The Ragman by Jonathan Hask

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He would take his mug, give me his slow, warm smile, take a creamer and stirring stick from the caddy at the counter, and take his seat at the table by the tall windows at the front of the store. He would then take a horribly worn book and equally tattered notebook out of his drab green book bag and begin to read and write. He would stay until the store closed at midnight and then walk out. None of us were sure if he owned a car or took the bus or walked to the store, but he never complained when we asked him to leave at closing time.

The question of what the Ragman was reading and writing about was a common topic of conversation among the employees of Malley's. I suggested that he might be a retired college professor, though that was admittedly pure speculation. One of the café workers swore he saw the name Shakespeare on the spine of the book and claimed that the Ragman must be an aspiring writer. Others claimed it was a volume on astrophysics or agriculture or how to get rich quick.

On Tuesday, March 5th of 2001, the chain of regular weekly appearances by the Ragman was broken. At 9:00 PM, the Ragman was nowhere to be seen. His absence was certainly noted every employee in the store who wasn't currently helping a customer could be seen switching their gaze from the clock to the front door, then back. Malley's was a tense place just then. For the employees the Ragman's visits had become part of the weekly routine, and the break from that routine took an obvious toll on the employees. At 9:15 PM, Rick Mazelli, the night manager, stepped out the front door to look for the Ragman. He claimed that he was going out for some fresh air, but all of us employees knew his gaze was sweeping the parking lot and surrounding streets. After five minutes he came in, shirt and balding head wet from the light rain outside, with an expression of equal parts worry and defeat. Had Rick really expected to find the Ragman outside? I realized just then that I had wanted to do just what Rick did, to go outside and look for him.

At 9:35 PM the Ragman finally arrived. He was dressed as he always had been, in his drab gray coat, threadbare clothing and maroon stocking cap, but it was marred in several places by dirt and grime. It looked as if he had been rolling around in the street. Shortly after noticing the state of his clothing, I noticed that his bag was missing. His demeanor seemed no different, but every employee now bore an expression of concern.

The Ragman stepped to the counter, eyes once again downcast, seeming to stare at the menu on the counter. After a moment of staring, the Ragman muttered, "Café Late." My hand moved to grab the pot of decaf and then stopped. This was the first time I had ever heard a word other than "decaf" from this man.

"Err... what's that sir?" I asked. The Ragman visibly steeled himself and spoke again.

"Café Late," he said, and pointed at the menu listing for a Café Latté. And for the first time I saw a readable expression on the Ragman's face other than the warm smile.

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