HE DIDN’T remember exactly when he saw the man for the first time. Trudging home from his job as a machinist, Travis usually kept his eyes on his tired feet, watching them pace off the distance on his route through southeast Portland. He’d glance up only often enough to keep from colliding with other pedestrians or to avoid being run over when he crossed streets. But one day—maybe a Friday when he had a little more spring in his boots—he looked up long enough to see the man sitting on the front steps of a house, strumming quietly on a guitar.
At some point, Travis became consciously aware that the man was there almost every day. Sometimes he played his guitar—never singing along—and sometimes he simply sat there, watching people pass by, his handsome face free of emotions. He was a little older than Travis, probably somewhere in his midthirties. Old enough for little lines to have formed at the corners of his eyes. Travis had noticed that over a series of stolen glances, and he found it attractive.
Travis began to wonder about the guy. Who was he? Did he have a roommate who didn’t like to listen to his music? Was he waiting for someone to get home? His lover, maybe? That would be nice, Travis thought, to come home every day and find your lover sitting there, waiting for you. Nobody was ever waiting for Travis except his cat, Elwood, and there were days when Travis was fairly certain that Elwood was only in it for the Meow Mix.
But the mystery man was there. Not every day. Not when it rained, for instance. But more days than not, and almost always when the weather was fine. Travis never saw him interact with anyone, never saw him do anything at all but play his guitar or look out at the passersby.
There was something haunting about him, although Travis couldn’t have said what. Something troubled in his blue eyes maybe, or the tense way he held his shoulders. Whatever it was, Travis found himself thinking of the man a lot. At work, when he was supposed to be shaping metal on his lathe. At home, when he was vegging out in front of the TV with Elwood in his lap and a Pabst in his hand. And later, alone in his bed.
Deep in thought one afternoon at work, he nearly cut off his hand, and that was when he decided to walk a different route home. So he did, detouring over a block. But he didn’t like that block. There were fewer pedestrians, and there were dogs that barked at him from fenced yards. And that route didn’t take him by Rick’s Mini-Mart, where Travis liked to stop and pick up a couple of beers and maybe some chips or a frozen burrito or a slice of pizza. And despite the change of scene, he still kept thinking about the man.
So he decided to take the bull by the horns, and one beautiful Friday in September, Travis stopped when he got to the man and smiled at him and said, “That’s a nice song. What is it?”
The man stopped playing and gave Travis a look that was neither friendly nor unfriendly. Then he reached into his shirt pocket and fished out what looked like a business card. He handed it over to Travis, who took it in puzzlement. Did the guy think Travis wanted to hire him for a gig or something?
But then he read the lines of print on the card.
My name is Andrew “Drew” Clifton. I have aphasia, which means I can’t speak or write. But I can understand you just fine and I’m not a bloody idiot, so don’t treat me like one.
Travis glanced up at the man—Drew, he corrected himself—who was waiting with one eyebrow raised expectantly.
“Oh,” Travis said.
Drew made a face and looked down at his guitar again.
Travis had no idea how to react. Apologize? That was lame. Walk away? Really rude. Finally, he settled on saying, “Well, it was a really nice song.”
Drew looked up at him in surprise. Maybe he had expected Travis to just walk off.
“You know,” Travis went on, “I go by here every day on my way home from work.”
Drew nodded a little cautiously.
“I’ve lived here for almost eight months and I don’t know anyone. And I have this sucky job and a fairly sucky life—but I walk by here and sometimes you’re playing your guitar, and it’s nice. It makes me smile. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Now Drew just looked astonished.
Travis suddenly felt self-conscious, which probably accounted for his less than graceful closing. “So, um, I’ll leave you alone now. Bye!” And then he waved pathetically, like an enormous dork, and walked away. Kind of wishing for the moment that he had aphasia too.
DREW wasn’t there on Monday, but the weather was kind of chilly and blustery and damp. Ditto with Tuesday and Wednesday, and Travis began to wonder whether Drew was done with his step-sitting until spring—or maybe he was ducking inside as soon as he saw Travis coming.
But Thursday was warm again, and there was Drew, strumming away. Travis smiled at him as he approached, and to his delight, Drew smiled back and motioned him over. “Hi,” Travis said.
Drew waggled the fingers of one hand. Then he pointed one of those fingers at Travis. It took Travis a moment to puzzle out his meaning. “Oh! My name! ’Cause you told me yours but I don’t have any nifty informational card things. I’m Travis ‘Travis’ Miller.” He did the air quotes when appropriate, and Drew laughed. It was the first time Travis had heard any noise from the man. He had a pleasant voice, kind of deep and hoarse, as if he didn’t use it often. Which made sense.
Drew stuck out his right hand, and Travis shook it, both lingering maybe a hair longer than necessary with the touch.
“I missed you the last few days,” Travis said.
Drew put his hand up and let it fall slowly, wiggling his fingers as he went.
“Yeah, rain. I guess I wouldn’t sit out in the rain either.”
Drew grinned as if he was pleased that Travis had understood him. Then he cocked his head, shrugged, and patted the concrete step next to him.
“Thanks!” Travis exclaimed and dropped heavily down on his ass. “I have to stand at work all day and my feet are complaining by the end of it.”
Drew raised his eyebrows and then pointed at the logo embroidered on Travis’s shirt.
“Yeah, Allied Machining. That’s where I slave away forty hours a week. Plus overtime if I can get it. I’m a lathe operator. Exciting, huh? How about you? Are you a professional musician?”
Drew shook his head, then waved his hands back and forth in front of him, palms down.
“Me too. I mean I was, for a bunch of months when I was back home. California. Bakersfield, and not a lot of jobs around there once I got laid off. It’s not easy convincing an employer to hire me.” He pointed at his face, where his empty eye socket was covered by a leather eye patch. “So I found this job and it pays decent, but that meant I had to move.”
Drew looked at him a moment and then, a little tentatively, pointed at Travis’s missing eye.
Travis sighed. “It’s gone. Wanna hear the gory tale?”
The corner of Drew’s mouth lifted a little, and he nodded.
“It was just stupidity and bad luck, really. I was mowing the lawn and I wasn’t wearing goggles, ’cause I mean really, what kind of dork wears goggles to mow the lawn, right? And it was kind of an ancient mower, probably built in the olden days before there were personal injury lawyers, and when I hit a rock there wasn’t anything to stop that sucker from flying straight at my face.”
He could still remember standing there in the front yard of his tiny rented house, the engine of the mower still running and blood dripping down his face. It had felt as if he stood there for hours, although it was probably only seconds, and old Mrs. Hernandez next door was shrieking at her husband to call 911.
Drew pointed at Travis’s eye again, winced theatrically, and raised his eyebrows in a way Travis was learning meant he was asking a question.
“Did it hurt? Hell yeah!”
Drew shook his head and repeated his gestures.
“Oh, you mean does it still?”
“Not really. It gets kinda itchy now and then. The patch is fucking annoying too.”
Drew mimed taking off the patch.
“Only in the privacy of my own home. It squicks people.”
Drew sneered his opinion of people who would be squicked, but then he hadn’t actually seen the perpetually closed and sunken eyelid, had he?
“I tried a fake eye,” Travis explained. “Acrylic. But they couldn’t seem to make it fit right, and then I developed an allergy and it itched like hell—worse than the patch. And for glass eyes you gotta go to Germany. I never had the bucks for that.”
With a solemn nod, Drew indicated that he understood.
“So, um, since we’re talking war wounds… mind if I ask?”
Drew pointed at a Ford that was going by and then bashed the heel of one palm into his forehead.
“You got hit by a car?”
Head shake. Drew pointed at himself then moved his hands as if he were gripping a steering wheel.
“Oh, you were in the car. And it crashed. Fuck.”
“How long ago?”
Drew held up three fingers.
“It must really suck. Me, I’d probably bust a gasket if I couldn’t talk. Or babble. ’Cause I’m really pretty much of a babbler, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Drew grinned and nodded.
“So, are you from here?”
Head shake, then a waving of hands that probably meant far away.
“Back East somewhere?”
Drew frowned, picked up his guitar, and began to play. It took Travis a few moments to recognize the song, but when he did, he whooped with laughter.
“‘Anarchy in the UK!’ You’re from England, right? I guess that explains the ‘bloody’ on your card.” He pulled the card from his pocket, where he’d been tucking it every morning for reasons he couldn’t explain. Drew looked surprised to see it, and Travis suddenly felt kind of embarrassed about it. He blushed when the other man gave him a long, speculative look.
“Hey,” Travis said, standing. “It’s getting late. I’m gonna go home and crash.” Did he imagine disappointment on his new friend’s face? “See you tomorrow?”
With another rain falling gesture, Drew shrugged.
“If it’s dry. Gotcha. ’Night, Drew.”
This time it was Drew who waved good-bye.