I’m looking for a new character for my novel. Before I cast my thoughts inwards, I look up and survey the room beyond this round bistro table and my Chai latte which is too hot to drink. This Starbucks is busy on a Saturday morning. A fertile space of characters and conversations.
An elderly man leans heavily on a tubular wood walking stick. The candy cane top is scratched, a patina of the clash between the soft wood and the thick silver ring that spins on his emaciated finger.
Each shuffled step is accompanied by a full stop. The curve of his spine, almost doubled over is interrupted by the upward tilt of his head. Anxious for physical dignity, the man’s neck bends proudly to lift his chin. Each step an accomplishment. He smiles, unconcerned that he has no audience or does he sense I am watching? His too perfect white chiclet teeth push against thin lips.
A young woman in skin-tight black Lulu Lemon pants holds the door for him. She smiles kindly but his smile falters. A choice is required between making eye contact and concentrating on his feet crossing the threshold. Do his eyes linger on her shapely legs and the curve of her near perfect ass?
In his day this would have been a scandalous outfit. Not the kind of girl you would take home. He may not have been that kind of boy either. I reflect for a moment on the fashions that he must have seen in his ninety years.
He pauses on the concrete squares just beyond the arch of the door. If he were to look in the reflection of the window he might be disappointed to see that he is not standing erect. The cane sways from his wrist. His other hand slides into the slit pocket of his wool dress pants. A flash of silver as his fingers wrap around an object.
I wistfully look for my camera to capture this anachronism playing out in front of me. A wizened old man in timeless clothing, anywhere else in the world he would have worn a felt hat. I watch as he flips a thin silver cell phone over in his hand – I imagine an even greater photo if he lifted it with his thumbs splayed in the universal mudra of a person texting. Even if he were to just make a cell phone call, the image would bridge eras and generations. Add the shapely young girl and the message became universal.
He doesn’t look down; the contours of the phone are familiar to his hand. Its flat profile suggests a newer model but not an iPhone. His hand tenses, the tendon between his thumb and forefinger rises as he engages a clasp and the silver case flips open. But it isn’t a phone. Instead of a screen and keyboard, pale white tissue paper cylinders are lined up in rows, a cigarette case. My anachronism is now just a man from another time.
The cigarette tips are crushed and angled slightly. At first I imagine they are hand rolled, the pride of a lifetime smoker but then I catch sight of tightly pressed filter tips. But why the crushed ends? As a non smoker I can only imagine that cigarettes are now longer, supersized. Unable to abandon the case, like the aged, they are pinched and forced to fit.
He places a cigarette against his lips, returns the cane to his left hand before reaching back into his pocket to produce a silver lighter. I can’t see it, but I know his thumb is calloused from pressing the coarse wheel that grinds against the flint.
With a deep inhale, his cheeks pull under the angular bones that cradle deep eye sockets.
Blue grey smoke rises slowly around him. A few people look up, the smell catching their senses. The looks of reproach soften as they eye the old man. It is the ‘Grandfather Clause’ in its most personal form. No one would deny this man his right to inhabit this space. His pursed lips hold the cigarette; he wheezes slightly like an engine warming up and begins his slow shuffle down the sidewalk and out of the frame of my imaginary snap-shot but onto the page of my manuscript.
My Latte is now cool enough to sip.