It was 28 degrees when he rolled the window down. “This is the first time I’ve been in a car with the window down in nine years.”
We sat in my pickup, humming along route 90. Patchy snow whizzed past our periphery. The trees were without leaves and the sky was a brittle blue. We were early and that was fine. He was in no rush.
I’d met him in our technology class. A man in his later years, he had sharp-cobalt eyes and a considerate disposition. I knew the first and last thing he’d say each time he visited.
“Always a pleasure,” in a strong Boston accent, “really I mean it.”
I nodded and said it was no problem. I enjoyed using my truck for favors. The most common requests were always moving furniture, and today, we were retrieving a full load. He needed a lot, since living in prison didn’t lend itself to furnishings. He’d been out for less than three months.
We talked about being a photographer in a California penitentiary. Tennessee was rough in comparison. I angled the car onto the exit bend and leaned towards him, the cold air biting my ears. We straightened out into the suburbs and laughed hardily when he told a joke.
“We’re an hour early,” I said, “we can find a spot for some coffee and a muffin.”
“Why don’t we head into Concord?” He replied. “I’d love to go back there.”
Fifteen minutes later we shut the doors with a thunk. Slush crunched beneath our feet. It was the kind of winter’s day when your breath comes in white clouds and towns are cute and festive. Concord was like that, and we meandered into it willingly.
He would speak and then go quiet like turning a radio on and off. Silence ensued, his eyes wandering with his soul. He was a man stepping out of a time machine into the future. Everything was same, but new – familiar, but modern. He turned on his radio with a flash and a crackle.
“There,” he pointed, “that jeweler is where I bought a ring for my fiancé. Family place – good people. They’re still going…”
We switched to FM and were silent for a while. He invited me for the coffee and muffin I’d mentioned. We entered another family place – good people. The store was filled with tinsel, wreaths, and banana-nut aroma. He bought me a coffee with a jelly pastry for $9.
Outside we passed a church. A man handed out flyers in the name of Jesus. Always a pleasure took one and a conversation ensued. Mr. Flyers had also spent seven years on the inside. Jesus had saved him.
I could tell my companion was not in favor of Jesus, and the conversation approached the brink of an argument, but never tipped over. A mutual bond kept them from fighting: a respect I’d never witnessed before. I swear it was the cold that helped me see it, like breath made visible, I could sense the warmth from their conversation, even as they disagreed.
We returned to the car.
Neighborhood Programs, the furniture depot, was only a few minutes away. We took a number and waited for the doors to open. Volunteers led us through aisles of must, dust, and wood. Always a pleasure pointed as we went. A volunteer and I marked each item with green tape. And then he saw it: the painting.
On a wall of hundreds, one antique frame stood out. It was a water-color house in a yard circled with trees. He spotted it and dropped into complete silence. He stood, still as a statue, and stayed that way for a long time; longer than I was expecting.
Equally unexpected was the water in my eyes. My throat warmed. I approached the brink, but never tipped over. I blinked instead, and the volunteer and I shared a look behind his back.
“I’ll take this one,” he said, and removed it from the wall.
Back in the truck, we shipped out to Boston, windows down. We spent the rest of the day moving one shelf, two chairs, a swivel TV stand, an ornate end table, and two boxes of paintings up a claustrophobic stairwell. My hands were numb from the cold. The stairs or my tendons creaked, but I couldn’t tell which. The sun set in an orange hue.
I never asked, but it came up eventually why he was committed. He told me the story of the things he’d done. I listened and saw him differently – it was hard not to. A while after our day in Concord, he broke parole. He went to court, but they let him go. A few months after that, he dropped off the radar entirely. We’ve had no contact with him for almost a year.
His record is not my story to tell. I’d rather this blog be an ode to our acquaintance instead. Both federal and state penitentiary systems say he remains free, but I don’t believe I’ll see him again. I believe he’s moved on.
As fall changes into winter, and 28 degree days begin again, his signature phrase echoes in my head.
When I left him at his doorstep that day, he shook my hand and said, “always a pleasure.” And if you’re still out there, sir, I’d like you to know: my memories of that day, always will be.