Now Playing: The Man in the Plain Black Cap
Luke Pendergast rolled his red basket out of Whole Foods and stopped at the edge of the parking lot for a moment to admire the thick expanse of sky spread out before him. The day was sliding into twilight, his favorite time, and far away lightening flashed, making the air soft, cool and fragrant with the electric gathering of storms. A few drops of rain, fat and thick as oil, splattered dusty windshields but he didn’t mind getting a little wet. Southern California is known for only having two seasons, he liked to say-“blistering hot and spring time pollen”-and so he always welcomed anything resembling real weather of the life-giving forces.
His 60th birthday had come and gone but he was still lean and muscular from a lifetime of pounding nails into wood, climbing ladders, loading trucks with bags of cement and lugging sinks and toilets up flights of stairs. His medium-length blond hair, now mostly white, fell carelessly about his head and parts of his tanned, unlined face. Wearing jeans, boots, and a white shirt, he looked like a cowboy who could still wrestle a calf or tame a wild horse. To complete the look he wore a silver NRA belt buckle, complete with soaring eagle, even though he didn’t belong to the gun organization or even own a gun. He had found it at a swap meet and bought it on the spot.
The men who worked for him weren’t half his age but he could still keep up with them without breaking a sweat when he chose to. Telling others what to do came naturally to him but he still liked working with his own two hands. You want to stay strong? He told them. Eat honest-to-God food, drink distilled water and stay away from tobacco. But did they listen? They smirked, took swigs from Coke cans and puffed away on their vile cigarettes. Well, he figured he was made to build and repair, not change anyone’s life. A man has to find what he can do and stick with it, he told himself almost everyday. He knew that he wasn’t deep or philosophical and he accepted that about himself. Years ago he had quietly given his life to Jesus but he never discussed religion. No, that was a private matter, best left between him and God, whoever or whatever that is. When it came to politics he would only say that he was a life-long Republican; but he enjoyed telling people that he admired Obama. The skinny Democrat could at least put two words together, unlike the last idiot he had voted for twice. He was a conservative who privately thought that gays should be permitted to marry; and he also thought to himself that maybe it was time for the United States to settle down and stop getting into one tom-fool war after another. If we’re going to waste money, he once grumbled to his wife as they watched the evening news, we might as well waste it on ourselves.
As soon as Luke pushed his cart onto the black surface of the parking lot he saw the man from the corner of his eyes; and he knew immediately what he wanted. A panhandler. There’s no getting away from them lately, he thought with a sigh and a tightening around the corners of his mouth. Times are tough, boys, he told his crew. Be grateful you’re still getting a paycheck.
The panhandler waved an arm as if he were an old friend. The contractor always wanted to tell them to go away, get lost, but then the words of his mother always came back to him: there but for the grace of God go I. And so Luke Pendergast, a man who could still pound nails straight and true without glasses, who had built a business worth millions with just a high school diploma, who married once and sent two children to college, eyed the stranger and waited with resignation for his approach.
“Hey can you help me out, a couple of bucks for gas?” the man said. “Trying to get up to Lompoc, been out of work for the last two years but I might have a job waiting for me. I’ve been living in my car. Lost my house, lost everything. Whatever you can spare.”
Luke turned now to look straight at the stranger. The panhandler was a short, stocky white man dressed neatly in white corduroy pants, blue button down shirt and plain black baseball cap. Clean shaven, with a broad, fleshy nose, gray curly hair and wide-set blue eyes, he walked with the easy gait and erect posture of a man who always looked men in the eyes with the confidence that comes from mutual respect.
Luke summed him up. The man was out of work and out of luck.
“Sold trucks and tractors for thirty years,” the man said.
Luke nodded. The man was close enough now to shake hands with. His skin and eyes were clear and his nose didn’t have the tell-tale veins of a drinker. Luke began to fish around in his pockets for change, hoping that, if pressed, he had a few ones in his wallet.
“You know, I,” the panhandler said and then abruptly stopped. His mouth hung open slightly and his eyes unfocused. For two or three seconds he stood still as if frozen. A rain drop hit the brim of his cap. A shopping cart rattled behind him.
Luke grew uneasy. Was the man having a seizure?
“I was just thinking,” the stranger said at last. “That I should have stayed in the Navy. After ten years they told me I could have re-enlisted as a chief.”
Luke grunted. A Navy man! Was he telling the truth?
“I was in the Navy,” Luke said. “Joined right out of high school.”
“Yeah, did you?” the panhandler said with a grin. “My last tour of duty was on the George Bancroft. Fleet ballistic missile sub stationed out of Charleston.”
Luke felt as if he had been thumped in the chest. His mouth turned dry. The Bancroft. That had been his boat! Impossible. After decades of civilian life he had never run into a fellow shipmate.
“I was on the gold crew,” Luke said, his heart skipping a beat.
“Me too,” the panhandler said. “Captain Jonas Smith. My name is Toby Sheldon.”
“I know who you are,” Luke cried out. He felt like jumping out of his skin.
“Yeah, and I thought I recognized you too, Luke,” Toby said. “It’s Luke, right?”
“Luke Pendergast,” Luke said. “I can’t believe it. After all these years. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize you right away but now that you’re in front of me you haven’t changed a bit. The same old Toby.”
“Remember that time in Rota?” Toby said. “I was trying to pick up that girl in the bar with my broken Spanish and you wanted to buy that satin picture of the bull fighter.”
“Oh I remember that!” Luke roared. A warm wave of memories washed over him and he laughed so hard tears welled up in his eyes.
“She hit me with a bottle, smashed it right on top of my head and the bartender kicked us out with a switchblade.”
“You were drunk,” Luke said. “I dragged you back to the boat, afraid you were dead.”
“Oh those were the days,” Toby said, slapping his legs. “You were the only seaman I knew who was married. Every night there you were in your bunk, writing a letter to your wife. You still married?”
“Yep, Debbie and I are still married,” Luke said, wiping his eyes. “Had two kids and they’re both doing fine.”
“Well I’m glad to hear it,” Toby said solemnly. “God bless you, man.”
Luke reached for his wallet. He thought that he might have at least a hundred dollars in twenties. It was the least he could do for an old shipmate. A gust of cold air hit him in the back. A cloud sailing overhead threw a curtain on the sun and for a moment Toby’s face grew dark and indistinct. For a few years after leaving the service he had dreamt of meeting someone he had shipped out with but he never thought that it would actually happen. If it weren’t for the fact that he could remember every detail of what he had done today he would have sworn that this was just another of his dreams.
“Here man, I hope this helps you out a bit,” Luke said, handing Toby a stack of crisp new twenties.
“That’s too much,” Toby protested, stepping back.
“No it isn’t, not in the least,” Luke said. “And I want you to have my card, too. When you make it to Lompoc and get settled in you give me a call, okay?”
The panhandler sat in the back seat of his van. He did not smoke, chew gum, listen to the radio or look at the money Luke Pendergast had given him, but pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes, waiting for the voices in his head to quiet. In fifteen minutes or an hour-he did not keep track of the time-the familiar silence returned and his muscles relaxed. He watched rain drops zigzag down the windshield as he breathed quietly and alone.
Mary Hunter pushed her shopping cart out of the store and then stopped as a gust of cold air hit her in the face. She looked at puddles in the parking lot, the darkening sky, fellow shoppers wrapped in plastic like bags of groceries and suddenly felt as cold and forlorn as a lost child. No one at home waited for her. She awakened before the alarm went off, listened to her neighbor’s wind chimes; and the first thought that went through her mind was, “I’m only thirty-four and already divorced.”
The marriage had lasted six miserable years. The problem was not lack of love. He loved her. Oh yes, he loved most of the women on the planet. Or tried to at least.
“I don’t understand,” she told him on the phone during their last conversation. “I’m a little overweight but I did everything, Craig. I mean, it’s the same basic equipment down there isn’t it?”
“It’s kind of like alcoholism,” he said. His high-pitched voice, which she had once found so whimsical and endearing, now sounded like the droning of a fat bee drowning in its own rancid honey.
She hung up, expecting anger but surprised at her tears. So her life had turned into a trite, soap opera formula. Who’s Shelia, who’s Francis, why are we getting bills from American Express for Asian House of Massage?
She looked down at her frozen pizzas and thought about putting him in the oven instead. Alcoholism? Don’t drinkers usually stick with a favorite brand? But she knew what he meant: I can’t help it, something makes me do it. Goddamn it, she thought. Doesn’t anyone take responsibility for anything anymore?
A peel of thunder rolled over the sky just as another gust of cold air made a small tornado of papers. Children ran screaming through the parking lot, stomping on puddles and swinging their umbrellas like battle axes. Mary knew that in a few hours the storm would hit full force, and the thought made her spine tingle with the anticipated pleasure of it.
Rainy days were her best childhood memories. Mom made tea and cookies, Dad spread out his coin collection, there were dolls to talk to, little plastic pigs and cows to put into the barn and the heater made it feel as if the house hugged them with its ghostly warmth. That was heaven, when there was no future to worry about, when life was simple and predictable. People loved you, and they always would.
Her parents, she knew, had been disappointed in her choice of a husband; and the icy, smug look they gave her when she sobbed like a child about the divorce only added shame to the hot, swift grief swelling up inside her.
She would never marry again, she knew. At least they had not had kids. Now there never would be kids. Well, it had never been high on her agenda anyway.
“Maybe I’ll turn into one of those crazy cat ladies,” she told her mom the other day on the phone. “I always wanted a pet to dote on but Craig is allergic to cats. I’ll go to a shelter and rescue a little fur ball.”
See? She had wanted to say. I’m not so pathetic.
She had been sad lately but was determined not to be pathetic; and so, for the most part, she kept her emotions in check, went to work everyday, sat in her cubicle and talked to people about their car insurance, read books, watched action movies and learned by trial and error how to fix up the house by herself. No woman, she thought, should define herself by her relationship with a man. So she was single. Did that make her a freak?
But lately other thoughts had crept up on her, usually late at night before sleep took her to its mercifully dreamless realm. What was her life destined to mean? Did it have any purpose? She took care of herself, worked, paid the bills, planned vacations well in advance but was that enough? Sometimes a kind of existential dread came over her. There had to be more to life than just surviving, but what? God? No, she had walked away from her childhood Catholicism long ago and without the slightest regret. The physical laws of the universe left no room for miracles and magic. Politics? That only made her depressed. Visions of herself as an old woman slumped in front of the television with a bottle of scotch in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other brought her to the brink of hyperventilation. Snap out of it! She told herself at least twice a day. Something will come along and probably when you least expect it.
The man appeared in front of her as if he had materialized out of smoke. He wore a plain black cap that sprouted curly gray hair. He had a large fleshly nose and a pleasant smile that radiated confidence. A panhandler, she knew instantly, but a relatively clean cut one, unlike the man in paint stained overalls who had asked her for change at Burger King.
“Trying to get to Lompoc,” he said as if in the middle of a long conversation she had not heard. “Need a little gas money I’m afraid. A few bucks would be a big help. I hate to bother you.”
“I don’t have any change,” Mary said, irked at the man’s temerity. Didn’t panhandlers usually ask for spare change?
“That’s okay,” he said, stepping aside to let her pass. “Why, just a few minutes ago I met a man…”
Then he was behind her as she pushed her cart into the parking lot. She thought that was the end of it but heard him following her. When he next spoke the hairs lifted on the back of her neck.
“Hey, I’ve seen you before. Sure, let me think. Aren’t you Mary Hudson?”
It had been a long time since Mary had heard herself addressed by her maiden name. She stopped and then turned around, afraid and yet curious. The man didn’t seem threatening. Gulls flew overhead. A raindrop landed on her shoulder like the finger of someone seeking her attention. Maybe, she thought, this isn’t a good idea; but she had to ask.
“Do I know you?”
“You do if you went to Roosevelt High School and took drama. I’m Mister Hollister.”
“Oh my God,” Mary gasped as recognition burst in her brain like the flash of a light bulb. “Mister Hollister? Is that you?”
“Yep, it’s me all right. After teaching there for twenty eight years I was laid off last September. Budget cuts. Well, it’s how people are treated these days. My wife Janet was diagnosed with cancer and with no health insurance to pay for the two surgeries she needed we had to take on a lot of debt. When she died I had no choice but to walk away from the house. Lost pretty much everything except the car and the clothes on my back.”
“I’m so sorry,” Mary said. He had always been so kind to her. Everyone who took drama loved Mr. Hollister. He was a gentle, patient man who never raised his voice even when his flock of young thespians forgot their lines or sang off key. It was like he had some kind of magic that brought out the best in each of his students. The thought of him losing his wife and then being reduced to panhandling made the center of her forehead throb as if she had been stabbed there by the cold point of a stiletto.
“As soon as I heard your voice I said to myself, ‘I know that young woman.’ I never forget a voice, especially one as lovely as yours. You remember My Fair Lady?”
Remember! When Mr. Hollister pointed his finger at her and said, “Miss Hudson, you will be our Eliza Doolittle” she had nearly fainted. There had been a time when all she wanted was to act and sing. Could she take it up again?
She fumbled in her purse for the last of her twenty dollar bills even as Mr. Hollister protested that he didn’t want any money from her.
“I want you to have it,” she said, thrusting the two crisp bills at him.
Warmth spread across her face as she vanished from the parking lot for a moment and stood once more on stage. The night she played Eliza Doolittle had been the greatest, most perfectly happy event in her life.
It had seemed like a dream.
Copyright 2010 James Hazard