I was attending a conference in LA staying for a week at a hotel by the freeway. Each morning, I rose very early and went to the little cafe in the lobby to write. The only other person there was a young Mexican busboy setting up the glasses and silverware for breakfast. Though he kept his head bent over his work, I could tell he was stealing glances at me. Occasionally our eyes met, and he smiled.

On the third morning, he came over and shyly introduced himself as Carlos. Then he asked in halting English what I was writing. He said he’d never seen anyone do that before, just sit quietly in the cafe and write. I told him that I was writing poetry and relished the quiet of early morning.

We spoke each day after that. Carlos told me he’d come from Mexico to earn money to pay for his mother’s operation and to support his brother, who had leukemia. He said no hotel guest had ever before treated him like a human being. I made him feel different, he said, as if he mattered. He even found himself speaking English better around me.

By the end of my conference, Carlos and I had become good friends, and in parting he presented me with a tape of his favorite music — Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith — while I gave him a slim volume of poetry.

Five years later, the phone in my bedroom rang late at night. The caller spoke fluent English, but somehow I instantly recognized him as Carlos. He’d gotten my phone number from the Internet, he said, and was calling to thank me. Since our meeting, he’d risen quickly in the hotel-staff hierarchy and had then left the hotel to become an information-systems manager for a multinational bank. His mother’s operation had been successful, and his brother was in remission. He still had the book of poetry, which he cherished.

Carlos told me that he’d always thought of me as an angel who had given him the power to believe in himself. He said I’d made all the difference in his life.

I was in shock. All I’d done was slow down long enough to see a human being instead of just a busboy.

Melissa Roberts Weidman
Woods Hole, Massachusetts

As a single parent, my mother felt that my brothers and I needed a male influence in our lives, a role model, a presence that would help shape us as men. True to her troubled upbringing, she married the most violent, insane alcoholic she could find, a man who took peculiar delight in sneaking into the bedroom my brothers and I shared and waking us in the middle of the night with a hard slap in the face. Then he would force us to stand at attention while he staggered around the room, hurling slurred insults. Finally, he would “teach” us to box. This would make “men” out of us. My brothers and I were eight, nine, and ten.

By the time our stepfather died, many bruises and boxing lessons later, his strength had waned, and my brothers and I were just coming into our manhood. Though dying was the best thing this man ever did, I now feel he died too soon. I wish he had lived long enough for my brothers and me to show him how well he had taught us to box. I would love for him to have known the difference he made in our lives.

Tom M.
Chicago, Illinois

My job as an “outreach educator” was to talk to teens about issues of sexuality. I remember one sweet young girl named Crystal, who had the most beautiful green eyes. She and her boyfriend were having trouble, and she was trying to get pregnant because she thought a baby would bring them closer.

I told Crystal that, although pregnancy and parenting sometimes made a relationship closer, at her age it more often just broke the couple up, and then there was a baby to care for. She seemed to hear me. I gave her some condoms and foam, and she left. A month later, Crystal’s mother brought her back. Crystal was pregnant, and she wanted to keep the baby.

Crystal’s mother and I spent an hour trying to convey to Crystal how hard it was going to be, how much a baby costs. “No more sleeping till noon,” her mom said. “And if you think I’m going to raise it for you, you’re wrong.” The two of them came back to see me a few more times before Crystal finally decided to terminate the pregnancy and made an appointment for an abortion. Her mother was so relieved that she hugged me when they left.

Crystal never showed up for her appointment.

The following year, I was walking my dog in the park on a gorgeous spring day when I saw a girl sitting by the pond. She had a blanket spread out and was holding her baby in the air and laughing. The baby had his mother’s beautiful green eyes. I watched them silently for a long time.

Meredith Murell
New York, New York

When he hired me for the nanny position, my employer sat across a linen tablecloth from me and admitted that what he needed was a surrogate mother for his son. I started early the next day, before eight-year-old Clay left for school.

“This is Tana,” his father told him. “She’s going to pick you up from school sometimes.”

Clay didn’t say hello. He didn’t even look at me. Maybe he knew what I didn’t — that this would be one of the few times we’d see his father in the coming months.

Clay was determined to hate me. Every day with him was a struggle. His teachers warned me that he was a “problem child” and advised me to make him do his homework and go to bed at the same time every night. “Try to get his mother to spend some time with him,” they suggested, but she had yet to return any of my phone calls. Clay’s teachers also said he had attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia. I thought he was just neglected and pissed off.

I let the homework slide, and Clay and I played Uno and Monopoly instead. I kept plates of fruit, cheese, and crackers nearby to encourage him to eat, since the medication they had him on took away his appetite. Clay liked to smash the grapes between his fingers and crush the saltines and graham crackers under the flat of his palm. The maid rolled her eyes as she swept up the crumbs. His parents, of course, were not around to see.

For short periods of time, Clay would forget that I was the enemy, and he would laugh at our games and eat everything I set before him. But then something would happen — his Dad would call to say he’d be late again, or I would test the waters a little too far — and Clay would explode, screaming, “You are not my mother! I hate you, you fucking bitch!” He yelled with such force that, once, his phlegm hit me in the face.

Just before Christmas, Clay’s father called to back out of taking him to the father-son party at the tennis club. Clay burst out of the house, furious. He walked from puddle to frozen puddle under the low gray clouds. With his unlaced tennis shoes, he broke the fragile crust atop each icy pool, then picked up the larger pieces and held them up to the darkening sky. I watched from the warm house, hidden from view, worried he might be cold — but then, I thought, perhaps the righteousness of his rage kept him warm.

At the end of the long driveway, Clay turned around and slowly made his way back toward his lonely castle, weaving from puddle to puddle, finishing off any ice that was left. By the back door, he stomped the last puddle and picked up a thin sheet of murky ice bigger than his head. When I opened the door, he held the ice between us, his dark eyes shining through it, and said, “Listen to this.” Then he tipped it and let it fall to the pavement, where it broke with a clean crack. When he looked up at me, his eyes were clear.

“Let’s go get your coat,” I said.

We had our first sustained good time together, breaking ice and listening to it shatter. And on the way home, he slid his wet, frozen fingers into mine.

Name Withheld

At times, I’ve wondered why I ever thought of becoming a cop in the first place. One Fourth of July, my partner and I were working the four-to-midnight shift when we got called to a fireworks accident involving a small child — no details, just an address and the promise of an ambulance on its way.

We arrived first. The scene was chaotic. Some people were crying and shouting; others were drunk and didn’t understand what had happened. A little girl, about six or seven years old, had picked up what appeared to be a dud — until it blew off the fourth and fifth fingers of her right hand.

There was no point in looking for the two fingers; they were gone, obliterated. Someone had been smart enough to wrap the injured hand in towels, which were already soaked through with dark red blood. My partner was trying to get some details so we could write our report. The ambulance still had not arrived, and the girl’s mother was crying and screaming for us to do something.

What would you like us to do? I thought. Turn back time so you could see your daughter reaching for the firecracker and stop her? This was our job, though. We were expected to “do something.” So I rewrapped the hand in clean towels and ice, asked the mother for the girl’s name, and then carried the girl to the patrol car. I got in the back seat holding this frightened, shaking child, and I stroked her blood-crusted hair and started humming a song my mother used to sing to me.

Robert Calame
New York, New York

About ten years ago, at the age of thirty, I took my dog, my pickup truck, and a friend’s canoe and spent six months traveling North America, camping everywhere I went. Being alone so much, I would occasionally stop at a restaurant just to hear people talk.

Late one afternoon at a diner in a dusty little reservation town in South Dakota, a teenage girl waited on me. She stared at me each time she brought my food or refilled my iced tea. Later, her mother walked by my table and looked at me.

Finally, the girl explained: “I think you’re so beautiful,” she said. “I had to tell my mother, so she could see you, too.”

I was surprised and flattered. My whole life, I’d thought I was just average-looking.

Now, in my forties, when I am by myself and feeling my age, I remember that young girl and what she saw. And I think, Maybe that’s who I really am.

Kathryn G. Long
Richmond, Virginia

I’ll always cherish the holiday meals of my childhood, which were catered by my beloved Italian grandfather, a professional chef. My family spent days preparing the meal and an entire day consuming it in a boisterous atmosphere of high drama and buffoonery.

When I married and moved away from home, holiday meals with my in-laws were a huge disappointment. My mother-in-law, the hostess, was always drunk, and the dinner late. Sometimes she even canceled the meal at the last minute. I never knew how to explain this to my children, so I just ignored the sad circumstances of our holidays, all the while wishing to be in the comfort of my grandfather’s kitchen once again.

One Thanksgiving, however, the meal went surprisingly well. Though my mother-in-law had been drinking, she served dinner on time, and we all enjoyed ourselves. As my husband and I readied the children to leave, I was so thoroughly grateful for what I considered a “normal” holiday gathering that I went over to thank my mother-in-law, who was sitting and smoking a cigarette in the kitchen, surrounded by relatives. On impulse, I bent down and kissed her on the cheek.

In my family, you never said hello or goodbye without serious hugging and kissing. My New England in-laws, however, were exactly the opposite. There were a few handshakes, a pat on the shoulder, perhaps, but absolutely no open displays of affection. I’d momentarily forgotten this.

Now, as I turned to go, I realized that all activity around me had stopped. No one was talking or cleaning up or putting on hats and gloves — they were all too busy staring at me. A foreign ritual had taken place among them.

Perhaps out of shame, or maybe just a sense of manners, everyone bent down and kissed my mother-in-law as they left. I could feel the tension in the air as they performed this unfamiliar ritual, but everyone did it.

After that, whenever the family was together and someone said hello or goodbye, there was often a perfunctory and dutiful kiss. Then my mother-in-law stopped drinking, and the kisses began to mean something more than Thank you for not dropping the turkey or It is my duty to kiss my mother. There was real affection and gratitude for the courage it had taken for her to stop, to prepare a meal and serve it on time, and to enjoy each mouthful with the rest of us.

Name Withheld

Several years ago, during a period of despair, I was on my way to see my therapist in San Francisco. I was about to pay the toll to cross the Bay Bridge when, much to my surprise, the toll taker waved me through. “The car in front of you paid your toll,” she explained.

I’d heard about such “random acts of kindness” but had never before been the recipient of one. As I drove into the city, I was suddenly and inexplicably grateful for all that was good in my life. A stranger’s simple act of generosity — paying my two-dollar toll — had left me feeling blessed.

After that, whenever I crossed the Bay Bridge, I would often pay the toll for the car in line behind me. I tried not to notice what the driver of the car looked like, or whether the car was old or new. After all, how could I know who would benefit most from my gesture? Still, I always pulled away slowly so I could watch in my rearview mirror as the attendant waved the next driver through.

One time, I was stunned to see the toll taker accept money from the car in back of me. I was more than stunned; I was angry. The attendant must have pocketed that two dollars!

Later I realized how silly I was being: if my intention had been to make a random gesture of generosity, why should I care who had received it? But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the toll taker had “stolen” my gift.

As I write this, though, another thought occurs to me: Perhaps the toll taker didn’t steal my gift at all. Perhaps the driver of the car in back of me, inspired by my act, wanted to pay the toll for the next car in line, too.

Ruth L. Schwartz
Lakewood, Ohio

I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with my three small children, visiting my parents, and we were scheduled to fly home to Seattle, Washington, the next morning. That night, my husband called to tell me there was a major snowstorm headed toward Seattle; it was expected to drop ten inches on the city. “But don’t worry about it,” he said nonchalantly. “They’ll reroute you or something.”

I was angry that he could be so casual about it. I’m not a terrific flier as it is, and with three small kids, even the easiest flight can be a challenge. What would happen if my children and I got stuck in the airport in Phoenix, Arizona, where the plane was scheduled to stop over? I called the airline three times that evening while my kids snored loudly on the floor. Each time, I received the same lazy answer: “I’m sure it will be fine. The computer doesn’t indicate any delays.” I pictured these airline employees yawning at their computer terminals, counting the minutes till the end of their shifts.

Lying in bed, I grew more and more upset as I imagined being trapped in the Phoenix airport with three children for days on end, waiting for the Seattle airport to thaw. Unable to sleep, I got up and called the airline once more.

This time, I reached a woman who immediately sympathized. “Three kids?” she said with a heavy Irish accent. “You must be pretty anxious about all this. I tell you what: Get a piece of paper, and I’ll give you my number. I live in Phoenix. If you get stuck, just call me, and I’ll come get you. You can stay at my house as long as you need to. I have seven kids; three more won’t make a bit of difference, and I’d hate for you to be sitting there in the airport.”

I thanked her and slept soundly that night, dreaming of a house full of red-haired, freckled Irish children.

The next day, we began our journey in a terrific mood, and the children proved excellent travelers. The storm missed Seattle, and as we landed on a runway only lightly sprinkled with white, I felt sad that I would never meet those seven redheaded children and the woman who’d offered a much-needed kindness to a fellow mother.

Anjelina Citron
Bellingham, Washington

In 1968, I took a sabbatical from medical school and drove cross-country to San Francisco. Passing through northern Arizona, I stopped at a dilapidated, adobe-style motel. It was deserted except for a man in the parking lot. He said the place had been closed quite a while, but I was welcome to stay there if I liked. We talked for a bit, and he told me about the Hopi Indians who lived in an ancient village up on First Mesa, north of the motel. If I was at all interested in native cultures, he said, I should check it out.

I didn’t know anything about the Hopis, but I was curious, so I headed off north into the desert. When I saw what looked like little serrations along the ridge of a huge mesa, I parked and walked to the top, where I found a fantastic village of pueblos with ladders going from one level to the next. I was dumbfounded that anything like this still existed.

As I made my way across a narrow, knife-blade ridge toward a tiny settlement farther back, I met an old Indian named Ned. I asked him about this place, and he told me the story of the Hopis, how they’d been given that name by the U.S. government because hopi means “peace” in their language. He explained that they had signed a treaty with the government specifying that none of their people should ever bear arms, but now their sons were being taken away to fight a war in Vietnam for the white man. He looked at me and quietly asked, “Is there anything you can do?”

I was twenty-four, an aspiring hippie on my way to the promised land of San Francisco. My draft classification was 4F — which meant the army wouldn’t take me — and I couldn’t have cared less about politics and activism. A pessimist and a cynic, I had no faith that the system would react to any intelligent requests or demands made of it. But Ned’s plea for help was so pure that I had to respond in some way.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll try to do something.”

When I made it to Haight-Ashbury, I called the draft-resistance office in Berkeley, feeling a touch of resentment at having been saddled with this burden, and asked whether there was anybody I could talk to about the Hopis’ complaint. They suggested I write to a lawyer in LA who’d taken on a couple of similar cases. So, feeling inconvenienced and wanting to get it over with, I wrote a three-page letter explaining everything Ned had told me and mailed it off. Having fulfilled my obligation, I never gave it another thought.

About fifteen years later, while traveling across the country again, I came up out of the daze of long-distance driving and saw that I wasn’t far from the Hopis’ mesa. Wanting to see it again, I drove there and walked to the top. It hadn’t really changed much. Then, as I set out across the knife-blade ridge, I saw — no lie — the same old man walking toward me. I went up to him and said, “Excuse me, but is your name Ned?”

He said, “Yeah, how did you know?”

I told him how we’d met in the late sixties, and I reminded him of his request.

His eyes opened wide, and he said, “Oh, yes! The lawyer came! Many of the young men in our village — including my son — came home from the war.”

It still brings tears to my eyes whenever I tell this story: “The lawyer came!”

Richard Berger
Seattle, Washington

I’m sitting alone in my silver-gray Volvo in a strip-mall parking lot near work, eating lunch: fast-food chicken sandwich, no fries (trying to be good). I’m not that hungry, so I eat about half, wrap up the rest, and light a cigarette. A light mist begins to fall. Great.

That’s when I see him walking toward me: wiry build; long, stringy hair; grimy clothes. He’s gesturing wildly and approaching fast. I look away, trying to avoid his eyes. Maybe if he thinks I don’t see him, he’ll leave. My mind is racing: Homeless, probably harmless. What does he want? A ride? Money? I hate confrontations.

I hit the door lock and turn the key in the ignition, but it’s too late; he’s standing right beside my half-open window. I know he has heard the doors lock and the car start. He must see the dread in my eyes, because he’s trying to reassure me.

“Ma’am?” he says. “I don’t mean no disrespect, ma’am, but can I have one of those?” He’s pointing to my cigarette. “I’m just sitting over there. I may be poor, but . . .”

A cigarette! The poor guy just wants a smoke. “Of course,” I say, trying to sound casual, and I roll down the window all the way and hand him one. “Need a light?”

“No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am. I don’t mean no disrespect. I’m just sitting over there. . . .”

He holds out a nickel and a dime. I wave it away, but he reaches through the window and puts the coins on the dashboard. “Thanks,” I say.

The man walks off with the cigarette, hunkers down behind a building, and lights up. He must have been there all along. Now I feel ashamed. I turn the car off and light another cigarette, trying to let him know I didn’t mean any disrespect toward him, either. I feel bad, though. Jesus, what a hypocrite I am: Miss Bleeding Heart, give money to the city rescue mission but freak out when I’m confronted by a real homeless person.

Enough. I get out of the car and walk over to the man in the drizzle. Now he’s looking at me with alarm. Maybe he’s worried that I’m going to try to “save” him with religion or a lecture or something. I hold out the pack of cigarettes. “Here, why don’t you take the rest of these? I’ve got another pack.”

He seems surprised. Our eyes meet, and he accepts my offer. “Thank you, ma’am.” Then he repeats what seems to be a general apology for his existence: “I’m just sitting over here. . . .”

“No problem,” I say. “I just didn’t know what you wanted before.”

I return to my cushy, boring, white-collar job feeling better. But not much.

Cara Crane
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

While in law school, I worked ten weeks at a corporate law firm. Each student intern was matched up with two mentors — one an associate, the other a partner. Try as I might, it was hard for me to avoid making certain assumptions about my associate mentor. A young, conservative Southerner working in the notoriously dull field of tax law, she had chosen to devote her most vital years to work that I considered fundamentally meaningless, whatever its financial rewards.

My smug condescension was soon shattered, however, when Linda invited me to have lunch with her and explained that she would be giving sandwiches to some of the homeless men and women near the office. Would I mind, she asked, if the distribution of food took a few minutes out of our lunch hour? No, I replied. Of course not.

As I accompanied Linda on her rounds, I learned that she gave food to the homeless not just once a week or once a month, but every weekday. Moreover, she made all the sandwiches herself, preparing each one according to the tastes of the intended recipient.

Linda warmly greeted the homeless people by name and remembered the details — real and imagined — of their lives, asking them specific questions: Did they like the new spot where they were sleeping? How was so-and-so doing? Not a hint of condescension ever crept into her voice. These people were her friends.

Most impressively of all, Linda invited her homeless friends up to the firm’s posh twenty-second-floor office for free legal advice — no doubt seriously harming her chances of ever becoming a partner.

Steven Svoboda
Agana, Guam

Before she left him, Buford’s wife called him a Neanderthal. She wasn’t far off. Buford had never completed his education and couldn’t read or write. He’d done manual labor all his life, fighting his way from job to job because someone was always making fun of him. Once, he was pushed off a ladder while being called a dummy. His body still hurt all the time.

Buford had been thrown out of fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, and been beaten mercilessly at home. He didn’t return to school and spent most of his life reacting like a wild animal against unfamiliar words and ideas. Never having enough words of his own to defend himself, he used his fists.

I met with this scared, angry, fifty-four-year-old backwoods Alabama man every Wednesday at the library, where I tutored him for an adult literacy program. He was a good soul.

Many wonder how anyone can get along without being able to read. First of all, Buford wasn’t dumb. He remembered everything. He worked in engine repair and could rewire, assemble, build, or rig any engine without instructions. Once, he created an ingenious pulley system for a friend who’d had a stroke; it completely saved the man’s wife from lifting him.

Secondly, Buford was a master at bluffing. In a restaurant, he would always look at the menu with great interest, put it down, and order a ham-and-cheese omelet. (Everybody serves that.) At a job interview, he’d look at his prospective employer and say, “Do you want me to waste time filling out this application, or do you want me to work?” Handed something to read, he’d pat his breast pocket and claim he’d forgotten his glasses, then ask someone, “What does this say?”

Over the years, Buford had settled down to the point where he was ready to learn. He liked to go bass fishing, so we started with a poem from Izaak Walton. I thought he was going to balk, but he was a bulldog when he put his mind to something. He studied hard and soon was reading tough-guy mysteries, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. “Pal,” I’d say to him, “the brain is just a muscle, and it’s time for some exercise.” Then he’d laugh and grab the book.

A.T. Seitz
Hayward, California

My ex-boyfriend Tom still jokingly refers to me as “the woman who drove me to AA” — both literally and figuratively. He drank heavily the whole time we were together, but he was so secretive about it that I never realized the full extent of his problem.

After we split up, he came very close to drinking himself to death. Fortunately, his mother, who lived far away, figured out what was going on and convinced him to enter a treatment program. Tom knew it was the right thing to do, but he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to go through with it. So he asked me to make sure that he did.

The night before he was supposed to enroll, Tom stayed at my house, gradually going through my limited liquor supply and pronouncing each bottle to be the last of its kind he would ever drink. The next morning, I loaded him, still drunk, into the car and drove him to the rehab center. When we got there, he was too terrified to go in, so I had to check it out for him. I came back and told him how clean and bright the place was, and how warm and friendly the staff seemed. Finally, he went inside.

Once introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous, Tom became involved in it with a passion. He went on to speak at meetings around the country and ultimately traveled to Russia with a group that was seeking to introduce AA there. Tom immediately fell in love with Russia and its people, but was saddened and appalled by the complete lack of awareness about alcoholism in that country. It was not even seen as a disease. If alcoholics became too much of a problem, they were put either in prison or in an insane asylum.

Tom threw himself into the project, writing grant proposals and securing approval for a trial program in a hospital. It was a resounding success, and he has written me joyful letters about the thousands of alcoholics and their families who now have a chance at a better life.

The credit for all of this goes to Tom — for maintaining his own sobriety, for having a vision, and for working hard to make it happen. Still, I can’t help but feel that I had a very small part in it, just by the simple act of driving a friend to rehab and making sure he went in the door.

Nancy Nelson
Portland, Oregon

For more than twenty years, I lived with the fear that I would one day lose my home to a fire. It started in sixth grade, after I watched a documentary on firefighters. I was so afraid my childhood home would burn down that I would lay my cheek on the cold stove burners to make sure they were turned off. I checked the temperature of the electric baseboard heaters daily, certain that, the moment I left for school, the metal surfaces would glow red-hot, torching the drapes and setting the house afire. And I refused to leave the house until my mother’s curling iron and the wood stove were cold to the touch.

By the time I was living on my own, I had moderated these behaviors somewhat. I could nonchalantly check the stove burners while engaging in conversation with a friend. And instead of jabbing the iron’s plug into my palm, I could stare at the prongs, and then the empty wall outlet, to be assured that the iron was, indeed, unplugged.

I was at work when I got the phone call informing me that my house was on fire. I raced home, honking and flashing my lights all the way. As I rounded the last curve, I could see an enormous black cloud of smoke in the sky. Firemen were shouting, and my neighbors were shaking their heads in sympathy.

The insurance investigators eventually determined that the fire had started inside the wall and had probably been burning even before I’d left for work that morning. Nothing I could have done would have made any difference.

Lisa McCord
Westport, Washington

A few years ago, I volunteered with an AIDS support group. When I met my client, Phil, one of the first things he asked me was “Why did you want to be a volunteer?” Before I could answer, he said, “I hope it wasn’t to bring sunshine into the otherwise dreary life of some poor little faggot.”

I gulped and admitted that I expected to get as much out of our time together as he did.

“Not good enough!” he barked. “Since I’m the one who’s sick, it should be at least 70-30, my favor.” Then his face lit up with a wonderful smile, which I grew to love and would do almost anything to elicit.

During one of my volunteer-training sessions, it had been suggested that we send cards to our clients on all holidays. This was a challenge for me, since I’ve been known to send Christmas cards in late January.

It was midmorning on Valentine’s Day when I realized I hadn’t sent Phil a valentine. I called instead, and his partner, Lou, answered. Phil was out and wouldn’t be back until late afternoon, he said. So I asked Lou to wish Phil a happy Valentine’s Day for me. With a hint of melancholy in his voice, Lou said he would deliver my good wishes.

During the four months I’d known Phil, I’d had almost no contact with Lou, who also had AIDS. Lou’s illness was much more advanced than Phil’s, leaving him pretty much homebound. When I visited, Lou was usually in his bedroom or chain-smoking in his chair in the living room. Since I don’t smoke, Phil would always suggest we sit outside or go to a restaurant.

Suddenly feeling badly for Lou, I asked if he wanted me to buy a box of candy for him to give Phil.

“Oh, yes!” Lou said with an exuberance I’d never before heard from him. “Could you get one of those heart-shaped tuxedo boxes? And maybe a card, too?”

“Sure, no problem,” I said.

No problem? Was I crazy? While Phil often rambled on about his private matters, he’d made it clear early on in our association that his personal life was just that: personal. But I couldn’t go back now, especially after hearing the joy in Lou’s voice.

I debated for half an hour over what sort of card would be appropriate before deciding on the kind I had gotten for my husband: sweet, thoughtful, but not too sentimental. Then to the candy store for the custom order, which, because it was Valentine’s Day, took forty-five minutes to fill. But it was worth all the effort. Lou was so grateful.

Later that afternoon, Phil called me at work — something he’d never done before. He couldn’t wait to thank me, he said, for helping with the candy and the card. Lou had been so excited that he’d given both to him as soon as Phil had walked in the door.

Lou died the first week of April; Phil died in June. In the last two months before his death, Phil spoke fondly several times of the look on Lou’s face as he’d given Phil his valentine.

J. Barna
Lomita, California