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Mystery

That morning that he grasped the coffee cup tightly in two hands changed several lives. He was a narrow man, short but spindly like a miniature crane, with a gray beard swaying, alive, down to his angled knees. While sitting at the bar in the Growling Bear Breakfast Stop, off the interstate, he ordered coffee and shivered although it was warm.

The waitress gave an empty smile when he asked her to keep his cup topped off. He was wearing a tunic dyed a shade of orange that she, nor anyone else, had ever seen or would ever see again and his wild hair, beneath a pale green sandman’s cap, trailed down his back. He said to her in a voice that was scratchy and parched, “Keep my cup topped off, please. The weather here, like the inhabitants, is much colder than my home.”

Was she supposed to take this seriously? She wondered to herself with a grumble. Why did all the crazies have to come in on her shift? “Sure thing,” she said and poured in as much as there was room for. Rolling her gray eyes behind his back for the benefit of the line cook who raised a questioning and drippy spatula in response, as if to ask, “shall I clog his arteries for you?” She smiled blandly and moved down the counter. The rat-like wielder of the spatula resumed flipping sausage patties.

"Refill please,” he requested quietly but with strength as she passed behind him several hours later.

“Do you,” he asked her in that same raspy, firm voice while he watched the brown liquid, thicker than it should have been, swim into his cup.

“Whistle.”

Looking at him blankly for half a second and then absent-mindedly touching the name embroidered on her apron before pulling her blondish hair back off her shoulder, she spoke quickly - a brush off.

“Oh yeah, I guess I do but it’s a family name. You know. Like the painter... Whistler’s Mother...all that crap.”

“Where I am from we are named for who we are. We live our names. What we are called and our actions identify us. If we alter, so does our name.”

“Right. You need anything else?” she asked, starting to walk away before he could answer.

“Whistler, I’d like a piece of that pie,” indicating the glass case behind the counter with a wrinkle of his nose in its general direction.

There he sat for hours through the busy moments, the clanging of dishes, the breaking of glass, the swaying moods of the jukebox and the changing of shifts. He ate several apple pies and sipped endless cups of coffee from the brown mug that he held with both hands. His slight tremor, which he attributed to the cold, never stopped.

When, after many hours, Whistler returned for her Tuesday dinner shift she was startled to see the man still on his stool, crouching low and sipping.

“Hello, Whistler,” he said with a humored smile as she tied her apron on and grabbed the coffee pot with slender, rough and reddened hands.

“Look,” she said quickly and quietly so that none of the other customers might hear, “don’t you have anywhere else to go? I mean have you been sitting there for more two days? Drinking cup after cup? Who are you? I mean, I don’t know how come Jim hasn’t kicked you out of here yet but it’s only a matter of time. You should leave, you know. Just go.”

“He looked at her silently for what seemed to be an immensely long time. For a moment she tried to stare him down and eventually, wearily, wiping her forehead with the back of her free hand she growled, “say something.”

“Finally, as if setting down a heavy box, he sighed. “Once upon a time, it seems is the only way to start any sort of fairy story. I’d like to share a story with you. I don’t want to defend it. I will not give it away for any trade but I would like to share the weight of it with you, Whistler. May I?”

“She didn’t know what was happening. Leaning all of her own weight against the waist-high counter she knew only that she was hopelessly confused. What did he say about fairy tales? And what kind of person was this strange character that wouldn’t leave? Even stranger than all of this other was the desire that called out inside of her to listen to him.

“Okay, look,” she said, “I don’t know who you are or where you come from. I don’t know what you are talking about but I have spent way too much time here already. I have tables to serve, a job to do. People depend on me and I can’t waste my time listening to some crazy, old, homeless guy in a dress with a caffeine buzz who wants to tell me a fairy tale.”

“I will wait. I have been waiting. I will continue." Looking not at her eyes but at the nearly translucent skin directly beneath them that revealed tiny veins and wrinkles, like paper that’s been crumpled and flattened out again. He pushed the coffee cup toward her, silently requesting more.

Her shift ended at midnight. There were only a handful of customers peppered throughout the dining room. At the counter, which Whistler had avoided all afternoon and evening, there was no one except for the little man who had waited patiently, just as he had said. Sitting down on the stool next to him, she gave in a little.

“Alright. If I listen to your story will you leave?”

“Wouldn’t that be a trade?” he asked with the arch of a skeptical brow. “I will only share it. Not sell it. I will give you a little of this story I have and that shall become yours. I will also keep a little of it for myself.”

“What are you on?” she asked in exasperation. “I mean, aren’t you tired? Don’t you want to go home?”

“I am very tired. I want to go home. I want to go home more than anyone has ever wanted anything but I am on a quest that must be completed. You are also tired, I know, for you are also on a quest. Don’t try to deny it to me, although you may continue to deny it to yourself. But, if you wish it, I will leave.”

The little man hopped down lithely from the stool and Whistler noticed for the first time just how small and birdlike he was. He lifted his beard and draped it several times around his neck, long and scarf-like and stepped towards the doors. Before she knew what she was doing she’d called him back and led him to a red upholstered booth near the rear of the diner. Sitting down, with a sigh and the creek of tired knees, she leaned in and whispered, “I don’t know why, but I want to hear it.”

With a gleeful hiccup he began.


April 15, 2020 02:00

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3 comments

09:44 Apr 23, 2020

I would like to know that story too 😩

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09:41 Apr 23, 2020

Full of suspense, i would like to hear that story too .

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02:05 Apr 19, 2020

Really well done!

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