As he often did, he lingered in the greeting card aisle more than any other… opening and reading the cards, gently running his fingers over the printed words before placing them back into the holder with a gracefulness that may have seemed peculiar to others. With his long and shaggy graying locks, unshaven face, and clothes that had clearly been worn an undetermined amount of time, the general public usually made simple and immediate assumptions about him. To say he was ‘scruffy’ was a slight understatement.
“For no particular reason and with no outcome in mind, I’d like to take a moment to say, “Hey! You are kind! From the heart in my chest, and with no amount of jest, I’d like to take a moment to say, “Yo! You’re the best! ...” He quietly read the words of the card to himself and stood holding it for a moment before sliding it back into the display case. “Hmmm… that’s a bit cheesy,” he whispered under his breath. Even so, it still caused one side of his lip to curl upward. This was why he liked the greeting card aisle… it helped to unleash the memories of what he referred to as his ‘previous life.’ It was the years that he’d spent with Christina that he enjoyed reminiscing, and this card certainly was one that opened that door once again.
Christina had been his wife, and during the years that they’d been together she periodically left sweet and silly notes and cards in random places throughout their home for him to find… in the cap of his deodorant, inside the pages of his books in the study, in the cupboard under his favorite coffee cup.
Though they’d both grown up in the same small town in Nebraska, they didn’t truly know each other until they were both away at college in California. He was in his 3rd year at the University and she had just begun her second year at the School of the Arts when their worlds finally intertwined. It wasn’t surprising that they hadn’t become acquainted during high school. He was a brainiac with his nose always in a book somewhere or behind a wall of self-propelled research projects, while she was busy doing school plays, art shows, and chorus programs. They knew each other’s names, but their personal worlds seldom crossed paths.
It was the park they both frequented in college that had become the merging ground for their divided realms. He liked to sit beneath the large willow tree to study. Sitting beneath the weeping branches provided the solitude that he preferred, yet still allowed him a pleasant view of the lake when he pondered on a particular enigma. An old stone wall that sat between the willow and the lake had become a popular meeting place for the art students. He seldom gave ‘those people’ a second look, believing that their parents were wasting their money on the study of any kind of ‘art.’ At least, he felt that way until Christina entered his world that day. He had seen her around before and had recognized her, but he’d not given her a second thought until that particular Wednesday… the day he’d received that first silly note from his sweet Christina.
“Happy Wednesday,” he heard a quiet voice say. Looking up, he saw Christina crawling under the branches of the tree on her knees. Her long skirt scooted behind her as she held out a blue piece of paper to him. “Heh?” he said, looking up from his book, puzzled why this girl he scarcely knew was approaching him. “Happy Wednesday,” she said again. “I made ‘Happy Wednesday’ cards for everyone that I see all the time… I see you up here under this old tree nearly every day, so, I… I made one for you, too.”
She smiled sweetly at him as he took the folded, hand-painted card from her hand. “Happy Wednesday, huh,” he said as he tapped the card on the pages of his book, not quite knowing what to think of such a thing. Before he knew it, she had plopped down right next to him on the grass, sitting Indian-style as her skirt puffed atop her lap. “I can see why you like it under here,” she said with a giggle. “It’s like your own little room… you can see everything, but I bet people don’t bother you under here do they?” He looked at her strangely, wondering what this girl was doing… why she was here… why she’d sat down next to him… and why she was talking to him. Most other people didn’t talk to him unless he spoke to them first, and he rarely spoke to anyone. The whole scenario was odd… but yet, he liked it. And the fact that he liked it was something that was peculiar to him in itself.
He laid the note next to him on the ground and, for the first time in his life, he closed a book to talk to a girl instead of studying. “Aren’t you even going to read it?” she asked him. “Oh… Yeah. Sorry. So… What is a ‘Happy Wednesday’ card? I mean… Why is this particular Wednesday so happy?” he said as he picked up the card. Looking at it, he was genuinely surprised at the detail that went into the intricate artwork on the outer cover. “You drew this?” he asked. “Yep. I like angels, so there’s usually at least one on everything that I draw,” she replied. Opening it, he saw that each letter of every word she’d written had been done in elaborate calligraphy. “As each day draws near, or draws to a close, give thanks to your guardian angel… or she may fly right up your nose. HAPPY WEDNESDAY!”
The fact that it made absolutely no sense to him made him chuckle out loud. After that day, they met at the old willow tree every afternoon. She introduced all kinds of new things to him and gave him an entirely new view on life and what happiness really was. Before Christina, he’d thought everything should have a specific and defined purpose, and if it didn’t, that it was unworthy of his attention. He’d viewed the world as black and white, with no gray areas in between. But, she showed him that if you opened yourself up enough to truly view the gray areas, it could often reveal the most vibrant of colors. And Christina was one of those extraordinary colors. She brought joy and light into his life that he never even knew existed before. Years later they married, holding the ceremony on the grass right in front of the old willow tree.
“Hi there, Pop!” the clerk behind the counter said to him cheerfully with a smile. He nodded in acknowledgment to the young girl as he slid a single tube of Chap Stick on the counter. “Still can’t find the right greeting card, huh?” she asked. “No Ma’am. Not yet,” he replied as he picked out the few coins left in his pocket and placed them on the counter in front of her.
Though her co-workers usually made snide remarks about this regular, she’d grown accustomed to seeing him come in and buying a small item here and there. She always thought to herself that his gentle and polite demeanor didn’t seem to match his outer shell. She also made assumptions about this man, as others did, but her assumption was that his appearance did not match who he truly was inside. “Did you ever get yourself a CVS card, Pop? You can save on stuff, even little things. It can add up where you get free money to spend in the store. Here…” She said as she handed him the card and customer registration form that went with it.
“You’re very kind,” he said as he took it from her with one hand and grabbed the tube of Chap Stick with the other. “Thank you. You have a good day now, Ma’am. And remember…” The young girl threw up her hand in front of her face and said, “I know, I know… be thankful for my guardian angel or she might fly right up my nose.” Pop smiled at her and shook a finger in the air. “Yes Ma’am.”
As he stepped outside into the heat, he looked down at the CVS card, and at the blanks on the form where you were to write your address and phone number. He wondered what he would write… he had neither. With a shrug, he shoved the card and the paper into his empty pocket and headed back to the street that he called home.
With no particular destination in mind, he walked down the sidewalk of 441 and wondered what T-Bone and Railroad Dave were up to today. Though they were two of the only people who he’d called “friends” these past months, he had no idea what their real names were, and he’d never told them his real name, either. On the street, it didn’t really matter what your real name was.
He’d stumbled upon Railroad Dave’s camp on accident one night after many days and nights of just wondering along the railroad tracks. Stumbling through the gravel and not paying much attention to his surroundings, his senses were awakened the moment he saw the small fire and smelled the aroma of meat cooking.
“T-Bone?!” he heard someone say, startling him. He stopped in his tracks. “T-Bone?” he heard again. He stood still for a moment, taking in the smell of food, realizing just how hungry he was. “Is someone offering me a T-Bone steak?” he thought to himself, confused. “T-Bone… What are you doing?” he heard, as a figure rose from behind the shadows of the fire. “Whoa... Man... This is my camp, keep moving.”
Pop didn’t want any trouble, but his stomach seemed to have control of his feet. “My apologies... I didn’t mean to disturb you, sir. Umm… What do you have cooking there? …a T-bone?” The dark figure had stepped under his make-shift tent and seemed to be randomly collecting things in his arms. “What?” he said with an annoyed tone. “…a T-Bone? No… What you think, this is the Ritz?” Pop took a step back as the figure threw down whatever it was he was collecting. Before he knew it, he was standing eye to eye with the man. “Who the heck are you anyway? I told you… this is my…” As Railroad Dave was about to tell this stranger to get the hell out of his camp, he got a good look at him in the light of the fire. “…ahhh hell... Do you want a hot dog? You can have the one I saved for T-Bone, I guess. He was supposed to be back by now anyhow.”
Without any questions, Pop accepted the hot dog on a stick and scarfed the meat down in just a few seconds. After swallowing, he attempted to say “thank you,” but couldn’t get the words out because his throat was so dry. Railroad Dave leaned over and handed him a gallon jug. He almost tipped it right up to his lips, but then hesitated as he looked at it. It was a milk jug, but was fingerprinted with dirt and dust. Dave gave a chuckle, “I know it doesn’t look so pretty, but it’s clean water. I just filled it up from the spicket down there,” he said as he pointed down the tracks. The water was still ice cold and after his days of walking, it tasted better than any expensive spring water that he’d ever purchased.
After he got his fill of water and handed the jug back to Dave, he was able to speak. “Thank you…. Thanks. I appreciate that,” he said as he took a deep breath. “Boy, do I know that look,” Dave replied. “Where ya comin’ from?” he asked. “A better question than where I came from… Where exactly am I?” Pop asked. “Apopka!” Dave said as he stood up from his spot next to the fire. Pop watched him as he went under the tent and stirred around in what appeared to be a cooler. “Apopka, huh. And Apopka is…” Pop had never heard of any place named Apopka.
As Pop gazed into the fire, it reminded him of the fire place in his study. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to picture his study in his mind… a pile of books on one side of him, a hot cup of coffee… Christina… Christina always brought him his coffee when he was in the study… Pop forced himself to snap back to reality. In one moment, he’d traveled from his study, alone and away from his love, to being seated in the dirt, eating hot dogs next to man who he just met minutes before.
“Listen,” he said as he took one hot dog off the stick and handed the rest to the man next to him. Dave waved his hand in the air, “No, you go ahead. I can tell you need ‘em, man. I’ve had my fill so you’re welcome to the rest a’ those.” Pop nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate it. Listen… thank you for this food and for the water. I know you didn’t have to do that. It’s very kind of you. What is your name?” Pop asked. Dave cackled so loudly that it startled Pop for just a moment. “Ahhhh hell,” Dave said. “Don’t mention it! I do usually rush people off when they come up around here and get up in my business, but to tell you the truth, I was gettin’ a bit lonely. T-Bone’s usually back by now. I guess he’s stayin’ out there somewhere tonight. My name’s Dave. They call me “Railroad Dave”... for obvious reasons, I s’pose.”
It had been raining all week and he hadn’t seen T-Bone and Railroad Dave for several days. “Is it supposed to rain again tonight?” he mumbled to himself. He stepped off the curb to cross the street as he tried to find the news channel on the small radio that he carried with him. He didn’t see the car coming, and the woman driving the car didn’t see him until it was too late.
As the impact of the moving car hit, his body flew up into the windshield of the car; his head breaking through the glass. As the women slammed on the brakes, Pop’s body rolled down the hood. Horrified at what had just taken place, the woman frantically got out of her car to find the man was now lying in the middle of the next lane of moving traffic. She hysterically began waving at the oncoming cars so they would stop, but he was still struck by a second vehicle. To the woman’s dismay, the car kept going and did not even slow down.