Sunday, January 15, 2023

Nick at Night

Continuing our retrospective of Mary M. Isaacs' short stories...This one was published here December 6, 2020

   The coffee shop owner looked up as the door opened. When he saw who had come in, he grinned widely. “Hey, Nick, how’s it going?” and then he glanced at the clock on the wall. “You just barely made it on time! I was about to lock up.” 

   The young man walked to the counter. “Sorry, Mr. Collins, but I was kept late at work. I’m glad you’re still open. How many were turned in today?” 

   The owner opened the cash register. From underneath the till he pulled out several laminated red cards. “Eight, Nick,” as he handed them over. “All coffee drinkers this time. Pretty nice guys, too—they all said to tell you ‘thanks.’ Oh, and I wiped those down for you.” 

   “Eight?” replied the young man. “There should be a couple more. I wonder where they are? I hope those guys are okay…” He looked worried. 

   “Maybe they’re saving them for some time special. Maybe they didn’t see them and left them behind. Maybe they got lost.” The coffee shop owner spoke cheerfully, trying to inject a positive note. “They’ll turn up, Nick.” 

   “Maybe so.” The young man took the cards and then rummaged in his pocket. “I hope I have enough to cover these, Mr. Collins. Payday isn’t until tomorrow.” And he started counting out bills onto the counter. The coffee shop owner watched the process anxiously. 

   The young man finished counting and looked up apologetically. “Gosh, Mr. Collins, I’m so sorry. There’s not enough to pay for them all. I should try to plan things out better. I guess I’m not very good at budgeting.” 

   “Don’t worry about it, Nick. I know you’re good for it.” The owner gathered up the money and put it away in the till. Then he shut the cash register drawer. “Are you going out again tonight?” 

   “Yes. It’s going to be extra cold overnight, the weatherman says. They’ll need something to warm them up in the morning.” 

   “Well, then, you’ll need something too. I’ll make you a hot chocolate. You can pay me tomorrow.” The coffee shop owner started fixing a hot drink for the young man. 

   “Thank you, Mr. Collins. And don’t forget to let me know if you need some extra cleaning done before I come in Saturday morning.” 

   The coffee shop owner nodded and then handed over the hot chocolate. The young man took it to one of the small tables, sat down, and opened his shoulder pack. Out of it he pulled several envelopes. He put one of the red cards in each of the envelopes, sealed it, and wrote a few words on the front. Then he put the small stack of envelopes in his jacket pocket. After he finished, he took a little time to enjoy his hot chocolate, looking around the little coffee shop he knew so well. Where should he go tonight, he wondered. He’d already been downtown a couple of times recently. Maybe one of the freeway overpasses? Yeah, that would be good. Maybe a couple of the overpasses. There were some out-of-the-way places there, sheltered places for someone sleeping outside all night. 

   He gradually realized that the owner was putting things away for the night. The young man got up and helped him to wash the tables and stack the chairs. Afterwards, as he slung on his shoulder pack and was getting ready to leave, the coffee shop owner called him over to the display counter. 

   “Pick out a couple of doughnuts for the road, Nick—on the house.” 

   “But I already owe you for the chocolate and some of the extra coupons, Mr. Collins.” 

   “You need energy for this job, Nick! Here—this is your favorite kind, isn’t it?” He put two oversized jelly doughnuts into a bag. “Take a couple of napkins, too, for spilled jelly.” 

   “Yeah, I know--it always gets all over my chin,” the young man laughed. “Thanks, Mr. Collins.” 

   “Happy distributing, Nick—stay safe!” 

   The owner walked to the door with the young man, clapped him on the shoulder, and then locked the door after him. He watched the young man through the glass door as he walked away into the fading light. That Nick! He sure is something! Then he turned around to finish closing up. 


   Early the next morning, the coffee shop owner was busy setting things up for the day. He opened the big boxes of doughnuts that had just been delivered and looked with satisfaction at the tempting contents. He put a couple of jelly doughnuts aside and then filled the pastry trays in the display cabinet. 

   Just as he finished setting out the doughnuts, a man came into the shop. He was dressed in a business suit and had the air of being a little out of his element. In spite of that, he walked up to the counter expectantly. 

   “May I help you?” asked the shop owner. 

   “Well, I hope so,” the businessman said. He reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out a red card. 

   The owner’s eyebrows shot up and he looked startled. “Are you turning this in?” 

   “Turning it in?” The businessman looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh! no. No, I’m not here for…” and he read aloud what was printed on the card. “ ‘A free hot drink of your choice and two doughnuts at Collins’ Café’ .“ He looked up at the shop owner as he handed over the card. “I found this on the street where I usually park my car. Someone dropped it, I imagine. Looked interesting, well-designed, so I thought I’d come and ask about it. Is this some kind of promotion?” 

   “No, it’s not a promotion.” 

   “Well, why do you give these out?” 

   “I don’t give these out.” 

   “But it’s from your shop! You have to know how people get these! Is this some kind of scam?” 

   “No, it’s not a scam!” the coffee shop owner answered heatedly. Then he looked at the businessman for a while, trying to decide how much to explain. Finally, something about the man’s demeanor helped him make up his mind. “Okay, there’s this young guy, see? I’ve known him since he was a kid. Used to come here with his mama—he liked the jelly doughnuts.” The owner laughed. “He’d pick out the goopiest one, and always got the jelly all over his face.” He stopped, lost in memories. 

   “He’s not a kid any more, is he?” prompted the businessman. 

   The shop owner shook himself back to the present. “No, he’s grown up now— well, not too grown up! He still lives here, he has a job, and he still likes jelly doughnuts. Anyway, he came in one day with this idea… He saw guys sleeping outdoors all night and it made him feel bad. He knew he couldn’t do much to help but figured out a way to do something nice for them. He made up one of these cards—the coupon you brought in?—and asked me if I’d honor them. He’d pay me for every coupon that was turned in, and he said he’d come in once a week and do extra cleaning. He figured that the guys might not be the cleanest in the world—not their fault!—and as the whole thing was his idea, he didn’t want me to have to do more cleaning. So that’s what it is. He distributes the coupons, the guys bring them in, and they get doughnuts and a hot drink.” 

   “Quite a set-up,” said the businessman. 

   “Yeah, Ni—,” the coffee shop owner caught himself. “He’s pretty smart. Well, thanks for bringing in the coupon. He’ll be glad to know it was just lost. He knows exactly how many he gives out, and it bothers him when some are missing. He worries about the guys he gives them to. Hey, how about a cup of coffee on the house? As an appreciation for bringing in the coupon.” 

   “A cup of black coffee would be fine, thank you. I have a few minutes before I have to be at work.” 

   “Go ahead and sit down anywhere. I’ll bring it to you.” 

   The businessman walked over to a small table by a window. He sat down and looked around the shop. It was small but home-y. He liked being there and wondered why that was. There was nothing special about the furnishings or the décor, but there was just—something. It was just a nice place. 

   The owner came to the table with a large cup of coffee. “Black, like you wanted. But if you change your mind, there’s cream and sugar on that shelf there.” After setting down the cup, the owner turned to go back to work—but his eye was caught by movement outside the glass door. Someone was standing there, looking at something he held in his hand; something red. 

   The coffee shop owner strode to the door and opened it. “Hey, is that one of our coupons? Come on inside!” He held the door open and ushered the man in, almost by sheer strength of will. “Would you like some coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate? Here, put your stuff down at this table and come pick out your doughnuts. There’s a lot to choose from this morning—not too many customers yet!” 

   The man went over to a table and set down a backpack and bedroll. Then he met the coffee shop owner at the counter and handed him the red card. “I found this on the ground beside me when I woke up this morning.” 

   “Just passing through?” The owner asked. 

   “No, I live here. Well, here and there…” 

   “I understand, man. I see your bedroll. Coffee?’’ The homeless man nodded in reply. “Which doughnuts would you like?” The owner filled a large coffee cup as he spoke. 

   The man looked at the doughnuts. “These all look really good. I can have any two I want?” 

   “Sure,” the owner said, “anything you like.” 

   After a few moments’ deliberation, the homeless man indicated two bars— maple- and chocolate-covered. 

   “Good choices!” said the owner, as he put them on a plate and handed it over the display cabinet. “And here’s your coffee. Cream and sugar are over there,” he indicated the shelf. 

   The homeless man took his doughnuts to the table, set the plate down, and walked over for cream and sugar. He then sat down and began on one of the doughnuts. 

   The shop owner continued to set up for the day. He brought plates and cups out of a small kitchenette behind the counter and stacked them, ready for use. He refilled utensil containers and wiped down the serving area. From time to time he glanced at the two men in the shop; after a while he took the coffee pot to offer refills. The businessman accepted more coffee, and then the owner went to the other occupied table. He saw with satisfaction that one of the doughnuts was gone. “Good doughnuts, right?” he said, and held up the pot. The homeless man nodded and pushed his cup over for the refill. 

   As the owner poured more coffee, the homeless man asked, “Who does this? The coupons, I mean. Is it you?” 

   The coffee shop owner shook his head. “Then who does it?” “Sorry, man, I can’t tell you that. But he’s a good guy.” 

   “Yeah,” the homeless man took a drink of his coffee. “A really good guy.” 

   The shop owner returned to the counter and busied himself between there and the kitchenette. The businessman sipped at his coffee and alternated between watching the homeless man and watching the owner. The homeless man ate the second doughnut and drank his coffee. It was quiet and peaceful in the shop. 

   When he had finished, the homeless man brought his cup and plate to the counter and then returned to the table and started to gather up his things. 

   “Wait,” the shop owner called over to him. “You get a takeout sandwich, too.” And he started pulling supplies out of a refrigerator. 

   “I do?” the homeless man was surprised. The businessman shifted in his seat and took another drink of his coffee, watching over the rim of the cup. 

   “Sure—what kind would you like? Turkey? Ham? Roast beef?” 

   “Wow—roast beef would be great, thank you.” 

   “Whole wheat or white bread? And all the fixings?” 

   “White bread, please. And lettuce and tomato, if that’s okay.” 

   “Cheddar cheese?” 

   The homeless man nodded and then looked around him. The coffee shop owner pointed to the far corner of the shop. “Bathroom’s over there. This’ll be ready for you in a jiffy.” 

   As the man went towards the bathroom, the shop owner continued to prepare a big sandwich. He also wrapped up a large dill pickle and got a small bottle of water from the refrigerator. He put all the items into a paper bag. The businessman watched silently. 

   After finishing, the owner walked to the end of the counter and leaned over some equipment. All of a sudden, soft Christmas music began to play. At the same time, the homeless man returned from the bathroom and put on his backpack. He stopped and listened for a moment, and then said, “That’s right—Christmas is coming soon.” 

   The coffee shop owner walked over with the bag. “Here’s your sandwich. I hope you enjoy it.” 

   “I will, thank you!” The homeless man smiled and took the bag. “And please thank that guy who gave me the coupon.” He then picked up his bedroll and left the shop. 

   The owner walked to the door to watch him go. Then he got a wet rag and cleaned off the table where the man had been sitting, and straightened the chairs. When he finished that, he returned to the counter and started clearing away the sandwich makings. When he finally turned around, the businessman was at the counter looking at him. 

    “Would you like anything else? Coffee refill? A doughnut maybe?” the owner asked. 

   “A sandwich isn’t on the coupon,” the businessman said, matter-of-factly. 

   The coffee shop owner shrugged. “It’s just part of the deal.” 

   “I don’t think so. That’s all you, isn’t it? Your contribution. Does the other guy know about that?” 

   “No, he doesn’t--and he’s not going to know! I’m just paying it forward. The other guy, he’s the one. It was all his idea, right from the start. HE goes out at night and gives out the coupons. HE knows where the homeless folks are. HE comes in here and does extra cleaning, just in case the coupon guys track in dirt or whatever. He does all the work. But I’ve seen how it makes people happy, so--I just wanted to help.” 

   “Me, too,” said the businessman, and he pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He took out a bill and handed it to the café owner. “Here—sandwiches for the next few coupons that are redeemed. My treat.” Then he turned and walked out the door. 

   The shop owner watched him go, in surprise, and then finally looked at what he held in his hand. It was a hundred-dollar bill. 

   He stared at it for a few moments, and then grinned widely. That Nick! His idea just keeps getting bigger and better! He put the bill and the red card into the cash register and went to clean the table by the window. The Christmas music continued playing as the owner hummed along: 

   “In the bleak mid-winter/Frosty wind made moan; 
Earth stood hard as iron/Water like a stone; 
Snow had fallen, snow on snow/Snow on snow, 
In the bleak mid-winter/Long ago…. 

What can I give Him/Poor as I am? 
If I were a Shepherd/I would bring a lamb; 
If I were a Wise Man/I would do my part, 
Yet what I can I give Him/Give my heart.”


 From the carol, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”; lyrics by Christina Rossetti, music by Gustav Holst.

Mary M. Isaacs, Copyright 2020

From the book "Hidden in Plain Sight"

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