“Dang . . .”
I almost didn’t hear it. Not only was it spoken softly, I was so invested in my own thoughts it didn’t register at first. Strangely, had it been louder I might not have noticed at all.
Senses having caught up and set to searching mode, I now noticed the man seated alone at a nearby table. That in itself wasn’t strange. Gershwin, Please always drew patrons by word of mouth. Pap Gershwin never spent money on advertising. He made it a point to comfortably mosey through the restaurant, chatting up diners here and there, always leaving them with his trademark: “You like us, you tell somebody. Make a note of it, now.”
To the haunting strains of Dream Sequence, I sharpened my gaze of the stranger at the nearby table. He had the neck and shoulders of a young bull and was the approximate size of Maine. A ruddy complexion, leather chaps and a vest festooned with patriotic symbols, and the military unit tats on his beefy forearm and shoulder attested to an active life with an outdoor preference.
As I was cataloguing all this the man’s massive shoulders rose and fell with a long, slow sigh. His head slightly shook from side to side as he once again spoke his eloquently-succinct commentary on whatever seemed so hopeless:
I paused. A recently-learned Polish proverb jostled my normally-willing, helpful attitude: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Am I really prepared to help somebody else with their issues when my own spirit is lacerated? Is it okay to plead temporary insanity in defense of just letting somebody else and their issues entirely alone? Is that an okay option, Lord?
The younger stranger, feeling eyes on him, glanced around, scanning the room until he caught me looking at him. His eyebrows curled down and in.
Pointing with his chin, he grunted, “Help you with somethin’?” Not quite full-blown belligerence but you could see it from there.
Hesitating a full four seconds, I half-smiled in spite of my misgivings. “I don’t know. You looked and sounded like you could use somebody to sit and talk to.”
Definite frown and taunting, almost-cynical, narrowed eyes. The wall clock ticking seemed louder. “Nah. I’m good.” My intuitive instinct heard it loud and clear: “You got nothin’ for me, old man. I don’t need jack from you.”
I sat utterly still for another second. I then stood up, picking up my writing pad and the always-present book. Blanking my face, I let an edge creep into my voice.
“You know what? You’re right. It – you – are none of my business. Forgive the intrusion.” I walked out, my long-ingrained habit of prepaying my meal assuring my server a healthy, well-deserved tip regardless of when I left. Those people are on their feet a long time for inadequate pay. And at Gershwin, Please they’re worth more than they earn – and Pap pays his help well. Always has. Cuban Overture was playing as the door closed behind me.
The other diner sat there, a little confused, a little bugged. Never saw that old dude in my life, and he’s laying some ‘tude on me? What’s with that? His morose thoughts overtook him again, his large head dipping toward his coffee cup, gaze resting on the cartoon-caricature of a clarinet somebody’d drawn on the heavy paper table cover. That, too, was one of Gershwin, Please’s trademarks.
The only rule was it must be tastefully done, and could not depict anything or -0ne in the slightest way off-color or suggestive. And strictly NO gang-related art or graffiti. One time, and Pap would personally escort the perp out, never to be invited back. Ever.
The visiting biker unconsciously sighed again, so caught up in his private internal war he never realized the server was standing there.
“I’m sorry. Did you need—-”
“I’ve got some fresh coffee here. Thought you might like a refill.” Her name tag read, “Bev”.
“Thanks.” Bobbing his head, he acknowledged her gesture.
As she poured, without taking her eyes off the scalding-hot stream of fresh joe, she asked, “So what did you do or say to Granger?”
The biker turned his head slowly, surprised. “Hunh? You mean the nosey old dude?”
Bev’s eyes chilled as she stood, straightening her back. She’d been a part of Gershwin, Please almost from the start. This stranger could easily pick her up and throw her, but not until she’d set him straight about common courtesy, Beverly-style.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Rogue.” Cocky. His mouth hung slightly open, the beginnings of a smirk curling one side of his whiskered mouth. He was trying to recover his impressiveness. That soon evaporated in the direct heat of Bev’s laser glare.
“Try it again, this time without the sneer in your voice and using your real name. We’re always glad to have new patrons in here, but we get plenty of business. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re talkin’ to a lady. You’re giving your biker kin a real bad rap, too, ’cause most of them are salt of the earth and we like having them come by. I basically run this place, and I don’t care if you never darken this door again. And the best way to make that happen is to mouth off to me again like you just did to Granger. Your choice, Ace. Either straighten up or just pay your bill and move on. What’s it gonna be . . . Rogue?” The curl of her lip and tone of her voice made it clear she was definitely impressed with him.
Something about Bev’s take-no-prisoners delivery and the way she was standing made it clear her decisions were law at Gershwin, Please. It also reminded him of the last time he saw his mother just before he’d stormed out of the only home he’d ever known in a fit of self-pitying anger, hopped on “his” chopped bike and spun gravel and dirt back into the screen door–and all over his mother’s clothes.
“Roger . . .”
Bev sharpened her voice, sounding for all the world like some of the WAC TIs he’d known. “I couldn’t hear that. Speak up!”
Sullenly: “It’s Roger, okay?”
“That’s better, cream puff. Now–that ‘nosey old dude’ you shut down? At one time or another, he’s stopped and listened to every one of us – including Pap Gershwin, who owns this place. His name’s Granger. Nobody’s ever known his first name, but nobody cares. He’s got this knack of putting people at ease. He’s a weirdly-discerning guy who’s also known for an uncommon prayer life that always seems to get answers. He’s been and done a whole lot of things you’ll likely never see or know – weathered some horror in his life, too – but yet he always seems to have time for others – even self-absorbed little ingrates like you! If he offered some friendship to you, who I’m pretty sure he’s never seen before and likely won’t ever want to see again, you oughta be thankful. He never offers without a reason. You insult him, you’re insulting all of us, too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got good patrons to serve.”
She stopped about three steps away and spun. Despite himself, he flinched.
“By the way, I am serious. Square away your attitude and you’re welcome here. Otherwise, pay up and get out.”
As Bev weaved her way through tables, stopping by booths to freshen and refill coffee cups and ice water, he sat there, stunned. Always before his imposing size and rough exterior had intimidated anyone taking exception to him into silence and a hasty retreat. Still dazed, he slowly got up, paid his bill, went outside and just stood beside his bike for a couple of minutes, breathing through his open mouth and trying to clear his head.
He’d made sure to give Bev an extra dollar for her tip. He was in no mood for another tongue-lashing. That woman had some grit, now. If this Granger character could earn that kind of support from people like her . . .
“4 scrambled, 3 sausage patties well-done, cottage fries with fresh, hot hollandaise sauce on them, wheat toast and jelly–and keep the java coming. I got that right?”
I grinned up at her. “You’re amazing, Bev. Yes, that’s right. Thanks. How’s Arch?” The question stopped her in mid-motion for a split-second. Arch was her stroke-ridden brother currently in physical rehab. She wasn’t aware I even knew about him. I also knew they were extremely close, though not twins.
Big tears and a husky voice: “Not so good. He’s such a fighter, but it’s wearing him down. Keep praying for him–and for me. I’m the only family he’s got, now.”
As she moved off, I stopped in mid-sentence as I was writing and prayed for Arch and his big sister by a year and a couple of days. Where’d I pick up that habit of praying on the spot whenever I got a request? I don’t know, but I’d been doing that a long time; my computer monitor has five little greasy spots on the left side where my fingertips always meet people’s needs as they ask me to be praying with and for them. I know how easy it is to promise to pray and then forget during the busyness of each day. Never wanting to be guilty of that, I just stop what I’m doing and pray. If the request is in person, I always ask first, but am willing right then to stop, put my arm around whoever it is, and pray on the spot.
My eyes unfocused into middle distance, my thoughts zeroing in on the mental hurdle that had me so distracted, as frustrating as one of those little .98 cent balance-type games that had a BB you could try to get in different holes for 5 or 10 points Shoot, we used to get those in Cracker Jacks. Frowning in concentration and shaking my head, my smile disappeared as I picked up my pen again.
Just as I began to compose my thoughts and begin writing again a solid shadow fell across the page.
And the table. Whatever it was sure blocked out a lot of light. Probably a family coming in to have some breakfast for which Gershwin, Please was famous. I looked up to see—
Aw, great. Like I needed more of him. Bleakly, I just sat and waited.
“Uh, mind if I siddown for a minute?”
I waited a second or two and then silently motioned toward the other side of the booth. His immense size made me wonder if he could pull it off. After an abortive attempt, he reached around and pulled a chair over, reversing it so he could rest his big arms on the back.
“What’s on your mind?” I purposefully kept my tone businesslike. I’d no idea what to expect from this young guy. No, that’s not quite the case. I expected yet more caustic attitude and classless habits. Being that accomplished a jerk takes practice.
He dropped his head, eyes downcast, as if searching for unfamiliar words he was unpracticed in using.
His eyes and head came back up at the same time as he looked me in the eye. “I owe you an apology.” His eyes stayed locked on mine as he struggled to express himself. “You were caring about me yesterday, and I’m not used to that.” He was warming to his subject. His voice rose in both volume and pitch. “In fact, I was a real a—-”
Holding up my hand, I said, “I get it. I accept your apology. Putting yourself down is never a good thing. Please don’t do that. God made you special, and has a spot in life picked out that only you can fit as perfectly as He wants.”
He sat looking at me, unsure what to do with an interested, empathic friendliness where he knew he deserved none.
“I’m Granger. What’s your name?” I held out my hand. His eyes tracked my hand, and at first he didn’t move. Then he presented to me a paw not unlike one I’d recently seen on a lion. It was hairy and huge. I managed not to wince in anticipation. My hands are big, but—
“Rogu— uh, Roger.” His massive mitt wrapped around mine in a handshake so purposeful yet gentle I glanced down just to be sure it was really happening.
“Roger, it’s my pleasure to know you.” I waited as the opening strains of Catfish Row followed Bev and her serving team through the restaurant like the tantalizing scent of fresh Belgian waffles.
“Roger, everyone has a story. I’d like to hear yours.” As I said it, I made a point of closing my notebook, clicking my pen and returning it to my pocket. I watched his eyes and quietly waited. The antique clock up on the wall tocked in freeform syncopation to the swaying jazzy rhythms of the cello bridge in Porgy Sings.
Roger haltingly began to share where he’d been and what he’d done – and what had been happening to him – as the duet began, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
Ten minutes, then a half hour . . . a story of an uncaring, alcoholic father whose obvious distaste for an illegitimate son would never be breached . . . endless attempts by the growing boy to find a way – any way – to connect with the only dad he knew. Constant attempts at mediation by his mother, trying to ease the tension whenever her husband was home became commonplace. The more she tried to fill the void left by Roger’s stepfather, the greater his anguish became. Knowing Roger was not his son, the man made no attempt to recognize the boy’s obvious intelligence and skills; and the rift between them just got wider.
As he finally graduated from high school, a feat by which even he was baffled, his mother gave him money she’d saved from her second job so he could buy a used motorcycle. It was the only thing that seemed to motivate and invigorate him. Unaccustomed to kindness because of his father’s constant belittling and faultfinding, he muttered a halfhearted thanks and left with a friend to go buy what he thought would give his life meaning.
Granger patiently listened, silently nodding to Bev to come refill the coffee carafe.
“. . . and the last time I saw my mom, she had quietly asked if I’d worked enough to pay her back for helping me buy my bike. After I got out of the Army, I’d been running with some “outlaw” biker guys who stole for a living. I hadn’t worked an honest job for years. Mom had finally gotten her fill of my father and had him evicted. Things have been tight for her since the divorce, and I’d been putting on a pretty good front whenever I’d email her so she wouldn’t worry. I guess she thought when I went to see her the other day that maybe I could help her for a change.” His eyes slanted downward again, and despite his weathered swarthy skin he blushed in genuine embarrassment.
“That’s when she asked me if I had any money to repay her.
“She couldn’t have known the reason I’d stopped by was to see if she had any extra money.”
I sat quietly, waiting.
He snuffed through his nose, shaking his head. The image of a bull buffalo rose unbidden. Okay, creative Granger? Sometimes you are tedious. Just stop. “I mean, never darkening the door for years, then suddenly showing up in leathers and my old unit tats? ‘Oh, yeah, Mom–I was just in the neighborhood, and . . .’ I’m guessing she knew why I was there from the way her voice fell off as she finally worked up the courage to ask me if I had any extra money . . .”
“Every man she ever had in her life used and abused her. And took her for granted. Me most of all.” Here his eyes met mine again. “Granger, I’m ashamed of myself, but this has gone on so long, and I’ve made my boasts and done a lot of wrong things so much I don’t know where to start.”
Bev was just bringing my fresh refilled pot of hot coffee back as I quietly asked, “Do you want feedback?”
She couldn’t help herself. As she turned to leave, she nudged the young man with a knuckle and muttered over her shoulder, “Uh-oh. Buckle your seatbelt, Rogue.”
He was intent and undistracted. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
“What time is it right now?”
Glancing up at the ornately-carved clock, he said, “10:24.”
“That’s where you start. And before you tell me again you have no clue how to begin, I think you do. I’m thinking you have a list in your mind you’ve been arranging for some time. I think you know exactly what you need to be doing; you just needed somebody to care enough to believe in you and encourage you to do it.”
I wasn’t sure how he’d respond, but I stopped there, fully ready to duck beneath the table should he choose to do a Goliath on me. Smutched Granger wasn’t really on my to-do list for the day. I continued to carefully watch him.
“The only person who ever believed in me is the one I just seriously hurt by spinning my tire and throwing dirt all over her like a total a— well, you know.”
“I–I get that.”
“I’ve managed to get on the worst side of anybody who’s ever cared about me. Who’s left?”
I smiled. “That would be me.” Reaching for my writing notebook, I tore a page out of it. Laying it on the table, I took my pen from my pocket and laid it on the paper.
“Roger, I love you and I believe in you.” I saw his forehead do a credible imitation of a plowed field as he tried to absorb that. “I have some homework for ya. Take this pen and paper and write down that list you’ve been working over in your mind. Just write until you can’t remember any more. You’ll be able to recognize it easily because I just laid it in a drop of coffee.”
“With me so far?” He nodded.
“Then go back and number those according to priority: which ones need doing first. Then get busy on number 1. Don’t let the sun set before you’ve at least started on number 1.”
He sat back slightly, eyes on the for-now blank paper. “This could take awhile.”
Gathering my notebook and both checks, as I rose from the booth I said, “Well, then, you need to get started, don’t you? Meet me here this time in two weeks and let me know how it’s going.” Pulling out my cell phone, I asked him for his phone number and added it to my contact list. Accountability works.
As he slid sideways on the chair to let me past, I reached to shake his huge paw again and said, “Roger, it’s a privilege to know you. Thanks for letting me buy you some breakfast. Bev’ll let you back in any time.”
Smiling, I stood listening to Summertime as I paid. Just as I was walking out the door, a booming voice said, “Hey, Granger?”
I stopped in midstride, looking over my shoulder.
“Thank you. See ya in two weeks, man.” I grinned, making motions in the air as if writing. Grinning back, he waved a huge hand as if shooing me away and turned back to the table, picking up the pen.
“Go find Mom and tell her I love her and she’s not alone any more.
“Go find honest work, however many jobs it takes.
“Make amends for stealing—-” Here he hesitated.
“Dang . . . ‘s could take awhile.” He hunched back over the sheet, writing.
I’m pretty sure he never noticed me watching him through the window, silently praying for God to give him continuing inner strength to keep on.
Roger doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to get a Bible in two weeks. If he thinks writing that list is an interesting exercise, wait’ll he sees the next adventure waiting for him . . .
I started to whistle I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, but realized that’s not true at all!
D. Dean Boone, September 2014