Lessons of Choice©
a Short Story
by F. J. Pineiro
I first met him towards the end of what had been for me a tumultuous year. That includes my high school graduation, in which I was not allowed to participate. Two weeks prior to it I was called down to the principal’s office and informed that due to the precipitous decline of my grades and my suspected involvement in the recent disturbances I would be barred from the ceremonies and deprived of those important rites of passage.
Rather than return to class I walked out of school seething with an aimless anger and kept walking over concrete hills and across populous valleys until, still in a daze, I reached my home, clear across the city. I was demoralized. Step by step my world was caving in on me. For months I had been struggling with the pain and regret that a first true-love relationship leaves when it finally comes to a tempestuous and irrevocable end. Then my trusty old hot rod broke down for good, forcing me to spend two hours aboard three different buses every morning just to get to a school I had started to abhor. On top of all that was the growing gloom and insecurity of a future for which I was not prepared. The dream of a college education was just that. My family couldn’t afford it and neither could I. So, I threw myself headlong into dissipation and distraction: week-end long parties at the beach or in some friend’s unattended home, binge drinking and quick, meaningless amorous affairs. Anything to keep from having to think about the ominous realities of my life. My school attendance must have been about thirty percent that last semester.
I returned to school a few days after my official fall from grace. I was late and entered the hallways just as the student body emerged from the auditorium. There had been a rally of some sort and I was glad to have missed it, but some friends and fellow students started coming up to shake my hand or pat me on the back and congratulate me. I thought it was some cruel joke. Then I was again summoned to the principal’s office.
There, standing proudly beside a smug-looking school principal, was a woman from some educational organization who informed me that from all the city’s seniors who had taken the college entrance exams months before, I had achieved one of the four highest scores. That entitled me to a generous scholarship to the college of my choice. She did point out that since my grades had lately declined, I would have to make them up at a community college first. I assured her that it would be no problem.
We sat at the principal’s desk for a short interview. I recall her asking me what I planned to study and why. I told her that I wanted to become a doctor, simply because I had a distant uncle who was that, and he was very successful. She also asked to know if I was the first in my immediate family to attend college and, with a mixture of sadness and pride, I explained that I was, even though I had an older brother who was much more intelligent than I.
The woman then produced from her briefcase a long document in triplicate form for me to fill out. She retired to an adjoining desk and waited patiently in case I had any questions.
This unexpected turn of events was the first good news I’d received in quite a while. It was balm to my festering wounds and I remember thinking with a sense of awe about life’s ability to change direction in an instant, turning dreary gray skies into the warmth and clarity of sunlight.
Besides the many answers required by the forms there was also a space for me to write in my own words the extent of my gratitude to the organization in question. That was easy enough, but it was followed by a question I didn’t know how to answer, so I approached the woman for help.
“Oh,” she said, “they just want you to tell how you feel about being a citizen of our wonderful United States.”
I explained to her that although my family had been been in this country for almost half of my own life, and I felt as much an American as anyone in that school, we had not yet investigated the procedure involved in applying for citizenship. I could have added that when you are a family just struggling to make ends meet, such preoccupations are a luxury you can easily overlook, but I kept that to myself, thinking that it was understood. She stared at me for a moment, then took the forms, held them up between us for effect and tore them into several long strips.
She looked down at me and in a very cold voice said, “You don’t qualify.” She dropped the ribbons of paper in a nearby waste basket, picked up her briefcase and walked out without another word. The principal glanced at me with a smirk on his face. Life had just taken another turn.
Insulted by this latest injustice, I turned away from what might have been. In stead of pursuing a higher education I decided to join the work force and attack the future on my own terms. I had been working part-time on and off through high school, first as a mechanic and later as a short-order cook for a local chain of restaurants scattered through the city and neighboring towns. Unlike the academics, they were happy to make me a full-time employee and assigned me to one of their busiest locations.
It was a twenty four hour operation, nestled in the street level of a large building that housed one of the many department stores lining the main street of the city’s down-town area. The rear wall of the tiled dining patio opened right into the department store’s main floor, providing fast, easy meals for the shoppers and a steady supply of customers for the restaurant during the day. The front wall of the patio opened out--literally, since there were no doors--on to the always bustling main street. In between, at one end, stood the glass enclosed kitchen with its seven windows for the hungry crowds to order and pick up their food.
At first glance it looked as if we the employees, feverishly preparing the orders, worked in a fishbowl, scrutinized by customers and passersby alike. But in fact it was the other way around. It was we who were provided a panoramic window to the world every high school valedictorian warns us about: a world usually common, often strange and sometimes devastatingly sinister and cruel. The ensuing year gave my coworkers and I the type of education that no college has yet been able to devise.
The day shift ended at six p.m. and the swing shift took over, coinciding with a daily metamorphosis that our clientele would undergo. By then, most of the workers in the stores and surrounding office buildings had rushed home. Soon the shoppers and the tourists would slowly disappear. Even the traffic changed, from crowded buses, streetcars and noisy delivery trucks to frantic taxis, browsing limousines and speeding police cars. As the other businesses closed and darkness fell, our neon-lit patio and kitchen became a beacon for the denizens of the night, drawing them like proverbial moths to flame.
Con artists and hustlers, young run-aways, transvestites, transsexuals, and prostitutes of both sexes would arrive and intermingle, followed soon by groups of sailors on leave, cruising for some action and distraction. The drunks arrived when the bars closed or threw them out, and the dope addicts and dealers came in and out at all times of the night. There were street people, biker gangs, homeless persons and mental cases from the city’s overflowing hospitals also in the mix and the local police force, whom we soon knew by their first names, were kept busy on most nights.
It was, as I started to relate, on one of those nights that I first met him. I was cleaning the grill when my attention was drawn by some commotion outside on the sidewalk. He emerged from the shadows and entered partly to satisfy some curiosity and mostly to get away from a group of young hoodlums who were taunting him. He was huge, at least six and a half feet tall even though he slouched and he was dressed in dirty, ragged clothes, wrinkled and matted in places, like those of someone who sleeps on the street. He wore a grey herringbone sport coat, several sizes too small and frayed at the elbows. Actually any coat would have looked too small on him, for his arms were unusually long, often giving him the appearance of a praying mantis. His large frame was lean, even gaunt, and he used an old rope as a belt to keep his all-too-wide pants from falling down. He walked, or rather ambled, with his toes pointing out, like Charlie Chaplin, but with a pronounced limp like that of someone with a dislocated hip. His hair, a natural afro, was overgrown and as unkempt as his clothes were disheveled.
Perhaps he sensed that I was staring at him because he suddenly turned and looked me in the eye. I felt a chill run through me but I could not turn away. He had large, deep-set eyes with a pink fleshy growth in the middle of his right one, covering most of the iris. His flat nose, with flaring nostrils, was offset by a very wide mouth with several missing teeth. His pronounced jaw was covered by a stubble with the first specs of white showing through. Looking down from across the glass he examined me with equal curiosity if much less apprehension.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Who... who... who are you? He inquired with a stutter, but not the usual kind of stutter as if desperate to get the words out. It was a slow, halting stutter as if the gears in his mind kept getting jammed and he had to force them.
I told him my name and he stared at me for a moment, then slowly managed his next question. Could I speak a different language?
“Yes,” I told him. “I speak Spanish.”
A look of delight crossed his face and he asked me to say something in Spanish. I did, and he broke into fits of tittering laughter with his fists shaking in front of him while his feet stomped with an awkward abandon on the ground. As he danced away from the counter I noticed that he had the largest feet I’d ever seen outside of a circus; a visual effect enhanced by the worn-out pair of tennis shoes making a flop flop sound upon the tile floor. When finally he regained his composure he returned quickly to the counter and asked me to say something else. We repeated the process and I was surprised to see that his genuine amazement and delight had not diminished one iota from the first time. By the time he returned with the same request for a third time I had realized that this was a game he could go on playing forever. So I declined, explaining that I had a lot of work to do. He was dismayed, so he insisted and even begged for one more time. Then he reached for me through the window and I was startled not only by the surprising length of his arm but by the enormous size of his hand and its long, bony fingers. I jumped back and my reaction sent him reeling into the same fits of ecstasy that my strange words had evoked.
That was our first meeting. Our introduction to one another. His visits to the restaurant became regular and constant after that, which soon became a problem. The store manager ordered him out of the establishment on several occasions and even threatened to call the police. And when I tried to intervene, explaining that he didn’t mean any harm, that he was harmless, the manager said that he was scaring away our customers.
That was true. More than once I’d seen some poor, unsuspecting woman actually run away in fright when he approached to ask if she could speak another language or if he could touch her shiny hair. He was a distraction at the very least and his insistent, though innocuous requests tended to become annoying. However, we the night shift workers soon learned to control him or at least keep him in check, and he just as quickly learned not to come by in the daytime when the manager was still around.
During the ensuing weeks he and I slowly got to know each other, at least to a degree. I was intrigued by this child trapped in the tortured body of a man. I wondered how he was able to survive, let alone navigate the turbulent waters of his world, all alone, ill-prepared and seemingly defenseless?
He said his name was Chan. Just Chan, nothing more. He didn’t know how old he was and although my best estimate was the mid-thirties, I could have been off by up to a decade in either direction. He didn’t seem to know much about his own past, and if he did he refused to talk about it. When I or anyone else asked him if his parents were alive or whether he had any living relatives, he became very sullen and would speak no more. Not surprisingly, he could neither read or write, but he knew what a school was and what it was for. On several occasions, when some children stopped by for a snack on their way home from school, I saw Chan watching them, transfixed, as they wrote in their notebooks. Once, he asked a child to read what she had written and when she did he leapt into his curious dance of laughter and delight. Strangely enough, children, for some reason, were not afraid of him.
He would appear suddenly as if out of nowhere and at any hour of the night and then disappear just as mysteriously. He spent his days just wandering the streets of our city’s central districts, looking for new wonders to behold and searching for a friendly face. He could never understand why most people avoided him or why he was barred from almost every place he tried to enter. As a result of his constant and aimless wandering, he was hungry most of the time. When we were too busy to chat with him he often stood near the counter staring longingly at the warm, freshly baked pies sitting by the windows, but although he could have easily grabbed one and disappeared among the crowds into the darkness, he never did. At first we took to giving him a free sandwich whenever it was possible and he always accepted it gratefully and slipped it quickly into his sleeve or his pocket so that we wouldn’t get in trouble. Later we devised a safer and more satisfying way to help him. We suggested that he work in exchange for his food and, somewhat to our surprise, he jumped at the idea.
We gave him the task of mopping the patio floor late at night when there were few customers around. Ostensibly we did it because it was a simple job, but to be honest, it was also a task none of us enjoyed.
I’ll never forget his demeanor as he wheeled the mop bucket out into the patio. It was obviously the first time he had been entrusted with so much responsibility and his chest swelled with such pride that you’d have thought he was a graduating member of a marine corps unit.
Unfortunately, within minutes he had run a sopping mop over the shoes of a few customers and their resulting complaints and angry looks made him so nervous that he tripped over the bucket, spilling all the water across the patio floor. We immediately took the mop away from him and told him to forget the whole thing. We assured him that things would go back to being as before, but when we offered him a free meal he refused it, and slouching more than ever he ambled off into the streets. He sulked for several days and continued to refuse the food or spare change that we offered him until we eventually reached a compromise. We put him in charge of sweeping and mopping the back room and the basement, and he quickly regained his appetite and his good humor as well as his child-like responses, both good and bad.
Of course, he had no concept of responsibility, let alone punctuality. He arrived to work only when he felt like it and that was dictated mostly by the degree of his hunger. Yet his hunger for friendship and acceptance was never-ending, in spite of society’s equally determined rejection, prejudice against and scorn for the less fortunate.
Meanwhile, my own fortunes were changing. I sold my old car and bought a racy convertible sports car which I parked in a lot behind the department store during work. I paid the attendant a few extra dollars to keep a close eye on it. On my days off I took long drives along the coast or up into the mountains, sometimes alone but often in the company of one friend or another. My social life increased slowly at first because I still felt as if I was betraying the memory of a lost love, but the passing of each day helped me to remember less and less. Then, one of my coworkers was fired and a young guy from New York was hired in his place. His name was Marty, and he was one of those people who can quickly ingratiate himself to anyone and everyone. He worked hard, talked fast and had a hard time standing still. He was several years older that me, about twenty three, but we became friends, and during a lull in work one evening he told me about a very exclusive club that had accepted him as a member only months before. It was a club devoted to the enjoyment of the good things in life, he said, and its members included many famous artists from the entertainment industry. He told me that the club had started in New Orleans and had chapters in New York, Chicago and other major cities. However, the only way to join was to be recommended by an existing member and endorsed by three others. He said that they were very picky about their membership, preferring young, attractive people with outgoing personalities and a zest for life. He also said that it helped if one had special talents, particularly in the field of music or entertainment. In stead of meetings they had late night parties almost every week-end and he assured me that at each party there were more beautiful and available young ladies than I could imagine. And he was telling me all this because he was sure he could get me accepted as a member.
I was very skeptical, but he insisted and my own curiosity sealed the deal. So I spent the following Saturday ironing my best dress slacks and shirt to wear with new shoes and a sport coat, just as Marty had instructed. I also washed and waxed my car as he suggested and picked him up that evening at the apartment he shared with several roommates. We drove to the city’s nightclub district where I watched with apprehension as a valet attendant drove off in my car. I paid the cover charge that got us into a well-known jazz club where we sat listening to a band and nursing our drinks for a few hours.
At two in the morning, when the club closed and the customers were ushered out, Marty handed me a thin blue ribbon, about 20 inches long, and asked me to put it on as if it were a small tie. He did the same while telling me that the club members called themselves “the straps” and this was their insignia. Then we walked down a dark corridor to a door that cracked open just enough for a flashlight to shine in our faces before we were allowed into a large and dimly-lit crowded room.
Looking back, I see this as one of those pivotal moments in a person’s life, when a large number of things change suddenly and forever. The new things that I discovered about life while working at the restaurant paled in comparison. This was the big time, the major league. When Marty and I entered that room we crossed into a world of drugs, promiscuous sex and other excesses. Many of the singers and musicians headlining the city’s clubs at the time were in attendance, milling about and surrounded by their entourage, adulating fans, groupies and hangers-on. Liquor flowed freely and the smoke that filled the room had a sweet and intoxicating aroma. This was a gathering place for the beautiful people of the in-crowd and the hipsters. We were welcomed like old friends and the delights of the house were placed at our disposal. In fact they were thrust upon us.
Marty had no trouble wading in. He had been there before, but I was more than apprehensive. Although I tried to disguise it, I was scared by everyone’s insistence that I strip away my inhibitions as easily as I removed my coat. Something inside me understood that there were thresholds here to which there would be no return.
Nevertheless, the large number of very attractive young ladies showing an interest in me was irresistible, especially since they were all a few years older than I. The rest of that evening is a blurr in my memory. I recall only that I awoke late the next morning in a fancy apartment in the hills of an upper class neighborhood, in the arms of a young lady named Antoinnette. During breakfast she confided in me that she had a boyfriend, but that since he was out of town on business, I had made an excellent substitute, thank you very much. I found my car intact at the bottom of the stairs of an old Victorian Mansion and with mixed feelings I drove down a long driveway, nursing a headache but already looking forward to my next adventure as a member of the ‘straps’.
During the following weeks, Marty and I spent most of our time at work planning and preparing for the next party. We made sure to have the best clothes that we could afford, my car looking like new and enough money in our wallets to pretend we were comfortably well off. I recall both of us smiling condescendingly when some of our co-workers spoke about their mundane dating experiences.
We had a lot to smile about. My own experiences that summer--at least the parts I can recall--include a night of passion in a seedy apartment with a German Lufthansa stewardess and two actual Playboy bunnies working at the local club, not two miles away. Marty and I were invited to that private little party by a fellow ‘strap’ named Alonso, who claimed to be a famous polo player from Argentina and who looked to be in his mid to late thirties. I was later shocked to learn from his older brother that he was only twenty two, from Mexico, and like most of the straps, living several years worth of experiences in a few months, furiously burning the candle at both ends.
I also recall arriving at a third floor downtown apartment to pick up my date for the evening. She was a cute little blue eyed redhead named Terry. I was let in by one of her two roommates. All three of them were rushing about, getting ready for their dates and I had been the first arrival. I was struck by the fact that all three roommates were very attractive but very different from each other. One was a tall, slender, blue-eyed blond named Liana and I forget the name of the other, but she was a cinnamon-skinned brunette with eastern features. I was asked by Liana to jump over a small bed and stand by a window to keep an eye out for her boyfriend whom she was very excited about and would be arriving in a beige Ferrari. Then, when it was her turn at the ironing board, Liana took off her blouse and skirt and stood nonchalantly in her underwear, not ten feet away from me, ironing her clothes. I couldn’t take my eyes from this unexpected pleasure until I noticed Terry looking at me with disappointment if not actual disgust before turning away.
The Ferrari arrived and all three girls separated off to their own dates. My date with Terry was a disaster from the start and I don’t think she smiled at me or anyone else that night. I could see that I was merely the latest in a long line of disappointments she had encountered and I wanted to ask her what had she expected to find at a meeting place of the straps, where everyone was pretending to be something they were not and only interested in fulfilling their own fantasies and moving up to the next level of ecstasy. I didn’t tell her that, because I didn’t know how to phrase it and because it would only make things worse, but I did realize that my little sermon applied to me as well.
In time I began to see Marty in a different light. His frantic energy was due to a lack of sleep bolstered by pills, and if he was not yet addicted to drugs, he was certainly addicted to a way of life that was full of glitter but no substance. The many attractive young girls I met at those gatherings that year would undergo a transformation quickly, sometimes over night. Some simply moved on in their search for someone with more money or more influence while others became dependent upon me, calling at all hours, waiting for me after work, always expecting me to take them back up to that land of fantasy and away from the boring world of bills and chores and responsibilities. They wanted drugs, or the money to buy drugs, or someone with the connections to someone who could provide drugs.
Disillusioned, I began to turn down Marty’s invitations to more gatherings of the straps. Then he asked to borrow money. I lent him some, knowing I would never see it again, despite his promises. When I refused to lend him more he asked to borrow my car and then I turned him down flat. He became irritable and depressed. One day he took his anger out on Chan, throwing him out of the back room and following him out into the streets with threats and insults. Chan could have retaliated physically--I had seen how strong he was when he manhandled two bikers who had picked a fight with me in the restaurant--but that time Chan walked away like a hurt puppy, unable to understand how a friend could turn on him like that.
For a few weeks Marty kept bragging about his latest conquests and teasing me about the girls who were asking about me at the club. Then, one day he didn’t show up for work and we never saw him again. I went to another straps’ party but he wasn’t around. Someone said that he had moved to New Orleans, or something like that.
During those months, while I was so busy discovering the excitement that was not only possible but readily available to me, I had also watched the less exciting but equally destructive passage of life from our panoramic vantage point at the restaurant.
From the beginning, one of the most intriguing things I noticed was the almost daily arrival of fresh-faced young girls, most between the ages of fourteen and seventeen and clearly still in school. Many of them even arrived wearing their Catholic School uniforms. In groups of three or four they would buy a snack and sit for hours at a table, giggling and whispering excitedly, awestruck by the strange characters that soon took an interest in them. Clearly to anyone watching, this was a time of discovery and exciting risk for them. A time of rebellion from the suffocating constraints of home or school. Usually they would visit a few times before their numbers dwindled to two or even one. Next, those still left would appear wearing heavier makeup and more daring clothes. Within a few short weeks they honed the art of flirting and teasing , and would practice it on the many seedy males milling eagerly about them. Eventually we would see them accepting their first invitation to go for a stroll or to a movie with some eager young sailor or the like.
From there, the process would speed up, so that soon these young girls were spending long hours everyday in our patio and on the streets, choosing between one suitor and another, using their new-found guile and their power over the opposite sex like a banner proclaiming their total freedom. By then, we knew they had left home, to live first with friends and then with whomever. By then also they were using drugs and the fresh young faces of a few weeks before now required more makeup to hide the indelible marks of dissipation and suffering. From there it was a short and almost inevitable step into prostitution.
We witnessed this process, with slight variations, take place over and over again during those summer months and into fall. It was such a sad and predictable process that my coworkers and I even tried on occasion to intervene when a new group of school girls arrived. We were surprised to discover that most of these happy-go-lucky maidens were actually already psychologically scarred from physical or sexual abuse during childhood. So it wasn’t just a question of warning them of the perils ahead and suggesting that they go home. To really help them and prevent their descent into this social abyss we would need to devote far more of our time and energy than we could afford or were prepared to spend.
Due to all this, by the end of that year I found myself more disillusioned than ever, to the point of depression. Then, one Saturday as I drove down the street I spotted an old High School friend that I had not seen since graduation. He was waiting for a bus and asked if I could give him a ride to the train station, which I was glad to do. By saving him time we were able to spend a few moments together at a coffee shop along the way. He had been back to visit his family for a few days and was now returning to a small college in Wisconsin of all places.
“It was the only place that accepted me!” he laughed.
We spent a few minutes reminiscing about playing football and about the girls we had dated or wish we had dated in High School. We even talked about the fights we had and the gangs that started to appear in our school just before graduation.
After that, he told me how difficult things were in college and how expensive everything was.
“No more free books,” he said, “and no one to get you out of bed or encourage you over breakfast. And if you want to eat more than just pizza every day, you have to get a good-paying part time job.”
On the ride to the station he kept gushing about my car with admiration and when I took out forty dollars from my wallet and gave it to him for old times‘ sake, he was very touched and a little envious.
He boarded the train and waved good-bye, and I stood on the platform for a while after he disappeared. I looked around at the now quiet, cavernous depot. Loud, metallic hammering echoed from a distant building where two train mechanics worked. On an adjoining platform, an old man quietly swept gum wrappers and cigarette butts into a dust pan as a young apprentice arrived, still putting on his blue coveralls.
Then, as if hit by a bolt of lightning out of the blue, I was shocked into one of those rare moments of incredible clarity. I realized that the life lessons I had been taught that year were great if I wanted to remain at that particular place, at my own train station. But if I wanted to continue growing, continue discovering the possibilities of life, extending my horizons, then I had to follow my friend on to the next train out.
I made my decision then and there. I would go to college.
Of course, the old problems still remained. I had saved very little money, but even if I had saved every penny I earned that year, it wouldn’t begin to pay for the cost of a medical degree. So, in stead I would pursue what had for some time been my second choice: I would become a writer.
I hardly slept that night, so much was going through my mind, and in the morning I rushed to work and surprised everyone by giving two week’s notice.
A few colleagues thought I was crazy, but most people gave me great encouragement. In fact, the restaurant’s manager went out of his way to hire a replacement, thereby allowing me to leave within three days, with the two weeks paid as a vacation.
Those were probably the happiest three working days of my life up to then. I was filled with energy, joy and anticipation. I used the time mainly to say good-bye to all my coworkers, friends, customers and in general, all the people I had met and whose lives had in some way touched mine that stormy year.
To my pleasant surprise, even the president of the local biker club, whom I had once sent to jail, arrived to shake my hand and wish me well. The floor manager of the adjacent department store gave me a coffee mug as a going away present and his wife, who worked in accounting, gave me a box of chocolates and a kiss. Everyone assumed I was going to study medicine and I saw no need to explain otherwise. Those were bittersweet moments, but the one farewell that I knew would be the most difficult of all--the one with Chan--kept me in an increasing state of suspense because he had not been around for days and no one knew where he was.
By Wednesday, my last day, I had reconciled myself to the idea that we would simply never see each other again and that it was probably better that way.
In the afternoon, I took off my apron and hat for the last time, packed all my things in a box and placed them on the back room counter. Then I cut across the department store, out through its rear doors to the alleyway and into the parking lot where my newly waxed car awaited. The attendant refused to charge me for that last day and I drove around to the front of our restaurant, parking on the wide sidewalk, out of traffic. I didn’t worry about getting a ticket because all the local policemen were old friends of mine by then.
A lot of people, coworkers and customers alike, came out to inspect my car and I realized they had never seen it before. Their admiring glances told me that most of them were thinking: “Here is a young man going places!” and I was bursting with pride, knowing now, without a doubt, that I was making the right choice.
I finished packing and everyone went back inside, waving good-bye. I got in, closed the driver’s door and reached for the ignition when I saw him in the distance. At least a block away, he was a tiny figure in the crowd, but he stood out unmistakably from everyone not only by his size but by the awkward movements of his frame. More awkward than usual because he was running toward me, pushing through people, waving his long arms in the air. He crossed the last street against the light causing several cars to screech their tires and honk at him, but he continued unconcerned.
I got out of the car to greet him, but before I could say anything, the sight of my little car sent him into one of his fits of uncontrolled exuberance. He danced and spun around in a frenzy, shaking his fists near his chin, emitting shrill shouts of joy. I’m sure the people passing by thought he was having an epileptic fit, but I knew he was happy and that made me happy too. He thought my little car was the cutest thing he had ever seen, although that was mainly due to the fact that he knew its owner.
Then he looked me in the eye and asked what I had been dreading he would ask: “Can... can... can you give me a ride?”
My head spun with countless reasons why I should say no. I had the hard top on that day, in stead of the retractable soft top, so he would have trouble just getting in. Besides, what if he panicked and grabbed at the controls? He was much stronger than I. Or he might get scared and jump out while the car was still moving. There were many thoughts like that, readily available. But in the end my heart overruled my head.
“Get in.” I said.
Somehow he managed it. He was coiled up inside, with his head bent forward almost touching the windshield and his bony knees came up close to his ears, but he had a wide grin of anticipation. We took off and every movement of mine at the controls or change of direction by the car sent him into bouts of rapture. I thought of just driving once around the block, but my conscience wouldn’t allow it. I owed him more respect than that on these, our parting moments. He didn’t say anything. He was too busy enjoying every little second of the ride.
Then, all too soon we returned to the starting point. He opened his door and turned to me with a suddenly serious and sad look on his face.
“So, you’re going?” he asked, without a stutter.
This was the moment I had been dreading.
“Yes, Chan. I’m going back to school.” I said, and said it slowly, hoping he would understand.
He clambered out of the car, rolled down the window and closed the door. He was kneeling on the ground so he could look me in the eye and a big smile came over his face.
“I’m glad.” he said, to my complete surprise.
“You are? Why?”
“Be... be... because then... you can be a doctor and... and... and come back and... and fix me.”
I felt a lead weight fall onto my heart, tearing at the muscles that sustained it. Chan stood up and stepped several paces away so that I could see him through the windshield waving me good-bye.
Somehow I managed to drive away, into the rest of my life. In the rearview mirror I saw his mangled silhouette for the last time. It blurred as I started to cry.
Causes Frank Pineiro Supports