Nashville, TN, June 18, 2012

That morning I woke up thoroughly disgusted with myself. No, I had not done anything regrettable and there wasn’t a stranger in my bed. If only, that would have made for a nice passage. Not that it was inconceivable that a stranger would be there, would have been there I mean, or is it could have been there, anyway there have been strangers, don’t worry about it. Simply, I had over-indulged, and was hungover. It was beginning to seem to me that binge drinking was no longer entertaining, that my life in fact was no longer very entertaining. I showered, shaved, and got ready for a midday shift at the coffee shop that I’d agreed to cover.

I was on duty with Heath, a quiet, reserved guy who, despite my best efforts to be genial, was not enamored with me. When we worked together, we treated each other with polite indifference, speaking as little as possible. It was going to be a long, tedious day. I felt a generalized contempt for the customers—vain, idle, decadent consumers, blowing their money on sugary lattés that, from the point of view of calories, were hardly better than soda. Even flirting with the perky, fresh-faced college girls did little to assuage my soured temper.

About halfway through the day a young man with his father approached the counter. “I’d just like a coffee,” he said, smiling nervously. It was immediately apparent to me that he was in some way mentally disabled. This simple exchange appeared to have cost him a great effort. “Sure thing,” I said, handing him the mug. When he said “thank you” a wave of sentiment came over me, my heart broke. Our brief interaction seemed to have been a small challenge for him and, now accomplished, he was delighted. He looked towards his father, who handed him some money, and he added, “He’d like a cappuccino, please.” The father thanked me, too. He was not in the least embarrassed by his son, if anything he was proud. I handed him the change and they left to find a table.

Later on, refilling the sugars, I saw them sitting together, sipping their coffees. They looked rather solemn, the father reading a paper and the son staring into space. I knew I would never forget that image. I wondered if there was a reason for their silence, or if being together was all that mattered, the simple ritual of sitting down for a drink and letting time pass. I recalled, suddenly—how could I have forgotten?—that years ago my father and I had made a habit of getting breakfast at the nearby diner on Saturday mornings. Maybe there was something of my father in this father sitting with his son, whose demeanor was also sedate and reserved. In a kind of misshapen, vague mass with neither borders nor limits, the memories of my life spanning from those days up to the present flashed through my mind. What had become of me?

It seemed at that moment that my life was totally barren, bereft of loftier sentiments, misguided, a joke with no punch line. What I had observed between this father and son was the real thing, cutting through the miasma of inanities and trivialities. I yearned, for what, who knows, perhaps for some true heaviness, a bit of weight on my shoulders, a burden to carry around not with reluctance but with purpose.

Naturally by the end of the shift these feelings had passed, it would have been rather insufferable otherwise. But I did feel, at least, renewed, ready again to face the banality of life. One needs a bit of perspective now and then. On my way out I almost said a heartfelt goodbye to Heath, but at the last moment decided not to.