Monday, December 19, 2011

The Corner Stool

I was surprised that we had any customers that night. Oh, we were open – we’re almost always open, but that night, well, it was different.
It had been snowing all day, and with almost eighteen inches of the white stuff on the ground already, it showed no sign of letting up. There wasn’t even any cable TV – the weather, I imagine, so there wasn’t even a good ballgame to watch to pass the hours. I guess that’s what made it all so strange. Why were we open during the worst storm in 75 years, and who in their right mind would venture out into the stark, cold, bleak whiteout unless it was some sort of life or death emergency?
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t even remember seeing him come in. I should have, you know?  I was pretty much alone, and can see the door from anyplace behind the bar, but I don’t remember seeing him enter. I don’t even remember the door opening, and you’d think with all that wind and snow I wouldn’t have missed that. But there he was, all alone on the corner stool.
He looked like the saddest, loneliest man on God’s green Earth
Seated it was hard to tell, but I would guess he would be about 6’2” tall and rubbing noses with 250 pounds. Bar light is a little tricky, especially in that corner, where it’s a little darker than in most other places, but the man’s weather worn face carried the creases and folds of what had to be 60 years of a difficult life, hidden behind a bushy salt and pepper beard that had a lot more salt in it than pepper. Even in this light, I could see that, while he seemed to be trying to hide them, he had piercing blue eyes. He was poorly dressed for the weather, in well worn faded dungarees and an old hooded Carhartt work jacket with patches on the elbows. His feet were barely covered in a ragged old pair of red converse high tops that had seen better days.
Well, I make more money when I talk to the customers, so I worked my way down the bar to where he was seated. “What’ll ya have?”  I  asked.
He looked up, locking those age weary eyes onto mine, and in a soft voice with an accent I couldn’t place, he said, “I hope this doesn’t sound too strange, but do you have any Christmas tea?”
Believe it or not, I did have some. I usually keep it on hand this time of year.  I had even stocked up on it last year when the tea blender that mixes this blend announced that it was being discontinued after this season. I usually ration it out a mug at a time for myself, but since we were the only two in the place, I didn’t mind sharing. I import the stuff from Europe but hey, it was Christmas Eve, after all, you know? Brew it nice and strong, and add a shot of smooth Jamaican spiced rum. I poured us each a mug, and drew up a stool across from him on my side of the bar.
Bing Crosby was singing White Christmas somewhere in the background, although I don’t remember anyone putting any money in the jukebox.
I slid his mug of tea across the bar to him, and asked what in the world he was doing out on such an awful night.
“It’s kind of a long story,” he said, sipping the tea. “Mmm – that certainly hits the spot. Thanks.”
“Well,” I answered, “I’m not going anywhere, and to tell you the truth, unless you’ve got a dog sled or snowmobile out there, I don’t think you are either.”
We both laughed at the prospect of being holed up in a bar during a blizzard, and then he told me his story.
“I’ve been up north a ways, and hitched my way down here. I guess I’ve been on the road for about a week now, but the days all sort of run together after a while, you know how it is.”
He said he’d been married a long time ago, but that she died before they ever started a family. Cancer, I think it was. She was the love of his life, and somehow he just didn’t think anyone could ever take her place, so he never remarried.
He moved around a lot – mostly up north. This was the first time this year he’d ventured this far south. That always sounds strange to me when I hear people say that. My place is in the part of Michigan locals call ‘the palm’ as they hold up their right hand and point to the middle at about the place circus gypsies call the life line. You can’t get much further north than where I am and still be in the United States, but I didn’t see the point of mentioning that little detail to him, so I just kept doing the ‘Cocktail’ thing. That’s me: Tom Cruise minus the good looks and bottle juggling, which is to say he talked, I listened. Bartenders are good at that sort of thing.
He said that tonight, it appeared, the journey brought him to my place. He said his being here sipping Christmas tea in my joint during a raging blizzard on Christmas Eve was serendipitous, whatever that is, but he never really explain why his being here was a serendipitous encounter.  Hey, he way buying and I got to add a new word to my vocabulary. My eleventh grade English teacher would have been proud had she been there to witness my etymological prowess.
We talked for several hours. He told me his stories, and I told him mine. I’m not sure whose were the sadder, but it seemed to me that I was doing more talking than he was.
He said he traveled mostly this time of year, because that’s when and where the need seemed to be the greatest. Mostly, he said, he just listened. That’s usually what I do, but tonight was different.
I guess it was around midnight, and three or four mugs of tea later that he said it was time for him to go. Of course, I tried to talk him out of it. Not that I wanted the company, but the storm, you see?  I had a spare room in the back, and a spare bed, and he was more than welcome to wait out the storm.
He just smiled and said he thought his job here was finished.
He asked how much he owed me, and I told him that it was on the house. I offered to make him one to go, and he agreed.
When I came back from the kitchen, the door was open. It had stopped snowing, and the moon was glowing full on a fresh new carpet of snow, that had to be now very close to two feet deep.
He was nowhere in sight.
Over in the corner, where the old man had been sharing tea and swapping stories with me, there was a small card.
I picked it up, and in a smooth, almost elegant handwritten script were the words, “Sometimes we entertain Angels unawares. Thank you, my friend.”  It was signed, “Nick.”
I never saw him come, and I never saw him leave. And, I never saw him again, but I’ll never forget that strange, snowy December night he stopped in and occupied the corner stool for a few hours.
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