I was a boy having lunch with his mother. I was twelve. Give or take.
One man sat one table over. He was in a suit that wore him cheaply. Even then I could see the frumpiness of it all. He was wearing the required uniform and they did each other no favors. He may have worked in the mall or perhaps the car lot across the street, and his lunch was in a brown paper sack nearly as wrinkled as his jacket. The shadows against it fell from the cloud looming above him. His tension was cartoonish.
One man had a hampered gait and a fast smile. He moved as quickly as his body would let him, darting between the busy tide of people to which he was all but invisible. He took trays and wiped tables and he sang a little something to himself that echoed of happiness on repeat. His manners were impeccable.
The crumpled man in the crumpled suit crumpled once more his once crumpled bag. He was careworn. He wore the ill-fitting suit like it had once been his father’s and the faded tweed was a weave of ghosts and disappointment pressed firmly across his back. The cloud above him was dark and full of rain. He rose from the table, put his hands in his pockets, and walked away with far too much focus for a food court on a weekday.
The bag sat forgotten in the center of the table, a monument to his once was. It sat there and slowly unraveled. Time marched onward and the bag remained just one less thing that the man had to carry.
The man with the song on his breath circled the sack like a shrine. Then again. His eyes restless. His mouth never stopping. He searched the crowd for shades of tweed and finding none he took the brown bag and placed it in the trash. He wiped the table until it glowed. And then his attentions were needed elsewhere.
I sat with my mother and ate my lunch. Perhaps we chatted. Perhaps my gaze returned to the quiet television. Perhaps we were already done.
The man in the suit seemed taller when he returned. His chin was firmer. His face more red. He stood at the glowing table and asked above the din as to the whereabouts of the bag that he had left.
“The guy tossed it,” someone had said and suddenly the guy was standing there, no longer singing but looking sheepish and lost. He tried to apologize but his tongue failed him. He tried to apologize for doing his job.
The man in the suit proceeded to belittle, deprave and defame. The man in the apron grew smaller and smaller. The sparkle in his eyes turned soft and gray. His simple song fell muffled beyond silence.
The crowd marched onward. They cast glances and looks of disgust, but they had trays in their hands and Gap bags on their wrists and there was something on the TV without sound that they could find a way to hide in. Theirs was a sound lacking any sort of soul.
“Stop it,” said a shaking voice from my shaking mouth. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Mind your own business, kid,” replied the man, more or less, and his look was for my mother.
“You left the bag on the table,” I continued. “It was trash.”
And then he said other things that I can’t recall because I was overcome with anger and by that time someone much bigger than myself had decided that shouting at a child for defending a man with needs was even more than they could ignore. As the crowd grew bigger his cloud did too, and then the angry man went away for the second time without his bag and I think he looked at me but I wasn’t watching him.
I was watching a spark of doubt grow where happiness used to be.
Memories are the things that shape us, and these are the lessons I want my boys to learn: Empathy goes a long way, and sometimes kindness is the hard thing to do, but that is when it is needed most. Also, don’t be a jerk.
Read more from Whit Honea at his site Honea Express and the popular group blog DadCentric. You can follow Whit on the Twitter or Pinterest (his opinions are his own and do not reflect those of Babble or most rational people).