by Christopher Moylan
How the store survived for as long as it did was a mystery. Why it died suddenly, after holding out for so long, grimly unchanging amidst the incursion of the high end and the fashionable, was a greater mystery still. It was a discount store, purveyor of overstock and cheap remainders, dark and filled to overflowing with things no one seemed to want. It was there for as long as anyone could remember. Then it wasn’t.
He happened upon the place when an errand took him out of his way. and he found himself in what used to be an enclave of odd little shops selling antique buttons, handmade shoes, spare parts for vanished technology, faded prints and naughty snapshots. It was a vice of his at one time to waste an occasional lunch hour wandering from store to store, rifling through through bins in the vague hope that he could find something of value in all that stuff. He never bought anything. It was just killing time.
Someone at the office had mentioned a while back that the store had closed. There followed some brief discussion of real estate prices in the area, and the loss of mom and pop stores. No one could remember what the owners looked like, or what the name of the store was, if it had a name. The old man, as he was called, was relieved that no one drew him into the conversation. He was senior to everyone else, not terribly old, but he couldn’t remember those details either, and he had been to the store on a number of occasions. This wasn’t the first time he had drawn a blank like that. He had a moment of panic as he tried to enter the place in his mind where that information was kept, and failed. What did it say about him that he couldn’t, as they say, access memories so recent?
Then again, what did it matter? The store was gone. There was no point in filling that blank with details he would never use anyway. He knew what the store would be like when he came to it—aisles once overflowing with cheap, dated kitchen items and plastic toys now dark and empty. The cash register open. Old fashioned numerical keys scattered across the floor like broken teeth. Variations of that scenario had played out many times over the years.
Yet, when he came to the corner where the empty storefront should have been, even that melancholy remnant of the past was gone, effaced entirely by a cafe, as it might be called, a clean, bright rectangle set off against the more conventional facades of a commercial block. How long had it been since he had walked this way, and ducked in for a moment, angling his hip past some stack of cut rate bleach or plastic toys so dated and quaint it made him sad to look at them. Small plastic soldiers with frozen expressions of triumph, agony, or death.
The shop was done in a minimalist style, with an all white treatment in the walls and floors, spare marble tables widely disbursed, and a counter top of brushed steel with a white aluminum facing. A large espresso machine dominated the counter on one side. Behind it stood a steel commercial sink of the same functional simplicity as everything else. Opaque, sliding glass panels beneath it may have opened to a refrigerator or shelving. Otherwise the walls were bare.
There was no information on what the shop had on offer. No coffee menu or blackboard with specials of the day. No drawings of steam rising from a coffee cup. No information of any kind.
The old man stood across the road, staring at the wall-like, opaque facade. He hesitated to betray his memory of the old shop, more a desolate impression than a memory at this point, by venturing into this new place, more blank page than a cafe. It was just this lack of any inducement to try the place, any vulgar appeal to the new or the exciting, that persuaded him to cross the street. He respected the cafe’s gesture to the pioneering and modern, even if he was not convinced yet that the gesture was successful.
The entrance had no handle, merely a depression, the size of a matchbox, which, with slight pressure drew the door to the side. As the door closed behind him the noise of the outside world diminished to an ambient buzzing and static. With each step inside the noise shook tore from his clothes and hair like a dusting of ash. It was a gimmick, of course, some manipulation of the sound system to suggest that he was entering a hermetically sealed environment, shedding the outside world as he made his way to a table.
He slid his valise under the table and draped his coat on the back of the iron chair, looking about him to get his bearings. The white paint on the walls and floorboards bleached out orienting lines and demarcations so what looked on the outside to be an intimate spot now loomed about him like a theater to which he had arrived too soon, or far too late. He was about to leave, as the whole experience was making him self-conscious, when he noticed he was not alone.
A man and a woman stood behind the counter, watching him impassively. The man wore a white cloth slung over his shoulder, the woman wore an apron. Otherwise there was not much to distinguish them besides their gender. They were young and gaunt, austerely attractive in their white uniforms and owl shaped glasses. Cut from the same cloth, as the old man said to himself. The man stood a few inches taller than his partner, his partner wore her hair a few inches further down the neck. They were familiar, somehow. Of course, they would seem familiar. as one get older the young tend to look like versions of people one has known over the years, incongruous and out of context, as if they had walked out of photographs from long ago. The waiter was like that: every hair in place, a counterfeit, a poor simulation.
Settled in his chair, he reached down to take up his briefcase and begin sorting through his papers and taking notes, as was his wont during lunchtime. But the briefcase wasn’t there. He swept his hands under his seat, looked behind him and under other chairs, then back to the entrance, with no success.
His heart began to beat rapidly, and he felt confused and short of breath. He distinctly remembered setting his valise down under the table by his feet, as he always did when he took his lunch at a restaurant. Perhaps the consistency of this ritual had tricked him into assuming that all was as usual. Lunch hour. Coffee shop. Valise with his papers. Always the same. He would put aside assumptions and try to figure out what happened.
He shut his eyes and tried to think what he could have done with such a heavy, considerable object as a briefcase stuffed with personnel files. He might have set it down on the street corner, or left it at the office, or perhaps near the security guard in the front hall to the office building since he made it a point to say a friendly word to the guard. The briefcase could have been anywhere if it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. This was no good.
He shrugged on his coat and rushed to the door, sweeping his hand along the smooth surface in search of a handle or switch. Frustrated, he shoved with all his limited strength against the metal surface, succeeding only in bruising his hip. This was the last time he would patronize a new, artsy place, he thought. At least with a greasy spoon he knew what he was getting.
“Your coffee.” The waiter pointed to the table where a cup of espresso and two sugar cubes on a saucer were waiting for him.
“I’m sorry, but I left my bag somewhere and I need to look for it,” said the old man, feeling foolish suddenly.
“My bag, it has papers…” he said again, having met with no response from the waiter, not even a shrug.
The old man felt his voice trailing off; what did this fellow know or care about losing work related papers, or losing track of anything more important than a woman’s phone number. Up close, the waiter was strikingly handsome, with high cheekbones and dark, brooding eyes that reminded the old man of a movie star whose name he couldn’t quite remember.
The old man was contemplating his own romantic adventures, not the specifics but the feeling of confidence and spontaneity they gave him at times, an almost artistic impromptu, when the waiter took him by the elbow with one hand and made a sweeping gesture with the other. It would have been pointless, and terribly humorless, to resist.
When they got to the table where the old man had been sitting the waiter took up the suit coat from the back of the chair and shook it a couple of times, sending little bursts of static and noise into the air. He draped the coat over the old man’s shoulders, a gesture one couldn’t help but feel was annoying in its familiarity.
“I didn’t order coffee,” the old man said, arranging the coat so it would sit more securely. The dafe was chilly, despite the summer heat outside.
“You will find an extensive desert menu,” said the waiter, with a nod to the wall above the counter. “Take your time.”
The old man was surprised to see an elaborate list of pastries and the like inscribed in a light blue cursive, just above where the waitress was standing. Before he had time to consider, the waiter was at his right hand side carefully placing a plate of biscuits on the table. He withdrew to the counter without saying a word. There was nothing for the old man to do but play his part in this bit of theater. He hated to be unpleasant and, in any event, a jolt of caffeine might be just the ticket.
The first sip of espresso stung as if a lover had bitten the inside of his lip. The sensation turned slowly to a consoling sweetness as the sugar dissolved on his tongue. With each sip the process repeated just as vividly: the sharp, yet pleasurable assault on the inside of his mouth, the dissipating caress of the sugar on his tongue, and last the taste of the coffee unfolding all its complexities for one long moment. By the time he finished the tiny cup he was lightheaded and perspiring.
He pushed the cup aside then ate a biscuit in two bites, using the tip of his forefinger to gather the few crumbs from the plate. The biscuit restored him somewhat. He’d forgotten to take lunch. It was no wonder the coffee had the effect on him that it did. He settled in his chair and considered whether to order something else, perhaps another coffee and some fruit, if they had it. No one would miss him back at the office. Scarcely anyone knew what his position—Personnel Accounts Manager— entailed
The woman at the coffee machine was looking at him. He blushed to think that she had watched him childishly picking crumbs off a plate, then realized that his hand was shaking visibly. The stress of work, he decided. It was good to be away from the office. How could anyone think amidst the clickety clack of keyboards, the constant ringing of phones, the bizarre blips and chimes of other devices. No wonder his hands shook.
Yes, now that he had some time to get used the place he could well understand the appeal of this subdued interior, so simple and meditative. This was just the place to get some real work done: work on paper, with a pen, the old fashioned way. He would get twice as much done here as at the office, and he wouldn’t have to listen to the snide remarks about his plodding ways, the crude jokes about his age and white hair. They would be in his place someday, and they wouldn’t be laughing.
She looked up from her work again, her eyes dark and serious. He thought back over the years to women he knew, young and pretty like her. He married one like that, more than one, terribly serious and pretty, and he knew others, although just who they were he could no longer say. Faces. A certain timbre of voice he recalled out of the blue on occasion. Arguments, the weight of them on the chest. Longing. The sense of an elusive something in a woman he could never quite get to, no matter how he tried. Who she was…
What would it take to coax the mysteries from this young woman? Various scenarios came to mind in a rapid succession of images and imagined sensations: a touch of his hand on hers when it was time to pay the bill, a smile, a conversation over dinner. It was inappropriate, he knew, for him to be entertaining such thoughts at his age. It was partly her fault. She was looking in his direction, after all. studying his face. No doubt she was bored; where were the other customers? A place like this should have been bustling this time of day. All the better for him. He could work in peace.
He plopped a stack of files on the table, intending to distract himself with work. Life is a process of distracting oneself with work, he thought. Thoughts of lunch while at work, of work while at lunch, of what the evening would bring when he was home, always thoughts of what the evening would bring. Life was an elaborate conspiracy to kill time.
“Aren’t you going to finish what’s on your plate?” the woman said, taking a seat across the table from him. She pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, crossed her arms on the table and leaned so close to him he was tempted to reach over and brush the stray hairs from her forehead. She looked concerned.
“I thought I had,” he confessed, though a glance at the plate revealed another biscuit.
“You seem a bit confused. Are you all right?”
“I’m not sure where I am,” he confessed, feeling uneasy suddenly. “This place is new. There were other people here some time ago, people I knew slightly. Now I don’t see them.”
“We’ve been here for a while,” she said with a disarming smile. He wasn’t sure if she meant the two of them or the cafe.
“You have work to do. I’m keeping you from your work.” He didn’t recognize his own voice, so plaintive and frail. He gripped his knee with his left hand under the table and squeezed until it hurt.
“Don’t give it a thought,” she said, patting his hand and smiling, her eyes as dark and melancholy as ever. Her companion was shutting the lights off, row by row. “You never told me what you do,” she continued.
“Human resources. Strange term, isn’t it. Looking through all those files as if one were hoping to find oil, or gold or something. Have we met before?”
“Maybe I was in your files, the gold you were looking for,” she said, smiling flirtatiously and just a bit sadly, as will happen in encounters between young women and old men. But he wasn’t old, he assured himself, merely older, just as his office mates were not young, merely younger. But she was youth itself: her beauty a warm and generous climate one might enjoy as one enjoys a breeze in the midday heat…
“I used make every excuse to come here,” he said. “Some item I’d forgotten to pick up, or something I’d left behind and needed your help finding. It was a game. Or maybe it was more than that. I don’t know. Was it a game, do you think?”
“Would you like to think so?” she said, caressing the back of his hand. All the lights were dark now save for those just above the table. The cafe was now a gray blur punctuated here and there by the rounded, dark shapes of the chairs or what might have been other customers slumped over their coffee. It was impossible to tell without his glasses.
“Are other people here?” he asked.
“Nothing has changed since the last time you asked,” she said, gripping his hand now, and leaning closer to him. “Are you afraid to be alone with me?”
“I’m teasing,” she said, her smile achingly lovely, at once melancholy and seductive. “It’s always nice to see you, whatever the reason.”
She gave his hand another squeeze and let go to prop her head while she studied his face. Her partner was gone, perhaps to a room behind the counter.
He grabbed his valise from under the table and stood slowly. He wasn’t sure what to do next. It was dark in the cafe now and he was afraid he had been sitting there much too long, taking in this woman’s beautiful eyes, and her voice, so soft and kind, not at all the grave whisper that he had expected.
“Are you missing something,” the woman said.
“Sooner or later I’ll be missing something. I just don’t know what it is at the moment.”
“It will come to you,” she said.
“I really should get back to work,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to my watch…Now how could I be missing a watch? You see, this is what I was referring to.”
“Why don’t you have a seat,” she said. “Please, just have a seat for a few minutes more. There are some things I want to show you.”
Because she was so lovely and kind, he took his seat. She opened the briefcase and flipped through the contents, finally removing the contents, finally removing a manilla folder filled with envelopes of various sizes. She opened one of the envelopes and placed an image on the table.
It was a photograph, old process, a snapshot as they used to be called. A middle aged woman stood rigidly upright, looking off into the distance. She was wearing a long dress and a ruffled blouse buttoned at the neck. “What do you think,” the waitress said, studying his face.
“What an interesting picture,” he said. “How formal…”
“Do you recognize her?”
“I might,” he said. It was true; he might recognize her. That may have been the response he was feeling. A stirring, like hearing music coming from a great distance. But it came no closer. She showed other photos to him. Men, women, children, from different times, the picture quality changing, the color more or less convincing in some images, bleached out or saturated in others. He made the sounds people make when looking through old photos: brief, vague comments; grunts as if in recognition; sighs as if struck by some poignant memory. He nearly persuaded himself that she resembled a few of the women in the photos, something in their straight, lean carriage, an elegance and composure expensive to come by these days. She studied his face, looking for something he simply did not have to give he, much as he tried. The formula was not there, the appropriate words.
The waiter pulled up a chair and looked at the photos, then at his face. He was pleasant, encouraging. He wanted something to happen, but he understood the difficulty.
At last, there were no more photos. The woman took up the pictures and made a stack of them like playing cards. They went back into the manilla envelope and the envelope went back into the briefcase. The waiter and waitress concealed their disappointment behind pleasant smiles. They were kind. Had he more time, he would enjoy spending the afternoon with them exchanging stories, talking about love and adventure, their hopes for the cafe. These things were at a great distance from the old man now. They didn’t concern him personally. He was curious as to how those photos made their way into his files, the files of all those people whose lives he had sorted so carefully into the appropriate categories: promising, qualified, not qualified. The words bore the weight of a wrong he could not identify. Qualified for what? Promising? What did he promise, to whom? So much disappointment. What had he done?
“Are you ready,” she asked, standing over him with her hand extended to help him rise.
“I’m not sure,” he said, feeling frightened and weak, suddenly.
“It’s just a short way,” she said. “You know it’s time. Come.”
He took her hand rather than accept the proffered help from the waiter standing at his side. They walked to the back of the cafe and opened the door to an adjoining shop full of things he remembered from long ago: penny candy, windup toys, comic books and illustrated magazines, trick eyeglasses with eyes on springs, an ice box filled with soft drinks, a bottle opener on the side. Beyond the magazine racks and the ice box, beyond the scattered wooden boxes of fruit and vegetables, there were aisles of books. He thought he glimpsed others wandering down the aisles, but it was some distance and he could not be sure.
“Found what you wanted?” asked the waitress, now dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, her hair tied back with a ribbon. She waited for him to answer while he scanned the magazine rack and looked down the aisles of paperbacks receding into the dark. The question confused him. He didn’t know what to say. Her voice came from every direction, patient and sad, asking him the same question over and over.
“Forget what you wanted?”
He closed his eyes and heard the click of the door behind her. The waiter and waitress were gone, but surely there must be others somewhere down those dark aisles who would take notice of him. They couldn’t leave him here among the the old rotary dial telephones and cassette tapes, the old paperbacks with torn covers…A life is more than this… He breathed in the dusty air, listening to his heart slow, his thoughts scatter like dust and slowly settle. The store was so silent and still he looked again to make sure the boxes and bins were still there, the old books and magazines from so long ago. But they were gone. It was all gone and down the empty aisles the figures in white were walking towards him, slowly and methodically, come to take him back to that blank, white space and the questions he could not answer.
Christopher Moylan is an Associate Professor of English at NYIT where he publishes short fiction, poetry and literary criticism. He is also the founder of Magic Valley, an activist cultural center in the Catskills mountains, and a founding member of Novads, an online art and culture collective.