3. the place where i was me
Lana was on vacation. It was an annual event, one that I tried to talk her out of hating every time it rolled around. I had not yet succeeded. I don’t know why she disliked leaving so much, but she always did. Caesar’s situation was not much better.
“It’s so stupid,” he had announced to us. “My stupid cousins are coming over. Which means that mom will make me wear that stupid freaking mask, so I don’t get sick.” He had kicked the foot of the locker as he said it. We should have been hurrying off to class, but we were lingering in the hallway trying to wish away third period. “I hate that mask,” he’d growled.
I had seen him wear the mask before; it was like putting on a lead jacket. It dragged his soul into the ground, even as it pulled his thin eyebrows into a scowl. The elastic straps made his ears stick out even more than usual. I suppose it was his version of Lana’s rain, but as he said, “At least rain doesn’t make her look like a chimpanzee.”
“It’s better than getting sick,” Lana said, when we got to the café.
“Sure,” he replied, “remind me of that the six-millionth time my cousin asks me why I’m wearing it.” He kicked the locker again. “It’s just…”
“Stupid?” I suggested.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
I nudged him. “You’ll be fine. I can come over and play God of Conquest if you want. I’ll even wear a mask.”
In light of this, Lana had not complained much, about her own predicament. I only hoped that, wherever she might be, just then, it was not raining like it was here. The rain had not let up since the last time we had sat together at the booth, which I now occupied alone.
The smiley face on the window had been wiped away long ago I noticed as I sat staring through the window it had once decorated. The protocol, I decided, did not apply, when I was the only one present, as I was that day. My notebook was still sitting in front of me, patient as always. But so were a stack of other books, all tapping their metaphorical feet and wondering how long they’d have to wait their turn. I was in no real hurry.
A coffee cup snared my attention back to the real world as it slid across the table in front of me.
“Hey there, Champ.” My mom slipped into the booth across from me. The blue of her little dress nearly matched the blue the seat behind her. In some bygone age, they probably would have been exactly the same. I accepted the coffee happily and she stared out the window with me, and I wondered what she saw there. I wondered whether her eyes and mind settled in the same places as mine, or if we were both just restless.
“How was your day?” She asked. Her breaks were never long, but she always made the best of them now. Three years ago she’d begun to trade a cigarette and a half, behind the building, for ten minutes with me.
One of many things she had traded, over the years.
I think that’s why I started coming here first. But now it was because I belonged in that booth, and the whole world knew it. That spot, in that place, was everything that I ever could have called home: the tear in the padding beside my leg with the yellow foam oozing out and the initials (RD), carved into the tabletop by someone’s fingernail. (We’d once spent a solid month trying to discover whose initials they were. But they might as well have been mine, now.)
There, in the flickering shadow of the neon light, where the air smelled like safety—and coffee—and the world was securely on the other side of the glass—this was where I belonged.
The place where I was me.
I shrugged in response to her aging question. “Yours?”
She returned the gesture identically but bobbed her eyebrows in that way I knew. “Tips are good.” She winked over a mug of her own, as I smiled.
“Did you write another one?” She asked.
“No,” I shook my head. “I can’t decide what to write. And it’s not as fun alone.”
“Well you’re not alone now,” she said, and then frowned. “I should tell you, though; Angelina’s called in sick and I grabbed her shift. It’ll be good for us, but I won’t be done until late tonight.”
“No worries,” I said. This made little change to my day.
“Want me to swing you by Caesar’s later?” She asked. “I could take you on my lunch break if you want.”
I shrugged again, but chuckled. “He’s not answering my texts. Which probably means his mom took his phone to make him play with his cousins.”
My mom had known Caesar practically as long as I had, and this just made her smile. There was a little, birdish laugh that I’d observed before, sometimes stuck in my mother’s throat; it chirped out, alongside or between her words, . I suspected that it was shaking itself awake now. Coffee always seemed to bring it out. And I suppose I did, as well.
“When did Lana say she would be back?” she asked.
“A week, I think. Maybe longer. It depends.”
“Well I hope she comes back soon,” she said, and there was the little laugh I’d expected. “You boys always fall apart without her.”
For a few moments we enjoyed the comfort of the silence, easily as worn and familiar as the cushions, before she checked her watch, sighed slightly, and slid out of the booth. “Are you hungry for anything?” She asked.
“No,” I shook my head. “But thanks for the coffee.”
“You bet, Champ.” She gave another wink and tossed her curly hair back over her shoulders.
“Any ideas what I should write?” I mumbled.
“You could write about this place,” she replied, straightening her nametag and smoothing her apron. “See you soon, Honey.”
I watched her leave and then returned my attention to the window and beyond. But the nametag remained at the forefront of my mind.
It was my mother’s name. A very old, dusty name, handed down in lieu of any actual inheritance. She had never been fond of it, but it grew on her, very slowly.
Like this place.
Like black coffee.
I sipped again and cracked open the notebook. The blankness in my mind snapped with it, and I felt that I could breathe a little more easily. The words bled out black and natural, like a sigh spilled into the afternoon.
the society of esthers
In another time, she might have made an excellent Viking. In another, an excellent sort of nursemaid for unruly young boys, a drill-sergeant for cats. Her yellow coat, the color and smell of apricot marmalade, she wore like armor. Her black umbrella she carried something like a sword, with which she seemed more likely to threaten away the raindrops, than shield herself from them.
She was, at barely over five feet, not the most impressive figure. But whatever she lacked in height, she made up for with her wardrobe shoulders and the flat-lined mouth that she kept tightly closed, even when she smiled—which she didn’t very often. And yet, despite the collective ferocity of her countenance, it was a somewhat understated one. When she approached the Café, it was in a quiet way. She did not stand out with her steel gray hair and her sturdy chin.
The café was tiny from the outside. She could only assume that it was just as tiny within. The aging, flickering sign, traded winks with the throbbing yellow traffic-light across the road; they had been flirting in the same manner for years.
It was a humble little place, she thought. A ridiculous little place that, even from a distance, smelled like unbearably cheap coffee and ketchup and grease. But there was the smell of pie, too. And for pie, many unbearable things could be endured.
She enjoyed the rain as much as a household cat, and as she stepped inside the café, the bell on the door yelled a greeting in her ears. A little brown-haired woman in a little blue dress wiped off a table and smiled over at her. “Good mornin’,” she said.
The woman grunted. She scanned the café briefly, taking in all the smells and sights that indicated life, in any of its numerous forms. An old man was sitting in one corner, armed with a newspaper and a veteran’s hat and facing an oversized cinnamon roll. A pitiful variety of cacti decorated the counter (dreaming of dust and heatstroke). Apart from these and the little bustle she sensed from behind the kitchen door, the whole place seemed empty.
She made her way to the first booth beneath the window with the painted letters and sat down. This was a matter of ritual—with no room for deviation—as the woman propped her umbrella up beside her. From her great coat with its many pockets, she drew out a very severe-looking pen, a pair of ancient spectacles, which she perched with both hands upon the tip of her nose, a pocket-watch roughly the shape and weight of a doorknob, and a small notebook, very black and very square.
Each of these she laid in its intended place all squared to one another before she took a deep breath (for which she opened her mouth a small, catfish amount) and opened the notebook delicately. The words on the page looked back at her without blinking, and she read them over again. This was the page that had brought her here, with its scribbled address, and the very bold name:
Esther Hollens. Waitress/Cook.
She closed the notebook and set her spectacles down with the utmost care.
So she had come for a pancake-flipper, a coffee-pourer. A floor-sweeper. She may as well have been dressed in rags and sporting a pair of shackles. But this was of little consequence really, and no real inconvenience; the name may as well have read Cinderella. And the woman in the marmalade jacket may as well have been a Brick-Shaped Fairy-Godmother. She felt rather like one, and she rather liked the feeling (though she allowed no indication).
So this was the palace of Esther Hollens. The woman looked up at the roof.
The radio was about fifty years behind the times. Posters of assorted celebrities were looking at her over microphones or automobiles or sports equipment, with a dusty lack of interest. Most of them—if not all—were dead by now. But the notebook had brought her here, to this little place that time forgot. This dustbin.
A roadside museum curated by the lonely.
It took only a few moments for the dark-haired waitress to trickle over to her table, all dimples and cheap hairspray and re-hemmed uniform. Her nametag said Katie. “Good mornin’ Shugga,” she said, in an accent so thick that the woman was almost surprised that it made it all the way out of her throat. “What’re we havin’ today?”
“Tea,” said the woman stiffly, “with lemon, an egg, fried, and pie.” She sniffed deeply. “Blackberry?”
“You bet, Shugga,” Katie nodded, still smiling.
“The whole pie, if you don’t mind.” The woman looked the waitress in the face. “Are the berries fresh?”
“Fresh delivered,” Katie said. The order of the pie had rattled her; it had stopped her pencil, on its pad, but it took to moving again.
The woman in marmalade returned her eyes to the roof. “They will suffice,” she said. “Tea first.”
“You bet, Shugga,” Katie continued to nod. “Anything else for ya?”
“Is there a woman here by the name of Esther Hollens?”
The incessant nod. The woman wondered if Katie might not actually be a bobble-headed ornament tossed from some trucker’s dashboard. “Oh yes ma’am, she’s just in the back. You a relative a’hers or somethin?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I hoped I might have a word.”
“You bet, Shugga. I’ll send her right out.”
The woman looked back down at the little notebook and twitched her nose. Secretly, she was beyond glad that the nametag had said Katie rather than Esther. She might not have survived an entire day of nodding and Shugga. Of course, women like herself tended to curb the enthusiasm of whimsical youth.
She could only hope that Esther Hollens was a more sensible creature.
Cinderella. She entertained the thought again.
Soon, her tea and egg came to keep her company. The tea was weak, the lemon old, and the egg more scrambled than fried. But she pushed them each away only after she’d finished them, and waited with her hands folded for her pie to arrive.
For something so bright and yellow to devour so much of something so dark purple, without slowly turning to some shade of green, was remarkable. For the woman had nearly finished the entire pie when the bouncing curls and serious blue eyes of Esther Hollens presented themselves.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said. “Katie said you wanted to speak with me?” She held out her hand. “My name is Esther.” She was perfectly and delightfully devoid of any kind of ridiculous accent. This pleased the woman very much. For the first time, she produced a smile, dabbing at her square mouth with a napkin before speaking.
“Yes,” she said. “The baker of pies.”
“Yes ma’am,” said the young woman, her smile quiet.
“Your pie is excellent.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” And then, more hesitantly, “Katie said that we were relatives…?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said the woman. She offered her hand. “I am Esther Mae Melbourne.”
The young Esther, looking somewhat uncertain, took the hand that was offered to her. It was warm, but oaky, and made its up-and-down bob almost mechanically. “Pleased to meet you,” said the young waitress. There were no dimples, here; but there was a crease, across her nose, that appeared when she smiled. The older Esther quite liked it.
“I don’t meet many people with my name,” said the younger.
The older looked woefully at the sky. “Indeed. The greater generation is behind us. A dying breed, but faithful.”
She reached into her jacket pocket and drew out a single rectangle of paper, crisp and sharp as metal. She looked the young Esther in the eyes and handed it to her. “I have come a long way to meet you,” she said.
A line formed on the young Esther’s forehead. It was nothing a little discipline couldn’t iron out. “Not just to eat my pie, I hope,” she chuckled.
Esther Mae smiled very faintly. There were certainly no dimples here; only creases of concentration, like slips from a chisel. “We Esthers need to stick together,” she said. “There are more of us than you might think. But less than there once were.”
Esther Hollens took the card with a very confused expression. When she looked back up, the confusion had settled into her voice. “Is…is this a business card?” She asked.
The other Esther smiled again. “An invitation.”
The young waitress said goodbye, very briefly, and slipped back behind the counter. Miss Melbourne finished her pie and pushed the plate away. She clicked the doorknob watch open, examined it for a moment, and then tucked it back into her breast pocket. The spectacles went back around her neck; the notebook and pen to her thigh. The umbrella was sheathed under her arm as she stiffened and walked back out into a world too gray to fully support her coat’s choice of shade.
On the other side of the road, at a ruin of a bus-stop, not far from the winking traffic-light, Esther Mae sat down beside a very tall woman with hair the texture and shape of cotton candy and the definition of periwinkle. Her lips were ridiculously red, and her dress—and shirt, and stockings—a ridiculous clash of plaid.
“Good day, Esther,” said the tall, thin woman.
“Good day, Esther,” said the woman who was brick-shaped.
“Will she join us?” Asked the woman with the blue hair.
“Not yet,” replied the one with the steel. “But we shall see. In time, when she realizes that she has nowhere else to go, perhaps we may make the acquaintance of young Lady Hollens once again. Desperation shall, as ever, be our ally.”
The bus trundled in. And the bus trundled out. And the town was two Esthers less.