There was something about him that caught my attention. But there's something special about every person I do this for. I buy them their breakfast anonymously.
It started just after my dad passed away. I was traveling and decided to stop on the road for breakfast. Off to my right was an elderly man who had come in right after me. I was lonely and wishing my dad was still here--and that man looked so much like him. Same height, same build and walk. I decided right then to secretly pick up his check.
"Just tell him he reminded me of my dad," I told the cashier. I paid for his meal and went on my way feeling a little bit happier.
Since then, every once in a while I hear a voice inside me and I listen to it. I'm usually directed to an individual quietly sitting alone in a booth. Age is not a factor, for I have picked up the tab for young and old alike. Not every time I go to a restaurant. I don't always hear the voice.
Now, don't go thinking I'm going crazy. The voice I speak of is one that also speaks to you. It's a quiet voice that speaks of compassion. I argue with it sometimes. "Oh, no! You've got to be kidding. You want me to do what?" Most of the time the voice wins. I've come to trust it, knowing there is a reason for everything.
Well, on this particular day, the man in the diner seemed down in his spirit. Almost like he was wondering why he was here. I watched him daydreaming and staring out the window for long periods of time. At one point he caught me looking at him. He smiled and shook his head and said, "Nice day!"
"Yes, it is," I replied but felt no need to continue a conversation. That is so unlike me. But it seemed to me that he needed to be alone this day. So I picked up his check and told the waitress to say nothing about me. This is my usual breakfast stop. They know the routine.
Today our paths crossed again. I vaguely remembered his face. He was an average-looking guy in his mid-forties. When I walked in, he seemed to recognize me. I ordered my breakfast and scanned the room to see if the "voice" was calling me. But no. There was nothing to be accomplished this morning except for a hot cup of coffee and french toast.
Halfway through my meal, as I was reading the paper, I looked up across from me and discovered I had company.
"Please forgive me if I’m intruding on your meal. This is kind of awkward for me. My name is Jack," he said, extending his hand.
I introduced myself and said, "You certainly aren't intruding. You can join me if you'd like."
He declined but continued, " About a month ago I was in here and sat in that same booth near the window. I saw you at one point and smiled. I was a bit out of sorts that day, and when I saw you looking at me I figured it showed. So I tried to say something to break the mood."
"You did seem a bit distracted that day, if I remember correctly," I said. "I know the look. I've been there many times."
"Well, I may be wrong here. But someone picked up my breakfast check for me. I assumed it was you. The place was nearly empty," he said waiting for a confirmation from me.
"Gee, that's great. I bet the breakfast tasted even better, " I joked. I really didn't want to tell him. I feared he'd want to pay for mine and that would defeat the purpose.
"Well, it was the most incredible timing. You see, my son and I always went to breakfast on my birthday. It was our tradition since he was a kid. When he was little he would insist on paying for the meal, but I'd have to ‘lend’ him the money. Then, once he hit his teens and was working, he really did pay the bill," he said.
Turning his head back toward the window, he said, "We always sat there. Same booth, same meal, and father-son conversation."
He paused for a moment. "This year, for the first time, we weren't together."
"Well, I'll never have that chance. My son died in a car accident about six months ago out in California. He was visiting friends and checking out colleges."
"I'm so sorry, my friend," I said.
"As always, I came here for breakfast. My wife wanted to come along. But I told her this was our time together," he said quietly. He seemed to be at peace with it all. At least for the moment.
"So when someone picked up the check, I was stunned. The waitress wouldn't tell me who it was. But whoever it was had a reason. I believe somehow my son had something to do with it. I still hear his voice," he said.
"Maybe the person who picked up the check heard his voice too, " I said.
We said our goodbyes, and I finished my meal.
Oh, you know how this ends, don't you? You're right. He picked up my check.
The waitress said, "Well, what goes around comes around, Bob. See, all those checks you picked up finally paid off."
"No, the payback is much greater than that,” I said. “I got to meet the father and, though I didn't know it at the time, I also met his son. All that for $4.28!"