Smiles Are Free

By Kenneth Kapp


Harry almost missed breakfast. The volunteer behind the serving counter gave him an extra scoop of oatmeal. “Harry, there’s a good chance of rain. You hurry up and get to that shelter.” While they were cleaning up, Sally told Clara, “When the weather’s bad, it’s a shame they can’t just let them stay here.”

Clara shrugged, “Been telling my partner, cover Camp Randall and let them stay there. Football is just an excuse for the kids to get drunk and for the University to hit the alumni for donations.”

Sally made a face; she had finished almost three semesters at the U and still followed the Badgers. “I don’t think that will fly even if it is what you say, using Camp Randall for the poor.”

Harry shuffled along Regent Street, slowly making his way to a shelter on South Park Street. He was able to cross Charter Street without much trouble but Mills Street was always a challenge. He waited for a break in the traffic. He didn’t look up at the overcast sky. Sally never lied to him, treated him fairly. He always felt good when she served. It never felt like begging or anything like that. He was hungry; she served.

Too many cars were turning. He grew cold standing there and started to worry he’d get wet or arrive at the shelter too late and miss lunch. That was mostly what he did – trying to keep in mind places to eat and places to sleep. Long ago, he had started two mental lists: his E-list for places to eat and his S-list for places to sleep. They got bigger when the weather got nice since he could find things to eat behind grocery stores or upscale restaurants. There were overpasses and abandoned buildings he could use as squats that he added to his sleep list. In his head, he was always plotting routes between E’s and S’s to keep his walking down. Shoes didn’t come cheap.

Still more traffic. Students could skip between cars. He wasn’t young anymore and knew he wasn’t fast on his feet. He was getting cold and muttered, “They never stop for old men, don’t even see me. Doubt anyone would call 911 if I got hit. Say it was my fault anyhow. Always blaming Harry. Called me Hard Luck Harry year I got back from ‘Nam. Yeah, and the best they suggestion they had at the Milwaukee VA Hospital was to “get an education.” I told them I didn’t need it but came to Madison anyhow. I can’t remember who gave me money for the Badger Bus.”

He looked across the street. A big oaf of a student was looking at him. Whatcha looking at? You’re not pretty either. Harry stepped back. The kid was crossing, coming at him. He’s at least six inches taller than me.

The student smiled. “Hey, great day we’re having. How you doing?” Then he paused and adjusted the heavy glasses that had slid down his nose and gave him an even goofier look. “Say, you look cold. You going to Park? I’ll help you cross, those buggers in the cars are afraid to hit me; worried I’d probably knock the radiator into their lap. There’s a coffee shop ahead and I can buy you a cup of coffee or tea if you want. Got an hour to kill before my first class.”

The kid’s face was still covered with teenage acne. Harry looked at him as if he were crazy. Strange, wasn’t I just thinking about panhandling a student for a cup of coffee? He knew school didn’t come cheap, and this kid wasn’t wearing any of those brand-name things. Shit, he doesn’t have a smartphone out and earplugs or whatever they’re called in his head. However, he was cold and reluctantly admitted, “Yeah, I’m going to Park. You sure about the coffee?”

The student smiled again. “Sure, I got time. Let’s cross first. We come to the coffee place, you want to go in, fine; if not I can walk with you to Park, got to head up to the library anyhow.”

They crossed and went on slowly; the student bent over and said he was called Adam. “Funny, got this name so you’d think I’d be at the beginning of the line but then I got big and in grade school, it was always by size, small people in front, so I was always at the back of the line.”

Harry grunted, “Hard luck.” Just like me.

As they came to the coffee house, he built up his courage. Been under fire – I can do this. “Tea. Tea would be nice. Maybe green tea.”

Adam opened the door and motioned to a table in the corner. He put his backpack on the seat. “Be right back. Can I get you a roll?”

Harry shook his head telling himself not to push his luck. Cups clattered in the back and he flinched. Too many sounds reminded him of incoming; loud sounds at night would wake him in a cold sweat – “Incoming, Harry, incoming, get down!”

Adam returned with a pot and two cups. “I hope you don’t mind the pot. Cheaper this way and you get more tea. I’ll pour in a minute, give a chance for the flavor to come out. It’s an orange-green tea; I hope you like it.”

Harry took the seat in the corner and caught the stares as other students came in or left. Adam was facing the window and didn’t seem to care if the conversation dropped when people walked around them. He poured, filling Harry’s cup and only half of his own.

Smiling again, he said, “I like spring, you know. I thought I saw a cardinal fly by when you sat down. Did you ever hear them call: ta-weet, weet, weet, and then another answers: weet, weet, t’weeet. You can do the call yourself, you should try it when you’re outside and there are lots of trees. I thought about it though and then I learned that they do that to find a mate or if they have a mate, to meet up again. So now mostly I don’t do that, you know whistle. I wouldn’t want to confuse them. Unless I’m feeling down, and then I’ll do it maybe once, just to say hello. You know, I just thought of this. You think I’m so big that maybe one of those cardinals will think I’m a tree and land on my head?

“Say, you should maybe drink your tea before it gets cold.”

Harry picked up his cup and sipped slowly, enjoying the smells of the orange blend. Maybe the kid is an oaf, smiling all the time. But he thought about it. Some VA counselor had told him it takes more muscles to frown than to smile – “by a long shot.” Harry put his cup down and smiled. “By a long shot?” Probably not a good choice of words – had a friend that was a sniper.

Adam finished sipping from his cup, waved it towards the street, and said, “You know, I’ve already seen lots of crocuses coming up. Bet the daffodils will be next. This year I’m going to check to see if there’s any difference between the white and yellow coming up first. Keep track. The first to get to ten wins. Think that’s a good test?” He poured the rest of the tea into Harry’s cup.

Kid may be an oaf but I guess it doesn’t hurt to smile. “Maybe. But you’d have to know how many of each kind were planted and then there’s the sun and soil to consider. Not everyone starts out the same.” Harry surprised himself. He hadn’t had an intelligent conversation since he left ‘Nam. Then he suggested, “You can probably ask online, or maybe someone in the Ag School would know.” Jees, Harry, what do you know about online, something you heard somewhere?

“Good ideas. I guess I can. I’ve already got a long list of online questions in my back pocket. Someone pickpockets that thinking it’s my wallet’s going to get a headache reading them all. Serve them right. You know, I don’t think there’re any easy answers in life. What do you think?”

Harry chuckled, finished his tea, and answered. “You’re probably right, but if we don’t leave you’ll be late for your class.” He stood up and looked around for a place to take his cup. The return table was by the side door.

When they were out on the sidewalk, Harry thanked him. “I see you like spring and smiles.”

Adam nodded and rocked back and forth. “Yeah, spring’s nice but it comes and goes every year. But smiles…smiles I think stay with you forever. That’s why I like to smile, and you know, smiles help. That’s why I stopped. You seemed as if you could use one and smiles are free.”

He stopped and continued in a softer voice. “OK, OK. You know we’re all in this world together and sometimes it’s like a game of tag – with the smiles, I mean. So now, you’re it. I tagged you and you have to smile at someone else – pass it on. OK?”

Harry had to smile; he’d just been tagged. Before he could answer, Adam said, “Now I’m late, sorry you’ll have to walk on to Park by yourself. Have a good day and I hope to see you around.”

There was sincerity in his voice that was impossible to miss. Harry started to laugh as Adam moved down the side street towards the campus. He laughed louder and watched as Adam began to skip and sing, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Smile Softly

Whenever a new nurse came onto the Terminal Care floor, the conversation in the nurses’ breakroom came around to Dr. A and how wonderful he was.

“He’s so kind with those poor patients. They cheer up whenever he comes into their room; he’s always smiling softly.”

A nurse that had been there forever concurred, “It’s his smile. He’s just so accepting of the challenge; it’s as if he’s saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be able to get through this together.’ I don’t think anyone believes there’s hope, that’s why they’re here on TC. Not that I’m cynical, but I think everyone’s aware that the only move from here, if it’s not to the morgue in the basement, is to hospice care.”

There was always a nurse who would add, “Well, hospice could be considered a plus.”

Then the new nurse would remark, “And he’s so handsome, rugged, and distinguished. Even those faint acne scars add a certain character.”

“And it doesn’t hurt that he’s six-four.”

The silence would hang until someone coughed and said, “All right, ladies, it’s time to get back to work.”

Dr. Adam Maylor was at the end of a two-year residency in Terminal Care medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in one of the poorer sections of New York City. He saw the cumulative effects of poverty and a failing health care system on people who received medical attention only when it was too late. But he was determined to do his best by them.

When he felt tested, he reminded himself that this was one of the reasons he had decided to become a doctor – to work with those with little hope. After all, he had what he considered his secret weapon – his smile. He never forgot the enlivening effect it had had on the vet with PTSD. He was convinced it was his smile and not the mugs of green tea he had bought for the homeless man when he was an undergraduate in Madison.

His residency had three more months to run when he accepted a staff position at the VA Hospital in Milwaukee starting in August. Sarah would be teaching part-time in a bilingual school in a southside neighborhood where there was a large Hispanic population. She couldn’t wait. Their daughter would be old enough to start pre-school.

On July 3 an old man with a long grey beard was moved onto their floor. He had a bad cough and there were other complications from old age. He kept two black boxes with attached leather straps on his nightstand. During the day he would hold the straps in his right hand on his lap. Daily, a rabbi would come by and place one box on his arm and the other on his head. Together they would mutter a few prayers. The rabbi told the nurses that the boxes are called tefillin and contained handwritten scrolls on parchment with verses from the bible.

When a nurse tried to remove the straps from his hand, he summoned the strength to whisper, “Please, these tie me to olem hazeh, to this world,” and so they let him hold them during the day.

Dr. A read Mr. Klein’s chart at the station outside the door. He appeared to be dozing when the doctor came to his bedside. He gently lifted the patient’s hand along with the straps to feel his pulse. Mr. Klein momentarily opened his eyes and a weak smile crossed his face before he fell back asleep.

When the doctor came back in the afternoon, Mr. Klein was awake and said softly, “You are the doctor with the kind smile.”

The next day when he visited there was a thin book on the nightstand. The old man turned his head and said, “It’s Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. We read a chapter each week between Passover and Shavuot. Simple teachings, so much wisdom. It says we should greet everyone with a pleasant face. Your smile is just fine.” The effort exhausted him; he closed his eyes and lay back, his head floating on the pillows.

The next day when the doctor visited, Mr. Klein smiled and with a finger asked him to sit and then to move his chair closer.

“For a story, I need more time.” Then he began a story about a rabbi from long ago, who when he was a little boy told his tutor, ‘Saying l’chaiim, one person to another as equals, heals the world.’ The verse says it brings forgiveness but it seems much the same to me now.” He was too tired to offer any further explanation.

The following morning, Mr. Klein was unable to talk but held on to the straps of the tefillin. He clenched them with a remarkable strength when a new aide tried to remove them.

He smiled when Dr. A came in the afternoon. Again, he motioned him to the chair next to his bed. “I had a thought that connects the two matters we have already discussed.”

Dr. A smiled. Apparently, Mr. Klein’s mind was still active. “Yes?”

“Greeting one another as equals, with a smile, is surely as effective as the very best vodka or scotch when one says l’chaiim. And just so you know, this is true for all – Jews and non-Jews alike. Don’t forget.”

Mr. Klein died peacefully in the early hours of the morning.

When Dr. A came by the next day, the room was empty. He stood silently at the foot of the bed. A nurse was passing as he came out and wished him a good morning. Later she reported that there were tears in his eyes and a sad smile on his face.

In the breakroom that afternoon someone asked how Dr. A still manages to smile.

The senior nurse answered. “I asked him once and you know what he said?”

One of the nurses said, “Well, aren’t you going to tell us!”

“He said, ‘My wife makes this wonderful chicken soup every Friday night – and we’re not even Jewish!’ And I swear there were dimples in his cheeks when he said it!”

The Doctor and his wife moved to Milwaukee at the end of July.
His smile was ever-present when he made his rounds in the VA hospital. His reputation had arrived weeks earlier via the nurses’ grapevine. Things were not very different – poverty and PTSD both destroyed the body and spirit.

During the second week in September, he stopped at the bed of a new patient. The nurse had told him he was sedated. Dr. A read the chart: Harold Stillman. Harold refuses to eat and hasn’t said a word in weeks. He sighed and stared at the sleeping soldier. I’ll just have to work harder. As he left the room, he had a feeling that Mr. Stillman looked vaguely familiar.

While they were eating supper that night, his wife Sarah saw that he was troubled and most likely it was one of his patients. While he rarely talked about his patients, she decided that this time she would ask.

“I’m puzzled, that’s all. There was this one sleeping soldier whose face looks familiar, but much older. I can’t think of from where or when. That’s all. I suppose it will come to me.”

It was Friday, and Sarah got up, kissed him on the forehead, and returned with another bowl of chicken soup. “I found a Jewish cookbook at a garage sale and promise that next week, I’ll make matzah balls for the soup. That should do the trick.”

Adam laughed. “We leave New York, and now you start with the Matzah Ball soup. Oy gevalt!” He was smiling when he took the empty soup bowls to the sink.

Mr. Stillman was awake the next time Dr. A stopped by. He returned a grimace for Dr. A’s smile.

“Anything I can do to make you more comfortable?” Dr. A paused, frowned. “Now that was a stupid question. I guess if I jumped in the therapy pool that wouldn’t work either, just get me wet. Be a big splash though.”

Dr. A thought the grimace lightened a bit. “Look, I’m going to give you a break from my stand-up, complete my rounds, and come back with some new material. Don’t hold your breath, comedy writers don’t come cheap.” 

Three hours later, Dr. A coughed at the foot of Harold Stillman’s bed. Harold’s eyelids rolled back; they were bloodshot. A horse voice asked, “You trying to get me sick?” The grimace was locked back on.

Dr. A smiled. “A voice his own mother wouldn’t recognize. OK, I suggest we both get a good night’s sleep and some new writers. We’ll continue our debate in the morning.” He was now convinced that they had met before and he was sure that Mr. Stillman had placed him from the get-go.

He greeted Sarah with a kiss, then picked little Berta up, rubbed her up and down on his chest, and lifted her high overhead saying, “OK, Berta-the-balloon gets stuck on the ceiling. Static electricity.”

“Don’t be silly, Daddy. Electric is always running like water; it’s not static!”

“OK, down you come then.”

Sarah was happy. She guessed Adam was getting close to remembering the connection with the unknown veteran.

On Tuesday, Mr. Stillman’s bed was empty and his chart gone. Dr. A went immediately to the central nurses’ station. “Harold’s vitals dropped last night. We had to move him to the ICU. He’s stable now. Doc there says he asked for you – the smiley doctor. They guessed it was you.”

Dr. A went directly to the ICU the first chance he got. Mr. Stillman was propped up. When he felt Dr. A at the foot of his bed he opened his eyes and said, “Yeah, I know I look the worse for wear, but you’re a couple of sizes too big…” He wheezed and it was a while before he finished, “Just like you were back then.”

The doctor went closer. He was almost there   

“Yeah, same goofy kid, less acne and no green tea on your chin.”

Then he remembered the homeless man trying to cross the street and the green tea.

“You went skipping off like you were in La-La land. And now you’re my doctor. Who’d think?”

Doctor A grabbed his hand, went shh. “Don’t strain yourself. I remember. Yes, yes, yes. I was so happy to have made a friend. How sad we never met again until now.”

Harold found the strength to draw the doctor closer.

Doctor A crouched so that his patient wouldn’t have to look up. 

Harold struggled and finally was able to whisper, “Not that sad; we have now.”

Their eyes opened wide and for a moment a smile hung in the space between them. Then Harold’s grip went slack.

A nurse came running when the alarm went off at the central station. Adam wiped his eyes.

“We were old friends. He just wanted to say hi one more time before he…” His voice trailed off. “I need some fresh air; I’ll be back.”

As he walked around the hospital grounds, the doctor remembered what Mr. Klein had said and hoped indeed that healing would come into a world where it was so desperately needed.

When he came home, Sarah was in the kitchen preparing supper. He hugged her tightly and tears fell on her head.

“You remembered.”

“Yes. And perhaps this Friday you can make an extra matzah ball in memory of Harry.”

About Kenneth Kapp

Kenneth Kapp was a professor of Mathematics, a ceramicist and a welder. Then he traded his shop apron for a white shirt and suit, working at IBM until he was downsized in 2000. He now teaches yoga and writes. He lives with his wife and beagle in Shorewood, Wisconsin. He enjoys the many excellent chamber music concerts available in Milwaukee. He’s a homebrewer and runs whitewater rivers with his son in the summer. Further information can be found on

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