It took them a couple weeks to realize he was gone, and then a couple more of wondering to themselves before somebody finally brought it up- “Hey, haven’t seen the Stranger around in a while.” But as soon as it was mentioned, the speculation continued to trickle through Cool Beans Café: what happened to the Stranger?
According to Lisa, over a soup kettle to Joan, he was “y’know, that grungy-looking kid with the elbows worn out of that shirt he musta worn every day. The one who always sat by the windows scribbling in those little books.”
“Oh, him,” Joan had said, “yeah I never caught his name. Never said much, did he?”
Margie, the owner, remembered him fondly. “Oof, quite a looker, that one, but always all binged out. You always feel kinda sorry for guys like that, sorta down in the dumps all the time and lookin’ like hell. Woulda slipped him some change if I’d seen him on the street but my God what I would’ve done to him otherwise.”
“I’d seen him here and there,” one of the regulars had said. “Never paid much attention, honestly. Looked like a lost little shit in his fancy boots, tryin’ to get on without Mommy.”
Nobody ever got his name, nobody knew anything about him. He’d said his polite hello’s and thank-you’s, scribbled in his books, and left his tips. To be honest he seemed like a regular guy, and I never saw the reason for the fuss. Not like anybody gave a damn while he was here.
So of course it was weird when the camera crews came in, interviewing everybody in the shop, asking if anybody knew anything about him or where he went. They bumped into my table with the end of a boom mic, spilled my tea before they got around to asking me. I said, “What, did he die or something? Who gives a shit?” and they suddenly were very disinterested in my reminiscences.
I talked to him a couple times, sure, outside having a smoke. Just a regular guy, like I said, trying to find his way like everybody else. But jeez, to hear the kinda stuff they say about him now- was he a bum, was he a genius, was he an undercover cop- I mean, really.
I hear the documentary’s gonna be called Whatever Happened to the Stranger and it’s supposed to be some deep expose on the nature of small towns and what-not, whether you lose your anonymity when you set foot in the same place twice. I’m not in it; I couldn’t sit around that joint during all that mess. Damn boom mics.
It was a real pain driving twenty minutes up the road for the next best coffee place, but I didn’t really have a choice. I wondered if they’d make a movie about me when they figured out I was gone. Maybe that’s how they keep their customers, by threatening to talk crap about them if they leave.
But I kid you not it was only a couple of days before I ran into him at this other coffee shop. There he was, sitting and scribbling at a table by the window. His shirt had two patches at the elbows now but everything else was the same. The damn Stranger was twenty minutes up the road the whole time.
Jeez, oh boy, I thought, grade-A detective work at its finest in this town.
I ordered my coffee and sat down to read the paper. The thought crossed my mind to tell him about all the craziness back at the old shop- didn’t he deserve to know he was famous?- but I figured the reason he left was the same reason he wouldn’t probably appreciate somebody walkin’ up and goin’ on about don’t I know you from somewhere. As soon as I got up to smoke though, he came right out after me and we both stood there a while, puffing.
“You get tired of Beans, too?” he asked me.
“I suppose you could say that,” I replied. “You know how it is.”
“Yeah. Nice to get a change of scenery every so often.”
He asked if things were still the same there and I told him nothing much had changed, which was not really a lie. People were as crazy as they’d always been- all they’d had now was a reason to show it.
He nodded his head and we stood there a bit in silence, crushed our cigarette butts and headed inside, back to our respective tables alone, back to our respective peace.