November mist settled the dust in downtown Cleveland. The city slept, quieting the streets.
Tough finding a cab at this time of night. I headed toward the old Terminal Tower where cabbies waited for incoming transit.
Three teenage girls faced a man in disheveled clothes. The shortest teen, stood eye-to-eye, handed him a change purse. He examined not checking the contents, and offered the purse back. A sedan pulled up sounding its horn. The three young faces rode out of sight. He stuffed the closed purse in his baggy pants, and hustled to the shelter of a building.
The mist changed to a downpour casting an overlay working its way up Euclid Avenue. I joined the stranger, seated on a crammed cardboard box in the doorway.
Little man muffled a cough. "Storm brewing...."
"Uh-huh." Wiped the rain from my brow.
The lightening glittered his eyes. He avoided mine. "You got out in time."
"Yeah." I recognize this guy. His skin aged to leather. Snuffy, Snuffy Smith, we worked in Athens, Ohio. Told, he died. College Years, I plugged away at a summer job in a machine shop, along the railroad tracks. Snuffy signed on full-time.
We hand shaved printing burrs, rubbing them against a sandstone. Two weeks of grinding, Snuffy went to our boss, and came back contented working the remainder of the shift. The next day, two pails of burrs faced me on my workbench. His complaining got him a upgraded job. We became good summer friends.
Flashes of lightening erupted the sky in shades of nightfall. Buildings with studded glass refracted the light "You're right about the storm," I said.
Coughed hard, sucking in the damp air. "Not going a let up."
Rested my hand on his shoulder. "How've you been Snuffy."
Gazed at the raindrops bouncing off the sidewalk. "You're mistaken. My name's Jack."
"Jack, in Athens I called you, Snuffy Smith."
Took his time to raise his head. "Been getting by--doin okay. Ross, I kinda hoped you wouldn't recognize me."
"Almost didn't--how's Janet?"
Stuffed his hand into a timeworn jacket. "She took off the day the cash settlement from the workman's-comp ran out.
"Sorry, back trouble?"
Jerked his hand from his left pocket. His chilled breath blew by a claw-like palm displaying part of a thumb.
"Damn. What happened?"
"My new job. I shouldn't've been running a punch press ... bout the time you went back to college"
"I'm beginning to understand."
"Ran into Fats ten years ago. Told me you died."
"Yeah, Janet talked me into loaning Fats, ten grand."
I moved to the curb. "Taxi.... Come on Snuffy."
Bit on his lip. Silence came over him, for doing something against his will. Said he'd wait on a bus.
"Let's go, no bus stop here."
Weighted my response. "You haven't changed."
"Wish I could say the same about you." In a kinder tone, "Come on, we got some catching up."
Reached for his taped box. "I don't live far."
Something familiar ... Snuffy's contentment, his last day at the workbench.
"Where to, Snuffy?" I asked in the taxi.
Pointed his thumb over the box. "Take the Bridge."
Cabby shifted into drive. "The High-level?"
"Yeah. 'Stop on the other side."
"Not much down there."
Snapped his head up, as if awoken from sleep. "I'm comfortable," taken on an intolerant edge. "The other side...."
"No offense," he said.
Snuffy unlocked his weathered mouth across the span, to let his tired lines pass off the forgotten. He collected his property. "Thanks for the lift, Ross."
"What's the rush?"
"I'm expecting company...."
"In this weather?"
Studied the outside. "Won"t matter...."
"Not tonight Ross."
"Where to from here?"
His eyes questioned me. "My place is down the hill."
All these years and Snuffy with an uncertain choice not to hang out. "Join me, I'm going to grab a late bite. Better yet, come over to the hotel, we'll order in."
Worked to exit the cab. " No, he's an old friend."
"At this time?"
I let down the window. "Hold on." Rubbed over my jaw's roughness brought on by an early shave. Placed my business card with a C-note on his made-over hand. "Call me...."
Folded his thumb. "See ya...." No interest in the rain nor under his thumb.
"Take care, my friend."
My old friend trudged down the hill carrying his belonging, stopped, suppressed another cough, and called back, "Ross, I shut out my pass--my minds made up in spite of me...."
The night swallowed him. I Powered up the window. "Find 77 South."
"A friend of yours?"
"Is he a friend...?"
"Yeah. We worked together. I should have gone with him." Scanned the darkness, in hopes to understand an old friend's dissolute? No laughs we'll share from the past ... now for a late meal.
"Nothing down there"
"Where your friend is headed."
"How do you know?"
"I just do...."
"Go back...." The storm moved beyond the city. "Snuffy got me again."
Caught my eye through the rearview mirror. "How's that?"
"Let's say he wears his thoughts," handed him two C-notes, "I'll be a while...."
He nodded. "I'll be here. Careful under ... not a safe area."
Shortened my steps on the grassy slope. My eyes adjusted to dark under the bridge. "Snuffy it's Ross."
Raindrops dripped off the bridge to disturb the quiet.
Less light filtered the terrain. I skirted a forgotten campfire dotted with rusty cans. The damp grounds left off a musty odor. "Snuffy ... damn, show yourself."
I almost didn't hear my name. I searched to where the sound came from.
My nose twitched from the faint scent of smoke. I followed the odor through the screen of bushes, and worked my way between the dense foliage to an antique pickup. The truck's rims matched the cans cluttering the campfire.
A cigar permeated the area. A gray, frayed tarp drawn through a windowless door. Lordly, my old friend sat in the driver seat, expressing a wry smile. He displayed an uplifted chin, holding a cigar-but between his teeth.
Asked myself, why would he go through the trouble of secrecy to be found seated in a truck, having a smoke? "Quite good...."
"What?" pulled on the cigar.
Mimicked his satisfaction. "I don't live far."
"I know...." Warm now, as if his voice defrosted from hot tea.
Hands stuffed in my pockets, I faced his quiet dwelling, like we were immersed in each others thoughts, to witness a one man shantytown. "Snuffy, I...."
He scraped around a second, tapping his thumb on the dash. "C'mom, Ross," talked out the side of his mouth. "Join me," motioned with the cigar toward the passenger seat. "Been expecting you," held up his palm. "Yes, old friend--who the hell would come visiting in the rain...?"
Author Notes: Sole property of John Sanders: All Rights Reserved