Drawing by Judith Wolfe

JOSEPH LEVENS

Another Morning



    "You don't need to do that," said Salvatore, his elbows planted on the purple table.

    Young Jessica the waitress had finished pouring coffee, leaning into him so he could see the division of her breasts from the opening at the top of her blouse.

    "But I always do these things for you, Salvatore," she replied.
    "Well, I think you should cover that up. You might get a bad name," he said, putting his old hands around the coffee mug as if it were a chalice.

    ***

    Outside, the winter sun cast unhappy light on Alexander Boulevard, a busy street which wove its way through the foothills of the Berkshires. Salvatore's weekend was slower than usual, and standing up from his easy chair was becoming more difficult. He carried a crook of a cane and had a herringbone sportsjacket hump in his back. The last time the jacket saw the dry cleaners was 1992, the year his second wife died.

    Inside the cafť of yellow, red and purple, an experiment in design from a wealthy Hyde Park resident, Jessica poured coffee and served eggs each morning. Her favorite customer was the old man with the herringbone jacket.

    Several years ago, on her first day of work, having completed high school, she was asked in a gentle-hearted voice if the red of her hair was real. The graying man had some doubt. He asked that she bring her nose inches from his, and he inspected her face.

    "How can it be red if your eyebrows are blonde?" he asked calmly.
    "I donít know," she replied, gripping the hot coffee pot.
    "That simply canít be," said Salvatore, shaking his head like a grandfather.

    The waitress stood up straight, one heel on the other foot's toe.

    "It's just the way I am," she said with a smile, as if she knew the man and the way about him, having reached a charm that was ordinarily hidden inside his hallway closet.

    ***

    Over the course of the last two years it was a ritual. A certain time of morning, a certain breakfast, a certain flare of the hip or bend of the knee.

    "You do this just to keep me a paying customer," he said one day last winter.
    "Do not," she replied.

    He went back home to his easy chair believing her, but the next day, when she winked at him while pouring his coffee, he once more said -
    "I tell you, it is just a gimmick, just a neat little ploy to get me here and keep me here."
    "Are you saying I'm a girl with ill intentions?" she asked.
    "Do you chew gum?" The same calm, inquiring voice.

    She bent down to look him in the eyes.

    "You want to check?"
    "Can I have my bacon and eggs please?"
    "It's Lent and it's Friday," she reminded him.
    "It's not a sin if you forget," he said with a nod, lips tightly closed.

    ***

    There was no snow this January, uncommon for the area. The cafe would not see good business until May, when vacationers once more begin to penetrate the county with pop-up trailers and self-contained recreational vehicles. Despite the season, the old man and the young cafe waitress saw each other every morning, but today it was clearly evident there was something unusual in Salvatore's demeanor.

    "Each year we grow older and look more seriously and irreconcilably at our mortality," he said to Jessica, after turning away the flirting glimpse. A bald spot on his head reflected the melancholy sun.
    "And since when do you not want me to do that?" she argued, almost defensively.
    "When I was five I thought I would never die. When I was eighteen, I thought it would only happen if I was caught in some unfortunate place when a terrorist bomb went off. In my forties, the pain in my joints helped me to come to the realization that the world-record holder in the Olympic decathlon would never be me." Salvatore was looking straight ahead. Jessica was standing beside him.
    "Did we overcook the bacon again? I'll give Fred hell, I really will," she said.
    "I'm seventy-three, my dear, and I feel awful."

    Moved by this last statement, the waitress sat down across from him in the booth by the window. She set her elbows wide on the tawdry tabletop and folded her hands as if in prayer. She would do this sometimes when Salvatore was in a down mood.

    "Well let me tell you something, Old Man." It's what she used to call him when she felt intimate.

    He looked at her face. She had the expression of a preacher from the South. He looked at her fingers, each folding over the next.

    "Your parents had sex one night a long time ago," she said. "Maybe instead of lying down next to your mother, your father decided that night to stay up and read, or go to bed early. You wouldn't be here, friend." Her hands unlocked and she extended her palms, shrugging her shoulders. "Consider yourself lucky. I do."

    The teeth in Salvatore's mouth became visible as he drew a comforting expression.

    "You know you're the reason I come here every morning," he said to her.
    "And if I want you to tell me I look nice today, you'll tell me," she said.

    He looked out to the girl across from him, and seeing the temporal rays of morning shine on her outstretched forearms, he took the heel of each wrist and put his lips upon it. Then he sent her on her way.


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