Fiction American Contemporary

This story contains sensitive content

Warning: Contains some (minimal) gun violence.

I was near enough to the door to catch the kiss of ice when it opened and to be reassured when the frigid blast shrunk proportionally to the width of the narrowing crack that the chill that still resided in my bones would eventually diminish.

A family came through. I only dared to catch a glimpse from my station as I posed over the half-empty coffee cup that graces the three-foot-diameter table my elbows rest rudely against. The father led, head held high with a gray fedora and a black band tilted like Fred Astaire over blue eyes. A black overcoat lay over his gray slacks and shoes that shone black with the bright reflection of bar lights. The woman followed, looking exactly like a stock image copy of Audrey Hepburn, complete with red gloves and a permanent smile.

The child stopped me. By this point, the family had taken an available table far away from me, but I had already captured them. I bit my lip and then pulled the coffee up to my lips. It was cold, but it gave me something to do, so I sipped. I sipped and tried not to imagine the sounds of gunshots. I closed my eyes to force out the painfully reconstructed image of what I hadn’t seen: my daughter screaming for her life and finding no hope.

My psychiatrist, in ages past, when I’d had one. I can still see her pushing up her thick black glasses and staring through those thick lenses.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Nothing. I don’t care.”

“Your daughter?”

I shook. And I shook my head. But after four sessions of me staring at the wall and not telling her anything, and after six weeks of not going to work because—well, what was the point anymore? And after a week and a half of coming home afterward at night only to find my wife, that lover of life who enticed me out onto the dance floor at every wedding we’d ever attended, mired down in her own tears and so unable to attend mine, I’d built up a debt. So I obliged myself to talk. And the only question I could ever ask was: “Why?”

My psychiatrist never had an answer, so I stopped going. I don’t mean to see her. I mean to see anyone. I spent my days wandering the streets because any destination was as good as the next; no one would have her smiling face and thick curls. Even home became desolate without my wife’s smile or the fresh flowers she loved to put out. A dozen roses had decayed on our dining room table to the point of nakedness. Discarded petals littered the expensive oak surface.

The little girl who had just come into the shop with her family? That girl had my daughter’s eyes, deep, dark, and golden-brown like fried hash browns. Those eyes used to stare at me like I was everything in the world, just like in those sad country songs that sometimes played in the dive bars I began to frequent. I was everything in the world to one person, and now…

I wanted a hug. I knew it wasn’t my Emma, but I wanted a hug because I could close my eyes for just a second and pretend.

I’m not the kind of guy you hug. Not anymore.

I spent last night on the corner of Fifth and Woodstock in a car that no longer drives and that technically still belonged to my wife. I hadn’t had a bath in three days because the only way I could bathe was to use an unattended outside faucet, and in the coldness of flesh and spirit, I couldn’t convince myself to do so.

I caught myself staring.

So did the father.

He raised one Fred Astaire eyebrow under the higher side of the hat and glanced my way. It was only a glance, but it was long, and I could tell he saw me more than I’d wanted him to. Nobody should ever see me because when others see people like me, they kick me out of places. I felt the tears streaking down my cheeks even as I slurped down the last of the coffee.

I know. I couldn’t help it. The coffee was to hide my inability to control my crying, so I drank, knowing that the waiter in the corner had seen me and had smelled me when he brought me my first. And I knew I had a dollar in my pocket and another cup costed a dollar and a quarter. Sure enough, the waiter came over exactly at that time.

“Sir, are you okay?” he asked. I know better. What he really meant was “Sir, you’re making the other customers nervous.” In a lower-class establishment, he’d have said those words exactly. I wiped my eyes with the backs of my hands. Then I looked at them more closely—my hands, not my eyes. Cracks encircled my knuckles and cuts ran across the back. These weren’t the same hands they used to be. Once, they were the hands of a software engineer and a master at his trade. Once, those hands could type more than a hundred words a minute, each exactly what was intended. Now? They were broken, suitable for only one thing—hugging a small child I would never see again.

“I’m fine,” I muttered.

“Would you like another coffee?”

“I’m fine.”

“If you’re not having another, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

See? I told you.

“I’m not…”

“He is,” came a delicate flower of a voice beside me. I looked over to see Audrey Hepburn approaching. “How much for a coffee?”

“A dollar twenty-five,” the waiter muttered, not bothering to conceal the disappointment in his voice.

“How much do you need?” came the man’s voice. The little girl even had gotten up from the table and followed her parents to me. She placed a tiny hand on my foot, resting against the stool. I looked away. The man put his Fred Astaire hand on my shoulder and repeated himself.

“I have a dollar,” I told him.

“Clearly not enough for a coffee,” the waiter said. “It’s time for you to leave, sir.”

“Here,” the man said, flicking a coin to the man. “This quarter should make up the difference. And get him as many coffees as he wants. On me.”

He turned to me then.

“George,” he said, as though someone named George Forlento still existed inside this shell of a human. “George, I’m so sorry.”

I looked down to where the girl stood. Green eyes. Like someone, I knew or someone George had known a year before.

“It’s the anniversary today,” I told him, even though the father hadn’t asked.

“I know,” the man said, squeezing gently. “I know.”

I looked again at the little girl, and another memory surfaced. This one was of a playground after school and a spinning merry-go-round that the students would play on, that my Emma would play on.

“Kathy?” I asked, seeing her clearly for the first time.

“I miss Emma,” the little girl said.

“We all do,” said the woman, Kathy’s mother, to whom I’d never taken the time to introduce myself. “Stay as long as you like, George. We’ll pay.”

For the second time, my eyes betrayed me. I could only imagine the tracks my tears made down the sides of my weathered face. I sniffled once and offered half a smile, which was more than I’d smiled in the entire previous year.

The waiter brought me a coffee, and I gave him the dollar. When I eventually shuffled out into the night, only me, half a coffee, and Emma’s memory kept me warm. And the little girl’s words.

January 11, 2023 01:35

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22:28 Jan 17, 2023

Great story!


Andrew Sweet
01:39 Jan 21, 2023

Thank you!


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