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Sunday Journal

A sudden burst of color


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003

My husband and I owned a small neighborhood pub about 20 years ago. Our regulars were a mismatched bunch: the know-it-all, the accountant, the woman who talked to herself, and the rest. One by one, like moths to a light, they would come out of the evening darkness, ready for a beer, a little conversation and the reassurance of familiar faces. A few might drop coins into the jukebox, drift to the tables nearest the bar and quietly debate the world's problems. Occasionally, one or two would sit alone, lost in thought as cigarette smoke hung overhead like afternoon smog.

One "regular" stood out because he wasn't even 5 feet tall. He was probably 8 or 9 years old, and would silently follow his father as he shuffled through the dimly lit dining section to the area in the back where the others had gathered.

The father was middle-aged, thin and walked with a slight stoop. His hair and mustache were a nondescript brown; even his clothes were devoid of color. He rarely smiled. His son also wore clothes that made him almost invisible.

Once seated, the father would reach into the pocket of his weathered overcoat and hand the boy a couple of quarters for video games. The electronic sounds of Pac-Man or Centipede would float over the low wall that separated the dining area from the bar, mingling with hushed voices and occasional bursts of laughter. The boy usually played the machines by himself because few children were in the pub at night. When the smell of hamburgers and chili reminded him he was hungry, he would order dinner and sit alone at a table in the empty restaurant area to eat.

Over the months, I watched this child, who, although fed regularly, seemed to be completely ignored by his father.

"Don't you have any homework?" I'd ask.

"Nah," he'd reply with a shrug.

"You should button up," I'd warn when the weather was bitter and he walked in with his jacket open.

"I'm never cold," he'd boast, puffing up his chest like a bantam rooster.

"The machine did it again," he would tell me, describing how the video machine had taken his money but hadn't given him the game he'd paid for. I handed over quarter after quarter, even though the games ate only his coins -- no one else's.

When he left the pub each night, I wondered about the apartment they both walked to. I hoped it wasn't bare and colorless like the rest of his life, but I knew it probably was.

Then, one evening, the boy climbed onto a tall bar stool. He sat, elbows on the counter, chin in his hands, watching me as I arranged clean glasses behind the bar. Every time I glanced in his direction, he quickly looked away. Finally I started across the carpet toward the office. He jumped down from the stool and stood in front of me. From under his jacket he produced a scarlet rose. Its dark green leaves were wilted, and its heavy ruby head was beginning to droop. He handed it to me with a shy smile.

"I found it in the alley," he said. "There's lots of flowers in the Dumpster behind the flower shop." His voice lowered. "This is the prettiest one. It's for you."

I thanked him and put it carefully in the buttonhole of my blouse. He nodded, then turned and went back to putting quarters in the video games, trying to play his way back into his familiar, solitary orbit. I, too, turned and went back to my work, but the fragrance of the flower I was wearing distracted me.

Throughout the evening, whenever I looked up, I would catch him checking to see if I was still wearing his beautiful red rose. I was.

-- Mickey Davis is a freelance writer in Palm Harbor.

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