Sitting With Sparrows (1998)

(This is an old one – a story reflection on communion. But I don’t have it posted anywhere here, so thought I’d share!)


He believes the sparrows know him by name, he has spent every morning with them for so long. He sits at the corner table, just far enough under the canopy to be clear of rain but open enough to be in the warming rays of the morning sun. Each day he arrives five minutes before the coffee shop opens its doors, and sits quietly with a book du jour, while the sparrows flock around him as soon as he sits. The shop’s serving staff has become so accustomed to him that they bring a hot cafe mocha and muffin to him just as the doors are unlocked. Silently drinking his coffee he splits the muffin in half, then patiently breaks off pieces to feed the swarming, fighting birds.

It was a spring morning, free of the chill that often settled in the desert air. The sun was shining brightly and warmly through a cloudless sky as the man walked up and took his seat. Closing his eyes for a moment, smiling at the constancy of the old man, William turned from the counter and began mixing the man’s regular cup of coffee. William selected a fresh muffin from the day’s assortment and placed it on a small plate he carried with the coffee to the door. Jenna smiled at him, unlocking and opening the door that he might step into the sun himself.

The old man was reading as William walked up, but looked up from his book smiling. Upon seeing William the man tilted his head, his smile fading, and he lowered the book to the table as William placed the muffin and coffee before him.

“Good morning, sir,” William said with his customary lopsided grin, beginning to turn to return to the counter.

“Just a moment please, son,” the man responded. William looked back at him. “Do you have a few minutes, son?”

William’s mouth and eyebrows undoubtably showed his surprise for a moment, for in the year and a half the man had been sitting at the table every morning he had rarely spoken much to any of the staff. His first visit he had come into the shop, waited in line, and demurely asked for the cafe mocha “and a nice muffin, please.” Midway through his third week of visiting the shop the staff members had begun to take a secret joy in preparing his coffee and selecting a muffin for him just as he arrived. The man always smiled and thanked whoever served him, paying an even six dollars each time, leaving his server a seventy-five cent tip and a feeling of joyful consistency. “Just a few words with an older man?”

“Certainly,” William said, pulling a chair from the table and settling into it. The sparrows chirped as they hung from the wall or sat atop the roof looking down. Beginning to unrwap his muffin, the man looked at William.
“My name is William, sir.”

The man stopped and offered William his hand. “Charles O’Rourke. Nice to meet you, William.” William shok the offered hand, smiling.

“I don’t think any of us have ever known your name,” William commented, then felt a pang in his stomach that this was a stupid thing to say.

“Perhaps none of the current staff, but Joseph and I spoke a few times,” the man said as he returned to unwrapping and splitting his muffin. Joseph had worked at the shop for two months the past winter; he had been very quiet around the staff and customers, and William knew little about him save that he had an affinity for reading poetry during his breaks. “Your eyes seem troubled today, William.”

“Pardon me?”

“Forgive an old man’s candor, but I find politeness has limits. Did the two of you fight, or is it something else? I am, of course, referring to the pretty blonde who often kisses you as she sometimes gets her morning coffee.”

“Her name is Kristin,” William told Charles. “We…” His mind was spinning at the man’s perceptiveness, and his recent discussion with Kris; he couldn’t put anything into words. She had told him the night before she was in love with someone else. She had tried to allay his breaking heart with words of comfort, to no avail. He could not remember much of what she had said after telling him she loved another, except that she could not see him for awhile. She had met him at a nearby restaraunt and he had left her there, teary eyed over a peach iced tea. “We broke up last night,” he told the man, wondering as he did so why he did so, hearing a finality in his voice he hadn’t known would be there.

“Ah,” was all Charles said in response. William watched as he broke a piece of muffin and held it out to a waiting sparrow. The bird paused, cocking its head to eye William and then, deciding he must be safe, hopped up to the offered morsel. Taking it from Charles’s fingers he winged off to the roof while the man used his free hand to sip his coffee.

Jenna pocked her head out the door. “Excuse me,” she said politely, though there was surprise lurking behind her cordiality, “William, we’ll need your help in a few moments.”

“Certainly, young miss. I won’t detain him much longer,” Charles said, looking up and smiling at Jenna. She smiled back and ducked inside. Charles took a bit from his half muffin, breaking a piece off the other. William thought of the questions that would lay in wait inside the shop.

“My wife used to bake half a dozen large muffins every Sunday and Wednesday,” Charles said as he slipped a morsel to another expectant sparrow. “We would split one while they were still warm, sitting in our kitchen by the picture window. Each with a cup of coffee. We would split another each morning. On Saturday she would crumble the five remaining muffins, and place them in the feeder outside the window. For many happy years we spent our mornings together this way; sharing a muffin and coffee, talking and sitting with one another, watching the birds come to feed off the same bread.”

A plane passed by on approach in the sky, and the man looked up as it flew overhead. William noticed a dampness in Charles’s eyes; the mist that often accompanies memories. He could hear the gentle hum of life beginning in the coffee house; knew the need they had for him inside, but he remained sitting, listening.

“These were always moments of great happiness between us,” the man said, “despite what might have happened the day before or what might be ahead.

“She took sick two years ago. We tried to share a muffin every morning in the hospital, but it was not the same.” The man paused, sipping his coffee and feeding a chirping bird. “There was still happiness and peace in that time together, but there was also an air of unease in the unfamiliar surrounding that we never overcame. When she finally passed away, it was late one morning, and our muffin lay untouched by her bed.

“I’ve felt her presence since then, young man; every morning.” Charles took a bite from his muffin, looking at William. “I feel her with me every morning I sit here, and the joy and peace we had remains. They help me through the day.” He smiled, looking William squarely in the eye. “Bad times are real, but joy and peace, they are more real.”

The door opened and Jenna was there. “Looks like they need you inside, William,” Charles told him. “You have a good day, young man, and find joy where you can.”

William stood, smiling at the old man. “Thank you, Mr. O’Rourke. You have a pleasant day, too.” Charles tilted his head to look up at him. “I will. Thank you.”

William turned, going inside the busy coffee shop. Later, after Charles had left the table behind, William watched the remaining plate carefully. When the crowd of sparrows had finished the last crumbs of muffin, William retrieved the plate and cup; then went on smiling and serving the various souls that came to him that day.

-1998, rvb

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