I was at a thrifty store, sifting through the scores of photos in plastic sheet protectors and colorized baby faces from Loring Studios when my fingers caught on the metal edge of this employee badge.
It was a young man’s face, in shades of gray and black and white, lying inside a grayish metal frame that had seen better decades. There was almost something etheral about that photo, a foggy glaze brought on by the years or a clumsy picture taker, that make the overall feel of it hypnotic. So of course I bought it.
On the back is a silver-coated cardboard piece which looks just like this:
It was blank. Not faded away, not rubbed off through years of use, but blank. My handsome young man in the frame was nameless.
So here’s the story:
They met without meeting. The young girl, almost a woman, would wait each morning on the cement wall that bordered the catholic church, sitting and swinging her legs ever so slightly as she watched people hurrying by her on their way to work. She would sit there, always waiting for girlfriends with no sense of time, because girls of her age in her era walked in giggly packs with fresh-scrubbed faces. It was only when the school came into view that they would all stop, hands reaching inside coat pockets for their tube of lipstick purchased at the local drugstore, and redden their lips to perfection.
Each day that the young woman sat there, on that cement wall with one hand idly playing with the silver tube in her pocket, he would appear. Not hurrying, head down like the men in hats racing to make the train or the crumpled old women snaking in for morning mass.
This one, he sauntered. swinging a battered metal lunch pail in perfect rhythm with the girl’s swinging legs. And each morning as he moved by her in that fluid motion of his he would throw a “Hiya Doll!” her way, along with half a smile.
At first she ignored him, or at least that is what she told her giggly friends. In reality she she glanced at him quickly, then away, then just as quickly her eyes would meet his again, and a pain sharp and sweet would run down her throat all the way to her swinging legs.
Some weeks he would bring her a little something-a few daffodils in the spring, four stolen roses clipped fresh from a neighbor’s yard, and a handful of butternuts, from the same neighbor. Always, and only, with a “Hiya Doll!” as he would hold his hand out with the offering.
In return, the young woman would offer, sitting beside her, something fresh from the oven. One week it was snickerdoodles, with their crisp sides and crowns of cinnamon. Another time a few slices of fresh-baked bread, then as time went on the slices became a loaf. And still, the only exchange beyond the gifts was the “Hiya Doll!” and the smiles in their eyes.
This day the young woman arrives, lipstick already applied, a fresh pinch to her cheeks and a tremble along her arms. Today she will speak to the handsome young man who holds her eyes in his. Today she will tell him her name. Today she will ask him his.
When she reaches her usual spot on the cement wall in front of the catholic church, she stops. Placed exactly where she sits each morning before school is a small silver employee badge. She picks it up gently, and feels that same sharp but sweet pain from her throat down to her toes when she sees his photo inside. There he is, in a crisp white shirt with a serious stare, like the person taking the picture admonished him not to smile.
She waits but he doesn’t come by. When her friends arrive, late as usual, the young woman pockets the small metal-edged badge, not wanting to leave it behind to become lost. If he needs it for work today, he will get in trouble, she thinks to herself as her friends giggle along beside her.
After two weeks of sitting on the cement wall, with his badge inside her coat pocket next to her silver tube of lipstick, she knows he won’t be back. She doesn’t know why, but she is certain that he left that badge for her.
One last gift, from the young man who never said anything beyond “Hiya Doll!” to her. One last gift, this small silver badge with a handsome serious face inside, that she will keep for the rest of her days. This she knows with certainty.