Friday, December 3, 2021 by Donnie Stevens
The early morning, mid-December breeze bit as Miles Lassiter leaned against a post on his back porch, his thinning gray hair sifting in the wind as he gazed out at the moonlit, overgrown, broom-straw meadow. Any other time, he would have welcomed winter’s wrath bending the foliage, tracing along the foothills of White Oak Mountain, his home for more than forty years.
But instead of watching the deer trek their well-worn path to a nearby creek for watering, or listening to Tom turkey’s fuss over flock dominance, Miles’s mind dwelled on a decision he’d wrestled with the past few months. One he dreaded but had no choice to now make. He needed to go inside and tell of his plan to Colleen, his bride of forty-two years. They had spoken about it briefly this past year, but now actually doing it made his decision less easy.
Stepping inside the red and white checkered, wallpapered kitchen, the sound of sizzing sausage and fresh perked coffee permeated the air. Miles nudged up against Colleen, her wavy, short brown hair brushing warmth and softness against his face. “Umm, that sausage is making me hungry. Where did you get it?”
“From Tracy. He’s been hog killing for a month, but this is the first I’ve been able to buy because of his backlog of orders.” She nodded to the fridge. “The eggs are in the plates, so get the apple butter and pour us a coffee. I’m on my way with the sausage.”
After breakfast and small talk about the coming holidays and how this Christmas with the kids and grandkids would be so different because of COVID-19, Miles cleared his throat and reached across the table to grasp Colleen’s hand. Her gaze meeting his, he squeezed her hand.
“Dear, as you know this hasn’t been a good year for us. Even though we are just a small eatery, selling coffee, sandwiches, and desserts, the COVID-19 crisis has impacted us just like it has every other small business in Danville.” He paused to swallow. No matter how he spun it, the truth hurt.
“Her eyebrows raised, Colleen squeezed his hand. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“I’ve made the decision to close Main Street Coffee.” Miles’s breath exhaled. There, I’ve said it.
Colleen’s shoulders slacked. “We’ve just remodeled and bought all new equipment two years ago. Main Street Coffee has been our livelihood for over thirty years. I know we talked about it a while back, but I never realized business had gotten that bad so fast.”
Miles frowned. “It didn’t just happen. With all the new restaurants and diners opening downtown the past few years, our coffee shop hasn’t been a draw like it used to be. That coupled with having to shut down for four months this year because of COVID-19 and reopening on a limited basis, we’ve been losing money all year. It just doesn’t make sense to stay open and lose more money. If I do, then I’ll be dipping into our retirement savings.”
Colleen’s eyes watered. “That means you’ll have to lay off our four employees here at Christmastime.”
“I know but I have no choice. I’ve already spoken to our leaser that we won’t be renewing our lease at the first of the year, and our loan officer has agreed to give me time to sell our equipment to pay off our loan.”
Collen sniffled. “When are you going to tell the employees?”
“Today. I’m closing next Friday, so I at least owe Patty and Darrell a week’s notice since they work full-time. They’ve been with us for over twenty years.” Miles breathed a heavy sigh and pulled his hand back. “I had envisioned making them equal partners in the shop next year and eventually selling my part to them in a couple of years when I retire. But, with the shop losing money, I can’t do it.”
Colleen’s effort to hide her frown failed. “I remember we talked about that with them a couple of years back. They will be so disappointed.”
“I know. I dread what I’ve got to do today.” Miles sipped his last bit of coffee and stood abruptly. “But I have no choice. Wish me luck.”
Colleen rose with him. She reached over and turned the collar of his shirt down over the neckline of his red pullover sweater. “I’ll be praying for you. And tell Patty and Darrell I’ll be by later today to see them.”
At six a.m., the ten-minute drive to downtown Main Street in Danville stretched to fifteen minutes. He dreaded his mission today. For many years he’d greeted customers dropping by for a coffee and pastry on their way to work or made soups, sandwiches, and desserts to cater to the downtown lunch crowd. Never had he imagined in one short year he’d be closing Main Street Coffee for good. It disheartened him.
Miles reminisced about the past. Once at work, he would have coffee brewed and pastries laid out in the front display case by seven o’clock when Patty would come in to wait the front with her bubbly and cheerful voice where she knew every customer by name. Then Darrell would come in and start grinding fresh coffee beans. The roasted bean aroma wafted through the front door every time someone entered, enticing and luring even more customers to come in for coffee.
By six-forty, Miles had several coffee urns filled with mixed blends of coffee and a variety of pastries displayed. Patty and Darrell’s entrance meant they would be open for business. To calm his anxious energy, he sat down, his hands clasped under his chin, dreading what he would have to do before closing today. Here at Christmastime, a time of well-wishing and spreading holiday cheer had tuned into apprehension and anguish. He bowed his head and prayed.
Moments later, a tap on his door broke his concentration. A middle-aged man, dressed in a trench coat and brown hat, stood outside gazing in. Miles waved him off and mouthed, “Not open yet.”
The man, undeterred, tapped again, louder.
Knowing it useless, Miles made his way to the front door and pointed at the hanging closed sign and seven o’clock opening notice. The well-dressed man only shook his head and pointed at himself and back at Miles.
Miles unlocked the door. Maybe this man he’d never seen before would understand a firm “no.” But before he could get the word out, the man pushed the door open and stepped inside.
“We’re not open till seven,” Miles blurted out.
Pulling his hat off, the man’s dark eyes and stern face broke a wry grin. “I don’t mind waiting.”
“Suit yourself.” Miles nodded at the empty seats and tables lining the wall. “Your choice of seats.”
“But while I’m waiting, I would like to have a word with you Mr. Lassiter.”
Miles’s eyes narrowed. How did this stranger walking in off the street on a cold, dark Danville morning know him? His eyes drew together trying to place this man.
Clutching his hat, the man waved his hand out. “I’ll only keep you for a minute…I promise.”
Miles glanced at the coffee cup wall clock. Six forty-five. He had a few minutes, so he conceded. “Can I get you a coffee?”
“Sure. Dark roasted and black please.”
While Miles poured the man and himself a cup of coffee, he watched the gentleman turn full circle in the long, narrow room, taking in the pictures, décor, and even the electric coffee grinders in the front windows. When he walked over with the coffee, the man took his coat off and folded it neatly before placing it and his hat on an empty wooden chair. Then he sat down across from Miles at the small, square table. He took a sip of coffee and sighed.
“Now this is a real cup of coffee.”
It made Miles smile. “Are you a big coffee drinker?”
“I am when I can get good coffee.” His eyes brightened. “Very few coffee shops grind their own beans anymore.”
“It’s always been our specialty.”
Miles eyes narrowed. Who is this man? Should I know him?
The man glanced around the room. “How is business?”
Miles’s stare loosened to a smirk. “Not good. I’m shutting the doors next weekend.”
The man shuffled in his seat. “Why? You’ve been here forever.”
When Miles didn’t respond, a slight smile curled the man’s lips. “I need to be honest with you, Mr. Lassiter. My reason for coming in here this morning was for more than just to get a cup of coffee.”
Miles’s eyebrows raised as he leaned forward.
The man massaged his cup with his fingers. “I have a confession to make. I was sitting in the conference room yesterday at the bank across the street that you do business with when I overheard a loan officer telling their VP the arrangements he made with you in closing your business loan. Enough to where I asked them to hold off on finalizing anything with you until I had a chance to speak with you.”
Miles, at a loss for words, could only say, “I don’t understand.”
The man sat back, his expression softening “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Miles nodded slowly. “No… I can’t say I do.”
“Hear my story, then you will.” The man leaned forward. My father and mother immigrated to America from South Korea more than thirty years ago when I was twelve years old. Unfortunately, a year later my father died suddenly, leaving my mother with little but three children to feed. She moved us here to Danville to be close to her sister and husband who owned a local dry-cleaning business so she could work for them.
“Me being the oldest of three, as soon as I learned the basic words of English, I roamed the streets of Danville every afternoon after school looking for odd jobs to help support my family. But because I only could speak broken English, most people shook me off. Until I came by your shop. You also told me you didn’t need any help, but you were so polite about it, I kept coming back every week asking for work.” He snickered. “I think it was my fifth trip in here before you finally let me start cleaning your stockroom and sweeping the sidewalk a few times a week for a couple of dollars.” He laughed. “I thought I was wealthy.”
Miles tapped his palm on the table and rolled his eyes. “You must be….”
The man answered for him. “Yes, I’m Kwan.”
Miles sat straighter. “Now I remember. How are you? The wife and I have talked about you many times wondering what happened to you. Once your family moved away, we had no way to stay in touch.”
“I’m fine, thanks to you and your wife nurturing me along during my early years in America.”
Miles waved his hand out. “Ah, we did very little. But I’m glad you’ve done well for yourself.”
“My after school odd job with you back then, eventually became a part time job where you let me help clean your restaurant, prep the food, and even grind the coffee beans with a hand grinder.” Looking back at the electric grinders, he chuckled. “I used to crank that hand grinder so hard, my hand hurt but I never told you.”
“You were always a fast learner and did more than expected of you.”
“Many afternoons when your shop closed, Ms. Lassiter helped me with my schoolwork and taught me more about the English language than I ever learned in school. And after I went to the local community college, she often packed a snack box for the weekend to take with me. I’m yet to find any cookies better than her homemade ones.”
“I remember, and after the community college, you went to….”
“The University of Virginia where I majored in business and finance. After college, I went to work for an established Wall Street brokage company. And after getting several promotions, I and a couple of associates opened our own company where we invested in real estate and other business ventures up and down the east coast.”
Miles nodded. “I always knew you would do well, Kwan. I’m glad for you.”
Kwan tilted his head, a half grin appearing. “Now to the real reason I’m here.”
Miles could only imagine. He gave a slight nod.
“I am a very successful man today because you and Ms. Lassiter took the time to give a young boy who could barely speak English a chance to work and learn. Without my part-time job working with you through high school and the local college, and your friendship nurturing me along the way, I would’ve never been driven to succeed. And because of that, I want to repay in some small way the gift you gave me.”
“You don’t owe us anything. Colleen and I are proud of you.”
“Yesterday, while at the bank tying up some real estate holdings I had acquired decades ago, I had escrowed enough money in a special account to pay off your business loan and to fund your rent and payroll expenses for the next full year. If after that time more is needed, I’m prepared to do so. Please accept this merely as a token of our friendship.” He gave a firm nod.
Miles wiped at a tear. “I don’t know what to say. I certainly wasn’t expecting this.”
“Before you say no, I want you to know I have accumulated a mass amount of wealth in my lifetime. I owe my success to the work ethics you instilled in me during my youth and Ms. Lassiter taking the time to help me excel through school. So now it’s my time to give back some of the generosity you showed a fourteen-year-old boy who barely spoke English three decades ago.
Miles could only shake his head. “I don’t know how I will ever be able to repay you.”
Kwan smiled. “Mr. Lassiter, let me give you the same advice you gave me when I went off to the University and I had told you I could never repay you and Ms. Lassiter for what you had done for me. You told me gifts aren’t given to be repaid, but if ever given the chance to pay them forward, to do so. I have lived by that principle all my life and today my chance to pay another gift forward has come full circle. The best gift I’ll receive this Christmas is knowing I have helped two friends out of a tough spot. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lassiter.” He smiled. “And you still make the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”
Once Patty and Darrell arrived to open the shop, Kwan said his goodbye and left, but promised to return. Miles slipped out and called Colleen to share the news with her. She agreed to come down later when they would jointly share with Patty and Darrell their plans to make them equal partners in the coffee shop the first of the year. It was their time to pay a gift forward.