The old man’s boots are strung by their laces, hung on the neck of the guitar case resting on his knee. He’s on a bench at the bus station, waiting. I’m in a queue three stands away. He waves me over like a rich man summoning a butler but his feet are bare.
‘You look like you need to sit,’ he says, and slides along the bench. Above him electric lights crackle.
I’m confused because I’m young, healthy, and not tethered to a toddler. Why should I need to sit? His beard is square cut, old-time grey. I’ve never seen him before and he’s right: I’ve been six hours waiting tables, and my bus is half an hour away. Nobody notices that.
Being offered a seat calls for conversation. ‘Your bus due?’ I say. It’s the best I can do.
His shrug is exaggerated; puppet strings pulled by drink. Two buses come and go and he’s not waiting for public transport.
‘Then what’re you doing here?’
He wiggles his toes. ‘It’s nice to be around people living to a timetable.’ He pulls a silver hip flask from his coat, unscrews, swigs, and hands it my way. I know it’s scotch before it reaches my lips. He’s given me a seat and a shot and I relax on the bench. We’re not strangers; we’re humans who haven’t known each other long.
He takes back the flask and stashes it. There’s a square, purple bloom on the back of his right hand.
‘Where did you get that bruise?’
‘I hit a man,’ he says.
I wince; as a youth, he’d have had a solid punch.
‘We was talking, and I didn’t like what he was saying, so I hit him.’
I nod. I don’t say, That isn’t a knuckle bruise, but maybe he hears.
‘And then his dog bit me.’
He rubs a scab, a bite with corners. I’m sorry for him and I take his hand and kiss the bruise.
‘Now we’ve both got rabies,’ I say, but he’s not listening, distracted by his other
‘Well, wasn’t that lovely.’ He sits up, eyes sharper, and pulls the guitar case over his knee. ‘Can I sing you a song?’
I know he’s been playing for years by the way he tunes the guitar. His ear is clearer for notes than conversation. But he sets about strumming chords and his hand is shaking, fingers unable to form the shapes on the fret board. He manages a tune, something simple, and croons. A few coins fall into the open guitar case at his feet. He keeps the music going like it’s easier to talk that way, ‘That’ll buy me a little more,’ he says.
‘More what?’ I ask, but I’m intruding, talking over the music.
He coughs. ‘My lungs’ve had it.’ He hugs the guitar, but his hands don’t stop trying. There’s still a tune. ‘Cancer’s spread from one to the other.’
He wails. A single note, distinct from the crooning and it goes deep. His hands fail and the music stops. I stand and take the guitar, put it away. I hand him the coins.
‘Do you want help with your boots?’ I say.
‘What for?’ He stands. ‘Don’t need shoes where I’m going.’ He points. ‘Is that your bus?’
My ride’s pulled in. I don’t want to leave. ‘Are you going home?’
‘I’m going somewhere.’ He grins. His teeth are black and broken.
The queue for the bus is getting smaller. If I stay, it’ll be an hour’s wait, and I’m back again tomorrow for another shift.
I hug him. My arm across his back, my fist between his shoulder blades. I squeeze so hard our bodies blur. Nothing I’ve felt before—like I’m useful and not a waitress in a grimy burger bar. As if my young cells are slipping into his old body, replacing his diseased ones, and a hug is the only cure he needs.
From the bus I see him walk, unsteady, into the station, his boots swinging from the guitar case. He’s not there the next night, or any night, and I stop believing a hug can heal. That’s not nature’s way.
Instead, I collect everything I remember, from one night, one kiss and a swig of whiskey. His leather-thick soles, bunion on his right foot, thin blue eyes and soft grey hair. The resonant cut of his cry. And I begin to grow him on the inside.