Roger’s world was getting smaller. He could feel it in the way it fit. Like a pair of jeans, shrinking with each wash, it was apparent that he could not wear it much longer. There was a smell, a taste to this place, which reminded him of his childhood; but he couldn’t place the exact memory. It was a sunset slanting through a window, the taste of a dusty screen. The smell of mothballs in his mother’s closet, fresh in Roger’s nostrils. His nose ran. His back hurt. He wiped his damp fingers on his grimy coat, holding out his hand, “Some change, please, ma’am?”
Sally usually would have ignored a homeless bum. But today, on a whim, she turned her head toward him as she passed. “I’m afraid I don’t give directly to the homeless, friend. My charity goes to the Friendship Center, on the north side of town. They feed people like yourself; you might go check it out.” She looked directly at Roger’s gaunt face, and with emphasis she repeated: “Friendship Center.” She continued into the café.
Frank was already there sipping coffee in front of his paper, catching moments of scone between paragraphs. He noticed Sally with a nod and a smile, washed down a few crumbs, and asked, “What’s new?”
“Not much,” she replied on her way to the counter. “You?”
Frank shrugged without comment.
The café stereo played something trendy, a soundtrack to Sally’s exchange of cash with the barista. She chose to wait for her drink before sitting down. What is that song? She wondered, trying to hum along with a new-but-familiar-sounding melody. It’s like something from high school. I can almost remember dancing to it – but… different. No, not the same song, but nice. I’ll have to ask, I bet they sell this CD. At the sidewalk, Roger could hear the same melody from the patio speakers. It made him sad somehow, and he walked away.
“I lied,” confessed Sally after sitting down, “I do have something to report.”
“You do?” Frank asked, eyebrows raised. “New lover? Promotion? Patents pending?”
Sally laughed out loud. “No! Nothing so dramatic, but pretty groovy, nonetheless.”
“Your inner-hippie is showing.”
“Shut up and listen!” Sally was obviously smitten by an eager bug. Frank pocketed his next few comical remarks, and waited.
“Okay,” she continued, “I was at the toy store on 3rd St. The woman ahead of me at the checkout suddenly gasped, and began rummaging furiously through her purse. She kept repeating ‘Hang on…,’ and looking in all the pockets, ‘Hang on…’ She stopped, looked up at the checker, at me, then back into her purse. Turns out she had lost a hundred dollar bill. She’d set it aside to buy Christmas presents for her kids and it wasn’t there! She turned and apologized to me for the delay. She apologized!”
Frank listened impassively, waiting for the punch line.
“I could tell she didn’t have much money. You know – thrift shop clothes, an overworn purse – you can kinda tell. She had picked good but moderately priced toys, and had set the newspaper ad down on the counter. With a coupon, she had come in just under the one hundred dollar limit.”
“Was this my mom, by any chance?” Frank jumped in, “I don’t want to have to return the Justice League action figure set I just know she got for me…”
“Clamp it, Frank!” Sally took a sip and continued. “She started crying. It was a huge setback for her. I mean, a hundred bucks is a fair sum when you make good money. But when you’re broke, well…” She shook her head. “I paid for the toys.”
“Was she working a scam?” asked Frank. “Sometimes people will use their kids to play on the sympathies of passersby…”
“No way. I could tell which pocket she had kept the money in. She kept checking that spot over and over, as though hoping she’d just missed it. She didn’t cry right away, either. I could see the look on her face when it really hit her, and she tried to hide it. Of course, she wouldn’t let me pay at first. But here’s the important part: I paid, and then refused to arrange for her to repay me. I mean, she offered and all. But I told her to pay someone who needs it, whenever she gets the chance.”
“Pay it forward, then?” Frank had his usual look of holier-than-thou understanding out in a flash, “This is why you’re all glowing and shit, like Kevin Spacey, changing the world – one tea set at a time? Did you ask her to help out three other people?” A parodic tossing of the head.
Sally was expecting such a remark. “This wasn’t a movie, Frank! And I didn’t actually see that one, anyway. But yes, ‘pay it forward.’ Can’t do it any better than that. It’s the true nature of charity – no strings attached. Helping someone who will not be able to return the favor.” Frank had a contemplative nod going now, Sally continued. “It’s one thing to lend money to a friend. It feels good to help somebody out, you know? But it feels ten times better when you know that you are helping someone who cannot repay you. I’ll probably never see that woman again. That’s part of the deal: she won’t be able to thank me or anything.”
“What about charitable giving?” Frank interjected. “That’s the same way: the kids at Shriner’s will never pay you back.”
“Different.” Sally shook her head. “That’s detached, abstract and, I don’t know – it’s good, but not the same. Besides, only a percentage goes to the cause. The rest is overhead for the charity administration.”
“True.” Frank was mulling this over, when his reverie was interrupted by the dishwasher bussing the table. The moment was past.
“Hey, I gotta run,” said Frank. “Catch you tomorrow, huh?”
* * *
Roger’s world was getting smaller. He knew that he could not wear it much longer. There was something glaring at him, though, out of the corner of his eye. He turned to look, but it was gone. Like the memory of words overheard and forgotten, gone like a dream of a different person in another life. There was a smell to this place. It was the enemy of light; dank and foggy. Roger’s stomach was an empty sack, filled only with the ghosts of broken promises. But that memory of words overheard, and forgotten – what were those words? He tried to sift them from the ramblings of his tired mind. North. That woman had said, “North.” Roger was hungry, and the woman had told him something about food “on the north side of town.”
* * *
Frank spotted Sally before she got in the door. He set the paper down, waiting anxiously for her to get her coffee and come to the table. He looked out the window, watching the snow fall on the traffic in the street, on the tops of awnings, in the intersection. In some places, you could see the snowflakes in the air; in others, you could not – but you knew they were there. In front of the streetlights you could see a constant fall of snow, moving quickly through the narrow band of colored light, yet no snow accumulation on the tops of the lamps. On the patio rails and posts there were perhaps three inches piled up, yet no flakes were visibly falling on them. An odd illusion, thought Frank, the dichotomy of snowfall.
“Hey!” Sally’s greeting broke into Frank’s little bubble of existence, reminding him that he was excited to see her.
“Hey there!” Frank paused briefly. “So, you remember our conversation of a few weeks ago, the one about your big Christmas Toy Purchase?”
Sally wiped coffee from her cheek – she had been taking a sip when her giggle took over. “I didn’t ‘buy’ any Christmas toys. I gave someone money, you nut!”
“Right.” Frank slid on. “You felt good about doing a Good Deed for one who would not be able to pay it back – the ‘pay it forward’ thing.”
“I believe your exact words were, ‘You can’t do any better than that.’ Am I right?”
“Well, I may have said something like that…”
Frank gathered himself, like a kitten preparing to pounce. “I’ve got a better one.”
Sally was intrigued by the expression on her usually blasé and comically witty friend’s face; Frank had definitely reached a new level of smug today. “Go on,” she said.
“I used to go ice fishing with my cousin in Michigan.” Sally gave a quizzical look, but Frank continued. “I haven’t gone in years, and my cold weather gear has just been sitting in the closet. Well, you know that guy that runs the newspaper stand two blocks that way?” Pointing. “He’s been there forever. In all weather – heat, rain, and these icy winter storms. He can’t afford a decent jacket. Have you seen the layers of flannels he puts on? I’ve seen him burning stacks of day old newspapers in the garbage can, trying to warm up.”
“So you gave him your jacket?” Sally was wondering how this was better than her story.
“No! Well, yes! But that’s not the point.” A conspiratorial look crept over Frank’s face. “I snuck it into the back of the stand and left a note on it.” Grinning. “A three hundred dollar subzero parka, and he’ll never know it was me who gave it to him.”
Sally was nodding with approval, but had yet to grasp Frank’s intended point. “So, it was an expensive jacket, as a gift?”
Head shaking. “Not important. It could have been a five dollar sandwich. The point is this: There are levels of goodwill. Giving something that cannot be repaid is one. Giving anonymously is another. Not only can that man never repay me, he will never know it was me who gave him the coat! And before you ask, he loves it. I bought this paper from him thirty minutes later,” lifting the newspaper, “and he was wearing it. He looked much happier than he did yesterday!”
“You looked him in the eye afterward?” Sally was elated. “Did you make any remark, compliment him on his jacket?”
“Not a chance!” Frank shook his head, “I didn’t want to give anything away. He might have guessed, and then it would be gone.”
The conversation paused for a moment as the dishwasher picked up Frank’s plate.
“Okay,” Sally said, “that’s a better one. Let me see what I can do.”
“Are you going to try and out-nice me?”
“Scared of friendly competition?”
In lieu of a reply, Frank leaned back, crossed his arms, and looked thoughtfully out the window at the snow, now just a bit higher on the patio rail.
* * *
Roger’s world was very small. There was only him, and a few others, holed up in this last house. Travelers they were, on the road unknown: a path leading away from the cracked concrete and wind-tortured rumble of the urban wilderness. There was a fire here, yellow and warm. And a taste, too: a taste like water from a warm, summer mud puddle with tadpoles in it. Roger looked at the others. Some shared this place; others came and went. Counselors – yes, that was it – counselors during the day. He looked at the letterhead on the papers he’d been given. “Friendship Center.” How long have I been here? He wondered. Roger leaned back on the couch and drifted off into a light sleep.
* * *
“Sometimes life hands you material.” Sally was beaming, suppressed excitement dimpling her cheeks. She sipped her coffee, waiting, refusing to go any further until asked.
Frank obliged. “Alright. Let’s hear it!”
“Ok,” she set down her cup, folded her hands in front of her on the table. “A few weeks ago, I took on the challenge.” She shot an inquiring look across the table. “You know, different levels of charity? I was thinking it over, and anonymous good deeds are fairly easy to come by – you agree?” A nod from Frank. “That was level two, as I recall. So how do I improve on that? Hmm? Well, this morning I had an even better chance fall right into my lap.”
“A ‘Lap Chance’ it was, then?”
“Punny, Frank. Very punny.”
“Sorry. Go on.”
“I was leaving the townhouse, when I noticed a trashy mess on the stoop of my neighbor Helen’s place. I immediately pictured Helen – elderly, living alone – having to deal with it, and thought I’d pick it up for her.” Frank was gathering an unimpressed look. “Hang on! There’s more! So I walk up to her steps, and I realized she’d been vandalized! Two large clay pots – big ones, tall as this table – overturned and smashed on the stairs. Plants everywhere.”
“Wow,” said Frank, serious for a change. “That’s sad.”
“Yeah, well, here’s the good part: I’ve been admiring these beautiful pots for some time. Terra cotta, nice design. She got them at Rupert’s; I know, because I asked. In fact, I had already gone and bought two of them for my own porch; they were sitting in my garage!” Frank began to nod, seeing the direction this was going. “It’s 6:30. Helen doesn’t move around until midmorning, and she’s likely a heavy sleeper. I gathered up the scattered plants, took them to my place, had them repotted in a few minutes. By the time I left, I had swept her porch and replaced the pots.”
“Well, she certainly won’t know to pay you back for the favor…” Frank began.
“Frank, she won’t even know that she’s gotten a favor!” Sally was completely ecstatic at this point. “Helen will never know that she was vandalized, nor will she have any idea that a caring neighbor took the time to fix it. It was not about the cost of the pots; they’re not that much. I saved her the pain and the work, which was much easier for me than it would have been for her.”
“A good deed for one who will never even know about it.”
“That is a new ‘level,’ for sure – the third, it would seem. I don’t know how I could outdo that.”
* * *
Roger’s world was small. But it seemed to fit. He shrugged his shoulders, stretched his back, and stood up. The house felt empty today. Those residents who could had gone on day passes. There was a smell to the air, like hope. It was the scent of a soft breeze, moving dandelion seeds off to their new homes, the taste of long kept fortune cookies just opened from their plastic wrappers.
“How’s it going, Roger?” asked the counselor.
“Good,” Roger said. “My mind gets clearer, every day a little bit clearer.”
“That’s what happens here, Roger.”
“I wish I could remember the person who sent me here. I’d like to thank her.”
“It was a stranger, right? When you were on the street?”
“Yes, but a regular, I think. I can’t remember her face, or anything, really. It just bothers me!”
“Some memories never return, Roger. You were in a very low place. Just be happy that someone sent you to us.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Time is getting close for you to leave here, you know. Next week, you can go looking for a job.”
Roger’s world began to grow.
* * *
Frank arrived at the café at his usual time. It had rained overnight, but the morning sun shone on the early flowers in the window boxes. In perhaps another month, it would be warm enough to leave the windows open; but the café never did so. They would run the air conditioner when it was cooler outside, and the heater when it was warm, as though the building was its own independent ecosystem, with no rhyme or reason, no relation to the rest of the world. Such is the dichotomy of the mindless enterprise, thought Frank. Yet, it has a life of its own.
There was a wallet sitting on the next table. That’s odd… There was a woman sitting there a moment ago... Frank searched the area with a glance, but the owner of the wallet was nowhere to be found. He picked it up. Perhaps there’s an ID, contact info inside. He sat holding the small leather parcel, unwilling to open it, to unceremoniously tromp across the border of someone’s private space. No one was watching; in fact, only a few customers were seated. Most were in line at the counter or leaving with their drinks.
He turned the object over in his hands. No markings to speak of, beyond an ornamental de fleur on the flap. What would be inside? Wallets often held those things most valuable to a person: a bus pass, driver’s license, medical information. Pictures of small children, and used theater tickets. Business cards from acquaintances and associates, and the cards you have stamped to get your 10th coffee free. There could be locker combinations, keys to safe deposit boxes, and phone numbers. A wallet could contain directions to the prom, positive affirmations, and recipes given in kindness. Reminders, love notes, and sometimes letters that were never meant to be sent. A man’s livelihood might be in his wallet, or a woman’s life. There would probably be sweat in the leather, tears, and spilt perfume. A miniature time capsule of the person who carried it. This would be sorely missed, and the intimate trespass would be forgiven should it lead to the safe return of the wallet. Frank took a quick look around the café before opening the clasp – and there she was.
The woman was coming from the direction of the restroom, heading directly past Frank’s table for the door. She clearly had no inkling of her wallet’s fate. Now what? Frank was aghast, I’ve got a stranger’s wallet in my hand. What… do I just hand it to her? “‘Scuse me ma’am, but would there be a reward for this little trifle?” The momentary embarrassment was fading as the woman reached the door. She stopped, and turned away from Frank. She was getting her jacket from the coat rack.
Preparing to speak, Frank glanced out the window; saw no chance of rain. When he turned to the woman, however, he saw an opportunity. She had her back to him, was putting on her coat. She had set her purse on the floor at her feet. It was open. Frank dropped the wallet into the purse, and turned back to his coffee.
Frank nearly farted in astonishment – but it was just Sally, approaching the table.
“What’s new?” Frank asked, collecting his shattered nerves and chuckling wildly inside.
“Not much,” she replied as she sat down. “You?”
Frank shrugged without comment.
“No witty remarks today? What’s in the news?”
Frank looked at the paper, folded on the table. “Oh, uh… haven’t read it yet.” Should I tell her? Does this match her secretive replacement of the neighbor’s flowerpots? That was, what, level three? The anonymous good deed for one who will never know a service was performed…
“I think the weather is breaking,” Sally was saying. “Early spring, you think?”
“Possibly. Good weather for good deeds, wouldn’t you say?” This is nice. I like this. That woman will never know. No one saw me. Sally gave a scone-crumbed grin, and nodded. The game was still on. Unless I tell, no one will ever, ever know – not even Sally. Doing good without getting caught! Level four…?
Frank’s thoughts were interrupted by the clatter of cups and saucers to his right. The dishwasher was bussing the next table.
“Hey, you’re new here, aren’t you?” Frank asked amicably.
“Yes,” said Roger. “My first day.”
Sally turned, then paused in mid-smile. “Wait a minute,” she said, brows slightly knit. “Have we met?”
“I don’t think so,” Roger responded. “But my memory is not what it once was.”
Three grins, a round of shrugs, and Roger went back into the kitchen.
“Hey, I gotta run.” Said Frank, “Catch you tomorrow, huh?”