“Mornin’, Tink,” he responded as she took her place in the chair on the opposite side of the thirty-inch round metal table which was part of the grouping of tables on the sidewalk in front of the storefront café that specialized in breakfast and lunch.
“Nice change from the park bench,” Tink continued, glancing about.
“Yeah, I thought we could stand a little change. I ordered tea. Told the server to bring it after he had seen you join me.”
“I don’t like tea,” offered Tink, turning up her nose a bit at the remark.
“Don’t know. Just don’t like it.”
“When was the last time you had tea?” Ram asked.
“Wait a minute. You don’t like tea but don’t know why and you don’t even remember the last time you had any? Isn’t it possible that you might have developed a taste for it in the span of time during which you haven’t had any?”
“Doubt it,” she remained adamant.
“Well, this morning you’re going to have tea, whether you like it or not, your crazy reluctances notwithstanding.”
“Okay, okay. What’s the big deal about tea, anyway? I coulda had coffee. I like coffee.”
“Tea is a more sophisticated drink, more genteel, more refined.”
“Horse hockey!” she teased. “You don’t get that much class from a glass of Louis Latour Montrachet Chardonnay.”
“We won’t be having Chardonnay this early in the day, so settle for the tea.”
The server set two white porcelain cups before them. Each cup contained a teabag with the string looped over the side. There was a small stainless steel pot of hot water, steam rising gently from the spout and Ram poured a portion of the liquid into each cup.
As Tink petulantly dunked her teabag in and out of the cup she reached for the sugar and milk containers still on the tray that had been left.
“You’re not really going to put sugar and milk in that are you?” asked Ram.
“I told you I don’t like tea. Maybe they will make the taste bearable.”
“Try it with just a little sugar at first. It’ll take the bite out of the tea but allow the flavor to come through.”
She did as he asked.
“Do you put sugar and milk or cream in your coffee?”
“Sure,” she responded. “Doesn’t everybody?”
“From what I’ve noticed over the years, it seems that women are more inclined to add those things to their drinks. Don’t quite know why but it’s an interesting phenomenon. Men seem to take their coffee without anything.”
“Maybe men don’t have taste buds.”
They both hoisted their cups simultaneously, each taking a short sip of the still-hot liquid. Tink’s nose squinched up a bit. She couldn’t see the slight smirk on Ram’s face as he watched her over the rim of the cup.
“How old are you, Tink? I hope you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all. I have no pretensions about age, mine or anyone else’s. I’m twenty-eight. Why?”
“I’ve been thinking about how we go through life without really thinking about how we contribute and I wondered if you’ve ever given any thought to what you would like to accomplish. You’ve got a lot of years ahead of you, plenty of time to really make a mark for yourself, become someone important. Or do you just want to coast through life, letting it lead you along hither and yon, without purpose?”
“You mean do I want to write a classic novel, become a world-famous actor, win the Nobel Peace Prize or discover a cure for the common cold? I guess any of those would provide some level of satisfaction in life. What are the odds of any of that happening? Pretty darn slim.
“I guess I’d be content to find a good man, get married, have a couple of smart, well-behaved kids, maybe be a competent nurse. If I can get through life being kind and caring and helpful and honest, maybe that’s enough for any one person.
“How ‘bout you, Ram? I don’t mean to suggest that you’re on your last legs, but you’ve obviously lived a full life. Do you feel like you’ve contributed something positive?”
“Does getting you to try tea count?” he asked, sipping his tea and looking over the rim once again.
“When you get to be my age,” continued Ram, “you have a lot to look back on, a lot to ponder and wonder if you’ve had any influence on people. At least I do.
“I was a mediocre student in school. Graduated with okay grades, but nothing special. I liked school, but really didn’t apply myself, just kinda coasted. Shortly after high school I joined the Marines. Back then the draft was still in place and I knew I didn’t want to go in the army.
“Within a year I was in Korea, not long after the North crossed the 38th on June 25th and pushed the U.S. and South Korean forces back into a small perimeter at the south end of the country. Pusan it was.
“Well, we started pushing back, expanded the perimeter and in September made an end-run up at Inchon, got behind the North Koreans, recaptured Seoul and started pushing north across the parallel. Went all the way to the Yalu and found seventy thousand Chinese waiting on the other side, despite the fact that the bigwigs, sitting comfortably in heated offices back in Tokyo kept saying the Chinks wouldn’t come in. They did. And between the Chinese army and temps thirty degrees below zero, we nearly lost a complete division. We fought eighty miles across the country, killed probably thirty thousand gooks and got our asses out.
“I rotated back to the states shortly after, spent the rest of my enlistment at Camp Pendleton as an instructor, getting more Marines ready to be cannon fodder.
“When my enlistment was up, I spent the next two years just bouncing around between menial jobs, grocery clerk, pumping gas, delivering papers, working in a sawmill.
“The second year I was out my dad died. Pancreatic cancer. He went quick. Fourteen months later mom died. Broken heart, I think. So I decided to go to college. Enlisted under the GI bill. Suddenly my slacking off in high school was behind me. I found myself totally immersed in learning and my grades were great. Finished in three-and-a-half years and had a teaching job waiting for me. Taught civics at the get-go.
“That was back in the days when high schoolers were expected to know something about how a democracy works, president, vice-president, some members of the cabinet, members of the Supreme Court, UN ambassador, governor, mayor, county judge, their senators. Every year I took classes to meetings of local government. We had mock courts.
“Then the schools quit teaching civics and I shifted over to history. Took a lot of it in college. Could have claimed it as a minor. Taught U.S. history in four semester courses, all electives. Started with pre-colonial times and ended up at the present. The last semester still had a lot of civics in it since we were dealing with more recent history.
“Funny thing about history. Kids either loved or hated it, nothing in-between. Hot or cold, nothing lukewarm. Some of the kids who took the courses thought they could coast, pull an easy ‘C.’ A few did, not many. Some who really didn’t care much about history at first really got into it after a spell. There were some I never got through to.
“Tried writing a history textbook for a couple of years but couldn’t get the interest of a publisher. Some of the big textbook commissions around the country — especially Texas — pretty much dictate what goes into textbooks. If they don’t approve content, publishers won’t print them. They have to have access to thousands of school systems in order to make a profit. It’s a business and a lot of pablum goes into textbooks.
“Thirty-seven years in the classroom and I loved just about every minute of it. In all that time I only missed six sick days. Don’t know how that happened; must have scheduled my sick days on holidays.”
He smiled, thinking of the possibility.
“My wife divorced me after four years, no kids and I never remarried. Not sure why, but the school kids absorbed me, kept me sane and on keel. They filled me. I didn’t need anything further.
“During that time, and after retirement, I got appointed to some local committees. I may have become something of a pariah. I probably had a reputation for not hiding my thoughts and I expect I hacked off some of the people who typically appoint committees. I know I hacked off some elected officials when I wrote letters to the papers about the crummy jobs they were doing … at least according to me.
“But I didn’t care. Still don’t. Too late in life to worry about the feelings of some pissant politician sucking at the public tit.
“So here I am, spending a coupla mornings a week with a beautiful young lady who’s willing to sit and listen to the ramblings of an old man.
“So all-in-all I guess I’m satisfied with how life went for me, no great accomplishments, nothing to be remembered for, just some self-satisfaction … and contentment.”
“Not true, Ram,” said Tink, softy.
“Hmmm,” he murmured.
“You’ve accomplished more than 99.9% of all the people who ever lived, Ram. Think of the thousands of kids you ushered through and into life, so many of them anxious to go looking for the future. You wouldn’t have been teaching for thirty-seven years if you weren’t good at it; you’d have been back working at the sawmill.
“I only hope I can look back on my life in fifty years and see as much fulfillment in it.”
She reached across the narrow table and lightly touched his hand.
“Thanks for the conversation, Ram. It’s been a beautiful morning and the rest of the day looks like it’s going to be great as well. See you Thursday, back at the park bench?”
“Of course,” he replied, “have a good day.”
She waved and nearly bumped into a lady coming to sample the morning fare.
Ram sat for a while and a wide grin crossed his face. He noticed that Tink’s cup was empty.