What do you think of when you think of regret? Me, I think of a tall, spindly man with unwashed hair ducking his head meekly under the assault of another man’s verbal attack. I think of a little girl in footie pajamas padding sleepily into a bar bathroom.
The man came in after closing, while I was pushing the Kirby up under the sticky tables, where half-chewed cocktail straws mocked my attempts to keep the vacuum running long enough to get my side work done so I could go home.
I only noticed him because our bouncer, a thickset guy with thin, curly long hair blowing out in a halo around his head, started yelling at him.
“This is no place for a little girl,” said the bouncer, loudly enough that I heard it over the Kirby’s whine. I shut it off.
“What do you think you’re doing, coming in here like that with her?” said the bouncer.
The man, recipient of the bouncer’s speech, was tall and angular, and bent over under the weight of the little girl on his shoulder. She clung to him, and he bent his head into her, his back bowed over slightly, meek under the bouncer’s assault.
“I know,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”
“She needs to use the bathroom,” he said. The little girl stirred on his shoulder. He set her down. “Please.”
The little girl disentangled herself, and the dad pointed to the dimly lit ladies room, where sticky toilet seats and yellow stained floors awaited my sponge and mop later. I watched her go, fighting the urge to go in with her, watch over her, make sure no harm came to her.
Would that be weird? To go in after her? Probably. Probably the dad would think I was some sort of predator, preying on the weak and vulnerable. Still. I took a few steps toward the bathroom. I watched the door. I willed her to be okay. Willed her to come back out into her daddy’s arms. I prayed for a relatively pee-free floor for her little stockinged feet to walk on.
The bouncer was still talking, beating the man down for coming in after hours, for being the kind of father who let his little girl walk into a filthy bar bathroom in the middle of the night.
The man stood with his head down, quiet and meek. When the bouncer asked him to account for himself, he said his house had been foreclosed on. That they were sleeping in the car. That she needed to go to the bathroom and this was the closest place that was open. That they didn’t have enough gasoline to go looking for some place better. He was sorry. He was so sorry.
That’s one thing about him: He was sorry.
Here’s two things about me:
1. I had $60 in tips in my pocket.
2. I was sorry too.
The little girl came pattering out of the bathroom. She was wearing a tattered blue robe over her footie pajamas, and rubbing sleep out of her eyes. Her long hair was tangled. She found her dad immediately and stumbled into his arms, fitted herself snugly into his shoulder. He lifted her.
I watched them go. I watched them walk out of the bar. The bouncer said, “Next time think of your daughter first.”
I stood and watched them go.
I had $60 in my pocket and I watched him walk out alone with his little girl cradled in his arms like the precious treasure she is, like a prize he cherished more than all the world and yet knew he was ultimately powerless to protect.
In the years since, I have thought about that scene over and over. I have examined it from every angle, inside and out. I turn it over in my head and try to make sense of it. I wonder why I didn’t go after him. What was I afraid of? The bouncer’s condescension? Losing my crappy job? Looking ridiculous?
I don’t know, but I think I mostly didn’t believe I had the power to actually make a difference. I think I didn’t believe in my own softness and hardness enough to know that the bouncer was wrong and I was right.
I think of that man walking out that door and out of my life, and I imagine an alternate ending.
In the alternate ending, I run out the bar door after him. It locks behind me because the bar is closed now, and I don’t care. I go into the night.
I say, “Excuse me? Sir?”
He stops and turns toward me, his head down, anticipating some new insult to his battered dignity.
I say, “I’m sorry about the bouncer. He’s like that to everyone.”
The man nods. He looks up at me under his bangs, and a weary almost-smile appears on his lips. He’s relieved and grateful for the kind words.
I say, “I don’t know if it will help, and I’m sorry I can’t do more but… well, here. Just—you know, I hope it helps.”
In this alternate version of events, I hand him the $60 in my pocket. It’s all wadded up because I want to make it as small as possible, because I don’t know if the offer will be a further insult to his dignity and I want it to seem just as small and insignificant as it possibly can be. I’m a little embarrassed.
I lean in close to place it in his hand without making him let go of his daughter.
I don’t know what happens next in this alternate version.
Maybe his face lights up because he’s so grateful. Maybe his head ducks down because he’s so embarrassed. Maybe he doesn’t even look at me but says “thank you” and turns away. Maybe I stand and watch him wrestle open the dented backdoor of a burgundy sedan.
I don’t know if he uses the money to get a motel room for a couple nights, or to buy groceries, or to buy gas so they can travel to family in another state.
I don’t know what the bouncer says to me when I bang on the bar door, and come back in to finish my shift. I don’t know if maybe I get fired. I don’t know if the bouncer turns his taunts on me and I spend the rest of the night feeling foolish.
All I know is that in this alternate version, that tall bent-over man carries away a little cash and a lot of knowing that somebody cares what happens to him and his daughter.
Also in this version, the little girl has something too. She doesn’t understand it yet, but what she has is a vision. It’s a vision of light shining in darkness, of help coming when it is least expected. It’s a vision that may carry her through the days to come, even as her daddy’s arms carry her through the darkness of the night.
In this version, my pocket yields a sliver of hope and the night carries a shard of light and a father reclaims a moment of dignity. I don’t know much, but I know that it is an ending devoutly to be wished.