In the years after your retirement, you’ll continue to make regular visits to the cafe where your wife once worked. This will be one of the two indulgences you still allow yourself. One such occasion will fall on a snowy afternoon in early December—you’ll push the door open with a jingle, stomp off your boots, unwind the scarf from around your neck. The transition will fog your glasses, imbue the scene with a glow like nostalgia. The establishment will be nearly empty, save for a few patrons working on laptops. The young woman behind the bar will be following their example, her attention drifting between screen and page. She’ll look up from her own work as you enter, will smile and push back from the counter. “Mr. Simmons.” This will not be your real name.
“Ms. Lopez.” Take up your usual stool, hang up your coat and bag. Make note again of her laptop down near the register, the heavy textbook open beside it. “Pulling double-duty, I see.”
“Thesis isn’t gonna write itself.” She’ll grin and grab a mug from the rack overhead. “Usual?”
“Please.” You’ll reach down and pull out your own reading, smile as she brings you your order: Irish coffee with a vanilla scone. Proffer her your card with a palsied left hand, savor the brief brush of your fingers as she takes it from you.
“Keep it open?”
“For now.” Stir your coffee and sip, enjoying the gentle warmth as it goes down. The whiskey will be the second of your indulgences, having become nearly impossible to find now where you came from. You will recall the way she used to harass you in later years for such extravagances, your insistence on small comforts. The days we have are so short, you used to tell her, and so few. She’ll look up from her studies now, say, “Sorry, didn’t catch that?”
“Forgive me.” You’ll realize you were just now speaking aloud. “Just an old man rambling. I don’t mean to interrupt.”
“You’re not,” she’ll say. “Still gotta hold down the shop anyway.” She’ll set aside her book for the moment, take up a rag for a quick wipedown of the booths. On the way back, she’ll be carrying a bus tub clattering with dishes—she’ll sneak a peek over your shoulder as she passes, but otherwise leave you alone. Focus on your own reading for the moment. Let her company be enough.
Later, after the sun has fallen in the sky, she’ll ask you, “Another?” This should be your sign that you’ve lingered too long. She’ll bring you the tab, and as you wait for her to run the card you’ll begin gathering up your things. Yet again, her attention will be drawn to the book in your hand. “Sorry,” she’ll say. “Just trying to see what you’re reading.”
“Collected Poems,” you’ll inform her. “Jack Gilbert. A perennial favorite.”
A coy grin, the kind that can only be shared between a young woman and a kindly old man. “You always did strike me as the romantic type.”
“I think the word that you’re looking for is ‘sentimental.’” She’ll laugh at this, at a snort that quickly pitches into a giddy shriek. How long has it been since you heard that sound? “With grad and teaching, I don’t really get to read for pleasure as much.” A strange look will cross her face. “It’s funny, my friend has that exact same book in his apartment. Same edition, same dust jacket, everything.”
“My copy has seen a bit more wear, I imagine.” You’ll feel a small smile settle on your lips. You hadn’t thought about it when you chose to bring this book in particular, but it does make for a happy coincidence. “A friend. Would this be the friend from recently?”
“Am I that obvious?”
“I’ve learned to pick up on things, is all.” Don’t say that you’ve had a lifetime to learn her mannerisms, her quirks of speech. The way she fiddles with her hair, the way she slips sometimes when mentioning things, before rushing to correct herself. Don’t mention any of this. Instead, allow yourself this small vanity. “So, this young man. Tell me about him.”
“Well, he’s smart, obviously. Funny. Kind. His writing’s good, not my thing at all, but still.”
“Mm.” She always was honest. “Sounds like a decent sort.”
“I really like him.” She’ll brush a dark curl aside with a finger. “More than like him. It’s just . . .”
“It’s December already.” You’ll know that she’s been busy these last two weeks with PhD packets. As you recall, her top program was up in Vancouver. “No sense getting involved, if I’m just going to end up moving.”
“Quite the dilemma.” Wonder: Is it that time already? Have these little visits been going for so long? It seems your perception of time grows blurrier with each passing year. “And what does he think?”
“Here for another year, at least. Wants me to hold off.”
“I see.” Remember now how you were at that age—a dreamer and a little bit selfish, enamored of your books and your writing. The romance that such pursuits inevitably suggest to the young. You will remember her face now by the hazy light of so many parties, the conversations lying in bed at night, regarding your future. Your dreams, your goals, your fear, oft vocalized, of losing her. Even then, you knew she was better than you probably deserved, but you’ll also know that some part of her resented you later, for the choices you asked her to make. You have learned over years that love, like any flame, operates like an organism. Its first imperative is to feed itself.
“I’m sorry,” she’ll say. “I don’t mean to bore you.”
“Nonsense.” Outside, the heavy snowfall will remind you, quite unexpectedly, of ash. Recall then a memory of the I-90 passing through Spokane, in the years after things got truly bad. The light that morning a sickly yellow brown, the air a taste of metal on the tongue. Amidst the plumes of smoke and blowing cinders, a single vehicle on fire by the side of the road. Its occupants, a family of four, fleeing the car, also on fire. Their hair and their clothes already melted, their screams rising and falling. In the rearview, each one stumbling, then finally collapsing as they succumb. Your wife of course will die years before any of this—an aneurysm, of all things, killing her quietly in her sleep after some forty years of marriage, but do not tell her this. Do not tell her about the son you will have together. Do not tell her how old he will be when he dies. Do not think about the miles and miles of blackened corpses, the charred limbs rising from the ditches like so many wildflowers.
“Forgive me.” Take a moment to compose yourself. “The mind wanders as one grows older. I should get home. Thank you as always for the coffee and conversation.”
“Of course.” That easy smile again. You’ll turn to go, but before you can get to the door, a moment of impulse will stay your feet. Turn back.
“Ms. Lopez, may I say something?”
She’ll be busy drying and stacking glasses. “Sure, what’s that?”
Think carefully. Like many of those who have fled here to live out their days, you have come to see History as a force like the tides, slow and immutable in its wrath. The waves do not change course because a single boat beats against them. The Archduke will inevitably be shot dead in Sarajevo, but perhaps beforehand his assassin might order a roast beef sandwich, rather than mutton. You have come to realize that we must act on the limited choices available to us—that love, at its truest, seeks to create, to nurture, to set free. Perhaps there may yet be time to seek our greater selves. Tell her, “Go with what feels right. What feeds you. If he’s worth it, he’ll support you.”
“I will.” She appears genuinely touched. “Thank you, Mr. Simmons.”
“Ms. Lopez.” Be out the door and gone then. The day will be bright streaks of sun through granite clouds. Since coming here, you find yourself intensely aware of every moment, every detail about the world. Everything is new now, and will never be again. Let the sun fall upon your face. The days we have left are short, and so very few.
Seth Marlin holds an MFA in Fiction from Eastern Washington University, and is the author of Shred, a chapbook of slam poetry. His stories and verse have appeared in Spark, Knockout, A cappella Zoo, and Silk Road Review, among many others. He is currently at work on a hiking guide for Menasha Ridge Press, due out in Spring 2020, and he resides in Spokane, WA.