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“They say she lost a lover in Normandy,” said the man to the busboy, watching as the woman in the feathered-hat stared wistfully out from the café window. “She waits for someone who doesn’t come.”
The boy looked up at the man from the front counter with a furrow in his brow.
“You seem to worry,” the man said, peering down at him with a piteous glare.
“She sits by herself every day, for hours at a time,” the boy said, looking back at the woman.
“She just hasn’t come to terms with it,” the man said. “She misses him, son. I suppose you’d be too young to understand such loss.”
But what the man did not realize was that the boy and the woman were quite similar in age, separated by perhaps a mere five years. The boy had learned this over the past month, during which he had become acquainted with her presence. Every morning, just as he opened the café and settled the dishes for the day, she would walk in at six sharp, mumble, “Make it two,” and return to her usual booth. Day by day, her minute details had become familiar, like her pungent perfume, which permeated the thick wartime air of the café.
Yet, in spite of having seen her nearly every day, the boy was still drawn to the woman’s sadness; it resonated with him as a sentiment he knew in recent years, after his father had passed away. Thus, he found comfort in observing her actions; she seemed to mimic what he was once like after his own loss. He watched as she averted her gaze from the empty lawn beyond the window to fill her cup with dark roast coffee, glancing over at the second, which sat untouched, as if to see whether its fillings changed. The wide rim of her hat shaded half of her face, but he studied it nonetheless, absorbing the soft curves of her cheeks and chin, the lushness of her eyelashes, the cerulean hues of her eyes. In fact, she was quite beautiful; he had realized it gradually over the past month.
“I’ve seen you watch her,” the man from earlier said, suddenly reappearing beside the boy.
“I think I can help her,” the boy was about to respond, until he suddenly noticed the empty dark roast coffee pot sitting by the woman's side. He scurried over to her booth with a new one, filling her cup to the rim, which was permanently stained with her dark rouge.
“Would you like me to fill it up?” he asked shyly, pointing a finger to the second empty cup. The woman looked at him all of a sudden, as if stunned by his voice. The coffee cup quivered in her hands. Hesitantly, she shook her head. “Because I can—I can fill it up, if you would like,” the boy muttered. The woman shook her head once more, pursing her lips, and glancing away. But when the boy turned, she watched him, suddenly cognizant of his presence in the café. He reminded her of someone she had once known, someone whose memory had, over the days, become fleeting.
At the front counter, the boy prepared to close for the day, placing the used cups and plates in a dingy basket. He carried them out to the back and set them into the sink, which had overflowed from his negligence. But on this particular day, his mind continued to wander to the woman. For weeks, she had appeared and reappeared, carrying an aura of mystery, of unresolved grief. But suddenly knowing that she, like him, had yet to have accepted loss only sparked his curiosity. Perhaps, he, too, felt the same.
When the boy returned to the front, he was greeted by the same man from before.
“Boy, here’s your money,” he said, handing the boy a decrepit twenty dollar bill. Then, leaning in conspicuously, he whispered, “She’s a lost cause.”
“Here’s your change, sir,” the boy said curtly, otherwise brushing him off. The man seemed taken aback. He gathered his change and hastened to the exit.
Watching the man leave, the boy’s trail of vision led to a booth by the front of the café, where the woman sat alone, fidgeting with her coffee cup. He considered the man’s words from earlier, and decided to give the woman some space. Meanwhile, when the woman heard the front door clanged, her head sprung up, and she fixed her gaze on the boy. Yet, he went about his business, cleaning the counter with a dusty rag. She scrutinized the way he systemized the front, arranging the patterned vase perfectly in line with the cash register and row of coffee mugs. His charcoal hair swept to the side, evoking a flood of nostalgia within the woman.
“You remind me of someone I knew,” she said all of a sudden, taking the boy by surprise. Her voice was mellifluous, carrying a softness with each syllable. The boy continued to arrange the counter, but did so in a deliberate manner, waiting for the woman to say more.
“Your face,” she whispered, almost to herself, “reminds me of his.” The boy stood still for a moment before leaning across the counter to face her.
“Sometimes I forget what he looks like,” she said, her face turned away and eyes clenched. The boy sensed that she wasn’t speaking to him anymore. A part of him wished to console her, to embrace her in his lanky arms. But instead, he remained at the counter, and when she faded off, he said, quietly, “My father passed in Normandy.” And then, after a breath, he added, “I know how it is.”
The woman watched him again, donning an empathetic, yet bewildered, look. For a moment, the boy couldn’t help but feel a rush of discomfort; he hadn’t spoken of his father in years. After a while, the woman finally stood up and collected her coat. She raised a hand to lay softly on his shoulder, but stopped short, quickly looking him in the eye and leaving through the front door, before the boy could say anymore.
It was late afternoon the next day when the boy saw the woman once again. The café was, for once, bustling with patrons, but the woman found her typical booth empty. When the boy noticed that she hadn’t ordered her usual at the front, he wandered over with a fresh pot of dark roast and two cups, filling only one. Just as he moved away, he noticed her remove her feathered-hat and nudge the second cup.
Then, with an open palm, the woman pointed to the empty seat across from her which, for an entire month, had never been occupied.
Massena, New York
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