I woke early. My back is stiff. I should be sleeping right now, but I’m not.
My mother always said this would happen. “One day,” she said. “You won’t sleep as long or hard as you used to.”
She was right. She was always right.
It is dark outside. So, I drive to the gas station. I buy coffee and a bag of sodium-free pork rinds for my dog. The coffee isn’t ready yet.
The man behind the counter is nice. He puts the coffee on and tells me it’ll be a few minutes. So I wait out front, looking at the night sky.
A man pulls up in a ratty vehicle. He jumps out and starts loading the newspaper machine with today’s edition.
“Good morning,” I say.
He smiles. His eyes are baggy. His face is tired. I recognize that face.
“Morning,” he says.
“Can I have one of those?” I ask, handing him a five-dollar bill. “They’re better when they’re fresh.”
He forces a courtesy laugh. “Just pay the machine, dude, besides I can’t make change.”
“I don’t want change.”
He stares at me. He takes the money. He tips his hat. I get my paper.
One hundred years ago, my mother and I threw the Northwest Florida Daily News. We would wake up at two in the morning. She would drink god-awful gas station coffee every blessed day.
And each morning, she’d take one sip and say, “This coffee tastes like bathwater.”
We were service people.
In daily life, you had your regular Joes—guys who had nice cars, a single-story-three-bedroom, and two-point-five kids. And you had service people. Us.
Service people are the sort who drink bathwater coffee.
One morning, my mother and I were delivering papers to apartments on the beach. We carried large canvas bags, slung over our shoulders. My mother had sewn these bags herself, out of canvas. Each bag could fit forty or fifty papers.
They were heavy bags that knocked against your calves when you walked so that it was hard to keep your balance. We strolled breezeways, tossing rolled papers like boomerangs.
That morning, we finished early. We traipsed downstairs ahead of schedule. My mother tried to lift the car door handle.
We were locked out. Even worse than that: it was my fault. I knew this. My mother knew this, too. But she never said a word about it. She probably wanted to cry, but she didn’t. She wouldn’t.
It was four in the morning, hours of work remained, eighty thousand papers were still in the backseat, we sat on a curb. We waited for a locksmith.
I placed my head in my hands.
My mother dug a paper from her bag. She shook it open. She wore a soft smile.
“What’re you doing?” I asked.
“What’s it look like? I’m reading the paper.” She handed me the sports section. “Here, we’re not onna let this get us down.”
I was too depressed to read the sports section. So, my mother started reading aloud.
She cleared her throat. “The Yankees,” she began, “sweep the Texas Rangers in three games, and will go on to play Cleveland for a spot in the…”
“Mama,” I told her. “I don’t feel like hearing about baseball.”
I was too upset with myself. How could I have locked the car? How could I be so dumb? There was no dumber person on this planet than a dummy such as I.
“…And if the Yankees defeat Cleveland,” she went on, “they will be American League CHAMPIONS, contenders in the World Series…”
My mother had never watched a game of baseball in her life. She didn’t know the difference between a pop-up single and Sylvester Stallone.
I finally said, “Mama, stop trying to cheer me up.”
She didn’t answer. She only turned the page. “Did you know David Wells has pitched eight COMPLETE games and five SHUTOUTS this season. Isn’t that just fascinating?”
She closed the paper and touched my shoulder. “One day, you’re gonna look back at this whole morning and laugh. You hear me?”
I heard her. And those words have lasted with me for an entire lifetime. Even on mornings when I can’t sleep. Maybe that’s why I’m smiling right now.
The gas station clerk knocks on the glass window. The coffee is done. I pour a cup. I pay him. I crawl into my truck. I open the paper to the sports section. I take a sip.
This coffee tastes like bathwater.
If you get a chance today, thank someone in the service industry.