He didn't remember exactly when he saw the man for the first time. Trudging home from his job as a machinist, Travis usually kept his eyes on his tired feet, watching them pace off the distance on his route through southeast Portland. He'd glance up only often enough to keep from colliding with other pedestrians or to avoid being run over when he crossed streets. But one day--maybe a Friday when he had a little more spring in his boots--he looked up long enough to see the man sitting on the front steps of a house, strumming quietly on a guitar.
At some point, Travis became consciously aware that the man was there almost every day. Sometimes he played his guitar--never singing along--and sometimes he simply sat there, watching people pass by, his handsome face free of emotions. He was a little older than Travis, probably somewhere in his midthirties. Old enough for little lines to have formed at the corners of his eyes. Travis had noticed that over a series of stolen glances, and he found it attractive.
Travis began to wonder about the guy. Who was he? Did he have a roommate who didn't like to listen to his music? Was he waiting for someone to get home? His lover, maybe? That would be nice, Travis thought, to come home every day and find your lover sitting there, waiting for you. Nobody was ever waiting for Travis except his cat, Elwood, and there were days when Travis was fairly certain that Elwood was only in it for the Meow Mix.
But the mystery man was there. Not every day. Not when it rained, for instance. But more days than not, and almost always when the weather was fine. Travis never saw him interact with anyone, never saw him do anything at all but play his guitar or look out at the passersby.
There was something haunting about him, although Travis couldn't have said what. Something troubled in his blue eyes maybe, or the tense way he held his shoulders. Whatever it was, Travis found himself thinking of the man a lot. At work, when he was supposed to be shaping metal on his lathe. At home, when he was vegging out in front of the TV with Elwood in his lap and a Pabst in his hand. And later, alone in his bed.
Deep in thought one afternoon at work, he nearly cut off his hand, and that was when he decided to walk a different route home. So he did, detouring over a block. But he didn't like that block. There were fewer pedestrians, and there were dogs that barked at him from fenced yards. And that route didn't take him by Rick's Mini-Mart, where Travis liked to stop and pick up a couple of beers and maybe some chips or a frozen burrito or a slice of pizza. And despite the change of scene, he still kept thinking about the man.
So he decided to take the bull by the horns, and one beautiful Friday in September, Travis stopped when he got to the man and smiled at him and said, "That's a nice song. What is it?"
The man stopped playing and gave Travis a look that was neither friendly nor unfriendly. Then he reached into his shirt pocket and fished out what looked like a business card. He handed it over to Travis, who took it in puzzlement. Did the guy think Travis wanted to hire him for a gig or something?
But then he read the lines of print on the card.
My name is Andrew "Drew" Clifton. I have aphasia, which means I can't speak or write. But I can understand you just fine and I'm not a bloody idiot, so don't treat me like one.
Travis glanced up at the man--Drew, he corrected himself--who was waiting with one eyebrow raised expectantly.
"Oh," Travis said.
Drew made a face and looked down at his guitar again.
Travis had no idea how to react. Apologize? That was lame. Walk away? Really rude. Finally, he settled on saying, "Well, it was a really nice song."
Drew looked up at him in surprise. Maybe he had expected Travis to just walk off.
"You know," Travis went on, "I go by here every day on my way home from work."
Drew nodded a little cautiously.
"I've lived here for almost eight months and I don't know anyone. And I have this sucky job and a fairly sucky life--but I walk by here and sometimes you're playing your guitar, and it's nice. It makes me smile. I just wanted to tell you that."
Now Drew just looked astonished.
Travis suddenly felt self-conscious, which probably accounted for his less than graceful closing. "So, um, I'll leave you alone now. Bye!" And then he waved pathetically, like an enormous dork, and walked away. Kind of wishing for the moment that he had aphasia too.