A couple of nights ago I was out grocery shopping in the rain. It was cold and dark, with smears of light reflected off every paved surface. The Walmart parking lot was more crowded than usual, stragglers still trawling for Black Friday leftovers.

After sitting for a few minutes, futilely hoping the rain would disappear back into the drear, I practically sprang out of my car for an unappreciated powerwalk. I didn’t get very wet, even though I was stopped unexpectedly before I reached cover in the cart area.

Most of my dash was spent watching my sneakers splash across the pavement, trusting my peripheral vision to warn me of a rogue landspeeder in the form of a car with an impatient driver. I crossed traffic unscathed, but right at the fringe of the busy crosswalk area I looked up just in time to see a slightly stooped wiry old man flip someone off. Vehemently. Twice.

His gaze met mine. Rage warred with mortification, then edged into contrition. When I got closer to his lock position in the rain, he spoke softly. “Nobody was supposed to see that.”

I stopped beside him and half smiled. “It’s okay.”

He didn’t smile, but seemed relieved that I wasn’t having a Southern Belle, Aunt Pittypatesque fit of the vapors. I noticed then that there was a beautiful little dog snuggled close against his chest. It looked like at least some Schnauzer lurked in its DNA, and remained calm, alert, and very adorable throughout.

“What a beautiful little dog!”

A silent pause. Then….”My service dog.”

Ah.

I smiled and together we turned to make our way in out of the still falling rain. I slowed my pace to more closely match his, when I saw that he had a serious limp. We struggled to separate a couple of determinedly nested carts. Suddenly, something wouldn’t let me leave it at that.

“What did they do?”

The car he was so furious at. He knew that’s what I meant. Another silent pause told me. Then the words exploded out of him. “They wouldn’t stop. They saw me, but they just wouldn’t stop.”

Another ah. Pieces of what had just happened were falling into place, but I wouldn’t recognize them all until time started to clarify their places in my mind.

“Oh. I understand.”

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It seemed to be enough. As I moved into the store a bit ahead of him, I stopped long enough to smooth my damp hair… and give him time to say more if he needed to.

Sure enough, he caught up and after I thought he was about to go on without saying anything else, he stopped beside me. Again, the words seemed to quietly explode from him, as if his need for a sympathetic ear overrode a long cultivated reticence.

“I won’t get a handicapped sticker. That’s one thing I won’t do. I may have to get a cart and lean on it, but I won’t get that sticker!”

“I understand.”

Again, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I wish I could have. I guess it was enough, though. He sort of settled himself into his compromised stride and moved away, hard won cart, little dog, pride and all.

I watched his slow progress, but the encounter wasn’t quite over after all. When he had gone as far as he could and still be heard, he stopped.

“You have a good day.” So quietly that I could barely hear it, and over his shoulder, as if not quite committing to unobligated interaction.

“You too!”

I hope he heard me, because, as if disapparated, he faded into the jumble of shoppers, sale signs, and Christmas decorations. I didn’t seen him again.

Only in my mind

I’ve thought about that encounter in the rain ever since. I wonder about his injury, whether he is a vet, how old he could be, if he has family and friends…. The biggest concern is about just how angry at that oblivious driver he really was and whether the few moments I spent with him diffused it enough that he was able to let it go and not stew in resentment indefinitely.

I hope I helped him. I wasn’t consciously trying to do anything profound. If I thought/felt anything at the time, it was overwhelming sympathy and an urge to let him vent. I did absolutely notice the perfect calm of that little dog. That may very well be its job. Providing unconditional love and calm and companionship, in an all too often harsh world, for someone in need of the constant presence of a friend.

I’m glad I was able to be a fleeting friend to that old man with a story I’ll never know. One thing I do know. His mortification when he realized I saw him gesturing with such vulgar anger told me a lot more about his character than the gesture itself did. That he felt compelled to stand in the rain apologizing to a stranger revealed a fine character. I’m proud to call him my fleeting friend.

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