I picked my boyfriend up at the train station after he missed the last train home. He handed me a $50, in addition to the gas money he’d given before we realized I’d be driving him thirty miles south, and a nice dinner that was seldom on his ticket, leftovers in boxes on the car floor. It was nice. We were both just broke enough to spoil each other, despite saving for rent (him), for school (me), etcetera.
As the bill slipped from his hand to mine, an old man appeared in my headlights, waving his hand. He had unkempt grey hair, once dirty blonde obviously, and a sickly beard over leathery tanned skin, a gaunt face with big eyes. He came round to my window, which I rolled down for him with no little sense of anticipation.
"Excuse me," he said kindly, with no little sense of caution. "I just got out of the hospital. Here are my papers. These are my meds." He shoved a folder full of medical records gently through my window, displaying three bottles of pills clumsily. "You can look through them all, they’re mine, I swear."
"I believe you," I said, glancing at the pages. He told us something was wrong with his right eye. He had missed the last train, too. He was trying to catch a bus. It was no surprise, like the rest of us: he needed money.
Between us, my boyfriend and I had a twenty and the fifty that had just changed owners. I offered the man a single dollar bill, the only thing smaller I could find in my wallet.
"Do you have any change? I’m so sorry."
"Four pennies, I’m so sorry."
He declined the pennies, but bummed a cigarette off my boyfriend. It was passed over me to the old man, who thanked him. He continued.
"I don’t want to bother you more, but there’s an ATM right over there, it’s just there’s only one more bus, it’s eight dollars, I think, if you could just—" the scraggly man fumbled with his words.
"No, sorry," my boyfriend said. I remembered I had a ten dollar bill in my glove compartment for emergency gas money. This seemed an appropriate situation, although not my own emergency. The bill was passed through the window on a whim. He accepted it graciously, and also kept the single from earlier. He came around to the passenger side window, and begged one more cigarette off my boyfriend.
"Thank you. Thank you. A word of advice for you, young man— you take care of that girl. She has a big heart."
"I know she does. I try my best," my boyfriend told him. He left with $11 dollars and two L&M 100s more than he’d had, and all his hospital records and medicine and injuries and new health in tow.
As we pulled away from the station, I started to cry.
"Are you ok, babe? Did that upset you?"
"He looked like my dad when he was sick," I said through tiny sobs. He had. He could have easily been my dad, in some metaphorical sense — living dad was kind, but a freeloader; dignified, but prone to begging; alcoholic and gaunt and riddled with cancer so suddenly, but still had advice on how to live better than he had, and charm enough to bum multiple cigs off a stranger. He used to keep himself well-groomed, in his rented mother-in-law suite, which he could barely afford. If he hadn’t been a veteran, hadn’t had a rich brother, he wouldn’t have been able to afford his cancer treatments, either — not that they worked all too well.
"Why did he have to show me all his papers? There were so many, he even showed me the pills. Why wouldn’t I believe him?" I asked my boyfriend as we began the long drive home to his flat.
"There are mean people out there, babe. Not everyone would have believed him. That’s a side of life many people see," he said.
"I haven’t seen that side much," I admitted.
"You’re lucky. I’ve seen too much of it," he admitted in turn. The stereo played in the brief silence as we drove. "That was very nice of you," he said then.
"He just reminded me so much of my dad before he died… Of course I believed him…" I repeated, watching the road and the dark and the streetlights.
We spent twenty dollars at the nearest gas station. My boyfriend went inside to pay as I wiped the mascara stains from my cheeks, straightened the boxes of leftovers, and turned down the stereo. We pumped the tank half full, and left without music until we got on the highway, thirty miles still to go.