At first, I didn’t mean to meet him. It had been an accident that was the exact opposite of my intentions. The mini mart hadn’t even opened yet since Bob was late, though that wasn’t unusual. It happened from time to time. On a few occasions, he never came at all depending upon his mood. So I leaned against the front door and crossed my arms. Before my shift I always stopped at the gas station and bought my bagel. I had a bit of extra time and since it was nice out I figured I would give Bob a chance to show up. Only he wasn’t the one who did.
It couldn’t have been more than two minutes, when a big white monster of a car rolled off the interstate. Actually car was the wrong word, but it wasn’t a 16 wheeler either. Some sort of van in-between painted in off white with blue stripes down the sides. The exterior was desperate for a wash and the engine was louder than a lawn mower. I didn’t think that this was Bob. Just probably someone else passing through. After it parked in front of the pump, the absence of the engine made the air feel unnaturally quiet. I shifted uneasily on my feet. Waiting alone was okay, but two was a crowd.
Flicking my wrist up at my watch I meandered away from the door, and down the walk just as the driver’s side door slid open and closed. I decided suddenly to give Bob only three more minutes, putting off the notion that I might be eating from the vending machine later . Flicking my eyes down to my shadow I tapped my fingers against my thigh, ignoring the footsteps approaching. At least I was trying too. I heard him try the doors, and then the words “When does it open?”
Obviously he must have been talking to me. His voice was rough like sandpaper and his shadow was big enough to eat mine. It was with effort I pulled my eyes up to his red polo shirt. “Seven, supposedly.” I added the supposedly because it was 7:12 now, and his shadow gave me the impression I should be polite. The shadow crossed its arms, but as he turned I realized part of the reason it was so big was because of a backpack slung over one shoulder. I looked away and walked a few paces then stopped. So not to make it seem like it was his presence that was making me uneasy I took two steps back. One more minute Bob.
“You feel okay kid?” My shoulders jumped to my ears and in my surprise I met his eyes. Gray hair, black baseball cap, and skin that looked like it had never seen a day out of the sun. He must have been around 60 and he stood stock straight like a pole was running through his spine. With my skinny arms and wire frame I must have seemed much more cowardly looking.
“I’m fine.” I straightened my back to match his and dropped my arms to my sides. It was time to go.That would put an end to the small talk. But I would be sure to save a few words for Bob the next time I saw him.
I made to leave but that hard voice latched out again, and stopped me in my tracks. “You live around here kid?”
“Not far.” I answered, now stuck in the ropes of small talk. It would be the polite thing to ask him a question next, I knew. And I was nothing if not polite. That was the only thing really I had to my name. “Are you visiting?” There was no way he was from around here with that accent.
“I’ll be here for a week. Then I’ll be off again.”
“You could say that.” He smiled. With that vehicle and that shadow I didn’t think that was possible. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered me one. I shook my head. Smoking was an expensive habit, one that I couldn’t afford. Not if I wanted to eat breakfast every day. The gesture though was enough to relax me. “I’m retired. Every day is a vacation.”
With work looming in my mind, the notion seemed exotic to me. “Well, I do admit I’m jealous.”
“You’ll get there.” he said, like it was inevitable. A fact, a rule. I admired his confidence. It made me forget, for a moment, my last paycheck.
“Maybe.” I sighed.
He pulled the cigarette from his mouth. “You won’t with that attitude.” He said loudly, but not unkindly. His laugh was abrupt and clipped. “Life is out there for the picking. You only have to be strong enough to grab it.” He pointed to his head. “It all starts here. Right or wrong?”
His tone warranted no other answer. “Right.”
He took another drag on his cigarette and gestured to me. “Stand up straight, hold your head high, and remember the only things that can hurt you are the things you let.” He gave another of his brusque laughs. “Life is good.”
I laughed too, only half ironically, and straightened my shoulders. “Life is good.” There was nothing wrong in his words, they were true. But I couldn’t help but say, “But what about when bad things happen?”
“Bad things will always happen, that’s life. But so will the good. Every day you get up is another day that can be good. Remember that.” He flattened his cigarette against the trash can and tossed it in. “The world is a big place. That’s why I’m traveling. I’m going to go out there and grab it.”
I liked his attitude, his confidence. Maybe that was another reason why his shadow seemed so impressive to me. “Where are you from?”
“That’s no easy answer.” he put his hands on his hips and glanced up to the blue sky before looking back to me. “You see that’s my house, right there.” He pointed to the van. “I’ve been all over.” He paused for a moment and then added, “I picked up a little bit of myself wherever I went. So, if you wanna know where I’m from the most honest answer would have to be… everywhere.”
I inclined my head to him. I had never heard an answer like that before, not to that simple question. “That sounds like a mighty nice way to live.”
“If you think about it, it’s the only way to live. Why be from one place when you could be from all of them.”
“I’ve only ever known this town.” I said quietly.
He smiled once again and I noticed one of his front teeth was chipped. Nonetheless assurance shone from him like light from the sun. I would give anything for even just half his confidence. Would I ever be able to live like he did? I didn’t know the answer.
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a brown paper bag. Reaching inside he pulled out two wrapped oval shapes, and handed one to me. Underneath the paper was a bagel. I swallowed and spluttered my gratitude. I had nothing to give him in return, and I said as much.
As I sit thinking about him now I still hold close the last thing he said to me. It was this. “You drive your destiny. Everywhere is just that, everywhere. And most important, remember, life is good.”