I stared at the wall where the sun had faded into the paint the rectangular shapes of now missing family pictures, org charts and various policies and performance metrics I had tacked up for quick reference.  Three quick trips to the car, four boxes of my life stuffed into the trunk and I had met the requirement: You have an hour to clean out your desk.

I took one long last look around.  Twenty plus years helping to build this company and when the next person walks by this office, they’ll never know I ever existed at all.  I shook the hands of some insincere people, hugged some who were very dear and walked out under the watchful eye of the rent-a-guard that was there to make sure us “exited personnel” did so in a quiet and orderly fashion.  Just another insult to the injury I guess.  I sat there in my car for a while, confused, dazed, somewhat amused and still in disbelief.  I felt the urge to cry, but instead decided to get out and walk a few blocks downtown, much like I had been doing at lunch for the last few years. I wasn’t quite sure what else to do, where else to go and I needed to think.

I walked the nearly eight blocks to the small newsstand where I would normally get my coffee with my daily sports and business pages then drop a quarter or two into the felt hat of the homeless guy that usually sat on one of the two chairs next to the booth.  As I exited Front street with a quick right around the corner of the First Bank building onto Langley, I could see the tiny booth a half a block down, a small queue already in front of the window and the frail black man perched in his usual spot, old guitar in his hands, harmonica on the rack in front of his face.  I took my place in line and listened as he played his version of “hell ain’t but a mile and a quarter” on a scratched-up Gibson sunburst j-50.  I ordered a small black-no-sugar, and having absolutely nowhere to go, I dropped myself down in the open chair next to him.  I sat silent, staring out at the traffic cycling through the intersection in front of me.  He continued to play for about another minute, as people exited the line with a hot cup in one hand, paper or magazine under their arms to drop their change in the felt hat at his feet before briskly walking away to whatever life-changing meeting they were late for.  Good God, was that what I had looked like?

I stared at him for a while.  His hair was short, smoky grey and close to his head, the same color of the stubble that covered most of his face down onto his neck.  His shirt was an old flannel, rather worn with pins in place of what should have been several buttons.  I looked down at his boots and wasn’t sure what their original color might have been, but they were very dark and scuffed, the laces just a tangle of knots not keeping the boots closed but keeping the laces in one piece.  For a moment I stared down at my own feet noticing my shiny wingtips and thought to myself, “shit, there’s a luxury I can no longer afford.”

He stopped playing and reached up to pull the harp away from his face. He didn’t look at me at all, just swung his right arm over the top of the old Gibson and cleared his throat.  He leaned his head a little and squinted at me as he spoke.  “Son, You been stannin’ in thet line there for, dunno, maybe fo-five years or so.” His voice was rather thick and deep but not as gravelly as when he had sung. “ I guts to tell ya, I ain’t nevah seen you walk by heah, and have yo chin so far down yo chest, or yo shoulders drooping the way they is today.  Dam looks like you lost yo best friend today.  You lose someone special son?”

I looked up to his face and realized he was sincere. “Go ahead son, taint no shame heah. You can tell me.”  “Well”, I started, “I lost something special. Lost my friggin’ job.  23 years, they just tossed me out on my butt.  Never saw it comin’.  All the sweat, toil, plane trips, weeks away from the wife and kids, all meaningless.”  I couldn’t help myself.  I rambled on about the kids: How am I going to feed the kids.  How am I going to dress them?  Who’s’ going to hire an older man?  We were barely making it before, plus the economy is crap.  Now I’m gonna compete with millions of other people out there, many half my age.  It all came out; I’m not even sure how long I ranted.  A little embarrassed, I let my elbows go to my knees and rested my head in my hands.

He started to strum slowly, quietly.  I thought I should leave.  Hell, this was his livelihood. At least one of us was gainfully employed.  “Well, I show am sorry for ya son,” he said.  “I  sympafize widja.  See it an awful lots lately. Guys and gals, coming out dese big buildin’s heah n’ heah, all screwed up in the face, never see’em come back no mo.  Show is a tough time out there on the street.  Show is.”  He stopped playing again and slid the guitar down his chest and laid it down across his lap. “ I’d show like to tell you a small story if you’d like son. Might hep ya out, might.”  I took a sip of my coffee and nodded. “Sure, why not. Knock yourself out,” I told him.  I really didn’t feel like sitting there any longer, but I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I had no idea how to go home and break the news to the family.

He cleared his throat again.  He started slowly and low, almost as if he wanted to be sure no one else could hear.  He told me the story of how he and his wife had gotten married.  They never had kids, they didn’t have the time, but they were deeply in love.  He loved her, she loved him, and the kids would come eventually, they were sure.  But the kids never came.  As they started to grow older together, he began to notice that at times, she would appear distant, off in some other thoughts and then she would just sort of “catch-up”.  He couldn’t describe it better he said, but it seemed to become more frequent.  After a while she seemed weak, and at times she’d drop a glass of water on the floor as if her hand didn’t have the strength to hold it.  “I’m fine baby, you jus’ worried over nuttin’” she’d tell him, and he’d let it go.  But it wasn’t “nuttin” and soon, he’d come home to find her sitting in the dark in the easy chair, still dressed to go to work, realizing she hadn’t moved from the chair all day.  She’d have stretches where she seemed fine, then she’d get lost in the house and he’d find her screaming in the bathroom, frightened because she had no idea where she was, where she was going. By the time they diagnosed her, he said, she started to fail even worse.  It got to the point where she couldn’t even feed herself.  She either couldn’t figure it out, or didn’t have the strength to get the spoon to her mouth from the soup bowl.  They told him he should try to find a comfortable institution for her to spend her last few months in, someplace where she could get the best care for her remaining days.  He told them that he was the best care for her; he took her home and propped her up in their queen-sized bed.

It was quite hard physically caring for her, more so emotionally.  She spent most days napping and every once in a while, she’d give him a few hours of the day where she was almost back and she could converse with him, smile at him as if she almost knew who he might be.  The prognosis was a year at most.  They were wrong by almost eight years.  He’d gone through all of his savings, doubled the mortgage and was cleaning three homes at night across the street so he could walk back hourly to peek into the bedroom window and be sure she was still safe in bed.  It finally got to the point where she would stare blankly, and not acknowledge him.  He couldn’t feed her anymore: She wasn’t eating.  He would reach down with his big brown thumbs and wipe the tears from her cheeks then bend down to kiss the tracks they left behind.  Before he’d pull his head away he’d whisper in her ear, “S’okay to cry baby, s’okay. You safe heah baby, and you can cry all you want.  Cause I’m right heah, and I aint nevah gone leave you ‘lone.”  He was never sure if she was crying because she didn’t know where she was, or who she was, or maybe she knew all too well what was happening and she was frightened.

One drizzled spring morning, he came into the room to feed her breakfast and found she had been able to pull herself up to almost sitting in the bed.  She was staring wide eyed at the window, tears streaming down her face, her night-gown soaked from what must have been a period of heavy crying.  There was a slight spring rain tapping the glass and he realized she had no idea what was happening.  She was looking with fear at the windowpane, and he quickly walked over to pull the drapes.  He peered out at the mottled grey spring sky, no indication that the sun was behind the tattered clouds that appeared to be right over the rooftops.  Nothing foreboding, just a dismal spring morning rain.  He slowly closed the drapes and turned to sit down on the bed.  He gently slid her down and brought the covers back up over her shoulders and under her chin.  “S’okay baby, s’okay. I know you scared.  You mebbe don’t know who I is, mebbe don’t know who you is youseff. But you okay heah. You safe. An I ain’t gonna leave yo side. I’ll be right heah widja.”  He leaned down to wipe the tears from her cheeks and kissed away their trails, as he had been doing for years.  He sat and watched her drift off into a nap, and he was quite sure he saw her mouth turn up into a slight smile. It was a nap she’d never awaken from.

He said “the day after they put her in the ground” he wandered to the center of town with his guitar and sat on one of the two chairs next to the newsstand to play her favorite song.  He took off the felt hat she had bought him for his birthday and placed it on the chair to his left so it wouldn’t get dirty. He hadn’t played a note when a young lady, all high heels and hurry, strode quickly by and dropped the change from her purchase into his felt hat. It caught him by surprise, he hadn’t even put his strap over his shoulder, but he had never intended to beg for money.  He quickly reached into the hat to scoop up the change but when he looked back up, she was already gone and around the corner.  He looked into his hand: a new gold coin.  He rubbed it between his fingers and his palm and flipped it over and over again.  He stuffed the coin into the front pocket of his old flannel shirt and placed the hat back on the chair beside him.  By the end of the day, he had enough change to buy himself a hot meal and a flower that he placed on her grave before he walked home.   She’s been getting a flower every day since.

are you prepared?

He took the coin out of his pocket. Again, he rubbed between it his fingers and his palm.  He balanced the coin on the knuckles of his index finger and thumb and winked at me. In a low voice he said “heads I don’t wake up, tails I come back here tomarra and buy her another flower”.   He flipped the coin high into the air and it came down with a loud clank on the cement in front of us, rolling first under his chair and circling back out from underneath.   I watched it make ever-smaller circles before it spun lazily and clanked to the ground.  It was tails.  “Its tails,” I said, “you win.”

“Did I?” he asked.  “I been flippin this heah coin every day since she died.  It always comes up tails.  It’s all about fate son.  It’s life.  A coin toss.  You can’t fight it. You can’t  stop it. You show can’t predict it.  And you can’t change it.  All you can do is live your life to be ready for it, to accept it.  Live so that you have no regrets at the end of the day, leave nuttin’ undone.  Cause you have to toss that coin every night. You need to be ready to accept whatever side comes face up.”

He lifted the strap over his head, brought his guitar up to his chest and slowly pushed the harp to his mouth.  “Go home now son. You gots people there waitin’ on you.”  He inhaled, then exhaled out through the harp and started to strum a slow rhythm, looking straight ahead as if I was no longer there. The conversation was over.  I made my way home, pondering his fate and mine, and how he seemed to have a courage I didn’t think I could ever possess.

The next year was a period of trials and failures.  Applications that ended up in rejections, if I ever heard back at all.  Grueling face-to-face interviews, some with callbacks, many not, ending the same way. Rejection or no response, leaving me to wonder what I might have said or done wrong, stealing my sleep at night as I replayed them over and over in my head.

My eyes snapped open early one morning, studying the cracks on the ceiling before I realized I was fully awake.  I guess my body was still on my work schedule.  I felt different today.  Something was nagging at me, I couldn’t quite place it.  All I knew was that I had to get up, had to get out of the house, that I was worth something, somewhere, and I wasn’t going to be able to stay home mired in self pity today.

I swung my feet over the side of the bed and a moment of doubt crept back in, muttering to myself, “yup, it’s real easy to look up when you’re at the bottom of the hole.” I fought it off and stood up to make my way to the window. I peered out at the mottled grey spring sky, no indication that the sun was behind the tattered clouds that appeared to be right over the rooftops.  Nothing foreboding, just a dismal spring morning rain.  I slowly pushed the drapes wide open and turned to sit down on the bed to get dressed.  The last thing I put on before I bounded out of the house were my old tattered wingtips, scuffed and worn with the laces a series of knots to hold them together, much less to keep the shoes on my feet.

I headed out of the house and wandered aimlessly toward town, knowing that I had to stay positive today, that something had to change.  I found myself rounding the corner of the First Bank building and saw the newsstand off in the distance.  As I got closer I realized that there were two empty chairs next to it, no one playing guitar.  With this crappy drizzle, I thought, who could blame him if he had decided to stay away today.  I walked up to the newsstand and asked the old clerk where he was.  He looked at me with some disgust before asking me “what’re you some wiseass? You mean Benny? Benny ain’t been here for years.  Benny died about three years ago now, died right in that chair. You some kinda wiseass or sumpin?”  He looked at me accusingly before slowly bringing his paper up in front of his face to shoo me away.  I tried to speak, but choked slightly on whatever was in my throat.  I stumbled back a bit, almost tripping off the curb.  I needed to sit down and plopped into first chair to the right, the chair he had been in.  Benny.  I never asked, he never said. Benny. I sat there for a moment, thinking this was a dream or a joke, not sure of which. And I noticed, down next to the leg of the chair, was a dirty old gold coin, worn and dented as from years of being dropped.  I picked it up and rolled it between my fingers and palm.  I got up and asked the news clerk if I could have it. “Get outta here ya bum, whatever” was his reply. I quickly stuffed the coin in the front pocket of my shirt and headed home.

I walked home slowly, not noticing the cold drizzle that had soaked me through nor the fact that I had been walking all day. When I finally found my way home, I opened the door to a deep quiet in the house, no lights except the one over the kitchen sink.  The kids were in bed and I could hear my wife breathing in slow, deep breaths, peacefully sleeping on the couch in front of the flickering television.  I sat down at the kitchen table, unable to make sense of what had happened or where I had been.  I reached in the pocket of my shirt and fished out the coin.  I stared at it for a moment, all dirty and dinged and well worn.  My hand was unsteady as I balanced it on the knuckles of my thumb and index finger before letting it fly into the air, landing with a dull clank on the linoleum floor.  It bounced several times before rolling toward the center of the kitchen where it started its long slow dance into shrinking circles before clacking to a stop on its side.  I slowly got up and walked over to it.  As I bent down over it, I paused to look.  I smiled a little and as I slowly picked it up before stuffing it into my pocket, all I could think of was “Thanks Benny. Thanks Benny.”

I stood up and walked quietly to the living room where my wife was sleeping on the couch.  I noticed her face was still wet with tears, probably from the bills that were scattered all over the coffee table and the floor in front of the couch.  I knelt down and reached over to wipe the tears from her cheeks with my thumb, then leaned forward to kiss the trails that were left.  I was sure I saw a slight smile flash across her face.

I moved my head over and whispered quietly in her ear.