If she had stopped, earlier, instead of listening to the drum of her feet and the hiss of her breath, then things might have been different. Tina would have stopped to talk to the old woman for more than half a moment, would have sat beside her on the sidewalk and kept talking. The old woman’s lined face might have lit up then, settling into a well-worn but forgotten smile.
Tina would have asked her what she was doing, why she ended up there, what she wanted with her life before anything had happened to it. The old woman would have introduced herself as Rebecca, and shaken her hand. Then the old woman talked, for a long time it seemed, letting the pent-up shut-tight held-in words all pour out in a bewildered rush. Tina liked to listen, and listening to this one woman would have been the same. She sat and nodded, her eyes intent, her ears drinking in the rusty voice.
The old woman’s story was a long and convoluted one. Rebecca told Tina about the husband who’d left her, the sister who took a plane and never came back, the child who ran away at fourteen and never came back. It would have been very sad, and Rebecca might have said, “Everybody leaves in my life. I never see anyone again, and I don’t even know if my baby is dead or alive.” Her voice was quavering. Tina hugged her impetuously, hiding her tears in Rebecca’s shoulder.
When Tina finally got up to go, she creaked to standing and held the side of the building. She teetered there on the sidewalk for a moment, and then she pulled up Rebecca with her. It took some coaxing, but she got Rebecca walking and into the nearest café, where she bought the older woman a sandwich and fiddled with her phone for a moment. She felt guilty about using an expensive electronic in front of Rebecca, but she kept her head bent low, only peeping up to ask Rebecca’s last name.
After lunch, she copied down a few numbers and gave the scribbled napkin to the old woman, and explained, “I got you a room at this motel, and here’s your confirmation number. You can stay there as long as you need until you get back on your feet.” Rebecca, her eyes welling, would hug Tina and hold her close, and they would part with kisses on the cheek and promises to stay in touch.
Tina didn’t know what would have happened after that, eventually. Perhaps Rebecca would have left the motel and refused to keep taking her help. Perhaps she would have gotten a job and a home of her own. That was where the story always seemed to get murky, in the aftermath once other people’s actions could go in any direction.
The train was groaning to a stop, and Tina stepped out. She shook her head, flinging the daydreams away. The old woman on the sidewalk had given her a piercing blue look as she’d walked by, and she’d stooped to drop a dollar into the paper cup. Time to let her thoughts wander on something else now.