My newest short story has just received it's second major edit, so I think I'll let it breathe for a couple of days and hang out here before the third edit and the subsequent simultaneous submissions!
By Andrea Warner
I watch the same scene unfold around me each morning: sleepy-eyed, shuffling, and varying degrees of polish hiding or enhancing the worst of their features. I don’t bother to read the paper anymore, but I keep it open in front of me. And two other national ones folded on the seat beside me. I don’t keep my head down that often but no one every approaches me anyways. Ordinary and oblivious and propelled by habit, no one notices me here.
If Deb were here. she’d laugh at the suits and biking outfits and the perfect makeup of the pre-9am crowd. It’s usually just Artie behind the counter. Everyone else is busy, hauling donuts from the oven, getting the sandwich fixings ready, bussing tables. Artie pours me my cup of coffee every morning, one cream, and picks out my three timbits without me even asking now.
Artie has hair that you can tell was once black. It’s more like some kind of paper bag brown now, the silver has muted the darker tone. He coughs a little when he laughs, and I notice his fingertips are faintly stained with yellow when he hands me my change. He’s not tall, really, average I guess. His body is average too. He wears glasses that look like the ones my father wore when I was a kid, gold metal frames and big circles, but he’s not even that much older than I am, probably. The main thing you notice with Artie is that he almost always seems happy.
He’s friendly with almost everyone who passes by his till. He smiles, jokes, asks about the weekend, wishes you a Merry Christmas. Some people he knows by name. It’s an oddly limited, sort-of friendship, obviously. Like, Artie probably wouldn’t notice right away if I didn’t come in one morning. But he’d notice by the third morning maybe. He’d hope I was okay but he wouldn’t call. He wouldn’t know who to call. He wouldn’t call hospitals because he would only be able to ask for Mac. He wouldn’t know my full name. If I never came back, if I’d moved or just died, I’d fade into the background of other meaningless interactions that built the foundation of his days, maybe somewhere between the guy he buys his cigarettes from and the lady who once sold him his car stereo.
I don’t see anyone here from the old days of course. I don’t have friends like that anymore—work friends, buddies. I moved, crossed provinces. I got old and grew quiet. I left everyone and everything behind. I haven’t talked to anyone, had a conversation with anyone, in 3 years. Since Deb left. She couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t blame her. It’s messy, you know, this business of trying to forget. And the more you try to forget the easier it is to remember.
I mentioned before that Artie’s almost always friendly to everyone who passed by his till. It’s true: drunks or cops, druggies or pregnant moms—everyone gets the same smile, maybe a little joke. It’s something real anyways.
The only time I ever see the smile drop from his face is at 8:43 am. He becomes expressionless, without fail, when The Small Lady walks in at 8:43. His face goes blank, which maybe is a kind-of expression, a reaction at least. He looks empty in these few minutes. The next person behind her gets the usual Artie experience.
It took me a couple days to really notice the interaction. She’s maybe a couple years younger than him, but it’s hard to tell. She looks like what Deb used to call a ‘woman who’s had a hard life’. Her hair is long and a bit frizzy, very silver. She’s thin and depending on what she wears, you can see the loose skin gathering at her upper arms. She has a faded heart tattoo on her shoulder, writing inside, but I’ve never gone close enough to read what it says.
Their interaction is intimate in its deliberate coldness. On the third morning, when I finally caught on that something strange was happening, I caught her taking a deep breath before she came in. She didn’t see me looking.
She goes to the counter, places herself in line and smiles, tentative and hopeful, at Artie. She pushes her money forward and he returns a small coffee in a paper cup, even though she always stays to drink it. The exchange lasts maybe 15 seconds. It’s been going on for almost three years. Maybe longer, even before I came. I’ve never missed a morning, and neither has she. Even the two weeks Artie goes on vacation. She comes to the door, sees he’s not here, and turns to go.
The awkwardness of this moment grows each morning. Or, at least it does for me. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. Well, maybe not exactly this, but I’ve felt the way silence keeps growing in the absence of words. Deb left without a word, but the sound was deafening. Something has to happen at some point—there will be some deviation: a word, she places her change closer to the hand he refuses to stretch out. The tension is unbearable. How can it stay the same every morning? Maybe one morning she won’t come, and our careful ritual will explode with something simple like a missed bus, a stomach flu, or one of us moving on.
It’s unlikely. I know this. We’re tied together, bound by an impossible promise to lives that are extraordinary only in their sameness.
I try to imagine the past shared by The Small Woman and Artie. Married, probably. The coffee seemed like a sad daily attempt to get him back, or at least to get to see him every day. She was probably the one who ended it. Maybe she cheated. Maybe she was into drugs or something. What made her want Artie back so badly that she came in here every morning at the same time just to get a small cup of coffee and spend five minutes with him? What had she done that made Artie so resolute in his silence? When would she give up? Why hadn’t she given up already? Did she really believe this is where she belonged?
I once belonged to society in a very obvious way. Integral to the protection of the citizens. I had a badge that proved my commitment. I had a gun. I had responsibilities and I failed everyone around me. After that, what could I say? No one wanted to say anything to me either. We just walked around it, but it was all I thought about. The only thing I thought about until I moved here and found this.
There is a new girl behind the counter with Artie this morning! Well, she’s a woman, not a girl. She’s close to his age, and she smiles a lot. Toothy and knowing. She’s almost attractive with curly dyed blond hair and the official uniform shirt that’s a little too tight. She has long fingernails, bright flamingo pink. She is the kind of woman Deb would call ‘Bingo Trash’. Her laughter is the opposite of Arties’s comforting chuckle.
It’s only 8:30. I watch her blink her black eyelashes at him. She wears more make up than a Vegas showgirl. Maybe that’s what she is: a disgraced Showgirl. Excommunicated from the biz. Banished to this Tim Horton’s in Manitoba.
She touches his arm, laughs some more. Artie blushes and busies himself with showing her how to make a fresh pot of coffee. Pay attention! I want to yell. It’s 8:40! Three minutes and The Small Woman will be here. What is he doing? Flirting back with a disgraced Showgirl. I want to run to the door and stop her before she comes in. I don’t want to see her face when she sees the Showgirl with her hand still on Artie’s arm. Still!
But I don’t move. I whisper “I’m sorry” to no one in particular.
Three years ago when the gun went off and I knew I’d misfired, that I’d shot my friend, I felt myself fill with the sound of his mother weeping inside me. His son slumped over against my heart, beating against the ventricles, weak and ineffective. In my head, I was kissing his wife and pulling up her skirt, pushing aside her panties and fucking her very fast and hard. She begged me to fuck her harder, that she couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t touch the gun again. I killed one of my own. The badge was too heavy to hold anymore.
8:43 and The Small Woman is at the door. She takes a deep breath. This is the 869th breath I’ve seen her take. She is wearing the thin dress with the small sailboats. It reminds me of summer, but we are only in spring. I brace my hands against the table edge. She opens the door and immediately hears “Oh, Artie! You’re so smart! I never would have thought of doing it that way. How’s it possible a guy like you’s still single?”
I stop breathing. Artie laughs back at the Showgirl who twinkles brightly. I will them to stop what they are doing. For Artie to notice the time, for his face to fall, to send the Showgirl into the back room while he performs our morning ritual.
The Small Woman’s frozen just inside the door, but she holds up her end of the bargain. Her face gives nothing away. There’s no line in front of the till. Artie hasn’t even noticed her yet. It’s 8:44 now. When she gets to the counter, she just waits.
Artie glances up and immediately looks guilty. The Showgirl notices the change in his demeanor, picks up on the heaviness of this moment, and is smart enough to stay silent, but doesn’t move away. He’s so startled he breaks from the pattern, and says “Hi”.
Hi. He said “Hi” to her. This is the first thing I’ve wanted to tell Deb about in years.
The Small Woman begins to cry, quietly, her shoulders moving just a little. She looks at the Showgirl, and then back at Artie. She’s still holding her money in her left hand. She leans across the counter and cups his cheek with her free hand.
“I just missed hearing you laugh.”