An Unexpected Hero Reveals the Dawn of my Existence

January 3, 2009
By Kayla Herrera, Hancock, MI

The night gave way to the day as the hushed creatures veiled in fat bundles of leaves and weeds hurried to meet with Slumber. In turn, the day-walkers emerged and squawked, squeaked, and squealed at passerby’s conforming to the tedious march of the corporate drones.

Fortunately, Kat and I were not a part of this crowd as our shoddy, torn jeans and plain t-shirts protruded the crowd like a dagger. Their judgmental gazes, furrowed brows, washed over us, hot and blinding like the sunlight that cascaded in through the windows of the café as we entered. Bustling bodies, flapping lips, and a persistent buzz of conversation polluted the environment, but it was a sort of pollution that settled nicely with the tones of our matching attitudes towards the day. Despite the loud environment, the noises in my head were hushed and gentle like the lulling waves on the rocks near the shore by the hotel. Kat, red hair bouncing as she swiveled her head, peered frantically into a chrome napkin container on the condiments counter and combed her fingers through. She didn’t need to adjust anything. She was the kind of girl possessing natural beauty who could wake up in the morning and still look as if she had spent hours preparing her impeccable appearance.
It was Friday and the sun had risen in the East as it always did, showering in through the hotel windows and enveloping the room like a radiant blanket attempting to shroud the mess left from the previous night. Bodies were strewn across beds, chairs and tables, contorted in awkward positions. Glasses sat empty on dirtied table tops; shoes were tossed in corners.
My attitude upon awakening was not so jolly for I was merely a silly pre-teenager, fifteen, looking ahead to a day of limited activities and such nonsense as helicopter parents. No, I did not attend my best friend’s birthday party where the parents locked themselves behind secure, hotel doors away from raging hormones and this subtle need to act older than what our faces revealed to others. I did not witness my best friend file a complaint against a drunken man who escalated the friskiness of the night with a simple movement of his wrinkled, chlorinated fingers. As far as they know.
The lights. Never had I seen lights that held such an intricate beauty, enough to astound even the feeblest of minds. Bands of light met the thin, metal shells and dispersed between the many beads of colors upon every café table.
“Know what you want yet?” Kat’s voice was a distant dream, an echo unreal to my present world. I was lost in adolescent thoughts, of the horridness of the world measuring up to the simplicity and splendor of this little café down the road from the historic hotel. My melancholy bubbled inside of me with no central origin. The dankness of my insides screamed and poked at my senses to pay attention. My head was elsewhere.
“Kayla? Coffee?” she said. The luminosity of her hair caught a gleam of the sun and shot into my pupils like an attempt on the death of me. Death by beauty. Secretly, I wondered if there was really any other better way to die.
“Oh yeah, caramel frappacino,” I said. My feet took me to a booth seated across from the bathrooms. I dragged my hand over the contours of my face and pushed aside my bed-ridden hair. Mother always told me never to sit near the bathrooms. The doors, they swing as rapidly and unpredictably as the beats of my heart at the possible sight of true love. Him, the boy with icy eyes, the black-haired angel who sipped his black coffee amidst the murky glow of the colored lights. He held a novel of distinct and volatile stories between his fingers and turned each page with his sallow fingers, roughened at the tips.
My radar picked up an intense feeling of interruption. Someone was watching with beady eyes and meticulous glances. I turned my head to the left and saw a man seated at the end of his table, trapped in the jaws of his wheeling device. From behind his thick glasses, his weathered face displayed a life of adventure, beaten by the winds of sudden change and the arbitrariness of life. His creases pooled around the corners of his mouth as he smiled at the article gripped between his trembling fingers. As if sensing my sudden interest in his features, he looked up at me, not in hatred or irritation, but with a certain twinkle of curiosity and joviality.
“Here, at first they forgot the whipped cream so I had to return it and then they forgot to drizzle the caramel on top so I had to wait longer and it was just such a mess,” she said. I was now facing the left pocket of Kat’s jeans where the old man’s face had been. Shaken off quickly, I sipped my frappacino, talking over events of the previous night.
The black-haired angel stirred, peered around the café before turning the page. He rested his foot upon the other and briefly arched an eyebrow before returning to the depths of his novel.
“Kayla, do you think we’re going anywhere in life?” The question was so concise and unexpected that my head snapped away from the black-haired angel and cocked to the right in thought.
“What do you mean?” I asked. We were, in fact, fifteen and sixteen and thriving. But what would spark such a thought from this young girl’s mind at a time like this? Could it be the gaggles of women squawking in the corner behind us, speaking of topics on marriage, children, and the next stimulating Tupperware party? I glanced at the old man.
“I mean, I’m sixteen. I’m going to start driving. I don’t even know what I want to be when I get older. I don’t know where I want to go to college. I don’t know what I want to do.” Her voice was high-pitched and worried and her slender fingers wrapped around a strand of hair. I looked at my own fingers, stubby and decorated with dark nailpolish, and tapped them on the surface of the table.
“I don’t know what to say.” My answer was brief and meaningless. I knew it. In such erratic episodes that Kat tended to display, I had developed a habit of tuning out the rashness of the topic. It was a bad habit, really. She expected me to possess the answers to life’s stirring questions, to tell her that everything was going to be okay. But today, I was in no mood to offer consolation to an aging teenager. I, myself, acquired no consolation from anyone. Not even the black-haired angel had glanced my way, his nose irremovable from the profundity of his novel. I was fifteen-years old. Life to me was a trip, a time offered to me for use of rebellion, spontaneity, and haste. Work? Never. Love? Obviously, not bound to happen. My fragile heart did not yet know true heart break and had not yet experienced the natural high of love and affection.
“Come on, we should get going,” she said, “I’m gunna stop in the bathroom really quick.” I nodded and meandered towards the front entrance near the glass double doors.
I leaned against the wall coolly with my arms crossed over my chest. I had been staring at the black and white linoleum floor when I saw the old man in the wheelchair mobilizing his way towards the door. I glanced around curiously and studied the faces around me. Not one person moved at the sight of the man in the wheel chair. A few men glanced up meekly as if the sight of a wheel chair radiated sympathy and sadness. Despite their gloomy faces, they made no attempt to open the glass doors. Automatically, I gripped my fingers around the cold handle of the door and pulled it open for the man. A pole stuck out from the back and bounced gingerly with the motion of the chair. He gazed up at me with his coke-bottle glasses and smiled, lips pulled tight and eyes tugged into slits.
“Why thank you, young lady,” He said. His voice bellowed in a raspy tone. I followed him outside into the morning sun where the rays of light sprinkled amongst the bits of gravel in the sidewalk. Like metallic confetti left over from a Homecoming parade, they glittered, presenting a tantalizing effect on our eyes. He stopped and turned around.
“I’m Barney,” he said. He stuck out his craggy hand and I gripped it. I could feel the raised spots of calluses and wondered what he had done in his life to create such a terrain on the surface of his hands.
“You know, not many people would open a door for an old dog like me. You know how many times I’ve pushed open a door for myself? Plenty.” He rubbed his chin and I smiled in response.
“I want you to know something,” he said, “from my experience with this thing called Life, people like you go far.”
“Really?” My reply was almost immediate, maybe due to the shock of his sudden change in topic.
“Yes. Nobody really knows what one good deed can do for a person. So many doors can be opened. So many opportunities offered. But it’s nice people like you that really will do this world some good. Don’t you ever forget that; don’t let anyone tell you different. There are big things awaiting you in this life,” he said. My voice caught in my throat.
“Thanks,” I choked. I wasn’t sure he heard me for with one simple twist, he was on his way down the crooked, glimmering sidewalk. Kat emerged from the café.
“Who was that?” she asked. I watched the old man as he stopped at the curb and looked from left to right. His flag waved side to side and he pulled out a hat from a bag on the side of the chair and plopped it over the tamed, white hair on the top of his head.
“I don’t know.”
The old man in the wheel chair became a dot on the horizon as I turned on my heel and walked confidently back to the hotel, my chin a little bit higher and my spirit in accompaniment.

The author's comments:
Before meeting this man randomly at a cafe, I had sort of a negative outlook on life. But after this man said the things he did to me, I don't think my ways of thinking were ever the same. Even now, 4 years later at the age of nineteen, I still remember every detail of that day and how it changed my life. I hope by sharing this story, others will come to realize that one act of kindness or a few good words has the power to change someone's life.

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