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Eight If He`s Lucky

by TheGodfather 

Posted: 26 August 2004
Word Count: 2598
Summary: Thanks for reading and for any suggestions and comments you are able to leave.

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In the coffee shop on Third and Grand, I realized that I wanted to be myself. At the same time, I wanted to be somebody, somebody people knew and wanted to know. The reality was that my life was like the Forrest Sherman Class Destroyer model I tried completing when I was ten, missing a gunner’s turret and an anchor. There were friends I knew who had figured out their lives in their twenties, so I spent years trying to figure people out, watched them, listened to them, ultimately wanting their life.
“Do you have a light, man?” A man with long black hair and a cigarette hanging on his lip asked me.
“No. I don’t smoke. Sorry.” I wanted to be polite, but another side of me was hoping he wouldn’t be sitting next to me after he smoked. I know it’s wrong of me, but I associate people with their habits, ones I don’t care to know much about but am chary enough to know they have habits.
The man moved on to the next customer, a man in his sixties, and asked him for a light. The older man reached his hand into his overcoat pocket and pulled out a lighter, holding the flame up so the man could take a quick drawl to get it going, the orange ember trail around the cigarette retreating from the tip. The man went and sat outside at a table with his friends.
I was officially distracted from my reading material now and focused on the older man. I wondered about him. Was he ever in a war? I noticed Chinese lettering in the tattoo on his neck as he returned his lighter to his jacket. Not a businessman, unless he made his way on his own. How long had it been since he last worked? Was he married?
Zoning in and out of thought, I stared at the older man, sitting at a table across from me. The man had short hair, a dissipating gray from the hairline toward his crown. He was holding a paperback novel in the crick of his hand, his elbow touching his knee, legs crossed. He turned pages fast. I was amazed at how quickly he turned them and speculated as to whether he was reading or just skimming.
What does an older man think about? That summer, the one before I moved to New Orleans, I spent a lot of time in that coffee shop and saw many an elderly person walk in on the arm of a spouse and purchase a drink to muse over across the table from their life partner. A man’s life spans a good amount of time, though it’s a lot shorter when you think of it in decades. Seven. Eight if he’s lucky.
He turned another page.
I realized he was alone, he and his book. Does he think about his daughter? She’d have been in her thirties, forties perhaps. She married young, right out of college. She moved out east with her husband to Boston because of his work. The scorn of their family. I’ve known some parents to whom family is an ideological god. It was easy to understand why they believed that but more difficult to comprehend why they insisted on forcing that belief onto their children.
I still lived down the street from my parents, a three bedroom place that I had all to myself, though I would rather have shared it. I never had the nerve to move away, lest that sort of continuing ridicule trouble me the remainder of my life. I could have used a woman that would take me places, someone who would introduce me to myself. My life to this point had been a drab reminder that everything of substance happened elsewhere and to other people. I didn’t even get a phone call after skipping work yesterday. Likely, no one even poked their head into my cubicle.
There was no way for me to figure how long the older man had been here today. He was here when I arrived. He stood near his table and turned left and right, stretching his back. He grabbed the side of his hip as he turned and moved slowly to the side, turning as far as his body would let him. He tried it again the other direction. He looked as if he was having some trouble with his movements, maybe a hip injury from battle or sports. When he played in high school, they would have had leather helmets, cleats too if they could afford it. They say life is always getting easier with all the new discoveries and products that come out each year. What if it only makes it harder? When he was finished stretching he sat again and returned to his book.
I wasn’t a rude breed of person, but in my younger days, I would stare at folks. I would try to make inference into their lives. There were so many stories that I walked by each day that I would never know. I suppose I just wanted to know someone’s story or to have someone know mine.
He was widowed. It was my only explanation at least to why he was here alone on a Saturday, a man his age. I wondered how she passed away, if she had to battle cancer for years, piling medical bills that the older man ignored. He would have spent nights on end awake at her bedside, dreaming about what would have been if she hadn’t contracted such an illness. They would have bought a motor home and toured the country, stopping wherever they liked along the way to rest and enjoy each other. But dreams vanish. People do too.
If I was him, I would miss having her next to me. It has to feel great to have been loved. He has felt it at some point in his life. He feels it every Father’s Day when his children call. He felt it when his wife would love him. Every one has to go at some time though. It is the law of nature, a time for everything under the sun.
I wrote in my journal, a square black spiral-bound collection of my days alone.

Self: What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Do you want to be married? Do you want to know your father? Do you want a new job? What do you want? I want to see myself as a success. I want to know someone closer than I know anyone right now. I don’t really know anybody. But I feel like I could have things together if just a few things changed. It’s knowing what to change that is difficult. If I just had somebody who would tell me what to do. An opinion would be great.

A woman entered the shop, and noise from outside the shop invaded our space for a short second, long enough to pull the older man from his reading for a moment to see what the raucous was. I too was distracted. The guy with the cigarette was turning in circles outside, flailing his arms in front of his table of friends, who were all laughing. He stopped and gestured at one of the ladies sitting down to come join him. She stood with him, and he resumed his spinning, this time with a partner. His friends made jokes and laughed to each other. I could hear them through the front window now.
I would have used to think that inconsiderate of them, that if they were going to be so loud they should go somewhere else. This time, for some reason, I decided to say something. I inserted my bookmark and left my book on the table. I hadn’t read anything in an hour. I walked toward the exit, thinking what I was going to say to them.
“Excuse me, guys,” I said.
The two of them stopped spinning. Without much effort at all, I had the attention of the entire group. So many eyes all at once was unnerving.
“Do you think you could keep it down out here? Some of us are trying to read inside.”
They looked at me and then at each other, quietly, as if asking each other ‘Is this guy for real?’
“The thing is…at first we couldn’t hear you, but now the noise is coming through the window,” I explained further.
“We’re just having some fun.”
I didn’t know what to say. After all, what he said was true. Sometimes truth comes from unlikely places. They were just having fun, but I was having trouble reading.
“I was having trouble reading is all, and your noise wasn’t helping things. Maybe you could lower it just a bit.” I dropped the matter at that point. Upon returning inside, I noticed that I had drawn quite the mass of attention. I almost wished I hadn’t said anything, but they did end up sitting down outside.
The older man was gone. He isn’t at his table anymore. I looked around at the other chairs and tables in the shop. He wasn’t at any of them. At first, I thought maybe he had gone to use the toilet, but his book was gone. Maybe he took it with him.
I sat down and reoccupied myself with my own book. I read the first line and looked back out at the room. I wanted to see the older man. I imagined a woman with gray, curly hair bending over his shoulder and kissing his cheek, him reaching his arms up around her neck and returning her affection with a hug. He stood. Checking his pockets and picking up his satchel bag from the floor, he put his arm around her as they left through the coffee shop doors. But there wasn’t any woman. The man was alone like me.
I closed my book and grouped it with my journal. I walked into the attached Barnes and Noble bookstore. The travel book section was the section closest to the coffee shop, the renewed classics display on the right, up front by the cash register. I wandered the aisles looking for him. I could not find him. I checked the music listening area as well, customers listening into head phones at various stations. I hadn’t found him, so I doubled back past the escalators to the front of the store. He could have been upstairs, but my intuition told me otherwise. He was old.
I asked a worker sweeping the floor by the entrance if she had seen an older man, about sixty. She said ‘no’ but that she never really paid attention to who came and went, that he could have passed her and she wouldn’t have noticed.
While she was talking, I was looking out the window panels behind the register to outside. He was walking toward the curb.
I told her ‘thank you’ and headed for the exit. Just as I opened the door the older man stepped out into the street. An aged model Chevy was pealing around the corner by the coffee shop. My chest got tight as I realized the suggestion my mind gave me of what might be happening. I was too far away to do anything. They’d have street lights along here if they cared about anyone. The man had moved into the shadow of a large overhanging tree, and the truck hit him, his body thrashing about in the air on its path up the hood and off to the passenger side.
The truck stopped, engine running, and the man who had the cigarette earlier got out of the driver side. He ran around the front of the truck and looked at the older man lying still in the shadows and then returned to his truck and drove off.
I didn’t have a phone with me – there hadn’t ever been a reason – so I yelled to the worker inside to call the paramedics that there had been an accident. In just the few moments I had gone inside, a crowd had already begun to form. I ran to the older man and knelt over him. I wanted to roll him over so I could see him, but I didn’t. I knew I wasn’t supposed to touch him, too many possible negative results. I wanted to see his face, the look he’d left the world. I waited over him until the ambulance arrived. It was there within minutes.
Three EMT’s brought a stretcher and other supplies to him. One of them pushed me back and took my place over him. They checked his vitals and neck and turned him over. His face was scraped, forehead and chin, and blood was coming out of the corner of his eye.
I covered my mouth.
The police arrived minutes later as the older man was being carted to the ambulance. It hadn’t been long at all when they left with the older man. A few officers began taking testimonies from the witnesses.
I thought about the man’s daughter. Who would tell her? It took me a second to figure that they would look at his identification and look up his records. Things would work themselves out in that regard.
One of the officers approached me.
“Were you here to see the accident?” He asked me.
“Yeah. I was standing over by the doors. I saw the whole thing.” I wanted to be with the older man in the back of the ambulance driving with them to the hospital. He probably had a variety of hoses affixed to his chest and head, monitoring his signs. I felt I needed to understand his gaze, what it was he was looking for, or at, the subtlety of that difference. He needed someone there with him if he was going to die, someone he knew, someone who cared for him.
I told the officer about the truck that hit him and how the guy had gotten out of his truck to look at the older man and then drove off. I told him what he looked like. He said I would have to wait with him, so they could get a sketch officer to work with me. They needed my description. He asked me to sit over at one of the tables that lined the front of the bookstore.
I sat at the one that didn’t have any ashtrays on it and took out my journal. I was having trouble grappling with the clarity of the images that were rewinding through my mind, playing him over and over, in enduring, persistent clips, his body buckling under the attack of the truck.

Family: I was a witness to the accident. I was also in the coffee shop the hours before he was hit. He looked like he was already getting into his car across the street, sitting down, double checking his mirrors. Thinking back on today and my time that I spent watching him, I find it hard to believe how fleeting time is. I know that must sound strange that I was watching him, but please know that…

I stopped writing. I realized that I didn’t know the older man’s name, wondering if the police or anyone would be able or willing to deliver this letter if I continued writing it. I needed to continue. They needed to deliver it. It was something that we both had to do. The family might like to know.

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Comments by other Members

nudgy at 10:59 on 27 August 2004  Report this post

A very thoughtful and, I think, sombre piece of writing.It made me feel like walking down to the river and jumping in the depths, and at the same time showering my children with plenty hugs.Well done for managing it.

I like the way he sits and observes and imagines other peoples lives (I do that too).

It's cold and wet and grey in London, and this added to my feeling of depression.Fair play!

A well-written, thought-provoking piece of writing.

All the best, Dave

TheGodfather at 07:50 on 30 August 2004  Report this post

Glad you liked it. My wife and I watch people like this all the time. I'm glad I'm not the only crazy one.


crazylady at 08:53 on 30 August 2004  Report this post
The proof for me that it's a good story is when I can't stop reading it.This is one of those, with the added bonus that I continue to imagine what happens net because the characters have come alive in my head.
Well done, I think all of us who write indulge regulary in people-watching. Your piece has captured exactly the isolation of that practice and the lonliness and emptiness of the MC.
How dour, yet how real he's become.


oops! 'next' not 'net'

TheGodfather at 06:03 on 01 September 2004  Report this post

Wow. Thanks for the uplifting words. I'm glad the piece connected with you and you with it.


bjlangley at 12:18 on 01 September 2004  Report this post
Hi Godfather,

I love the way that he really seems to believe the stories he makes up about the people he observes. He has genuine concern for a daughter that may not even exist, for instance.

I think the first paragraph is a great beginning, I like the simile with the tank, missing a turret and anchor, and his wanting the lives he imagined from his watching.

Also thought that the confrontation between your MC and those outside worked well, made me think something else was going to happen between them, so when it's the old guy that something happens to, it's all the more surprising.

All the best


I'm sure I put my name at the bottom?

Oh well.


Becca at 20:24 on 02 September 2004  Report this post
Hi God,
I too, liked the beginning of the story, as Ben mentioned. It was well paced and I was immediately interested in your lonely MC.
I guess overall I'd have liked a little bit more about him and his situation just to get a stronger image of how he might be viewing the scene before him. But that's a small point. I very much liked the sentence: 'I could have used a woman that could take me places, someone who would introduce me to myself.' It captures really succinctly his state of bewilderment about how to be and what to do perfectly.
There were two sentences I couldn't quite get: 'I know it's wrong of me....ones I don't care to know much about but am chary enough to know they have habits', either it needs two sentences to clarify it, or different punctuation?
The other, although I knew what you were getting at, was awkward:'My chest got tight as I realised the suggestion my mind gave me of what might be happening.'

TheGodfather at 01:41 on 21 September 2004  Report this post
Ben & Becca,

Thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts. I really enjoyed writing this piece. I think it might resonate with a lot of people. Maybe that's just me. Becca, I'll make some fixes on those rough lines. Thanks for catching them.


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