Last night I wrote over 1800 words about a young man I used to know. They say a topic can hit a nerve. For me this one hit an artery. I sat at my dining room table and typed. My eyes got sore from looking at the monitor. I typed. I didn’t finish until I noticed it was getting close to midnight, and I didn’t so much finish wrap up one particular incident and call it quits for the night, dropping my link on to Two Writing Teachers just under the wire.
Yesterday, I pulled a shift at a friend’s coffeehouse. I don’t do this very often, especially during the school year, but he keeps me on the payroll and so I can fill in when he is short staffed. A little extra money in my pocket is a nice thing, and I wouldn’t say that I’d do it without getting paid, but I like the work. I like the short, friendly interactions with the customers, and I know my way around an espresso machine.
The coffee house is on the same side of the county as the swimming pool where I worked that summer I knew Kenneth. They are not that close to each other, but they are both a bit of a drive from where I live.
Since I’ve been filling in at the coffee house, I’ve worked there two or three dozen times. I don’t think I saw any of the teens I knew from the pool until yesterday.
Yesterday, I saw Kenneth.
He was polite and our conversation lasted an appropriate amount of time. I would have even liked to have talked to him longer, but I had another customer and also and I didn’t want to step on his honoring the fact that I had work to do.
He came up to the counter. He was much taller, longer hair, cooler clothes, no braces, and just totally calm. I didn’t recognize him.
He said, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten what I wanted to ask for.”
I knew at that point he looked familiar but I couldn’t place him.
He walked away from the counter and started inspecting the photographs for sale on the wall. But he kept looking over his shoulder back at me.
It occurred to me that he might be Kenneth.
He came up to the desk and said, “You are Miss Kathleen, right?”
I said “Yes.”
He said, ”I’m Ken Peterson.”
I said “I remember you.”
He asked me if I was still a teacher.
I said, “Yes, I just fill in at this coffee house on a very occasional basis.” I told him I know the owner. He nodded.
I was about to ask him how he was, and he said, “I’m sixteen.” He said it kind of proudly, but simply and sincerely. Not sarcastically, not dramatically, not as if to say, “I’m sixteen—how do you think I am?”
I said, “You are tall. You look older.” The things you say when you can’t say the things you want to say.
He nodded, and asked about Ella. I told him I’d heard she has a great new job.
He said, “If you see her, please tell her Ken Peterson says hi.”
I said I’d email her. I wanted to find out more about how he was doing, but another customer came in, and he took that as his cue to move away from the counter. I could have asked him to wait, but I was so kind of stunned by the whole interaction that I didn’t think to do that.
He said, “It was very nice to see you again, Miss Kathleen. Please don’t forget to email Miss Ella.”
I held up my phone and told him I’d do it as soon I could, and that it was nice to see him too. When I finished with the next customer, he had disappeared.
He left without getting his drink.
I spent the evening writing about Kenneth. After I stopped writing, I couldn’t sleep. There are other chapters of that summer that I did not write. I thought more about Ella, how patient she was was, how she would listen to him on her breaks and help him practice talking to other kids. I remembered the day of the 911 call, and his father, whom we had never seen at the pool, coming in to thank her for what she had done.
And then summer was over, and they were both out of my life.
I did find an old email address for Ella in my mailbox. I wrote her a brief message from the coffee house, just to say that I’d seen him, he asked about her, and he asked me to say hi for him.
She wrote back. Did he look well?
What I wrote her is basically what I’ve written here.
He did look well. I didn’t find out much yesterday, but I was glad to see him. I was glad to see him looking well. I was glad that he seemed calm. I couldn’t tell if he is happy or not; I hope that he is. I hope just by virtue of his being sixteen that things are better for him.
I know Ella made a positive difference in his life. I know that.
I told her as much.
She hasn’t written back.