There are many things that Age does to you, but the only one I can remember at the moment, is the awareness of the fact you’re still here and being done to. It engenders a great need to reciprocate. Repay the debt. And whatever you’ve used the most, is probably the best place to start. That raises a few problems, however.
I figure the local MacDonald’s is unlikely to notice if I clean my place before leaving –and anyway, there’s always gum stuck under the table that I refuse to touch. And as for Starbucks, I think the best thing I could do for them would be to drink up quickly and get out to free up a seat for the people always waiting in the queue –but then my sausage and egg sandwich would never get a chance to cool.
I was sitting with bared egg and meat, and just toying with my coffee to fill the time the other day, when I saw James at the counter, just starting to argue with the barista about how he wanted his cheese bagel treated -we’re both well known in Starbucks for our peccadillos.
I stared in embarrassment at my coffee and was suddenly taken by the thought that perhaps our best gift to them might be to go to Tim Horton’s, when James suddenly appeared at my table.
“Always somebody new behind the counter,” he grumbled, without even saying hello and leaning his cane perilously close to my naked, cooling sandwich.
We sat in silence for a few minutes while he adjusted the position of the little cheese particles on the bagel for some reason. I asked him about this once, but he’d only stared at me and said that in Africa you always had to sort out the cheese from whatever else had wandered onto the bun. The fact that he hadn’t been stationed there for fifty years or so never seemed to mitigate the need, so I always let it pass.
But that day, I was in a contemplative mood. “Do you ever feel thankful that you’re here, James?” I said it with an obvious italic, but his brow furrowed and a portion of his lip let a segment of tooth escape captivity. “I mean, that you’re still alive and with friends after all these years?”
“Didn’t succumb to parasites, you mean?” His thoughts were still on some troublesome lumps that might be disguising themselves as cheese.
“Well… Yes, I suppose. But also that the community helps us, and…”
“That’s not cheese!” he hissed to no one in particular, and swiped the offending particle off the bagel with a contemptuous thumb. I sensed he wasn’t really listening.
“I think we all have a duty to repay the community,” I added –addressing my breakfast sandwich. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
James was already stuffing bits of the bagel into his mouth. I saw another suspicious bit of something just disappearing over the rim of teeth, but I decided not to tell him.
“Any ideas, James?”
It was admittedly a poor time to ask, but he responded nonetheless with a glare that would have easily reheated my sandwich had I not just replaced the bun over it. He shrugged noncommittally and continued to obliterate what shreds of cheese and lint may have chosen to hide in the previously untouched crevices of his mouth. “Already paid for the bagel…”
I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t mean Starbuck’s, James.”
He slurped some coffee and swished it around in his mouth to flush out the hiding cheese bits. “You’re obviously thinking about it the wrong way.”
I stared at him for a second. “How do you mean?” The uncaring lout.
He grunted and then attacked the other half of the bagel. “Repayment,” he said, as a particularly large chunk of it disappeared like a lump of coal into a furnace.
I tilted my head in what I hoped conveyed a sense of puzzled annoyance, and sampled my sandwich in frustration. It was now too cold, and the egg had borrowed the consistency of his cheese bits.
He continued chewing until he had cleared enough space in there so his words could escape. “You’re talking just like them.” He accepted my glare with a magnanimity that surprised me. Then he poured another mouthful of coffee between his teeth, and clacked them together a few times before swallowing. “Look, if you want to give a friend a present for being nice to you, do you call it a repayment?”
I shook my head warily; I could almost hear the door of a trap creaking open.
“No. You call it a gift.” He smiled, but there was a large piece of cheese peeking out between his teeth. I hate that, but I didn’t want to be rude and interrupt him. “And what kind of a gift would you give a friend?”
I suppose he thought he was leading me towards the answer, but I must have misunderstood his directions because I was still lost. I smiled anyway and sighed. “You always seem to have some good ideas, James…” I said slowly, and pretending to catch his drift, but hoping he would then explain what he meant.
He seemed surprised that I had caught on so quickly though, and swished another mouthful of coffee through his teeth with obvious satisfaction. That, however, finished off his coffee, and since he had already devoured his bagel and deposited the cheese detritus remaining on his plate onto his waiting tongue with a moist finger, he scraped his chair back to leave. Starbucks was just a utility stop in his day and he accorded the experience no more thought than a visit to a washroom.
He grabbed his cane and knocked it on the floor a few times to get it ready for the journey and levered himself to his feet.
“Gift?” I asked hopefully as he prepared to leave.
He nodded sagely. “Gift,” he reaffirmed, pleased that I had truly understood.
Now I was really confused. “But…” I started to say as he turned to leave.
He turned and looked at me for a moment, then shrugged, obviously annoyed that he had misjudged me. “I’m fond of beer,” he said softly and walked away shaking his head.