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Sunlight

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“What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?”
The melodies from the radio floated through the air as a lovely background to the voices and noises within the room. It was just another day at work; sizzling fryers and ticking timers in the back, shuffling feet and rattling change behind the counter, laughing and chatting at the booths and tables. The diner was buzzin’, with all the regulars enjoying a break from work or a brief moment in their busy day to grab a bite and enjoy the energy of the place. All of the people were mulling around, conversing, basking in the beauty of such a sunny summer afternoon.
All, except one.
He sat in his usual lonely booth, like he did every day at a quarter to three. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I served the people their sodas or ice cream or burgers or fries. In the hustle and bustle of the afternoon rush, I struggled to take all the orders and return them to the right eager customer. But whenever I got a chance, I glanced in the direction of Table Six; and there he still was, silently observing those around him. Unless you set out to spot him, you would hardly notice him. He was a shadow in the back of the diner.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Silence.

“…anything? Sir?”

Tired eyes stared blankly ahead as the corners of his mouth dragged downward. It was a troubling expression to see on the face of someone who was supposed to be so young – still just a kid, really. He had been just barely out of high school the day he hopped on that Greyhound Bus a few years back. He and his family had come into the diner that day – what a fateful day – to spend just another hour together, eating breakfast around a table, like a family ought to do. When Momma bowed her head to say Grace, all she asked was that God make this all end soon, and to please, please, please let her baby make it home again someday, safe and sound.

Her baby hadn’t been scared - because that day, he hadn’t felt like anybody’s baby. He’d felt like a man, a proud citizen of his country, just doing what he had to do. He’d worn his brand new uniform in to lunch - the symbol of the American flag gleaning on his breast, his combat boots obsidian black, and his smile bright and wide. After his meal and all his long goodbyes, that man grabbed his bags and proudly went to serve.

Seeing him now, he did indeed look like a man – but no longer proud, he was instead bitter and reserved. I wondered if the weight of Lady Liberty on his shoulders had been too much to bear.

“Coffee. Black.”

When he finally spoke, it shook me violently from my memories. When the mug was placed steaming in front of him, he demonstrated movement for the first time since his arrival. For a moment, he was more than a shadow; but then his palms laid to rest around the mug, and he disappeared.

In between orders, I observed from behind the counter. The smooth ceramic under his fingers exaggerated their calloused skin and jagged nails. Crunched forward slightly in his seat, eyes cast down, sunlight from a nearby window strained toward him, struggling to reach him. On the rare occasion the rays did touch his skin, the resulting image was startling. Instead of a gentle caress on his cheek, the light simply glared off the white scar as it snaked down the side of his face. It was the cleanest and smoothest part of his complexion.

As if analyzing a fine painting, I spent long moments trying to find meaning in his every detail. A dull beige flannel shirt hung loosely over his frame, certainly past its prime. The blue jeans he wore were torn in several places, faded, the material worn thin. His dark brown hair was choppy and disheveled, and at least three days’ worth of growth showed on his jaw and upper lip, indicative of the lack of care he took for himself anymore. He had aged decades in the few years he’d been away, and was now but a shadow of his former self. He had become a piece of art - a still life, maybe, intended to be observed and pondered and quiet and alone.

“Hey… hey! Excuse me!”

I could have sworn I’d been watching him only seconds, but the crowd huddled anxiously around the front counter convinced me otherwise. I was welcomed back to reality by annoyed expressions and exasperated sighs.

“You ain’t bein’ paid to daydream, suga’. And my lunch break ain’t gonna last all day!”

I took their orders and payment and criticism as best I could. The cash machine rattled and clang-ed and the people continued to talk loudly, agitated. The cooks, shouting to each other in the back, hurried to prepare so many orders delivered at once. Glasses clink!-ed against the bar and each other as their contents frothed over. The radio played on in the back, but it did not fight to be heard over all the ruckus.
The customers sitting at the counter finally settled as they claimed their orders. As quickly as they arrived, they left again to sit and enjoy their meals. Once the room quieted, the melody could once again be heard over the speakers; a slow, melancholy tune.

“I read the news today, old boy…”

Immediately I looked back to the farthest, loneliest corner in the place. Table Six was empty. The position of the sun had changed, and its warm glow now filtered through the shades readily, illuminating the entire window. The rays lit up the coffee in the mug, still steaming and hardly touched. Sunlight glistened off a handful of coins on the table - just enough to cover the cost of the drink.

“…the news was rather sad…”

If you hadn’t been paying attention, you wouldn’t have noticed that anything about Table Six had changed. But now, the shadow was gone.


She walked through the front door of the diner the next day at ten past three. Her blonde hair, warm and radiant in the sun, fell straight down to the small of her back, like a sheet of pure gold. Her blue eyes sparkled in the light as they looked about, wide and kind. She was tall and slender, attractive and pleasant. She was everything he was not; she was small and bright and shining and alive. She was the sun and he was the shadow.

With a soft, smooth voice, she placed her order.

“A strawberry milkshake, please… extra cold, if you will. A day as beautiful as this deserves a special treat, ya know?”

I was certain there was no way this young woman was from around here. In a small town like this, everybody knows everybody – and I certainly saw just about everyone there was to see, working in one of the best joints around. I would have remembered someone like her; she radiated an aura which subtlety demanded your attention. The rest of the diner seemed to share my opinion; from tables around the room, all eyes were on her. People whispered to each other, curious. Two of the University boys, sitting at a booth, elbowed each other and looker her up and down, grinning. There was no way this girl could have lasted long in this town unnoticed. Maybe she was visiting, or had moved here only recently – maybe she was just passing through. I didn’t ask; I didn’t get paid to interrogate.
With no other customers needing my immediate attention, I contented myself by watching the sunny blonde girl. She sat down on a barstool and didn’t seem alone. Her feet swayed back and forth in her worn sandals, crossed at the ankles, as she sat with her hands on the stool behind her. Her deep green skirt flowed all the way down to her heels, cascading around her. She looked about with slow, observant eyes, as if afraid she’d miss some all-important detail of this day in which she was living. When she turned her head, I noticed the daisy tucked carefully behind her left ear. She rocked back and forth in her chair, letting the stool balance on its hind legs, before gently setting it back down again. She seemed blissfully at ease; as if she existed in a little world all her own, impervious to the rest of the diner’s chaotic atmosphere.
“A girl with kaleidoscope eyes…”

Suddenly, I saw her expression swiftly change from carefree to quizzical. Her blue eyes had stopped wandering about and they were now fixed on a far corner of the room. I followed her unwavering gaze - straight to Table Six.

“Order up!”

The glass dripped with condensation and radiated a soft pink glow. I turned to set the milkshake on the counter before her, but when I looked up the bar was empty.

I watched as she walked across the room to the farthest, loneliest corner of the place. I was helpless captivated by the scene, powerless to change the course of events about to unfold. Like watching a silent film, I was unsure of the ending but intrigued by the plot.

I didn’t understand what compelled her to approach him – why such a beautiful woman would seek out such a broken man. I would have expected a girl like her to avoid such darkness, to instead seek life and animation. I would have imagined such a cold, sessile being to repel her, to drive her away. But instead, she drew ever closer.

She sat down across the table from him with purpose. The diner and I continued to watch the unimaginable scene unfold. I admired her confidence in herself and her faith that he would not reject her company, but after many moments I still found no tangible explanation for her actions. She did not appear to know the man, and he certainly did not regard her as a friend. She did not approach him as if looking for something, as if waiting for him to hand her something that he’d borrowed and never returned. But in her thoughtful eyes she did seem to request something of him - his company, perhaps.
Slowly, the scene began to come together. As I watched her expressions and manners, I realized this was nothing more than an act of kindness. This girl, this perfect stranger, had approached a man she’d never met – a man who gave her every reason to stay away – with warmth and acceptance. And all she wanted in return, it seemed, was for him to be alive and well. It was as if she knew the young man before he became so cold – as if she was trying to light his way, to bring him out of his own darkness.
For a moment, I feared he would fail to see her light. I worried that my still life would remain just that – artwork, cold and unaltered. I was afraid she would be forced to become just another critic, to analyze the colors and textures and shapes, and then leave him once again sitting in the dark. But she spoke and she smiled, and in her gestures she was warm and inviting. Patient and kind, she waited. She believed in the person he was meant to be, and sat back and watched as the ugly man before her fell away.

As light often does when it comes in contact with the darkness, the sun began to illuminate the shadow. My still life came alive. A small, shy smile crept across his face. It was slow and hesitant and foreign - but there it was, nonetheless. The darkness began to slip away. In a breathtaking moment, I began to recognize the boy hidden in those shadows. The light fell on his eyes, which were suddenly bright, and his lips, which parted farther and farther as his smile grew. The clothes he wore didn’t suit him anymore – his scruffy beard looked out of place.

I had no clue how she’d done it, but with the pure simplicity of a smile, she’d brought that boy back to life.

She rose first, invitingly, still patient. This was a fragile moment, not to be rushed. It was foolish to assume he was wholly healed. After a brief moment of uncertainty, he, too, stood, tall and handsome. As she walked back toward the front, he followed, cautiously, but trusting. He was like a newborn colt, innately strong but outwardly hesitant, unsure how to proceed with this new concept called living. But she was right beside him, there to hold him up should his new legs turn feeble.

She sat at the bar and thanked me for the milkshake. He sat next to her. He looked at her and she looked at him, and when her eyes lit up his smile returned.

“Can I get you anything, sir?”

He looked at me when I addressed him, but his gaze quickly returned to her soft face as he replied. His smile refused to retreat.

“No, thank you. I…I think I’m alright.”

In this moment, the diner grew quiet, as if the rest of the world was slowly falling away. I left the two to enjoy their conversation and the thrill of being alive in such a beautiful world. My heart warmed at the sight of them, and the radio played on.


“You gave me the word, I finally heard,
I’m doing the best that I can.

I have to admit, it’s getting better;

A little better all the time.”





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