“There are no tiers in my thinking. It is all horizontal…” she exclaimed, her voice rising with emotion. “So why do you think I deserve a better job?” he asked her, blankly. She continued, getting more and more excited “I didn’t mean class or tier… I respect all jobs! I mean, I just think that you can do better than that. You have greater expertise! You shouldn’t limit yourself to the job delivering pizza!”.
He started with something and paused reading the signs of caution in the air. “I mean, it is just an academic angle… If something isn’t hierarchical or classed, how does it become better or worse?” he slowly said, half as a soliloquy. She was visibly upset now. “I don’t understand why you are dragging-in political correctness into the discussion. I only meant it as a compliment. You can do so better… I don’t think I can continue arguing with you… I have a lot of work to complete”. She buried her face back into the laptop.
He didn’t respond. Walking out, he stopped to look at a stuffed baby seal placed on top of an empty fish bowl. They had purchased the fishbowl from a thrift store long back hoping to find some fishes for it. That never happened. “Baby seal on a fishbowl.” It vaguely reminded him of the lyrics of some long-forgotten song. It was followed by something about “year-after-year.”
It had stopped snowing outside. But the temperature was way below freezing. Stray snowflakes drifted about in the air. A fire-truck sped past letting its shrill siren penetrate the building’s darkest corners. The wail receded in a while leaving a lingering shadow of the noise in the air. After contemplating that scene for a while from the door, he stepped out. Although aimless, he walked briskly, the crampons on his shoes crunching the hard snow crust. His thoughts drifted from the concept of tiers to the general pointlessness that seemed to be enveloping life.
A red sign blinked “open” on the window of the old café near the frozen river. Its sweaty windows revealed only the blurred shapes of few hunched people inside. After all, it is a Monday and a 10’o clock in the night at that, he thought. He paused in front of its door and on an afterthought walked away to an all-night grocery store in the next building. A sleepy girl on the cash counter reading a gossip magazine looked up with interest and apprised his appearance critically for a second. He asked her for a one-dollar scratch-and-win. She pulled out a wad from a drawer below and handed him one.
* * *
The smell of brewing coffee and warmth disappeared into the cold outside as he stepped inside the café. He sat on a table near the window with a good view of the people. A table across, one guy in a faded blue jersey was arranging something in a duffel bag beside him mumbling something to himself. "My name is John too. That's weird. Two people by the name of John...", he kept repeating for a while. Every two minutes he kept rearranging his luggage. “… and be a good Samaritan…” he said while removing his mittens and jacket in a hurry. He got up and disappeared into the washroom for a few minutes. Then he returned and started putting everything on again nervously. An old woman with a forlorn expression sat sipping coffee staring at something on the ceiling. The mumbler, fully dressed now with a backpack behind him, suddenly became still. "Calm down," he mumbled again hanging his head down. He looked like a tired mountaineer on the verge of giving up summiting. Finally, after standing still and thinking intensely for a while, he heaved the duffel bag up and slowly walked out of the café.
With no one interesting to watch now and feeling strangely insecure, he took the scratch card out and started to scratch it slowly with a coin. The figures uncovered underneath had three $2 symbols. He slowly stood up, wondering whether his actions resembled that of the mumbler and walked out planning to cash the ticket.
It had started snowing slightly. Mumbler was nowhere in sight. A regular old guitar player was strumming his final song to a close under the sinewy leafless Ash tree outside. In the silence that followed, the old man went into a coughing fit, his guitar swaying with it like a pendulum on his hunched neck. On a blank curiosity, he walked towards the guitarist. The old man looked up to his silhouette against the light. After hesitating for a moment, he pointed out to few CDs wrapped in brown paper scattered inside his guitar case and said in a hoarse afterglow of the coughing fit, “my songs, all for sale.”
He stooped down and placed the scratch card on the guitar case silently. The old man, confused, took the ticket in his hands and stared intently at it for few seconds. Then he saw the three figures and smiled. “Thank you,” hollered the old man at him as he walked away.
Feeling entirely empty now, he started walking back home. A searing wind went past, violently blowing away a tide of snowflakes.