Why did the Atlanta heat have to be so oppressive? Ellison stepped out of her condo on a Saturday morning and headed for coffee. She had been outside for less than forty-five seconds when she felt the first sticky bead of sweat roll down her side, just beneath the tender part of her underarm where, only moments before, she had applied an ample portion of antiperspirant. So much for that.
Normally, she would have been asleep at this hour on a Saturday. Thanks to a series of mishaps during her business trip yesterday—a meeting with a chatty prospect that went longer than it should have, a car service that showed up half-an-hour late to fetch her for the airport, and of course, the much-dreaded rain delay leaving San Francisco—it was too late for her to do anything social when she hit the ground at ATL. Instead of her normal debaucherous Friday evening social agenda, she got home from the airport and went straight to bed. She had to admit that it felt good to get a full night’s sleep and wake up on a Saturday without a hangover. It had been a while.
Even with enough sleep and a wine-free evening, the temperature and humidity made it difficult to both breathe and move at the same time. She trudged down the street in pursuit of caffeine. The walk to Press&Grind, her favorite coffee spot, was thankfully short and if she could just make it, the air conditioning would save her from overheating.
“Good morning, Ellison.” A familiar voice croaked at her from a few feet away.
“Hey Mr. Andrews! How ya feeling today? Loving this heat?”
“You know I am. You know I am. It’s good to see your bright smile today, Ellison.” Mr. Andrew’s face had its fair share of wrinkles, but when he talked to Ellison, his eyes lit up like he was a teenager.
“Mr. Andrews? Have you had breakfast yet today?” Ellison wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood to buy Mr. Andrews meals. You could tell from his clothes and shoes that he was well looked after by the community. Like a cartoon character who has a trademark outfit, he was always wearing the same thing: army green jacket, blue hoody sweatshirt, jeans rolled up at the bottom. But every article looked new and clean. His jeans, although they didn’t fit perfectly, had a certain crispness to them that is not generally found on the homeless. And his hoody and jacket, if not seasonally appropriate in the mid-ninety temperatures, never showed signs of eating mishaps or sleep rumpling.
Mr. Andrews wasn’t the only homeless guy hanging around this part of town, not by far. There were several regulars, plus a slew of transients. There was the guy with the giant hole in the back of his pants, positioned just right so that you had to see his hairy bottom as he staggered, eyes mostly closed, down the street. Then, there were the two men who slept on cardboard boxes in the alcoves of the pizza shop when it closed, their heavy-smelling urine weighing down the air within a ten foot radius. There was the guy who, like a pop-up food truck, would appear on surprise street corners daily, with a bulge in his skin tight bike shorts that had to be stuffed with something…a t-shirt, a pack of socks, something. And of course, the random kids who were perhaps on heroin that jaywalked in the streets like play pieces in Crossy Road. They somehow miraculously avoided getting splatted by distracted drivers more concerned with the seven other things going on inside their cars than outside of them.
But Mr. Andrews was different. It showed in his shoes. That's what first caught Ellison's eye, three years ago, when she moved into the neighborhood. High quality leather, always polished and cared for. Ellison saw them before she saw anything else—his rolled up sleeping bag, his backpack overflowing with living essentials—and didn’t realize he was homeless.
Weeks after noticing him, they finally acknowledged each other. First, it was just a head nod. Then a smile. Then a subtle greeting. Some mornings he would be drinking a coffee. On a morning when he wasn’t, she brought him one. She found out that he liked milk in it, so the next time she put milk in it for him. Then, one morning she brought him coffee and a breakfast sandwich. She would never forget how thankful he had been. Now that she knew him better, she understood that people did this for him all of the time. But even to this very day, every time she brought him something, anything, his gratitude rewarded her, instantly, in a way that she never experienced in any other aspect of her life.
“Actually, no. I haven’t had breakfast yet today. It’s still early, you know,” he said with a grin and a wink. He would never admit to being hungry. She knew he would be crushed if she pitied him. They both had gotten very good at pretending that their relationship was balanced and mutually beneficial. And perhaps they weren’t pretending.
Ellison walked into Press&Grind and felt the immediate relief of the cool air. Holy moly it was hot. She ordered a latte and smoothie, and started to order a sandwich and coffee for Mr. Andrews. Then she thought about him sitting there, on the bench that he and his things always occupied, in his layers that he couldn’t take off because he knew he would need them at some future point when the weather turned on him the other way. Who was she to complain about the heat?
“Can I get a gift certificate?” she asked the barista whose name she could never remember, but who knew hers without hesitation. Why hadn’t she thought of that before? If there was any gift better than a coffee and breakfast sandwich, it was coffee, a breakfast sandwich and a reprieve from the debilitating heat.
“Sure thing. How much?”
Fed, caffeinated and gift card in hand, Ellison walked outside and put her Tom Ford shades over her light-sensitive eyes. She stopped to cover her ears to protect her from the intrusive scream of a bypassing ambulance. Taking off in the direction of the bench where she would make someone happy, she skipped a little and bit her bottom lip while the corners of her mouth turned upward.
Ellison’s arms got tired of holding her ears as she walked, and she probably looked like a kindergartener, so she dropped her hands down by her side. She wished that the siren would shut up. Why was it lingering instead of traveling on to its destination? They really didn’t need to be so loud.
Rounding the corner to Mr. Edward’s bench, Ellison’s pace slowed and she tilted her head. Two men, both dressed in white shirts and black pants, where out of the ambulance with their stretcher and med kits. The ambulance itself was obstructing Ellison’s view so she took a few steps to right and craned her neck.
When the object of attention came into her line of sight, Ellison wished that she had taken longer to eat breakfast.