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The Gift of a Smile MAG
The bell on the door rang as he entered, and without waiting he headed to his usual corner table, right in the middle of her section. The normal customers wrinkled their noses slightly as he passed, trailing the smell of alcohol, cigarettes, and several days without a bath. He sat, his stomach growling as the aromas of the restaurant washed over him. He took off his top three layers (all jackets so ragged they were more hole than fabric) and waited for her to come take his order.
As she walked toward his table, she made no attempt to put on her normal sweet-girl disguise. That was a facade reserved for customers capable of tipping – and with more than three cents and a bubble gum wrapper. Instead, the expression on her face resembled that of a young boy as he contemplated a plate of brussels sprouts. But the man was used to that, and so, undaunted, he began the dance.
“How are you today, darling?” he said, as audacious as ever. His voice whistled through the gap in his front teeth.
She was silent, glaring at him. Stubborn. Resolute.
“Well, you're welcome,” he continued brightly, as if she were just a waitress and he were just a customer. “And I'm doin' good, thanks for asking.”
“For once, can I please just take your order and get this over with?” She made no attempt to hide the exasperation in her voice.
“Sure, darling, just as soon as I decide.” With grime-coated hands he picked up the menu and pretended to read. He had his lines memorized, throwing in “that looks nice” and “mmm … tasty” and “which is better?” as he played the part. By now she didn't even bother telling him he was holding the dinner menu, despite it being 11:30 in the morning. She just put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot. Sassy. He liked that.
“You aren't my only customer, you know,” she reminded him, and added something about him being a bum in an undertone.
“True, true. Tell you what,” he said finally, still speaking from the script as though he couldn't hear her muttering. “Why don't we mix it up a bit? You decide what I should get, just as long as it's under two bucks and comes with a cup of your worst coffee.”
So they “mixed it up,” for the hundredth time, and five minutes later she came out carrying the only thing they had under $2 that was served with coffee: a honey bun. What do you know – it was just what he wanted.
He ate at a snail's pace, taking a bite whenever he happened to glance down and remember that there was food. Most of his time, as always, was spent watching her, thirstily drinking in her image as she served other customers. He loved to watch her perform for everyone else, the way she tossed her hair, laughed at things that weren't funny, and always met them with that heart-stopping smile. It was an incredible thing, her smile, showing two rows of immaculate pearly white teeth before curving gracefully up into the most perfect dimples. The man could stare at that smile for eternity and not get tired of it.
As he watched, he again noted that, unlike the rest of her coworkers, she kept her sleeves pulled down around her wrists. He had never seen her forearms, and he had several theories about what they might look like. At first he had entertained the idea that they were splotched with tinges of green, black, and blue. However, he had eventually decided that they were most likely either criss-crossed with lateral pink lines or pockmarked just inside the elbow. Either way, whatever it was surely caused her a great deal of stress, stress that she invariably took out on him, as if all the problems in her life were his fault. That thought almost made him laugh; she had no idea.
After a few hours of doing nothing but watch and occasionally eat, the man was left with a single bite of stale honey bun and a ring of brown liquid in the bottom of his cup, his only lifelines to his seat and his right to stay. Every fifteen minutes or so she would come by and ask if she could take his plate, and every fifteen minutes he would tell her no, thank you. At precisely 3:30 he saw her take off her apron, and hand over her tables to the girl who had just walked in. He popped the rest of the honey bun into his mouth, stood up, poured a precounted amount of change onto the table from one of the many pockets in one of his many jackets, and made toward the door. A voice stopped him in the entryway.
“Are you serious?” She stood behind him, hands on her hips, an incredulous look on her face. “You come in here for four hours, do nothing but drool at me like a rangy old dog, and then you just happen to leave right as my shift ends? Why do you do this? Why do you have this …” she paused, thinking of the right word, “this obsession with me?”
He regarded her silently for a moment, before replying, “Darling, I'm a crazy, old homeless man. Old people got too much time. Homeless people got too much time. Crazy people got too much time. Me? Times all I got, so I'd spend it on anything just to get rid of it. Pretty things, though, out there in the cold I don't got none of those. There's nothin' I wouldn't give to see something lovely, and you got the prettiest smile in the whole city. So that's why I sit here for hours, darling, because when I see you smile, it's worth all the time in the world.”
And with that, he left her in the doorway and strode out into the cold.
On the street he wrapped his jackets tighter around his body, and blew on his hands to keep them warm. He caught sight of his reflection in a tinted car window and stopped. He forced himself to smile for the first time in weeks, and gazed at the image of his face longingly. He could just make out, beneath the dirt and wrinkles, the shadow of what was once an incredible smile, with immaculate white teeth, curving into the most perfect set of dimples. It was the only thing worth a damn that he'd ever given his daughter.