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by Jessica Treadway
The First Day

February 2024

      This morning, the person in the car ahead of me at the drive-thru bought me my coffee.

      When I rolled up to the window, the cashier said, “Already taken care of,” and pointed at the Civic turning out of the lot. “You want a donut or a bagel or something too? She gave me her card and said to put on whatever.”

      I was flustered, I admit; it was so unexpected. I said just the coffee would be fine, and then I kept thanking her, as if she was the one who’d made the gesture. Pulling out of the lot myself, I realized that I was supposed to have given my card to the cashier and paid for the person behind me. But by then it was too late. Instead of feeling grateful for what I knew was the Civic lady’s “random act of kindness,” I felt guilty.

      Why do these things keep happening to me? I’m aware that this is something people do—paying it forward, it’s called. It isn’t because I’m unwilling that I don’t do my part. I just somehow never manage to catch on or catch up in time, and then I feel bad.

      On the other hand, these things strike me as silly and kind of dumb. This business of paying it forward and committing random kind acts. I don’t know, I’m suspicious of it. It seems like a recipe for feeling good about yourself without really having to do much of anything. Another gimmick to post about. Just leave me out of it!

      I have—I had—the most boring job on the planet, but I tried not to let it get me down. Well, maybe not the most boring. I dated an older guy once who’d spent his teenage summers lying on his stomach in the back of a tractor, reaching down to pick cucumbers as the truck drove through the field. Two hours going one way, then two hours down a different row in the other direction. Then lunch, then another round to make for an eight-hour shift. There were a dozen kids doing the same thing all around him on the flatbed, picking up cukes and tossing them into buckets. When they came upon bad ones, they threw them at each other—not hard, not to hurt, but just for something to do that wasn’t the job. When I heard this story, I thought, Damn. I would never have that in me. But the guy I dated talked about it with cheer, and even said it had been fun sometimes. “We were kids,” he reminded me. “It was before cell phones and TikTok. ‘Bored’ wasn’t a thing.” We broke up soon after that, probably because I knew he was such a better person than me.

      The first day of spring had come and gone, and it was still gray and no warmer than the winter. Clouds were predicted all week. The general feeling in the air was one of gloom. When I got to work, I wished I’d thought to get some donuts to put in the break room, though whether I would have let the woman in the Civic pay for them I couldn’t say, because it didn’t occur to me until too late. Everyone seemed to be in an extra bad mood, and before long I found out why: the company was being sold, and a bunch of us were about to lose our jobs. Ooh, ooh, pick me! I thought, even as I recognized that it was not what I was supposed to be hoping for. When my boss called me in and told me how sorry she was, that I’d get a week’s pay for severance, that I’d have her highest recommendation wherever I applied next, etc., it was all I could do to pretend to feel upset.

      I was sprung, suddenly, an hour after I’d come to work. What did I want to do with this gift of time and freedom? I considered who I might want to tell about what had just happened… my husband? No, I thought, that had better wait until I had a plan about where I might be able to find a new job. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he wasn’t so worried about his own, given this economy and the fact that he hadn’t been there that long. And had messed some things up in that short time.            

      Well, if worse came to worst, we could always move back in with his sister. But thinking this completely undid the happiness I felt at standing outside my building—noticing the sky had turned blue in some places, and was that actually the sun?—instead of being stuck in the corner behind my desk.

      A movie, I thought. I used to love going to movies during the day. When I was single and lonely, it got me through hours I hadn’t believed I would survive. Is that melodramatic of me to say? An exaggeration? Probably. Probably I would have been fine. Yet when I think about that time I feel a shadow around my heart, and it scares me now the way it scared me back then.

      I went to the big downtown theater a few blocks away from the office and bought a ticket for the first show, something I couldn’t have cared less about but that would, I saw, succeed in eating up the next hour and fifty-two minutes of my life. Right before I would have turned away from the cashier—a hungover-looking young man—I felt a spurt of inspiration and said, “Hey, I want to buy a ticket for the next person. Okay? I can do that, right?”

      He narrowed his eyes as if I’d been speaking a foreign language. Then he shrugged. “I guess.” He ran my card again. “But this is a crazy-early showtime. What if nobody else comes?”

      I told him that was okay, it was the thought that counted, it was just something I wanted to do. He promised to give the free ticket to the next person who tried to buy one for my movie, and to tell that person that another customer had taken care of it. I thanked him, bought a big box of Junior Mints, and settled myself into the dark plush of the theater, feeling good about myself even though I’d just spent twelve dollars I should have saved.

      The kid was right—not a lot of demand for a movie that starts at 10:20 a.m. I had the big space to myself until the previews were almost over, when another figure entered the theater. Age and gender, I couldn’t tell, but I was glad to see whoever it was both because I wanted company for the movie and because I figured the person would have good feelings toward me, assuming the kid had kept his promise.

      From his profile I saw now that it was a man, and from his posture I saw that he was probably not so young. He wore jeans and a windbreaker, sneakers, and a plain cap. So, probably not a work day for him, either. He was going gray, he was overdue for a haircut, and even from a distance I could tell that his glasses sat crooked on his face. I felt him locate me in my upper row. For a moment I was afraid he'd approach my seat to thank me, just when the movie was starting. But instead he only tipped the cap in my direction and sat down heavily in an aisle seat, much closer to the screen than I would ever have wanted to be.

      The movie was pretty bad, but that’s what you get for choosing one for some reason other than that it’s a movie you want to see. I enjoyed eating my Junior Mints, even though I knew I’d feel sick later. The guy whose ticket I bought didn’t appear to have brought in anything from the concession stand. Should I have taken care of his refreshments, too? No, that would have been too much.

      I started making my way down the stair mountain during the credits, because I wanted to get away before he could thank me. Isn’t that the point of paying it forward—you do it anonymously? Was I going to screw this up, too?

      But I didn’t move fast enough, and I ended up standing right next to him when the lights came on. He smiled and gestured at the screen and said, “That was nice of you. I would have bought my own, but it’s a nice surprise, for somebody to do that.”

      This close, I could see he wasn’t quite as old as I’d thought at first, maybe new to his forties, like me. “It wasn’t really my idea,” I said, because compliments—well, let’s just say I’m not a fan. “Somebody did it for me this morning. This was my way of evening things out.” So I don’t have to worry about it anymore, I thought about adding, but didn’t.

      His smile shrank a little as I spoke, but it was still there. “Okay,” he said. “Well, that means it’s my lucky day, I guess.”

      Then I felt bad for making it awkward. “Did you like the movie?” I asked.

He shrugged. “To be honest, I didn’t pay that much attention. I was just here for something to do.” Then it seemed to occur to him that this might offend me. “Oh, should I not have said that? It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you did.”

      “Same!” I smiled. “I mean, I was here for the same reason. But since you weren’t paying attention, let me tell you: it was pretty bad.”

      We got to talking. He told me his name was Nathan Shiverdecker, and I laughed. “Really?” I said, and he said, “Well, I go by Nate,” which made me laugh again. I told him I’d never heard the name Shiverdecker before, and he said, “Yeah,       I get that a lot.”

      I told him my name was Kate, even though it isn’t, because I liked the rhyme of it—Nate and Kate—and it turned out he did, too. We walked out of the theater together and made noises of surprise, because the sun had come out again. I was surprised too at how warm it felt, because the winter had been so cold and that’s what I was used to. It was lunchtime, and people were everywhere on the Common, walking or sitting on benches with sandwiches, turning their faces up to the unexpectedly bright sky. “Now I feel guilty for spending all that time in the dark,” I said. “Wasting how nice it turned out to be.”

      “Still plenty of it left,” Nate said. “Want to have lunch from a truck?”

      Who was this guy who had time to go to a movie in the morning and then have lunch with a total stranger? Then again, who was I? It couldn’t hurt, I figured. Plenty of people around.

      I mean what else was I going to do?

      We walked over to the Frog Pond. It was between seasons—ice skating was over, and they hadn’t installed the carousel or opened the spray pool yet—and I had to describe these things to Nate, how charming it all usually was, when he asked me about that big bean-shaped bowl in the ground.

      I only got a Diet Coke, to offset the Junior Mints, but Nate bought a huge pretzel. Chunks of salt fell down the front of his jacket as we talked and ate. He was from Maine, he told me. He’d come to town with his wife, who was a patient at the hospital a few train stops from where we sat. In the mornings he couldn’t visit her because the doctors were making rounds. He didn’t tell me what she was in for, and I didn’t ask, even though I wanted to.

      “What were you doing back there?” he asked, nodding at the theater behind us.

      “I got fired,” I said. “Well, let go. A bunch of us did. I don’t mind, really—it’s just that right then, when they told me, I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

      He pursed his lips in sympathy. I appreciated that he didn’t try to console me or tell me everything would turn out all right. I hadn’t said things would be fine with his wife, after all. Who knew what was going on there? Maybe she was at that hospital, a famous one with hotshot doctors, for some last-ditch hope at a miracle cure.

      “Can you believe me and her have never been to Boston before?” Nate said, after allowing a moment of silence for my job. “Never, in all the years we lived up there. Three hours away. Talk about a waste.”

      This time I was the one who waited a few ticks before talking. “Do you like where you live?” I asked, and when he nodded I said, “Well, it’s not a waste then, to spend time where you want to be.”

      He looked at me as if I’d said something profound, which I knew I hadn’t. But hey, maybe that’s in the eye of the beholder, and I really had!

      “Kids?” I asked, and he shook his head.

      “Us either,” I told him, and then we had something in common you can’t count on, in people our age.

      I could tell we both felt the flash of affinity. “It’s a good and a bad thing,” he said quietly. “Good because nobody’s losing a mother.” Okay, I thought. So, that’s it. “But bad because…” But of course, he couldn’t finish.

      “I know.” We both knew. You can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t get it, and you don’t have to explain it to someone who does.

      I enjoyed talking to him—Nate Shiverdecker—and I felt sorry I’d given him a fake name. Then I thought, It doesn’t really matter what our names are. All that matters is that we’re sitting here together, on this day that’s hard for both of us, feeling warm under a sun we’d been told wouldn’t come out. Enjoying the company and hoping for each other that things go as well as they can, even though neither of us is going to say so. Sometimes it’s better that way. I could tell Nate understood this the same way I did.

      His phone buzzed and he looked at it, then he said he had to get going. “I like to be there when she’s awake,” he told me, almost sounding as if were apologizing, but I said, “Of course, of course, go!” and made a shooing motion in the vague direction of the hospital. He laughed before he turned and started walking, then turned back again and thanked me. I told him he was welcome, and then I thanked him, too.

      I sat there on the bench till I couldn’t see him anymore. Children were hopping and screeching on the playground, and I watched them for a while. I worried they’d think I was some kind of kidnapper or pervert, but then I realized that the point of being a child is you don’t know what a kidnapper or a pervert is. Even though it was stupid I waved at one of them before I left, and she waved back. You could have tried to tell me beforehand how good that would feel, but I wouldn’t have believed you.

      Now it’s dinnertime, and Sam isn’t home yet. When he gets here, I’ll have to tell him I lost my job. Will I come right out and say it? Or is it a better idea to mention the movie first, and Nate Shiverdecker, and the nice hour we had together talking and laughing a little before he left to return to his sick wife and I waved at some random kid before walking the long way back to my car parked in the underground garage, just to stretch my time in the sun?

      We need to have more fun, I’ll say, and Sam will say, “Pam, what makes you think we deserve to have more fun?” Or maybe he’ll tell me we can’t afford to have fun. We can’t afford not to, will be my answer, and then maybe we’ll argue. Or maybe he’ll sit down at the table and put his head in his hands and say, You’re right. I’m sorry. We’ll figure out a way.

      However it plays out, it will be a better conversation than the one we would have had if the day had gone the way it was supposed to. If it weren’t for Nate Shiverdecker, and the woman in the Civic who charged my coffee to her card. Who knows? Maybe it’s not such a bad idea, treating strangers as if they’re people you care about. Maybe not everything is as stupid as I thought it was, including me.

Jessica Treadway
Massachusetts, USA

Jessica Treadway's third collection, Infinite Dimensions, was published last June; her second collection, Please Come Back to Me, received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2010. She has also published an earlier collection and four novels (two with Grand Central Publishing; one each with Graywolf and Delphinium Books), and her stories have appeared six times—including this year—on the list of Other Distinguished Stories in The Best American Short Stories.

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