“I just thought I should come back and let you know that everything was just fine and I’m safe.”
Final papers are due this week, and–as usual–I’m working right up to the last minute. I have a quiet house, a warm room, a big desk, and a Songza channel that’s all instrumental Beatles covers. Oh, and, strangely, the paper I’ve been working on is coming along fine. The thing is that it’s supposed to hit 20-25 pages, and I keep deleting. So, around 2:00, I decide it’s time to get away from the desk and make a run to 7/11 for a coffee. Sometimes, they have a hyper-charged-super-caffeine-mega-mocha in the cappuccino machine, you know. And if not, they have those little things that look like creamers but are actually concentrated coffee(ish)-flavored caffeine shots that you can add in.
It’s been unseasonably, unreasonably warm this winter, but tonight, there’s iciness in the air and it’s cold. I pull my gloves on and zip my coat. I light a cigarette without thinking, so instead of driving to the 7/11 that’s just a few blocks away, I go to the one a little farther the other way to give myself time to finish it. Pulling into the the parking spot, I see a shabby-looking man standing a little way from the door. He’s wearing a coat with a hood, gray sweats, and work boots, but no gloves. I can’t tell if his sunken face is dirty or just covered in stubble. I can tell that he’s exhausted. He is grizzled, gray, weak-looking. He is every shabby-looking man standing outside the 7/11 at 2:00 a.m. on a weeknight. I just want to get a coffee and get back to working on my paper.
The cappuccino machine doesn’t have the mega-mocha, but it has peppermint mocha, which is my favorite, even if it’s not turbo-charged. I stop between the doughnut case and the open cooler full of cut fruit, honestly not sure whether I’m going to get a sugar twist or a cup of grapes and pineapple. Through the window, I can see the top of the gray man’s hood. The attendant’s name tag says “Rodney.” He’s a tall, sturdy black man, congenial and a little flirty. “There are boxes of doughnuts on sale on that table over there,” he laughs. “I see you lookin’, girl.” There is a wink in his voice. I tell him that I prefer the plain sugar twists, and he points at the table again. “That one in the middle is for you, pretty girl! Three sugar, three glazed. I packed it up myself. I musta known you were comin’.”
I’m no stranger to third shift, even though it’s been years since I’ve worked in a place that was even open past 10:00 p.m. You can only clean, stock, and tidy so many times before there’s nothing left to do but try not to fall asleep between customers. And when someone does come in, you smile and joke, because that gives you a rush of serotonin that not even those little caffeine shots can match. A person can go for an hour on the energy from a fun 3 minute back-and-forth. I think about asking Rodney if he knows anything about the gray man–is he a regular, is he waiting for a ride, how long has he been out there–but I don’t. I buy a pack of Pall Malls (orange box, shorts) and the box of Three-Sugar, Three-Glazed. Rodney forgets to ring up my cappuccino, and even though I offer to pay for it separately, he tells me it’s on him. Serotonin, man. It’s everything.
Coming out of the store, Rodney is a few steps behind me to go outside for a smoke break, stepping to the left of the doorway, because the gray man is still standing just to the right.
The words “do you need a ride somewhere” are slamming against my tightly-closed lips. I want to say them. I will not say them.
Because I have a paper.
Because It’s late.
Because I’m a woman.
Because I’m alone.
My heart is breaking because my head won’t listen.
The gray man coughs.
“Will you please give me a ride to Moline?” he asks. His voice is pleading and I feel myself relax. Rodney looks at me warily, and I guess that the gray man is not a regular. Of course I don’t care where he’s going. Of course I’m going to give him a ride. But of course, I know that I have to reassure Rodney, and my head, and the gray man, that I’m fully in control of this situation and nothing bad is going to happen to me. “Where to in Moline?” He gives me a cross-street, and I pause to appear as though I’m considering. “OK, sir. I’ll give you a ride. Come on.”
I can’t help but notice that Rodney’s serotonin is gone. I’m nobody to him, but he’s wearing a look of apprehension and worry for me anyway. He’s a good guy, Rodney. I’m grateful for his concern. The gray man is shaky and stiff; every movement seems to require his focus. As he works his way into the passenger seat, he is at once thankful and apologetic. “I’m happy to give you a ride as long as you don’t try to hurt me,” I say as he fumbles with the seat belt. “I’m Catholic,” he responds.
He tells me his name (“Corky. It’s my nickname.”) and the address he wants. He is bent, huddled close to the passenger door. His hood covers his head, so I can hear him but not see him. He is cold, broken, and very smelly. So very smelly. He bums a light while I look for the address. “We’re on 7th Street, Corky, but I don’t see that address. I don’t see any homes at all, actually. Only bars.”
“It’s close by, I know it. It’s a gray house next to a red and white house.” I randomly turn onto 18th and head for the next block. “This is familiar,” he says, “Yeah. This is right. Turn there.” And then there it was. Gray house next to a red and white house. I stop, and Corky thanks me over and over again as he works his way out of the van.
If I count the time it took for me to get to the 7/11 in the first place, the whole event took twenty minutes. The gray man disappeared around the side of the gray house, and I pulled away to head home. I turned the corner at the same time as a buck came from behind another house. He stayed on the sidewalk and ran alongside me for three blocks.
I went back to the 7/11. Rodney was behind the counter. “I just thought I should come back and let you know that everything was just fine and I’m safe.” He smiled and shook his head a little, relaxing his shoulders a bit. “I would have wondered about you all night,” he said.
“I know. Thanks.”
“You have a good mornin’, girl.”
“You too, sir.”