There was nothing wrong with crossing his arms while sitting at a stop light, Luke told himself. That was how he was feeling today: in an arms-crossed type of mood, his hands locked into place and unmoving. A nice change.
A Bob Dylan song played on the radio in his car. The windshield wipers seemed to keep time with the beat, and the sound of rain provided an unremitting backdrop that almost accompanied Dylan’s unmistakable vocals. Luke turned the heat up and glanced into his rearview mirror, taking sight of the city's bright lights. For a moment, he wondered what it would be like to drive with his eyes closed. How would it feel to drive blindfolded, listening to Dylan the whole way home, as if he were on some semi-slow-motion roller coaster? He liked that idea.
Luke had his foot on the brake pedal and his eyes focused on the light, waiting for it to turn green. It was one of those “five minute stop lights,” the kind that made Luke think that he would be waiting there forever. But he had nowhere to go but home.
He never knew where the man with rotting teeth who walked the streets was going, though. He always seemed lost. Never carried a map. Forgot to pinpoint his destination years ago, it seemed. Luke spotted this tall and skinny man a few feet away, hurriedly making his way toward the railroad tracks.
He was wearing dark denim jeans, a black sweater, and white tennis shoes. He had a backpack slung over his left shoulder but no umbrella over his head that would keep him sheltered from the cold droplets of rain. Luke had seen the man around and always wondered if he was homeless. His belongings showed signs of wear and his spirits, just the same.
Luke turned around and looked at his backseat; for a moment, he imagined the man sitting back there, looking out the window in silence. Instead, Luke saw a brown suitcase, a baseball hat, and a red flashlight taking up space on the floor. An old water bottle looked rightfully in place because it could silently roll around when the car was in motion.
What Luke liked most about the city in which he lived was the constant movement. The pizza place on the corner took pizza out of the oven nearly every three minutes; the local bands were continuously strumming and drumming; the shoppers in the mall never quit going in and out of dressing rooms and twirling about in front of wide mirrors. There were escalators and elevators to ride, as well as plenty of stairs to climb. Hurrying from one place to another was the accepted way of life.
Luke enjoyed observing people. He liked to take note of actions and reactions, always keeping curious. This habit of people-watching appropriately lent itself to Luke obtaining a career as a greeting card writer. His application to the Cause I Said So Card Company was immediately accepted ten years ago on the basis that he would create positive reactions for recipients upon opening their cards and reading the sentiments inside.
This was an easy job for Luke. The difficult part was maintaining that he worked in the advertising department at a candy factory when his friends inquired about his career. Being a greeting card writer was a job that required no secrecy; Luke simply chose to establish that himself because he longed to witness genuine reactions from the people who received his cards, including his friends.
Writing greeting cards--whether they be thank you, get well soon, holiday, thinking of
you, special occasion or birthday cards--was not only a rewarding career, but also a lonely one.
Luke considered himself the most sentimental man in the history of lonely men. His family members lived 600 miles away. His friends were seasonal: he only saw Von in the winter, Chris in the summer, Pete in the fall, and Jim in the spring. His wife never existed because he never found one. He gave up his search five summers ago when he was turned down by a fashionable brunette who always wore her hair in a ponytail.
Luke’s favorite place in the city was a café that housed the smell of fresh-baked bread and vanilla bean coffee. A regular, he ordered the same thing every Wednesday: a turkey sandwich on French bread and an extra large ginger peach tea. The total always came to $8.25 and he would insist that the polite cashier keep the change from the $10 bill. Luke spent his time in the café completing crossword puzzles while eavesdropping on conversations that ranged from business to casual. Occasionally, he would read a magazine. He looked forward to watching other regulars enter the café; they would nod and he would reciprocate.
His routine went something like this: after his lunch at the café, he would stop by the greeting card shop less than a mile away. It was there that Luke would find some of his very own greeting cards lining the aisles. He would pick out a few cards, purchase them, and make a quick stop at the newsstand a block away before returning to his apartment. This routine would seem to negate the very purpose of his job--considering that he was being paid to make the cards, only to use his paycheck to buy them--but such a thought never occurred to him. He was determined to prove to strangers that other strangers care.
Browsing through the newspaper at the kitchen table in his apartment, he’d write down the names of the people who appeared in the obituaries, the newborns in the birth announcements, the couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversaries. There seemed to be no shortage of people that Luke could look up in the telephone book. Once he copied all of the addresses onto a blank sheet of white paper, he’d begin the task of filling out each card. He didn’t write much, mostly because what was printed was his writing in the first place, and it was just enough to get his point across. Luke simply signed his name—“A friend in the neighborhood.” He mailed a handful of cards every week, paying the increasingly high postage fees without any complaints.
His favorite card-giving memories came while he sat in the café, slowly sipping his hot tea. If there was ever a time he could get away with putting a few “Have a Great Day!” cards on empty tables, he would do so. Then he would secretly watch his recipients open the cards and express confused reactions, which were immediately followed by smiles. Oftentimes there came a sweet comment regarding the sender’s random act of kindness. These cards contained no money, no gift cards, no coupons—just the element of surprise.
There were times when Luke couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever be discovered, if his handwriting would give him away.
One day, it did.
The cashier at the café compared his handwriting from the crossword puzzle to the card she received from him on her birthday.
“So you’re the secret greeting card giver-awayer?” she asked with a smile.
Luke winked and walked away, carrying his food and drink back to his favorite table. He wasn’t sure how she figured him out, but he wasn’t upset. If anything, he sensed that she would keep his secret.
The rain refused to let up and Luke’s windshield wipers continued to swiftly dust off the raindrops. He thought to himself that today was the first day he had seen that homeless man in nearly a month. He wondered what he had been up to all this time.
Just as Luke was about to yawn one of those never-ending yawns, the stoplight turned green. He made his way up the hill leading to his apartment. It wasn’t until he was about to turn onto his street that he saw a man lying face-down on the side of the street. Luke automatically put on his four-ways and hopped out of the car in a panic.
Once he got closer to the limp body, he recognized the clothing and pushed the man’s
shoulder a little toward the sky so that he could see his face and confirm that it was him. It was.
It looked as if the man had fallen, but he appeared to have a black eye and a bloody lip. Luke assumed that he had gotten beat up, but there was no reason for anyone to commit such a crime. This man had never bothered anyone in the community. Luke tried to take his pulse as he stared at his back, hoping to see some kind of upward and downward motion that would signify that he was still breathing. Once he found a pulse, he called 911 and waited for the police to arrive.
The homeless man's demeanor intrigued Luke. It was obvious that he didn’t have any money to spend and had very little in the way of social skills, which may have contributed to his isolation. Perhaps this is what made Luke sympathize for him. Last month, Luke decided to go out of his way by purchasing him a “Thinking of You” card and placing in it a $20 bill, as well as a gift card to a nearby restaurant. It was a step away from Luke's typical card-giving routine, but it was a step that he wanted to take. While on his way to work that particular morning, Luke saw the homeless man walking along the street. Luke upped his pace, his suitcase in one hand and the card in the other. Once he caught up with the man, he tapped him on the shoulder.
“You dropped this,” Luke told him.
“Sure . . . uhhh, no,” the man said, avoiding eye contact.
Luke smiled and assured the man that the card belonged to him.
As Luke waited in desperation for an ambulance, his curiosity got the best of him. He unzipped the man’s backpack and looked through its contents. There, along with a pack of crackers and an empty water bottle, was the card Luke gave the man a month ago.
He hadn’t even opened it.
Fiction, poetry, and all that good stuff . . .