This Wasn't the Place for Cockroaches
A story about the little things in life...
She placed the pint on the coaster in front of him.
"Another hot date, huh?" she asked with a grin as he finished scribbling a note in his little black book. He smiled and nodded his head.
"Life's too short not to enjoy it." he replied with a quick wink.
Every Tuesday by 11:25am Wade showed up for his pint and the lunch special. Today it was a ham and cheese on rye with corn chowder. He nearly always ordered the special with a glass of the house lager.
"Don't worry. I already told them to hold the tomatoes and no crackers with your soup."
"You truly are a gem" he said.
Wade had been coming here as long as Janna had worked here. Some days he was quiet. Some days he had more to say. Over time he'd let down his guard. He had told her about his daughter. About having to fly her to a recovery facility on the coast when she started to be less about the socialization of her parties and more about all the party favours. It was hard on him. You could see the hurt in his eyes the few times he spoke of it. Janna couldn't begin to imagine her little girl 15 years down the road falling into those habits. All he wanted was for her to be okay. To be happy. To be healthy. The same as any parent wants for their kids. Once in a blue moon he would bring up his ex-wife. "I probably could have been a better husband" was usually the gist of it.
"Well Wade, we all have times that we could have been better people. You are definitely not alone there. But we can't live in the would have/should have world. All we have is now." Janna would often give advice to her customers, but the truth was, she probably needed to hear it more than anyone.
"You seem a little off today. You seem tired. Everything okay?" This wasn't an insult coming from him. He noticed the little things when other people didn't. The pauses between orders because her mind wasn't running as smoothly as usual. The little details like her hair being out of place, or wearing less makeup than usual.
All of the regulars knew that she was a single mom. And most are aware that tired comes with the territory. When he would ask these questions or make these statements she knew he had a genuine concern. Janna figured it was the instincts of being a father. Was everything okay? Often times there was a story. The family across the hall that had a fight spill into the hallway, leaving at least one of their members battered and bruised. The police that would come knocking, wondering if she'd seen a man with a stab wound, or heard any commotion in the apartment above. Today's story started in the apartment next to hers that had been abandoned. Apartment management finally got the okay to clean it out, and it turns out it was worse than anyone knew. They were trying to keep it on the down low, so as not to get any of the other residents too riled up. The cockroaches which had taken residence there however, had other plans. They had nowhere to go except through the wall she shared with the MIA neighbour. Janna had been up three nights in a row killing them and disposing of them, doing everything she could to keep them from reaching her daughter's room. Sleep? Who needs sleep? And how was she supposed to sleep thinking one of these disgusting insects might go scurrying across her face? Nope. No sleep here. This was not the life she had ever pictured for herself. And definitely not the life that she felt any child deserved. But this was the life she was currently living. At the end of the day she appreciated having a home at all. She knew she wouldn't be here forever.
There were days that she wanted to answer with the truth. But being here, where people tipped her for her service and enabled her to pay her bills, was not the place. This wasn't the place for stories about domestic abuse. This wasn't the place for random crime investigation stories. And this definitely wasn't the place for cockroaches.
She took a deep breath.
"It's just been a busy weekend. Nothing new."
He raised an eyebrow, but he didn't push.
"How's the little lady doing these days? Is she still painting her nails all the colors of the rainbow?" He knew that the second she was given permission to speak of her little girl, all other worries went out the window. It was the one thing that could ALWAYS put a smile on her face.
"Yes! And mine. Look at these beauties!" she said as she wiggled her brightly colored fingers at him. "They match any outfit. My daughter is a genius." And with that she disappeared into the kitchen.
Just like that, the whole mood changed. Perhaps it was Wade that was the genius.
Lunch hour had officially started. People were steadily coming through the front door and finding open seats. "Is there anything else you need?" and "Do you need the machine with your bill?" would be the extent of the rest of today's conversation.
"Thanks Janna. Enjoy the rest of your day and give that girl a big squeeze when you get home." And with that, he picked the coat up off the back of his chair and exited.
The next few Tuesdays came and went. No Wade. He always let Janna know when he was going away to see his daughter. Other than that, he didn't venture far out of his regular routine. Weeks turned into months, and still no sign of Wade. She didn't even know enough about him to reach out. It was strange that she could feel that she knew someone in such depth, yet know nothing about them at all. That was one of the extraordinary things about being a bartender. It was like she knew everybody and nobody all at the same time.
Janna was cleaning up from the lunch rush when she heard the front door. She looked around the corner and saw a woman in a pantsuit. Janna didn't get the impression that she was looking for a pint.
"Hi! Can I help you?" she asked politely.
"Yes. I hope so. My name is Clara Martin. I'm a representative from Snider and Associates. I'm looking for a Janna Courter."
She paused before responding, confused. "Um. Yes. That's me."
"Would you mind showing me some ID? I have to be sure it goes to the right person. And I'll need you to sign."
"Ummm. Ya. Sure. Just let me grab my bag."
Janna went behind the bar to retrieve her drivers license. There were a few scenarios swirling through her head. Was this about child support? About her daughter? What was going on? She pulled her ID out of her wallet and placed it on the bar top.
"What is it I'm signing for? Do I need a lawyer?" Janna asked as the woman reached into her briefcase. She placed the papers on the bar as she took a quick glance at the ID.
The representative smiled and shook her head.
"Just sign where the post its are, please."
Janna nervously signed her name on the lines while Clara pulled a large manilla envelope out of the case and passed it to Janna.
"This is for you. Wade left instructions to have it hand delivered. He apologizes for bothering you at work."
"Wade? What? Is he okay? Tell him it's alright. Is he out of town?"
"Everything is in the envelope. Take care." Clara smiled, fastened her briefcase and left out the front door.
Janna wasn't sure what to think. It was the time of day when nobody else was around. Just her and the cooks in the back. She was a little hesitant, but slowly opened the envelope and peered in. She pulled out a handwritten note.
I want to start this letter by thanking you. There was never a Tuesday that I walked into your pub and didn't feel welcome. I made it a habit to arrive early enough to always fit in a conversation with you, and you know I am a true creature of habit. Even on your worst days, you can somehow make those around you feel better about themselves. This is a gift. You remember the little details and make each person feel like they matter. This is a gift. The way that you talk about your daughter. The way you light up when someone mentions her. This is a gift. I have included something in this envelope. This is a gift. From me, to you.
8 months ago I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We knew that it wouldn't be long. I have heard that when things start to go south in patients like me, they go very fast. When things turned, I did not want to come see you because I knew you would be able to tell. I did not want you to worry or be sad because of some old man who liked a pint and a sandwich on a Tuesday. It was on a Tuesday that I was diagnosed. I didn't come in that day. The next week you asked where I'd been and told me not to scare you like that. I knew in that moment that I had to make sure you knew what that meant to me. You and your daughter deserve the world. Please take this gift and let your daughter see you as the world sees you. Please allow yourself to see yourself through the eyes of the world.
I am sorry I did not say goodbye. Please know that I am at peace. Thank you for giving me something to look forward to week after week. You have no idea how much your smile has changed my world.
You are a true gem.
Janna had tears streaming down her face. She reached back into the envelope. She pulled out his little black book. It felt very strange opening it. It felt like snooping. She'd seen him scribble notes in here all the time. She'd made jokes about it many times.
The first page was dated nearly a year earlier, with a couple of points scribbled on it:
- she got me a "special" special, because I don't like tuna
-she made the old guy at the end of the bar a birthday card from receipt paper and got all of us to sign it
Janna flipped through. Every Tuesday was a new page. They were filled with interactions she'd had with Wade, as well as ones she had with other customers. From helping a woman with an arm brace get her coat on, to kindly and happily responding to the irate man that was very clearly not having a good day. It was all in there. Up until that last note on that last day:
-she always knows, no tomatoes
-something at home is not right, but she keeps smiling
Janna's eyes filled with tears. She was overwhelmed. As she was flipping through notebook, a piece of folded paper fell from the back. It was a cheque. She unfolded it and saw a number. $20 000. She felt all of the blood run from her face. She'd never before seen a number like that. Through her tear filled eyes she saw that he had written a memo. The memo read: "Don't ever let the world change your smile"