Otis sat at his tattered corner booth, the pale pink and teal upholstery ripped and worn by all those who had rested there before him. His charcoal-grey hair was oily and unkept as if he hadn’t known the pleasure of a shower or a comb since his early days in the war. His once green army jacket, faded to a light grey, covered the untucked, torn, and sweat-stained Goodwill T-shirt under it. He wore an old pair of denim blue jeans that were shredded in the knees and rested three inches above his boney ankles; exposing the charity he depended upon. His eyes, filled with loneliness and despair as if he had realized a lack of purpose in his life, were set in bags of black and purple rings two layers deep. His long, slender nose was set above a full crooked mouth with little lines at the corners giving his face the character of someone who used to smile often, but the firm set of his square jaw revealed a portrait of a man who knew only failure.
I glanced around the dimly lit dining room of our neighborhood Jack-In-The-Box at the collection of adolescent girls and boys gossiping about their absent friends, urban families enjoying their weekly treat of chicken fingers with exotic dipping sauces, and a teenage employee attempting to grasp a carpet sweeper with her fry-greased hands. As each of their gazes wandered the room curiously observing the quaint surroundings, their eyes conveniently skipped over the socially unacceptable figure in the corner, but I saw him clearly.
With both hands resting lightly on the table to each side of his white foam cup, Otis stared into its deep abyss of emptiness with his head bowed as if willing it to fill again, giving him a reason to enjoy the shelter that the indoors provided. I could almost touch the conflict going on inside of him, a battle of wills as if he was negotiating with an imaginary devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. I sensed a cramp of discomfort seizing his insides, compelling him to flee, then a silent resolve, as if a moment of clarity had graced his consciousness.
After my husband consumed the last bite of his fully stacked grilled chicken breast sandwich and deep-fried onion rings, he regained my attention when he continued to vocally reflect upon the horror of his day at work...
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...tow upon him the humanity we so brutally robbed him of the previous night. The counter clerk replied that he came into the restaurant often, ordered a cup of coffee, sat at the same booth in the dark corner, and slowly sipped the hot contents as if savoring every last drop of the civilization it provided.
That evening and the week that followed, my husband and I dined on sourdough hamburgers, french fries, and Pepsis in hopes that Otis would show. After eight nauseating days of engorging ourselves with red meat and grease, we left our home phone number with the shift managers who promised to call the next time Otis came in. They never called.
We will forever remember Otis. We see the humble lesson he taught us in the desperation of each person-in-need we encounter. Whenever we pass by the familiar fast-food restaurant, we stop in hopes of meeting this man who has become such an important part of our consciences; an icon symbolizing the very fabric of our humility. We long to learn his true name and ask his forgiveness with our heads bowed in respect and our arms extending friendship in the form of a fancy green thermos.