Any Given Day
The streets were slick and shiny, the streetlights casting iridescent colors on the oily, rain-soaked tarmac. The young woman bunched her light jacket tighter around her body, wishing she had taken the time to put on a hat and scarf before rushing out at the last minute. She hurried nimbly through the people strolling along the sidewalks, looking at storefront window displays and dreaming of gifts to come. She too was dreaming of things to come, but these could not be bought or wrapped.
A dim light illuminated the narrow windows of the little restaurant on the corner. She dashed across the intersection and ducked under the alcove entry. Giving the old-fashioned doorbell a few jabs, she quickly stuffed her cold hands back into her jacket pockets. She was hopping from leg to leg trying to keep warm in the steadily increasing wind and was about to ring the bell again, when she heard the scraping at the door as a cautious eye peeped out from behind the blinds to see who it was. She burst into a brilliant smile as the locks were undone and the door opened.
“Where is your coat and hat? Get in here where it’s warm before you catch your death of cold,” the elderly woman scolded as she flung the door open wider and pulled the shivering woman inside. She locked the door again and shuffled back to the kitchen, fussing as she went. “You might as well have a seat. We’re almost done. I’ll let Mattie know you’re out here.” She continued to mumble to herself, half humming. When the galley door swung closed behind her, a gruff “Your friend is out there” could be heard.
Left alone in the dining area, the woman sat in one of the booths, hoping just maybe the retro vinyl seat might hold some left over body heat from some recently absent customer. She was foolish for wearing this lightweight jacket when the weatherman clearly said the temperature would drop to 30 degrees tonight. She underestimated how quickly it would drop. The seat proved to be as cold as she was already, but she was grateful for the rest anyway after speed walking eight blocks against the wind.
Twenty minutes had passed before the galley door reopened. Mattie came out with her hat and coat in hand. She walked over to the dozing figure huddled in the booth. Leaning over the table, she could not resist the urge to ask loudly, “Can I take your order?” She chuckled at the woman’s startled jump. “Well! Caught sleeping on the job. What kind of watchman are you anyway?” She stepped back as the woman rose from the booth.
Sleepy-eyed, the woman smiled at Mattie and shook her head. “You know I’ll get you back for that.”
“Yeah, I know you’ll try.” Mattie cocked her head to one side, a hand on her hip. She was glad to see the woman. It would be nice to have someone to talk to on the walk back to her apartment. She liked when she surprised her like this. She smiled into the smooth round face of her companion. She loved to look into those sleepy bedroom eyes, especially when they were looking back so sweetly. “You know you got me in trouble with Mrs. Tookie, don’t you? She was fussing at me for not making sure you had a proper coat. As if I could ever control you. You know better, anyway. I told her ‘I am not that child’s momma and she don’t listen to me anyhow.’ That really started her grumbling then, but of course it was too low for me to make out what she was saying. That’s when you know you’ve really done it then.”
“I’m sorry.” Out poked those pouting lips and the sad doe eyes. “I just wanted to get here before you left already. I wanted to surprise you. And I don’t like that you walk so far by yourself when it gets dark so early. I ran out the house without thinking. Forgive me?” There go those long luscious eyelashes blinking innocently at her.
That girl sure could pour it on thick when she wanted to. Of course Mattie could never stay mad at her for long, if she ever got mad in the first place. She hard eyed her for a moment longer then shook her head and began bundling up for the walk home. She gave the woman her scarf so she’d have at least a little protection from the cold. Jamming her own hat down over her ears, she headed for the door with her keys ready to lock it behind them. Mrs. Tookie and Old Man Johnson, the owners, lived in the rest of the building above the little diner and had already retired upstairs to their living quarters.
Out in the cold, wet night, Mattie walked close to her companion, letting shared body heat and the will to get home quickly drive them forward. They were quiet for the first couple of blocks. A thought came into Mattie’s mind and she chuckled softly. Her companion glanced over with eyebrows raised. Mattie looked at her meaningfully and asked, “Tuesday, do you remember the first time we met?”
The shivering woman looked ahead and responded soberly, “Of course I do. It’s not every day you meet an angel.”
Mattie smiled and nudged her friend. “You say that every time. That’s not what I’m asking. I mean, do you really remember it. Can you see it in your mind?”
Tuesday shook her head affirmatively. “Yes, Mattie. I do see it. I remember that it was a very sunny morning. I remember waking up and seeing you bending down over me right there on the stoop of the diner. I remember being scared that you would kick me or something. I was very surprised and very grateful when you asked me if I was hungry. I guess I must have looked a mess. I remember gobbling down the turnip greens and cornbread you warmed up for me. I remember you rushing me out the door and telling me not to sleep there anymore because the cops might pick me up or the owners might complain. I remember asking you if you were always this nice to bums on the street or was it my winning smile. I remember you telling me you wished you had known I was a smart ass before you fed me and then slamming the door in my grubby little face.”
“You were a smart ass. I risk my job to feed you and you crack jokes.”
“I have apologized many times since then, and besides I was trying to make light of the situation. My ego was bruised having to take handouts.” Tuesday paused a moment, swallowing hard, then proceeded. “I also remember that night. You saved me again. I am eternally grateful to you.” She sniffed loudly and began to walk faster.
Neither of them spoke the rest of the way home. Each was occupied by her own thoughts of that night four months ago. The cold wind whipped about them but they hardly noticed.
This had been the day from hell. It seemed that everyone in the world had woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Mrs. Tookie came down fussing and continued to grumble the entire day. Old Man Johnson quietly scowled around the kitchen banging pots and utensils as he went about setting up the prep counter. Mattie had already turned on the grills and arranged the ingredients for the day’s specials. The coffee was brewing and the smell wafted through the dining area. She was wiping down the counter and tables, taking her time to stay out of their way at least until they had calmed down and settled into their Tuesday morning groove.
She sometimes wondered why she still worked there after 10 years of tiptoeing around these grumpy old bears, but she knew she could not leave them when they depended on her. Truthfully they grumbled to hide their soft hearts. They would do and give anything to help you out, stranger or friend. That’s why she was still there. The pay wasn’t very much but they were like family and they helped her out even when she didn’t know she needed help sometimes. She stood tall and ran her hands down the front of her white apron, smoothing the thick material against her pale blue dress. She liked wearing the “diner style” dress she’d found in a thrift store; it made her feel like she fit the part. Thank goodness, the old couple didn’t mind if they dressed casual, as long as it was decent.
When the morning crowd came in they were already short staffed because two of the waitresses called in sick, leaving just Mattie and the new lady to handle the floor. The new waitress, Janet, held her own well, but the customers were impatient and the elderly regulars took the opportunity to heckle the younger drop-ins. One petulant young business suit type became so irate, he dumped his coffee out onto the counter and stormed out.
As the day progressed, the second shift waitress came in and things moved a little quicker. Doris had worked there even longer than Mattie. This September made another anniversary. But now she worked fewer hours because she sat with her sick mother in the mornings until the nurse came at noon, then she had to be home by 5:30 pm to take care of her grandkids while her daughter worked at night. Doris always looked tired but she was kind and attentive. Mattie would often slip tips on Doris’s tables, especially when the customer stiffed her. She knew, but she needed the money so nothing was ever said about it.
Today of all days, a sour- faced man came in and sat in Doris’s section. He kept insisting that they had changed the menu since the last time he was here. When he finally settled on something to order, he added, “And make it snappy, old lady.” Doris shot him a look but went on to place the order. When she brought it out to him, he acted as if she had just given him the biggest insult of his life. He started yelling and waving his arms at her. He called her names and threw the plate across the table at her. Doris stood with spaghetti sauce dripping down the front of her clothes, unsure what to do. In all her years of waiting tables, this had never happened before.
Old Man Johnson came limping out to see what all the noise was about, but one of the regulars, a big burly truck driver named Sam, had already rushed over to the table and had the guy in a headlock. He made the squirming man apologize to Doris and give her a double tip before he escorted him out the door and threw him on the street. He watched the humiliated man sprint down the street before turning back to a sudden outburst of loud cheering and applause.
The truck driver turned beet red in embarrassment and shuffled back to his table where he could hide his face in his cup of coffee. Old Man Johnson hobbled over to his table. He tore up his bill and thanked him for helping Doris. When Doris had cleaned up as best she could, her jeans and blouse were still soaked with tomato sauce; they gave her the rest of the day off. She went over to Sam’s table and tried to thank him but he stopped her and said that he just couldn’t stand to see a worm mistreating a lady. He offered to give her a ride home and she felt the least she could do was accept.
The rest of the day went smoothly. Mattie and Janet worked as fast as they could to keep customers happy. After that fiasco, the mood seemed much calmer. The word had already gotten around the neighborhood and no one wanted to be the next bad guy. People continued to come in but they were either patient or they just ordered food to go if they couldn’t wait.
At the end of the day, Mattie was so tired she didn’t care that she had skipped both breaks. She just wanted to go home and soak in the tub. She quickly wiped down the tables and got the place in order before she went to the back to help count the tills.
When she sat at the old beat up table to help count, she noticed the sad look on Old Man Johnson’s face. She looked at Mrs. Tookie questioningly. The old woman shook her head and let out a long sigh. “We are just getting too old for this craziness. Our children say give up and move to Florida. We don’t like Florida, too hot. Maybe they are right. What do you think, Mattie, huh?” She glanced up at Mattie like a wrinkled little child seeking answers.
Mattie didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know Mrs. Tookie. I don’t think you are too old for anything. But you have to decide how you want to live.” She knew she was no help, but what else could she do?
Old Man Johnson raised his spotted balding head and cleared his throat. “Then we stay,” he said decidedly. Mrs. Tookie smiled and patted Mattie’s hand. Then she nodded at the money on the table and started counting.
Mattie locked the door behind her and stepped onto the sidewalk. She crossed the intersection and walked tiredly toward home. She was passing the little park space two blocks from her apartment building when she heard loud sniffling. She felt a moment of fear, thinking it could be some young kid out to rob or the crazy customer from earlier today could be lurking around waiting for the chance to pay someone back for humiliating him in the diner. She started to walk faster but something made her stop. A passing car’s headlights illuminated the little green space for a moment and she thought the huddled up figure looked familiar. Then she heard the muffled sob again.
Her mind told her to run but her heart wouldn’t let her pass this person by. Somehow she just knew it was a female crying in the dark. What if she was hurt? She might need help. This was no place for a woman to be out alone all night. Mattie cleared her throat and said loudly, “Excuse me. Umm, do you need help? Are you lost or something? Maybe I could call someone for you.” There was no answer.
Another car passed. The light flashed on the person’s face. Mattie recognized her from outside the diner this morning. She cautiously walked toward her. “Can I help you somehow?” No answer. Mattie stopped, and then she remembered the smart comment as the woman was going out the door. “You can still talk, can’t you?” That got a response.
A raspy voice fired back, “Yes I can still talk, thank you very much.” The figure stood up and walked into the light of the streetlamp. She blinked several times and wiped her eyes on her shirtsleeve.
Mattie saw the tear streaks down her dirty face. Her eyes were red and swollen like she had been crying for a while. Mattie also noticed the cuts and bruises on her forehead for the first time. She quickly rummaged in her pockets and pulled out a handkerchief. She offered it to the woman. “Your face is dirty.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The woman looked at the little square of white cloth, dumbfounded. She narrowed her eyes and said, “Sorry. If I had known you were coming, I would have tidied up a bit.”
Mattie snorted in disgust and turned to walk away, crumpling the handkerchief in her fist. “You are an ass. That is what I get for trying to help you. Goodnight.” She stormed down the block. A few minutes later, she panicked as she heard footsteps running behind her.
“Wait! Please. I’m really sorry. I know you were trying to help and I am grateful for it.” The woman was out of breath when she caught up with Mattie. She bent over to catch her breath. Mattie waited, not sure why or even if she should. This woman could be a complete loon. Why else would she be sleeping on the street? But Mattie stopped and waited for her. “Listen, I am sorry for smarting off. I just don’t know how you could help. I don’t know anything at all actually.”
Mattie told herself, Yep she is a loon. “Maybe you should look for a shelter. It’s not safe to be sleeping outside like that. I’m sure they could help you find one at the police station.”
“I don’t know where that is. I…” The woman stopped talking and pressed her sleeve against her nose to catch the blood that was slowly trickling down her lip.
Mattie grabbed the handkerchief and pressed it to her face, squeezing her nostrils tight, applying pressure just under the nose. The woman frowned and shouted a muffled “Ouch” and tried to pull away. Mattie held tight and explained that the pressure would stop the bleeding. The woman calmed down a little but still looked guarded.
Mattie had noticed the dried blood stains on her clothes. “Had it been bleeding before?” The woman nodded yes, tears welling up in the corners of sad eyes again. She whispered that she thought it had stopped now, so Mattie carefully removed the stained cloth. The woman said thank you so quietly before she turned away to hide her tears that Mattie barely heard it at all.
Mattie knew she was crazy for even stopping to talk to a stranger crouched on a dark park bench but she just couldn’t leave her there. Besides, if she was going to do anything harmful she would have done it by now; nosebleeds don’t usually deter criminals. She grabbed her arm and pulled her along. “Come with me.”
“I don’t know you.” The woman resisted.
“So we are even. And if you try anything funny, I’ll knock you out, you hear?”
The woman blinked at her and allowed her to lead her down the street. They stopped in front of an old three-story building with a heavy concrete stoop. Mattie unlocked the door and led the woman into the foyer. She locked the door back and checked her mailbox. Junk as usual. They walked up two flights of stairs and down a dingy poorly lit hallway to door 212. Mattie looked at her hard then unlocked the door and let her in first.
A painted wooden sign over the television in the corner of the tiny living room announced HOME SWEET HOME. The woman looked at Mattie in amazement. She must be dreaming.
“You brought me to your home. Are you crazy? You don’t even know who I am. I could be a homicidal maniac for all you know.”
“I trust God. What could you possibly do against that?” Mattie sighed and hung up her light sweater in the little coat closet next to the door. She disappeared into another room and quickly came back with an old cotton gown. “Here, this should do for tonight. You might want to take a bath. No offense, but you do smell a little. We can figure out what to do with you in the morning. The bathroom is that door over there.” She pointed across the room to the door next to the one she’d just come through. “Are you hungry? I can heat up some leftovers or make a sandwich, your preference.” Mattie walked into the kitchen area and peered into the fridge. When she looked up again, the woman was still standing at the front door staring at her. “Look, I’m tired. You are obviously in need of some help. I don’t have anything for you to steal. Killing me certainly won’t help you. Besides you seem harmless enough. Just take your blessing and move on, okay. And if you do try something crazy, I’ll just punch you in the nose and you’ll be out of commission. Right?” Mattie smiled.
“That is not funny. But thank you anyway. Now that I think of it, you could be the homicidal maniac. Right?” The woman walked to the bathroom door and closed it behind her.
Mattie prepared her a little plate of leftovers and heated it in the microwave. She stretched out on the sofa and closed her eyes to rest just for a minute. Twenty minutes later, she was startled out of a deep sleep by the sound of a dish clinking in the sink. She jumped up.
“Sorry. I did try to be quiet. I didn’t mean to wake you.” A much cleaner young woman stood in the middle of the living room, the old gown hanging loosely about her thin figure. Her short afro was still damp from the bath, but she had managed to give it a little more shape though it was tightly compressed to her round head.
Mattie rubbed her face, taking a moment to register the situation. “Thank you for washing the dishes, but that was not necessary. I would’ve gotten them tomorrow.”
The woman bounced on her toes, almost taking a little step. “No, no. I should be thanking you, for everything. I just …I don’t even know how to begin to repay your kindness. I mean, you don’t meet an angel everyday.”
Mattie did not know how to respond to the compliment. No one had ever referred to her as an angel before. Not even her sorry ex-husband when she let him crash on her sofa for a week when his girlfriend threw his drunk behind out.
Mattie went to the closet and pulled out a blanket and gave her one of her pillows to use on the sofa. She apologized for the lumps and bid her goodnight. After a quick wash off in the bathroom, she went to her bedroom, careful to lock the door behind herself and crawled into her bed thankful to finally get some rest. She whispered an especially detailed prayer as she drifted off to sleep.