I'm eating at a breakfast buffet in a hotel and off to my right, a voice says, “Are you from this area?”
A man in his sixties with thick glasses is staring at me as he peels a banana.
“No,” I say, thinking he needs directions.
“Where you from then?”
“Oh, I hear that’s nice.” He is stuffing so much banana in his mouth it’s oozing through the cracks between his teeth. He reminds me of one of those pasta machines they sell on infomercials at three in the morning. There’s banana on the corners of his mouth, clinging for one last second before the chunks fall to the floor.
“I’ve never been, though,” he says, pushing up his glasses so now there’s banana on them, too.
He turns away and sits at a nearby table. Smack, smack, smack, I hear.
A man wearing a striped tie over a striped shirt enters the room and the man with the banana jumps to his feet. “Are you from this area?”
“No,” the guy says, picking through the buffet items with plastic tongs. He tucks a paper napkin into his collar and he’s shaking his head as he rejects one stale pancake after another.
“It’s not the Waldorf, is it?” Banana Man says. He is cleaning his glasses with a key-lime handkerchief that matches his slacks. “You here on business?”
“I am,” the guy says.
“I bet they put your CEO up at a better place than this, huh?”
“Yes, I think they do.”
Banana Man tells the man he went to an Ivy League business school and that his wife used to joke that she picked the wrong guy because three of his classmates are billionaires.
“You from around here?” he asks a third guy before he pushes a chocolate doughnut into his mouth.
“Hmm. Never been. Heard it’s nice.” Doughnut chunks crumbs tumble from the corners of his mouth.
“Yeah, I’m getting ready to fly back now. Just thought I’d get some breakfast first.”
Banana Man wipes the chocolate from his glasses. “Problem with always staying in hotels is, nobody knows you. If you get sick, these doctors don’t know you from Adam.”
“That’s why I only travel to big cities,” guy number three says. “The ones with good hospitals.”
Banana Man chokes down the last of his doughnut. “If you die here, nobody knows you. You could be up there—” He points upstairs. “—dead in your bed and nobody would know.”
“Yeah,” the guy says. “I wouldn’t want to die here.”
Banana Man picks up a cheese Danish from his paper plate. “It ain’t the Waldorf.”
I’m picking at my scrambled eggs with a plastic fork when he walks over to my table. “So, you here on business?”
“I was.” I drink some syrupy orange juice to clear my throat. “I’m going home today.”
He uses his only clean finger, the pinky, to push his glasses up so the nosepieces fall into the divots they’ve carved into the bridge of his nose. “To your wife and your children.”
I shake my head. “Just me.”
“Too bad,” he says. “Nothing like family. Roots are important, especially for a traveling man.”
I wonder if his is the last generation that will be able to get away with this. As people get older, they become uninhibited and say whatever is on their mind. For centuries, older people have been telling younger people how they should live their lives. Younger people will nod and sometimes even agree because they’ve been taught to respect the elderly. I imagine when I’m old, if I offer a nugget of wisdom to some younger person, he’ll tell me to go screw myself.
Listen to me. I’m already such a curmudgeon.
“Yes,” I say. “Family’s important, for sure.”
Banana Man steps away and I resume breakfast. As soon as I cut a piece from a sausage patty with the flimsy side of my fork, he returns. His hip is next to my shoulder and he smells of baby powder. I crane my neck up to see him picking sprinkles off another doughnut. His chin juts out as he peers through the bottom of his bifocals. Fine, gray bristles spring out of his nose. I slide my plate toward the opposite side of the table. Sprinkles. Boogers. I don’t want any of it in my breakfast. The pretty girl from the front desk is straightening up the buffet bar. She looks at me, then at Banana Man, then back to me. She smiles.
“Do you plan to marry?” he says.
“Yeah, I guess. I mean, you know, if the right person comes along.”
“Girl.” I clear my throat. “Woman.”
I push my plate away and slap my fork down on the table to show that I’m clearly bothered.
I’m ashamed. I’m an eight-year-old boy having a tantrum at the dinner table. Yet, I’m hopeful he gets the meaning.
He says, “You know how to tell if you’ve picked the right one?”
He’s not waiting for an answer. “You’ll do anything for her, that’s how.” He wipes out half the doughnut in a single bite.
“And she’ll do anything for you,” I say, thinking it’s about time to demonstrate some of my own wisdom.
Smack, smack. He swallows hard, clears space in his mouth for another bite. He raises the doughnut to his lips and hesitates. He lowers the doughnut and with glazed lips he says, “She’s dying.” His raspy, old man voice still possesses a baritone quality that echoes throughout the room. The pretty girl glances our way.
He brings the doughnut up to his face and inspects it the way you would inspect a diamond for clarity. He sighs through his mouth and his lips flap until he has exhaled completely. He sets the doughnut on the table. “She won’t make it through the night.”
“Your wife?” I say.
He nods, just barely, his eyes fixed on the table. He snaps out of his trance and stands tall. He fixes his stare on me. “Yessir. My wife.”
“Is that why you’re here? She’s in a hospital.”
He pulls out the chair next to me, sits, and wrings his hands. It seems as if he’s rubbing the ache out of them rather than a nervous thing. He raises his chin and fixes his stare on me again. “Heart. It’s a heart hospital.”
He stares at me. He’s waiting for me to take in what he just said. The silence—and his glare—seems to last minutes. Should I say I’m sorry? Should I just nod and wait for him to speak?
“We thought my dad had a heart attack a few years ago—”
He holds one index finger up to interrupt. With the other, he’s tapping on his chest. “A valve. Not a heart attack. It’s a valve.”
“That’s how you know,” he says, his face closer to mine than before. “You would do anything for her.”
Why do old people glare so much? Even when saying the most trivial thing, they seem so upset about it. I look over at the pretty girl. She’s stacking cereal boxes quietly so she can hear our words. Banana Man is fixed on me.
“So,” I say. “What are we talking about, um, sir?”
“Henry,” he says. “I’m Henry.”
“Henry,” I say. “What is it you’re talking about when you say, do anything?”
He puts his hand on my shoulder and gives a squeeze. “Women nowadays, it’s like going to the dentist to have a cavity filled, a minor inconvenience.” He removes his hand and points his thumb over his shoulder. “It’s a trip downtown and it’s done before lunch.”
Abortion. His wife, his dying wife, had an abortion.
“There’s nothing you can say, nothing you can do. Once it’s done, it’s done.” He bites into the doughnut, leaving just the tiny piece between his thumb and finger. He sighs through his nose while chewing slowly.
I stand and say, “Excuse me a sec, Henry.” I walk to the coffee dispenser and fill a cup. The pretty girl looks at me, nods her head toward Henry and shrugs. I shrug and smile. I take my seat next to Henry and set the paper cup in front of him.
“Thank you.” He takes a long sip and sets the cup down.
“So,” I say, “You guys, you and your wife, you—”
I let the statement hang in the air.
“No, not me.” He wraps his veiny hand around the other that holds the cup. “Just her. Well, I mean, obviously there was a man. Another man.”
I lift my brow to prompt him to continue.
He nods and wipes a few strands of greasy, white hair away from his forehead. “I suppose she gave it a lot of thought at the time. You had to in those days. But, I guess she didn’t give it enough. Obviously.”
“Did you and your wife have children–together?”
“Oh, we had a son.” He smiles as if a fond memory just struck him. He shakes his head. “We lost him in Vietnam.”
“He was such a good kid. Wouldn’t harm a fly. He was a medic. Didn’t even want to carry a gun, but, you know, the army can’t allow that. Doubt he ever fired the thing.” He laughs.
“Sounds like a good person.”
“So,” Henry says. “What sort of choice does that leave me with?”
“I guess I don’t understand. What choice are we talking about?”
“You ever been forced to chose between two people you love?”
“When my parents divorced.”
“Yes! Exactly. Who did you choose?”
“Well, it wasn’t really up to me. There was—”
He holds a finger up. “I still have a choice. I can choose—I can choose who I’ll be with.”
“Henry, you’ve had a rough week. I don’t think you’re thinking about things clearly.”
A man yells from the lobby to tell us the airport shuttle is leaving. The other two diners wipe their mouths and grab their coats before they head for the lobby. I look at my watch.
Henry nods. “I know you’ve got to go.”
“Henry, what are you talking about? What choice?”
“You should get going. You’re going to miss your airplane.”
I push my chair away from the table.
“I’ll be all right.”
I stand and hold out my hand. Henry shakes it. Not a single word comes to mind. I give him a smile and he nods. I grab the handle of my bag and pull it as far as the lobby. I turn back. Henry is talking to the pretty girl. She’s laughing a polite laugh. He is peeling a banana.
Chris Lopez is a commercial pilot and fiction writer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is currently in the MFA Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles.