by Toni McGee Causey
“Can I help you, sir?” she asked from behind the counter.
He pushed his deposit slip forward with his check. The last check he’d be depositing. They’d let everyone go today. It was his fourth layoff. He kept being hired; the companies kept going under. He’d been making half what he used to, and he was out of answers.
He shoved his hands into his jeans, rolling his shoulders beneath his too-thin coat. Blizzard conditions expected. Near white-out warnings. Not that he cared. He wouldn’t be out in it.
Everything was done. This was the last of it.
He watched her hands as she slid the check along the counter, ran it and then the deposit slip through the machine. He didn’t normally bank at this branch, though it had been convenient today, at the end of his errands. She finished her work and fished off the receipt, tucking it into an envelope and asked, “Anything else I can do for you?” as she handed it over.
“Nothing,” he shrugged and headed for the door across the big marble floor of the lobby. This building had been built nearly a century ago, back when everyone knew their customers, knew their daily lives, the ins and outs of things, could call them by name. He was invisible here, now.
Later, they would see he’d been here, see the deposit. Wonder what he was thinking. And all he’d been able to think about was being invisible.
He was almost to the door when her hand was on his arm and her brown eyes smiled at him. She’d been calling his name and he hadn’t heard, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from yanking his arm from her and pushing on through the door. She was breathless for the short run, and expectant. It was one more minute, and one more minute didn’t really matter.
“I remember you,” she was saying. “Over on Stempley.” He must’ve given her a look as blank as he felt inside, and she smiled, and squeezed his arm a little. He hadn’t realized she hadn’t dropped her hand away. “The flat tire. Weather almost as bad as today. You saved my mom’s life.”
“You have the wrong man,” he said. Gruff, probably. Didn’t matter. He just wanted to get out of there.
She laughed. “No, no, I don’t mean there, on Stempley. You stopped and changed my tire. And then my battery was dead because I was stupid and left the headlights on that whole time I’d been waiting for the tow truck, so you had to jump off my car.”
Ah, yeah. He remembered. The collage girl. He’d thought she looked like a nearly drowned puppy when he’d seen her, shivering, trying to change the tire. The lug nuts had been put on by some idiot with an impact wrench and were too tight for her to loosen. The tow truck still hadn’t come by the time he’d finished.
“I lost your name,” she said. “I got home to my mom’s–that’s where I was going that night–and when I got there, she’d fallen. She’d had a heart attack, and if you hadn’t stopped, I’d have been an hour or more later. The paramedic said she wouldn’t have made it.” She stood on her tip toes and threw her arms around him. “Thank you. I have wanted to say thank you for so long. You have no idea how much you mean to me.”
He stood dumbly with her arms around him and everyone in the lobby stared, wondering what this was all about, and the warmth of her pressed against his coat. She wasn’t about to let go, this enthusiastic half-grown puppy, and he patted her on the head, and cleared his throat.
She eased back and looked up at him and beamed. “I’d like to buy you coffee. Next week sometime? I’ll be here, every day.”
He nodded. He wouldn’t be there, but it would be too much trouble to make up a reason. “Sure. Coffee. Next week.” Then he pushed on out the door.
I sat across from him at the little table, some twenty years later. I had only known him this way, old and creased, hair silvered to a sheen, blue eyes dancing. He smiled often and well, a warm event that pulled you in.
“I went home,” he said, finishing his story, his thumb running across the rim of his coffee cup, his eyes grown distant. “And thought. A lot of thinking. Poured the Jack down the drain. Unloaded the gun. Threw the bullets out in the ditch, so I wouldn’t change my mind. I could get another job. Another house. And I did.”
Be the gift, he was fond of saying, and I heard that echo when I stood a few years later at the back of the church. It was a packed place, many mourners, and I had to press through the crowd to work my way to the front to pay my respects to his wife. I could see the warm brown eyes he’d described, the brown hair gone gray. He’d gone back for coffee that next week, he’d told me. His daughter had his eyes.
I told her he’d read my writing when no one else had, and had smiled, and said, “You can do this.”
Be the gift.