Eric walked through Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in his favorite t-shirt — blue with NAVY stamped on the front in gold block letters. Mid-morning and he was already sweating through the shirt. He wished it were a lighter color, gray or white.
“Thank you for your service,” a tourist said with a big smile on his face.
Eric nodded to the man and returned the smile. “You’re welcome.”
Eric liked coming to the Inner Harbor during the summer months. The tourists walked around slow and lazy, eating ice cream, sipping frozen coffees, looking at the historic ships: the USS Constellation, a wooden, square-rigged ship of the line; the USS Torsk, a World War II submarine; and the Lightship Chesapeake. At the far point stood the old Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse. The day must have felt twenty degrees cooler to the tourists.
At thirty-two, Eric was still fit. It was all the walking. He kept his hair short. He’d grown up in Baltimore.
“Thank you for your service,” he heard someone say.
He turned. “You’re welcome,” he said to an older couple.
Eric walked from one end of the Inner Harbor to the other over and over again until it was time for lunch. Yesterday, he ate at Five Guys. A burger, coke, and fries. Hooters was another place he liked, along with Jimmy John’s, which had good sandwiches, and Bubba Gump Shrimp House. McDonald’s had been a really good place until it closed. There was one not far from the Inner Harbor, but Eric stayed where the tourists were. He’d also learned to keep mostly to places that had counter service. Best to stand in line waiting with the tourists. Eating at bars was pretty good, but then someone would ask where he’d served and if he saw combat. Eric didn’t want to talk about that.
The line in Subway ran all the way to the door. Eric stood with his hands clasped behind his back, feet shoulder width apart, as everyone inched toward the counter. He had several dollar bills in his left pocket. A five, tightly folded, in that small pocket at his hip.
No one spoke to him.
He stayed in line.
The boys behind Eric began to fight. Their parents told them to knock it off. The boys started again. The man in front of Eric turned around, ignored the boys, and looked at Eric’s shirt.
“Thank you for your service.”
At the counter, Eric hesitated then decided to risk it. He ordered a whole sub with turkey and Swiss, mustard, lettuce, and tomato. He got a large soda. When Eric reached into his left pocket, the cashier told him that the man in front of him had already paid for his lunch.
Eric went outside and sat on a bench. He ate half the sub and wrapped up the other half. He always got mustard on his sandwiches, it kept longer than mayo. Eric sat there much of the afternoon, nodding to the tourists who thanked him for his service.
At four o’clock, he got up and began the walk he made every evening except Sundays.
Forty-five minutes later, he lined up outside the center.
Eric went straight to his locker, took off his Navy t-shirt, and put on an orange Orioles t-shirt. He examined the Navy shirt. He wore it so often it was already beginning to fray. He washed it too much, but he had to keep it clean. It won’t work if it isn’t clean, if he isn’t clean. He’d do laundry tomorrow. He had the half sub for tomorrow’s lunch.
In line again, Eric held out his plate. Lasagna, broccoli casserole, slices of Italian bread.
Eric sat at one of the long tables and bent over his food. Then he looked around at all the Orioles t-shirts and Ravens t-shirts and Maryland t-shirts sitting at the tables. He cleaned his plate with the bread and walked over to the room where a man sorted donated clothing.
“Any more of those Navy t-shirts?” Eric asked.
“We got some polo shirts in, really nice ones, and some Loyola t-shirts, hardly worn at all,” the man said and held out a shirt to him.
“That’s not the kind of shirt I need,” Eric said and walked away.
He went to the dessert table covered with small plates holding squares of strawberry shortcake.
“Take two if you like,” the woman behind the table said. “We ended up with extra desserts.”
The woman was dressed in a suit with an apron over it. Eric looked at all the men and women behind the serving tables and in the kitchen. They had probably been there all the months he’d been lining up for his breakfast and dinner. They’d probably been there long before his first meal at the center and would be there long after he was gone. Then he looked at all the men and women and children seated at the tables. No one was talking; they were only eating.
Eric turned back to the woman. “Thank you for your service,” he said.
The woman tilted her head. It took a moment for the smile to spread across her face.
“You are very welcome.”
Nancy S. Hoffmann is a writer and horse farmer living in Maryland.