It was barely noon on Sunday when Mr. Tobbler noticed three things about the man walking beside him: First, that he had a large, white pimple on the left side of his cheek. Second, that he was dressed entirely in black. And third, that his shadow, which should have fallen nearby, was on this stretch of sidewalk, nowhere to be found.
There are some people who might not have noticed the missing shadow but Mr. Tobbler tended to look down whenever he took his Sunday walk and focused only on shoes, sidewalk speckles and shadows until his fifteen-minute stroll was through. On most Sundays the practice worked out well to avoid any excessive ‘good morning’s or ‘have a great one’s that might’ve otherwise been delivered to Mr. Tobbler by strangers who couldn’t possibly care.
Never one for affection, and certainly not one for love, Mr. Tobbler preferred quiet weekends with dark coffee and newspapers, purchased at a small stand by the corner of Sledge Street and Fringe Avenue, the last place he would cross on his Sunday walk to Maple Leaf Park.
At 12:02 p.m., the corner and his newspaper-coffee combination showed themselves up ahead. Three silver coffee pots and a cash register stood on a cloth-covered table in front of a red-faced, frizzly haired woman called Lucretia by any customers who bothered to ask her name. From this distance, Mr. Tobbler could hear Lucretia screeching to an exasperated-looking man about how much was owed for his coffee and how he hadn’t paid enough; prices for Lucretia’s fresh brews were never written on her pots and Mr. Tobbler suspected the feisty frizz ball preferred it that way.
She was waving two stubby hands and yelling something about Jamaican mountains, ancient beans and dragons when Mr. Tobbler approached, the shadowless, pimple-cheeked figure still by his side.
Each Sunday, Mr. Tobbler always handed Lucretia $5 – wordlessly and with as close to a smile as he knew – and she always fluffed her hair twice and then gave him one cup of coffee and whatever newspapers she had at her stand. “I only hev Post and Herald bicuzz thet leetle sheet Albert refuse to bring Times on weekend,” she would say in her thick Russian accent made gravelly by what Mr. Tobbler guessed was years of cigarette smoke. Lucretia never explained who Albert was and Mr. Tobbler never asked. He simply took his coffee with a quiet nod and rolled the papers under his arm. “And that,” he would always think to himself at the gates of Maple Leaf Park, “is Sunday.”
Or was. Today, he paused before giving the $5 bill to Lucretia and waited to see if the shadowless man might order something first. (If there is one rule every introvert must know, it’s avoid conflict at all costs, even if it means watching a particularly brown fleck in the pavement for several minutes as a shadowless man stands by in silence, contemplating a drink.)
“Chello? Are you going to order?”
Lucretia was poking at Mr. Tobbler, her long fingernail making a crescent-shaped indent in his arm.
“Err, one of the same,” Mr. Tobbler mumbled, placing $5 in Lucretia’s sweaty hand. While she worked to ladle the coffee, Mr. Tobbler turned toward the shadowless man, a slinky, monochromatic column of brown eyes and slick hair, its gel winking in the late afternoon sun.
“Don’t drink it,” he whispered, or so Mr. Tobbler thought he heard the man say. Before he could ask why, the man was gone and Mr. Tobbler was on his way, newspapers under arm and coffee in hand.
(There is one additional rule essential for all introverts to understand: Ignorance is your bliss. Should a daily routine be tampered with or should you find your schedule jumbled up in any way, carry on without sighs or speculation.)
Maple Leaf Park was empty when Mr. Tobbler arrived, a three-bench scene of lush November trees dipped in honey yellows and brilliant reds. He found his bench on the far right side of the park and let his newspapers escape to the ground with a crunch of autumn leaves. Next, the coffee. Because who listened to a disappearing man with acne problems anyway? With a twist of the plastic lid, he braced himself for the usual gauze of spiced steam to hit his face but it never came. The cup was empty. In place of his black coffee, he found a piece of paper, which he unfolded carefully in the half-hope that it would turn into something hot for him to sip.
No such luck.
Strange that Mr. Tobbler had felt warmth in his fingers as they wrapped around the cup and strange that the first line of this once-coffee note was addressed to him. It read:
Dear Mr. Tobbler –
Yes, I said ‘don’t drink the coffee yet,’ but only because I wanted us to be alone when I told you my news. So here goes: I’m leaving you. I am deeply sorry, Mr. Tobbler, but I have to go. For fifty-six riveting years, I’ve followed you around, watching you tip toe through life with just a cup of coffee and some newspapers to keep you warm. And I can’t take it anymore! Even I have my limits and they’ve been reached by your stench this week. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you didn’t shower since last Monday because the shower head in your apartment broke and you wouldn’t dare ask the landlord for help. Do you really think it fair that because of your wallflower ways I’m forced to get pimples from week-old grime building up on my face?
I wouldn’t leave you without a goodbye , I’m not as cruel as that, so please let this be my one farewell. (By the way, I’ve already told Lucretia I’m leaving you and she suggested someone named Albert who I can follow from now on.) Here’s to meeting again some day, hopefully under better circumstances, when you’re no longer afraid of the world … or me.