Some nights we can’t cook. This could happen for several reasons: maybe it’s because we actually have no food because the grocery store overwhelms me, (there are so many aisles and my two boys seem like four in a store!) or maybe it’s because we fed the boys pretzels and grapes for dinner and we don’t want to ‘make’ another meal for us, or because we do have leftovers but we’re tired of them. On those nights, we try to arrive at a compromise that we can both eat (I still can’t eat food due to reasons like this) and last night we finally chose the local burger place after the boys were in bed. (Their stomachs full of pretzels and grapes.)
Soon I stood halfheartedly at Teddy’s, with its bright flashing open sign, greasy smell, and busy cashiers calling out order numbers.
He stood in front of me, at the counter, his dark legs too skinny for his boots to lace tightly, his clothes clean but worn. Next to him stood a soldier in uniform, who had not come in for food for himself. When the soldier had paid for the other man’s food, he shook his hand with both of his, looked into his eyes and turned to go.
The clean worn man opened his mouth to ask for his food to go because there was nowhere where he could wash his hands, but then I saw his eyes light up when he saw the tiny sink in the corner. And he covered his hands until they were white with soap and closed his eyes and gently put them under the running water, until the dirt and the soap mingled in the bottom drain, his dark hands coming back up shiny and dripping clean.
Then, finding some napkins he carefully patted his hands dry, taking up his food as he passed the counter, and sitting in the corner booth. He ate quickly, not looking around to notice the tiny baby with her parents at the next table, or the mother and daughter laughing over their fries two tables over. It was as if this place existed for him to eat, and everyone else was distracting. He didn’t even get a second refill on his coke, which had been paid for, and which he could have filled again and again had he wanted to.
He finished his food to the last oil stained bite, and when he was done he threw away his trash and found a napkin, small enough to clear up the tiny remaining crumbs he had left. Intent on them, intent on getting every last one, he spent three minutes leaving the table cleaner than it had been before, and he stood up, fuller and cleaner then he had started, and headed for the door. And another patron rushed to hold the door for him and he nodded his head like he was granting them a favor.
And later, when I left with my own giant paper bag of food to bring back to our house with uneaten leftovers, my headlights lit him up crossing the road with his red shopping cart and his one shiny black garbage bag of beautiful belongings; of things that meant so much to him that he would carry them around this way, in the dark, across a street, to whatever place he calls his home.
When I got home and walked up the stairs Lincoln rushed out of his room because he heard the crinkle of the bag, and we did not insist on bedtime. We had the same fries that the clean worn man had waited for, had washed his hands for, and so we put Lincoln on a chair, pulled him in, and gave him a pile of ketchup. And we took in the food and the cool night winds; the same ones the clean worn man had in his place, at this moment, wherever that was.