I open the vertical blinds to let in a piece of the world and there he is, as usual. He’s seated on a green plastic lawn chair, breathing in tar and nicotine, a plume of smoke spiraling around his bearded face. He takes one last drag then snuffs out the fire that keeps it lit. He has pulled the chair from under the awning, so he can face the sun and, like a sunflower, tracks its daily path across the sky. He seems to need the sunshine as much as the nicotine, and it bathes his face and warms it and lights up his eyes.
His name is Dan. I don’t know his last name; he never offered it and I never asked. But we always greet each other by the first name and wave like we’re old friends.
He came into my life a couple of years ago while my little dog was relieving himself in the grass. Dan limped over and made my acquaintance. We might have shaken hands. When Bailey was done, Dan dropped to his knees and loved him up. His eyes lit up as he told me stories of the various dogs in his life.
It was hot outside, suffocating. I mentioned that fact, and he said he loved the heat. I wanted to tell him I didn’t like the feeling of moisture on my armpits but kept that to myself. I told him I was certain I would find my grandkids at the local pool today. His eyes turned fiery bright and said his first job was that of a lifeguard and said with enthusiasm that “it was the best job I ever had.” I don’t know why, but that revelation stuck to me like honey, and I filed it away in a part of my brain that is reserved for special things that I can find later unless they find me first.
This morning his arms are now folded neatly behind his snow-white head, his legs stretched out as if trying to recline but not quite succeeding. The sun has suddenly gone silent behind a wandering cloud, but his face still faces the sky, waiting for the cloud to move along. He appears deep in thought. Perhaps he’s young again, with the responsibility of an entire beach on his bronze shoulders where half-naked people enjoy the feel of hot sand under their feet and the taste of the salty ocean. Where no doubt he gazed upon the beauty of women in skimpy bathing suits as they chatted him up but, always, he had a watchful eye on the sea. Where the sun kissed his long blonde hair and bleached it even lighter and it waved with the pulse of the salty breeze.
I wonder how he ended up here where the cornfields rise like sentinels and the smell of pig poop wafts through the air. Someday I will ask him.
Most days I would scurry past him, almost wishing he wasn’t there so I didn’t have to engage in small talk. I don’t do small talk very well. I hurry by in a rush to be with children who call me Gramma, and I can escape this place where the shadow of death is never far away — it has claimed five friends in the short time I’ve lived here, so I don’t get too fond of folks anymore — I keep them at arm’s length. I’m friendly but I don’t engage; it’s much easier to wave hello and leave it at that. I guess I’m tired of saying goodbye.
But one day, one day when the clouds hung low and the sun strained to burst through, I was coming instead of going, and Dan approached me with a brisk gait and made small talk, and what he said revealed a side of him that had escaped me. He let something slip, a vague commentary on a deeper side of the Dan I knew. He had the same fire in his eyes as when he spoke of his first job. Through a grinning mouth, he asked me to guess what he might be getting, but before I could offer a guess, he said he might be getting a dog — a dog whose head came to Dan’s shoulder and was offered to him free of charge. My heart sank because I knew that the Powers That Be would never allow that to happen. They have a 10 lb. weight limit on pets here, and I sadly broke the news of that to Dan. And then, the slip — a few spoken words that trailed momentarily on the air then quickly faded away — but not before I captured the memory and put it in that special place in my brain. He told me that he could get a letter from his doctor for a therapy dog for people with depression. That was a revelation I understood only too well, for it was my story too.
I don’t try to scurry past Dan anymore or wave him off and go on my way. Instead, I try to put myself directly into his swath of sunshine as he soaks in the rays that help to light up his world. I try to get in close and make small talk that might turn to nuggets of gold. He is here, all alone, every day with the shadows that threaten to block out his light. I asked God what I could do to help this man who lives with the cloak of darkness upon his mind. I asked God. And He spoke. “Bake him something.” So, I scanned the internet for ideas and there it was. Peach cobbler dump cake, 3 ingredients. Yes, I could certainly do that, so I did. I felt the seeds of joy growing inside me as I dumped the ingredients one by one and, at the same time, felt the shame of the unfamiliarity of reaching out.
The sky was black except for the stars when I took the cobbler to Dan. I found him sitting outside in his green chair, taking a drag on his cigarette, dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and shorts. It was 40 degrees. I approached him, but not boldly like someone who belonged there and offered him the plate, wondering if I was being too intrusive. It felt very foreign reaching out to this man in such a personal way. He accepted my gift with surprise and great appreciation. I didn’t dawdle. I told him I hoped he would enjoy it, as I retreated down the sidewalk to my apartment. I could hear him saying “my oh my” as I walked away. But when I closed the door behind me, I knew that, although he was sitting in darkness, Dan had just seen some light — and so had I.