I first met Jack around 4 years ago.
Through the following years, I saw him exactly at 4 in the evening. At 4, the days he was at his shop, which was almost every day, he closes his shop, hangs a “Be Right Back” sign, and steps out to get coffee at the coffee shop next door that I happened to frequent too.
During these 4 years, I too have stepped into his shop occasionally. It was on one such occasion that he mentioned, pointing to a license plate behind him with “Jack” written on it, that his name was Jack.
Of course, he forgot my name. He took to calling me Mr. Coffee which he pronounces Kowafee.
For some years this was how things stood between me and Jack. We exchanged occasional pleasantries whenever we ran into each other. Whenever I see him on the street or in his shop he gives a curt nod and a smile.
Then one day, I was reading a book by Yukio Mishima. Jack, who was waiting at the counter for his coffee after his customary nod, noticed the title of the book and walked over to me. That day we spoke for around 15 minutes.
From then he remembered my name, and from my side, I made sure I made some tiny purchase from his shop. Till date, I have bought a robot made from industrial scrap metal, two cardboard books for toddlers, and a small purse for my wife.
Last summer, I ran into Jack who was unusually happy, walking down my street. His daughter had just graduated from a university in upstate New York he said, beaming with joy.
As the years went by we got into a rhythm of comfortable acquaintance.
After a particularly harsh New York winter, as I was passing by his shop, a sign on his shop attracted my attention.
“Browsers Welcome” it said.
I wondered what made Jack put that sign up. I remembered a conversation we had when he was talking about “the internet” and how his daughter was telling him about this company called Amazon where shoppers can buy everything that he had in his store. I had explained very briefly how internet shopping worked. I was truly amazed at how his little shop was able to hold its own against rising rents and fickle shoppers.
The new sign-board indicated that Jack was keeping up with his times.
I went to his store again after I had Mira. He was all excited and gifted a onesie for the baby.
I had always been curious about Jack. He was a slim quiet man, with a pronounced Brooklyn accent, always well dressed and a careful smile. The kind of American who was the exact opposite of what I thought Americans would be like before I arrived in America. The quiet American.
Once, by way of small talk, I asked him about his family.
He said he was divorced twice. He had two kids from each of his marriages. One of his sons was dead from drug abuse. All these details slowly filled the sardonic Jack’s blank life with more color in my mind.
He was no more the man in the corner store. He was Jack.
For the past few months, Jack had been missing from his shop. Everytime my wife and I stroll by the shop, we peer in to see if Jack was in. Mira had her ears pierced and we thought we might show him her new earrings.
Then I saw him yesterday. It was 4 in the evening and it was at the coffee shop. I had almost missed him. He had a baseball cap on and a thick sports jacket and was hurrying out the door with his coffee.
After some time, when I had finished my coffee and wrapped up work, I slowly walked over to his shop. He was cleaning something from the glass countertop carefully.
“Hey Jack, it’s been a long time. Where’ve you been?”
He looked at me, then looked at the wet glass countertop, and back at me again.
“I have stage 3 brain cancer.”