David M. Castillo – College of Arts & Sciences
I finally had the bags. The same ones I saw him carrying everyday. I had been watching him for years, the whole time wondering what it was he had inside that thin plastic. They were marked “Diane’s Diner” on the sides from the diner two blocks down. The mystery was more about what was in them. There were always two separate bags, one with a single large styrofoam container and the other with two containers of differing size. I had spent hours, days, weeks wondering. I wanted to know what this old man carried and every time I saw him it only raised more questions. Coming in the door from the diner that afternoon I shouted out to see if Elise, my partner, was home but there was no response. I set the bags down on the kitchen table, slowly pulled the styrofoam containers out, and lined them up by size.
It was hard for me to believe that I was finally going to have the answer to a riddle I had been obsessing over the last few months. I had been locked up in my house due to a broken leg and had nothing to keep my mind busy besides staring out my window. From the first time I noticed him my interest was piqued and it grew to an obsession due to the bags always appearing to have the same thing in them. Several times I had tried to contact the old man always to no avail. One time I limped up to him on crutches as he was heading back with heavy hands only to have him entirely avoid eye contact and walk faster than his usual stroll; just fast enough that I couldn’t keep up. When I spoke up he grumbled at me through clenched teeth asking to be left alone. He always seemed terribly melancholic and I wanted to find out the reason behind that. It wasn’t just the bags that pushed the obsession for me, he was a creature of many habits that were obvious just by glancing at him: same clothing every day unless the weather called for a change, but even then it was the same adjustments, hair done the same every day, same crook in his back, and his magnifying-lens glasses that cause his eyes to look gigantic always rest in the same groove on his over-grown nose. I also had my routines set and wanted to know his.
There was another time, after I was off crutches, I tried to talk to him at the diner itself but he just rushed in past me and was gone before I even had a chance to get a couple words in. He left me flabbergasted in the nostalgic neon burn of the diner. My head was spinning like the pies in the cooler as I tried to make sense of why he would just rush past someone who was obviously trying to reach out to him. I thought about him so often that I began to imagine the parallels of our lives and started to invent the life that I thought he lived. Some days I would even put myself in his life and stay there until I went to sleep.
He would get up every morning at 6:00 a.m. and put on the coffee while he took time to brush his teeth and make sure every last gray fiber on his head was in order. Flipping through his closet full of green wool slacks he would pick out the pair that was to be worn that day and set them atop the ironing board. A few quick blasts with his out-dated appliance later and he would pull his warm, fresh slacks on; sometimes while they were too hot still just for the satisfaction that warmth gave. He’d cook himself up two eggs and two slices of bacon. Sunny side up and a little too crispy for some, respectively. He’d sit down at the tiny table in his kitchen with the newspaper and a black coffee, just as he had done before retirement, and his stomach still got the churn it would get as he prepared to go to work.
As he read through the newspaper he’d never actually be paying it much attention but rather thinking about the life it was he had lived. The wife and kids, the house he’s still paying off, the work that he put in at the company and how they never once threw him any recognition. He missed her. Thirty-five years together and he had to watch her as she slowly slipped away from him. The doctors had told him that she went peacefully but he knew that she was suffering her whole life. She had passed from lung cancer ten years ago despite never having smoked a single cigarette. He blamed himself and his children did the same. They still won’t talk to him now because he took their mother away from them due to his addiction. After she passed he quit and the disease still hasn’t even begun to manifest in him which does nothing to help ease his guilt.
Some time around 11:00 a.m. every day the mail carrier would come through. He had had the same man delivering his mail for years up until recently and he had gone outside when he got there every day with the same line, “Got anything for me today, John?” John would let out a chuckle and shove his bills into his hands. Sometimes, when there was something for the kids, John would let them have their mail before he had a chance to look at it just to see the excitement on their faces. John passed away from renal failure a few years back and he hasn’t had the same mail carrier two days in a row since.
Lunchtime brought with it the first diner meal of the day. A reuben sandwich and fries with gravy that had been sitting in the refrigerator overnight. For the first few years he had warmed the meal in the microwave but had grown to enjoy the taste of a cold reuben washed down with an even colder beer. He had tried hobbies to keep himself busy during the afternoons and the evidence of which sat in his closet gathering dust: a couple of half assembled birdhouses, three model trains engines but no tracks, and an assortment of woodworking tools. He stuck to drinking for his daily entertainment and it seemed to help; he didn’t think so much about missing his children’s company or the affection of his wife, anyways.
3:30 p.m. every day he’d look out the window to gauge what, if any, extra garments he would need to put on for his walk. A quarter of an hour later he would slip his feet into his shoes and walk slowly out of his house. He’d lock the door and double check it to make sure he wouldn’t come home to any unwanted visitors. It only took once for him to learn that if he didn’t he may come home to a lead pipe in the back of his head. They never caught the guys who did it and the lump they put there never receded. All of the pain they put him through was in vain as they realized he had nothing of worth, to them, in his house. Yet, the butterflies would still explode in his stomach as he thought about the horror of losing what he had built there and the only ties he had left to her.
One foot in front of the other, careful to avoid the lips and cracks in the sidewalk that he had grown so fond of, he had begun to name them as if they were national monuments. They were monuments to him. “Good thing I made it past Washington Gorge.” He would think to himself as he narrowly avoided the biggest of them all.
As he got up to the diner he would hold his breath so he wouldn’t smell the cigarette smoke and feel the urge to put some in himself. The staff at the diner knew him well and greeted him with the same smile every day. His food was always ready when he walked in the door and was presented to him under the odd neon glow from the pie cooler and trim just as promptly as he arrived. The price was always the same and he would always have the proper amount plus gratuity in his pocket. He had the routine there figured down so he could be in and out without any to-do and get back home.
At home he would take out his boxes: reuben in the fridge, chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes with gravy on the tray to put in front of the TV, and a slice of apple pie in the freezer. The tray came with him to rest on the stand and he would click on the tube to watch the five o’clock news and enjoy his meal. At sundown he would pull his slice of pie out from the freezer and enjoy the half-frozen pastry, with a cool beer, standing in the kitchen watching the sunset out the window before returning to his chair in the living room, where he would sink for a few hours wandering off in thought as the programs ran their course in the background. He’d wonder how Linda and Charles, his children, were doing. He had tried his whole life to give them what it was they had wanted and what he felt they needed to get ahead. They resented him for working as much as he did to provide for them because they felt robbed of their father during childhood. He hadn’t been around much but had tried to be there for what he felt was important: christenings, graduations, games, the births of his beautiful grandchildren, but they felt this wasn’t enough and both cut him from their lives. He would pick up the receiver on his phone and begin to dial Linda, her voice reminded him so much of her mother, and as he hit the sixth numeral he would slam it back down. Fear of her voice and fear of her rejection always kept him from hitting that seventh number. He didn’t have Charles’ number since he changed it and would not give him the new one. At Linda’s first daughter’s school play he was told that he would not be getting Charles number because he did not want the old man to have it. He asked Linda why that was and she told him Charles still held his mother’s death against him and he was never there for his son as he grew up so why should his son be there for him as he was beginning his decline.
At 8:30 p.m. he would find himself once again tucked into his over-sized bed slowly fading to sleep. He wondered when it was that he would die. Every night as his eyes closed and he felt his body relaxing he thought that this was it.
One day I made the decision to go to the diner when I knew he would be there and Elise came with me. I neglected to tell her that I was there to spy on the old man instead just saying I wanted to have a late lunch with her at the diner. When we got up to the hostess I deliberately asked to be seated close to the front so that I could overhear the conversation between her and the old man. Elise and I got there at 3:30 that afternoon and ordered a couple of coffees, the place had endless free refills on them, and she ordered some eggs with a side of toast to stave off her hunger. She ended up just poking at the scrambled mess in front of her instead of eating her food due to the unappetizing look of it all. Thirty minutes passed and I saw the bags brought up to the front where the hostess hid them under her podium. I had neglected to tell Elise my true motivations because the one time I told her about the old man she let out a sigh before telling me that he is just another old man and not something I should be concerned about. She thought it was mighty romantic of me to take her on a date in the middle of the afternoon entirely unaware of my ulterior motives.
Four o’ five rolled around and I had expected the old man to walk in the door any minute to pick up the bags he always carried back to his house with him. I drank two more cups of coffee past four when I realized that it was starting to get late and he still hadn’t arrived. The bags were sitting under that podium looking the same way that I saw them everyday traveling down the street clutched in his old, tired hands and it only stoked the ever-burning fire of curiosity that had been planted in me by his strange never-changing behavior. I wanted to know if anything else about us was the same. Elise struck up conversation, as I was focused on the bags, about how lovely it was that I take her out on a whim like this.
“You know, honey, it’s really nice of you to take me out in the middle of the afternoon. I’m glad that I didn’t have to work today.”
“Oh, yeah. No problem.”
“Well, you always do the same thing every day and I try to change things up a bit for you but you always fall right back into that routine. I feel like maybe I bore you or I will eventually.”
“No, babe, I like the routine. It gives me stability, or the illusion of stability anyways.” I said as I sipped on another coffee, “Why change something that’s comfortable?”
“Well, you can do things out of the norm that don’t put you outside your comfort zone, ya know? If you stick with the same routine forever you’re going to end up just like that sad old man that walks past the house all the time.”
What she said to me took a moment to really sink in as I was more focused on those lonely bags than anything. She recalled that I had told her about the old man always being around at the same time but I couldn’t remember if I had told her he came to the diner daily. I was running through his day in my head the whole time she and I were talking and I wasn’t present for the actual conversation. I was trying to figure out what happened in the routine that caused him to be late. I ran as many different scenarios as I could in my head but never came up with anything. Four thirty had rolled onto my timepiece and it became apparent to me that the old man was not coming for his food that day, he had never been more than five minutes off schedule since I started watching him, which lead me down a myriad, in my mind, of reasons why he wasn’t there. I had to know why his routine was so abruptly interrupted. Elise and I left the diner soon after and went back to our house, the whole time I was watching up and down the street looking for the old man but never saw him. I took a stroll around the neighborhood hoping to find him or evidence of which house was his, the whole time careful to mind Washington Gorge, but did not come across a single shred that would suggest the old man even existed.
The next day I watched patiently for him to saunter up the street like he did every day but he never did. The day after that yielded the same results. I resolved to go back to the diner alone in an attempt to find out anything I could about him. I felt that even just knowing what it was he ordered would stick pieces in this puzzle I had been working on the past few months. As I walked up to the diner at four in the afternoon I found myself mocking the behaviors that I had imagined he would do. I held my breath as I walked through the sea of cigarette smoke, something that I did not usually find myself doing. I liked the smell of smoke up until that point. When I got up to the hostess she kindly asked me if it would be my wife and I that afternoon as she remembered us from a few days before.
“Umm, no. She’s not my wife.” I replied
“Oh, I’m sorry. How many will it be today then?”
“I actually don’t need to be seated. I have a, sort of, strange question for you, actually. Do you know the old man who comes through here every day? I live up the street and see him walking back and forth in front of my house at the same time every day carrying the same bags with him but the last couple of days I haven’t seen him.” I said as I nervously shuffled in front of her podium, “I was really just wondering if you all had heard anything about him or if he is just taking a different street now? Maybe he got a new car?”
“I know who you’re talking about. He comes in here daily, usually, to get the same meals as take out but he hasn’t been around the last couple of days. I’m not sure what’s up with him though. He was always really reserved, didn’t talk much to us. I never even got his name and when they trained me they just said he would be here every day at the same time and to give him his food. He just got his food and went his way. He even had his money ready before he came in every time,” she said as she flipped through her notebook.
“Well, this is a kind of strange request but I was wondering if, since he is late and it doesn’t seem he is coming based off the last couple days, if I can buy his food?”
“Um.. well, I guess that would be alright.. I mean we were about to throw it away anyways.”
I paid her for the food and thanked her for the information that she had given me before quickly walking out with the two white bags. I hustled to get them back to my house so I could open them up and find out what it was he had every day. As I got to my house I opened the first bag which had only one box in it. The styrofoam squeaked against the plastic as I pulled it out and set it on my table. I slowly opened the lid to see inside it a reuben sandwich with fries and gravy. I didn’t think much of this as a reuben is a pretty common sandwich. When I opened the second bag there were two styrofoam boxes inside, one much smaller than the other. I set them on my table next to the reuben. Opening the larger of the two boxes I found inside a chicken-fried steak dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy. In the smaller box was a single slice of apple pie. Upon seeing the pie a sharp chill ran down my spine and my knees began to feel weak. I put the pie in the freezer and the reuben in the fridge before taking the chicken-fried steak dinner to the living room with me and watched the news as I did every day and let the world begin to melt away.
After that I never spent much time watching for the old man to come up and down the street. I found myself eating the same meals he did from the diner even taking a cold reuben with fries and gravy to work with me as my lunch. My obsession with him lead to me becoming more similar to him than I had thought possible or showed me how similar we may have been to begin with. Elise started pointing out to me the weird things that I would do that didn’t make any sense to her such as eating the half-frozen pie with a cold beer. She would say that it was strange to take something that is best at room temperature or warm and eat it cold but she never once tried it. I never saw the old man again after I started buying his food. At first it was once a week but it soon escalated to nearly every day.
All of the research that I did turned up fruitless in my attempts to find out who he was. Searching the public records never turned up so much as a name granted that I did not have much to go off of. I watched the obituaries closely the next few weeks but no one from my neighborhood showed up in any of them. I started to think that if I was right about the food I may have been right about other aspects of his life and if so he may not have had any family that cared about him. If he had passed away it would take ages for his body to be found. It’s even possible that it would take the house payments to stop and the bank to foreclose for him to be found. After a month of stressing myself out trying to find out who he was I decided to just slide into the routine and enjoy my cold reuben sandwiches every day.