A short story by Jan Wiezorek
Miss Weaver opened the door with a handful of damp letters and rocked bowlegged to the first booth right inside. The Uptown Coffee Shop was empty except for waitress Elizabeth and a dark, bearded man over by the windows in the far booth.
“Evening, Lizzy, how was your New Year’s and all?” Miss Weaver asked.
“Well, my word, if it isn’t Miss Weaver. What are you doing gallivanting out this late? It’s good to see you. How are you feeling, dear?” Elizabeth asked. She broad-hipped her way to the table with a metal-cornered black menu under one arm and a carafe of coffee in her right hand.
Miss Weaver shook her cotton coat with the big buttons and hung it on the standing rack. Before taking her seat, she reached up around Elizabeth’s waist and gave the waitress a big hug. “I’ve wanted to do that for the longest time,” she said. “Just couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d stop by. I could use a hot cup.”
“That’s what everyone is saying tonight,” Elizabeth said.
“Who doesn’t need a hot cup in this weather? I’m damp to the bones.”
“This rain is so peculiar for January,” Miss Weaver said. “I just can’t get over it.” She adjusted her pink-framed glasses and focused on a red envelope.
“It’s good for your complexion, my dear. Now, what can I get you? Or, do you want to look at the menu?”
“Well, I got this one from Mabel,” Miss Weaver said, pointing to a letter inside an open holiday card. “You don’t know her, of course, but when I was young, she invited my mother and me to her husband’s church for services. She’s only eighty-nine years old now, she writes, so she must have been very young when she first dropped by to invite us. And she’s been doing it every year since.”
“Isn’t that sweet?” Elizabeth replied.
“She writes, ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want because I know the best is yet to come.’ Isn’t that clever how she improvises on the Psalms?”
“It’s a wonder,” the waitress said, and took a deep breath of patience. “You’re just opening your cards now?” she asked, placing the menu down on the tabletop with a design of little rectangles with rounded corners.
“Dear, I’ve been under the weather. I didn’t bother to check the mailbox, much less open any correspondence and read it. Did you notice how everyone added little notes in their cards this year?”
“No, honey, I didn’t.”
“We all got drunk and the bitch started playing with her nipples,” the man in the far booth said to himself, overly loud.
The ladies turned their heads toward the man who was by now laughing at his own comment.
“Such an element out and about on a night like this,” Miss Weaver said. She looked back at Elizabeth and brought her tongue forward, scraping it against her teeth. She breathed in and made a sucking sound.
“Takes all kinds, my dear—and we get ’em, too,” Elizabeth said. Her short brunette hair looked greasy, and her light-pink lipstick was smudged. “Honey, cook left early, so I’m all by myself tonight. What can I get for you?”
“Oh, just a coffee and a grilled cheese—easy on the grease. Doctor’s orders.” Miss Weaver took a moment to pull Elizabeth down toward her once again. “Are you safe here all alone?” she asked whispering.
“Heavens, honey, I’ve been working nights here for so many years. I’m able to scare away the best of them,” Elizabeth said, her blue eyes sharp and clear. “If anyone gives me trouble, I order him a knuckle sandwich—on the house.”
The two ladies laughed and stole glances at the man, who Miss Weaver could see was in his own world, talking to himself¸ laughing, and licking the stubble around his mouth. She put the note inside the festive card and slipped the card into its red envelope.
The man was several booths away, but Miss Weaver looked at him again. His face was the color of milk chocolate, and his facial hair white and curly. She saw a tall, green duffle bag standing upright next to him in the booth, and she wondered whether this man, accustomed to eating and traveling alone, was one of those.
He can’t be in his right mind, she thought to herself. She wondered what he must be doing and what his life would be like later tonight. Miss Weaver sipped away at her hot cup and imagined him standing in the recessed entranceway of a corner store, with his duffle bag on the ground, shifting from foot to foot, and lighting a cigarette butt that he found near the curb.
Maybe he had family nearby, but maybe they had had enough of him and put him out. Of course, the way he looked, she thought, anything he might say could well be poppycock. She giggled at first and then shamed herself for doing so. Miss Weaver rested her right hand on her chin and thought back, years earlier, to the men who stood outside her own mother’s small pantry.
In her youth she remembered how mother fixed free luncheon sandwiches for hobos—men like him, perhaps—never inviting them into her small kitchen in the flats near the tracks, but allowing them to linger on the back stoop, offering them something for the road, which they took with thanks and left. Maybe he was like one of them. They were simple folk, her mother always said, but honest and needy. His hair was tangled, and she thought he must smell, but she couldn’t tell for sure.
Perhaps if I shared a word with him, it would brighten his day, she thought. “It’s a cold night, sir,” she said. He didn’t respond but focused his black eyes on her face. His upper lip turned outward, and his stare, she thought, offered no hint of what he might be thinking. She thought she’d try anyway.
“I say, it’s a cold night. Did you enjoy your holidays?” she asked.
“Oh, that’s a shame.” She sucked her tongue up toward her lower lip, and her sound was loud enough to be heard.
“You want some sugar, honey?” he asked.
“No, I have some right here.”
A burst of exhalation rushed out from back behind his sinuses, through his wide nose, and out the two small nostrils that sat on each side of his snout. To Miss Weaver it was a crazy kind of snickering laugh, and she rose up from her shoulders, lowered them, and looked down at her coffee, her hands shaking somewhat. Why he needed to turn an innocent question into an insolent and disrespectful turn of events was beyond her.
“Sir, your humor is slightly off color,” she said.
Immediately she thought that was perhaps not the best way to phrase her disgust.
“You’re the one who’s color is off,” he said. “I’m a rich chocolate brown.”
“And so you are,” she said, adding a giggle to lighten the mood, but uncertain that response was right, either.
“Honey, here’s your grilled cheese,” Elizabeth said, carrying a sandwich with half a pickle and a paper cup of cole slaw. “Need a warm up, hon?”
“Indeed, I do,” Miss Weaver said. “Perhaps our friend needs some, too?” She took her right hand from her chin and gestured toward the man, his thin eyebrows curving across his face and joined at the middle.
Elizabeth walked over to the man, poured, and laid a check on the table. “We’re closing soon, so you’d better get moving.”
“That sure is holiday hospitality,” he said.
“Listen, buster, pay your bill and leave.”
He slapped some change on the table and gave Elizabeth an eyeball’s worth of defiance. “When I’m finished, I will.”
“Good,” she said. She rolled her eyes toward Miss Weaver, who smiled and refocused again on her coffee. “Is everything alright, Miss Weaver?”
“Oh, fine,” she replied. Elizabeth left to continue cleanup in the kitchen when the man took a last swig, stood, and hauled his duffle bag with him, stopping at Miss Weaver’s booth.
“Ma’am, I was wondering if you could spare a little change?” he asked. “Sorry if I insulted you.”
“Now you ask for money,” she said, looking up at him with a worn expression, her forehead knitted together and the wrinkles on her face and hands showing in the glare of the florescent lights overhead. “In my day we were respectful, especially if we were to rely on help from another.”
“Just asking for a little change to get me through the night.”
“Where will you spend the night?”
“Probably somewhere nearby.”
“It’s awfully wet—how will you stay dry?”
“I’ll find a doorway or an open car.”
“You’ve never stayed out all night in a car?”
“Not in winter surely, and not recently in any case. Maybe while camping years ago.”
“It’s better than standing in a doorway all night long.”
“You don’t go to the shelter? It’s just down the street.”
“I’m not the shelter type.”
“I see. What’s your name?”
“Well, Britches, I’m Miss Weaver. I do have a little extra change.” She reached into her cotton coat pocket hanging inside the door on the rack and gave him two quarters. “Sorry, that’s all the extra I have.”
“You’re most welcome, Britches.”
She saw him put the change in his filthy jeans and turned toward the counter by the cash register. The children’s home donation canister was right there. She saw him. He stuffed it into the top of his duffle bag.
“Sir, that’s not yours,” Miss Weaver said.
“It is now.”
“Sir, that’s not allowed. Elizabeth,” she called out. “Elizabeth, he’s stealing money.”
Elizabeth came from the kitchen in a hurry. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s got the donation jar in his bag,” Miss Weaver said. “He just took it.”
“Listen, buddy, put it back before I call the cops.”
He raised his right hand. It held a steak knife. “You want some of this, bitch?”
Elizabeth took out her cell phone, ready to dial 911.
Miss Weaver saw Britches act like an athlete. She felt him grab her by the waist and pull her up roughly against him into a tight hug. He smelled of urine, most foul. The knife point was up by her neck.
“Mess with me and the old lady gets it stuck right here.”
Miss Weaver could feel the knife pushed against her throat, making it hard to swallow. She wanted to scream, but instead she grimaced when he moved the knife and rammed his hard knee into her side. He adjusted his grip on her with his left hand, she thought, grabbing at her chest, with the blade now inches from her right eye. She hushed into quiet sobs, and terror rose out from her arms and toward her quaking fingertips.
“Open the cashbox and give me all you have,” he said to the waitress. Miss Weaver saw Elizabeth drop the phone on the floor and open the cash drawer.
“Put it all on the counter and back off,” he said. Miss Weaver could hear his voice, like gravel against tires. He shoved me, she thought, and she felt herself fall to the floor now and onto her left hip. The glasses flew from her face and slid toward the stools near the counter.
Before she knew exactly what had happened, damp air outside rushed over her legs, and the door closed as her hip pain increased.
“Miss Weaver, are you alright?” Elizabeth asked, rushing from behind the counter and over to her on the floor. Elizabeth lifted Miss Weaver up by the waist and onto her feet.
“I hope so,” she said. “Lizzy, call the police.”
“I will, hon; let me help you up first.”
“I’m sore, dear.”
“Can you walk?”
“I’m awfully sore, dear.”
“How are you?”
“I think I’ll live.”
“That was quite a fright.”
“Yes, dear,” Miss Weaver said. Elizabeth reached down for the glasses, and Miss Weaver put them back onto her own face.
The money was still on the counter, Miss Weaver saw, and the duffle bag had fallen down by the door. “You mean he didn’t take anything?”
“No, hon,” Elizabeth said. “I ducked, so I guess he ran, the coward, and left the money here.”
Elizabeth reached into the duffle bag and put it back on the counter by the cash register.
Miss Weaver sat at her own booth again to calm herself. Finally, she looked down, around, and on the floor. All of her holiday cards were missing. I wonder what he could have been thinking, Miss Weaver thought.
“Lizzy, I need a hot cup.”