In the hotel dining room, he sat at at high pub table eating his complimentary breakfast while watching updates about the hurricane in the Carolinas. His eyes glanced around the dining room periodically, scanning the other guests, making eye contact when he could. His unusually bright white t-shirt bore a vertical fold mark down the center, the telltale sign of a seasoned traveler. His blue plaid pajama pants, baseball cap and earring in his left ear gave him a relaxed casual look, which matched his soft spoken voice as he spoke to the woman working in the kitchen. The tone of his voice and his demeanor conveyed a familiarity that seemed to indicate that he’d been staying at the hotel a while.
He greeted the newest visitor in the dining room, a woman traveling alone, smiled and nodded at the television and said, “I’m making money on this hurricane.” A questioning smile was all it took for him to explain that he had investment property that was being used for staging equipment for first responders and that a South Carolina city was paying him to use his land.
As they exchanged breakfast pleasantries, the woman mentioned she had traveled from North Carolina to this Missouri town and his eyes clouded a bit. He asked her if she remembered headlines from Raleigh about nine years ago about a drunk driving accident where a young man was killed. She paused, thinking that she must have heard about it, because the tone in his voice was serious. But she shook her head honestly and wondered later if it was because she was numbed by news of that nature, because it didn’t affect her or because it was too common. Without emotion, he matter of factly said, “That was my son, Anthony, who died.” His son had been killed by a drunk driver in a Hummer, a man who had previously been stopped for drinking and driving, who kept a well-stocked bar in his office and who had gotten out of those traffic stops because he had money and was well-connected. The man, who was a heavy investor in an architectural firm, was in jail now, for taking the life of another man’s son, a son this man in a hotel dining room had raised alone.
He introduced himself as Tom and freely shared that he still ached for his son, who was not only his pride and joy, but his best friend. Tom explained the delight he felt when he found out he was going to be a father when he was only 17, although his girlfriend had expected him to pay her to have an abortion. “Of course I said no” and told her he would take care of her until the baby was born and then he would take the baby. And while he was true to his word, he and his newborn son lived in his car for their first six months together, unable to stay in homes for new parents, because those homes were always for unwed mothers, not for unwed fathers.
Somehow, the pair survived until Tom met a girl who became his girlfriend. Her mom helped take care of baby Anthony. Tom worked two and sometimes three jobs to support them all, and got into trucking. As Anthony grew, Tom would teach him about trucks and engines and how things worked and always made sure that Anthony had, of all things, very good shoes. He didn’t know why, but the shoes were important. Perhaps as an indicator that his son would always stand tall and have the stability of a good upbringing.
Anthony grew up, went to college and became a mechanical engineer. He met his own special girl, Teresa, and moved in with her. He called Tom to tell him that he wanted to marry Teresa and they conspired as to how he would propose.
But Anthony never got the chance. After the funeral and the court case and the lawsuit, Tom, devastated and lonely and lost, had a friend pack all of Anthony’s things and put them in a warehouse. The friend called and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Anthony’s closet held so many boxes of new or pristine shoes.” And Tom smiled wistfully at the memory, and shook his head. “Those shoes are still in that warehouse. I don’t know if I can ever go there.”
Tom couldn’t bear to attend the court case for the driver, nor the lawsuit dealings. And while he was awarded $25 million in damages and the driver went to jail, Tom was still floundering when he got a call from his attorney that the president of the architectural firm in which the drunk driver had a 75% ownership wanted to speak with him. With the knowledge that the lawsuit would put the firm out of business, Tom went and he still didn’t know how he had mustered up the strength.
The company president greeted him with a pale demeanor and escorted him into a room where he nearly broke down with emotion both at the devastation of the loss of Tom’s son and the realization that the company he had worked so hard to build would have to shut down because of the settlement. The president explained that the drunk driver had been the company’s largest investor and that was his only association with the firm. In fact, he was the one who had been president and who had built the company with heart and dedication and had over 100 employees that depended on him. The man asked Tom if there was any way he could buy the company over a span of time….and Tom said yes. “Do you see the way events affect all people down the line?” Tom mused aloud. “I lost my son. I didn’t want anyone else to suffer a loss because of one man, so we drew up papers and I told him to just make payments to me every month.” Tom smiled slightly, “He’ll probably be making payments to me for a long time, but that’s okay……”
Tom was at the hotel in Springfield, Missouri while his truck was being upfitted and painted. His truck was his home. He followed the road, and often camped at racetracks across the country. He is a big race fan and actually had camped for years with another couple before he found out they shared the commonality of loss of a child. And now, they were even closer and called each other weekly, if not more.
Anthony’s Teresa called him, too, and not long ago, called to tell him she was going to get married and she would like for him to be there. He said he was going to make sure she was taken care of and that he would of course, attend her wedding.
The hotel employee quietly wiped the table and interjected that the kitchen was closing and the momentum of the conversation halted. Tom absently wiped a tear from his eyes that had rested on his cheeks as he told his story and the woman hesitated, still aware that they were really strangers but that she had been the recipient of a great gift — the story in his heart. She stretched out her hand awkwardly and when he grasped it, she held it a little too long, as if to let him know his Anthony was now in her heart, too. They wished each other well, and as she stepped on the elevator and pressed the number to her floor, she let out a sob.
Downstairs in the lobby, Tom went to the front desk and said, yes, he would stay another day. He wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere and in fact, he wasn’t quite sure what his next destination would be anyway. Maybe this was where he was supposed to be. For now.