Thursday, March 11, 2010

CAFE


CAFÉ


The old café looked the same—just tired and older. The counter, worn by countless swipes with damp sponges from an endless succession of bored waitresses, attested to years of use by untold numbers of college students. Along the windowless wall eight booths, their Formica table tops etched with decades of names and initials, stood in contrast to new vinyl covered seats and a recently painted interior. Even in the coolness of the air conditioning, rancid smells of frying hamburgers hung nauseatingly intermingled with acrid smoke from the fry cook’s cigarette smoldering in the overfilled ashtray next to the cash register. The dirty front windows still overlooked Danner Hall across the street. The old street light was no longer there giving off its dirty yellow glow. Instead, mercury lights now flooded the night, driving back the shadows he remembered. He was surprised to find the café still there.

It had been fifty-five years ago, since she had walked out. In the interval, changes had occurred that had transformed the once small close-knit college he knew into a bustling university. Only the small café had remained the same.

He eased over to a booth at the back of the room and sat facing the entrance. Memories, long suppressed, crept silently from the recesses of his mind. Was it really that long ago? Time does slip by when you’re not watching. I guess that’s what’s happened to me.

“Sir?” the soft, distant voice broke through the mist of his memories.

“Huh?’ he had responded annoyed at the interruption. Then, realizing he’d let his mind drift, replied more pleasantly, “I’m sorry, Miss. What did you say?”

She replied, a tinge of scarlet touching her face, “I didn’t mean to startle you. Only wanted to know if I could get you a cup of coffee or maybe something to eat.”

“Coffee will be fine,” he replied. “I guess I was doing a little woolgathering.”

It was almost closing time and at the late hour, there were no other customers. The hum of the air conditioner dulled outside traffic noises, but otherwise, the empty café was quiet. Occasional lights from passing cars brightened up the interior before moving on down the nearly deserted street. It was between semesters on the usually busy campus, and as such, the pace of normal activities had slowed.

She brought him his coffee and paused for a moment before saying, “Sir, are you alright? You seem worried about something.”

“Yes,” he responded a little more abruptly than he intended. Seeing her hurt look, he gently said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

She nodded and turned to leave.

“Please, Miss. I see you’re about to close up for the night. Will you join me while I finish my coffee?”

They sat and exchanged small talk for a while. Finally, he said hesitantly, “You may be wondering why an old man like me is sitting here in this coffee shop.” He paused, sighed softly, and then continued, “Well, I’m not at all sure myself. After all the past years, I was driving through on my way to St. Louis and felt a need to drive through campus…to see how things have changed since I was a student here a long time ago. Frankly, I felt compelled to stop when I saw this old place was still standing.” He gestured with a wave of his hand. “Now, I wish I had driven on by.”

At the question reflected in her pretty young face, he explained that stopping had brought back hurtful old memories. Needing to talk, he related to her what had happened over fifty years earlier.

“My name is Luke. One night back in 1954 a couple of my buddies and I were here in this café killing time, doing nothing but drinking coffee, gabbing, and giving a little teenage waitress a hard time. We had been there for nearly two hours and the Coca Cola clock behind the counter showed it was almost ten o’clock. Others came in and left—the little café was popular with the students of Arkansas State College back then.”

“My eyes were drawn to the entrance as five coeds came in and scanned the room. I knew four of the girls, but my eyes merely acknowledged them, and then went past those four to the fifth one. She was tall and graceful with long hair that shimmered and changed colors from ebony to deep purple in the artificial light of the café. Knowing I was staring, I couldn’t help but watch her cross the room, and with the other girls, approach me and my buddies.

She unabashedly stared back, daring me, and with that look, stole my heart. With no previous thoughts of settling down, I realized here was the girl I would spend my life with.

We dated and the relationship blossomed into a full-blown love affair. The semester dragged on with both of us deep into study, but time sped by during the times we were together. Sometime around Christmas I gave her an engagement ring and we both laughed at the tiny diamond. She had kidded that her love for me was much greater. I grinned and kissed her.

The new year came and things to took on a somber note. The change was subtle and had I not been so engrossed in her presence, I would have seen that she was no longer the carefree girl who had stolen my heart that night in the tiny café. There was a sadness that had slipped into her dark enchanting eyes—a sadness that she tried to hide, but couldn’t quite suppress. Then in February we met at the library for our usual study session. I could tell she had been crying and when, with an inquiring look, asked what was wrong, she had walked stiffly away. Muttering only, “I’ll see you later,” and without looking back, she hurried off in the gathering darkness.

She avoided me for several days, days that became tormentingly long. Feelings went from hurt to anger. Early on, I had seen how headstrong she was and how, when provoked, her temper flared. Try as I did, I could remember nothing that would have caused her behavior.

The biology lab was long that Friday afternoon, ending around dinner time. I checked the wall-clock, and then glanced at my own watch. I gathered my books and hurried across campus hoping to avoid friends.

She was walking slowly alone when I saw her. Our eyes met, and then she lowered hers. Hesitating for a moment as if she had forgotten something, she started to speak, but suddenly turned away and continued toward the dorm. Before I could speak, she had gone. No longer hungry, I sighed and disappointed headed for my lonely room. Sitting there in the gathering darkness, I came to a decision that forever changed my life.

Not wanting to linger any longer and maybe change my mind, I tossed a few belongings into the 1950 Chevy, gave the dismal room a final glance, then stopping only long enough to clear up some last minute paperwork, headed toward Little Rock. I arrived at the Air Force recruiting office on Market Street in downtown Little Rock a few minutes before opening time and waited impatiently. Explaining that I wanted to re-enlist in the Air Force took only a few minutes and after signing a stack of papers, I was sworn in at the rank of technical sergeant. By mid-morning I was on the way to Shaw AFB, South Carolina, heavy hearted and tormented.

The letter came several months later. I finished my late night shift and routinely stopped by the orderly room, before heading for the mess hall for breakfast. The orderly room clerk, Airman Charlie Sanders, called me over and handed me a letter. Hefting the letter, I tried to divine its contents. Then noting the postmark, I audibly inhaled and with trembling hands opened it. Inside were a small sealed envelope with the name “Luke” neatly scribed on it and a single written page. Unfolding the note I read the lines silently. “We didn’t know where you were until a few days ago. After you abruptly left, Kate gave me the enclosed letter to keep until I heard from her. She left the campus that afternoon. I heard no more from her until a call from a mutual friend came three weeks ago reminding me of Kate’s letter. It took some time to locate you and forward this letter.” I stared at her letter wanting, but not really wanting to know, wadded the letter and tossed it aside.”

The pretty young waitress’s soft voice brought Luke back to the presence. He smiled and said, “There I go again, letting my mind wander. Now what were you saying?”

She replied, pausing briefly, “I’m a little reluctant to ask, but could you describe her to me?”

His eyebrows arched as he asked, “Why?”

Again, the girl hesitated before answering. “I don’t know,” she replied. “But there’s something about what you said that makes me remember. Something that my mother once told me when I was a little girl.”

Staring at the now cold coffee he related his memory of a young Kate. The waitress sat listening attentively as he relived those long ago days.

A tear slid down her cheek and she smiled weakly as she wiped it away with the back of her hand. Looking intently into his eyes, she said almost inaudibly, “My grandmother was that girl you left behind that night.”

“What?” he exclaimed not wanting to believe her words.

“Yes. She was quite independent and didn’t want to be a burden to anyone nor did she want sympathy. Especially from you.”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean by sympathy?”

“Mom told me Kate was going to leave school. The reason she gave for leaving was that her mother—my great grandmother—was seriously ill and needed help caring for her younger brothers and sister. Kate avoided you because she loved you and didn’t know how to tell you her troubles and wreck the plans the two of you had. She never imagined you would leave like you did.”

“I didn’t know,” he murmured. “I didn’t know.” His face reflected the hurt he felt.

“I should hate you,” she said. “But after seeing how you must be feeling and knowing why you stopped here, there’s something I must tell you. You didn’t hear all of her story. She did return home, but the real reason Kate avoided you was that she had just found out she was pregnant. So, you see, I think you are my grandfather.


___________________________________________

Luther Knight is a native of Clarendon, Arkansas. Following high school, he served a four-year tour of duty in the U. S. Air Force. He has a BSE degree from Arkansas State College and Master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Mississippi. He retired from the University of Mississippi in 1991 as Professor Emeritus of Biology. As an aquatic biologist at Ole Miss he published several articles dealing with freshwater biology, directed several students to completion of their Graduate degrees, and is the founding director of the University of Mississippi Field Station.

Knight has written three suspense novels, The Tomato Patch, Cache River and Myrtle Beach.


Myrtle Beach to be reviewed by the Dew on May 19th!



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