Thurman appeared to me on a Tuesday, in a wall tile of my newly renovated bathroom.
It was a little after six P.M. and I was drawing a hot bath. I perched on the edge of the tub and waited for the water to reach that perfect temperature. I was tired. Worn out. Exhausted.
My day had started just like any other day. Alarm at five A.M. got dressed in the dark, scurried out the door by five-thirty-five to open the cafe by six. There were so many times I wondered why I subjected myself to it, day in and day out.
It was busy. Busier than normal for a Tuesday; maybe even busier than most of the previous Tuesdays after Labor day. Back to school day.
On back to school day, you could always expect a big crowd. You’d get your normal working-class patrons, usually from around seven A.M. and slowing near nine. But mixed in, and extending until about noon, you had your carpool moms and dads. Some stopped in on their way; coffee and chocolate milk, the standard order. But, most filtered in after drop-off, sans kiddos. That was the fun group.
They were the ones that would tell stories. Funny stories. Exciting stories about their little one’s accomplishments. Even somber stories, with tears shed over the battles of growing up, frustrated that they themselves could not step in and fight the fight on behalf of their kids.
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to countless back-to-school tales throughout the years. Though, I think the one Thurman told me in my bathroom that day was the most intriguing.
The air in the room swirled with soothing warmth. A thick stream of water spilled and splashed into the tub from a brushed-nickel faucet. I dipped my feet in as it filled. It felt good after the long day. A powder-blue bath bomb rolled around in the palm of my hand as I stared mindlessly at the newly tiled wall.
A pattern in one of the squares caught my eye. I looked at it, fixedly. The bath bomb plopped into the water and began to fizz, frothing into a milky-white foam. Lavender, mixed with the slightest trace of sandalwood, wafted to my nose.
I continued to intently stare at the wall. So entranced that my eyes began to burn. I refused to blink for fear I’d lose sight of him. Didn’t even break the gaze as I cut the flow from the faucet and slipped into the sudsy water to feel that gentle assuage I’d been aching for.
Directly across from me were two shaded spots, slightly cocked to one side, which I perceived as unassuming eyes. I saw a button pug-nose, a sloping, rather pronounced bald forehead and a swoosh that formed a mouth with what appeared to be two spikey teeth on either side. The angle of the mouth made him look a bit perplexed. I could tell something was troubling him.
I closed my eyes for a long second and reopened them to see if the face remained discernible. Not only was it still there, but it now appeared animated.
He introduced himself as Thurman. I replied congenially, somewhat flabbergasted, but nonetheless welcomed him to my home. He thanked me. I complimented him on having such good manners for a young man. He chortled.
He told me he was an ogre, from a swamp three kilometers into the grey-ash forest of Starryshade. I was not familiar with the area, but he went on to describe it in such vivid detail that I felt like I had known it all my life. For a minute, it seemed as though pride scrubbed the disconcerting look from his adorably chubby face.
I asked if Starryshade schools started back today, like the schools in my world. His look washed and once again a heavy weight seemed to dominate. I inquired, tenderly. He said the schools in Starryshade had already been in session for a week now.
“Well, that must make for an early start to summer next year?” I replied, trying to make light.
He smiled. “Yes, ma’am. We usually finish the year in late May, just before the first fireflies and well before the dragonfly season, that’s for sure.”
“So then, what’s troubling you, Thurman. I’m a barista. I can spot a troubled mind from a mile away.” I smiled tenderly, inviting.
“It’s Billy, ma’am.”
“Billy? Is there something wrong with Billy?” I asked.
“Well, for starters, he’s a human. No offense ma’am.”
“None taken.” My heart warmed with his sincerity as I fought back a giggle.
“Billy was adopted by the Mallowbursts, they don’t have any ogre kids of their own.”
“Well, that was nice of them to take Billy in. So what is the issue?”
“You see, ma’am, Billy is the only human in our school. For that matter, Billy is the only human in Starryshade.”
“Ahh. And you think that may cause problems?” I asked.
“Indeed ma’am. It already has. Most of the kids make fun of him. His pale skin and funny head full of hair. He doesn’t even like to eat worms ma’am, says they are gross… Gross!” he repeated. “You ask me, his minty fresh breath is what’s gross.”
He was shaking his head slowly and brought two fingers up to pinch the crease in his wrinkled-up nose.
“And is that how you feel about Billy?” I asked.
“No way! Gosh, ma’am, he is so neat, minty breath aside. Fast and tall. We could really use him on the basketball team. We’ve lost to Slimewood Elementary three years running.”
I could see the spark of enthusiasm.
“Have you asked Billy to be your friend?”
“No, ma’am.” His voice lowered.
“Right, minty fresh breath,” I said sarcastically.
“That’s not it.” He didn’t pick up on the chide. “It’s just... if I am friends with him,” he paused for a moment, “then the other kids will pick on me too.”
“I see. And now I know why you were so perplexed when I first saw you, Thurman,” I said.
There was a brief bit of contemplative silence.
“When I was your age,” I continued, “my fifth grade teacher read a quote which has stuck with me all these years. I like to think it’s what propelled me to open my own cafe where I get to interact with all sorts of people; each with troubles no different than yours, or mine.”
“Can you tell me the quote ma’am?”
“Of course, Thurman. It’s a quote from Alert Einstein and it goes: The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
I watched as a look on enlightenment lit up his face.
“Maybe,” he said enthusiastically, “I could ask Billy to try out for the basketball team. The other kids will see him the way I do and I just know we will beat those fresh-breathed selohssas at Slimewood. Pardon my language, ma’am”
Just then, my phone buzzed, rattling against the ceramic floor just below me. I turned from Thurman to glance down at it. A text from the manager I had hired to help at the store:
Just closed up. Record-breaking back-to-school day. See you in the AM...
I turned back to him to apologize for the interruption. Thurman had already left. The swoosh of his mouth appeared to have the slightest little uptick after each fang.
No longer perplexed.