‘ជំរាបលា (chum reap leah)’, I said as I left the store.
As I came out, I saw a man who was covered in dirt from head to toe. His hair was shaggy, but the smile that came on his face as he stopped to speak to someone he knew was brighter than the sun. I walked to my truck and Mr. Leonard stopped polishing his car to speak again. ‘It’s good to see you. If you need anything, you call me, okay?’
I nodded and gave it back: ‘And you tell Mr. Chan to call me if you need me, Mr. Leonard.’
He walked to my truck and gently placed his hand on it. ‘Boy, Chris sure loved this truck. I think about him a lot, especially when I see his clothes that you gave me.’
Before I could say much, the dirt-covered man approached with a handful of wildflower weeds. ‘Some guy told me to give these to you,’ he said as he handed them over.
‘Aw, thank you so much!’ I replied as I took the gangly bunch from his crusty palm. He walked away without another word and I finished chatting with Mr. Leonard. His beautiful blue eyes were moist with the tears that threatened to spill out. This was how our conversations usually went: he would eventually get misty as he thought about my Christopher. He gave me a second big hug before I climbed into the truck. I placed the bouquet on the seat and pulled out of the lot, Steely Dan blasting from my speakers.
The man who had delivered the flowers had disappeared, but the three nearly homeless men who stayed around Mr. Chan’s store watched me wheel the Blue Behemoth across the uneven dirt and back onto the asphalt. The wildflower weeds were beautifully pungent and filled the cabin with a lovely scent.
But leave us rewind a bit …
When I left the gym, I drove the way I typically do. However, at one juncture, I realized I hadn’t stopped by this little carry-everything-store in a while. Mr. Chan’s store is a hole in the wall oasis for working folk, sheriff’s officers, and homeless men and women alike. He takes care of a number of those homeless, including Mr. Leonard and others. My Christopher developed a friendship with Mr. Chan, Mr. Leonard, and one or two others who come and go; I became a friend as well because of him.
It made sense that I would continue checking on them after Christopher’s Departure; I gave them his clothes when I cleaned out the closets. I decided to stop in to make sure they were doing okay. I popped into the store to ask after Mr. Chan’s family and to practice the two Khmer phrases I learned (again by proxy, because Christopher learned them first). I do pretty well with ‘ជំរាបសួរ (chum reap suor)’ as well when I enter. Luckily, when I don’t get there, I can practice with our friends at the donut shop at the corner (since going to the gym I’ve only stopped in to say hello and goodbye …).
It was a beautiful morning and so I took the alternate route to Mr. Chan’s store. I saw the trunk of Mr. Leonard’s car up so I knew he was cleaning it. I whipped the Behemoth into the spot next to him and he smiled immediately as I got out. ‘I saw you coming!’ he said loudly as he gave me a hug. He asked after me and I asked after him, telling him I was just stopping by to check in on him and the store.
I went inside and gave Mr. Chan my greeting with a bow. We talked about his family: he fussed about his stubborn father and mother-in-law and shared that his daughter was doing well in college (with a plan to graduate in 3.5 years) while his son would be going next year.
‘You aren’t afraid of ghosts, are you?’ he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
I shook my head. ‘If there’s anyone who is okay to watch over me …’ I answered.
‘Do you dream about him?’
I thought for a moment. ‘I did, quite a bit at first, but not for the last month or so.’
Mr. Chan nodded knowingly. ‘That’s because they aren’t ready to go yet. When you stop dreaming of them, that’s when they’ve decided it’s okay to go.’
A young man, one of Mr. Chan’s many wards, listened attentively. ‘I still dream about my dead brothers and sisters. They never leave me.’
Mr. Chan ignored him and looked at me for more of the story. ‘I used to dream of my dad after he died. At first, he would be close to me and then as time went on, he was farther and farther away in each dream –‘
‘– until he was gone,’ Mr. Chan finished. He nodded when I agreed. ‘That’s how it works,’ he added knowingly.
Fast forward to my drive home, since you know what happened in between.
I breathed in the smell of the bouquet and as I backed into the driveway, I wondered what I would do with them. I felt guilty at first; when I took them in my hand, my initial thought was that I would get down the road and toss them. But they were wildly lovely, just like the man who had given them to me. Just like Mr. Leonard, whose ice-blue eyes suggest he was probably the cat’s meow back in the day. Just like Mr. Chan, who fusses about everyone he helps but who he continues to help diligently. Just like the dusty stretch of road by the rail tracks where the store sits.
I got out of the truck and tucked the bunch into an equally wild bush next to the driveway. I’ll be able to see the blooms peeking out whenever I go to the post box or when I climb back into the truck.
If I hadn’t gone there today, I never would have gotten such a wildly lovely gift. Thank you …
Not that this story is even close to those shared by our fellow blogger and writer, Dennis Cardiff, but I thought it appropriate to include a link to his page here. Check out his book, ‘Convesations with Street People’. Proceeds go to help the homeless community Dennis serves.