The lone gentleman moved along the pier as the September sun settled into the ocean. Heavy thoughts echoed the pain of his last visit six years ago, to watch the body of his only child brought out of the cold waters beneath the pier. Losing a child is an incredible grief; and to lose one to the dark waters of the ocean, pains enough to make one close the door to it. During those six years, the door remained locked; for behind it, the agony he feared to encounter waited patiently, like the gargoyles on a parapet.
Seagulls floated on the breeze watching the loner, staying just out of reach. Along the beach below, they scurried about the waves; one of them usually perched on a stone, as if on lookout. The smell of fish hung heavy in the salty air, while a gray, wind-ruffled cat with only a stub for a tail, patrolled the wooden walkway.
As the sun lowered further leaving a smear in the clouds, the breeze became cooler. He zipped up his windbreaker and pulled the hood over his head. His hair, the same color as his skin, appeared thinner than it was. During the past six years, his face aged decades. Closed doors will do that.
John Madison is 46.
A small hamburger joint sat on the edge of the pier about midway to the end. The enticing smell of the greasy burgers sent hunger pangs to anyone passing by. Several benches along the walkway had fishermen either packing up their catch for the day, or just getting ready for a night of luck.
A motionless figure sat on one bench staring out toward the sunset. As John passed by, he saw the empty expression of a young girl leaning back against the railing. She was so still, it looked as if she died with her eyes open. Sitting cross-legged on the bench, worn baggy pants swallowed her legs leaving her bare feet tucked under. A filthy army jacket with the collar pulled up around her neck, fended off the night’s wind. A floppy felt hat covered her head with ratted brown locks hanging out from the sides. Her face was so dirty, it was hard to tell her race.
John passed, then paused a few feet away, watching the sun, now appearing as an orange slice in the water. He didn’t know why, but he walked back and stood next to her. Words came out before he could intercept them.
It took a few seconds before she responded, then turned her thin face up towards him with a blank stare. He started to leave thinking she was on drugs and unaware of her surroundings, when her face turned angry.
“What du say?”
“I asked you if you’d like something to eat.”
“What are ya, some kinda freak?”
Guilt erupted inside, then quickly washed over with a sadness.
“`Just thought you’d be hungry. Sorry.” With that he continued walking to the end of the pier to watch those who were fishing. The gulls would occasionally light on the railing, but stayed just out of reach from any human hand. The wind picked up a little more and he slid his hands into his pockets. A small voice in the wind spoke next to him. At first he thought it was an elderly fisherman nearby, but it was the young girl who had come and stood beside him, facing the ocean.
“Yeah, I’ll eat somethin’. What, you gonna try taking me home aft’wards?” she asked, avoiding his gaze.
John looked at the ragged girl. Yes, he wanted to take her home, but not for what she was thinking. He wanted to clean her up, and give her a warm place to stay, away from drugs, violence, and the cold wind blowing in from the ocean. He wanted to do for her all he tried, for a girl about her age, six years ago.
“No,” he said, “just thought you’d be hungry.”
“Yeah, I could go for a bite, ya know.”
Without speaking, they walked to the little stand and John ordered a couple of cheeseburgers with fries, and something to drink. He wasn’t hungry, but wanted to show her they were simply sharing a meal. They waited in a little dining area, open, but out of the wind.
“My name’s John Madison.”
She continued looking out at the ocean, and after a long pause, “So, where ya from John Madison?”
“Yeah? `Been there once. So whad’ya doin’ here?”
“My company sent me here on business.”
“What kinda business?”
“Computer stuff. How about you”
“How `bout me what?”
“Where are you from?”
“I live here.”
The conversation continued aimlessly. John felt tense sitting with her. She kept looking out at the ocean, never making eye contact. Her answers were vague, most mixed with expletives. The food arrived, and the girl ate voraciously. Chewing with her mouth open, she held the burger in one hand with her drink in the other. John ate only a few bites by the time she finished hers. Not being hungry, he let his meal sit.
“Ya gonna eat any more o’that?” she asked.
“No. You can have it.”
John tried again for a conversation.
“You got a name?”
“`Course. Ever’body’s got a name, you know.”
“Why ya wanta know?” she asked, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
John gave up and sat in silence.
The sun was gone, but the lights from several ships in the distance held his attention. Like an aircraft overhead, the ships passing in the night left him with a feeling of loneliness.
“My name’s Naomi.”
For the first time, she looked at him, but quickly turned away when he glanced at her.”
He was afraid to ask anything else for fear of her leaving, since she finished her meal….and his. But she was the one who continued the conversation.
“So whadya come out here to the pier for? Watch the ocean?” She still looked away.
It was one of those times when someone else seems to speak for you. John responded quickly so he wouldn’t feel the closed door.
“I lost my daughter out here about six years ago. Her body was found under this pier. I just wanted to come out and see it again.”
Unusual questions come from special people. “Did ya cry?”
“Cry? No.” John shook his head quickly as if to dispel the idea.
“Nobody’d cry for me neither.”
“Who wouldn’t? Your family?”
“Ain’t got a family.”
“Do you not have a mother?”
“Well, yeah. Like everybody’s got a mother, but she’s not my family anymore.”
“Sure she is.”
“John Madison, you don’t know my Mamma. She’s the reason I’m out here.”
John didn’t know what to say. You can’t argue with someone who knows their life better than you, yet she was the one who continued. Only this time, she looked at him.
“My mamma’s boyfriend wanted me t’ sleep with `im. I told him no, so Mamma threw me outta the house. Haven’t been back since.” Then she looked away.
“Good for you!”
“Huh?” She turned back to him, baffled.
“I said, `Good for you'”
“For not sleeping with him.”
She stared at him, thinking – “Yeah …” she said. Then a slight smile came on her face. “Good for me!” It was the first time she realized she did the right thing. The smile was needed to brighten her face. Despite the dirt and the mustard on her mouth, it made her eyes come alive and sparkle. It was then John saw they were a beautiful azure blue.
“Yeah… Well, John Madison, I gotta go. Hey, I don’t have money or anything, so I can’t pay ya back, ya know.”
She stood up to leave.
“You don’t need to pay me back.”
“Ya jus’ gonna let me have it for free?” as she finished the last of her drink.
“No. I’ll make a deal with you.”
“I ain’t gonna go home.”
“No, I don’t want you to. Just promise me this. When you get your life back together, you’ll do the same for someone else.”
Naomi stood silently looking at him. Then with a quiet finality, she whispered, “I ain’t never gonna get my life back together.” Her eyes began to glisten.
John stood up. At least a foot taller, he leaned down to her level with a stone-hard look. He spoke slowly, in a voice as firm as his face.
“How can you be so sure, Naomi? Your life is just beginning.”
Silence as cold as the ocean set in. Naomi stared into his eyes for what seemed an eternity without as much as a flicker of an eyelash. Time stands still while the mind awakens. Without breaking her gaze, Naomi slowly sat down. She never realized she still had a future – until now. John continuing to speak, both pairs of eyes locked on each other.
“Naomi, if you want to help yourself, you have to help others. Understand this,” he leaned closer to her, “we are all family. Everyone you meet out here on this pier and in the streets of the city, are our family. Everyone on those ships on the horizon, are our family. You help them, you help yourself. You can get your life back together by helping others.
“Most of the laws in life are dichotomies. They don’t make sense, Naomi. They just work. You help others, you help yourself.”
He released her eyes and they lowered to the table. She had heard him, and it was soaking in. What little he said and how he said it, left no room for doubt. She still had a future.
Fewer words have the most impact. John knew not to say anymore. Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out a thin colorful card, and laid it on the table.
“Here’s a phone card. Good for sixty minutes. It’s yours. Use it when you need it.”
Naomi looked up at him. She didn’t speak, but her wet eyes softly told him, `Thank you, John Madison.’
John watched her a moment more, then with a smile added, “Be sure you throw your trash away.” Pulling the hood over his head, he slid his hands into his pockets and turned and strolled away.
And when he reached the end of the walkway, the lone gentleman looked back once, then turned toward the lights of the city.
Naomi sat for some time thinking. There was an old woman who ran a grungy soup stand for the homeless. Naomi didn’t like her, but maybe she could use some help. She would try anyway.
The ragged young girl with the dirty face stood to leave but paused, and remembering, put the trash away. The walk down the pier didn’t seem as long this time, and when she reached the end of the walkway she didn’t look back, but turned and disappeared back into the bowels of the city.
John Madison sat at his desk working on his year-end finances. Christmas had come and gone, and the New Year would be there in days. In front of him on the edge of his desk sits a photograph of a young girl in her Junior year of high school. She is smiling. Her pretty teeth, her dark hair curled around her shoulders, is the way he will always envision her. Her eyes are blue.
The phone broke with a chirp.
“I’ll get it John. I’m expecting a call from Marion”, cried a voice from the other room. Then a moment later, John’s wife stuck her head in the door. “Honey, it’s for you. Someone named Naomi.”
John reached for the phone while his mind quickly searched for any Naomi he might know. Just as he spoke, he remembered.
“This is John.”
“Are you the John Madison I met on the pier?” the voice asked.
“Yes Naomi! How are you doing?”
“You know, I did what ya said. I’m helping out at a soup kitchen. Me and Maggie just got finished feeding a bunch of people, and I wanna give you a call to tell you I did what ya said.”
“That’s great. . .”
“Anyway I told some of the kids that come here about your dichotomy. Maggie helped me look it up in the dictionary. Been telling kids about helping others, you know, and that we are all family. Not jus’ here on the beach, but everywhere. Even on the boats out there in the ocean, you know. Some o’ the kids I talked to even went back home, those who still had a place that wanted `em. And me and Maggie are puttin’ up another soup place near the water for the kids who stay there. Maybe we can help some of `em like your daughter.”
John tried to speak, but couldn’t.
“Anyhow, I just wanted to call and let you know that your dichotomy works. Oh, and I used some of the sixty minutes on this phone card for some of the kids to call their home. Probably don’t have much more minutes left so I better go. Bye John Madison.”
She hung up without giving him a chance to speak. He would not have been able to anyway, for the door had been opened.
John’s wife came into the room to inquire about the unusual caller, and saw her husband doing something he had not done in six years. John Madison was crying.