He was short and bow-legged and wore a pair of old Levi’s jeans he refused to wash. He had thick eyebrows and weathered skin and three missing teeth. His name was Cecil and he grumbled at everything he could. Usually he wore red checkered shirts each day and as he was boiling his coffee and shaving in the morning, he would call up his old company and try to convince them to let him come back.
He had sold oil, and made a little money, but that was gone now, and with it his happiness. Not that he had been happy with money anyway. He was grumpy because without his job his life had lost purpose.
One clear dusty morning during a particularly mosquitoey summer, Cecil woke late. He stumped over to the single-burner stove in the corner of his bedroom, made his coffee and poured it in a paper cup, and went outside to sit in the park.
Though the sparrows and robins were awake and dancing in the yew trees and dogwoods, and the wind sweet and the sun mellow, Cecil just sat with his mudgy coffee and watched the leave blow across the sidewalk.
He looked up as a young woman started to scream. Her fat toddler son was running gleefully toward the traffic. Cecil grunted and stood as the kid ran past him, fat fingers outstretched. Cecil squinted, set his coffee down, and grabbed the brat by his elbow. The boy’s feet flew up, off the curb, but Cecil held him tightly.
“Damn fool kid,” he told the gasping, sobbing mother as she came running forward, tripping over dogwood roots and scattering worried cardinals.
“Oh, thank you thank you! Oh god, oh my—oh thank you—I was, I was behind the tree, I wasn’t looking, I turned just for a mo’ and then he was gone, he was just gone, oh god, oh thank you so much—”
Cecil walked away from her, waving his hands and muttering. “Made me spill my coffee, damn kid,” he called behind him.
That night he went for a walk again, out by the Franklin Bridge. The bridge was black metal and shiny in the starlit darkness. It was a train bridge so no cars could get on, and thus the night was hummingly silent. The stars were glowing along with the street lamps in the distance, and below the bridge the Mordsmor River whispered past, splashing now and then against mossy eddies and old dank wood.
There was a rustling farther down the bridge, like shoes scrabbling against swollen wood. Someone sighed. Someone gripped the old bridge railing. Cecil drew closer.
“Eh boy, whatcha doing?”
The young man gasped and jerked around. His face was round and white and frightened. Moon-like.
“Go away old man!” he whisper-screamed. “Go away, you don’t wanna see this.”
“Boy,” Cecil said, taking the young man by his collar. “I went in on D-Day. Earned a purple heart. My socks rotted to my feet by the Seine. Got shot in the Rhine, blood all in the water. Woulda drowned if a big Polack hadn’t pulled me out and carried me to the shore. Boy I seen all things near and far. A little suicide by drowning isn’t going to scare me. Now you get down and let’s go have some coffee.”
The young man looked at the rushing rocky water below and back at Cecil. Then he nodded and climbed down. He stopped. “Coffee? At eight at night?”
Cecil jerked a smile. “Boy-o, you got some things to learn. Sometimes ya need coffee at eight at night.” He didn’t let go of the young man’s collar until they were off the bridge.
As they parted, after coffee and scones at Eleanor’s Diner, Cecil muttered, “Damn fool coward. Blew five bucks on that kid.”
Cecil sighed and stretched. Outside the sun was dawning but it looked paler than usual, whitewashed. Cecil thought to himself that perhaps the world was ending.
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” he sniffed, and tucked in his shirt.
He walked outside with his coffee in hand and sat at the bench as usual. A shy titmouse bird pecked at the crumbs by the sidewalk and Cecil watched it, waiting for it to scare and flitter away. But it didn’t. Even as cars rushed past in screaming silver streaks the bird stayed and picked at the sidewalk, and Cecil watched it.
After the noon rose, hot and yolky, Cecil walked to the Afternoon Grizzly and bought a half-slice of pizza and a pint of Blue Moon. It was pepperoni and spinach, and though the beer tasted stale he drank it down without a flinch.
He was standing to pay when he heard a sound like a fish flopping on a ship deck. A middle-aged man in tight jeans and throat tattoos was bent over his plate, red-necked, hands flopping. Grunting, Cecil crossed to the man’s table in a half-stride and yanked upward under the man’s chest, once, twice, and a crack sounded—the man’s ribs.
He jerked up again. There was a noise like a sink unplugged and a soggy half-chewed mass came out, enough to have once been a half a piece of sausage pizza. The red-faced man looked up, eyes watering (whether from cracked ribs or joy, Cecil couldn’t tell) and exclaimed, “Oh thank you sir, thank you, thank you…”
“Damn idiot,” Cecil grumbled. “The only ones who deserve tattoos are those who were forced to get them.”
To the man’s confused half-smile, Cecil replied, “Ever hear of Auschwitz? Second World War, fought to save millions of people?”
And then left, after he paid, shaking his head. The restaurant owner thanked him as well and shook his hand, smiling with huge white teeth. Cecil waved him away and stumped down the street toward home.
That night he sat on his bed. On the nightstand lay a worn Bible in a flood of golden light next to a framed photo of a woman with curly white hair. “Don’t know why there’s so many damn fool people in the world.”
And then he flicked the light off and pulled up the covers and watched the whitewashed ceiling and listened to the crickets until he fell asleep.