An Old Man Approached

Cal walked down the hallway.

“Do you guys want to go to lunch?”

They didn’t say anything. He turned the corner into Rafa’s office. Rafa’s chair was empty and his computer locked. Cal moved to Keri’s office, the door to the right. Keri looked up from her screen for a moment then waved Cal away.

“Sorry, I have to get this done,” she said, pointing at her screen.

Cal wrapped his knuckles on her door frame.

“No worries.”

Julie wasn’t in her office either, and Grant said he brought his lunch and was just going to sit on a bench outside, so Cal left alone.

The front door of the building opened to a parking lot, half full and steaming in the summer sun. Cal looked to his left and to his right. None of the restaurants in the business park looked particularly appealing, so he walked out of the parking lot, over the mulch and grass, and onto the sidewalk.

Cal decided to walk north towards the stop light a block away. He seemed to remember a Mexican restaurant down that way.

The trees next to the sidewalk were newly planted and didn’t provide much shade from the midday sun. When were those trees planted? Had Cal missed some Arbor Day company outing? He didn’t recall anything in the weekly newsletter.

Cal shuffled toward the light and saw that it was changing from green to yellow. He thought about ignoring the crosswalk sign and jogging across the street but thought better of it. His armpits were already wet and sticky anyway.

He stopped at the corner and pressed the button for the walk sign. An old man approached the same corner as he waited.

The light turned green again and the walking man appeared on the sign across the pedestrian walkway.

Cal and the old man started walking in the same direction. When Cal had reached the other side of the street, he looked at the location where he thought there was a Mexican restaurant. Instead, what he saw was a Chili’s. Cal was considerably hungrier than he had been minutes earlier, so he decided Chili’s would do.

He followed the sidewalk until it turned right into the Chili’s parking lot, and then he walked toward the front door of the restaurant. The old man followed him as he walked inside.

The air inside Chili’s was cool — almost cold. There was nobody at the hostess’s table, so Cal waited. He looked around the restaurant. It was quite empty, except for a group of old women sitting at a corner table laughing.

What could possibly be preoccupying the hostess, Cal wondered. The hostess’s absence was a silly reason to be annoyed, but Cal tended to get a little testy around lunch time when his blood sugar was dipping.

Plus, the old man was now standing just behind him, and that made him a little uncomfortable.

Finally a young girl with pins on her Chili’s polo walked out of the kitchen and to the front. She looked like she was probably in her first or second year of college. She picked up two menus.

“I’m sorry about that. Just two for lunch?”

She looked first at Cal and then at the old man.

“Oh, sorry, just—” Cal began, but the old man spoke in a voice bolder than Cal expected.

“Yes, thank you.”

“Right this way.”

Cal looked at the old man. He was confused. This had never happened to Cal before. He wasn’t sure how to react or what the old man was doing. But then he thought about his colleagues back at the office, and he decided to see where this all might take him.

So he shut his mouth and followed the hostess.

She led them to a booth near the window, not far from the table full of old laughing ladies. It seemed too close to them to Cal, considering that the rest of the restaurant was wide open. But he was eating lunch with a stranger, and his proximity to a group of happy customers seemed like a stupid thing to complain about now.

Cal sat down opposite the old man, who scooted all the way into the booth and leaned his head against the window.

Cal watched the old man. The waitress said, “Your waiter will be right with you.”

When the hostess walked away, Cal reached his hand across the table.

“I’m Cal.”

The old man looked at his hand and then shook it. He nodded but did not return his name.

Cal looked at the old man’s hair. It was neatly parted and silvery white.

A waiter approached their table carrying too glasses of ice water on a tray. He lifted the glasses and set them on the table. He sloshed some water over the side when he placed a glass in front of the old man.

“Hi, my name’s Ryan,” the waiter said. “Can I get you all started with something to drink?”

Ryan the waiter did not pull a notepad from his apron. He did not need a notepad to remember their drinks.

“Water’s fine,” Cal said.

“I’ll have a Sam Adams,” the old man said.

“Perfect. Be right back,” Ryan the waiter said.

Cal wondered if the old man thought he was going to pay for the old man’s beer. Cal had some money, but he didn’t particularly like paying for other people if he could avoid it.

“So, how’s it going?” Cal asked, unsure of himself.

The old man stared back at Cal and didn’t say anything.

Cal laughed. He may have forced himself to laugh or it may have been a nervous reflex; he couldn’t be sure.

Cal lifted his glass of water to his mouth and drank heartily. He didn’t take his eyes off the old man, who continued to stare right back.

Mercifully, Cal’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and saw a Facebook notification. He clicked on the notification. His sister had tagged him in a photo from four years ago. It was from the time he had met up with his sister and their parents at a lodge in the north part of his state. They had fought but had had an enjoyable time. He liked the photo.

The notification icon disappeared from Cal’s Facebook app. He pressed the home button and opened his text messages, pretending to have something to look at to distract him from the old man. The old man continued to watch him.

Cal swiped his thumb up and down the screen. He opened a message from his friend Cincy and pretended to type a message, then he closed his messages.

Feeling more agitated, Cal put his phone down and looked back at the old man.

“OK, you gotta—”

“Here’s your Sam Adams,” Ryan the waiter said as he set the beer down in front of the old man. “Do we know what we’re getting today.”

“Sorry, I need to look at the menu a bit more,” Cal said.

“I’ll have the Triple Dipper,” the old man said.

“Oh, I’ll just…should I come back when you’re ready?” Ryan the waiter asked, unsure.

“I’ll just have a bacon cheeseburger,” Cal said. He didn’t know why he felt compelled not to make the waiter feel uncomfortable.

“OK, and how would you like that cooked?” Ryan the waiter asked.

“Medium’s fine,” Cal said. He picked up his menu and handed it to the waiter.

Ryan the waiter picked up the menu from in front of the old man and said, “Great, we’ll get those right out for you.”

The waiter walked away and Cal looked back at the old man. The old man was now leaning with his cheek on his fist and his elbow on the table.

“Haha, OK. You…you want to tell me what you’re doing?” Cal said. He didn’t want to start a fight but he didn’t want to seem like a pushover either.

The old man looked back at him. At last, he opened his mouth to speak. Then he closed it. Then he opened it again.

“Do you have the time?” the old man asked.

“What?”

“The time? What time is it?”

Cal looked at his watch.

“It’s 12:20.”

“Thanks.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I know.”

Cal was getting very agitated. This old man was crazy. Why had Cal allowed him to sit with him?

The old man took a drink of his beer. Cal took a drink of his water.

“Look man, if you don’t tell me what you’re doing or who you are or something, you’re gonna have to leave,” Cal said.

“OK.”

“OK. So are you going to tell me anything?”

“No.”

“Goddammit. What’s wrong with you?”

The old man stared back. He took another sip of beer.

“What do you like?” the old man asked.

“Sorry, what do I like?” Cal said.

“Yes, what do you like?”

“I like lots of stuff. I’m not telling you anything, though, until you tell me who you are.”

“OK.”

The old man lifted his glass of beer. Cal slapped it out of his hand. It fell on the table with a glassy thud and the beer poured out across the table and onto the old man’s lap.

“There’s something wrong with you,” Cal said loudly. He scooted out of the booth and stood up. The old man continued sitting as the beer drained onto his pants.

“All right, I’ve got your bur—” Ryan the waiter started. Then he saw Cal standing up and the beer running off the table. “Uh oh. I’ll get some napkins.” He set the plates down on the table and turned around, back toward the bar.

Cal watched him walk away and then turned to the old man. He pointed at his face.

“I’m leaving. Don’t you follow me.”

“I won’t,” the old man said.

“Good.”

Cal walked toward the door.

“Excuse me, sir?” Ryan the waiter called as he watched Cal push the door open.

Cal didn’t respond. He walked out of the Chili’s and into the sunlight. He walked back up the parking lot and out onto the sidewalk. The crosswalk sign showed the walking man and Cal crossed the street in a hurry.

When he got to the other side, he turned back to see if the old man had followed him out. He did not see the old man.

He did see the group of old women who had been seated in the restaurant. They were just on the other side of the street.

Cal broke into a run.