COFFEE AND CHANGE
He seemed to be about six and a half feet tall, but was actually at least two, perhaps three inches, shorter. It was not only the square, solid heels of his leather boots that came up to his knees, but also his wiry build that created the impression of those extra inches. His thick black hair, wild and tousled as it was, still had a healthy shine, and his shaggy black brows covered piercing black eyes that, for the moment, held a gentle expression. The soft, fawn-coloured sweater was clearly made of the purest wool, as was the elegant, jet-black overcoat that covered it. A soft, long, colourful muffler gently but effectively covered his throat, and the black, wool-lined gloves that protected his hands were of delicate, supple suede. The wind did not blow hard so early in the winter, but at his age, he feared its chilling edge that, like a razor, would slice through bone, given the slightest opportunity. While he did not drag his feet, it was obvious that the elegantly carved, thick mahogany walking stick, which rose almost to his shoulder, was not mainly for show. Although his face bore no trace of the effort of holding on to the stick, the fact that his back bent slightly, as he walked, gave it away.
Nobody in the place paid much attention to him, at first. It was a place for the younger people of the town. In the still clear light of the sun that was now low on the horizon, the T-shirts and the slacks with their unmistakably expensive logos and the soft, shiny leather of the loafers bespoke the casual elegance that was the hallmark of the youngsters who thronged there. The brass and glass coffee machine, in the open-air patio, at the back of the room, undoubtedly contained a computer chip or two, had a deliberately antiquated look, which, of course, gave the establishment itself a charming, old-world air. The synthetic, impossible combination of sitars and pianos, so popular with the pseudo-intellectuals who frequented the place, blared out of the tiny but powerful speakers that were invisibly scattered throughout the walls and ceilings. It could not have taken the old man more than a minute to cross the highly polished rosewood floor, to the coffee machine, at the back of the room. And though he made no fuss, he knew that all eyes were on him. Of course, to the casual observer, it would have seemed as though everyone seemed to be looking anywhere but at him.
Carefully, the old man counted out all of the coins he would need for his cup of coffee. He always did this even though he carried exactly the right amount of change and always put it in the same pocket of the same coat, every day. The arthritic fingers made it seem that he pushed the coins into the machine too carefully, almost grudgingly. Behind him, stood an Adonis, young, and full of spirit. Though at least 3 or 4 inches shorter, and far less muscular than the older man, the young man was being surreptitiously eyed by every woman in the room, regardless of her age and marital status. Not quite as lean as the old man, and not even nearly as elegant, the younger man was nevertheless captivating. His raw-silk shirt, with its long sleeves casually bunched up to the elbows, and absent-mindedly unbuttoned, showed smooth, rippling muscles, in the forearms, and a hard, well-defined chest. It was quite obvious that the younger man’s well-sculpted body was the result of many hours with a personal trainer in a gym.
The young man’s eyes had a glint of humour in them, and his stance, though relaxed, exuded confidence. The Adonis possessed a large roll of coins that he kept tossing between his hands, in a mechanical, distracted sort of way. Finally, he got bored of his little game himself and pushed the stack of coins into the deep and capacious pocket of his sharply creased trousers. The young man first rolled his eyes a little, and then tapped his feet, checked his cell-phone and eventually just began to stare down a the floor, as if he had suddenly found something very interesting just in front of his highly polished designer shoes. Eventually, the old man got his plastic cup, filled with coffee, out of the machine. But, as the old man began to turn away, with his coffee in one hand, and the walking stick in the other, a strange thing happened.
The walking stick did not fall, but began to slip on the highly polished floor. Had it continued moving along the trajectory on which it had started, the old gentleman who held it could not have prevented himself from falling. His reflexes, of course, were not what they used to be. His strength and grace did not help in such a situation. The younger man saw the slip almost unconsciously. It took him only a fraction of a second to realize that in moments the old man would be sprawled on the floor, bereft of his dignity as well as his coffee. In the same moment that he saw the stick slipping, though, the young man saw also the fear and the anger in the old man’s eyes. The fear was not of anything physical, but of humiliation. And the anger was directed against himself, not against anyone else. The anger was an expression of the frustration and helplessness the old man felt at that moment, for the old man, too, knew what was happening and was equally aware of the inevitable result. However, to have held the older man’s arm or to have steadied him by the shoulder was unthinkable. It would not look as bad as falling on the floor with coffee all over his clothes, but it would be just as galling. There was only one thing to do.
The whole café heard the tinkle of change hitting the floor. The young man had dropped all of his coins, and was busy cursing and picking them up. What nobody saw, of course, was that the coins had appeared, almost like magic, in the young man’s hand, from deep inside his pocket, and they were aimed to fall directly in the old man’s path. As he bent over, to pick up the coins, the edge of one highly polished and very expensive leather shoe hit the old man’s stick hard, pushing it perfectly upright. The strength of the push was delicately calculated to push the stick exactly the right distance, and no more. Since the shoe was hidden by the young man’s thigh, as he bent his leg, the movement was invisible to everyone else. And, just in case the movement had been too unexpected, the young man made sure that he put only that one knee to the ground. His shoulders were now at exactly the right height for the old man’s palm to rest on them, comfortably and unobtrusively. It was a good decision. For a long moment, the entire weight of the old man pressed down hard, almost crushing the younger man’s knee into the ground. The old man’s large, powerful fingers squeezed, with agonizing slowness, into the younger man’s shoulder, while he steadied himself. The younger man did not notice. His entire attention seemed to be focused on the coins lying on the floor. His eyes restlessly scanned the floor, as if searching for the rest of his money. He knew, of course, that it would be fatal to move until the old man had fully recovered himself. And then, of course, as if nothing had happened, the old man moved on.
The incident had probably lasted no more than a second or two. Already, however, pretty young hands were picking up the rest of the coins and handing them back to the handsome stranger, with dazzling smiles. But many of the people in the café were surprised at the young man’s behaviour. Not only had he been clumsy and careless, but he had not even apologized to the older man. But the young man paid no attention to the rude whispers that he heard, about himself. When he saw the older man walking away, safely, the younger man suddenly lost interest in the money on the floor. Raising his eyes, he saw the old man reach his car. The car was parked with its left side parallel to the sidewalk and, as the old man approached it, he was exactly at right angles to the door. As the older man turned sideways to allow the driver to open the door for him, very casually, he glanced at the younger man, who was still on his knee. For just a moment, the eyes of the two men locked and they smiled at each other, in perfect understanding. They each knew that they had seen themselves reflected in the eyes of the other. Youth, and old age, they seemed to say silently to each other, are both temporary. His walking stick firmly held in one hand and the steaming cup of coffee in the other, the old man waited, while the bored chauffeur held open the door for him. As the old man was about to step into the car, he moved the fingers of his left hand, in an almost imperceptible wave, to the younger man, even as the car drove off into the silence.
The old man stared into space for a long moment, as the large, powerful car moved slowly, almost majestically through the streets. Finally, he took a deep sip of his coffee. It was lukewarm. A casual touch on a button, with the little finger of his left hand, made the window begin to roll down, slowly. He waited, patiently, until it was all the way down. Carefully, holding the cup at arm’s length, he slowly tipped over the cup and poured away all of the coffee, onto the pavement below. He decided, as he drew his arm back into the car, that, for once, he felt warm enough to leave the window open. He held his empty plastic cup, with both hands, and looked at it for some time. The memory of the young man’s gesture filled him with happiness. “My cup is full,” he thought to himself.