Once Upon a Time…
The coffee shop lights were dim. I could not make out the faces of the folks sitting in the far corner. I opened my book and thumbed to a short story titled, Andrew. It was one of my favorites. It was about two soldiers whose paths crossed in the wilderness as they found their way home after the Civil War. It was about dealing with having killed ― and it was about dealing with your own approaching death. Those are risky subjects for a writer ― but for once, I nailed it. At least, I thought so.
I cleared my throat and began.
Two young girls sipped their lattes and pretended to be interested. It was nice of them, but they were used to The Simpsons and Superman movies. I turned the page. When I got to the part where Grover accidentally shoots Andrew, a lady to my left set her coffee cup down and leaned her chin on her fist. Towards the middle of the story, a middle-aged man in biker leathers nodded knowingly. At the end of the reading, there was a long moment of silence as the audience pondered the meaning of the last line ― or maybe they were waiting to see if I was finished. The applause was warm. I wasn’t sure if they liked Andrew ― or me. Of if they were just being polite.
Someone turned up the lights a notch and I saw that there were more people in the room than I realized. The teen-aged girls approached me with notebooks in hand. One was a poet ― the other was working on a novel. I had underestimated them. We talked about writing for a few minutes. I gave each of them my business card.
When they left, a gaunt gray woman emerged from the shadows. She had my book tucked under her arm. “Very moving,” she rasped. “Poignant.” I thanked her and offered her a card. She shook her head. “I’ve got your number.” She went outside to smoke a cigarette. Puzzled, I watched her through the glass door. It was cold and she didn’t wear a coat. She squinted into the frigid wind before she lit up and I fancied, for a moment, that I could see the bones beneath her skin. I shuddered and looked away.
“Can I talk to you?”
His face was inches from mine. I jumped.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.” The old man leaned on his walker. “I need to talk to you.”
“Of course. What can I do for you?”
“Let me buy you a cup of coffee?”
I nodded and sat down at a tall round table while the old man ordered and brought me my mug. He settled beside me.
“I liked your story.”
“Thank you. Are you a writer too?”
“I am ― but nothing like you.” He blew across the rim of his coffee cup and I smelled winter on his breath.
Spooked, I waited as he searched for words.
“I have a story,” he said finally. “I’ve tried to write it for sixty-three years.”
“Maybe you are trying too hard?”
“Maybe.” He lowered his head.
I lost track of everyone else in the room, hypnotized by the tears frozen on his cheeks.
“Time is running out ― and I still can’t do it.”
I sat quietly ― listening.
“Tonight, when you were reading your story, I knew that you were the one.”
“The one to write this story.”
“You mean you want me to be your ghost?”
“No. I’m not asking you to write under my name. I’m going to give you the story. No strings. You can write it anyway you want.”
“Because you are the only way I can save an old friend.”
I sipped my coffee. “You want to tell me about it?”
“When I was a boy, I had a buddy. He was like a brother.” His voice dropped to a near-whisper.
I leaned forward.
The old man’s memories were glossy pearls reflecting the soul of a boy who died on a distant battlefield long before I was born. His words sketched a face. My own imagination colored it. When he was done, the old man reached across the table and covered my hand with his cool one. “You will write about him?”
He seemed comforted. “I don’t want him to disappear when I do.”
He stood up and put on his coat.
“They are going to read more poems tonight,” I said.
“I’m finished.” He pointed towards the door. The gaunt woman on the other side of the glass beckoned. “She’s waiting for me.”
I watched him shuffle toward the door using his walker. A bell tinkled and cold air gushed in as he went out. The woman snuffed out her cigarette and embraced him. I turned back to my coffee.
The business card I had given him lay on the table. I picked it up and turned to call him, but they were already gone.
“Did you have fun,” my husband asked when I called later that night.
I told him about the old man and his story.
“Will you write about it?”
“What is this? The millionth story someone has given you? You should turn your collar around and put out a shingle.”
I laughed. “I’m the glue.”
Now he was laughing. “Glue?”
“Story tellers are the glue between people who lived before and those who live now ― and those who will live in the future.”
He was quiet for a while. “It’s a big responsibility, Joyce.”
“No, it’s a blessing.”