She sat alone at the smallest table in the place, furthest from the door.
She looked cold, although he wasn’t sure why, since it was roughly 95 degrees outside.
Her frail, white fingers wrapped around her coffee cup, each collecting its share of the warmth.
He thought he saw a tear slip into her cup, dissolving as if it were just another granule of sugar, but he could not be sure.
“Robert, wake up, man. You’ve got a customer!”
He didn’t realize until his manager spoke that he had been entranced by this woman since she entered the cafe.
He wondered what her story could be as he went to take the order of a family he had not seen before, although they were pretty typical of the families he waited on: two frazzled parents, two unruly children, no order whatsoever.
His eyes were still on the woman despite the task before him, “What can I get ya guys?”
“Johnny, tell the man what you want. Johnny! Tell the man what you want.”
“Pancakesssss!! With chocolate chips!”
Robert was pretty sure he had never had a customer so excited about pancakes. As the children ran off to shake the gumball machine in the corner, he focused back on the mother, convinced she had aged at least three years since she entered the cafe.
“Ma’am? If you’d like, I can leave out the chocolate chips, and blame it on the cook.” The last thing this woman needed was her children to consume more sugar.
She placed her clammy hand on his forearm, “That would be lovely. Thank you.”
He wondered if the dad had a pulse as he went to place the order behind the counter.
Immediately, he recognized her subdued, shaky voice. He cringed, but turned around with a smile.
“Can you get me some more coffee when you have a chance?”
Her politeness almost irritated him, although he could not say why.
“Of course. Are you planning to order any food? I can bring you a menu.”
“Just the coffee, for now, thank you.”
He was eager for this woman to leave the cafe. She set him off-balance somehow. He felt like perhaps he should say something to her, but he could not reckon what a lonely woman could possibly need to hear from a 16-year old drop-out.
She asked for six more refills and he waited on eleven more customers before she decided to leave.
He was eyeing her as she did it, although he was eyeing her most of the day. She hadn’t looked up from her coffee much, but before she threw her change on the table and grabbed her sweater to leave, her eyes drifted away from her coffee, scanned the restaurant, stared intently at a woman with a young boy, and then she sighed. He could feel the weight of her sigh from across the restaurant as he scrubbed a table that had just been occupied by a slovenly man, who was a heart attack waiting to happen.
She withdrew from the restaurant slowly, if not reluctantly. She stopped unexpectedly and whispered something to the mother and son before she exited out the back. He watched her walk around the corner, eager to detect what kind of car she drove, but she was out of sight before he had the chance.
Her sigh stayed with him for the rest of the day, making him feel weighted, sluggish, somewhat lifeless.
As he counted his tips that evening, hopeful he had made enough for a pack of beer, a group of his friends walked in.
“Dude! It’s like you live here! Come with us to Julie’s party tonight. She promised us a whole lotta dope and her parents are outta town.”
“Dude! Keep it down, will ya? I’d like to keep this job,” Robert replied as he scanned the area behind him to see if anyone had overheard. “I’m good for tonight. I’m just gonna head home.”
“Wow, man. You sure have been keeping it squeaky clean since you left Lincoln High. I thought once you were outta school, you’d party more.”
“I don’t have the luxury of partying, Sam. I’m all I’ve got to count on.”
The gang, as if they were one person, turned to leave, but not before they knocked a bottle of ketchup off the table, making sure it landed in just a way that it sprayed all over the side of a booth.
“Jackass,” Robert mumbled as he grabbed the nearest rag to clean up the mess.
Robert had only been working at the cafe for 6 weeks, but his manager seemed to have some faith in him–she might be the first person who ever has. Today would be the first morning he will open the cafe on his own.
It is a drizzly morning and the sun has not yet pulled over the horizon. He fumbles with the keys in the yellow glow provided by the streetlight, throws open the door, and gropes for the light switch.
As soon as light floods the booths in front of him, his eyes drift to the table in the back. A day later and he can still feel the presence of the woman in the corner. He regrets not making her a plate of food, even though she didn’t ask for it.
It has been a busy morning. He was determined to get the place in proper shape before his manager arrived, and once he flipped the sign on, the rush was intense. He is so relieved to have Liza to help him serve today. She only works part-time, but the days she is with him are always better.
“Robert! Grab the customer in the corner, I’ve got a mess back here!”
His cheeks immediately react to the sound of Liza’s voice. Robert, calm yourself, dude. She’ll notice, he thinks as he grabs his pad and makes his way through the crowd to the corner.
He really was not expecting to see her. While he fell asleep last night, he wrote her story, and determined she was some sort of hippy bum just passing through town. All the air in his chest leaves him at once when he accidently lets her eyes lock on his.
There’s that weak voice again. Robert notices his hand is shaking as he reaches for his pen.
“Will it just be coffee again today?” he asks, diverting his eyes. .
“Actually, I think I’ll take a menu.”
He backpedals away from her as quickly as possible, fully aware he has been rather rude.
“H-hey Liza?” Robert waits for the rush to pass before he bothers her.
“What’s up, Robert?”
The way she nonchalantly speaks to him, without even looking up, reminds him she is not interested.
“Um… would you mind taking over the customer in the corner?”
“Why? Aren’t you mostly done with her? She’s just sipping coffee now.”
Robert grapples for a believable excuse, “I know, but she just kind of, bugs me,” he is irritated that this is the best he could come up with.
Liza slaps a hand on his shoulder as a sarcastic smile plays across her face, “You’re a big boy. I think you can handle it.”
To Robert’s dismay, the rest of the day is rather slow. The heart attack comes in again and seems to order double from the day before.
Liza leaves at noon.
His manager leaves at two, the slowest time of day, to get a haircut.
Now, it is just Robert and the woman in the corner.
He pretends a table near her needs to be wiped.
“Can I get you anything else? Your coffee must be cold. Do you want me to top it off? We’ve also got some really good smoothies. I could whip one up for you.”
He is trying to make up for his previous brusqueness, but he still feels like he is failing somehow. When she looks up at him she is coming back from somewhere else, as if her mind has taken her a long way from the cafe.
“Oh. Uh… no thanks. I’m good.”
“Are you…uh… waiting for someone or something?”
“Yes. How’d you know?”
“No one hangs out in here this long for sheer joy, that’s all,” he tries to smile.
“I hope he’ll be here soon.”
As he walks away, he can’t shake the feeling that her hope is dwindling, despite what she said.
This time, when she finally decides to leave, he follows her out the door.
“Will you… will you be back tomorrow?”
Her face puzzles at his question, “I don’t know. You’re probably getting sick of me, and you have to admit, I’m not the world’s best tipper.”
She turns to walk away but he is suddenly grabbing her arm, more forcefully than he intends, “I just… I just think you should come back. Maybe the person you are waiting for will come tomorrow.”
There’s that sigh again, it comes from a place within her she buried long ago, “Maybe you’re right.”
He fights the urge to run after her. Yesterday, he hoped to never see her again, but today, he just knows he is supposed to help her.
Robert can’t sleep that night. He tosses. He turns. He rewrites her story. He no longer wants her to be a hippy bum. He isn’t even sure what a hippy bum is anyway. Instead, he decides, she is a kind-hearted woman, beautiful at one time, but is down on her luck, hoping for something good.
He can’t believe his manager let him open again today. She either really has faith in him or she doesn’t care a bit about her livelihood. He considers it has to be the latter, rather than the former.
Liza wouldn’t be in today. That means he won’t have to try to impress her with his magnificent waiter skills. Unfortunately, that’s all he had as a way to impress her.
The rush from yesterday is just a memory–today has been excruciatingly slow. The manager keeps Robert busy by giving him useless tasks. Fill the ketchup bottles. Order more sauerkraut. Wipe all the chairs down.
He is happy to be kept busy because every spare moment he has is spent staring at the corner, then the door, then the corner, then the door. She has to come in today. He deserves one more chance to get a backbone. Just one more chance….
The bell above the door finally rings at half past 3, but he doesn’t immediately turn around. He has managed to convince himself she isn’t coming and he doesn’t want her to.
He doesn’t cringe. He doesn’t backpedal. At the sound of her muted, nearly inaudible voice, he turns with joy.
“Yes! Hello! What can I get you?”
“I think I will try one of those smoothies afterall.”
“Excellent choice! What kind?” Robert is worried his enthusiasm might scare her away.
“You pick. Whatever you like best.”
Five minutes later he brings her a watermelon smoothie. It is the only watermelon smoothie he’s ever been aware of, so he thinks maybe it will be new to her, too. He is surprised to see she has taken a seat at the counter.
“You’re shooting for a different view today, huh?”
“I guess I could use some company, maybe a distraction. I hope you don’t mind. You don’t seem all that busy today.”
“I don’t mind a bit. I’ve been bored outta my mind all day.”
Silence hangs in the air like stale smoke.
He clears his throat as she sips her smoothie, “So… who is it then that you’re waiting for?”
She seems caught off guard by his question, nearly spilling her smoothie, “Oh. Um. Just an old acquaintance.”
“You seem pretty determined to see just an old acquaintance.”
At this, her eyelids flutter and her eyes become teary. Crap. You made her cry.
She doesn’t speak for a long time, but finally, “Sometimes you just regret something so deep within your soul you are not even sure it is worth it to keep eating, keep fighting, keep living. I swear not a soul would notice if I killed myself.”
Her head bows and she inhales sharply as she realizes what she’s said, panic has crept into her voice when she speaks again, “I am so sorry. You didn’t need to hear that. Please. Oh, I’m so sorry.”
She frantically digs in her purse for a couple bucks to throw on the counter. One dollar. He had to speak if he was going to speak. She digs. He begs God for words. Two dollars. Think, Robert, don’t let her leave. Don’t let her leave. Three dollars. Crap. Speak!
She turns suddenly to leave, the stool beneath her screaming for attention, when his words spew from his mouth like fire, “I would notice!”
“If you killed yourself. I would notice.”
“Oh, honey. You are so sweet. Please don’t think this is your chance to save a suicidal lunatic. I’m not going to actually do it. I don’t have the guts.”
“It’s your son, isn’t it?”
She takes a step away from him, then another, until she runs into the pop dispenser.
“What’s my son, now?”
“That’s who you’re waiting for? Your son?”
She sighs heavily, this time with surprisingly even more weight and power than the previous times, “Oh… wow… how did you know that? Do you know him?”
The hope within her voice is almost too much for him to bear; he senses, yet rejects, the urge to run. Her green eyes pierce through the hole she left inside him. The word, long forgotten, surfaces from his soul like a fish rises from water, unannounced. His lips move before his mind comprehends the repercussions, and in an exhalation, this abandoned boy utters a single, foreign word,
He swears that for that one moment her eyes change color, as her cracked lips begin to quiver.
The space between them, dramatically smaller than it has been in years, feels impassable and ominous–neither of them move. Robert feels like a magnet: one side of him wanting to run to her; the other side, to run away.
She takes a hesitant step toward him, full of hope; the color has drained from her face and her tears seem to have dried up, as if his news is a drought to her soul, instead of the other way around.
He is not sure if she has actually said this or if his name caught in her throat. Either way, the presence of his name on her lips makes him nearly crumble.
“Robert… can you forgive me?”
He frantically grapples to find the answer he has been searching for nearly all his life. Did she deserve to be forgiven? Her should be ready with an answer, now that he is finally staring straight into her eyes, the exact same shade of green as his. Does she deserve it? Does she deserve it? Does she deserve it?
Her eyes are searching, begging, darting back and forth. Her hands are shaking so much he thinks maybe they have detached from her body. This is when he finally speaks, quietly and desperately unsure of himself, “Of course, mom, I forgive you.”
They both lose track of time, space, reality when they finally embrace at the end of the counter. Tears fall from his eyes for the first time since he was 7, when she walked out of his life. Their hug encompasses nine years of missed hugs, missed opportunities, missed love and when they eventually let go, the evasive answer Robert has been searching for becomes overwhelmingly apparent: Yes, she deserves a second chance, and so does he.