I’ve got this colleague who’s in his eighties, call him Peter, and Peter’s got four sons who are all unemployed, the youngest being about my age (and still living with him way up in West Palm Beach, about a hundred miles north of here), and Peter (the old man) doesn’t drive anymore cuz his eyes are bad. He actually can’t read anymore, either, unless he wears his own special glasses and holds the page up to his nose. Sometimes he’ll hand me things that need his signature and I’ll scribble it. Every few months he goes to a clinic in Pinecrest where they inject some solution into his eyeballs. Apparently he’s got loose blood floating around in there.
Given the poverty of his eyes, and the length of his commute, Peter lives at the mercy of public transit and he’s always crashing on people’s couches here in town, at the age of 82, so that he can teach something like ten classes across five different campuses.
He’s always asking for rides.
This was a way-bigger issue a couple years ago when, ironically, he lived right here in town. He’d come to the tutoring lab where I work and he’d ask me to take him home and always hasten to say that his place was right along the route I probably drive home anyway (he apparently thought I rode a deflating balloon in zigzags through the night sky; his apartment was not on my way home).
Every night: “Alex, can I catch a ride?”
So I start driving him home on the regular. Nice conversation along the way. He’s an agreeable dude, funny. Can’t rightly say it’s a problem.
But then he fucking makes it a problem.
One night, we’re getting in the car, he says, “Hey can we stop for a minute at Walgreens?”
We stop at Walgreens. I wait in the car. He comes out a couple minutes later with a pack of Reds.
“I didn’t know you smoke.”
(This is especially odd on account of his much-younger wife died of lung cancer a decade earlier.)
“I don’t,” he says, lowering himself into the passenger seat, “they’re for Travis.”
Travis is his youngest son. The only son he had with the wife who died (of lung cancer).
Not my business.
I drive him home.
Few nights later: “Can we stop at Walgreens real quick?”
This is now a daily thing. There’s probably some personal reason he keeps asking since he knows I’m gonna stop there anyway. It’s fine.
We stop at Walgreens and he buys a pack of cigarettes for his young son and then we drive, drive, and as we’re about to turn into his building: “Wait, sorry, can we stop at Starbucks just a sec?”
The Starbucks is a block away.
We go there.
Sitting in the parking lot, he calls his son to ask the boy if he wants anything. The son says yeah. So Peter goes in and comes out with only that thing.
I am officially his chauffeur, chasing his whims, helping him to provide for his son the things that he so much wants to provide, but can’t on his own, and knows that he shouldn’t but needs to anyway.
Few nights later we’ve got a new routine: Walgreens for smokes, Starbucks for a drink, and then the Cuban bakery next door to Starbucks so that he can get a sandwich for his 24-year-old son who apparently cannot cook.
The sandwiches take ten to fifteen minutes to prepare.
Driving him home each night has become a half hour detour.
I start getting annoyed with the stops. Peter and I are talking less and less as I drive. I say passive aggressive things that I shouldn’t. He responds with passive aggression.
A night comes around that I’ve got a date, I’m supposed to meet her in the Gables at 9, so when Peter comes into the lab that evening to ask if he can get a ride I tell him yeah, “but we can’t make any stops.”
He says, “Well I need to just stop at Walgreens at least.”
I shake my head.
He’s smiling but the smile isn’t friendly and he says, “We can’t make one stop? When’s it ever taken more than five minutes?”
“No stops, Peter, take it or leave it.”
Dude fucking huffs at me, storms out. Doesn’t speak to me for the better part of a month.
Peter doesn’t ask me to drive him home for what feels like forever until one day he tears his meniscus and now he can’t manage the bus.
The following Monday, with crutches and a knee brace, he hobbles up to my desk as though nothing ever happened and says, “Hey, you goin’ my way tonight?” and I guess my reward for taking him home is that I become the only person in the department to learn of how he tore the meniscus — which, apparently, was a very sensitive subject, something he’d kept secret even from his chainsmoking dropout unemployed hedonistic twentysomething son, on account of he (i.e. Peter himself) was embarrassed, didn’t wanna seem like a feeble old man; and also he was naked at the time it happened, and doing something totally innocuous, and suddenly his meniscus just went fuck off and snapped; and so he’s having an existential moment about it, just shaking his head a lot, telling me without eye contact that he realizes he’s “at that age now, I could literally be doing nothing at all, and then some part of me just fucking explodes.”
His crutches make the stops at the drug store and the cafe and the bakery twice as long. By the time I pull up to his front door, he’s sweating.
Finally, fortunately, a student sweeps in and lifts the burden.
An unbearably religious, lanky, talkative twenty-eight-year-old realtor named Michael becomes obsessed with Old Man Peter in a creepy way that Peter (nothing if not industrious) uses to his advantage.
Michael never wants to be away from Peter.
Peter now has a constant chauffeur.
I’m off the hook.
That was two years ago.
I’ve agreed to drive Peter to maybe four different places since then and, sure enough, he’s an agreeable passenger. Makes decent small talk. Tells stories.
He does have an edge, though, and he can be condescending if the mood strikes him. Ungrateful.
But whatever. It’s once in a blue moon.
This past Saturday I get a text from my colleague an hour before my shift begins, it’s 8 a.m., and he says that Peter’s been in and out, looking for me.
I get to work and Peter comes around to the lab and chats me up at the front desk.
Says, “Come have a seat with me. Chat.”
We’ve got no students yet, so I go ahead and join him at one of the tables. Pour him a shot of coffee.
He starts telling me stories. He’s all animated. Big sweeping gestures, impersonations, chuckles. He’s telling me about his years in the Peace Corps in Jamaica and one of his stories, for instance, is about the time these five guys once surrounded him with guns as he was getting out of his car, shouting and grabbing at his shirt, and when they finally pulled him down and the leader of the group spoke up clearly, demanding all his money, Peter pointed at his 20-year-old Nissan and said, “You see this piece of shit I’m driving? You think I’ve got money?”
Everybody laughs. One of the muggers gives him a high five. Later on he sees one of them at a market and they wave to each other.
Stories on stories.
He’s asking me about myself and it seems normal, polite, but of course it’s neither of those things, and I should know better, but I’m gullible and let myself get suckered into it so that I’m all buttered up when he leaves and then comes back just as we’re closing, sits across from me, says, “I did something real stupid today.”
His demeanor is different from earlier.
I’m feeling an old familiar dread.
I say, “What’d you do?”
“Forgot my billfold at home.”
I guess it takes me a minute to process that word, so I just sit there.
He drums his fingers on the tabletop.
“What are you gonna do?”
“Where are you staying tonight?”
“How far’s that from home?”
“About an hour.”
I say, “So…when are you going home?”
“Not ’til Tuesday night.” (This is Saturday morning.)
“So you’ve got no money for four days.”
“So…how’re you gonna eat?”
He shrugs, pops his brow in a hopeless way.
“Can your son bring you money?”
“Well he doesn’t have money, y’see?” Sounds flustered saying this. I think he knows I’m not a fan of his kid and maybe thinks I’m prompting him to say this to humiliate him. “I support Travis, he doesn’t have anything.”
“OK but he lives at your apartment; can’t he bring you your money?”
“I don’t wanna bother him.”
“It’s a one-hour drive. Why not?”
Peter waves it away, folds his arms. “I want him there, I don’t want him driving around.”
“So you’re gonna starve for three days because you don’t want your kid to have to spend two hours in his free car.”
He shrugs, looks hard at me, “Guess so. Unless I can find some money.”
I squint at him. “You’re asking me for money.” It comes out half-statement, half-question.
He says, “If you’ve got any it’d sure help.”
I look at him for a long time, then look at my colleague, and then, kind of on autopilot, I lean over and pull my wallet and give Peter all the cash in my wallet, thirty bucks, a good portion of what I have in the world.
He takes my thirty dollars, and four singles from a colleague, and he folds the stack of bills three ways and tucks them into his pocket and says, in his condescending way, that he always knew we were stand-up guys, that he loves us, and then he struggles to his feet and shrugs into his backpack, tucks his thumbs into the straps on his chest, and moseys out the door with his twisted little gait, tilted to the left cuz his back’s fucked up from a Jeep accident in the ’60s. His feet are always pointed in different directions than the one he’s walking in.
There’s a silence in the lab after he’s gone. My colleague’s smirking and shaking his head. I’m touching my eyebrow.
In the future, I tell myself, I will be glad I did that.
An old man needed money and I gave him all the cash in my wallet.
I did a good thing.
I did a very good thing.
But then I look up at my colleague and take a really deep breath and now I’m holding my eyebrow between forefinger and thumb and asking him, “Why am I so fucking angry right now?”