Renee glanced at the clock on her dashboard. It read 7:27.
“Good,” she said out loud although she was alone in her car.
She had purposely set all the clocks in her life ten minutes ahead. She thought it might be a good strategy to meet the challenge punctuality presented to her. It didn’t help. In fact, knowing she had ten more minutes in any given situation slowed her down even more.
This morning was different though and she was pleased to be ahead of schedule. It would give her plenty of time to make her stop and still get to work on time. Oddly, it was the addition of the stop to her commute that improved her time management. It was her “Ronnie Stop.” Ronnie was Sargent Ronald H. Johnson, US Army, retired. He was a panhandler who’d staked claim to one of the corners of an intersection she drove through every morning.
She didn’t like feeling rushed when she stopped to talk to Ronnie. Their visits were never long, ten minutes max, but her days were substantially better if her time with him didn’t feel hurried. Interacting with Ronnie was not always something she sought. On the contrary, she initially saw him as just one of the increasing number of seemingly homeless people that lined her route to her job. Their numbers worried her, but what worried her more were what she imagined they would buy with any money she gave them. She didn’t want to pay for their alcohol or drug or cigarettes. Besides, she reasoned, she couldn’t help them all, so it was easier to avert her gaze and drive by them all.
Ronnie had garnered her attention because of the traffic light at his particular corner. No matter how she timed it, the light invariably turned red as she approached. This meant she had to sit through the entirety of the red light with him standing on the corner mere feet from her driver door. She would keep her face forward, so as not to make eye contact with him. But she could still see him in her peripheral vision. What she saw was that he greeted her and every passing car the same way. He would smile, wave and then stand at attention and execute a crisp military salute. Renee was no expert on military salutes, but his looked impressive and authentic. The sign he held was neatly-lettered and, if true, he was “a homeless Army veteran going through hard times but still very much in love with the US of A!”
It wasn’t any one thing that wore down Renee’s refusal to acknowledge Ronnie.
She passed by him five days a week over several month’s time. He was there every day with his smile, his wave and his salute. He was a given in her life—one of very few. The one morning he wasn’t there after a severe storm, she was caught off guard to find herself worried about him. She was equally surprised by the relief she felt when he was there the next morning. It was futile to deny it. She had come to see him as a person.
The morning after this realization, she rolled down her window when she approached his corner and said a hurried hello to him.
His response, a sunny, “Good morning, Ma’am!”
What began as an exchange of simple greetings morphed into conversations held during the course of waiting for the light to turn green. Then inexplicably, she began pulling into the parking lot close to where he stood and talking to him until she had to scurry to work. At first, conversation were through a slightly cracked window with her door locked. But the morning she brought him a coffee, she had to roll her window down at least enough to hand it to him.
The genuineness of his “Thanks, Ma’am” eased her fears. He becomes a daily stop.
This morning, she brought Ronnie a sweet roll, an apple, beef jerky and a tall cup of coffee. The coffee was made to his liking—three sugars, no cream. The first time she’d asked how he took his coffee, he had grinned.
“I like my coffee just like I like my women—hot, black and sweet.”
He had immediate second thoughts about what he said. His grin was replaced by a worried expression as he tried to gauge Renee’s response.
“Ma’am,” he stuttered, “I-I sure hope that didn’t offend you any. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to be funny.”
Renee laughed. “No offense taken, Ronnie. Besides, I think I meet two of your three criteria for women and coffee. But the sweet part is only a certainty if I’d had my coffee.” His face relaxed and they both laughed.
She pulled into the parking lot and handed him the sack of food. His self-admitted sweet tooth made him pull out the sweet roll first.
“Thank you so much, Can I share half of this with you?” he asked.
“No thank you, Ronnie, she answered, “I ate at home. You go ahead.”
She tried not to be obvious about it, but she enjoyed watching him eat and drink. He took his time and savored everything. He ate half of the sweet roll and folded the wrapper over the rest of it. That and the apple would be his lunch. The jerky would be supper.
“Ma’am he said wiping his mouth, “I know you have to get to work pretty quick, but I want you know I’ll be leaving town soon.” Renee’s heart fell. “I need to be heading south before it gets cold here. Kansas is not where you want to be homeless in the winter.”
Renee swallowed and forced a smile. “I understand, Ronnie. Promise me you’ll be careful?”
“Thank you, Ma’am. “Careful” is my middle name.” He reached into his shirt and pulled out a small box. “I have a going away present for you.”
Renee looked at the box and then at him him questioningly. He held the box out toward her.
She shook her head. “I can’t take anything from you, Ronnie. Besides you’re the one going away.”
“But, Ma’am, I have it to give.” He pressed the box into her hand. “Go ahead, please open it.”
She opened the small, white box slowly. It held a silver bracelet –a circle of interlocking butterflies. The shine on it made good use of the morning light.
He grinned at her, “I’ve noticed the jewelry you wear looks silver so I figured you’d like it. I won it last year playing poker. The guy had been a jeweler before he lost everything. It’s real silver. There’s been times I’ve been close to needing to pawn it, but I’ve held onto it. I wanted to save it to give it to someone kind.”
Renee turned the bracelet over in her hands thinking about how many meals that bracelet could have bought him.
“Ronnie, really, I can’t take this.” She looked away from him and sighed. “Before that day I stopped and said hello to you, do you know how many mornings I just drove past you, ignoring you?”
“Yes, Ma’am, he answered, “twenty-seven.” He smiled. “I counted. You drove by me without so much as a glance twenty-seven times before you stopped.” Renee was puzzled. “Your personalized tag,” he explained, “is BUTRFLY. You sort of stand out.” They both laughed.
She needed to head to work, but before she left she asked if she could hug him.
“No, Ma’am,” was his answer. “No offense, but I don’t want to be reminded how if feels to be hugged. That would make me miss it again.” Renee felt her eyes well up. “You better go now. You don’t wan’t to be late for work.”
She nodded, too close to crying to speak, and got in her car.
“See you tomorrow, Ronnie?” His answer was to smile and salute her.
When she drove by the next morning, he was not there. Someone else had taken his spot—a woman with a small dog. Renee’s old urge to gun her car through the intersection to beat the red light was thwarted by the sight of the silver bracelet on her right wrist. As the light went from orange to red, she slowed. She lowered her window and stopped when she was close to the woman.
“Good morning,” she said kindly.