He heard a voice - from somewhere above that cracked cement ceiling where he imagined heaven to be - somewhere above a small bus station in a small town. Whoever spoke must have given him a thumbs-up, because he returned it in kind, and his walking took on a rhythm of banter as he continued with a nod, speaking a couple of smiling rhyming words that meant that it was all right - it was all good. Beside him walked a large yellow dog, who was anything but pretty, and who didn't feel the need to greet the passers-by. After all, there would be kindness when he needed it, a couple of scraps thrown here and there, and a garbage can later, if the janitor left early, which he usually did. It was all good.
"Hey Father." The coffee lady talked without looking up. She called the man "Father" because he seemed to have an unending conversation with God and this morning, like every morning, she handed him a cup of coffee- the free kind that came from the bottom of the pot. He savored the brew that was thick and bitter, despite five sugars and a splash of milk, and accepted an offering of yesterday's sweet roll and butter, which he wrapped in a napkin for later.
On this particular morning, it happened again. The man shook his head, shrugging up to the place where the voice had come from, as he stopped to pick up a small hat. Dusting it off on a grimy sleeve, he went after her - a small, frail woman who was rushing ahead. This wasn't the first time.
"Lady - lady." He didn't know her name, although he had seen her quite often. She would board the bus almost every day, her lined face aglow with anticipation, and would return with an emptiness that took that light away. Today, she stopped only when he touched her shoulder, and she was startled for just a moment, taking the hat and putting it on crooked, as she always did. The man reached out briefly, but pulled his hand back, squeezing his eyes shut and resisting the impulse that he always had, to straighten the hat and make everything right. Mumbling a thank you with a sad, tulip-shaped smile, she was off again, making her way hastily through the bus station's revolving door and into the night.
"I'm not sure about that one." He spoke to the dog who didn't look up, but kept pace with the man, walking back to a pile of rags in the corner that they called home. The man was thoughtful, stroking the dog's head as he formulated his thoughts. "No sir, I'm just not sure." The dog listened, eyes drooping and finally closing, his body curling a little tighter. The dog, being a dog, slept without care.
The dog's ears perked up - something was about to happen. It was early morning and the sounds and the smells of the day had just begun. The coffee lady had already visited, early before the bustle began, leaving a day-old Danish with icing that had turned to crystal and crunched between the man's teeth. The dog was luckier and had some bacon that was wrapped in a napkin - the lady smiled at the him as he had wagged lazily from his sleep.
But it was unmistakable - today was going to be different, and, with a quick nod at the ceiling, the man was off.
"Lady - lady." The man's gait was a little faster than usual and the dog had to trot to keep up. She had gotten away - tottering on her best high heels and fall hat - adorned in the purples and oranges of autumn - and she climbed onto the bus, holding her hat against the whoosh of warm air as the doors slid open.
So, they waited, and as the colors of the day passed, a man stroked a dog's head and explained that he would have to go - just for awhile. She was alone, and that wasn't right. As the sky tumbled in grey and blue and a new moon arose, a lady got off a bus, holding her hat against a northeast wind and looking small and sad. The bus bowed away quietly and paused at the scene, crying out in a shrill whine as it pulled away.
And on that same platform, in a bus station in some small town, a man raised a hand to straighten a hat and made it all right. He spoke to a woman who first looked at him, and then at a dog that was anything but pretty. And as the final night fell, a man looked up at a cracked cement ceiling, keeping his eyes on heaven as a woman and a dog walked home.