I was spending some quality time with my hair dresser, walked across the street for a little late lunch, ordered a tuna sandwich with a splurge of those crispy chips and sat in the corner checking my e mail on the free WiFi. I finished the sandwich and within a few minutes I was already suffering the aftershocks in my alimentary canal, having become more sensitive of late than usual. There was an eruption threatening near my imagined duodenum and I was sitting in front of my Facebook wall reminding myself to draw a mental note never to eat tuna sandwich there again. No crispy chips for sure.
I saw him asking the manager to use the phone. The manager pulled out his own cell phone and let him make a call. He was wearing institution-issue clothes, I noticed that first off, gray on gray, big bulky cottons that were much too large for him. His skin sallow against the gray of the uniform, the brown generic cap, I was surprised, delighted, to see him because I had thought he was dead.
My good pal F. and I had discussed him many times. We went back almost thirty years with him, he was newly sober then and F. especially followed him throughout the years, his inability to stay sober, still he kept in touch with F. and I know F. was thinking about him now and then and wondering how he was doing. Every once in a while F. or I had run into him, he was rarely sober, usually living off the public largesse in a group home or some other low rent flop after he had lost everything – wife a long time ago, a kid that kept intermittent contact and would be in college by now. The last time I saw F. we talked about him, and F. or I (can’t remember which) had heard that he was dead. There he was, I noticed the clothes first, then the face, drawn, old for wear, color not good, but it was him.
I was drawing out my own strength over that corrupt tuna and not sure I was up to the encounter with him just then, but when I looked back he had disappeared anyway. I looked around the restaurant, and I didn’t see him. I figured he had walked out, caught a bus, gone. I went right back to my screen, signed on to e mail, and sent F. a message to Minnesota where F. now lives that I just saw him and he was not dead. I knew F. would want to know.
I sent a few more missives and got up to throw my detritus away. I was standing at the waste basket, threw away the paper ware, stacked the plastic tray in its designated place, and at that moment I looked up and just as I did he looked at me from the corner where he was sitting, hard to see him from the corner where I was with my computer, we were both in corners, I saw him as he saw me and the recognition traveled between us and he motioned me over.
Can you come here? He asked.
Hold on, I gotta pack up my stuff.
I went back to my seat and packed up my machine. I sat down at his little table in the corner.
Some small talk, I recognized the old stolid sarcasm that distanced him in life, and some attempt at his form of humor. Then he launched into big talk and told me he was thirty days sober, he was homeless, living in a shelter, hoped to get into the Salvation Army. He was aspiring to enter the Salvation Army shelter. He does not give up.
We talked about how hard it was for him to stay sober over the years, how he hadn’t, and when he didn’t he ended up homeless. His was no polite story. He had off and on contact with his daughter. Still, he perseveres.
There was a table of three women next to him, and almost all the other tables in that part of the restaurant were also occupied. I could hear the three women talking behind me.
They used the word serendipity, he said, gesturing to the group of women behind me. I was eavesdropping, I guess (they were also kind of loud I thought). I don’t think I believe in serendipity, he said, I mean – I talk to God all the time now. I really do, he said, I never did before. You know that. But I don’t think much about serendipity, as a matter of fact, listen to this. Just when they said that word, I asked God something, I said in my own way – show me something. And at that moment, just then, I saw you. Now that’s – not – serendipity.
I didn’t make too much of that in my head, and I didn’t tell him that I saw him before he saw me and didn’t jump up to embrace him, that my stomach was still roiling from lunch, that I first sent off a note to F. telling him he wasn’t dead because both of us had thought he was. I just didn’t say anything.
Can we pray together? He asked me.
How do we do it? Who starts?
I’ll start, I said. Let’s close our eyes first and be quiet. Then let me say it. So we did that in the restaurant, I dropped my self consciousness, we closed our eyes and found our silence and when we did I half spoke half sang a prayer about the accompanying angels who we invoke to help us heal, and ended with a request to the Great Healer, I made it up in a new form and then I said, Amen.
When we were done with the prayer, we sat there together in silence for a moment and then said goodbye. I wished him luck or something and we made no plans to meet up again but I was happy he was thirty days sober and what the heck – maybe I’ll bump into him again in another ten years, twenty years, and he will have become, he will have become – who he was supposed to become.
Marlon called me not long after that with a take on a prayer he had made up. I told him I would tell him the story later, this story, so I wrote it out and sent it to him. I sent it to F. too and I read it to myself, several times.