Tillie sat in the car in the strip mall parking lot, waiting for her girls to get out of tap class. She used to be able to go in and watch the class; since COVID, however, she’d been banished to the hot car in the eventless parking lot. Located between a kitchen fixture store and cell phone dealer, the dance studio had managed to find the perfect combination of cheap rent and uninteresting surroundings. Tillie appreciated the fact that their rent was cheap, as it meant more affordable classes; she did not, however, appreciate sitting in a stuffy car in the middle of summer. A cigar shop and dry cleaners finished out the store fronts. There was no coffee shop, no donuts, not even a smoothie shop. She was officially trapped in sweltering boredom.
Flipping through a magazine, Tillie glanced out her window from time to time, hoping to see a cute bird or the stray cat she’d seen months back. Maybe an acquaintance would walk through the parking lot and she could exchange a wave. It was on the third of these glances that she spotted him. She wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing there…. maybe he’d been there all along just as he was now, stone still, wearing a long sleeve shirt and pants that almost matched the tan walls of the store fronts. The only reason she noticed him at all was because his sign moved slightly when a breeze brushed past him.
At first, she didn’t pay any attention to his face; she was too busy trying to make out the writing on the canvas. It was not unusual to see people asking for help on this side of town. She could have passed him half a dozen times already and would not have thought a thing of it. What was unusual, however, was a sign that looked like his. It wasn’t just the colors that drew her eyes, but the artistic quality, the entire layout. She instantly was struck and found herself almost gawking, both trying to make out the writing on it and genuinely drawn to the mini masterpiece itself. She was unabashedly staring when a slight movement switched her focus up, where she saw two eyes watching her. There was no smile in them but no animosity, either. If anything, she would have described his expression as void of emotion, but he didn’t come across as cold. Instead, it was almost as if he were waiting for her.
Startled by the unexpected eye-contact, she quickly looked down at her lap and made a show of how interested she was in the fancy mac and cheese recipe on the page in front of her. A few minutes later, she side-eyed him to see if the man was still looking at her. He was not. The sign, however, was.
After a few moments, curiosity outweighed courtesy, and she decided it was more important to her to read the painting than it was to pretend that she didn’t care. As she continued to stare at it, determinedly avoiding looking at the artist, she finally made out a few words: “YOU ARE DOING WELL.” This was followed by another sentence she couldn’t quite read. She was pretty sure there would be some request following, such as, “….SO CAN’T YOU PLEASE SPARE A BIT?” She decided that she would take him a couple of dollars when she walked up to get the girls from class, if only to offset her guilt for staring. And, he must have spent some money on creating such a sign. Maybe he needed more paint.
For the last 20 minutes of her wait, she stopped flipping through the magazine or even looking at the canvas. She simply sat where she was, blindly starting out the window and pondering: Was she really doing well? This was a thought that had been gnawing at her for weeks, although she’d not had the words to place the uneasiness she was feeling until now. Financially they were doing fine, with Brian’s new promotion at work. Her part-time job wasn’t even necessary for them to meet their bills, but she loved working a few hours a week at the small gift shop in town. But, was she truly doing well? She had friends but did not have time to see them much. Were her girls really doing okay? Was her husband happy with her? Should she be doing more?
The timer on her phone beeped and she grabbed a couple of dollars from her purse before heading toward the walkway with the painting and its artist. As she quickly walked past and started to bend low to drop the money into a cup, two things struck her: The first was that there was nowhere to put the money. The second was that she had incorrectly predicted the second line on the canvas. It did not say anything about sharing what she had. It simply said, “YOU WERE CREATED FOR THIS.” As she was processing these two things, she once again noticed the eyes of the silent man on her. This time, there was no other option than to acknowledge him.
“Hi. Um, here,” she said, awkwardly, holding her hand out with the two dollars.
“Hello,” he replied. Now that she was up close, she could see that he appeared to be about her parents age, maybe a retiree. He was mostly nondescript, but his face was kind, almost serene. He did not reach forward to take her money.
“This is for you. I like your art,” Tillie tried again.
This gave him a slight smile, but he still stood still. “I’m glad you like it. And thank you, but it’s not needed. I have enough.”
Perplexed as to why he was standing outside if he did not want donations, she opened her mouth to ask when she heard Alice yell, “MOMMY! We’re DONE!” quickly followed by Bella’s “Hi, Mommy!! I tapped sooooo fast!” She gave the gentleman a quick and somewhat confused smile, nodded, and walked over to get the girls from the of studio where they were poking their heads out the door, waiting for her.
The whole way home, Tillie could not stop thinking about the words, about her life. As she listened to the girls laughing in the back seat, talking about how funny their tap teacher was, she realized they truly were happy girls, doing great in school and surrounded by a group of friends they loved. Her husband still asked her on dates. Her friends called whenever they needed an ear. She was never bored, felt challenged, felt loved. She WAS doing well. And she did feel like she was living the life she’d been created for. She pulled into her driveway, both thankful and content, and completely forgetting about the art or its artist before she even exited the car.
The following week, her husband took the girls to dance class while she was subbing at the shop for a sick colleague. Tillie, therefore, didn’t return to the dance studio for two weeks. As she walked the girls up to their class, she walked past the same man, now with a new sign. In truth, she had not thought of him once since she’d left the parking lot weeks before. She had, however, felt a distinct shift in her perspective ever since that day.
Seeing the new painting brought it all flooding back, as it was just as striking as the first one, although the words on this one just seemed somewhat random…something about courage, but nothing that made sense to her. However, again, it was so beautiful, she would have described it as artwork. She intentionally walked past the gentleman unhurriedly as she headed back towards her car, slowing down even further as he looked up. She wanted to tell him that his words had somehow changed her.
“Hi again,” she started awkwardly. “That’s beautiful. Do you sell your paintings?”
“This?” he asked, nodding to the sign. “Oh, this isn’t for sale. It’s not really my creation. I’m just sharing the words.”
“Oh? Well, it’s really nice. I loved the one the other week, especially,” she shared, almost embarrassed. “This probably sounds weird, but it was almost like the words changed my heart, like they were there just for me.”
He simply gave her his serene smile, “I know,” he stated, without a hint of pride. Not quite sure what to say next, Tillie simply gave him a friendly nod and went back to her car and magazines.
Weeks went by, and along with them, signs came and went. Almost every time she was waiting for the girls, Tillie saw someone pass the man and stop to have a quick chat. He never seemed to say much but always gave a kindly respond. Once, she saw one of the college students who worked at the cell phone store talking with the man, clearly excited about something. Several times, she saw people try to hand over money, but it was always politely declined.
The paintings were all beautiful, and with each one, the words changed. Most of the time, the phrases made no sense to Tillie, but she appreciated the thought put into their creation. Maybe the man was just a struggling artist, trying to make a second career out of painting, hoping he’d be noticed by someone important? She wasn’t sure who he would find in a strip mall, but perhaps he just wanted to be seen. She would often nod at him and sometimes smile, but she never went back for another conversation.
Summer turned into fall and headed into winter, week after week, until one evening, the man and the signs were suddenly gone. Tillie hoped that the artist was simply taking a week or two off, but he never reappeared. She had not realized just how much she’d been comforted by his art and the words until they were no longer there.
After several weeks passed, she decided to see if anyone knew what had happened to him. She remembered that he’d worn the same shirt and pants every week; maybe he was just too cold to be out here, now that the weather had turned? Perhaps he just needed a coat and some gloves? Recalling the interaction she’d witnessed between him and the employee at the cell phone store, she decided to go see if the student might know where the signs had gone.
As she walked into the store, she was immediately greeted by a friendly young female employee, wearing a badge with “I’M GEENA!” and a heart emoji. “Hi! Can I help you today?!”
“Actually, I just wanted to talk to another employee who works here? He’s about 20, 6’2”, dark hair?”
“Yah, that sounds like Zach,” the girl responded. “He doesn’t work here anymore. He moved out of state to follow his dream job! Is there something I can help you with?”
“Really? Wow, that’s cool,” Tillie responded. “I actually don’t even know him…I just saw him talking to the man outside with the paintings and thought he might know where he went. Do you know who I’m talking about?”
“Oh my GOSH, yes!” Geena gushed. “I LOVED his art! I said hi to him all the time! Tried to give him money, but he said no thank you, so then tried food, and he said no thank you and then – don’t tell my boss – but I even tried to give him one of our old display phones! For free! But, he always said that he had enough. He was so cool!”
“Yah, I loved his signs!” agreed Tillie. “Do you know his name? or where he went?”
Geena looked like she’d never considered either question before. “You know, I DON’T! He just wasn’t here one day and that must have been a week ago or two ago already?” Tillie thanked her and left the store, leaving Geena behind looking like she was trying to remember something important.
Tillie could not explain it, but she somehow felt unsettled, as well, like she was missing something. She picked up the girls and drove slowly home, wondering why she felt this stranger’s absence so keenly. She didn’t even know his name. As she walked into the house, Brian greeted them, walking over to hug the girls, and quickly glancing over at her. “What’s wrong?” he asked offhandedly, as he set down Alice and picked up Bella before sending them off to play.
“Huh? Nothing really,” Tillie answered as she hung up her purse and sat down on the bench to remove her shoes. “Just that the sign guy from the strip mall disappeared. So, no more words. You probably have no idea who I’m talking about,” she mumbled as Brian plopped down next to her.
“Oh, I totally know who you’re talking about. It was that guy who held the awesome painting that said, ‘GRATEFUL OR RESENTFUL?’ outside the dance studio, right?”
Tillie was surprised for a moment, until she remembered that Brian had taken the girls to dance that one week. “Yah. I mean, I never saw that one, but he had different paintings every week. The first one I saw, you wouldn’t believe how powerful it was. It was about how I was doing what I was created to do. Like the words spoke directly to me.”
Brian stared at her for a moment, looking stunned. He then exclaimed, “That’s exactly how I felt when I saw the grateful sign!” He usually only exclaimed during football games, so Tillie was genuinely surprised to hear the emotion in his voice. “I’d been having a hard time at work, adjusting to everything, you know, and then you asked me to take the girls and I was, sorry, but just really frustrated with everything. Then, I saw the words and I started thinking about WHY I was frustrated. Because a promotion? Because I’m a dad who sometimes needs to drive my kids places? And as soon as I thought about how grateful I was for all of you, for everything, it was like this peace just flooded me. Then, the guy holding the sign looked at me and it was almost like he was confirming that it was meant for me, you know? I wanted to go buy it from him or something, but he just waved and walked away. So crazy, right?”
Silence hung, as they processed what each had experienced. Both of them had been completely moved, their outlooks altered, by the words shared by this stranger. Tillie thought of all the other people she’d seen talking to the man. Did they all have similar stories? Yet, no one had even known his name. He had refused to take anything from anyone. He had simply shared his beauty with strangers, then disappeared, nameless, without a trace beyond the life-changing words he’d left behind…
Story by Leanne Gibson Manzo