By John Thomas Tuft

It is after midnight when he steps into the coffee shop. Those seeking coffee at this hour have no illusions that sleep is in the cards or that it would offer any balm even if it were. He places the pack of nicotine gum on the table beside his steaming cup and unzips his jacket. It falls open, revealing the sweatshirt beneath with the lettering: Die Healthy or Die Happy. The nicotine gum is his way of walking that line. “Can I get you anything else, Hon?” asks the waitress. He shakes his head, then calls to her as she walks away, “What planet is this, anyway?” She turns back, slowly blinks while digesting this, before saying, “What planet you looking for, Hon?” “I’m supposed to save the world.” There’s a fit of coughing before he can continue, “Is this the world?” She blinks again. “Who put that foolish notion in your head?” He asks again, “Is this the world? I’m supposed to save it.” The waitress looks around, seemingly distracted. “Save it from what?” He pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper and smooths it on the counter, squinting to make out faint penciling, tracing it with one grimy finger. “Humus.” She pulls a face. “I ain’t no fan of humus. You’re getting rid of humus? Let me see that!”

She takes it and snorts. “Humans. You’re supposed to save the world from humans, not hummus. Well, don’t that beat all! You sure it isn’t supposed to be for humans?” He is genuinely curious. “Did they do something to deserve it?” The waitress shrugs. “It’s ours, isn’t it? Why should we have to earn it?” He takes a long drink of the lukewarm coffee. “What part of the world is this?” She returns and pours more hot coffee into his cup. “McKeesport. Pennsylvania.” “So, I’m in the United States? Godda…you people get on my last nerve. Always looking at what’s trending, who’s getting more than you—of anything and everything!” He catches himself, sighs, “Sorry. Pay that no nevermind.” Sets down his mug, glances out the window at the darkness where moonshadows play across the waters of the Youghiogheny emptying into the Monongahela River. “Hello world!”

“Who might you be?” asks the waitress. “I’m Gracie.” His gaze is still on the waters as he answers, “Call me Gordon. I’m Gordon the Gatherer.” Gracie follows his gaze out the window, sees a tow pushing empty barges past Dravosburg along the far bank of the Mon. “So, humans need to save the world from…themselves?” he wonders aloud, letting the question hang there in the air while he searches in his pockets. Gordon the Gatherer pulls out a pipe and a red pouch of Gambler Kentucky Select while stuffing the gum back where it came from. “There’s no smoking in here,” admonishes a Methodist woman in a back booth. “Sue me,” retorts Gordon. “Gracie, tell me something. What if it were up to you?” Gracie chews on her pen. “What if what was up to me?” Gordon packs the bowl of the pipe with Kentucky Select and from another pocket takes out his genuine Czech Pipe Tool to tamp it down just so. “If you had to go out there and stand on the bank of that river and announce that you are here to save the world, what would you do?”

Gracie is not ready to answer such a challenge. “Would you like some eggs?” Gordon smiles as he turns back to face her. “Two, over easy. On a waffle, with bacon on the side. And do you have chocolate pie?” He takes his lighter and sucks the flame down into the bowl and soon the cherry scented smoke drifts across the counter. Methodist woman gets up and leaves in a huff. Gracie puts his order in and comes back. “Maybe we could put all the bad people in one place,” she says with some hesitation. “And then…then we…” She runs out of gas. Gordon nods sympathetically. “It always comes down to and then we…” He gives her a reassuring smile. “I had to gather the stars around Alpha Centauri once. It was like herding cats. Everyone wanted to be first, be the brightest, be the sexiest, get name recognition.” He waves a hand at the smoke. “What is going on here in the world?”

Gracie grabs his plate from the window and places it in front of Gordon. While he drowns it in syrup, she says, “Well, there’s sickness and disease, starvation and homeless folks. Rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Drugs and suicides. There’s wars going on that could get out of hand.” He stops. “Gracie, if there’s wars, something already got out of hand. What else? And what about the pie?” He points to the front of his shirt and smiles again. “Better make it to go.” While she cuts a generous slice and boxes it up, he continues. “What is everybody willing to give up? What will they let go of?” Gracie hands him his order as Gordon shovels the last piece of bacon into his mouth, then starts fiddling with his pipe again. “I don’t know,” she replies with a shrug, “but we sure could use help saving the world.”

“I tell you what, Gracie. If tomorrow you wake up and all those problems are solved, no hunger, no homeless, no needless death, everybody has what they need, and no wars, all the world over—everybody that is, except for in this country, the United States, would you take the deal? Or, let’s say, everybody else in the entire world is safe and saved, but for the folks here in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, would you take the deal?” He puts some money on the table, opens the pie box and inhales deeply. He zips up his jacket and clenches the pipe in his teeth as he says, “It’s up to you, Gracie. I’ll be back for your answer.” And with that, he marches to the door, opens it wide, turns and gives Gracie a small bow, before stepping out into the night with a merry bellow, “Hello world!”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.