by Ralph Souders
The last cars of a slow moving, westbound freight train clamored noisily through the empty, Riverside station as Jack Archer prepared to brew some more coffee. The rush hour had long since passed and he had sold about eighty cups of his hearty, hot beverages that morning. Soon it would be lunch time. Assuming that today was going to be a typical Tuesday, he anticipated selling his hundredth cup sometime between twelve and one o’clock. When two o’clock arrived, he would lower the umbrella, close and tightly lock the cart, and then head for home just a couple of blocks away on East Quincy Street. Such was his daily routine, five days a week, since his retirement from the electronics company two years earlier. He enjoyed interacting with the commuters every weekday, many of whom had become regular customers. He planned to continue operating his coffee cart for the indefinite future. He did not need the income to supplement his retirement. If the business was to ever become too much of a job and no longer enjoyable for him, he intended to simply close it down at that time. He had no plans of ever trying to sell it.
As the freight train cleared the station and the normal quietude ensued, a customer approached the cart wanting to purchase a cup of coffee. He was an older gentleman, neatly dressed in grey slacks, an opened collared, white shirt and a blue blazer. He was wearing a pair of freshly polished, black loafers. He was clean shaven and his thin, grey hair had been carefully combed. He was holding a dollar bill in his left hand. A thin, gold band was prominently displayed on his ring finger.
“What can I do for you, young fella?” asked Jack in a friendly tone of voice. He knew the customer well. The man’s name was Lonnie. Every day at about this time, Lonnie would visit the train station for his late morning cup of coffee. This was his routine. It never changed.
“I want to buy a cup of your coffee,” answered Lonnie. “How much for a small cup?”
Jack smiled pleasantly as he responded to his customer. He was used to this conversation. They had it almost every day.
“I only have one size,” explained Jack, “a 16-ounce cup. It costs $2.00, sales tax included. It’s not a bad deal.”
“But I can’t drink that much coffee,” complained Lonnie. “Can’t you sell a guy half a cup? There’s no point in my wasting your coffee. What would that accomplish?”
“Yeah, okay,” replied Jack, “You’re right. You make a good point. Half a cup it will be.”
Lonnie had a satisfied expression on his face, anticipating receipt of his hot coffee.
“How do you take your coffee?” asked Jack, already knowing the answer to his question.
“Black coffee,” Lonnie informed him.
“Okay then,” replied Jack as he proceeded to pour about 14-ounces of black coffee into a 16-ounce paper cup. He installed a plastic cover over the top before handing the cup of coffee to the customer. “There you go, young man,” said Jack with the same friendly smile on his face. “Enjoy.”
Lonnie attempted to hand the dollar bill to Jack who immediately feigned a confused look on his face. “What’s this for?” Jack asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Lonnie. “I want to pay for my coffee.”
“No, that’s okay,” said Jack. “I accidentally overcharged you yesterday. Remember? Let’s just call it even for today. You can pay tomorrow.”
“Really? Are you sure?” asked Lonnie. He now had a confused expression on his face and a confused tone in his voice.
“Yeah, of course I’m sure,” replied Jack. “You’re a good customer. Thanks for letting me make this up to you. I really appreciate your business.”
“Okay then,” said a satisfied Lonnie as he put his dollar bill back into his billfold. “Thanks for the coffee. Have a good day.”
“You too, my friend,” said Jack. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Jack watched as Lonnie took his coffee and walked to the other end of the station. There Lonnie took his usual seat on a wooden bench in the sunlight. From this vantage point on the north side of the railroad tracks, Lonnie would sit and watch the trains as they entered and left the station. During the next thirty minutes, an eastbound commuter train would stop in Riverside before continuing on to Chicago. A few minutes later, a westbound train would stop at the station before continuing on to Aurora. Most mornings during this time, a freight train or two might also roll through the station traveling in one direction or the other. Lonnie obviously was interested in the trains and he enjoyed watching them while drinking his late morning coffee.
As Jack and Lonnie were finishing their conversation, another customer had approached the cart where he patiently waited as they completed their transaction. He had listened with interest as they spoke and he had an amused expression on his face as he watched Lonnie walk away.
“Interesting old guy,” remarked the customer. He was a man whom Jack had never previously seen. “Do you know him very well?”
“Yeah, I do,” replied Jack. “He’s a regular customer. I see him almost every day.”
“I couldn’t help but notice how you poured him almost a full cup of coffee,” said the man with a grin. “Also, if I were to guess, I’d bet that you didn’t overcharge him yesterday either. I’d say that you take pretty good care of him. Am I right?”
Jack was somewhat surprised by the stranger’s interest. This was really none of his business. Nevertheless, the man seemed to be a nice guy so Jack did not mind discussing this with him. Whether or not he approved of Jack’s actions, it really didn’t matter.
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Jack. “He’s a likeable, old guy. Since I’m in a position to be nice to him, I’m happy to do so.”
The stranger nodded his head in understanding. “Frankly, I wondered if he might be a relative of yours. You two appear to have a strong bond, a close relationship.”
“No, we’re not related but I suppose there might be something of a bond between us,” admitted Jack. “My dad passed away at age 63. I never got to see him as the elderly gentleman he certainly would have become. Lonnie epitomizes what I believe my own dad would have been like. That’s why I enjoy seeing him every day. He reminds me of my dad. Also, my father-in-law lived to be 91. Unfortunately, he suffered with dementia during his later years. Toward the end, his condition got quite bad. It was very sad. Lonnie suffers with dementia, too, and it appears to be getting worse. It breaks my heart to know what awaits him in the not too distant future.”
Jack poured the stranger a cup of coffee and handed it to him. “Here my friend, have a cup on me today,” said Jack. “There’s cream and sugar on the side of the cart.”
The stranger accepted the coffee with a smile. “Thanks,” he said, “but that’s really not necessary. I’m happy to buy my coffee.”
“That’s okay,” said Jack. “Don’t worry about it. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“Do you give Lonnie free coffee everyday?” asked the stranger. “If so, I’m very impressed. That’s extremely generous of you.”
“No, it’s really not like that,” Jack explained. “I never accept Lonnie’s money for his coffee. I have an informal arrangement with his wife. He lives on Lawton Road, a couple of blocks from here. I keep an eye on him while he’s here and I make sure that he starts for home safely in the right direction. His wife loves to bake. Several times each week, she brings me a slice of pie, a piece of cake or a bag of cookies to show her appreciation to me for being kind to her husband. It’s really not necessary. I’m happy to do it and I don’t expect any compensation. Nonetheless, I guess it really is a fair trade. Lonnie gets his late morning coffee and I get my sugar fix.” Jack smiled as he contemplated the situation. He felt pleased and satisfied with it.
“Here,” said the stranger as he took a bill from his billfold and placed it on the cart for Jack to receive. “I want to pay for my coffee this morning. I insist. Please keep the change.”
Jack gasped as he realized that the stranger had given him a fifty-dollar bill. “Please, this is way too much,” he protested. “I can’t accept this”.
“Sure you can,” replied the stranger. “I like to help people, too. This should pay for your friend’s coffee for a while. Please, mister, I really want to do this. Please allow me.”
Jack shrugged his shoulders. “Okay,” he said. “Thank you very much. I’ll tell Lonnie’s wife about you when I see her. She’ll be very pleased.”
“Thanks, that would be great,” said the stranger happily. “Actually, Lonnie reminds me a lot of my own father at this age. I miss my dad terribly. It was nice to feel reminded of him this morning. Believe me, I’d pay much more than fifty dollars for the chance to see my dad again. I’d give almost anything.” Jack noticed a slight glistening in man’s eyes.
“You’re a good man,” Jack told the stranger. “Your dad would be proud of you.”
“You’re a good man, too,” responded the stranger, “probably a much better man than I am. Thanks for taking care of the old guy. He’s fortunate to have a friend like you.”
With that being said, the man shook hands with Jack, picked up his cup of coffee, and headed toward the tracks. He crossed the tracks on the pedestrian walkway before assuming a standing position on the platform on the south side of the tracks. Jack could easily see him as he waited for the eastbound commuter train. After about ten minutes or so, the train pulled into the station, blocking the stranger from further view. A minute later when the train departed the station headed toward Chicago, the man was no longer there. He had obviously boarded the train and was now traveling to his destination. He was certainly a very generous man, Jack thought to himself.
Jack looked toward the other end of the station and noticed that Lonnie was still sitting on the wooden bench drinking his hot coffee. He appeared to be content. Jack wondered what kind of thoughts might be going through Lonnie’s mind as he idly sat there watching the trains go by on the railroad tracks and the occasional pedestrian walk by on the station platform. Lonnie appeared to be lost in thought, quietly absorbing whatever activity he was seeing. He certainly was not bothering anyone. He was quietly existing in his private, little world.
Soon several people approached the coffee cart having arrived at the station together. They wanted to purchase coffee to drink as they waited for the westbound commuter train to Aurora that would be arriving in about fifteen minutes. As Jack took their orders and filled their 16-ounce cups, he glanced from time to time at Lonnie who remained seated in his same location. Lonnie would be finishing his coffee in the next few minutes and would stay at the station until the westbound commuter stopped in Riverside and then departed towards its final destination. He would then be ready to go home. Sometimes his wife, Helen, would come to the station for him. Other times, she would meet him somewhere along his route home. No doubt, Lonnie would be coming back tomorrow morning. Jack was confident of this.
Jack looked at his watch and noted that he was into the last two hours of today’s shift. He would be ready to leave on time. He planned to reopen his cart as usual at six o’clock tomorrow morning. Jack wondered if Lonnie’s wife would be coming to the station that afternoon. He hoped so. He looked forward to receiving tonight’s dessert which he would take home with him to share with his own wife. Meanwhile, Jack began to wipe down the aluminum coffee urn setting on the cart. He liked the urn to appear clean and shiny, giving his customers a positive, first impression of his successful, little business.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story