Chris sprinted up the stairs and exited the subway station. He paused, turned his head one way and then another with a frown on his handsome young face. His ears strained to hear the usual melodious guitar rhythm. But nothing interrupted the hum of the rush hour traffic.
Chris rounded the corner. There he was, John, his homeless friend and his border collie, Buddy. He exhaled a white misty breath. Since he began working at Wishing Star, he’d seen John and Buddy at this same spot every morning.
“Hey there, where’s your guitar?” Chris handed John a muffin in a brown paper bag and a cup of coffee—their Tuesday morning routine. Then he rubbed Buddy’s furry neck. The dog nuzzled its snout against his legs as it swished its tail.
“My guitar was stolen last night.”
“Shucks…that’s too bad. How did it happen?”
“It was my own fault. I left it outside the men’s washrooms at Union Station for a few minutes.”
“That sucks. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
John’s face clouded. “Nah, it’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me.”
“This place doesn’t feel or sound the same without your music. Why don’t you borrow my guitar while we figure out how to replace yours?”
John’s eyes shone bright. “You would do that for me?” His voice quivered.
Red faced, Chris said, “Aw, it’s nothing. You’re special and you need the instrument more than I do.”
Yes, John was no ordinary panhandler. Passersby stopped to watch his fingers dance and pick the strings, coaxing out heart-warming melodies. When they dropped a coin or a note for him, it was paltry exchange for the glow in their hearts.
“Thanks, kiddo. Let me know what I can do to repay you for all you’ve done.”
Chris shrugged and waved. “Don’t mention it. I’ll see you tomorrow.” His footsteps crunched leaving a trail of imprints on the fresh, white snow.
These meetings began a year ago on a morning like this one when Chris felt a tug at his jeans. He looked down and gazed into Buddy’s limpid eyes. The canine nuzzled its snout into his leg with dogged insistence until he realized that he was meant to follow. He discovered John, half prone on the pavement, and propped against a wall, coughing and wheezing. Quickly Chris hailed a cab and accompanied them to the nearest hospital where he checked John in. A few days later, John and Buddy were back on the pavement, the gentle hobo strumming the most melancholic tune that twisted and stirred Chris’ heart like no words could. Since then Chris always stopped to chat, and a friendship blossomed.
The next day Chris rounded the same corner. John and Buddy were nowhere in sight. He tightened the grip on his guitar. A chill snaked down his back…it had nothing to do with the January air nipping at his face. A bone-chilling gust whipped up a stray paper food-wrap, tossing it around before depositing it at the spot where John and Buddy should have been. He breathed in deeply. John was probably heeding the cold weather warnings. Where would that be for a homeless man? John never spoke about himself. He once mentioned his family in the past tense during a momentary lapse.
Another morning passed and still no John or Buddy. Late that afternoon Chris’ cell phone vibrated in his trouser pocket. He watched the unknown number glowing in his palm before answering.
“Is this Christopher Hughson?” a deep voice asked.
“Yes, this is Chris.”
“My name is Aaron Silverberg. I’m calling about John Evan?”
“Who’s he? I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“Perhaps he went by another name. John preferred to be anonymous most of the time. He has a border collie, Buddy. They’re inseparable.”
“Oh, that John. Is everything alright?”
Silence. “John died two days ago.”
Chris closed his eyes. When he opened them, he stared at a cartoon on his desk with unseeing eyes. “How did this happen?”
“John was walking Buddy when a driver mounted the curb plowing into both of them. Miraculously, Buddy escaped, but John died on the scene.”
“Can you tell me again who you are and how you are related to John?”
“Aaron Silverberg of Silverberg and Partners. I’m John’s lawyer.”
“John has a lawyer?”
“John probably didn’t tell you much about himself. Can we meet sometime tomorrow in my office?”
“I don’t understand. I knew John as a homeless man, at least that’s what I thought. Why would a lawyer want to meet with me and tell me things about John?”
“You are named on his will.”
Chris’ jaws dropped. Not only did John have a lawyer, but he also had a will. “Hey, Mister, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I’m not falling for it.”
“I can assure you that this is not a joke. I’m not in the habit of calling up people to pull such a distasteful prank.” Chris heard the stiffness in Aaron’s tone.
“So can you meet me tomorrow?”
“Okay,” Chris muttered. He grabbed a pen and scribbled as Aaron called out the address. When the call ended, he clasped his fingers behind his head and rocked his chair back and forth.
“Slacking off, Chris?”
Chris turned towards the intruder. “Bob, you know the homeless man I’ve been talking to for the last year or so? I just found out that he was killed in an accident.”
“Oh, bummer. Weren’t you trying to raise money to replace his guitar?”
“Yes, that’s not all. I just finished talking to his lawyer.”
Bob lifted an eyebrow. “A homeless man with a lawyer? I’ve heard stories about panhandlers who make a lot of money pretending to be poor. Then they go home to their big screen TV at the end of the day.”
“John’s not like that. He never asked for money. People just assumed that he needed it and dropped spare change on the floor in front of him.”
“Lawyers don’t come cheap. He must have made quite a lot of money.” Bob snickered.
“I’m really bummed out by his death.”
Early next morning, Chris entered Silverberg and Partner’s office. His sneakers sank noiselessly into the carpet as he approached the receptionist who peered at him behind black-rimmed glasses.
“Christopher Hughson to see Aaron Silverberg.”
“Take a seat right there while I call Marsha.”
Chris chose a black leather couch facing the double glass-paneled doorway. A few minutes later, a silver-haired woman in a black skirt-suit emerged. “Christopher Hughson? Follow me, please.”
Marsha led Chris to an office a few doors down the hallway. A black-suited man behind the dark mahogany desk raised his head as Marsha knocked. He gazed at them behind two neat piles—tan file folders stacked about a foot high beside two large bound books. He closed a binder, rose to his feet and came around the desk with an extended hand.
“So glad you could make it here. I’ve heard a great deal about you from John.” Aaron’s mouth lifted at the corners.
“Pleased to meet you too, Sir,” Chris said as they shook hands.
Aaron gestured toward one of the two visitor’s chairs. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve asked to see you.”
Chris shrugged self-consciously.
“John changed his will a few months before he died. He used to own a thriving business. Our firm has handled John’s legal matters for a long time. When his wife and only son died in an airplane that his son was piloting a couple of years ago, he was devastated. After selling his business he took to the streets, often sleeping there because he couldn’t bear to go home and be alone.”
“No wonder he didn’t seem like an ordinary panhandler. And yet, he didn’t turn down the money people gave him.” Chris said.
“Ah, the money he earned performing on the streets. John gave all that to charity. He never kept any of it. He loved that you brought him breakfast,” Aaron said.
“I thought he was homeless.”
“It was just like John to keep up the charade. He appreciated your friendship especially because you didn’t judge him. He has willed you something.”
Chris’ eyes widened. “Why? He doesn’t owe me anything.”
“No, he doesn’t, but he thought highly of you. He wants you to look after Buddy.”
“I’m flattered that he would trust me with Buddy.” Chris had considered adopting a dog. He had mentioned it to John once.
“There’s more.” Aaron cleared his throat. “John has left you a million dollars for the studio you’ve been dreaming of starting. His only condition is that you treat Buddy well.”
Chris expelled a deep breath. He gulped hard and opened his mouth. But only a strangled sound escaped.
Aaron’s eyes twinkled as he said, “Sometimes I understand silence better than words.”