Genre: literary fiction

Someone Else’s Dream

Someone Else’s Dream

The small Provencale cafe looked as if it had emerged from another time and Emma suddenly felt a painful longing to let herself slip completely away to that other Now.

However, Stephen’s incessant commenting on the locals pulled her back to the present. 

Every fucking time.

“I bet that guy over there has come here every morning for the last 30 years to get his morning pint. And his mate—”

And on it went.

She carefully downed the last of her stale white wine. “What happened to us, Steve?” 

Stephen turned toward her on the venerable cafe chair. “Did you say something, honey?”

Emma blinked and saw only the ancient bar desk behind her boyfriend, dark and squarish like a mausoleum of oak.

“I was just … wondering what year this house is from,” she said and looked down.

“Oh … ” Stephen shrugged. “I think it’s the 17th century or something.”

“—It is from 1815,” someone said to their side.

They both looked at the waitress who was removing an empty bottle and glass before a bushy white-bearded man at the neighboring table.

She smiled apologetically. “Lots of our guests ask that question. I’m so used to answering. I didn’t mean to—.” She looked at Stephen, her eyes for a split second seeming to linger at the point on his arm where ebony muscles were no longer constrained by his t-shirt.

Emma cleared her throat. “So I guess you have many English-speaking guests, then? Your accent is quite … nice.”

“We mostly have Italian this time of year.” The waitress nodded politely at the bearded man as he slowly and methodically unearthed three euros from his wallet to leave as a tip.

“And I’m from Brighton, by the way.” She pocketed the money as if they were a curious artifact and turned her full attention to Emma and Stephen.

“I see,” Emma said, glancing at Stephen. “So you work here in the summer?”

“All year round.”

Emma pondered this when Stephen interrupted her train of thought. “Can we get a coffee?”

He said that and then quickly looked away from the curves that strained the waitress’ uniform around her chest. 

Emma quickly looked away from Stephen. “Uhm, yeah, coffee. That would be … nice.”

The waitress went off to get it, and Stephen looked at Emma now, eyes suddenly alight. “Maybe we should go back to the B&B after coffee? Call it a day?”

“It’s only 5 o’clock.”

“Well, I could use some R&R.” He grinned.

Emma looked at her empty wine glass and didn’t long for more of that. Coffee would be perfect. Except … 

“I don’t want to go home,” she said. “Why not see the Château des Ducs de Bourbon? We missed that yesterday.”

Stephen seemed absent. “Yesterday we arrived late. And you were tired.” His dark fingers made circles on the white napkin, like some invisible Rorschach test. “Come on … ”

“There is a nice coffee bar nearby,” Emma added, crossing her arms. “Weena said it has only five-star reviews.”

“I just ordered coffee.” Stephen crossed his arms, too. He leaned back on the old chair, scouting the room. The bearded man had left but a couple of more tourists had come in and were chatting loudly.

“Well, we can have more,” Emma said. “And there is some of that great local cake, too. They don’t have it here.”

“I’m not sure I trust Weena,” Stephen said. “It hasn’t been configured correctly.”

Emma waved dismissively.  “‘She’—not ‘it’.”

But okay, her PA wasn’t the best virtual PA on the market, there were spiffier prototypes. However, her computer superhero-brother had insisted that it was the one she needed for the trip because it didn’t track the hell out of every step you made, like those from Apple or Google. And it was easier to set up, too, for “average neurotypicals” as her brother had put it without blinking. Then quickly adding, “or people who don’t like setting up apps much.”

God, she loved Michael. If only he could understand how much she cared. But perhaps he could? Even with his diagnosis and—

Well, whatever. What mattered was that Michael understood her personal mission to tell the big Goo-Apple to fuck off and to be independent. So did Stephen. One area where they were in perfect alignment. And there were more, wasn’t there?

Emma saw that the waitress was heading back towards them with a small tray and two steaming coffee cups. Her professional smile was raised as well. 

And Stephen’s face was one big smile in return.

“I’ll pay for everything now,” he said to the waitress, pulling out his phone and scanning the barcode on the side of the table with one swift movement. “And here’s a little tip.”

The waitress beamed at him and Emma felt a gray fog inside her, growing rapidly, spreading from a place just under her navel and filling her lungs from the bottom up. Finally it got to her sight and she saw only that grayness that made everyone appear like ghosts.

It had to be that eerie sensation of being pulled into the past, which had first hit her like an electric jolt when she entered the cafe. Something about this place made her feel out of … sync. 

Just like that B&B where they had slept that night. Maybe even this whole town.

She felt her fists knotting.

Stephen is not doing anything wrong. I should

“You don’t look well,” said the smiling waitress. “Can I get you some—”

“No.”

“Okay.” She left quickly.

Stephen looked sullenly at his coffee. Outside a few cars whirred by, but otherwise a sleepiness seemed to have settled over the rustic streets of Montlucon even if there was still light in the sky. 

“We should go back to Besson,” Stephen then said. “You really don’t look well.”

“I’m fine. And I don’t want to go back to … those rooms.”

She regretted that the instant she said it. In fact, she didn’t know why she said it but somehow, something there in the cozy little chateau-now-B&B filled her with dread. The feeling had been there since yesterday and she had slept badly but she had suppressed it because it was illogical.

And Emma prided herself on her logic. She wasn’t emotional. She was—

She got up. “Let’s just get out of here. Take a walk.”

Stephen looked one last time at his full coffee cup like he was a child about to leave a favorite toy behind. “Okay.”

He got up, though, and then motioned to hand Emma her jacket from another chair. But she took it herself before he could touch it. 

When they emerged out on the narrow street a slight drizzle was falling. The afternoon sun was still strong, behind a smatter of clouds. Its rays made the milk-white facades of the houses appear warmer.

“It’s just a bit of cloud,” Stephen said and pulled at the collar of his own jacket. “It’ll pass soon.”

Then he turned to Emma, with genuine worry. “You know, you cried out—last night. In your sleep.”

Emma swallowed. “I did?”

“Yeah, but you fell asleep again, so I thought it was okay. I didn’t want to wake you and ask. Did you have a nightmare?”

“I … don’t remember. What did I cry?”

“—Excuse me. You speak English, right?” It was the white-bearded man again. He suddenly appeared around a corner, as if he had been standing there, outside the cafe, waiting.

“Yes?” Stephen took a step to stand in between Emma and the man. He was well into his seventies, it seemed, and wore a dusty green coat that looked too big, even for the spell of summer rain.

“I was just wondering,” the man started, then looked from side to side as if someone was following him, “ah, never mind. You probably haven’t seen her.”

“What?” Stephen looked in both directions on the street but saw no one. “Who are you looking for?”

“My wife, actually. It’s a long story. But I need her to help with the horses … ” He trailed off and looked over his shoulder, as if he had heard something from that direction now.

“Are you lost?” asked Emma, moving forward. “Can we help?”

“No, no—there is no problem.” The old man shook his head. “It’s just when I heard you talk, I remembered something and I had this brief idea that, you see … but it is all right. No harm done.”

Then he began to wander off.

“Do you think we should follow him?” Emma took Stephen by the arm. “What if he … has dementia or something?”

“It’s not our responsibility, is it?” Stephen covered her hand with his. “We should make sure you are okay first.”

“I’m fine.” Emma let him go. 

“You sure?”

“Yes.” She looked down. “Are you sure you still don’t want to go to the Château des Ducs?”

Stephen shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. “Why not?”

She smiled. “It’s right down that way, says Weena.”

“Weena is always right,” Stephen harrumphed. “But does she know what you cried last night in your sleep? Because that was really fucking weird.”

Emma looked like she had trouble breathing for a moment, then she straightened herself and took Stephen by the arm once more, almost leading him on. They walked in silence a few steps down the narrow street, past the silent white houses.

“I guess you want to tell me what I said?” she said after a while.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” Stephen said.

“It does now. Come on. Was it really that bad? Was it something … dirty?”

He grinned. “Maybe. You said ‘iron cage’.”

“‘Iron cage’?” She frowned. “That’s weird.”

“And then you said—well, cried actually—‘no!’ Several times.” They turned a corner and now they could neither see the cafe nor the old man anymore. It was like neither had ever existed.

“Maybe I dreamt I was trapped in a cage,” she suggested at length. “But I honestly don’t remember.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Stephen repeated.

“Why not?”

“Well, for one thing—you are not trapped anywhere now, are you?”

She squeezed his arm. “No, I am not.”

*

Photo: Wikipedia

*

Connected story: “Runaway” in Runaway by Alice Munro (2003)

Pirañas Under Our Feet

Pirañas Under Our Feet

In La Paz, Bolivia, the majority of people live for less than a dollar a day, so the last thing Carrie expected was for an expensive American-made four-wheeler to wait for her outside the main—and only—airport terminal.

As the mostly homegoing wife of a state trooper back in Arizona, and with two kids—one of them with a diagnosis—Carrie wasn’t exactly a stranger to surprises that demanded caution, grit, or both. But this made her hesitate. 

She had expected Julia to be here. Julia had texted Carrie that she would be here.

But there was no one who remotely looked like her. Just a mostly empty parking lot and then the monster of a car.

A bubbly young backpacker couple pushed their way past her out into the cold thin air and sharp mountain sun, to be met by a swarm of ‘helpful’ cabbies saluting in broken English, and pointing to handwritten signs on cardboard in dusty car windows, saying “Taxi”.

So not an entirely empty lot, but the hubbub of cabs in various states of disrepair seemed drawn to the airport building like bees to their hive.

Which made the lone black four-wheeler all the more conspicuous.

Not knowing what to do, Carrie distracted herself by looking at the young couple who were in profound negotiations with a gray-haired cabbie, using a mix of English, Spanish, and sign language. 

A bittersweet smile crossed Carrie’s lips. That was me 14 years ago … 

Back then, Julia had been embarrassed she could only offer Carrie coca tea in that tiny hut that had been her home in the tropical forests of the Cochabamba valley. 

Carrie briefly wondered where Julia lived now that she had moved to the capital in the highlands. Almost simultaneously, she suppressed a sting of regret that she herself wasn’t in the airport of Cochabamba right now. 

Julia’s hut had been a home for almost a year for her—a young backpacker running away from the darkness in her life—and Carrie had infinitely better memories of that hut than many of the hotels she had stayed in before and after.

Hotel rooms didn’t make you whole after your best friend in college had committed suicide. 

They were just another kind of prison for the grief you tried to escape from but which always followed you, like a shadow. 

But the creaky bed in Julia’s hut, and the view through the single window to the pensive waters of the Espiritu Santo River, had been a place where the shadow could finally begin to dissolve. 

It had been the beginning of coming back to life for Carrie and moving on, even if that moving on had been to a different kind of prison—married with children and bouncing around between shit jobs or just the daily shitload of laundry. 

However, as long as you didn’t shoot anymore crack into your veins or drank like a sailor or any of the other things, that was a prison she could live with. It was a step up. 

A big step for Carrie Sawyer, now Reese. 

But shi-it, 14 years is a long time ….

She eyed the black car again. 

Its plates looked quite official—as in government-official. But why would Julia be waiting in that car? 

No, it was more likely she was late. Typical. Bolivians, including Julia, were never on time. 

There was a reason they had a whole concept for the phenomenon down here—hora boliviana. Time just moved differently in this part of the world and you had to accept that.

“Señora—taxi?” A hopeful cabbie popped up in front of her, his daredevil grin reminding Carrie of her son. Including the missing teeth.

She waved him away and took a few careful steps down the stairs, swaying to one side because of her suitcase, and feeling the first pangs of headache from being almost 12,000 feet above sea level. And breathing 35 percent less oxygen.

She had to make a decision about that car. She had to power through the throng of cab drivers and get out onto the lonely parking lot and wave. 

Or maybe go back into the terminal? Try the phone—if she could get a signal. No. No – too early. Could she have missed Julia inside? Not likely. The airport was the size of her daughter’s school.

But still, that huge car couldn’t possibly be there for her, could it?

Julia had been active in one of Bolivia’s numerous unions after her coca farmer husband had been killed by police during a demonstration. She posted a lot about the union on Facebook. This year she also shared campaign posts on Facebook every day from MAS – the reigning Movimiento Al Socialismo party—and had quipped about helping a ‘senate member’— just before the recent election in Bolivia. However, she had mostly talked about handing out pamphlets when she and Carrie had found a rare occasion to chat online about it. It seemed preposterous that Julia would ever be in any kind of position to—

And then, a black door opened and a very familiar woman hopped out onto the tarmac.

“Carolina!” Julia almost flew over to the stunned Carrie and caught her in a firm embrace.

“Julia—¿cómo estás?” was all Carrie could say, although she could see Julia, despite a few pounds extra and prominent lines under her eyes, was quite better off than all those years ago. 

Quite a bit …

In fact, her old friend was wearing a jumpsuit that had probably cost more than Carrie’s ticket from Los Angeles. 

“How I am doing, querida? I am doing just great!” Julia’s English was exuberant and with a thick accent. “Especially now you come here!” 

Carrie forced herself to smile. She also forced her memories to readjust. “So … you didn’t lie when you said you had learned English.” 

Julia grinned and made a dismissive wave of her hand. “Only little.”

“Lying or learning English?” Carrie deadpanned. 

She felt so out of it. It was so great seeing Julia again. It really was.

“As government servant, you have to maintain good inter-na-tio-nal relations.” Julia snuck an arm around Carrie’s shoulders and squeezed affectionately, while at the same time steering them both back towards the black car.

“—Hey, you’ll soon speak better English than I speak Spanish.” Carrie blurted.

“Not a chance, amiga ...” Julia replied in Spanish. “Santana!” 

Julia was apparently calling for the driver, who was on his way out. Carrie noticed that his skin was considerably darker than Julia’s. Aymara, she thought and nodded politely to him.

Julia herself was of mixed blood but Santana was clearly from the highlands where many indigenous peoples had their home, in small gray villages on the windswept Altiplano or here in the suburbs of La Paz.

He was a young man, little more than a teenager. When he had exited the car he stood erect, by the front door, his thin shape clear against the azure sky over El Alto Internacionál, but his gaze was neither here nor there. 

“What were you doing?” Julia scolded. “I told you to get out and be ready.”

“I was checking—” Santana started.

“Help our guest with her luggage. Now.”

Carrie frowned but then stopped herself. She handed the driver her suitcase and got into the big car, feeling a bit faint. She wondered if she already had altitude sickness.   

Julia got in beside her. She beamed at Carrie. “Ready to see Bolivia again?”

Carrie smiled tentatively. “Yes.”

Julia knocked on the back of Santana’s seat. “Go.”

Santa put the big car into gear, and Carrie was temporarily pushed back into her seat as they turned and accelerated quickly and somewhat haphazardly out of the airport parking lot.

Her hand instinctively fumbled for her seat belt but she found only the buckle.

Julia noticed. “No te preocupes. It’s a short trip.”

Carrie sighed. “No seatbelts, even in a new car.” Then she put a new smile on, for Julia. “It’s Bolivia, all right.”

Julia grinned. “.”

The car sped out onto the sole highway connecting El Alto airport with La Paz and promptly got stuck in a long line of fuming, honking vehicles of all kinds. That was also Bolivia. Just as Carrie remembered it. 

Yet, she could also see the majesty of the snowcapped Andes mountains and she was finally with Julia again after so many years. 

Carrie felt like her heart was beating once more, after a long-dead time as a housewife in the suburb of an American border town.

Now she was free.

Carrie tried to relax on the seat but found the hard black leather not entirely comfortable. She was already sore from the flight. But it didn’t matter, did it? 

She was here. Julia was here. That was enough.

Carrie noticed Julia was staring at her. “So … am I that different?” she quipped.

Julia shook her head. “You are exactly as I remember you.”

“Only 35 instead of 21.”

Julia made a dismissive gesture. “Ah, what does it matter?”

“It matters,” Carrie said. “And I should have come before. But, you know, the money. Kids …”

“I know!” Julia exclaimed. “But money is okay now—here.” She offered a quick grin, almost looking relieved she had said it.

“I can see that,” Carrie said. “What on Earth has happened to you? Last time we chatted, you told me you handed out flyers in the street for MAS before the election.”

“I did, I did. But then Romero and I, well, we decided we wanted to do more—” Julia was interrupted by a cacophony of cars honking at the same time outside. 

“Can we roll up the window?” Carrie asked. “It’s hard enough to breathe at this altitude.”

“You will get used to it.” Julia knocked on Santana’s chair again. “¡Cierre la ventana!”

He pushed a button that let the half-open window near the passenger seat close entirely.

“So …” Carrie said, daring a breath, “how’s Luis?”

Julia waved her hand at the car window as if there were still some fumes from the cars in the cabin. “Oh, he is at school. He is doing well.”

“Is it a high school?” Carrie asked. 

When she had last seen Luis he had been little more than a toddler. It was a leap, like so many others, that she had to make in her mind and she found it difficult. 

“Si,” Julia said. “And how are your children? How is little Michael?”

The herd of cars around them seemed far away suddenly, their endless wailing muffled.

Carrie cleared her throat. “He’s fine. They are fine. I’ll tell you all about it later, okay?”

“Okay.”

Carrie looked out the window again. “Maybe we should have walked?”

“It will clear soon,” Julia said. 

She was right. Against all odds, the traffic began moving again and after a brief excursion through the desolate neighborhoods of El Alto, the car swung out onto Calle 8 de Mayo and a breathtaking sight filled Carrie’s view. 

Ringed by white-peaked mountains, Bolivia’s capital spread over the entire valley as far as she could see. 

Carrie breathed deeply again, and for once felt she had enough air.

Maybe she didn’t need to go to that hut. Maybe this entire country where she had found life again was enough. 

Maybe she was already home.

*

An hour or so later, many things had indeed become clearer.

Carrie now knew that Julia worked as a personal secretary for senator Romero Gonzales who was 52 and owned a six-room apartment in the posh Sopocachi neighborhood. Julia talked about Romero in every other sentence. Oh, and they had also gotten married, it appeared, and she was really sorry for not having mentioned it but there had been some considerations about the election, his divorce, etcetera. And Julia had been terribly busy.

But not with handing out flyers anymore. Someone else was on that particular assignment.

In fact, everything seemed to go really well for Julia who once had hardly known where her next meal would come from. 

In contrast, Carrie had mostly unpleasant stories to entertain Julia with; extrapolations on issues she had briefly touched on during their infrequent chats online. The marriage to Jon was straining, Michael’s autism diagnosis had been a real shock, Emma was getting into fights at school, and there were no good jobs in sight for Carrie—a college drop-out and former addict. Obviously.

Yeah, a lot had happened in those 14 years since Carrie the tourist had found a lost little toddler named Luis on the big market in Cochabamba and reunited him with his mother, even if she had felt so depressed that day she had decided she would not try to talk to anyone again for the rest of the trip, just be alone.

Things hadn’t worked out that way, and an unlikely friendship had been the result.

And Julia was so full of energy and so excited about everything now. Carrie was excited to see her, too, but there was nothing exciting about how things were at home. 

Why had she not thought more about this? Why had she not thought about how fragmented her stories had been on Facebook these last handful of years? Just as she in reality knew very little about Julia from Julia’s infrequent postings or chats, the other thing was true, too. 

But Julia didn’t seem to mind. She was sorry about Michael, of course, but everything else would ‘work out’, she insisted. Just as it had for her. Carrie’s marriage, jobs, everything.

It was a bombardment. Of Julia’s questions, her child-like optimism about possible solutions to Carrie’s problems, and, of course, the sounds and sights that assaulted the senses on the way through the city; piss-stinking sewers, thousands of tin stalls the size of a stamp with solemn solicitors of everything from candy to llama fetuses, shouting drivers in the micro-busses that plowed into the ubiquitous traffic congestion with death defiance, and above all the mayhem—always the real skyline that was the Andes, silent, majestic, eternal. 

But eventually, it was over. They had arrived at Julia’s new home.

And it was definitely different from a hut made of timber and tin. 

Julia now lived in one of the few skyscrapers that towered over La Paz’s southern districts, its parking lot surrounded by a castle-sized wall adorned with broken glass.

Carrie was shown one of the apartment’s spacious rooms by the maid, who was also Aymara, and who seemed to be the only one at home. 

She excused herself that she was tired and had to rest before dinner, and Julia was very understanding.  

When Carrie finally closed the door to her room, everything, including the capital’s incessant buzzing, had receded to a vague hum. She plumped down on the fluffy bed and searched her handbag for deodorant and some pills for altitude sickness. 

Instead, she found a picture she had had the photographer in Yuma copy from her old negatives. He had thought of it as an ‘interesting archaeological exercise’ now that everything was digital.

Carrie had thought of showing the picture to Julia at dinner, later that evening, when Julia’s husband had returned from work.

It was a picture Carrie had taken of Julia in 2000, with her old camera, one day at the river, after a very long evening. Neither had gotten much sleep, but the world and everything in it had been settled. 

Carrie thought Julia had looked particularly serene that morning, despite the wear and tear from hard living which was already visible in her young face, but most of all in the way she looked at the world. Except in moments like that morning.

Julia had been sitting on a small bridge close to the boat, her naked feet dangling over the water. Carrie had felt secure enough in her Spanish to try a lame joke.

‘¿No le tienes miedo a las pirañas?’

‘There are no pirañas in this river, stupid,’ Julia had replied and her dark eyes had sparkled like the sun glinting in the shadowy water. 

“Are you sure?” Carrie came over and gave Julia a friendly push.

“Absolutely,” Julia said. “And if there were, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Oh, yeah? How so?” Carrie grinned. It was a lovely morning. 

Julia shrugged. “Because didn’t you know, they say pirañas only eat fat, rich people?”

“I’m rich,” said Carrie. “Technically. I mean, I’m from a richer country.”

“You’re not rich,” Julia said. “You said so, yourself. You spent your last money coming here. So we’re equals.”

Carrie put an arm around Julia’s shoulder. “Yes, we are.”

And the water of the Espiritu Santo river flowed under their feet in silence. 

*

Photo by Shyam on Unsplash 

Paint Me the Places You’ve Seen

Paint Me the Places You’ve Seen

The boys were playing outside the small hotel, one of them sporting a Godzilla-cartoon t-shirt which he constantly pointed to as if he was directing his friend to do the things in the pictures.

Afraid of thinking too much about the monsters in my own life, I had spent most of my time on the road to Tegucigalpa brushing up on Spanish verbs, putting that quasi-autistic mind of mine to better use. So I picked up enough fragments to understand that they played out a story of Godzilla thrashing a city of cardboard boxes and cans. They had even made an intricate network of ‘streets’ drawing lines in the gravel with a stick.

Lovely. Just what I needed to focus on when I had been tempted to buy something stronger to drink than cola this morning.

It even made a gruesome kind of sense because it was less than two years ago that Hurricane Mitch had leveled the city and all of the country more than any imaginary skyscraper-sized lizard could. I wonder what those boys had seen then? Did their house get wiped off the map? Was someone they knew killed? Did they go hungry for a long time?

Then the Godzilla-kid noticed that I was watching them from the hotel’s porch and came over.

“¿Puedo tenerlo?”

I nodded and gave him my empty Coke-bottle figuring he’d probably trade it for a deposit if they had such a thing here.

But the boy ran back to his friend and put the Coke bottle on top of a jerry can, which was supposed to be a high tower soon to be in the monster’s path. And seconds afterward, his friend kicked the whole construction so the can and the bottle made a racket and the receptionist came out and yelled at them. But they just laughed and retreated into the alley on the other side.

Passing me, the kid with the t-shirt grinned. “Muchas gracias, gringa.”

I waved at him and wondered if I shouldn’t try drawing up my own toy city.

Photo by bill wegener on Unsplash

Diamond Dust

Diamond Dust

They walked together, through the morning snow. Hand in hand. They were talking about the present and the future, but in reality, the only thing that counted was the here and now. The awakening sun made the snow glitter like diamond dust. One day, when one of them wasn’t there anymore, the other would often think of those special mornings and imagine that if they had continued walking, never stopped, they would still be together.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Working Class Hero

Working Class Hero

“—You really think so?” The tall skinny man with the sunglasses laughs in a distinctly mocking tone after I tell him that I think The Beatles are ‘kind of bland’. 

It is my first day waiting tables here and I already screwed up by offending one of the customers, and since my boss is at the counter five yards away, I’m probably back on the street this evening. 

The skinny man lowers his sunglasses and looks directly at me, while I still balance the damn strawberry cakes and steaming black coffee on my tray, but now with noticeable trembling.

He then turns to the small Asian woman who is also seated at the table, all in black. She is looking away from us, a knotted fist under her chin, looking like she is either very tired of the man—or of me. 

Now, for a 20-something from the country who has been hustling for ages to get somewhere in life—at least somewhere with a steady paycheck – my nerves get the better of me. It has only been two weeks since I was fired from the last place because I was too slow and ‘had an attitude’.  

“Did you ‘ear that?” the man asks the woman in his peculiar nasal accent. “I ask her what she thinks of The Beatles and she says ‘bland’.”

The woman shakes her head, then fixes me with a penetrating stare. “You can put the coffee down now, dear.”

“W-why, yes. Of course.” By some miracle, I get both the cake and coffee onto their table without spilling anything. “I am sorry if you happen to like … The Beatles.”

The man grins. “Not anymore.”

The woman shakes her head. “Can we please—”

I almost bow and retreat quickly. On my way a couple by the wall with all the movie star pictures call out to me. They ordered soup – where is it? They quickly go back to talking excitedly like they had had a revelation, and the man fondles his wedding ring and nods at the woman with knowing eyes. I hate him already.

And before I can get to the lovebirds, I have to serve an elderly, very querulous man who insists that a piece of pastry contains chocolate when it does not. It takes me a while to sort that out and it doesn’t make me shake any less when I come up to the counter for the next order. I fumble with the tray while Mr. Beck watches me and I am sure he has been doing it all the time. Then as I am finally ready to take the two damn bowls of tomato soup Mr. Beck puts his hand down on my tray.

“Getting to meet some of our regulars?” His voice is deep, inscrutable.

I glance nervously back toward the chocolate man, who is seated near the window where you can watch people buzzing by in the humid Village afternoon—all, it seems, with more control and direction over their lives than me. 

“You fixed that one fine,” Mr. Beck says. “But you’re not out of the woods yet.”

He nods toward the skinny man and the dark Asian woman, and his eyes narrow. 

I freeze. “I think I made him angry. Or the woman. Or both of them.”

The couple is huddled away in an alcove on the far side of the counter. In front of the counter and all the way up to the street door, there are only a few other patrons who seem likewise stuck in their own worlds, as if each shining brown table was a mini-universe all of its own. The chocolate man seems especially happy with the pastry that is the exact same type as he had dismissed 10 minutes earlier.

Mr. Beck kept staring at me. 

I lowered my voice. “When I came over this guy kept looking at me like he was expecting me to say something, and then I got jittery and so when he asked me … it just flew out. I’m sorry.”

“Have you ever seen The Beatles, Miss Sawyer?” 

“You mean—”

“What they look like. On TV? In the papers?”

“Once or twice. I think.”

Mr. Beck frowns. “What planet are you from, girl?”

I bite my lip to stay calm. “Please, I want the job—”

“Sure, you do.” He leans over the counter and a heavy hand finds my shoulder. “And now I believe you when you say you grew up on that Mormon farm and then ran away to India.”

It feels as if my cheeks are on fire.  “I—I should never talk about anything except business to customers ever again. Never.”

A tight smile crosses Mr. Beck’s lips. “No, I think you should talk like a normal human being, not a mannequin.”

“But how—”

“Just serve that damn tomato soup

“—Excuse me—”

I swallow my own breath when I hear the nasal accent again. The tall man is standing behind me. He pushes up his sunglasses to rest in his mangy hair. Then he fumbles for something in his pocket and pulls out a 20-dollar bill and presses it into my hand. “I almost forgot to leave a tip.”

I stare at the bill. 

“Keep it,” the man says quickly. “I appreciate honesty.”

“And peace and quiet.” Mr. Beck sighs. “Pity such things are only possible for so long.”

“What’s your name, luv?” asks the man. 

I tell him.

“That is a lucky name,” he says enigmatically. “And you are a real hero—well, a heroine. You say what you think. I like that.”

“He likes it too much, sometimes.” The small Asian woman has come up, like a shadow, behind the man. “Especially if it is him saying what he thinks. It will get him into trouble.”

The man smiles faintly now but keeps looking at me. “I hope you’ll serve us some more cake and coffee another day, Deborah.”

“Certainly, Mr. —”

“Boogie. Dr. Winston O’Boogie.”

“You are a doctor? How … nice.” I struggle to keep smiling as if the surname sounded like anything but a doctor’s.

“Yes, I’m a doctor. Kind of.”

“So you, er, have patients?” I go red again. That sounded incredibly stupid.

But the man keeps smiling politely. “They come and go. I’m sort of on an extended leave of absence right now, though.”

The woman takes the man by the arm. “Come.”

“Well,” he nods at me for a final time. “I guess we have to be absent.”

When they have gone, I glance over at their table. At least they have eaten their cakes. Another guest yells after me to bring the soup and I bring it over like it’s a bomb I trying to get rid of.

When I come back again to the counter Mr. Beck is still there. I look down but he waves dismissively at me. “Snap out of it, Miss Sawyer. You made a new friend, I am sure of it. I am also sure you should listen to something other than that hippie yoga music of yours.”

“Oh, like what?”

He hesitates briefly, glancing at the empty cake table.  “Never mind,” he then says with finality. “The friend part is the most important. Friends come back—again and again.”

*

Photo by Michael Aleo on Unsplash

*

Connected story: “Nancy Culpepper” in Nancy Culpepper: Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason (2007)