It’s like this guy, yeah, that I drove past everyday for three years. I’ll never see him again, he’s probably dead by now, but he’s there in my head sitting outside this little – what? – newsagents, or Vietnamese equivalent of one. It sold crisps and chocolate and instant coffee and teabags and fizzy pop. And the crisps packets sat outside covered in dust.
I never stopped at the shop. Like I said, I just drove past, but he was always there, brown dusty flip-flops on his feet, white pyjamas hanging off his body like old clothes on a scarecrow about to become rags. He sat on one of those little plastic chairs they have out there, and on the little plastic table beside him – it was red, I think – there was always a glass of iced coffee, the strong robusta stuff, mixed with condensed milk, sluicing over ice.
I don’t think I saw him drink from the glass once, or even look at it. He just stared out at the road, squinting slightly in the sun, a squint that was hard and angry. I imagined he’d seen horrors in the war or something like that, horrors that made him expect the worst and see smiles as lies.
For a while I entertained the idea that he was a gangster, a godfather of sorts, and that the store was a front where he just sat and waited for people to do things for him, what with his hundred yard stare. He lived in what people said was the gangster district, and I’d been told there’d been a sword fight there once. And a friend of a friend – you know that story that just oozes veracity – had found himself in a gunfight when driving home.
But, in reality, he was probably just an old man, whiling away his retirement until he died.
One day I drove past and he wasn’t there. The shop was open, but the seat was empty, the table clear, the coffee nowhere to be seen, no pyjamas, no flip-flops, and for a passing moment I felt bereft, like I’d lost my wedding ring down the plughole. I felt how I always feel when I feel helpless: my calves and thighs tingled, and I wanted to not be there. I wanted to rewind the moment and for him to return. I wanted to go round the block and for him to appear, but I was already late for work so the gap stayed there all day.
The next day I drove in, though, he was there in his pyjamas, coffee on the table, staring out at the road, his face angry again, as if the road itself offended him. I was so happy I thought about stopping and giving him a hug, thank him for coming back and making my routine real again. But, in the end, I decided not to. He would probably just look at me like he was an idiot. He was pyjama man. That was all. At least in my head. And he always will be.