“Sorry, we’re closed,” Jeremy said to the couple in the doorway. He was helping out the new busser, picking up the last of the dessert plates, coffee cups and other table debris from the street-side section. It was after 11, everyone was tired, but the middle-aged couple, both in long, rain-soaked overcoats, did not turn around and leave.
“We are here to see Xavier,” said the woman, whose hair was tied back in a pony tail at the base of her neck. So was the man’s.
Xavier was the new busboy, hired only yesterday. He was 17 or 18, very lean and athletic, with a poor grasp of English and an extremely shy demeanour. His eyes were dark and encircled with dark rings as if he didn’t sleep, which should have been off-putting, but instead made him look more vulnerable, and charming. Jeremy thought so, anyway.
At that moment Xavier himself appeared from behind the bar with two tall, iced glasses of club soda in his hands, and a shy smile on his face that froze when he saw the two people just inside the door to the restaurant.
Xavier approached them, and carefully set the two frosted glasses down on the table nearest Jeremy. “Thanks,” said Jeremy, who was so parched that he picked up a glass and downed all of the water, leaving the ice. When no one spoke, Jeremy, sensing that Xavier was uncomfortable for some reason, turned to the couple and said, “Sorry, but I do need to lock up. Maybe you could meet somewhere else, in a few minutes?”
They ignored him.
“Pray with me,” said the woman to Xavier, taking a step forward. What should have sounded like a benevolent invitation had all the warmth of an open threat. The temperature in the room seemed to drop 10 degrees.
Xavier took a step back. Jeremy wondered if the manager was still at the back of the house, but suspected she wasn’t. He wondered where his cell phone was. Maybe it was on the counter at the bar, near the cash register.
“You made a promise,” said the man. He had an almost comically deep voice, which should have reverberated around the room in a pleasant hum, but instead was sucked into the ground like a deadweight. Neither he nor the woman took their eyes off Xavier.
“Thank you for everything,” Xavier said, with more composure than Jeremy would have expected. “I have job, I am happy. Thank you.”
“We brought you here to do god’s work,” the man said. “There are young people who need you to testify, to witness how god changed your life.”
“We know where you are staying,” the woman said. Jeremy knew that Xavier had a temporary room at the YMCA, while he saved up enough for a downpayment on an apartment.
“We know what you have been doing,” the man continued. “If you have lost your way, Xavier, and want god’s forgiveness, come with us now. Otherwise…”
Xavier stood quietly, his hands at his sides, but from where Jeremy stood he could see Xavier’s left hand was trembling. For a moment, Jeremy didn’t see a tall, fit young man, but a small, weak child, being bullied at school and trying to not to break down, all the fear and pressure migrating to that one hand, which could not contain it.
Jeremy set the glass of ice on the table, and walked over to where Xavier was standing. He stood at Xavier’s side and faced the couple, who were as still as statues.
“Get out,” he said.
“Xavier is in trouble,” the woman said. “We won’t abandon him.”
“If you don’t abandon him right now, I will forcibly remove you, and I warn you that it will be unpleasant, and stain your clothing, and possibly leave permanent scars.”
The woman made one last attempt. “Xavier, they will come and take you away if you–”
“Get out!” Jeremy screamed, and lurched forward. He took the man’s arm and pushed him towards the exit, but the man pulled away and swung at Jeremy with a fist as big as a bowling ball.
Jeremy blocked the punch, struck the man in the throat with the side of his hand and kneed him in the groin, in one smooth gesture. He shoved the man out the door, where he crumpled to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been severed.
The woman screamed and followed him out, much to Jeremy’s relief, and he closed the door quickly and drew the bolts. He would key lock it and set the alarms later.
“Whoa,” said Xavier.
“I had to learn to protect myself,” Jeremy said. “What the fuck just happened?”
Xavier told him, in between gulps of water, and Jeremy said, “Well you can’t go back to your room at the ‘Y’. They know where you are and will have the authorities there by tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry,” Xavier said. “I had to, I mean I didn’t know–”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jeremy said with a sigh. “You can come sleep on my couch for tonight. I warn you, my dad is an old bigot, but you’ll be safe there.”
And that’s how Xavier met the old bigot, and one of the most unusual friendships in all the world began.