A strange thing happened last night (strange to me, anyway). I was eating by myself at my local Fatburger, when a lean young man dressed all in black — matching his black hair — and with star tattoos on his tawny face and hands walked by my table. Out of the blue, he started talking to me. He asked me if I had ever read The Wind in the Willows. I told him that it had been a very long time since I had. He reached into this black backpack that he carried (along with a black boombox) and pulled out an old, slightly tattered hardback edition of the Kenneth Grahame children’s novel, which he laid on my table in front of me. He told me the book was now mine.
He then sat down at the table next to mine and, seemingly without a second thought, opened a black three-ring binder holding hand-written pages in blue ink, and started reading aloud from it. The words he read (he later told me) were his own poetry. It was hard to tell if he was reading especially to me or hoping his words would be overheard by the other people scattered across the restaurant. Unfortunately, I had a hard time hearing him because of the noise in the room, his rather quiet voice, and the deafness in my right ear. Not sure where he was going with this impromptu literary event, I concentrated on eating my medium Fatburger with cheddar.
From what my left ear could hear, his free-verse, prose-like poetry was religious in nature, invoking the name of Jesus every once in a while. Through his poetry, he said something that was hard for me to follow. I can’t recall his exact words, but he said that he wasn’t really human, that he was a spirit who has been sent temporarily to the land of the living to accomplish some goal before being called back by God. That sounds like a pretty good description of us humans as well, I thought to myself.
As he talked, I finished my burger. In all this time, the young man hadn’t ordered any food from the front counter, which the customers usually do the minute that they walk inside the restaurant. I took this to mean that he didn’t have all that much money on him. Since I didn’t feel threatened by his obvious eccentricities, I offered to buy him something to eat from the restaurant. He said something about wanting to get batteries for his boombox. I could tell that he was hoping I would buy him the batteries instead of a burger.
He added that he didn’t eat hamburgers. This made me wonder why he had come into a restaurant that specialized in the dish. Maybe, I thought to myself, he was just seeking some temporary shelter in a casual restaurant that wasn’t that uptight about lending its roof to the occasional vagrant. I told him that my offer didn’t extend to batteries and that Fatburger had a few non-beef items on its menu. The young man conceded that, spirit though he really was, his human body forced him to eat.
In the end, I bought him a chickenburger in return for the book (spending almost twice as much money on his meal than I did for my own, a hazard that comes with offering to buy someone food). As soon as his order was ready — I hung around Fatburger just in case there was some complication with the order, which there wasn’t — I walked back home, The Wind in the Willows tucked under my arm. I’ve never done anything like that before. If the stranger and I ever exchanged names, I’ve forgotten it. But I was glad that I was able to buy him some temporary nourishment. I hope that his human form benefitted from the small meal I bought him, and that this bit of nutrition allows him to accomplish something positive before he’s called back to the spirit world.