Wow. Yesterday I posted to my Ko-Fi that I needed a little help with some unexpected financial issues that hit us this month. I set a modest goal of $50 and promised I’d post an out-of-print piece of fiction at my Ko-Fi account and on my webpages as a reward if we hit the goal.
Well, we reached the goal in about an hour. I thank all of you who contributed to my Ko-Fi and helped me reach this goal. I deeply appreciated you. As promised, here is your reward!
A Hot Cup at the Last Station first appeared in the online magazine Bards and Sages Quarterly, Volume #2 – Issue #3 on July 2010. I thought it appropriate, since I raised this money on my Ko-Fi account, to give you a story set in a coffee shop. This story is part of my Mythic Twin Cities setting.
A HOT CUP AT THE LAST STATION
“Why doesn’t he go home?”
I shrugged and continued to wipe the coffee mug with a towel.
“I’m asking you. Why can’t he drink his coffee and go home like a normal customer?”
I looked up at Vanessa Holcomb. I had hired her three months ago. She was the closest thing I had to a friend. “He’s waiting for someone, that’s all.”
“Well I don’t think they’re coming, and I need to sweep and put up the chairs before I can leave.” She reached behind her head and reassembled her dark brown hair into a short ponytail.
“Why don’t you go home? I’ll clean up in the morning.”
Vanessa gave the old man a distrustful glare through her glasses. “You shouldn’t have to; you’re supposed to be off tonight.” She turned her fierce gaze on me. “What are you doing down here, anyway?”
I remembered at the last minute it was the third Wednesday of the month and came downstairs, knowing the old man would be sitting here keeping his lonely vigil. But I just shrugged in answer to her question. “I just can’t seem to stay away.”
I held up a hand to forestall the coming rant. “I know. I spend too much time working, I should get out more.” Vanessa’s nagging should have angered me, but somehow it just made me smile. I suspected it was because she was not one of the college kids I usually hired. Vanessa and I were contemporaries: both of us well on the dark side of thirty.
“Well, you should,” she said, wiping down the steamer. “You shouldn’t spend all your time-off lurking upstairs.”
“I live upstairs.” The coffee shop was housed in an old two-story train depot. I had converted the upstairs into an apartment for myself after I bought the building.
“Well, you shouldn’t live down here too.”
“What would I do if I went out?”
“Go have a beer. Hit a show. Something besides stay home. Get out and meet some people.” She finished polishing the steamer to within an inch of its life, and started stacking the clean cups behind the counter.
“I don’t drink, and I don’t care to sit around watching a bunch of lonely people staring at a mediocre band. Besides, I can meet people right here.”
She nodded toward the old man, sipping his cold black coffee and idly fingering a rose. “You want to end up like him?”
“What about you?” I countered. It was unfair and I knew it. She was a single mother, working two part-time jobs to make ends meet. All of her spare time was spent with her kids.
“I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
She scowled as she finished the cups. When she put the last one on the shelf, she turned to me again. “You’re a nice guy, Ken. You shouldn’t become grandpa over there.”
I looked up and caught her eyes. There was something in them I could not identify. It made me uncomfortable. “I thought I told you to go home.”
“So why are you still here? Go be with your kids.”
Vanessa untied her apron. “I think I will.” She tossed the apron into the laundry hamper and retrieved her purse from the office. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“If you want, you can come in a little late. I’m going to clean up in the morning, so I’ll open.”
She laughed softly. “I’ll be here at five-thirty. Make sure the place is clean and set up.”
“Who’s the owner here?”
“You are, Kenny, you are,” she said as she walked out the door. The lock clicked into place behind her, and she disappeared into the night.
I stacked the chairs and turned off all the lights, except the one over the old man’s table. I knew he wouldn’t mind; we had engaged in this routine every third Wednesday since I bought the coffee shop from him five years ago. I swept the floor and stocked the small refrigerator under the counter. When I checked the clock it was just after eleven.
I poured the last of the plain coffee into a cup, walked over to the old man’s table, set the cup in front of him, and turned away.
The old man’s raspy voice broke the silence. “She’s right. You shouldn’t end up like me.”
I turned back toward him. “I like my life well enough.”
“You have even less a life than I.”
“This from a man who’s spent the last sixty years waiting for a woman on a train that will never come.”
He picked up the rose and rolled the stem between his fingers. He brought a rose with him every third Wednesday. I knew in the morning I would find it left behind on the table, just like all the others.
“She’ll be here,” he whispered.
“Vanessa likes you. You should ask her out.”
“I don’t date my employees.”
“Make sure the lock is set when you go.”
“Don’t I always?” he said as I climbed the stairs to my apartment.
Once in my rooms, I felt restless. I pulled down the shoebox full of rosebuds from the closet shelf. I’d saved the bud off every rose the old man had left. I’m not sure why I saved them, but I had sixty of them now. I picked one up and felt the crisp, delicate, dead thing under my fingers.
Perhaps I was a coward.
But cowards don’t end up sitting alone in an empty coffee shop waiting for a woman who vanished six decades ago.
No, a little voice in the back of my mind whispered, cowards end up living out their days hiding in their apartment, mourning a woman who died eight winters past.
I settled down in my chair and closed my eyes, still clutching the shoebox of dead roses. That was the fundamental difference between myself and the old man downstairs. He clung to his irrational belief that a lost love might somehow come back to him. I knew that the love stolen from me by a drunk driver never would. The old man lived for a dream. I knew the truth: Six feet of dark earth held my heart down.
The low rumble was my first intimation something was wrong. My apartment started to tremble, its windows rattling ominously. I grabbed the arms of my chair, spilling the box of rosebuds over my lap and onto the floor.
Earthquake, I thought in a panic as the rumble grew in volume. The more sensible part of my mind reminded me that I’m not on the west coast anymore. I’m living in the Midwest, where earthquakes are rare. The room lit-up from the outside, as if someone were holding a spotlight pointed through my window. The building gave another shudder as a terrible roaring and hissing filled my ears. There was a final rattling of the windows, and everything settled.
In the silence that followed, I made my way cautiously downstairs, certain there would be broken coffee cups littering the floor and other, more severe, damage.
There was nothing different, except the old man sitting in his chair. His eyes were closed; a small smile stretched across his face. The rose rested on the floor under his limp hand.
The ambulance and police arrived ten minutes after I called 911.
A month later, on the third Wednesday, I found myself standing over a grave with a simple temporary marker. Clarence Sorenson, I read, kneeling down. I reached into the small insulated bag I had brought and pulled out two cups and a thermos. I poured for both of us, setting his cup against the marker.
“Congratulations,” I whispered, raising my cup in a toast. “I hope you’re both happy, wherever you are.”
I placed sixty rosebuds on the mound of dirt that covered him. I had to believe that because he never stopped loving her, even after all those long, lonely years, she finally came for him. If I can believe that, maybe I can believe I’m not such a coward after all.
I spent the day walking the streets of my town, coming at last to the depot-turned-coffeehouse I called home. I saw the place was empty, except for Vanessa, who stood behind the counter, cleaning it with a dishrag.
I refused to wait sixty years.
“Hey,” I said, walking inside and turning the sign from “Open” to “Closed.” “You want to knock off early and go get a beer or something?”
Vanessa gave me a sharp, curious look. “I thought you didn’t drink.”
“I don’t. But I wasn’t sure how you would feel about a cup of coffee, everything considered.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Coffee’s okay, but you’re going to have to clean this place up in the morning.”
I turned off all the lights, except the one over the old man’s table, while she retrieved her purse from the office.
“Where to?” Vanessa asked as I locked the door behind us.
I smiled what might have been my first genuine smile in eight years. “It doesn’t matter.”
Her arm slipped into mine as we walked to her car.