Charles looks older than his sixty-one years; he is very thin and quite stooped, and his eyes are what I guess are described as “lazy.” One goes one way, and one another. He is badly in need of dental work. He has emphysema, though he continues to smoke heavily. His coloring is not right, and overall, he looks unwell.
But for the almost ten years I’ve known him, he has never looked well. He has always been thin, but he is more so this year. Yet his appetite is good. He eats every bit of his fish and chips, as well as the brownie, a birthday brownie. He turns 61 today.
We are seated at a window at Kingfish Restaurant on the Ohio River. While Charles is seldom very verbal, he opens up a little more as he regards the river, remembering out loud that when he was young, his father had a boat on that river. This day he mentions his grandfather too, saying he also had a boat. He smiles when he speaks of that time, and he doesn’t smile often.
At a nearby table are five or six men, all quite heavy except for one. The one thin man looked almost out of place, both in size and in the way he is dressed. I don’t know what these men did for work, but my guess is that it is something medical. I get this impression when perhaps the largest man there says in a rather loud voice how the surgeon operated three times that day, and all three patients died.
I don’t believe this man himself is a doctor. He just does not look the part. Maybe an ambulance driver.
His mention of the three unfortunate patients causes the man I describe as slight to speak up with some vigor. He begins talking about the Bible, pointing his finger at the others in an aggressive way. Nobody challenges him or replies. I watch him, probably too obviously, because he apparently notices Charles and me.
I try not to stare, but I guess I fail. He speaks of a man he knows who has been very ill with advanced cancer.
“They brought him to our service, and he was said to have three or four days left to live. And here it has been more than two years, and he is still alive!”
Soon several waitresses surround his table, and they bring him a birthday brownie, it being his birthday also. The waitresses sing a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” something they did not do for Charles, which is all right by him. I am unsure if he even notices. In addition to being quiet, he is very shy.
There is more rather loud talk from that direction, Biblical preaching on and on from the slight man. He is fired up, but by then, I stop paying attention. He suddenly gets up and heads for our table. I cannot imagine why. He stoops down by my chair between Charles and me and says to me:
“I am an evangelist, and I wonder if your friend here has cancer.”
He gestures toward Charles but does not look at him or address him. It is as if he is not there. Charles says nothing. Startled by the unexpected query, I immediately answer “No,” but add quietly that Charles has other medical issues, without detailing what they are. I am a little put off by the intrusion, although, as I have said, Charles does not look well, and one might reasonably assume he has some sort of a serious illness.
The evangelist’s face is now growing very red, and I notice his skin is heavily pockmarked. He does not follow up on his questioning. I wonder if I had answered, “Yes, Charles has lung cancer, or something else as deadly,” what would he have done? Prayed for Charles right then and there? Perhaps get the others from his table to join in somehow, surround us as this preacher man laid on hands, or whatever he does in such circumstances.
Instead, he quietly returns to his table, and soon thereafter, I hand our waitress my credit card to pay the bill. But before that, I pass their table as I go to the men’s room, and upon returning, I stop and speak to the slight man.
“I suppose I should not ask how old you are?” He speaks right up. “Fifty-two,” he says, a bit proudly.
“I do want you to know something, sir, before we leave,” I say, “and that is one person at our table — that would be me — is a non-believer.” I don’t know why I made this confession. Somehow I think a zealot like this fellow might not like to be sitting next to a heathen (me), even briefly, and this pleased me for some unexplainable reason.
“I was once a non-believer, too,” he admits, and then goes on from there to tell me about how he has found Christ. I must have said something, more friendly, I’m sure because I try not to be a rude person, although I didn’t especially cotton to this evangelist, not because of what he believed but because he intruded upon Charles’ and my time together along the river on this special day, his birthday.
I am putting on my coat, and the man asks where I was from (I have a New England accent), and his query causes my devilish side to kick-in.
“I live below,” I say softly, and I hope mysteriously, and point to the floor.
“I came up from the river bed today,” I continue on in a solemn voice, pointing to the river outside the window.
“Every year, I emerge from the Ohio River to meet Charles for his birthday lunch.” I would let them consider for themselves what I mean. Not a word comes back at me. Not a whisper. But all of them are looking at me in silence.
Not only does Charles look unwell, very pale, thin, and bent over, but he likes to wear leather, a leather jacket, and a leather cap and even leather trousers. And he always wears heavy leather boots. And this was his attire today, his birthday.
As we prepare to leave, Charles stops and turns suddenly and nods his head in the direction of the others, his first recognition of the group. Then he surprises the hell out of me. He thumbs his nose at them and laughs.
Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.
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