Petrolandia – Eli the Prophet
“Who’s that guy?” I asked, looking over at Sandor, who was staying an extra couple hours doing an inventory count behind the cooler. He’d pop up front every now and again to warm up. We’d talk books and drink coffee for a bit and then he’d go back to it and I’d go back to writing, but then…
“Oh, that’s Eli,” Sandor said, waving a dismissive hand as if he were doing the Jedi mind trick. “Don’t worry about him. He comes and goes.”
Eli looked like a heroin addict – a withered shell of a man coated in dirt, his beard a bristling graying nest, pale eyes shining but surprisingly clear. I’d seen him a couple of times and, worried about the cigarettes, had kept an eye on him. He kept a respectful distance outside the store.
Tonight, though, he came in.
“Hey, Eli,” Sandor said, smiling. “How’s it going?”
“Goes alright,” Eli answered. He looked around, sized me up and smiled. His words were crisp, his posture strong. “Breaking in the new kid?”
“Yeah,” Sandor said, then gestured towards the counter. “Coffee’s fresh. Kid made it.”
“Thanks,” Eli said, helping himself. He grabbed a sandwich and paid for it with exact change, settled in to eat and watched me. “I know you from somewhere.”
“He’s local,” Sandor said. “Lives across the street.”
“No, no, not from here.” Eli frowned while chewing. “You travel much?”
I told him that I’d been around a bit. Eli ate slow, savoring the food.
“Israel,” he said, finally. “I know you from Jerusalem. You remember the guy with the bomb that wanted to use the bathroom?”
I felt my eyes widen, which is a weird thing to feel.
I’d been in Jerusalem at the end of my teens. After a weird day where some of the people I was with mistook the Western Wall for a pub, we’d stumbled into a hostel where we could, at least, get a drink. A sketchy looking bald man had walked in, asking to use the bathroom, and the bodybuilder behind the counter had looked up from his newspaper to listen.
“I need to use your bomb,” the sketchy man said, then snapped “no bomb! Bathroom! I need to use your bathroom!”
“Get out,” the bodybuilder had said.
“But I need to use your bomb! No! No bomb! Bathroom! No bomb!”
The bodybuilder had sighed and stood up. The sketchy man cringed and shrank down as the bodybuilder loomed over him.
“Look, it’s gonna be okay, man,” the bodybuilder said. “Let me get you a cup of tea. We can sit and talk for a few minutes. If you still need to use the bathroom then, I won’t stop you, okay?”
The sketchy man was wild-eyed and twitched, but the bodybuilder’s soothing voice lulled him over to a table. The bodybuilder spoke broken Arabic for a few minutes. The sketchy man handed the bodybuilder something that looked like a cell phone, then unstrapped a thick belt from under his shirt and handed that to the bodybuilder.
He did use the bathroom.
And then he left.
The bodybuilder took both the belt and the remote control behind the desk, used the phone to call someone. Soldiers showed up a few minutes later and collected the things, putting them in a box. The bodybuilder went back to reading his newspaper.
A half hour later, the hostel down the street exploded.
“You were staying at that hostel?” I asked.
“Working there,” Eli said, then shrugged. “I used to be bigger.”
And it clicked – the easy smile and eyes that had seen too much, the strong posture and soothing voice. This man was what remained of the bodybuilder that had saved the lives of everyone in that hostel with nothing more than kind words and a cup of tea.
“Jesus, man, what happened to you?”
“My work visa expired,” Eli said. “I had to come home, and… well…” He trailed off, looking at Sandor.
“We’ll get to that,” Eli said. He sounded so certain. “In the meantime, you cool if I read the newspaper?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” I said. “And help yourself to as much coffee as you want.”
“Cool,” Eli nodded, taking his coffee over to the newspaper stack and flipping through news, politics, and comics before leaving.
“Is the coffee thing okay?” I asked, turning to Sandor.
“We all give him free coffee,” Sandor shrugged. “Eli’s one of the good ones, and you’ll miss him when he’s gone.”
During the next four years he would be there almost every night.
I would miss him when he wasn’t.