Coffee

The first story! The illustration will follow later today.


You talk about memories, and the first time you remember meeting someone, whether it was sharing an umbrella at the tram stop or him passing you a napkin at the church picnic when ice cream dripped down your collar or him making a delivery to the office and resting his hand next to the typewriter on the piece of paper you used to test the tape when you first put it in—but Maggie couldn’t remember that moment at all. A square parade of envelopes twisted down her recollection, one much like the other, slipped under her door and taped to the knob, long before she could name the hesitantly smiling face that passed her sometimes on the stair in the morning. (But never at night. No, thank God, not at night.)

Sean stared at his coffee mug with the fixed sort of attention that generally means the mind is industriously carving out a road to the far country. Just behind the vagueness in the blue-laced eyes flashed a brilliant, terrifying glassiness. He would be blind in a few hours or maybe a day. He wasn’t drinking the coffee she had bought for him. Maggie sipped at her mug and threaded her right hand into her pocketbook.

Sean had always hung around the backs of offices, nicking newspapers that businessmen threw out, sorting through piles of scraps with a hungry single-mindedness. He was utterly devoted to Felix the Cat and clipped out every strip he could find or ripped them out an eighth-inch at a time if he couldn’t lay his hands on a pair of scissors. He was stingy with Felix: Felix was for birthdays and Christmas and maybe a day when she had finally worn through her stockings, but the Automat had been closed so she had had to go next door to the diner that charged nearly twice as much for a sandwich, because she had skipped dinner the night before and thought she might faint. And when she had gotten home and realized the stockings were quite ruined and she had exactly two nickels in the jar under the bed, and maybe she could get new stocking for thirty cents at Newell’s if there was a sale on, and she couldn’t think how she could keep her job with Mr. Garner if she came in with no stockings at all, she had sat down with her head in her arms and wept. He must have heard, because when she finally lifted her head with a dull resolve to go wash her face in the sink in the hall, there was Felix on the floor, a grin on his hard little face, a tentative “Cheer up!” penned by a shaky hand in the margins.

“I’ve got a gift for Caroline,” he said, reaching inside his overcoat. It didn’t fit him, but it was an old garment, spotted with dark stains.

The man behind the counter chose just then to begin fiddling with the dials on the radio, sending a crackle of static ricocheting through the diner. He snarled and hit the top of the box. A broadcaster’s voice snapped into focus.

He was talking about a murder victim they had found in an abandoned car west of Dallas.

“ . . . unable to identify the man . . .  suit made in Chicago . . “

Sean had paused with his hand inside his coat, his eyes still fixed faraway, either listening or suddenly confused as to why he was sitting at a Formica table in a diner in San Antonio. He had come down from Chicago yesterday on the train.

The newscaster hinted broadly that the body had been mutilated horribly, but he would not say how.

“Sir,” Maggie said to the man behind the counter. “Sir, could you please shut that off.”

He snarled at her too.

“I have a present for Caroline,” Sean repeated, coming back to himself (as much of himself as there was to come back to.) He drew a shaking hand out of his coat with a tiny cardboard box in it. The box rattled.

“Shall I open it here?” Maggie asked. She had too much experience of Sean’s gifts to give it sight unseen to Caroline. Certainly not if John was watching.

“Oh—oh—certainly—only, there’s a bow—tie the bow again when you’re done,” he said.

“Of course.” She slid the metallic plastic off to the side and slid her finger below the flap of the box.

A queer little object rattled around inside. It looked like a piece of scrimshaw, a flat bit of still-gray bone with a compulsive pattern worked out in black over the shallow curve of the surface.

“Isn’t it—isn’t it? I saw it in a book—a book about India—in the library,” he said with great effort. “I thought you could put holes through the ends and make a nice—a nice necklace for Caroline—“

“Thank you,” Maggie said, and pushed the flat bit of bone back into the box.

His face juddered a little. “Do you suppose—suppose I could see Caroline—”

“John doesn’t know—I only told him that I was going to shop for some shoes and fabric and maybe a new iron,” Maggie said. She looked at Sean’s untouched coffee with regret. “Let’s walk a little—I’ll tell you how she is—”

They went down to the river walk, but Sean was still on a burning high, and he often forgot that she was walking beside him and leapt ahead with a frenetic jerking of his shoulders. Maggie had to repeat she said about Caroline several times before he understood—she had taken second at the county spelling bee, she was helping Maria Luìsa at the farm down the road bottle-feed an orphaned goat, Maggie had sewn her a new dress of blue cotton chambray and she looked very well in it. She talked about the buttons she had used and the word Caroline had lost on, “pulmonary,” and the color of the kid’s eyes, because she was afraid that if she stopped talking Sean would tell her about the man in the abandoned car with a suit made in Chicago.

Maggie asked flippantly if they might have an ice cream cone; he smiled thinly at her, eyes squinted. He looked so young, she thought. There were lines around his eyes and his mouth and his flaming hair had gone a little paler, a little silvery, but he still looked so young.

They stopped again at a parlor that had just opened up, but they had the radio on there too.

“Did you hear about this guy out to Dallas?” the soda jerk asked. He shook his head. “Sounds like he got messed up something bad. Don’t hear about those things down this way much.” His tone made it clear that this was a source of deep regret. “Crying shame, it is.”

“What happened?” asked a boy who was almost certainly cutting school.

“They won’t say exactly, only that there was a lot of blood, and that it was horrific,” the soda jerk said, and they might have kept speculating delightedly, except Sean suddenly understood what they were talking about—

“Took his head clean off,” he said, with the glassy death’s-head grin. “Shouldn’t have come down this way, should he?”

The soda jerk pulled back like he’d been slapped. The boy next to them at the counter took a look at Sean’s face and slid off his stool. He scooted toward the door, then raced down the street, the knowledge he had seen in that smile chuckling at his heels.

“I’ve just decided I don’t want an ice cream after all,” Maggie said quietly. She tugged on Sean’s arm, and he followed her into the street.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s done now. I’ll give your love to Caroline,” Maggie said, standing on tip-toe to kiss him on the cheek.

“Yes.”

***

Caroline thought the bit of pattern-burnt bone was beautiful, but Maggie would not let her put holes in the ends so she could wear it to school.

Illustration day one

Tablet drawing, 2 hours.

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