooded over me in a fierce rush. A knot seemed to swell in my throat as I saw myself in this young man, nearly a decade ago. My beard was grayed and the light was snuffed out of my own stone-like eyes, too. I wasn’t supposed to outlive Betty. I wasn’t built for the overwhelming pain that came with being a widower. Weakness terrified me as much as being alone, but drugs and alcohol were the right kind of numbness to make it day to day. Ironic, since the driver who struck Betty was intoxicated.

I didn’t think anything was capable of making me warm again, bringing back the light again. Not after the darkness that blanketed my life after Betty died and I’d let go of everything that reminded me of her. Only the cherub-like face with brown curls and a toothy grin, and the words, Dad, this is your granddaughter in the surreal voice of my estranged daughter, were able to end my six years on the streets.

When I looked at the young man, I thought what did he lose to get here?

I set down my black and white paper curtain and retrieved my wallet, thumbing a twenty from the bills.

“Sir,” I extended the bill toward Eric and cleared my throat, “you bring this young man whatever he wants.”

“What?” he asked under a raised brow.

“You heard me,” I said as I folded my wallet, the leather somehow warmer in my hand.

Eric muttered a “Be right back,” before disappearing. I thought he’d better return with a cup of coffee and a menu if he knew what was good for him.

The young man stood to leave, and as I began to form the words to keep him here, he stopped beside me and extended his hand. “Thank you, sir.”

I grasped it and offered a firm shake, noting how his breath smelled of mint, not of alcohol as mine had. When our touch separated, he sat in the chair next to mine. I wasn’t one for conversation, so I resumed my reading while the young man ordered and slowly munched away at a plump omelet and a heap of pancakes between three cups of coffee. His face seemed a shade brighter when he pushed the empty plates away and wiped his lips.

When I folded up the paper and fingered the wallet again to pay my bill, two faded tickets with dog-eared corners slipped from their tucked spot. My eyes scanned over the text, Lyric Opera House, and the date of our 25th anniversary, just a month after Betty died. Tickets I never had the chance to give her. We never had the chance to use them. I’d carried those tickets around in a worn black backpack while I looked for a place to sleep every night. They were a reminder of a life not fully lived, one that I needed to live for her.

I paid the bill and rose to leave, needing a change in scenery, but unsure of what the day held. The young man sprang up from his seat and faced me. “Thanks again, sir,” he said with a quiver. As if the words were inadequate for sharing his gratitude, the young man moved forward hesitantly, and then embraced me. My thoughts moved to Betty again, remembering how her embrace felt, how she tapped her fingers against my back when she’d wrapped her arms around me. She was a hugger; the type of woman who would embrace anyone like her own family.

I wrapped my arms back around him and tapped my fingers on his back. When we parted, I clapped him on the back one last time. “Pay it forward when you get on your feet, son.”

He nodded, and by the glisten in his eye, I could tell that he would.

“What was your name?” I paused before I walked away.

“Evan,” he said. “Evan Billings.”

The floor felt like quicksand, swallowing my very will to move as I stared back at the young man. The name was etched into my memory with the precision of a laser. I’d seen it in print, I’d even seen it accompanied with a black and white photo, with eyes less human, and a face not shrouded by hair.

In the years since Betty’s death, I’d wondered countless times what I would do or say if ever confronted by the man who had extinguished the love of my life. I never imagined we would share a meal and an embrace.

Laura Widener is a coffee-loving introvert living in rural Georgia. She is a professional writer and editor, with an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. Her previous work has been published online and in print with publications such as The Sunlight Press, TWJ Magazine, Rathalla Review, Spider Road Press, and more. Read more at laurawidener.com

 

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