The Wren Has Gone to Roost
I’d just gotten off the bus and was hobbling more than usual when the boy came out of the trees, pointed a knife at me, and said, “Give me your money, old man.”
It was nighttime on a dark stretch of sidewalk, so I didn’t have a good look, but I guessed he was sixteen or so. There was enough light to see his hand shaking and his troubled eyes dancing. The knife was a simple one that folded open, but it was enough. Snow had begun falling lightly. I handed him my wallet.
He nodded once, stuck it in the pouch of his sweatshirt, and started back towards the trees.
“Hey,” I said. “You forgot something.”
He turned around and looked up and down the empty street. He said, “What?”
“Well, if you’re stealing my wallet, you must be in a bad way. Why don’t you take my coat, too?”
Our breath came in short clouds. His hands were inside of the sweatshirt’s pouch. I assumed the knife was in there, too. “I don’t need your damn coat,” he said, but it came out more like a hoarse whisper.
I nodded. “Well, if you want it, it’s yours.”
He shook his head. He made a sort of snort that I supposed he intended to sound dismissive, but it looked like his bottom lip was trembling.
“I was just heading to get some dinner,” I said. “You’re welcome to come along if you want.”
He said nothing. I started up the sidewalk with my limp. After a moment, I heard his footsteps following mine a few paces behind.
When I entered the diner on the corner, the familiar bells jingled on the door, and the boy came in behind me before it had closed. The owner looked up from his stool behind the cash register and said, “Evening, Ernie.”
“Glenn,” I said.
I gave him a little wave and took a center booth. The boy slid in slowly across the table from me. I dared a quick glance his way. He had long, dark eyelashes, pimples, and the end of a tattoo on his right wrist beyond the sleeve of his sweatshirt. Edith, the waitress, appeared next to us with a decanter in one hand and silverware, napkins, and coffee cups in the other. “Hey, Ernie.” She smiled as she set the table. “Cold out there.”
I nodded, and she filled my cup. She looked at the boy, who said nothing. She filled his, too, and went away. He watched her go.
A busboy came through the swinging kitchen doors carrying a plastic tub. He paused at our table and clapped me on the shoulder, grinning. “Hi there, captain,” he said. “No pie tonight. Sorry.” He went off to clear the table next to ours. We were the only customers. It was so warm inside that condensation had formed around the edges of the windows.
The boy looked across at me. “So, you know everybody in this place?”
He gave his little snort, then asked, “There menus here or something?” His voice was higher and gentler than it had been on the street.
“Don’t need one,” I said.
Edith came out of the kitchen with a tray and set bowls of soup in front of each of us and a basket of cracker packets in between.
“Appreciate it,” I said.
“You bet. This your grandson?”
I shook my head. She looked him over and smiled some more. “Well,” she said. “I’d just assumed.” She went back through the kitchen’s swinging doors.
I watched the boy stir his soup until he asked, “This like minestrone?”
I shrugged. “Something with vegetables, it seems. Usually is.”
I watched him take a sip and lick his lips. He was thin, almost waifish. I opened a package of crackers and crumbled them into my soup.
“My grandpa used to do that,” he said.
I nodded. “Must be an old timer thing.”
He made what appeared to be the beginning of a smile, then turned back quickly to his soup. We ate in silence while Glenn tabulated receipts on his stool and the snow fell outside. A southbound train, the last of the night and a long freight, went by a few blocks away.
As we were finishing, a man in an apron and culinary cap appeared in the little window between the counter and kitchen and called, “Thanks for dropping off my watch this morning, Ernie.” He lifted his wrist to show the watch. “Works great now.”
I gave him a thumbs-up, and he laughed, then disappeared. When I looked over, the boy was studying me. “You fix watches?”
“You fixed his.”
He shook his head, gave another of those snorts, and said, “You crazy or something?”
“Didn’t you ever hear about treating folks right?”
“Sure,” he paused. “I’ve heard of it.”
The sound of dishes being rinsed came from the kitchen. An ambulance siren wound off across town. “Well,” I said. “It happens.”
Edith came back out of the kitchen and over to our table. She put a check upside down under my coffee cup and took our bowls away. The boy and I looked down at the check and then at each other. “So,” I said. “You have my wallet. Guess you’re going to have to pay.” I waited a few seconds, then added, “Unless you want to give it back.”
He held my gaze for a moment and then looked outside. There wasn’t much traffic. The snow had stopped falling. He tilted his head my way, reached down, and pushed the wallet across to me. I nodded and put some money under the check. There were two twenty dollar bills left in the wallet. I took those out and set them next to boy’s untouched coffee cup before replacing it in my pocket.
He looked at the money, then at me. Perhaps a half-dozen seconds passed before he said, “Thanks.”
“It doesn’t come free. It’s in exchange for something.”
I nodded. “The knife.”
He gave another one of his snorts, shook his head, and looked outside again. The condensation had spread towards the center of the window, so there wasn’t much to see. But he looked out of it for a while. Finally, without turning from the window, he took the knife out of his sweatshirt and slid it over to me. It had been closed shut. I put it in the same pocket as my wallet.
I said, “Son, anytime you need a meal, you come here. I’ll make arrangements with Glenn before I leave.”
The boy still didn’t look my way, but I could see his shoulders shaking a little. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Then he made another snort, shook his head, picked up the money I’d given him, and slid out of the booth. He left quickly, the doors jingling behind him. I saw Glenn glance up after him from his stool.
I didn’t see the boy pass the front of the diner, so he must have gone in a different direction. Somewhere in the cold night. Somewhere I’d never understand. Somewhere I hoped things would change for him.
Edith came back to the table with the decanter and refilled my coffee cup. After she left, I put my hands over it to feel the steam. From the kitchen, I heard the busboy’s animated voice followed by an explosion of laughter, and then a radio was turned on. Channels were changed until one was settled upon that was playing old standards. The song was a ballad I recognized from my youth, but like so many other things, I couldn’t remember the singer’s name. I thought of all the mistakes I’d made back then, but there were too many of those to recall, as well.