It was a very dark night and the moon was hidden, but I found the cool of the outdoor bench to be a soothing relief from steamy indoor laundry work. I had grown up in the country, so my eyes were quite used to seeing in very low light. Chores on farms (as you know) are done before dawn.
It was not unusual to take my break alone. The other ladies sometimes joined me, but this time their shifts kept them busy. Sometimes also they skipped their midnight meals, but I needed the energy boost, so there I sat enjoying the late picnic and admiring the stars.
An odd fellow with a limping gait sat down beside me. In the dim light his extremely pale features made his face sort of glow, and his empty eyes stared gloomily ahead into space.
I ignored him and proceeded with my snack. The steaming smell of soup from my insulated food container wafted into the air. My silent companion sat bolt upright, a puzzled expression visiting his face.
"What..." he began. His voice was deep and mysterious.
"Go on," I said. "I won't bite you."
Again an odd look crossed his face, and he choked slightly like there was something stuck in his throat.
"What..." his voice whispered hoarsely, "...is in that bottle?"
"Oh, it's just my soup. It's my breaktime, and I must finish my late evening snack before returning to work in that hot old laundry room."
"What kind?" he persisted. A faint breeze picked up the ends of his long, lightweight coat and made it flutter.
"Chicken and roasted garlic," I said. "Want some?"
He looked like he was going to be sick.
"No," he said.
I ate in silence for a while, and studied my neighbor curiously between bites. He had deep red lips and dark outlines around his eyes like he was wearing eyeliner. Maybe he's into goth culture, I thought. It was not my business to judge, however, so I continued to sit and eat.
Continued, that is, until I accidentally spilled it. Spilled it right on his leg. I was so embarrassed! I apologized all over myself and began to soak it up with napkins. The man seemed to be beyond anger, though, and bit his lip in delirious pain.
"It's not that hot, is it?" I said. I handed him some napkins. "Be a man," I continued. "Don't be such a baby."
The strange person dried up the mess, adjusted his position, and sighed deeply. He wrapped his black cloak around him and rested his chin upon his hand. I noticed he was still biting his lip, however. I noticed also that his teeth seemed a bit long and sharp.
"You know, they can do something about that overbite," I said. He looked at me curiously.
"I don't mean to make personal remarks," I continued, "and you might feel just fine about how your teeth look, but I used to have the same problem and braces helped considerably."
He smiled saucily without answer.
"Here, let me get you the number of my orthodontist," I said, rummaging through my purse. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him watching the back of my neck, but I was already beginning to get used to his oddness, so I didn't pay it much heed.
"Shucks, so much junk in this purse," I muttered. "Here, hold this for me." I handed him some makeup compacts, my empty keychains, and the crucifix necklace I carried with me at all times. (It had been a gift from a very dear friend.)
The man rose straight up off the bench with a yelp as though his posterior had discovered a very large thumbtack. I was afraid he wasn't going to return my belongings, so I gave up the search and threw my stuff back in the bag.
"Sorry," I said. "I must have left it at home."
"That's all right," he said stiffly.
"So much at stake when one leaves for work in such a hurry," I said.
The man again became rather alarmed.
"What did you say?" he said.
I shrugged. "I said I had to hurry to get to work, and I may have dropped my phone book out of my..."
"No, the other part. What was that about stakes?"
"No, I don't like steaks at all. They're too tough and tasteless. I much prefer chicken or fish. I still think you should try some of this soup. It's great stuff!"
I pulled a very strong flashlight from my pocket and began making sure that my effects were in order. My companion squinted in the bright light and seemed to become very annoyed.
"Well, I think I've got everything. My break's almost over. It was nice meeting you."
He nodded sullenly and remained on the bench, staring off into space.
"It's so nice to meet new people," I added as I arose to leave. "I hope we meet again. Let me tell you though, those laundry rooms can suck you dry. Leaves you void of energy. I don't know how I do it sometimes."
A rustling of leaves answered me. Somehow he had left in the blink of an eye.