The gentleman pauses, one table away from me, removes his hat, and folds in front of himself like an elegant gentleman. He waits until I look up from my laptop computer. “Excuse me,” he says. “May I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” I say. He probably needs directions. Perhaps if his overcoat weren’t so clean and his white hair neatly combed, I might expect him to ask for money. His real question is neither of these, and nothing I could have dreamed.
“I noticed, when you came in”–he hesitates between each phrase–“that you bought your coffee and came directly to this table, without even looking around to see if there was someone here you might want to talk to … which is okay, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re probably busy–I see you have your laptop out, so I guess you’re working. Maybe you just don’t have time to talk to someone like me.”
That’s not entirely true. I had looked around before I selected my table, and I chose the one most distant from the other customers, the table least interrupted by the baristas’ blenders. I am busy. Well, maybe more brain-dead than busy, exhausted from a long day at the office. I have an hour to wait until my husband picks me up, which I had hoped to spend working on my novel.
His words give me an out. I could excuse myself and ask to be left alone. I glance around and spy one couple snuggling next to the front window, engrossed in each other and only pretending to watch the evening cars pass by in the twilit snow. At least the baristas are only a few yards away, so I don’t feel unsafe with this stranger.
He says, “It seems like people do that these days. They get their coffee, do some work, and go home, without ever looking to see if there’s someone interesting to talk to. Maybe you’re like that, too. Maybe you’re not interested in talking to an old man like me, and that’s okay.”
How could I turn away after that? I shut the lid on my laptop. “You’re right,” I say. “I wish I were more like my husband–he can strike up a conversation with anyone.” That reference to my husband makes my status clear–a way of saying that I’m interested in talking, but nothing more–but more than that, I genuinely wish that I were better at talking to strangers. My One Hundred Interesting People project is supposed to push me outside my comfort zone, yet no matter how many interesting people I meet, still I hesitate.
Not tonight. I’m intrigued by this man. Homeless but neatly dressed and groomed? Retired businessman but with no family or friends to spend the evening with? Grandfather whose family lives far away? I have an hour until my husband picks me up. I’ll seize this opportunity. “My name’s Christy,” I say.
He eases into a chair at the next table, bows his head toward me, and says, “It’s nice to meet you, Miss Christy.”
He lays his cap on the table and runs his fingers through his white hair. “People used to be more social. Now they sit at the same table and do their online stuff with each other. People don’t talk any more.”
“You’re right,” I say, “But I wasn’t online just now. I was writing.” He begins to rise as he apologizes for interrupting my writing. “No, no,” I say. “Stay here and let’s talk. I’d love to hear your story.”
“You don’t want to hear about me. Why don’t you tell me what you’re writing?”
So I tell him about my novel in progress, Moonshine, Madness, and Murder. The main character hears voices, which she uses to help her solve the murder of her mentor, a nun.
“Oh, nobody wants to hear about schizophrenic voices,” he says. “Unless you’re going to write something like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That’s what you should do! You should writing something like that.”
“Ken Kesey‘s already done that,” I say. “My book is about something else. And she’s not schizophrenic. She has depression with psychotic features, but the murdered nun’s voice tells her she’s hearing the angels.”
“Ah, there’s your story, then! Don’t let it be about a schizophrenic. Maybe she should really hear the angels. That’s the story you should write.”
“Maybe you should write that one.” I try not to let my voice show my annoyance. This old man doesn’t even know what my story is about, and twice he’s told me to write something else. “Besides, she’s not schizophrenic. She has depression with psychotic features. But enough about me and my book. I want to hear about you. What’s your story? By the way, I don’t even think I caught your name.”
“See, there I’ve gone and made you mad,” he says. “That’s what I do. I’m just an old man who likes to talk to people in coffee shops and make them mad.”
I laugh. “I can’t see how you would make them mad.”
“But I do. I argue with them. I tell them I don’t believe in anything any more.”
“What don’t you believe in?”
“Well, I used to believe in God, and heaven, and hell,” he says. “And angels. That’s why I think your story should be about the angels talking.”
“But why should I write that? I thought you don’t believe in angels.”
He shakes his head and sighs. “I made that decision a long time ago. But I’m an old man now, so I guess I’ll find out soon, you know? I’ll find out what lies on the other side.”
Maybe that’s why he’s so eager to talk. Maybe he’s ill, facing the end of his life, and he’s scared about what comes next. “What do you think?”
“You don’t want to hear about me,” he says.
Or perhaps he’s ashamed of his story. If I ask too-specific questions, like what part of town he lives in, I might put him in an awkward position. Maybe he lives in a cardboard box. I say, “Let’s start with what brought you in here tonight.”
“The same thing that brought you, I’m sure,” he says.
“Or looking for conversation?”
“That, too,” he says, and somehow he turns the conversation back to my book. “You don’t want to write about a schizophrenic,” he says. “No one wants to hear about that. Just have her take her medicine, be done with it, and write about something else.”
“What if there’s something more interesting than taking medication?” I ask.
He seems annoyed. “How would you know about that? You don’t know anything about schizophrenia. Why would you write about something you don’t know about?”
For the first time I wonder if he’s been living over at United Hospital. Perhaps that’s his story–maybe he’s been living in the psychiatric ward. “She’s not schizophrenic,” I say. “She has depression with psychotic features. And maybe I do know something about it. Maybe I have family members who are schizophrenic, and those who have depression with psychotic features, and maybe I’d like to show people a more sympathetic view.”
He’s not buying it. “Just write about the angels,” he says. “That’s what I want to read about.”
After what must have been the shortest hour all day, my cell phone blares out my husband’s ringtone. He tells me he has just turned off the Interstate a few blocks away, and he’ll be here in about five minutes.
I thank the gentleman for the conversation as I pack up my computer and put on my coat. “By the way,” I ask, “what was your name?”
He tells me he enjoyed the conversation, that I made his evening more pleasant, and he hopes he has done the same for me. “Now go home,” he says. “Go home with your husband, and have a good evening.” He returns to his corner table for his now-cold coffee. I can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t been drinking it while we talked.
Moments later, I see my husband’s car pull up to the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. I say good-bye to my nameless friend and trudge out into the falling snow. When I open the car door, I glance through the coffee shop window. The googly-eyed couple is still cuddled together at one window table. The baristas are trying to look busy with no customers placing orders. Otherwise, the shop is empty.
I slip into the car and ask my husband to look inside. “I’ve just had the most interesting conversation,” I say.
“With those people in the window?” he asks.
“No, with an older gentleman.”
He peers through the glass. “I don’t see an older gentleman.”
I look one more time. “He must be there. His name was …” But of course I never got his name, so on the drive home, I tell my husband about the white-haired gentleman whom my husband can’t see, who urged me to write about hearing the angels, and who has made me rethink the ending to my novel.