Knowing they could get free coffee refills, the homeless young couple was as careful with their cups as they were with their clothing. They did not drink their morning coffee from the paper cups provided by the chain lest the edges became worn and roughened so a plastic lid would not stay put. Instead, whenever they did come up with enough change to afford coffee with breakfast, the couple took turns leaving the restaurant as if going to the washroom, but instead went to the old van in which they lived and poured the coffee into a thermos they stored on the center console that was usually warm in the morning sun depending on the weather and the way they parked.
This particular morning, as the young woman reentered a McDonald’s in a small central Michigan town where the rumor that day jobs were available turned out to be false, one of the regulars, a coffee klatch senior, approached from behind with his empty cup. He was tall but slow and didn’t catch up with her until she was already in line for her free refill. His voice was like a whisper catching its breath beneath the brim of his baseball cap.
She turned. “Yes?”
The old man, at least eighty, held out a shaky fist closed tight like the game in which one guesses which hand will contain the prize. But in this case there was only one choice. “Me and the guys and ladies over there are retired. We got pensions—”
“So, we wanted you and your friend—”
When he hesitated, she said, “I call him my sidekick.”
The old man smiled. “Yeah, your sidekick. I like that. Anyway, we want you to have something because we’ve been discussing the situation and—Well, we got newer cars at discount before Detroit lost its way. We saw your van and we figured you can’t get free refills of gas—Anyway, here.”
The young woman held out her free hand. The old man opened his fist and a wad of warm bills weighing as much as one of the sparrows feeding out at the dumpsters fell into her palm. The old man smiled and turned to walk back to the far side of the restaurant where at least a dozen old men and several old women also smiled, but tried not to make a show of it. When the young woman returned to the table where her sidekick sat, he stood and gave her a gentle kiss, careful not to rub his day-old beard against her soft cheeks.
Out in the parking lot another van pulled in, but it was a newer van that had not come from the direction of the day labor lot behind the closed public library, and the seniors resumed whatever coffee klatch conversations they had interrupted.