Can You See Me?
When the silent alarm light started flashing on the wall, Sophia paused a beat. In all the time she and her husband, Chris, had owned Sophia’s Cove - Thrift, Tea and Tiny Tales, the alarm had been used dozens of times but it had never meant anything like a crime was taking place. Still, she leaned forward in her chair, grateful the extra stuffing dampened any sound. She peered through the strands of beads that hung in the door and served as a curtain between the staff room and the cavernous store with its many aisles. Aisles weighed down with the minutiae that found its way in and out of countless lives.
Seeing that Chris was still casually reading the local weekly newspaper as it lay on the counter and not seeing anyone else, Sophia sensed there was someone in the store Chris felt would interest her. Grateful for the break in what had been a slow afternoon, she rose and paused at the curtain to take another look around. Chris gave her a quick glance and then made a nod toward the far end of the store. Sohpia cleared her throat, stepped through the curtain and approached Chris with a broad smile.
“How are we doing, honey?” she asked. “Can I get you anything? A cup of tea maybe?”
“No thanks, babe,” Chris replied. “I’m good. A bit slow this afternoon.”
“It is that,” Sohpia said and turned. Chris was never wrong. Something immediately drew her to a man who stood with his back to them, staring up at the picture of the little boy behind a barbed wire fence.
Turning back to Chris, she lowered her voice and her expression now more serious, she said, “How long has he been there like that?”
“At least ten minutes,” Chris whispered back, without lifting his eyes from the paper. “I thought of asking him if he needs any help but something told me this is a Sophia job.”
Nodding to herself, Sophia inhaled and exhaled a slow breath, repainted a smile on her face, turned and casually walked down the aisle to stand next to the man.
“You, know,” she said, “I haven’t been able to come up with a name for this one. Fascinating, isn’t it, to ponder what talents and goodness could be in others that will never be known because they were born into the wrong circumstances.”
“I know something about that,” the man said. “There’s a deeper truth to what you say than you’ll probably ever know.”
“Would you like some tea?” Sophia offered.
“I noticed you had a white Assam for sale in one of the glass jars along the wall when I entered,” he said. “I like white tea but I’ve never tried any from Assam. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d try a cup and maybe take some with me.”
“No problem,” Sophia said. “We have some comfy chairs in the back if you’d care to join me in the staff area.”
“If isn’t too much trouble,” he replied, “I noticed you have a sitting area in the corner where you have all the used books. I’ve always felt most comfortable when I’m surrounded by books.”
“No problem,” Sohpia replied. “You go get settled and I’ll bring us both a cup.”
“I’d be thankful for the company,” he said. Stabbing a finger at the picture on the wall, he then said, “And I’ll take this with me too.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Sophia. “That’s the last one I have. I can have a print made and sent to you. Of course, I’ll pay for the shipping.”
“That will be fine,” he replied and taking a case from his pocket he removed a business card and handed it to her. “If you don’t have a thermometer, a string of bubbles would be far enough off the boil to be about right for white tea.”
Sophia smiled as she looked at his card and noticed the Seattle address. “You know something about tea. My kettle is digital and I’ve checked it. It’s very accurate. I take my white tea at 180 Fahrenheit and steep it for five and a half minutes.”
The man nodded. “Splendid.” He put his hand on the boy's face in the picture for a second and turned towards an area with a sign over it that read Book Nook. “I’ll be waiting.”
Sophia had brought the man his tea and taken the chair opposite his. On the first sip, the man smiled, this time broad enough that Sophia had no doubt it was there, and then he’d said, “Excellent.”
Both settling back in their respective seats, Sophia instinctively sensed the man’s need to talk so she sipped and waited.
“It was India,” he began. “But it could have been any of a hundred places I’ve been. Always the same. Ragged clothes with holes in them. They live on the streets or in clusters in vacant lots. They make tents from sheets of plastic they dig out of garbage dumps. Cardboard too. Anything that will shade them from the sun or keep some of the rain from soaking them through. And always begging.” His lips curled in disgust. “Always. I grew so sick of it.” Then his features and his voice softened. “I was -- not nice, not -- good.
“I had grown immune. I just waded through them, went about my business, never let it bother me. But, this one time, this voice.
‘Can you see me?’
The words were small. So small, in fact, that I wasn’t sure I heard them at all. It irritated me that I’d been fooled into stopping to make sure of what I’d heard. I looked down and glared at this little street rat of a kid.
‘It’s a simple question,” he said. ‘Can you? Can you see me?’
There was no trace of the typical accent that I sometimes struggled with in my business dealings. The kid’s English was perfect. And it made me all the more irritated that the tiny detail of a dirty street rat’s perfect English could make me stop and take notice of him.
‘Why should I see you?’ I asked him. ‘There are too many street rats like you to be seen any more. I’d sooner be able to pick out a single drop of water from the ocean than someone like you.’
‘That’s what I thought,” the boy said. “It’s like I don’t exist. Sometimes, I myself wonder if I do or ever did?’
Now that’s a comment you don’t hear every day from your average street beggar no matter what the age. So, in spite of myself, I kept being drawn in. It amuses me now but it infuriated me then. I was actually engaging this little kid in conversation like he really was something. An equal almost. It was worse that I knew it was a waste of my time. I wouldn’t have been there at all if the doctor back home hadn’t told me I had to walk everyday because of the same congenital heart condition that had killed my father before he was 40. The treadmill at the stupid hotel was broken.
In spite of myself, I asked, ‘How old are you?”
‘Twelve,’ he said, ‘I think.’
‘You’re not sure?’ I asked.
‘So many of us can never be sure, you know. But I’d say that’s a reasonable guesstimate.’
‘Guesstimate?’ I asked. He just shrugged.
I told him, ‘You look like you're about five, but you talk like you're 50.’
‘I’m an old soul,’ he said. I guess it should have been funny in some way. Cute maybe. But it wasn’t funny at all. From the way he spoke and the look on his face he could have been any age. I stood there, dumbfounded and stared at this boy as he looked thoughtfully around himself at the cracked and uneven concrete sidewalk and down this side street where there’s one of those slums that was probably his home.
I’d seen dozens of them before. Hundreds even. Poverty beyond belief. Raw sewage -- well, you get the idea. All surrounded by a fence that was more clothesline for the rags they wore rather than protection for the inhabitants or those who wanted to avoid the reality that such people existed and somehow survived the cruelty of our thoughts and actions.
Then he said, ‘I’ve known many who’ve lived longer and died younger than me.’
You see? Who even talks that way. What adult? Let alone a kid. Old soul indeed.
‘How have you made it this long then?’ I asked.
‘I’m wily,’ he said tapping his temple, ‘clever even. I taught myself to read at a young age and read everything I could. I listened to English language shows wherever I could find someone with a radio or a TV who’d let me listen or watch programs from the UK or America. That’s how I got my education. It took a lot of time and effort but it was worth it. I’ve learned how to make big important men like you stop and see me for a couple of minutes.
‘Now, I’ll ask you for money and you’ll give me a few pennies and go along thinking I've taken advantage of your soft and generous heart. And, in a way, I guess I have, if you think your pennies are going to make me rich and that you would have had a better use for those pennies than to keep me alive for another day.’
Now, I thought to myself, I had his number ‘And I suppose you are going to tell me you are taking care of a sick little brother and sister too.’
‘No, sir,’ he said. ‘Just me.’
I had to admit it, this kid had bested me. He made me feel something that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was ashamed of myself. I’d compromised my principles. I didn’t run any of my businesses on warmth or compassion or sympathy. Those were feelings I simply could not afford. I tossed him a few coins and that was that. I got away from such feelings to get on with my life.
He paused and took a sip from the mug.
“Funny thing. A year ago I flew to Cleveland. I’d been referred to a new cardiologist. There was supposed to be no one better. After a whole bunch of tests and other nonsense, I’d been shown into the doctor’s private office. That’s never a good sign. As soon as I walked in I saw it. A picture much like the one I’m buying from you.
“The doctor was a woman from India. The picture on the wall was of her brother. She told me how he’d done so much, made every sacrifice to make it possible for her and their younger brother to survive, go to school and become successful professionals. It hadn’t worked out for him though, unless you count the difference he’d made to those he loved. He died of something or other before she finished med school.
“I was shocked. What were the odds? But, no, it wasn’t the same family. She was from another area of the country and had never been to the city where I’d met the boy. It didn’t matter. It shook me. How little would it have cost me to make a big difference?
The man paused, drained the last of the tea and turned his full attention to Sophia. “Then, the doctor gave me the news.”
Sophia’s eyes had never left the man the entire time he’d been speaking. She knew, now, why he had found his way to her. “How long?” She asked.
“Not long,” he said. “Not even a year. I’ll have to stop driving soon. Then I’ll spend a considerable amount of money on the best hospice care you can get. It’s all arranged.”
Scooting forward in his chair, he laid his now empty mug on the table between the two of them. With his hands clasped in his lap, he stared motionless at the cup as if wondering if it held the answers to unfathomable questions he knew not how to ask.
Sophia, sensing the man’s reluctance to leave, said, as she leaned forward and picked up his mug, “I’ll get us another cup.”
The man sighed. “No. I’d better get going. I’m hoping to make it to San Diego soon enough to soak up some sun before I have to come back north. If you’ll send the print to the address on the card, I’ll have it hung on the wall when I check into hospice. Do I pay at the front counter?”
“Yes,” Sophia said. “Chris will take care of you on the way out. Do you want to know the cost?”
The man pushed himself from the chair. “No. It doesn’t matter.”
At the front counter, the man took back his credit card.
“That’s the second American Express Black Card I’ve seen in as many days, Mister Conner,” Christopher said with a slight smile. “I quite like to see them.”
The man named Conner slid the card back into its slot in his wallet and smiled back at Chris. “I don’t know how I stumbled upon your little shop,” he said. “The free charge point for my car, I guess. But I am glad I found you. Your wife has the ability to make a person comfortable. She’s easy to talk to.”
As he handed the man his receipt, Chris said, “Some of the locals call it therapy, They say Sophia has a knack for getting people to leave behind far more than they can take away with them.”
The man turned his head to his left toward the beaded curtain Sophia had disappeared behind. “They’re right.” Spinning toward the front of the shop with a wave of his hand in Chris’s direction, he said, “Please tell your wife I said thank you for the tea.”
When the door was part way open he stopped to look at the slight drizzle that had started since he’d first entered Sophie’s Cove. Without looking back, he said, “I hope I have the time to stop in on my way back north. I’ll pick up some of that white Assam to take with me and, if your lovely wife has the time, maybe we can sit amongst the smell of old books and enjoy one last cup together.”
Understanding hit Chris hard. He strode to the back of the shop and parted the curtains to see his wife, her head back, tears streaming down her cheeks. Taking the other chair, Chris took her hand.
“His first cup of white Assam is going to be his last, Chris, Don’t wait for the print to be made. Take ours down from the wall. Send it overnight.”
Chris patted and gently stroked the back of Sophia's hand. “I'll take care of it, hon. I'll take care of it..”