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“Black coffee, please,” Howard said.
In a café near his apartment building, Howard Reed sat down at the far corner table. After glancing around the shop, he slipped a bottle of whiskey out from under his ratty old winter coat. He poured it in his coffee, filling it to the rim, and then took a quick swig. Nearly gone, he thought, glancing down the neck of the flask at the alcohol swishing in the bottom. It had been quite full when he woke this morning. I’ll have to buy some more. As he replaced the container in the inner pocket of his coat he noticed a girl behind the counter gazing at him suspiciously. He pretended not to notice. Have I seen her here before? Honestly, she could have worked here for months and he wouldn’t have the slightest notion.
The young woman walked over to the table that Howard was occupying. “I should have you thrown out, you know,” she threatened. Howard’s heard all this before, he’s been thrown out of countless coffee shops, only to move on to the next one. He was actually quite surprised that he has managed to keep coming to this one for so long, and so close to his home. It’s not like he drinks any less here, perhaps more, compared to the other coffee places he’s visited. “I've seen you spiking your coffee every morning for a few weeks now,” her tone low, “do you have any idea how early it is?”
“Eight AM, I know.” Howard took a long drink of his coffee mixture before going on, “Is it really your business how early I drink, or how much for that matter?”
“No.” she admitted with a sigh, then plopped into a nearby chair. She scooted closer and after awhile asked, “Are you okay?” Startled, he blurts out a quick, “I'm fine.” Well this is new. No one had ever taken any interest in him before, let alone while confronting him for his inappropriate alcohol use. The normal tendency is for people to say little and get him out of there as quickly as possible.
“You don’t look fine,” she said with a small smile, “I'm Sharron Evans.”
“Pleasure,” Howard grunts. There was a pause and it became obvious that he wasn’t going to give his name without being asked.
“. . . And you are?” she asked.
“Howard . . .?”
“Nice to meet you Howard.”
Anxious to get out of the situation, Howard drank the rest of his concoction and stood up as fast as an elderly man could. “Heading home?” Sharron asked as she stood up also, clearly not letting him get way that easily.
“After some errands, yes.” her interest in him was beginning to annoy. She followed his slow monotonous footsteps out the door and down the sidewalk. “Shouldn’t you get back in there and back to work?” he asked, trying to get her off his tail.
“Yes,” she answered, without any sign that she was going to turn around and resume her daily work.
“Well . . .?”
“Pfft!” she scoffed, “Like I care about my dead-end job,” her small quick footsteps didn’t falter. Her persistence was getting to him. Frustrated, Howard downed the remaining contents of the glass bottle and attempted to smash it in the trashcan they were walking by. In the process, a sharp pain rippled through his chest and he gasped for breath.
“Mr. Reed! What’s wrong?” Sharron rushed to his side and held him up on his feet.
“My chest,” he grumbled.
“You need to sit down,” she said dragging him over to the nearest bench. “I’m going to take you home. Where do you live?”
“I’ve got to get some things first,” Howard said through clenched teeth.
“That can wait, you need to lie down for awhile-”
“NO.” he said, his voice alarmingly loud. “I need to get some things.”
Sharron decided to give in, “Fine. Where do you need to go?” He pointed across the street to the local liquor store. She was about to chastise him but decided against it, “Alright, I’ll run in for you.” He handed her some cash and told her what to purchase.
Howard watched as she jogged across the busy street and into the store. He was in too much pain to care if she abandoned him here and ran off with his money, or to be surprised that she came back in a few minutes, brown paper bag in hand. “Anything else?” she asked. He shook his head. “Where do you live, then?”
“Pine Grove Apartments . . . number fourteen,” he reluctantly muttered, “on the corner.”
“Great.” Slowly they hobbled to the end of the block and into the building. The weak man directed them to his door and he then let them into his humble abode.
Howard eased himself onto the dirty, worn couch, “Give me the bag,” he said reaching his hand out for the liquor. Sharron handed it to him.
“Do you need anything else?” she asked. Concern still in her voice.
He pulled out one of the purchased bottles and took a drink. Over the edge of the bottle he gazed at her and nodded. “I need my medicine. Second shelf in the cabinet in the bathroom. The orange container,” his finger pointed down the hall to the bathroom, door open wide.
Sharron carefully made her way over empty glass bottles, trash, some food, and cloths. As she walked by through the sparsely furnished room she spotted his mail kicked under the table, consisting of junk, bills and what she knew to be a welfare check. Glancing through the open door of his bedroom she saw more glass and debris scattered on his bed, the sheets in chaos. In the bathroom she found more evidence of Howard’s unhealthful habits. In his cabinet was a disarray of medications and unused or expired personal hygiene products. Some of the drugs she didn’t recognize, but she did recognize some pain pills, heart medications, and anti-depressants. The seal hadn’t even been broken on the later.
She grabbed the orange container, which housed the needed assortment of what looked like pain and heart medication. When she returned to the sitting area she handed Howard the pills and watched as he put them in his mouth and moved to take a drink of alcohol. “Should you be drinking with your medication?” she asked alarmed.
“No,” and he washed them down with a long spiteful series of swallows, “but that’s never stopped me.”
Defeated again, Sharron looking around for a place to sit. Curiosity building as she gazed at the dirty room, she asked, “Do you live with anyone?”
She spied a small armchair covered with various items, while clearing it off she continued to inquire upon the strange man, “Do you have any kids?”
“You don’t have anyone, do you?” Sharron stood still, his belongings in her hands, looking at the forlorn man.
“Nope. Nobody,” he said matter-of-factly and took another drink of the vodka she bought for him.
Finished with the chair, Sharron sat, stirring up a cloud of filth and dust. By now, the alcohol had helped to make Howard forget about his anger and annoyance and he was beginning to enjoy some company for a change. She’s very attractive. The thought crossed his mind for the first time, but not the last. He knew that he was way too old for such things and that she was way too young for him, but he took the pleasure of letting his mind wander through numerous fantasies.
They stared in silence for an awkward amount of time. Finally, Howard asked, “How old are you?”
“Twenty-two,” she answered, and the silence settled back down while the drunk went back to his weak and muddled mind. Sharron startled him by asking, “How did you get to be so alone and . . . well you know?” she glanced at the brown bag in his lap and the bottle in his hand.
“Bad memories are best left hidden,” he snapped. Howard couldn’t remember the last time he had thought about such things.
“Oh.” Looking down at her lap Sharron paused before going on, “I haven’t had the best past either.” She leaned back and slouched deep into the disgusting upholstery. With a sigh she began, “My parents kicked me out at sixteen.” Howard listened indifferently to the blurry young woman. “I had gotten pregnant. Its not like I planned to, it just happened. They just wouldn’t . . . they wouldn’t understand anything,” the sadness of her face grew, “I dropped out of high school and lived with a friend. . . I lost both of them in a car accident a three years ago. My baby girl was almost one year old.” There was a long pause before she continued, “After that, I’ve gone from job to job. I live alone. I haven’t had anyone since I lost them.”
He had begun to listen more intently, “Is that it? Are you just going be content with barely getting bye?”
“Why not? Like my life really matters. It obviously works for you. Plus I’ve basically given up on living since all that happened.”
“Don’t you have dreams?” Howard appeared to try to sit forward, unsuccessfully. The alcohol had taken more effect than he thought.
“Well . . . Before I dropped out I was working on becoming a poet or an author, but I gave up on that years ago. It’s not like I could get published anyway, my work isn’t good enough for that.”
“You don’t know that. Have you ever had anyone read them?” His words were hardly decipherable and slurred.
His blood pulsed in through his intoxicated body; a sense of urgency had passed over him. What for, he couldn’t remember. Maybe another drink will help clear my mind. He leaned back and drank a long, full drink. His eyes closed. Soon, he was deep asleep.
* * *
Over the next few weeks, Sharron visited Howard everyday, at the expense of her job. Unemployed, she spent nearly all of her time with him. She felt as if he needed her, and she needed him. An odd friendship, but beneath the drunken rages, the age difference, the unspoken despair, she could see how much she was like him. When he would pass out from alcohol consumption, she would attempt to clean up the apartment until he woke and the conversation could be continued, or she would return to her apartment and search the classifieds with waning gusto.
This particular day, when Howard drank himself into a fit it wasn’t the usual silence or anger. This time, when Sharron walked through the open apartment door, she found him in his bed, in a soiled t-shirt and underwear, weeping. “Howard? Howard what’s the matter?” she walked over and sat next to the shuddering wrinkly mass. He looked like a child, lonely and desperate. At the sound of her voice, he turned and looked at Sharron. His eyes, large and bloodshot from alcohol and tears, he managed to let out a stream of curses and demands.
“Who are you? Get out! NOW!”
Used to him not knowing who she was after excessive drink, she cooed, “It’s me, Sharron. Remember, we met at the coffee shop. I’ve been coming over for the last month or so.” Her voice was calm and soft, like a mother comforting her child.
“Sharron… Sharron!” he tried to sit up and managed to with help. “Look at me,” when her eye met his, he said, “ I want you to promise my something. I want you to promise me that you won’t let yourself become what I've become.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said with the same tone of voice. Poor man, he’s so miserable.
“I don’t want you to have to live like this, barely able to pay rent after buying liquor with your retirement money.” The tears began to fall stronger, “I want you to do something with your life. I want you to be all that you can be.” His wobbly body lay back on the bed. He took a deep breath and another drink. “When I was young . . . when I was young I wanted to be a baseball player. I practiced and practiced. I was on he local team and applying for a scholarship. My father forced me to get a job in the coal mines in the meantime, near the town I used to live in. Like he did and his father did and his father’s father did.” Sharron quietly slipped the bottle out of his hand as he spoke. “There was a cave-in when I was eighteen and my wrist was hurt, so I could never play again. After that I started- well, you know.” His shaking hand waved toward the empty bottles of alcohol that were scattered everywhere. A groan spluttered out of his mouth and he stared off into space. “Just don’t waste what time you’ve got here.”
By now, his tears had ceased and the two people sat together until Howard finally fell asleep. Sharron pulled the musty blanket up over him and turned to leave the room. Just as she was closing the door, a cry of pain pierced the silence. The terrified woman rushed back into the dark room to the old man’s side. His hand was on his heart and his cracked unclipped nails dug into his skin. His face was twisted into a wrinkled expression of intense anguish. “Howard? Howard!” Sharron was in a panic. His free hand gripped her wrist and she rushed to dial the numbers 9-1-1 on her cell phone.
* * *
The snow and ice blanket the small cemetery landscape. Tears turn to frost on the mourner’s cheeks, bright red from the cold. She alone stood to watch as her dear friend’s broken body was laid into the cold earth. She alone organized and attended the lonely man’s final goodbyes. Carved into the small concrete headstone are the words:
“Just don’t waste what time you’ve got here.”
~Howard J. Reed~
In the sad woman’s numb hands are letters of application to the local colleges and a notebook filled with her works of literature. Including a currently unfinished story of an elderly man, who had nothing, but inspired everything in another.