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The Encounter

Michael Crawley - Monday, August 01, 2016

Kenneth Patterson was desperately late. Everything had gone wrong this morning, and unfortunately, this was one of the most important days of his career. Even the cab he’d taken had broken down. Now there were just minutes to get to the meeting that could secure his future. As he rushed for one of the six elevators in this huge ancient building, he told his wife on the phone that he thought he could just make it in time to see his potential client.

He was wrong.

He was still talking to his wife when the elevator door opened. Stepping inside he saw there was only one other person, a young man. Kenneth pushed the button for his floor and looked at his Rolex. He knew his phone was almost dead. He’d forgotten to charge it, and now it was just one more issue that was testing him on this day. He glanced at the other person and realized that there was something different about him. Kenneth impatiently looked at the panel display. For some reason the door hadn’t closed.

“My battery is almost dead, so I’ll call you when I get back to the office…It’s kind of strange, but the lobby is deserted, I guess because I’m so late. There’s just one guy on the elevator.” Kenneth quickly looked at the man and then turned his back to him and whispered into his phone, “But there is something wrong with him.”…Then in a normal tone of voice, “If the meeting goes well, I’ll take you out to celebrate tonight.” Kenneth set his brief case down, took another look at his watch and pushed the button for his floor again. Finally the elevator door closed. He could feel the upward movement. “I’ve got to go. Just remember that tomorrow we need to…hello, hello?” His phone was dead.

Kenneth sighed and mumbled, “That’s just perfect.”  He took a deep breath, adjusted his tie and turned around and faced the young man who stood smiling. Suddenly there was jerking motion, and the elevator lurched to a stop between floors.

Kenneth froze for a moment and then growled, “OH NO! No, no no. This can’t be happening.”

The young man helpfully spoke up. “We’re not moving.”

Kenneth fixed the man with a hard look. “No kidding.”

The man smiled again. “No, I’m not kidding. We really are stuck.”

Kenneth realized that his sarcasm had missed the mark. He quickly checked the control panel. Because of the age of the elevator there was no intercom or way to signal for help. They were stranded. He looked at his watch again.

“It happened to me once before. I had to be rescued. It was exciting.” The man extended his right hand. “My name is Brandon Ford. What’s yours?”

Kenneth reluctantly shook his hand. “Kenneth Patterson.”

“You’re all dressed up. I don’t wear a tie very often, but when I do I like the clip on kind.” Brandon’s smile faded slightly. “Why did you think there was something wrong with me, Mr. Patterson? I’m okay. I just have Down syndrome.”

Kenneth could feel the redness spreading over his face. This was like a nightmare he couldn’t escape. “Yeah, okay…sorry.”

The smile returned. “Don’t worry about it.”

Kenneth anxiously checked his watch. “You said this has happened before. How long were you trapped?”

“I don’t know for sure. I don’t have a watch, but you have a nice watch – and you look at it a lot.”

“Time is important.” Kenneth was in no mood to be criticized by a stranger. “Can you at least remember if it was just a few minutes or did it take a while?”

Brandon shook his head, “Sorry, but it took a real long time. This is an old building. Why don’t we just sit down and make the best of it? However long it takes is how long it takes.” Kenneth ignored him as he stared intently at the devise on his wrist that ruled his every waking moment.

“I tell time with the watches that show numbers.” Brandon explained as he rubbed the palms of his hands together. “I don’t like the kind with the arms that move around.”

Kenneth’s frustration was building. It had taken weeks to schedule a meeting with this potential client, and now in a matter of minutes all that work would be for nothing. He finally looked up as Brandon, in tan slacks and a gray polo shirt, slowly slid down the wall to the floor. Kenneth had no intention of joining him and wrinkling a suit that he was certain cost more than his companion’s entire wardrobe. Looking closer, he noticed the Velcro straps on the young man’s sneakers, and it dawned on him that in all likelihood this person could not tie shoelaces.

Brandon looked at him with a quizzical expression, “Do you always get mad when things don’t work out? Doesn’t it make you feel tired?”

“Look, you don’t understand. You have no idea how important this meeting is. I have every right to be upset. My company has a small fortune riding on it.” Kenneth rubbed his forehead and tried to think.

“You look tired Mr. Patterson.”

“I’m not tired!” Instantly Kenneth regretted barking at the young man. The truth was he felt exhausted. Here he stood in a small enclosed space with a man with a developmental disability who did not seem bothered at all by their circumstance while his world was imploding. Kenneth’s sense of despair was increasing as he ran out of time - but suddenly, out of the blue, the obvious occurred to him. “Did you say your name was Brady?”

Brandon.”

“Right.” Hoping against hope he politely asked, “Brandon, do you have a cell phone I can use?”

“Nope!” Brandon watched Kenneth’s shoulders slump. “I like talking face to face. Like we’re doing now.”

“Yeah, this is great.”

“I know! Last time I was by myself, but now I’m lucky that you’re here.”

Kenneth had known it was a long shot to ask someone for their cell phone when they didn’t even wear a watch, but he had to try. For just a few moments he closed his eyes as the full weight of the disaster settled on him. His business partners flashed through his mind. They were not going to want to hear his excuses for why he missed the most important meeting of the year. He thought about the money they would all lose by not landing this contract and how everyone would believe that he had let them down. He knew his wife would be sympathetic, but she would also be disappointed. He opened his eyes, and Brandon waved to him.

“You went away for a minute.” Brandon cocked his head and said, “When I close my eyes it’s because I don’t want to see something happening around me. Is it the same for you?”

Kenneth sighed deeply. “Something like that.”

Eventually there comes a point in difficult situations when an individual realizes that defeat is evitable. At that moment frustration and anger morph into resignation and acceptance. Kenneth had reached that point. He knew he was beat. He looked at his watch one last time. The meeting was about to begin, and he was not there to represent his company. He couldn’t even call and apologize. This was a tremendous financial setback for all of the people whose hopes had been riding on him.

Brandon broke his train of thought. “I’m sorry you missed your meeting.”

Kenneth looked at his partner, who at this point seemed like his cell mate. For the first time he weakly smiled at the young man. “Thank you. I’m sorry I’ve been rude. I’m just preoccupied.”

They waited in silence for several minutes and then Brandon spoke up. “Let’s talk about something. It’ll make the time go by.” He rubbed the palms of hands together in anticipation.

Although he knew the young man meant well, Kenneth’s disappointment was weighing on him, and he did not feel like engaging in conversation. “I’m not much of a talker.”

Brandon cocked his head again. “You know it’s funny. People say they aren’t talkers, but usually it means they don’t want to listen to the other person.”

The observation hit a nerve, and Kenneth grimaced. The truth was that he loved the sound of his own voice, and he doubted that his companion could hold his interest. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I’m a good listener. I’ll listen to anything you want to talk about.” Brandon waited for Kenneth to respond, but there was only silence, so he continued. “Do you like movies? I love movies. I like going to the theater, and I like watching them on DVDs. Westerns are my favorite, but they don’t make as many of them as they used to. I got to ride a horse one time. It was scary, but fun. Have you ever been on a horse?”

Brandon paused for several seconds. When Kenneth did not answer he plunged ahead.

“That same day a horse ate an apple right out of my hand. It was on a farm. They had chickens and cows and even pigs. I liked the pigs the best, but they smelled bad. They let me ride on a tractor too, but they wouldn’t let me drive it. They had a really big barn, and we got to climb around in the hay, but it really itches. They had a pond, and we got to fish, but I didn’t like sticking the worm on the hook.”

Brandon paused for Kenneth’s response to such riveting details, but there was no reaction, so he kept going.

“The farm was fun, but I like living in the city. There’s more to do in town.” Brandon thought for second. “Like bowling! I love to bowl. It’s like the perfect sport of all time. When you bowl you get to wear these great shoes. Yep, living in town is better. I like being around people, and I want to live where there are malls and movies and restaurants. My favorite food is pizza. Pepperoni is the best. I could eat it every day, and I like it with root beer. What’s your favorite food, Mr. Patterson?”

Six elevators, and he had to pick this one. Kenneth’s doubt about the young man was correct. These random topics were not the least bit interesting, and he hoped they would soon be liberated so he wouldn’t have to continue listening to him. Unfortunately, this time Brandon appeared to be willing to wait for an answer to his food question.

“Look, I’m sorry. I just have a major problem I’m trying to deal with.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re just having a bad day, but I am having a good day.”

Deciding to try and keep his mind off of the unfolding disaster he was living through, Kenneth reluctantly responded with what little enthusiasm he could muster. “So why is this a good day for you?”

Kenneth didn’t think it was possible for Brandon to smile any bigger than he already had, but he managed. “Well, today is Thursday, and this weekend I get to see my two nieces. They are so much fun, and I love them. They are my sister’s children. I have one older sister – but no brothers.”  

Without any real interest, Kenneth asked, “What are the names of your nieces?”

“Charlotte is the oldest, and she is nine. Then Sophia is next because she’s younger. She is only seven. And do you know what that means?” He asked excitedly as he rubbed his palms together. “It means I am their uncle!” The expression of pride that swept over Brandon’s face was something that Kenneth had not seen in a long time, and it actually made him feel temporarily good to see such happiness.

As he took a moment to study Brandon’s face, he recognized the distinctive facial features of Down syndrome, which seemed to fade when Brandon smiled. Kenneth had noticed the young man’s thick glasses when he first stepped in the elevator, but now he saw the hearing aid in each ear, and he began to wonder just who this person was. “You must work in this building, since you’ve been trapped in an elevator before.”

“That’s right. I was going up to my job to clock in when we got stuck. I work in the restaurant. I bus the tables, and I help keep the salad bar stocked. Have you ever eaten there?” 

“No. I’ve never been in this building before.”

“I’ve been working there for three years. Most of the customers are nice to me.”

“Most?” Kenneth asked.

“Yeah, but sometimes people come in and look at me like you did when you got on the elevator.” Kenneth turned his head so the young man wouldn’t see his embarrassment. “I guess they think something is wrong with me too. One time a man and a woman refused to eat there because of me, and my boss told them to get out and never come back. I was sorry it happened, but I was proud of him for sticking up for me.” Brandon’s voice took on a firm tone. “People need to stick up for each other. It’s important not to hurt someone. Those people made me feel bad, but then my boss made me feel good.”

Kenneth turned back to his companion just as Brandon asked, “Do you stick up for people, Mr. Patterson?”

“Of course I do.” However, Kenneth knew that was a lie. He rarely thought about anyone but himself. He was always too preoccupied with his own success to get bogged down in other people’s problems. And on a day as important to him as this one, people were just nuisances, obstacles to be avoided at all cost.

“I do a good job at the restaurant, and a few months ago I got a raise. But I never spend my paycheck. I save all of the money I make.”

Kenneth frowned. “Don’t you spend at least some of it? Aren’t there things you would like to buy, like maybe a watch?”

“Nope. I save it all.”

“Okay, then what are you saving it for?” Kenneth thought the question was innocent enough. He was just struggling to be polite and to keep his mind off of their situation.

But he was surprised when, for the first time, Brandon’s expression grew very serious. “It’s private. I’ve only told one other person and that is Jay. He is a maintenance man in this building. But if you promise not to say it to anyone, I’ll tell you.”

Kenneth was confused. No one loved money more than he did. He spent almost every day accumulating as much of it as possible. Today’s meeting could have been a financial windfall for him, but now he was stuck in an elevator having a pointless conversation with someone he never would have spoken to in the outside world. On top of that, he thought the young man’s answer was dishonest. No one saved every penny.

“All right, I won’t tell anyone. So what are you saving your money for?”

There was a long pause and then Brandon’s face began to wrinkle with emotion. “I’m going to give it to my sister, Amelia.” As Kenneth watched, Brandon’s eyes turned bright red. There was a slight hesitation and then he softly said, “She has cancer, and the doctors cost too much money. I want to help her.” Kenneth was momentarily stunned. Completely caught off guard, he didn’t know what to say. “Remember, you promised it would be a secret.” The pleading in Brandon’s voice showed how important it was that he could trust this stranger.

“I won’t say a word.” Kenneth studied the young man’s face for a moment and gently said, “I’m very sorry.”

Brandon shook his head. “Why does medicine and hospital stuff cost so much? It’s not right. When people are sick we should take care of them, and that’s all. I want that cancer to go away. Charlotte and Sophia need their mother.” As his voice trailed off he whispered, “I need my sister.”

Kenneth slowly took off his jacket and wearily sat down on the floor across from Brandon. The immaculate condition of his expensive suit suddenly didn’t seem quite so important. “You’re right. When someone is sick, making them well is all that should matter.”

“Sometimes I don’t understand why things are the way they are.” Brandon rubbed his palms together. “Does that ever happen to you, Mr. Patterson?”

Without hesitation Kenneth answered, “Absolutely.”

“This is the second time Amelia has had cancer. She had it when we were kids. She went to St Jude, and they fixed it. That hospital is in Memphis. That is where Elvis lived. Do you like Elvis?”

Kenneth smiled. He hadn’t thought about Elvis Presley in years.

“He was the king of rock and roll. I like some rock music, but sometimes it has bad words in it. Do you like music?”

Kenneth nodded. For many years it had been important in his life, but these days he rarely had time for entertainment. His waking moments were dedicated to his career. But as he thought about it, he realized he did miss the pleasure he had once found in music.

Brandon continued, “I love Elvis - and Harry Potter! I love Harry Potter so much! He is a boy wizard. Amelia took me to every Harry Potter movie, and there are a lot of them. Did you know that the lady that wrote the Harry Potter books helps kids in orphanages go back to their homes? Amelia told me all about her.”

“Yes. Her name is J.K. Rowling, and she has an organization that helps children.”

“I like it when important people help regular people.” Brandon paused for a few moments. “I wish someone famous could help Amelia. The doctors say the cancer is really bad, and they don’t know if they can fix it. My mom and dad are really scared. I heard my mom say that she didn’t think she could go on if something happened to Amelia.” At that point Brandon ran out of words to describe his family’s pain.

Kenneth thought about the young man’s parents. They had raised a son with a developmental disability as well as a daughter who battled cancer. He wondered how they did it. Where did they find the strength and courage to face so many challenges? Kenneth and his wife did not have children, and it was something he regretted if he allowed himself to dwell on it.

For the next few minutes they sat in silence, each lost in his own thoughts and concerns. However, Kenneth now realized that the burdens he was carrying were slight compared to what his companion was dealing with. The fact that he had become so upset over a business meeting made him feel foolish now that knew he was sitting face to face with a person who might lose someone they loved.

Finally Kenneth broke the silence. “Tell me about your nieces.” He hoped that would lighten things up.

It did.

Brandon immediately brightened, “Okay! Well let’s see, Charlotte has yellow colored hair just like me, but Sophia has dark straight hair. They don’t look like each other at all, but they are both funny and sweet. They used to play with dolls and stuff, but now Sophia loves to ride her bike, and Charlotte is really good at roller skating. It’s hard to keep up with them, but I try. They are learning how to cook and they are always asking me questions about the restaurant where I work. The last time we were together we baked cookies, and they were really good. Do you like chocolate chip cookies, Mr. Patterson?”

“Yes I do.”

“When my nieces were little I would do tricks for them and make them laugh. But now that Charlotte is older, I like it when we sit together on the couch, and she reads to me. She is a really good reader.”

Kenneth was struck by the contradiction of the man in front of him who could not read at a nine year old level, could not tell time with an analog watch and in all likelihood could not tie his shoes - yet he seemed to possess a kind of wisdom that was both innocent and profound.

“How old are you, Brandon? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I’m twenty-six years old, because I was born in 1990. How old are you?”

“I’m forty-one.”

“You look a lot older.”

“Thanks.” On this particular morning Kenneth felt old.

“Well, like I said, you seem tired. Maybe you need a vacation from your life.”

Kenneth smiled again. “That would be nice, but it’s not going to happen. I don’t have the luxury of time.” He knew that just the fallout from missing the meeting today would occupy him for weeks, let alone having to deal with all the other pressures he was facing. “Time is valuable because we don’t have enough of it.”

“You’ve got time right now.”

Kenneth couldn’t help but chuckle. The young man was right. Unfortunately, he had spent most of the last forty minutes being angry and feeling sorry for himself. And even though they apparently still had time to fill, he was lost without a phone or computer. It seemed almost impossible to function without the technology that drove his life. He wondered how long it had been since he sat with another person and had a civil conversation that didn’t revolve around work or money or getting ahead. It seemed like it had been ages.

“You’re right, Mr. Patterson.” Brandon said as he rubbed his palms together. “I never thought about it, but time is important. I try to spend as much time as I can with my sister.” He smiled again. “She says I’m her ‘Sunshine’. Even when the cancer hurts really bad, she is always happy to see me. She wants to hear about my job and what’s going on in my life. She tells me that she is proud of me, but I think I am more proud of her. When the hospital medicine made her hair come out she thought she looked funny, so I got all of mine cut off too so we would look the same and people could tell we were related.”

As Kenneth watched his companion talk lovingly about his sister, he felt a lump in his throat, and he no longer regretted that he had picked this elevator.

“When we were growing up she would do anything to make me laugh. We had so much fun. She still tries to laugh as much as she can, but it’s not easy being sick for so long. Amelia is the bravest person I know. That’s why she’s my hero. There is nothing I’d rather do than be with my sister. Sometimes we don’t even talk, we just sit and hold hands.”

Kenneth was deeply touched by Brandon’s willingness to talk so openly. “Amelia sounds like a very strong person.”

“She is! When we were little, sometimes kids were mean to me, and she always made them stop.”

“No wonder you think it is important to stick up for people.”

“That’s right. She has always helped me, but now there’s nothing I can do to help her.”

“Actually I think you are helping her just by being there. Because she loves you, holding her hand probably helps in ways we don’t understand.”

“I hope so, but it doesn’t seem like enough.” Brandon stopped, pushed his glasses up and looked at Kenneth. “Thanks for listening to me, Mr. Patterson. Most people don’t want to be bothered.”

Once again his disarming nature was startling, and Kenneth felt a pang of guilt. He knew he was one of those people that under ordinary circumstances would not have the time or patience to listen to someone like Brandon.

But something almost imperceptible was happening. Kenneth couldn’t put his finger on it, but the way that Brandon spoke from his heart was very moving. He did not seem to have the typical need to make an impression or the desire to be the center of attention. The simple way he expressed himself was completely honest, it was not superficial and insincere like so much of modern day conversation.

Kenneth realized that he had been wrong. Talking with the young man had turned out to be far more interesting than he could have imagined. For at least a brief time, he had managed to stop worrying about all the issues and deadlines in his life, most of which he knew were self-imposed. During their time in the elevator, Kenneth’s focus had shifted as he became genuinely concerned about another human being’s problems. He was surprised by the way he felt compassion for a family he didn’t know. To think that it was all the result of an encounter with a person that he had been so quick to judge was humbling.

Kenneth admitted out loud, “This has turned out to be a far different day than I thought it was going to be. But I’m glad that…” 

Suddenly there was a loud banging sound and then a distant voice from above them. “Can you hear me in there? Everybody okay?”

Brandon jumped to his feet. “That’s Jay, the maintenance man. He’s my friend.”

Brandon shouted as loud as he could. “Jay, it’s me Brandon!”

The distant voice yelled back. “Hey, Brandon. We wondered where you disappeared to.”

“I didn’t disappear, I’m right here.”

“Is there anyone else with you?”

“Yes, Mr. Patterson.”

“Okay. Sit tight. We’ll have you out in a few minutes.”

Kenneth compulsively looked at his watch. They had been in the elevator for fifty-seven minutes. “I guess our adventure is about over.”

Brandon nodded in agreement. As the young man rubbed his palms together he said, “I think I’ll start taking the stairs.”

Kenneth softly laughed. With the prospect of being rescued, he now had to think about what to do next. After a few moments of consideration he decided to try and see the potential customer, so he could at least explain what happened. After all, he had nothing to lose at this point.

The two men sat without talking for a while, listening to several workmen above them creating a substantial racket with their tools as they made the necessary repairs.

Eventually the noise died down and Brandon asked, “Mr. Patterson, what time is it?”

“It’s 10:55.”

“So that’s about an hour before noon, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good! I’ll be able to be at my job before the lunch crowd. We get really busy, really fast.”

Kenneth thought how nice it would be if the employees in his office had the same work ethic that this young man had.

Suddenly there was a bump, and they were going up. The two men smiled at each other, and within seconds the door slid open revealing a large man dressed in coveralls holding a red tool box.

“Jay! You rescued me!” Brandon beamed.

“Again.” Jay smiled at Brandon and nodded at Kenneth. “Sorry for the delay, but it took us a while to find the parts we needed.”

“That’s okay! We had a great time didn’t we, Mr. Patterson?”

Kenneth winked at the maintenance man. “We survived.” The tool box rattled as Jay turned and headed off to tackle the next crisis.

As they stepped into the hallway, Brandon reached out his hand. “I’m sorry you got trapped with me, but it was good to meet you.”

Kenneth shook his hand and replied. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Brandon.”

“Please remember, don’t tell anyone about what we talked about.”

Kenneth looked with respect at the young man who had entered his life, “I promise. You have my word on it.”

“Hey! Come to the restaurant someday, and I will buy you lunch.”

“Thanks I will try to do that, but I will buy your lunch. You have something far more important to do with your money. Now you better get going. You’re going to have a lot of hungry people to deal with soon.”

Brandon smiled one final time and then hurried off to start his shift. Out of habit Kenneth looked down at his watch, but this time he actually realized he was doing it. He stood for a few moments thinking about the last hour. He had been counting on this day to change everything – and perhaps it had, just not in the way he thought it would. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but he felt different. He felt relaxed. He felt at peace.

***************************

The next morning Brandon arrived at work right on time, as usual. He went straight to his locker to put on his apron, and he found Jay waiting for him.

His friend smiled and handed him a small gift wrapped box. “The man from the elevator brought this by for you a little while ago.”

“You mean it’s a gift for me?”

“Yes, for you. Go ahead and check it out.”

Brandon’s eyes widened as he eagerly tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Inside was a beautiful digital watch.

“Look, it’s the kind with numbers, so I can tell time!” He carefully slipped it on his wrist.

Jay grinned. “It came with a card. Mr. Patterson asked me to read it to you. Is that okay?”

“Yes! Please.” Brandon excitedly rubbed his palms together. He had never gotten a gift like this before.

Jay slowly read the hand written note.

Dear Brandon,

I know you would never buy this gift for yourself, so I wanted to get it as way of saying thank you for helping me rediscover what really matters in life. Yesterday did not turn out the way I expected, but the time we spent together proved to be far more important than any business meeting. I know your family is going through a difficult situation, but Amelia is blessed to have a brother like you, and Charlotte and Sophia have a wonderful uncle that they will always love.

Your friend,

Kenneth Patterson

 

 




For information about the organizations mentioned in this story please click on these links.

Lumos is a non-governmental charity organization founded by author, J.K. Rowling                                                 

St Jude Children’s Research Hospital treats childhood cancer and other life threatening diseases




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