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Elephants and Cucumber Sandwiches
When I took my job at the Hilton Cafe, I had been planning on it being a three month thing. Four months, at most. Yet, two years later, Damon and I still sat behind the counter, debating if ice cream preference had anything to do with character. Yeah, I know.
“Seriously, it says a lot,” Damon said, wiping the counter down, “Like, sprinkles. If you want sprinkles, it means you tend to indulge and are more creative. If you specifically say no to sprinkles, it means you are more disciplined and know exactly what you want and don’t want.”
“Or,” I counter, “You’re low on cash, on a diet, or actually just don’t like sprinkles.”
“Yeah, well, who comes to an ice cream parlour if you’re two of those three things?”
Our conversation was interrupted when the bell above the door jingled. We both looked up to see an elderly man cross the threshold. He walked carefully, without the assistance of a cane, to his usual table by the window. I had already placed this morning’s paper on mahogany surface, beside a cup of black coffee, just as he liked it. I knew he liked two cubes of sugar, but, he also liked to put them in himself, so, I had placed the spoon, with two cubes of sugar on it there, too.
Damon glanced back down, and placed his rag down, walking over to the radio. Our music had been replaced by two voices talking about Kim Kardashian, which made me sigh a little. He switched the station, and the new Fallout Boy song came on.
“New favorite song,” Damon murmured, twiddling the volume.
I grinned and he mouthed the words to me, “I don’t know where you’re going, but, do you have room for one more troubled soul?”
The bell above the door tinkled again, and I knew the day shift well enough to know that I wouldn’t get another chance to fool around with Damon until the afternoon, the morning to lunch rush had begun.
An Asian girl with large Chanel sunglasses sashayed in, immediately drawing the attention of the few early birds sitting in the cafe to her. I had seen her before, and it was same old, same old.
“Small green tea latte, with no fat, and two shots of vanilla,” She said, the various bells and whistles hanging off her bag jingling.
“That’ll be four thirty-five,” I say, and she hands over a coupon and some change.
“Sorry,” I say, slowly, glancing at the fine print, “This coupon is only valid for our selection of new drinks. They’re on that board over there.”
She crinkles her nose, but, chooses a non-fat option from the black board I pointed out, and I quickly make her order, topping it with thin foam, and a sprinkle of coconut shavings.
“Sweet, thanks,” She says.
I continue to make various drinks, and hand out pastries for the rest of the day. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the old man at his table by the window. He sips his black coffee, and Damon fills it up for him again. I wonder, for the millionth time, why he comes in each day. I’ve learned the routine like the back of my hand. Come in at eight oh five, and sit at the table by the window. Drink black coffee with two sugar cubes and read the New York Times, until one o’clock, and then, check old fashioned pocket watch, get up and shuffle out. Sometimes, he would have a cucumber sandwich with the crusts off before he left.
Damon tapped my shoulder, “The guy won’t let me make his sandwich. He said I did it wrong.”
I laugh, because it’s only happened every other time the man orders a sandwich. Damon makes them fine, but, for some reason mine are special.
I switch out with Damon, and take two pieces of whole grain bread and a container of sliced cucumbers, and begin to make a sandwich. It’s a lot of pressure, and I’m secretly terrified that one day the man will accept Damon’s sandwich, and I won’t be special anymore.
I spread the cream cheese and layer the paper thin cucumbers down. I sprinkle with black and white pepper, add a sprig of dill, and, of course, slice the crusts off. I plate it, and wipe the excess water off the edge of the plate with my apron. Perfection.
I walk out from behind the counter, sliding past miffed customers waiting in line. A few regulars give me curt nods, and I smile back. I reach his table, and gently place the sandwich in front of him. Slowly, he lowers his newspaper.
“Your cucumber sandwich, sans crusts,” I say, “Is there anything else?”
He looks down at the sandwich, and shakes his head slowly, “Thank you. Nothing else.”
I turn on my heel, shoes squeaking a little, but, something small and invisible tugs me back. A single curiosity, a burning question, causes me to turn back.
“Sir, can I ask you a question? Actually, two questions?”
He slowly lowers his newspaper.
“I was just wondering,” I say, sitting down in the chair across from him, nudging the salt and pepper shakers to the side, “Why you come in here every morning at eight? Also, I’m inclined to ask why you always get me to make your sandwiches, and not Damon. I mean, Damon makes them just fine.”
He clears his throat, and folds his newspaper.
“Well, I happen to enjoy the coffee and sandwiches here. Also, it is quiet enough to be enjoyable, but, busy enough so I don’t feel inclined to buy more than I want out of pity for you two. I come in at eight because that is half an hour after I wake, and it is close enough that I can walk here in five minutes. It’s half coincidence, half convenience, I suppose.”
“I would suppose so,” I say. The way he spoke was so regal and official.
“And, well, you remind me of my wife. You have the same hair, and similar features. If I take my glasses off, and squint a little, it’s almost like she’s sitting in front of me.”
“Yup. And she made very good cucumber sandwiches, and as it turns out, so do you.”
“Ah, I see. What if I told you Damon had made this sandwich, and I had just brought it out?”
“I would know,” He answers, matter-of-factly, “I would have known because when you make a sandwich, you put cream cheese on both pieces of bread, and sprinkle the white pepper on one and black on the other. Your friend is sloppier. You put more effort and pride into your work.”
“Hmmm, that makes sense. I guess those are my answers. One more, though, what happened to your wife?”
“My wife? Well, I expect right now, she’s riding an elephant somewhere. She took a two month trip to India, and I rather miss her. And her cucumber sandwiches.”
I laugh, despite myself, “A trip to India? Are you serious?”
“Yes, deadly. I can show you a picture,” He dug his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a leather wallet. Inside the flap, there was a picture of an olive-skinned, sweet-looking old lady, with black hair in a bun, smiling at the camera. She was, indeed, riding a large, wrinkled elephant.
“She’s something,” He agreed, “What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Carly,” He said, “My name is John.”
After that day, Damon wasn’t the only one I talked to. When John came in each morning, I would hand-deliver his black coffee and newspaper. He would sometimes share letters from his wife, Catalina, and photos.
Then, one day, John entered the cafe, right on time. He sat down at his regular table, and as I was getting my ingredients ready, I heard his voice over the radio.
“Oh, Carly? Two coffees today, and two sandwiches.”
I glanced up, and a second before the bell above the door rang, and an olive-skinned, sweet-looking woman slowly, gracefully, entered Hilton Cafe.
Arlington Heights, Illinois
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