He was older than she’d thought he would be when she had glanced at the photo of him in the newspaper. In person there were more gray hairs at his temples and some grizzling along his jawline which was not unattractive. He sat across the restaurant from her, with a sallow faced young woman, scowling a bit as he looked down to stir his coffee. Of course the newspaper could have used an old photograph of him.
Nobody else in the restaurant seemed to recognize him. Her husband Gregory sat across from her, preoccupied with his cellphone as he nibbled on a piece of toast. She gently cleared her throat and Gregory looked up.
“Don’t look now,” she said, “but isn’t that Roberto Talenski?”
“Roberto Talenski. The man who rescued all those children from the sinkhole at the school in New Mexico last weekend. He was on the news. It was in the newspaper.”
“You keep up on those things much more than I do,” her husband said mildly.
She sighed. “It was kind of a big deal,” she said. “He carried most of them out himself. He helped lift the few remaining ones out too. He’s a big hero. BIG hero.”
Gregory glanced across the restaurant. “He seems like an ordinary guy.”
“Well that’s what’s so wonderful about it. He’s not a firefighter, he’s an accountant. Just a normal guy who performed a heroic act when he was called upon to do so. It was really amazing what he did.”
“You want to talk to him I bet,” her husband said.
“No, I don’t want to bother him. But I have an idea. Let’s buy his meal. It would be a way to thank him for what he did.”
“That’s a splendid idea,” said Gregory, and signaled the waitress over to their table. He explained to her what they wanted to do and the waitress went across the room and talked to the man, gesturing back to them. They waved at him. He didn’t wave back.
He shook his head no and made a shooing motion with his hand. The waitress backed away and came to their table.
“He doesn’t want you to buy his meal,” she said.
She didn’t know what to say and blinked away tears. One ran down her cheek and she swiped at it with the back of her hand. The man was watching her and pushed back his chair to come over to them.
” I didn’t mean to make you cry,” he said. “I can’t accept your offer, that’s all. I am not Roberto and I am having a crappy morning and I should have thanked you for the gesture and I didn’t.”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh I feel so stupid now.”
“Don’t feel stupid,” the man said. He pulled out a chair and sat down at their table. “I am flattered, now that I think about it. I haven’t done anything especially heroic lately. ” He looked over at the young woman and then back at them.
“I just, I just…..this is so hard to put into words,” she said. “I just was so excited to see a real hero. We have a real shortage of heroes right now in our world, and so many people behaving so badly, and I guess I just wanted to believe.”
Her husband reached over and took her hand. “I love that about you darling.”
“Can I ask you something?” she said. Why are you having a crappy morning?”
He hesitated, looking over at the young woman. “It’s my daughter. She just told me she’s going to quit school to move to Missouri with her boyfriend and work on civil rights issues there.”
“That sounds pretty heroic to me,” she said.
He looked at her for a long moment.
“I never thought about it that way. You might be right.”
“Maybe I was buying breakfast for the wrong person at your table,” she said, and smiled.
He laughed. “Maybe you were at that.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Mike Watson. It’s been a pleasure to meet you…..”
“Lou Ann,” she said and shook his hand. He walked back to his table.
“Well there you go,” her husband said and smiled fondly at her.
“Yes, there I go,” she said.