The Mill Dinette

by DRM

She sat at the back table by the big air vent that had never worked, sometimes nursing a cup of coffee, other times moving quickly through an egg cream and a cup of soup with a look of voracious satisfaction.

Once or twice, she and Renee, the counterman, murmured to each other, leaving Renee with a sly smile on his face. But most of the time she was alone. She seemed to notice what went on around her.

I would sit at my table and play out ways to open conversation. Just be direct, I would say, and then I’d do nothing because I wanted to honor her feeling of being alone. I speculated to myself about her, though. There was nothing that kept me from doing that.

She was about my age and attractive. She was alone. Only Renee ever spoke to her, even though I saw her almost as frequently as I was there, which was often, since the egg plate was inexpensive and the coffee was fresh. One time, she’d broken her own quiet and hurried back to the pay phone at the end of the counter. That was the only time she did something out of routine. All the other times she ate, waited and left. She didn’t even look at the magazines or papers on the counter.

Renee and I rarely every talked. We were suspicious of each other. He was cheery and boisterous with his set, a collection of attractive young college women, neighborhood people, bookies and the occasional hale-well-met college jock that wandered in. I was surly and earnest. I wanted to know what the story behind the story was, the sordid truth, the romance and misfortune. I didn’t understand yet that some of the best parts of life were just stringing together the minutes without worry for the big picture.

He got my order right and never made me wait.

One night, the rain began to pelt down without warning. The girl was just about to go out the door. I offered her my jacket.

She took it without saying anything. I was surprised she didn’t protest. She just smiled.

The smile was thin, a taut line along her upper lip, laggard at the bottom, threatening to slump into a pout.

The next evening she returned my jacket.

“You kept me from melting,” she said.

“Like the wicked witch?” I was looking for meaning, the secret she must be keeping.

“Like an ice cube. It was a warm rain,” she smiled.

I laughed. She leaned pushed down on the chair where she had draped my jacket.

“Why don’t you sit down,” I suggested.

A conversation launched in quick darts of delight and mystery. We talked about the counter, about the wall, about the ways that the chairs held symetrical positions over hours and hours. We talked about the rain, where it had come from, fields, cities that were faint memories or distant opportunities. We became free. We floated on a sluggish stream, filled with the untapped familiarity of the hours and days that had preceded us.

We paused. She told me her story.

She was a little girl and she saw her father kill a man.

Her aunt saved all of the newspaper articles and sent them to her when she went to college. She had been lived in a series of foster homes for most of the decade.

“I would sit over the photos for minutes at a time asking if that was really me. What I was remember and what I knew happened were completely different.”

“I’ve had a lot of frightening memories,” she said. “I avoid nostalgia. You’ll never know the curves it can throw at you.”

She was sitting back, with her hands clasped at her belly and her heels kicked out like a cowboy.