I hadn't planned on returning to the diner across the street, but every morning when I tried to head straight to work, I felt like he was tugging on my heart, pulling me in the opposite direction. I couldn't start my day without making sure the man in the parking lot had a warm meal, and eventually I became friends with Sylvia, the diner waitress.
That day, back in March, started a whole new routine for me. I'd wake up and head to Bucking Bandits for coffee and to pick up breakfast for Man and Dog; the unfortunate names I came up with for them.
After Man had swatted at me that first morning, I chose not to try waking him up again. I'd cut up Dog's food and pour the gravy over the biscuits for Man; then I'd leave.
Pete, Bucking's owner, said Man would wait until I was out of sight to sit up and eat then he'd lay right back down and stay there until evening. Sylvia, who happened to be Pete's wife, said they let him use their restroom anytime they were open, but we had no idea what happened to him after seven at night when he would vanish.
Other than what Pete and Sylvia could tell me, I didn't know much about the guy. If it hadn't been for the note, I would've never known he did anything other than sleep.
One evening, after having gone to the diner a few times for dinner, Sylvia walked up to the counter where I was seated wearing the world's most infectious grin.
"What's got you so happy tonight?" I asked.
"You won't believe who came in today and you definitely won't be able to guess what he wanted!" She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper.
The weight gave away the fact that something was inside, so I opened it to reveal a small but beautiful turquoise stone. The note read,
"I wanted to say thank you. I saw this rock a few days ago and thought you should have it. It isn't much, but thank you."
I felt my eyes water before I could stop them and looked out of the front window to watch him for a moment. Turning back to Sylvia she smiled and shook her head.
"Go on and sit out there with him. Just bring me my dishes back when you're finished." She'd read my mind.
"Will you add a grilled chicken and fries to my bill and bring it out when it's finished?" I asked. "I want to make sure he has something tonight."
When she nodded, I picked up my plate and walked outside. Taking a seat beside Dog, I told them about my day while I ate dinner. All the mundane things I didn't realize I wanted to talk to someone about tumbled out of my mouth.
I started eating dinner beside them at least once a week, leaving a bag of food for him to eat when I left. Man never moved a muscle and Dog loved the attention.
Me? I was content.
On the days I didn't have dinner outside, I'd realize how lonely I truly was. This friendship, no matter how one-sided it was, meant a lot to me.
During the month of April, I always worried about Man's health. He fashioned some boxes and trash bags in an attempt to keep himself and Dog dry, but it didn't seem like it would be enough. I asked Sylvia to let me know if he ever appeared to be ill and one night I got a call from her, telling me he'd been sneezing. The next day, I went to The Market to buy some generic cold medicine, and I put the pill on his breakfast plate every morning for a week.
The next couple months seemed to fly by and when Independence Day rolled around it was scorching hot. If caring about this man had taught me anything about myself, it was that I'd be a worry wart when I became a mother. I was constantly looking at him through my window when I was home. I was always checking to see if he was shaded from the sun or protected from the rain, and I had no idea what I would do when it was below freezing. I was going to have to move and forget about this place if I ever wanted to be productive again. I knew that was a ridiculous solution, so continuing what I'd been doing; I worried, fed, and checked on him every day.
One Saturday in mid-August, Pop and I spent the day together. It was his forty-ninth birthday, so the plan was to eat some dinner and watch whatever was on television. After walking to his house and seeing how empty his cabinets were, I demanded we go grocery shopping instead, so we made our way across the street to The Market.
"I am perfectly capable of doing this stuff on my own, Bentley. I'm forty-nine, not ninety!" he hissed when I put three containers of Metamucil in his cart.
"It's on sale, and I know you use it! Stop your grumbling and just say thank you, Old Man." I rolled my eyes at him and headed to the toothpaste aisle.
I had started a collection of things I planned to get for Man in the front of the shopping cart by my purse. A toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant hadn't raised any questions, but it started to draw attention when I added body spray.
"Are you planning on smelling like a man for a while?" I looked at my father and decided it was past time I tell him what I'd been doing.
"There's this homeless man that lives by Bucking Bandits. I've been feeding him for a while now, and I guess I just worry about him a lot. I don't know why I never thought to get this stuff before today. I kind of feel like a jerk now."
"How long have you been feeding him?" he asked while stopping in the middle of the tampon aisle. If that wasn't awkward enough, we were talking about something I had been keeping pretty close to my heart for the better part of five months.
"Since March," I answered.
"First of all, it's foolish for you to think you're a bad person for not providing anything outside of food. I'm sure he appreciates everything you've given him. Secondly, I'd like to get out of this aisle. Let's continue this conversation around something I'm more comfortable looking at."
"Pizza," we both said at the same time. As we walked to the frozen pizza aisle, Pop started questioning me about Man.
"Alright, so what do you know about this guy?"
"Well," I said in a voice I hadn't used since the eighth grade when he'd caught me kissing Dave Hilton behind the shop, "I'm not sure about much of anything, to be honest. I know he's homeless and he has a dog. He's never once been awake when I'm out there, so we've never had any interaction with each other. Now, Sylvia, that's the waitress I told you about, she said he comes in from time to time to use the restroom. He gave me a thank you note once with a beautiful stone in it, and that's the extent of his acknowledgment of my existence."
"Are you attracted to him? Is that what this is?" he asked.
"Honestly Pop, I've never even gotten a look at his face. I know he's scruffy, but that's because Sylvia said so. All I'm certain of is no one takes care of him. I mean, he barely does that himself. Financially, it isn't a burden for me to feed him so I feel like I should."
"Kid, I'm not stoked about you doing so much for someone you don't know. I think you should think things through before you do them. Unfortunately, even if you have a good heart, people will try to take advantage of you." I could tell he was debating what else to say so I gave him the time he needed to sort out his thoughts. "You see yourself as helping someone in need, but I see it more as enabling him. Right now he probably doesn't worry about eating because he knows you'll be there to provide his food. What would happen if you didn't feed him one day? What if you completely stopped? Would he get angry? Come looking for you? I'm sure he's watched you walking in and out of your apartment building. It wouldn't be that hard for him to find out which one was yours. I'm proud of you because you have a good heart, but you are also the gatekeeper to your heart. Your voice alone has given away your emotional connection to him. Don't let just anyone in, make them earn that access."
"That was kind of poetic, Pop," I smiled.
"I know, I surprised myself there for a minute." He tugged my ponytail and took over pushing the cart for a while. We talked more about being careful with my heart, and he scoffed when I told him what I'd been calling them.
"It worries me that you couldn't come up with anything better than that. Man and Dog. How insulting," he said.
All in all, he was right about me needing to be more careful. I didn't notice how much I had begun emotionally relying on my moments with Man. I didn't put anything back, and I continued to pick up a few items here and there for him and Dog, including real dog food.
I decided I would give myself a deadline. I would stop feeding Man after winter. I couldn't enable laziness, and if that's what this was, I couldn't support it. I may not have known what his story was, but I had made up my mind.
When Pop dropped me off at home, Man was long gone. After saying goodbye and telling him "Happy Birthday" for the hundredth time, I went upstairs, blasted music and put all of Man's new things in an old backpack I had. Crackers and apples made it into the bag along with the personal hygiene items. I hoped that maybe a few of the items would help job prospects if he'd been having trouble in that area.
A few days later something came over me. I don't know what I was thinking or why I decided to do something so crazy, but when I got home and thought about my actions, mortification settled over me.
I was washing my dishes when all of a sudden I thought about the possibility that Man had a wallet. If he had an ID, I could figure out a little bit about him, so I made my way over to his sleeping body and sat down.
"Alright, Man. I'm going to look through your stuff. If you want to stop me, you're going to have to do so now." I waited for a beat and then added, "My dad said some things the other day when I told him about you. It was just a bunch of girly stuff about my heart, so I won't bore you, but I need to figure a few things out."
Again, I waited a moment longer before I reached my hand over and felt up my homeless friend's butt. I started patting him down, looking for that familiar shape of a wallet and I came up empty. Next, I grabbed his bag that was half way tucked under his belly and pulled. His weight was hard to fight, but I won in the end.
"You sure are heavy." I huffed. I unzipped the bag and began searching.
Nothing. There was not one thing I could take away from my crazy moment. Finding only items I'd bought for Man, and random things that he'd probably picked up along the way, there wasn't anything informative about his belongings.
"Well, aren't you a mystery," I said before sudden embarrassment flooded my cheeks. I stood up and walked back to my apartment, promising myself I'd never look through a sleeping man's things again because, well, who does that?
By Halloween, I had well gotten over the incident, and things were back to normal. I spent the morning helping Sylvia put goodie bags together for their neighborhood trick or treaters, and then I headed home after giving Man his very own bag of candy.
I was almost certain there weren't any children in my building, or for that matter on my block. Instead of handing out candy as I did with Pop when I was growing up, I did adult things. Meaning I paid my bills online, prepared a couple of simple meals for the next few days, and did my laundry. One of the perks of the building was that each apartment had a personal laundry room. After adulting, I decided to revert to my teenage years, and I picked up my favorite novel to read.
It was nearing midnight when my cell phone started ringing. Since my father was the only one who would call me, I was surprised to see a blocked number on the caller ID. I didn't answer, and they didn't leave a message, so I forgot about it and went to sleep.