It was Sunday morning and I was on my way back home from the post office. I’d been trying to withdraw money from the ATM there, but I’d forgotten the PIN on the new card (a replacement for the one I’d just lost) and ended up accidentally locking my account. I was pissed.
I saw Anatoliy rolling on the sidewalk ahead. I didn’t really want to talk to him because my Ukrainian deteriorates when I am stressed, but he was on my only route home, moving slowly, as he always does.
Anatoliy is a handicapped man in his fifties or sixties. You can see him almost every day around the town center, selling coffee and tea in flimsy plastic cups. Sometimes he sells very sweet compote that his wife makes too.
Everybody knows Anatoliy because he is very friendly. For my first few months in Novoarkhanhelsk, he absolutely refused to let me pay him the couple of hreven for my coffee. His English is very limited, but he uses it to the best of his ability, experimentally throwing in English words and phrases when he can. He treats me not as a foreign curiosity, but as a friend, and always seems concerned about my well-being.
We said hello. Anatoliy smiled and asked if I wanted any coffee. I said I did. While he filled my little plastic cup, he asked me how I was doing. I complained about having lost my bank code, and lamented the disorganization of my mind. Anatoliy told me not to worry too much. It would work itself out.
I asked him how his family was doing. He paused for a moment, his countenance changed. He said a word I didn’t know. He searched for synonyms until he found one I knew- “bida”, trouble.
His son had died at the age of 37.
A little while ago, on my way to school, I’d come across a procession. There was a drone of mournful brass, men in suits carrying a coffin, women following, sobbing and moaning. Someone carried a plaque on a pole with the face of a man who was too young to die.
I told Anatoliy I thought I‘d seen his son’s funeral. Anatoliy shook his head- that was somebody else’s son. His son had died in the Donbass region.
He had no children, but he had a wife. He’d died of heart failure. At this point, I stopped understanding everything that Anatoliy said, but he kept talking about the way his son had been raised and shaking his head. He said something about alcohol. He repeated several times, “It just wasn’t right.” I concluded that he partly blamed himself for his son’s death, but I may have misunderstood completely.
I put my hand on Anatoliy’s thick coat and I told him that I did not know what to say or how to say it, but that my heart was with him. He thanked me and we were silent for a moment. He looked down the road like he was about to say goodbye.
I realized I had not paid Anatoliy for the coffee and I felt awkward. I counted the money in my pocket and mumbled something, trying to hand him the bills. Anatoliy looked at me sternly and shook his head. He would not accept the money. He asked me to drink the coffee in honor of his dead son.
Anatoliy said goodbye and started to roll across the street. It was one of the wider streets in Novoarkhanhelsk, two broad lanes. He was going towards the grocery store. I stayed on the sidewalk for a little while, watching him get to the other side, drinking the instant coffee in the plastic cup that he had given me.