Alpana Patel Camilli
It wasn’t the first time Elise had seen him, the long legged black man casually draped across the steps of one of the hundreds of Starbucks in Boston. He was near the corner of Beacon and Charles Street, across from the Boston Common, looking like he was posed for a Victorian painting. Glaring at the busy street with an aristocratic air, he mindlessly observed people hasten to their jobs, busy ants bustling to their meetings with important foreign clients, tea with the bourgeois at Harvard Yard, or to the hundreds of stores for a shopping spree. “Just another day in the life of city folks,” she mused. Elise saw him every Tuesday morning on her way to class at Harvard. She was strangely drawn towards him and kept a wary eye out for his presence. He always wore a white cotton golf shirt, stained with grime and dust, giving it a light caramel appearance, a few shades lighter than his own skin color. He tucked his shirt into beige Docker pants, cinching it tightly together with a black leather belt. He looked ready for a game of golf, if he wasn’t so obviously dirty. Elise assumed the clothes were from Goodwill since the size was a bit too big; surely they could not have been his own unless he had been a big broad man before, but now just tall and lanky.
He was muttering to himself like he always did. In one hand he held a large clear Starbucks cup filled with what looked like water and a slice of lemon. Elise shook her head at the absurdness. His eyes were animated, talking with an invisible ghost; suddenly laughing so hard he had to wipe the tears from his eyes. She walked quickly by him, the hairs on the back of her neck standing to attention. He unnerved her.
Elise turned the corner and quickly put him out of her mind as she walked by the quaint antique shops and vintage boutiques, grocers displaying fruits and vegetables on outdoor stands. Several old neighborhood Italian restaurants and Irish pubs lined the cobblestone street. She made her way to her favorite bakery on the next block, with its outdoor patio situated on the corner of the busy street where people passed by on their way to the subway. Walking in the front door of Les Chez, she got in line to order her usual double mocha latte. She wished her mother were here, to see this, to see her ordering a latte.
Back home the only coffee shop was the local diner at the freeway exit where her mother had worked for fifteen years as the head waitress, never missing a day’s work. Elise didn’t know her father; her mother had never told her who it was. The only thing he had left behind, her mother told her, was a book of poems by T.E. Lawrence, and then she would add a few expletives, “Bookish bastard!” He had been one of the many men that drifted through their lives, most of them rapacious and greedy. All smiles and shallow empty words until the money her mother had yet again saved had run out and their sexual appetites satiated, another one gone, her college money gone. Her mother would slink into Elise’s room with effusive tearful apologies, promising to make it up to Elise. She’d find a good one yet she’d swear, and then would rush back to work with renewed energy, working twelve to sixteen hours a day, her ebullient manner and short skirts earning extra tips and yet again another boyfriend, this one guaranteed to be different. Yet, none were different, none cared. When Elise began high school, she made an oath to never become like her mother. Always the introvert, it wasn’t difficult for her to stay away from the problems other kids faced. She didn’t make close friends, just joined enough clubs and organizations that she could put on a resume for college. She vowed to get out of her hillbilly world and live in a real city amongst real people with meaningful lives. She surreptitiously studied for her SATs every single night, her one big ticket out of ‘nowheresville’, while the headboard of her mother’s bed banged against the thin battered walls of their trailer. And finally, after months of sleepless nights, the scores had come in. Elise was the only student in her county, the state, and the whole eastern seaboard that year to receive the perfect 2400 points, hence her full scholarship to Harvard with living expenses. She finally didn’t need any of her mother’s money or the guilt that came with how her mother made the money. She jumped, screamed and thanked God for the chance to attend a prestigious Ivy League school, regardless of being the token charity kid, to actually become somebody worthy. She earned it in her own right and she believed in the Harvard creed, something she never had at home, Veritas - truth.
Boston was the antithesis to her small town. She could pave her own path here and she would never wait for a man to save her, like her mother did. She hated her mother for that dependency. As the line began moving, she ogled the variety of pastries and baked goods behind the glass partition. She sighed audibly and faintly smiled to the man behind the counter, ordered the mocha latte and added an almond croissant. She had a few regrets, but one disturbed her continually. She had left home full of anger and had haughtily dismissed her mother after she had been accepted to Harvard. Elise spoke to her mother with disdain, telling her that she had derided her mother’s choices and so her mother finally knew it, the asperity of her words returning to haunt her in the dark cloak of night. Elise had been at freshman orientation when the dean called for her in his office. He proceeded to tell her that the only relative she had was dead. Her mother had been in an accident involving an eighteen-wheeler. She was riding with her new boyfriend when it had flipped over on one of the sinuous West Virginian highways and exploded into flames; so did Elise’s connection to the backwoods of her past life.
She walked out the side door of the bakery onto the patio and sat at a wrought iron table facing the busy street. She leaned back, took a bite of her pastry and a sip of her latte. There was a warm summer breeze and cars lazily passed by, occasionally honking, cyclists ringing their bells as they passed by on bikes.
“I deserve this time,” she thought as she pulled her book of poems by T.E. Lawrence out of her maroon Harvard backpack. She looked down the block and her eyes widened as she noticed the black man on his way down the sidewalk towards the shop. He had his Starbucks cup in one hand, the other hand gestured wildly in the air. As he got closer to the bakery, he stopped and bent down, held up his index finger and wagged it side to side.
“No, no son, hold my hand,” he said loudly, laughing nervously. Blatantly staring, she realized he was heading towards her table. Quickly putting her head down she pretended to read her book, consciously trying to be invisible, knowing he would ask her for something, money or a cigarette. The truants usually made up a false reason for asking, “I lost my wallet on the bus and I just need a few bucks to get home.” There were the actual homeless, those that lived on the streets, pushing their shopping carts, overflowing with plastic bags, clothes and odd items of junk, the proverbial packrats. Veterans of the city life passed by them unfazed, used to ignoring their requests. Tourists on the other hand had the ‘deer caught in headlights’ look on their faces, scrambling to find some pocket change or just ran away in fear. Young people in cars hid behind their tinted windows shouting, “Get a job,” and drove away fast enough so no one could see their uncaring faces. He stood in front of her table, slowly shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Excuse me ma’am, can you get me a piece of spinach quiche from inside please?” he asked. Elise looked up from her book incredulously.
“What?” she answered with a question.
“Can you go inside and get me a piece of spinach quiche? It must be spinach,” he asked again in perfect English and with a slight northern accent. Even the homeless in the city had taste, she thought. She wanted to laugh in his face, the gall. Damn it, couldn’t he see she had her own problems to deal with, that she was a struggling student from the back woods of nowhere?
“I’m sorry sir,” she said with a heavy southern twinge that she was trying to correct, “I don’t have any money.” Her hand unconsciously reached in her pocket for the money she had to buy her subway token.
“Thank you anyway young lady,” he said with a bow. He sat down in a chair near the table next to her, leaning back, watching the pedestrians walk by. She watched him out of her periphery. The side door opened from inside the bakery; a petite lady with long dark brown hair tied in a neat ponytail pushed through with an expensive looking baby stroller. A leather designer baby bag hung from the handles of the stroller. Settling at the table next to Elise and in front of the tall lanky man, she turned the stroller around and handed a toy to a little boy who was about two or three years old. He wore a denim blue Winnie the Pooh cap and matching overalls. Elise smiled at the mother and noticed they had on matching outfits. The little boy turned around and kept looking at the black man sitting at the table behind them.
“C’mon, sweet boy, have some juice,” she tried to entice him. The man got up from his seat, pointed to the little boy and wagged his finger side to side. He repeated the motions Elise saw him make earlier. His eyes misted over; he reached up to wipe away a fresh tear. He took a quick step towards the woman.
“Excuse me ma’am, can you get me a piece of spinach quiche?” The lady looked up from the child quizzically. The boy began to coo and point to the man. She smiled at the boy and looked again at the strange man.
“Sure, I can get you some quiche, what kind was it again?’ she asked.
“Spinach, ma’am, spinach.” He replied. Elise was surprised when the lady got up from her chair and looked around.
“I can watch your son,” he said. The small lady hesitated, glancing around the courtyard patio.
“No, no that’s alright,” she said tremulously. She fumbled with the baby bag and pulled out her wallet. Fear gripped Elise as she watched them. The boy tried to get out of the stroller and pointed to a few sparrows congregating around the tables, hoping to catch a few breadcrumbs.
“Birdie, birdie, weeeee!” the boy cried out.
“It’s alright ma’am,” the man said, “I can watch him for you. I won’t go anywhere. I’ll wait for you,” he paused, “and the quiche,” he tacked on. The lady thought for a few seconds and nodded.
“I’ll be right back honey,” she told her son, tugging his hat down and leaning over to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. Elise went cold, immediately she felt uneasy and almost nauseous. She was on the edge of her seat as the lady walked into the bakery through the side door. The man sat down next to the stroller, and she saw a clear glass bottle poking out from his pants pocket. Her heart thudded against her chest, her armpits wet and palms clammy. The little boy and the man began to blubber to each other, and he kept wagging his finger at him.
“No son,” he said, “you can’t walk across the street without holding my hand.”
Elise sipped the last of her latte. The streetlight at the far intersection turned green and in the distance a police or ambulance siren wailed. She glimpsed around, taking in one heavy breath after another. Her heart pounded faster as the undulating noise progressed closer. The little boy began to whine softly; the man knelt in front of the stroller. The siren was blaring. Elise saw an ambulance advancing and it rushed by, numbing her ears and shaking the tables. Simultaneously, a flock of sparrows raucously took off into the air obscuring her view momentarily. The boy let out a piercing howl that stabbed her ears and the man’s eyes seemed to pop out of his head. He jumped up.
“Son, Son,” he cried out, grabbed the stroller by the handles and pushed it onto the sidewalk. Elise also jumped up and her chair fell over, clanging shrilly against the cobblestone. She heard the boy cry again as the man shoved the stroller past the demarcated patio.
“Oh my God,” she cried out desperately, “Where are you going?” She ran to the side door pushing it open frantically as it clashed against the wall. Rushing inside, several people in the shop stopped to stare at her. Elise saw the boy’s mother pass some bills across the counter to the cashier and then she turned to look at the swinging door. Elise spotted the black man pushing the stroller past the front window. She was out of breath and pointed towards the man, he seemed to have disappeared. As the lady turned to look to where Elise was pointing, the man immediately walked through the front entrance. The little boy had calmed down but Elise was still shaking. The lady held the quiche box in one hand and turned to give Elise a strange look, that Elise was the crazy one. The long legged man walked up to her, gently pushing the stroller, his eyes focused on the quiche.
“Hey, Mr. LaMonte,” the cashier called out, “your usual spinach quiche sir?”
“Yes sir, yes sir,” he declared, “my boy sure does love spinach, wants to be big and strong when he grows up.”
The petite lady handed the box to him.
“Thank you, young lady. Your little man is going to be a brave one.” He reached down to shake the boy’s hand and walked out the front entrance in which he had just entered. Elise pushed the hair back from her sweaty forehead and grabbed a few napkins from the dispenser on the condiment cart by the door, catching her breath, and overhearing their conversation.
“Do you know that man?” the lady asked the cashier.
“Yeah sure,” he answered in a thick New England accent, “that’s Mr. Lamonte. He used to live in one of these brownstones a few blocks down the road. He brought his kid in here every Tuesday morning for spinach quiche. His kid loved to eat spinach, thought he’d grow up faster if he did. Mr. Lamonte would do anything for that kid.”
“Where is his son?” she pressed further.
“That’s the kicker,” the cashier said while scratching his head, “his kid got hit by a car a few years back, just up the road at the intersection. He lost everything trying to keep the kid alive, even though he never woke from his coma. He died,” the cashier paused and stared out the window into the sky for a moment. “Oh yeah, by the way, thanks for buying him that quiche. We usually give him anything he wants, him being an old regular and all. He’s harmless. He seemed to really like your son. It was really thoughtful of you. I can give you your money back.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it. I’m glad we were there to help.” She gazed lovingly at her son, “Keep it for next Tuesday.”
Elise’s heart broke into a thousand pieces again at how she had deceived herself. She walked out the same door and felt the cool air lifting her hair and drying the remnants of sweat from her brow. She searched for Mr. Lamonte, but he had already disappeared into the busy walkway. She hesitantly walked to the intersection, looking at the different brownstones; one of them could be his. Elise wondered if she would see him again as she waited for the light to turn green, so she could cross the road.