The knocking woke me from a deep sleep. I glanced at the bedside clock. Three AM. I stumbled to the front door and looked out. An apparition was half turned, smoking a cigarette. I could tell it was a guy. He made furtive eye contact with me. I flipped on the porch light illuminating a man dressed in worn camouflage. My friend Lenny. He looked at me, crushed out the butt, and put it in his jacket pocket. Something was in his hand.
Half asleep but still glad to see him, I opened the door. “Hey there, buddy,” I greeted him. “It’s been a while.”
“Hi, Nick, he smiled shyly. “Yeah, I’ve been busy.” He paused and looked over his shoulder into the darkness. God only knew what he was looking at. After a moment he turned to me as if wanting to forget it and just move on. “Here,” he said, “I made this for you.” He handed me a case with a compact disc in it.
Texas Fried Blues the label read. I was touched. “Hey, man, I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.”
“It’s got some kick-ass stuff. I think you’ll like it.”
Lenny was a veteran. He had trouble sleeping most nights so he made mixed music CDs and gave them away to his friends.
I couldn’t help myself and inadvertently glanced at the clock. I had to get up by six and go to work. “I’ll play it this weekend.”
He grimaced, unable to hide his disappointment. “Really? I was thinking maybe we could listen to it tonight. Together.”
I looked at him, tall and thin and burned out. Long oily hair, scraggly beard, and haunted eyes sunk deep in their sockets. Stale sweat emanated from his ragged clothes. My heart went out to him.
“Good idea. Let’s do that.”
I gently took his skinny arm, led him to the couch, and sat him down. I went to the kitchen, started a pot of coffee, and then joined him, sitting side by side, legs nearly touching. I took the CD cover in my hand and read the song titles, stunned almost speechless by his caring nature.
“These look great,” I told him and watched his face light up. I leaned over and put the disc in the player, pushed play, and said, “Let’s have a listen.”
Old-time blues from the deep south filled the room. Howin’ Wolf wailing “Smokestack Lightning.”
I looked at Lenny and saw his face relaxing ever so slightly. “This music is great,” I told him. The beat was infectious, the guitar blistering hot. “Thank you.” I patted him on the knee and added, “I’m really glad you came.”
He patted my hand in return, a gesture so simple, yet so profound it almost brought tears to my eyes. “Yeah,” he said, “Me too.”
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee drifted into the room. I went into the kitchen, poured a couple of mugs, and brought them back. I gave Lenny his just as the song ended. He took a grateful sip. “Wait until you hear this next one,” he said. “It’s Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Penitentiary Blues’.”
“One of my favorites,” I said, grinning. We clinked our mugs in solidarity.
Lenny smiled, now completely relaxed. “I know.”
We listened to the CD over and over for the rest of the night, talking about music, women, fishing, and the cabin up north he wanted to build. But not the war. That’s one thing with Lenny, he never wanted to talk about the war.
Finally, in the early morning, he lay on his side and immediately fell asleep. I found a blanket and covered him, tucking in the sides. Then I flipped off the light, sat next to him, and played the CD again, turning it down low. I stayed there until the sun came up, keeping him company while he slept as the music played on. There was no other place I’d rather have been. In fact, I never did make it to work that day. I didn’t mind at all.