A bedraggled holiday tale, in two parts!
A Holiday Tale in Two Parts
This is the story of how my car got to smelling like smoked meat and candy canes. It’s not pretty and I’m not proud, but it’s the truth. And that should be worth something
Last year, I pulled into the Carytown Starbucks lot two days before Christmas with a full bladder and dark roast on my mind. The crowd inside was thin so I placed my order and ducked into the restroom.
Washing my hands, I heard muffled sobs behind the stall door. Poking out from underneath were the tips of a couple of old black work boots without laces. The feet inside were bundled in two, maybe three pairs of socks. The crying continued.
As a rule, I usually don’t talk to strangers in public bathrooms. But I thought, what the hell… it’s Christmas.
“You okay in there?” I asked.
“Doing fine,” said a voice that sounded anything but.
I patted dry and pondered my follow-up. I winced as I formed the words.
“Can I… do anything for you?”
“Do you need my help?” I asked.
Then suddenly, a jingle of keys, the clink of a belt buckle against porcelain and one loud, industrial flush. I wanted to run but I thought that would be even weirder than staying put and greeting a depressed stranger, fresh off the pot. I stood firm and hoped against hope that there would be no handshaking or hugging.
Please Lord, no hugging.
The stall door swung open and a hunched elderly man in baggy red sweatpants shuffled out. He was wearing a lumpy green sweater vest and an old white undershirt that looked like he used it as a tablecloth. His face was covered in deep wrinkles and white stubble that spread over his misshapen head in a kind of peach fuzz buzz cut. His nose was red raw and his left eye was swollen shut and a dozen kinds of purple.
My expression was less than subtle.
“Do I look that bad?” he asked.
“Honestly? Yeah,” I said. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Long story. I’ll spare you the details. But thank you for offering to help. Very decent of you. Pardon me.”
He waddled to the sink like he had a full diaper and ran his hands under the hot water. I made for the door.
“Well, take care of yourself okay? Have a… good holiday,” I said.
“And you as well.”
I grabbed my coffee, got back in the car and headed down Cary Street to wrap up my holiday shopping. It was still early but the sidewalks were crammed with last-minute shoppers and neighborhood regulars. Finding a parking space felt like a long shot, but I circled diligently hoping that something choice would open up.
On my second pass by Plan 9 Music, I saw him. He was hobbling down the sidewalk, arms flaying to balance like he was Frankenstein walking across hot coals. When people saw him coming, women pulled their children closer and hipster couples headed for the other side of the street.
I wondered how the hell he beat me there from Starbucks. Even sprinting he couldn’t have made it that far that fast. He wasn’t going much faster than a wind-up toy, there was just no way. I pulled around one more time, stopped at the corner with my blinker on and rolled down my window.
“You need a ride somewhere?” I shouted. I assumed he wasn’t shopping for antique lamps and was just passing through on the way back to his shopping cart or underpass or whatever.
He spotted me and picked up his pace to a feeble trot. He stopped at the corner and put his hands on his knees to catch his breath.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I said… do you need a ride somewhere?”
“That’d be lovely,” he said.
As he maneuvered his way to the passenger door, steadying himself against the hood, I looked around to see if I recognized anyone on the street. I didn’t want to have to explain later why I was cruising Carytown picking up injured homeless men that I met in public restrooms.
Then again, I didn’t know for sure that he was homeless. That was just me thinking that every sloppy, elderly man without shoelaces is a hobo. For all I knew he could’ve been an eccentric millionaire with Alzheimer’s who wandered away from his River Road estate. Maybe his pockets were stuffed with hundred dollar bills. Or uncut diamonds and rare gold coins. Or…
“Want a nibble?” he asked settling into the seat.
Or hard-boiled eggs. His pockets were stuffed with hard boiled eggs. I politely refused any of the lint-covered orb he pulled from his pocket. I tried to ignore it, but his lip smacking made my stomach turn. Bits of egg white rolled down his belly and onto my floor mats. I decided that things could not possibly get any worse.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Of course.” I said, resting my head on the steering wheel.
Then my patience ran out. Inside my head I heard the buzzer. Game over. Thanks for playing. Good luck with all that.
“Look, I’ve got a lot of shopping to do. I felt sorry for you back there at Starbucks and I just wanted to help out. But I really don’t have time for this,” I said.
“Sure you do. Just tell me what you need to buy and who you need to buy it for and I’ll take care of everything.” He started work on a second egg and kept talking, “I’ll show you a short cut and you’ll be back before lunch. Speaking of which, I need carbs. What’s say we stop for waffles?”
In my head the inner voice was hollering, “Bad idea. Bad idea. Bad idea.” I wanted to drive to a police station and leave him on the steps. I wanted to rewind to fifteen minutes ago when I was perfectly happy driving in circles.
But as I blew the steam from the top of my coffee and took the first hot, slurping sip, another voice from an altogether different part of my head spoke up and said, what the hell… it’s Christmas. I put the car in drive.
“Waffles it is.”
(To Be Continued. Next week: Waffles! )
Photo by: Kaakati