The old geezer was willing to pay me twenty bucks for doing very little. Once a day, rain or shine, I’d take a thermos of hot, black coffee to the cemetery, about a mile away. There I would fill this concrete cup on top of the upright tombstone. It was a pretty old monument, more than a hundred and fifty years old, with the name weathered away and only RIP visible. I could understand a recent memorial to a loved one or best friend. A century and half or more? Creepy. More than that, the cup was always dry, even after rain, when I dump in the coffee. On occasion, I’d get this cold shiver running through my bones and my heart raced.
Afterward, I’d return to Jack’s Café with the empty thermos and collect my money. The old man would look me in the eyes for seemingly a ‘Rip van Winkle’ length of time.
Simple, right? A hundred and forty a week. Nothing illegal. Nothing hard. Nothing I couldn’t do.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
About 13 weeks into the gig, I decided to take the money and not do the job. I just poured the hot, black coffee down the closest sewer. Why wasn’t the thermos filled with booze? I could’ve used a stiff drink. I hung out, killing time. I never tried to make it to the graveyard. I went back with the empty thermos to collect my earnings. The old geezer looked at me; he saw something, but he didn’t say anything. I got the sense that he knew. This deception happened all week. It got easier on my conscience.
I had to tell my pals. It was just too good to keep to myself. They had a good laugh. The old geezer deserved it for trusting me.
“Wish I got easy picking like that, Mauri!” Tom said wistfully. And he did.
At Jack’s Café, Tom found an old lady who wanted someone to take a thermos of tea to the cemetery and pour the content into the cup on top of an upright tombstone. She was getting too old to make the mile trip there and back, but she had promises to keep. She was willing to pay. She wanted Tom to make the trip once a week and she could only give him ten dollars. She was on pension.
So on Mondays, Tom and I would go to Jack’s Café. He’d collect the thermos of tea from the old lady, and I’d take the thermos of coffee from the old geezer. This time, we didn’t dump the contents of the thermos. At a park we drank the contents. Tom felt cheated because the old lady could only afford ten bucks and the old guy could do much better.
“I’m going to change that arrangement,” Tom said determinedly the second time he got the thermos and splashed the tea in the cup. Now he could truthfully say to the old lady that he did his job. He was going to coerce her for more money. He didn’t get the extra he wanted, so he threatened to quit. He thought that would put pressure on the old lady. She didn’t budge at all. She gave Tom an indignant look.
“I’d do it myself if I could. Just too far to walk,” she said. “Doing this service means a lot. Me on pension, it’s all I can pay.”
“Too bad, lady. I need more cash,” Tom said firmly.
The old lady turned to me. Her eyes and face were pleading. She was offering me the job that Tom had just quit. I glanced at Tom and I could see in the glint of his eyes that he expected me to refuse so he could put the squeeze on harder.
“Sure,” I said.
Shocked, Tom stared at me. His face immediately grew angry. His shoulders stiffened. I could sense the movement of muscles in his arms tightening to hands balling up into fists. His attention was all on me now.
Tom threw the first punch. And he meant it. A hard left. Ring finger with heavy duty ring and all.
My face hurt. I felt blood inside my mouth. I punched back and made contact with his left cheek. We both started swinging, left, right, right, left. Block. Didn’t bother to block. We grabbed at clothing, and both of us thudded onto the floor.
We screamed at each other. And then—
I looked over and saw two teenagers also in a brawl. Immediately, they stopped fighting, grabbed one another in a friendly manner and began laughing. They looked at one another and then themselves. Touched each other’s faces and bodies, almost obscenely in an intimate way. They laughed more. Then at the same time both of them looked at us.
I turned to the old woman, sitting beside me on the stool. The old woman returned the stare, not realizing what had just happened. I screamed in comprehension.
“Yes,” the two teenagers, whose bodies which had once belonged to me and Tom but were now inhabited by the old man and the old woman, said in unison. “Transmutation. Transmigration. Our souls are in your bodies, and yours…” They did not need to finish the explanatory sentence.
“What just happened?” the old woman, Tom, shrieked. I think he knew the answer, but he just couldn’t bring himself to believe it.
The person in my body said seriously, “Now ya know why ya shouldn’t cheat old people. Got greedy, eh? No matter! Once you started filling the cup there’s no quitting.”
“Gimme a break!”
I wanted to rush towards them, grab them, and shake them until they gave me my body back. However, just getting off the stool was an effort. Bones creaked. Weak muscles stiffened. Movement of arms and legs slowed down. From the corner of “my” eye, I saw the old woman, Tom, trying the same action. Unsuccessfully.
“Please!” I pleaded. “I’ll take the coffee to the cemetery everyday, for free! Just gimme back—”
“Good-bye and good luck,” the two said, and skipped out the café door. I could hear their gleeful laughter. They had traded old age for adolescence. With the trials and experiences of years, they could now avoid past mistakes. A fresh start, again.
“It’s all your fault, Mauri,” old lady Tom accused. “I shouldna listened to you. Look what you got me into!”
“Shut up. Let me think.”
It was hard to trek up to that cemetery. The singular, ancient tombstone was still there. I thought I heard a laugh, a chuckle, a soft sigh from that monument. (Later, old lady Tom said he sensed it too.) The concrete chalice was dry. We tried to fill it with coffee, with tea, with booze, even! But it would not take. The liquid just splashed away.
Three years later, I understood. So did old lady Tom, although I’ve learned to call him Tomasina. But finding someone or someones, like we were at 17 and 19 took time. Time to look into the eyes and see a corrupt soul, one that needed a lesson.
A smart-ass kid comes into the café. She is young, she is trouble, she is perfect. For me. She has a best friend, equally so. For Tomasina.
We look at one another. We drink from our thermoses. We are giddy with youthful anticipation.
I have always wanted to know what it’s like being a girl.
“Hey, missy, wanna do a favour for an old man?”