A/N: The majority of this fic was written on New Year's Eve 2003. Then, for reasons I can't even remember anymore, I left off writing and totally forgot where I wanted to take it. I knew I wanted to write something featuring an OC as a narrator, but which was really a story about one or more of the canon characters. I wanted to see if I could pull that off. I'm not sure if I have, but I took up writing it again after I finished the book A Plague of Angels by Sherri S. Tepper. Therefore, a chunk of this is influenced and owed to that book.
Started: December 2003
Finished: December 2005
Life in a Coffee Cup
© Scribbler, 2005.
The library on a Wednesday afternoon is a quiet place. More so than usual.
Not that it ever gets to a state where it can compete with the all-ages club down the street, but the general chatter of people asking for reservations, talking to themselves and enquiring about bus timetables dies down to a clutch of regulars who don't need to speak to us because they already know where everything is.
This is especially true around three o' clock, which is why that's when I take my break.
I like to sit in the stacks when I'm off duty.
Off duty. What a phrase. Makes me sound like some police officer or other keeper of the peace. The only things I protect are the books, and the only nemeses I face are library users who leave them dog-eared, or lose them completely.
Anyway, like I said, I like to sit in the stacks. We're a small library; nothing like the central one in the middle of town, but we do have a staffroom of sorts. I'd call it a faculty lounge, but it's very obviously not. It's actually a converted storeroom, which means only one person can break at a time, but Candy and I have brought in a few odds and ends from home to jolly it up a little.
The paper lantern over the light bulb is mine – a leftover from last Halloween when I had the neighbours' kids over for trick-or-treating. The mirror is Candy's. It used to be part of her dresser, but her husband recently got her a new one, and she somehow managed to coerce him into detaching the old mirror and affixing it to the wall here. She says it's to make the space seem bigger, but really it's there so we can check our hair and make-up between shifts.
Not that I always have make-up to check, of course. Some days, between getting Joey off to school and making sure I have enough housekeeping left over for bus fare, I forget my usual blue eye shadow and mascara. My hair is generally relegated to a tieback of some description for efficiency's sake – usually the scrunchie Joey got for me last Christmas. It makes me look like a woman trying to recapture her misbegotten youth, but it also puts a smile on his face.
Hang on. Tangent. Skip back a bit. We have a staffroom. Not a bad one, but I don't like to use it when I'm on a break. Nice as the place is, it's more than a little claustrophobic. And besides, I miss the human contact I get when I sit in the library proper.
It's a strange thing. I'm not naturally gregarious, but I hate to be cut off from people so completely. With the staffroom door shut, you'd never even know there was a library on the other side, let alone the dusty piles of unshelved books we call home. I much prefer to hunker down at the old wooden table between biographies and romantic fiction, where we keep the newspapers and magazines. Linus, the paperboy, drops them off each morning before he goes to school. It's his first job, though he says he's already got work as a clerk at the comic store set up for when school ends in the Summer. I think I'll miss him when he's gone. He's always punctual, never rude, and he sometimes stays for a chat while he catches his breath. He reminds me a little of Joey, had things been different.
More tangents. My grandmother always said I could never tell my own story without telling the stories of everyone else in the process. It's why I only harbour pipedreams of writing. The novel I started in college still sits in my bedside drawer, unfinished on its floppy disk. I keep telling myself I'll go back to it someday, but if I'm honest, part of me knows I won't. It was my brainchild – my incomprehensible masterpiece, or so I thought.
Short stories are easier. You can spend an evening venting yourself in a short story and then never have to look at it again. A novel is different – more personal, even if you don't intend it to be. It follows you around, like a small dog snapping at your heels. You think about a novel even when you're not writing; what to put in it, what to change from when you wrote in it last, what should happen, what shouldn't, what can't. A novel – a real novel, not one of those half-hearted things you scribble between classes in high school, when you're full of misbegotten angst and teenage hormones and don't really know anything about life at all – is like a baby. It needs care and attention; whereas a short story is more like a cat. You can put it out at night and it'll take care of itself.
Sometimes I leaf through an issue of Cosmo while I drink my coffee and eat my sandwich, but mostly I just settle to whatever book I started on the bus on the way in, occasionally peering over the top to people-watch.
General opinion says that libraries are populated by students cramming and old people looking for someone to talk to. This isn't too far from the truth. Single mothers in search of cheap entertainment for their kidlets are another staple of our branch, since we're so close to the local day nursery. More than once I've organised impromptu activity sessions when too many children arrive all at once. The looks their mothers give me, you'd think I was some sort of saint, but I'm not. I've just had some experience looking after Joey. Patience tends to bulk up when dealing with a kid like him. The fact that he's my brother and not my son probably makes a difference in there somewhere.
However, these sorts of people aren't the only kind you can find amid the aisles and shelves. Look a little closer and you find other, subtler folk; people who step outside the stereotypes and cram themselves into new and interesting niches. Sitting where I do, I can spot them and observe without being too noticeable or prying. A quick downward tick of my eyes and they have their privacy back, while I engage with dragons and magicians and time travelling villains.
On this particular Wednesday I was finishing up Mrs. Laverly's renewals and looking to the clock a full ten minutes early. I'd had to go into the elementary school and do battle with one of Joey's teachers that morning on the pros and cons of classroom integration versus actually having time for recess, so I'd missed my breakfast.
"Quiet today," Candy said once I was done. She was taking inventory in the children's section, and I could hear her voice but not see her over the giant stuffed rabbit. For this reason, it seemed as though the rabbit itself was talking.
"Sure is," I replied, looking longingly to my handbag, in which lay a no-doubt squashed egg and cress abomination. My culinary skills are not spectacular. If it has instructions, I can manage something halfway edible, but other than that I'm pretty much a no-hoper in the kitchen. I once set the toaster on fire when I tried to do crumpets. No joke.
"You know, it's not a crime to take your break a few minutes early."
I peered around. The only people left were Ms Havers – who insists we call her 'Ms', even though we all know she divorced her husband of twenty years last April – and Jack, the resident hobo of Barleybrook Lane. Jack often comes in to sit and doze while reading Chaucer next to the radiator. I think he used to be an English Literature professor before his wife left him and he took his solace at the bottom of a bottle, but he doesn't like to talk about it much. He was snoring by the window, no use for conversation and not much of an ornament, either.
"You know," I said, feeling suddenly rebellious – a rare occurrence, as anyone who knows me will attest, "I think I will. Can you hold down the fort for half an hour or so, Cand?"
"It'll be a struggle, but I think I can manage," said the rabbit. "Now get lost before your rumbling stomach drives me loopy. You keep making me lose count of the Harry Potters."
"We have that many copies?"
"You have no idea."
I do, actually. I ordered most of them, and we didn't see them for dust the first couple of weeks.
I made a minor pit stop in the staffroom to fill and switch on the kettle. Then I took up my usual spot at the table while waiting for it to boil, dragging a moth-eaten copy of 'A Little Princess' along with me. Childish, yes, but I've always loved it, and the version Mom and Dad gave me as a 'tweenager' has the most beautiful watercolour illustrations I've ever seen in a fiction book.
I was just getting onto the part about the Unfortunate Indian Gentleman when the creak of the foyer doors caught my attention. I looked up, fully expecting to see another one of our regulars come to see what new books we had in. They know not to disturb me when I'm on break, but Candy was still counting, and I was early...
So I was quite surprised to see a short man clutching a toothpick tightly between his teeth, like someone was digging a bullet out of his leg. He was easily recognisable. I'd seen him before, and there are few people who can wear the look he does without the appearance of a causeless rebel. The few times he'd been in here in the past, he'd worn exactly the same look, with exactly the same preoccupied set to his shoulders.
He was not a usual Wednesday afternoon visitor, and the way he looked around the place before walking forward let me know he was thinking exactly the same thing. Call it intuition, but my immediate impression was that this was a man who had wandered in without prior thought or direction, and chosen to stay because there was no reason not to, nor better place to go.
He spent a moment looking at the westerns and pulp fiction, brushed over the autobiographies, and then sank into a chair at the opposite end of the table. He didn't seem to notice me. The library had suddenly become a part of his day, and he was too busy absorbing that to bother about a mousy-brown woman with glasses like re-entry shields peering over her book at him. Snagging a newspaper, he scanned the headlines and made no pretence of reading the articles beneath. His posture was beyond tense, his expression uptight, and everything about his body language screamed 'don't even touch me' like an indignant three year old.
So, naturally, I was curious. The select times I'd spoken to him before, it had been over the counter recommending books and informing him that he wasn't allowed to smoke inside the building, thank you very much. He hadn't listened to the former, but he'd paid attention to the latter, stubbing his cigarette out on the heel of his boot until there was no spark left, and then dropping the remains in our handily placed waste paper basket.
There was no cigarette this time – a sign he'd either remembered the rule or run out. The lack of nicotine stains on his fingers said he may even have given up, or was such a casual smoker there were weeks and months between lighting up. It wasn't an implausible concept. The toothpick moved from corner to corner of his mouth with a dexterity that said the habit was a longstanding one.
For some reason, watching him sat there like that stirred the Mother Bear in me. He reminded me of a slightly dazed, misplaced puppy – and you don't need to tell me that such a description is completely incompatible with this man, with his wild dark hair, permanent five o' clock shadow and harsh, haunted eyes. There was just something about him that afternoon; something … forlorn that made me lower my book and say, "You look like you could use a stiff drink."
Evidently I'd startled him, because he snapped his head up and looked up at me like I was crazy. His eyes ticked from left to right, but he was the only one there for me to have spoken to.
"Maybe so," he said at length, in a voice as raw and gravelly as that of a blues singer lost to booze and cigarettes. He had an accent I couldn't place, and followed up with a hopeful, "You offerin'?"
"Regrettably, the stiffest we have is coffee. Kwik-E-Mart's own brand, if you want to be specific. Should you be brave enough to try it, I can fix you up a cup."
He seemed to consider this for a moment. Then he nodded – a short, terse movement, as though he expected me to hit him upside the head for accepting the offer.
I rose, leaving my book with spine shrieking on the table.
The kettle had cooled a little, so I flipped the switch again, looking out two mismatching ceramic mugs and saucers from the cupboard while it boiled. I'm not supposed to drink out in the stacks, but I'm the most careful person you're ever likely to find with beverages and books. I'm also not supposed to offer drinks to strangers, as Mom always taught me, but again, Mother Bear instinct. Which is quite ludicrous, now that I think about it, since this man was obviously a good few years my elder.
Spooning tiny brown mountains into each mug, I realised I hadn't asked about either milk or sugar, so I pulled out a few stops rather than go back and ask, and set separate beakers of each on a tray covered in a pleasant apple motif.
On my way back to the table I passed Candy, who had returned to the counter and was dead to the world, deep in a new computer programme she'd been trying to upload onto our systems for the past week and a half. I'm not completely hopeless with computers – I can word process, I can Google, and I know how to renew my own books online, and that does me just fine.
The stranger was still at the table where I'd left him. The newspaper sat forgotten by his wrist. He was studying the back of his hand, running his fingers over the knuckles with a curious sort of ease. He had big, meaty hands, callused and clearly used to hard work.
"Here you go," I said, setting down the tray and plonking a mug in front of him. The milk and sugar went next, since I drink my coffee black. I stood the tray on its end against my chair, watching his reaction over the rim of my mug.
He sniffed the brew gingerly, inhaling a cloud of steam and coffee smell.
"There's no arsenic in it." The gentle words of teasing came unexpectedly easily. My patter is not the greatest on earth, and I've been known to choke more than once when speaking to people about non-library stuff. Books and Joey, they're my life, with little room for anything else. "Budget doesn't stretch that far."
The stranger gave me an odd look, like he didn't know quite what to make of me. Ditto the reversal; but then, he wasn't the one spontaneously offering for me to join him for coffee.
I almost snorted at the lewd connotations that popped into my brain at that, and subdued my laughter with a swig of coffee still far too hot to be ingested.
"Maybe I should also mention that I expect nothing more than for you to drink the coffee." I leaned forward conspiratorially, inclining my head at the stuffed rabbit, which was still visible over the tops of the bookshelves. "I doubt the bunny would approve of anything else."
He narrowed his eyes. "And we can't upset the bunny, can we?"
"Certainly not. The children would never forgive me he upped and left because I offended him."
That elicited a laugh. My inner self punched the air at the thin, watery smile dragging across his lips.
I wheezed a little, hot water burning a path to my stomach, and reclined back in my chair. For a second I cast a longing look at my book, but a glance at the man's rapidly falling face made me stop the compulsion to reach for it.
I studied him for a moment. Compact and solid and hunched in his seat, he looked like nothing so much as a grizzly bear guarding a fish in the middle of a river. Bears may be anglers, but they aren't really meant for the water on a permanent basis, and it's always struck me how out of place they look on those documentaries. All sad and wet and bristly. That was exactly how this man looked – incompatible to his surroundings.
He was muscular under that loose-fitting jacket. Not a contender for Hulk Hogan's title, but brawny enough that I doubted he thought twice about walking home after dark.
Hulk Hogan. I think I'm showing my age. Granted, I was a kid when he was in the ring, but still. I doubt many of the young mothers gracing our threshold would know whom I'm talking about.
"Something tells me this isn't one of your usual haunts."
He looked up from testing the coffee with his tongue. If it burned him the way it did me, then he gave no sign of discomfort. I think he had been expecting me to shut up if he accepted the drink. "Not so much, these days," he said after a moment.
"Unless you're playing taxi service? You brought in some kids the last time you were here," I explained at his expression.
"Sumthin' like that."
"They seemed a nice bunch. Didn't leave the place in a mess like some. One of them even called me 'ma'am'."
"Yeah, they're good kids." It was said absently, and with a distraction that suggested autopilot.
I laughed. I couldn't help it. He stared at me like I was hysterical, or crazy, or both, and actually set his mug down until I'd finished. Ms Havers was checking out her books at the desk and leaving, but she found time to shoot me an equally intrigued look. Maybe she thought I was following in her footsteps and picking up some random man to take home after hours.
I snorted again.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing, nothing. Call it a spontaneous convulsion of my larynx." I started coughing, and took a sip of coffee, which helped about as much as you'd expect.
There was silence for a few minutes. The stranger seemed in no hurry to renew conversation, and I had nothing to say.
Despite the public relations part of my job, I'm not much of a talker. Neither is he, from what I'd gathered from those few times I'd seen him before that day. Mostly, he either stayed in that great big black hunk of metal outside, or else stayed in the corner, watching whatever various kids he came in with through unfathomable eyes. I guessed he worked at some kind of children's home or something. Either that or he had a very large, multicultural extended family.
Whichever it was, he was not talkative – to the point where sometimes I had to wonder what his pulse rate was.
The only time he'd ever come in here without them was last Christmas. He'd arrived just before closing on Christmas Eve, with the same sort of lost-puppy look. I let him past the doors because it was snowing outside, even though there were only fifteen minutes to closing time. I'm a bit of a softy where weather's concerned. Too many days spent out in the cold, waiting for Miss Price to open the sticky door to our building.
He'd just looked around the place, staring but not seeing, like some great ice statue carved in the middle of the floor. When I eventually had to tell him we were shutting up shop, he just looked at me vacantly, then turned and left without a word. Probably moving on to some other lonely place to spend his holidays.
Perhaps that was why I felt like I needed to speak with him that Wednesday afternoon. I know about loneliness, and I know that it's a horrible thing to experience. It stews around inside of you, feeding itself unless you find a way to get rid of it. I could see it in his eyes when he looked around at the peeling paint and cracked windows, and it almost guilt-tripped me into saying something – anything – again.
Like I said, I'm not a big conversationalist. I think that's why Candy and I make such a good work team, because she, by comparison, is. The constant influx of feedback helps to keep me in the land of the living.
"So … mind if I ask what brings you here today?"
He didn't look at me, didn't answer. It was an eloquent silence, but still a silence.
I checked the time to see that I was well overdue to have finished my break. Yet the library was empty of people or jobs needing my attention, and I felt the strangest urge to sit there like a mule until I got some sort of response.
"I thought all librarians were silence-lovers."
"A common misconception, I can assure you. I can be rowdy when I please."
"I was under the impression that libraries were a place to take students who've forgotten to do their homework, not spend lazy afternoons."
"Haven't you seen the sunshine outside? It's glorious. Perfect weather for gambolling with lambs and picnicking in the park."
"You sound like some sappy romance novel."
"Maybe I do. Mills and Boon are the most ephemeral books here. Put them on the shelf and whoosh, they're gone. I have a sneaking suspicion their influence seeps through their covers and through my skin into my bloodstream. And I handle enough of the things to have quite a melodramatic litany accumulated up here." I tapped the side of my head.
I was babbling. So I just smiled in what I hoped was an enigmatic yet friendly manner and sipped at my coffee. Hopefully he would just think I was pleasantly eccentric and not someone to back slowly away from.
He stared for a second longer and then raised his own mug to his lips.
When he was finished I offered him another.
"Nah. Don't get no buzz from the stuff."
I'm not sure whether he was insulting the brand or lamenting something deeper, so I didn't say anything. I half-expected him to just get up and leave because of my continued presence at the table, and so it surprised me when he instead turned square on to me and spoke quickly.
"Ever get that feelin' that you been there, seen it all, an' burned the tee shirt?"
I blinked, choosing my answer carefully. "Sometimes. Doesn't everyone?"
"I suppose." He dropped his head, perusing the grain of the wood and flicking at bits of imaginary dirt. I know they were imaginary, because I clean that table every morning and evening. "Guess I'm in one of those moods. Can't settle to nuthin'. Not even the stuff that usually clears my head."
"Well, maybe you should try something you've never done before, then," I suggested gently. "Maybe have a change of pace, or scenery. Take your mind off things for a spell."
"Been around, darlin'. Run, walked, crawled, an' pretty much done every pace a body can. Scenery gets a bit monotonous after that."
"Bayville?" I've been a Bayvillian all my life. I love the place dearly, but even I can see it has little to offer a wandering soul, or someone in search of newness and novelty. Bayville's big enough that you don't know everybody's name, but you pretty much know everyone in your surrounding neighbourhood on sight.
He snorted. "Partly. Truth is, whole world's beginnin' to look the same to my eyes. All people, too." He sounded so jaded, so … world-weary. It was a little unsettling. He couldn't have been more than forty – mid-forties maximum.
I cupped my mug in my hands, wondering what to say to that. I'd got the conversation I wanted, but now I was all at sea. What if I said something out of place, or made some terrible faux pas that did more harm than good?
If I'd hesitated to ask his name before, I put all notion of doing so from my thoughts right then. Don't ask me how I know, but he was telling me these things because he didn't know me – because I had no connection to him other than a sunny smile over a library date-stamper. I doubted the people he knew saw this side of him very often, or understood it if and when they did. For the first time in a long, long while, I felt important. Joey needs me, but that's a daily thing. You grow accustomed to caring for someone, like learning the steps to a dance. It's complicated at first, but the more you do it, the easier it is, until it's more habit than anything else. This man, however, made me feel needed.
And I couldn't think of a blind thing to say.
I struggled to summon an appropriate response, couldn't, and so played for time. "Surely not all people? Every single one?"
"That's generally what 'all' means, ain't it?"
"That sounds like a very cynical existence to me."
He shrugged. "Maybe it is. Maybe it's just me lookin' for the bad in folk, even when it ain't there." He looked at me strangely.
"Are you looking for the bad in me?"
He grunted. Like his silences, it was eloquent. But again, it was still a grunt.
"Should I feel frightened?"
He met my eyes. "Be a fool if you weren't."
"And again with the cynicism."
"Old habits." He didn't finish the cliché. He didn't need to. "Pfft. Sometimes I reckon I might be runnin' just for the sake of it. Makin' up imaginary stuff to run from along with the real stuff."
Running. Now there was something I knew about.
My father ran from Sacramento when he was a teenager ready to start college. He tried to bring my grandmother with him, but she wouldn't leave her husband. He ended up attending Bayville University but not really living there, buying food from the little Chinese stores on Marchant Avenue because you could get a packet of noodles there for five cents, having lunches of three teas made with the same bag, and spending the rest of his money on trips back home to beg with her and dodge punches and debris. It was a transient existence – forever n the process of running away from home because he never quite made it to the 'away' part. He only stopped running when his father, the grandfather I never knew, died of liver failure in the mid-1970s, but he never stopped in his head. He tried to be the perfect father for us, but sometimes he was still running so fast that he skipped ahead in the game and then couldn't understand why we, as children, couldn't keep up. So yes, I knew something about running.
"I'm sorry to say that if you were looking for an oracle to tell you what to do, I'm not it. I'm just a librarian. My oracular powers extend to which library users are most likely to ring up fines, and sometimes how much those fines will be. But as for life at large," I shrugged, "I can't say I've really lived enough to advise anyone."
He looked at me sharply. "Ain't lived enough? No such thing."
"No, really," I said, aware the conversation was moving on to me and leaving him behind. "I was born in Bayville, I live in Bayville, I work in Bayville, and I'll probably die in Bayville. Bayville is comfortable to me. It's safe. It's my little rut. But it isn't the most exciting of places."
"Don't know that I'd agree with you on that, toots."
Nobody had ever called me 'toots' in my life. In high school I was the geeky girl who just missed the true nerd slot because I wasn't in the marching band and was more likely to set myself alight with a Bunsen Burner than do anything remarkable in science lessons. For that reason, I was mostly 'weirdo', or 'weed'. Mary Alice, a girl in my eleventh grade homeroom, dubbed me 'Square Peg Meg', thanks to my mother's insistence that I stick band-aids over my nipples to keep them down and her refusal to buy me patent leather shoes in case boys saw my underwear reflected in them. That name stuck like tarred feathers until graduation.
None of those ever came close to 'toots'. 'Toots' is a barmaid or a dancer, the kind of woman who wears plunging necklines and drapes herself across people. 'Toots' is at home with a cigarette dangling between her fingers, whereas Square Peg Meg uses her fingers as bookmarks while she searches for a scrap of paper because she can't walk around with a book hanging off her hand all day. Square Peg Meg is not a 'toots'.
He smirked at me. "Did I just hit a nerve?"
"Not really. I'm just cataloguing a nickname I've never had used on me before."
"Meh. I'm full of 'em. Kids say I can't function talkin' to folk unless I've labelled 'em first."
I seized this avenue and scuttled down it, past trashcans and mean stray cats. "So maybe you're becoming as samey as the rest of the world. Maybe you've got your own foibles, just like everyone else."
He looked reflective. "Pretty depressin' thought."
"To be just another ascending ape instead of a fallen angel?"
"The hell?" He was openly puzzled.
I leaned forward a little. "Look, far be it for me to be an armchair philosopher, but well, I'm going to be an armchair philosopher unless you stop me. You say you see the bad in people even when it might not be there. Well, so do a lot of people. Likewise, a lot of people see only the good, even when that might not even be there."
"Ah. Gotcha, toots."
I ignored the name and shook my head. "But that's just it. Not many people do 'get it'. They don't understand. It's like … taking apart people's egos on a fundamental level, and not many are willing to do that in the name of self-knowledge. Seeing only good and seeing only bad – it's all the same thing, really. It's all about seeing who we are through seeing what other people are – or seeing what we want to be by comparing what we know about our inner selves to what we know of other people's outer selves. It's probable it's all about the definition of self." I nodded, mostly to myself. She Ra, Queen of the Mindless Babble was in control again.
"There sumthin' in that coffee you gave me? 'Cause I know those are real words, but I ain't got a cold clue what the hell you're talkin' about."
"Let me ask you something, if I could be so bold." I took his silence as permission to go on. "Do you believe man's ancestors are angels or apes?"
"This religious stuff?" He curled his lip a little.
"Maybe. I'm agnostic, by force, but it makes for an interesting index of debate, and it does relate to what you were saying about seeing only the good or bad in people. You're not the only person ever to see things from that perspective, I'm sure. 'Goodness', such as it is, is a concept created by man for man, so he values it very highly. Animals survive. Man lives, and because he lives instead of surviving, he must be intelligent, no? And intelligence begets fanciful concepts like morals and ethics, evil and goodness. Animals can't be good or evil, because they're just animals. People, on the other hand, have a choice."
He nodded, though I could tell he wasn't sure if he'd made some huge mistake in so much as broaching the subject with me.
But I couldn't help it. I was hitting my stride now. I really am no good at small talk, as I said, but this wasn't small talk. By some quirk of fortune, this thickset man had allowed me to wander into the same territory I used to walk with my mother, when I wasn't arguing about the virtues of sneakers over Birkenstocks.
My mother was devoutly Christian until she trained in medicine and the crisis of beliefs between her upbringing and her chosen profession forced her into a breakdown – one from which she never truly recovered. I remember heady days in July, when my father would tell me not to bother her because she was sick in bed. Naturally, I would go in anyway when he went out to work, and often she would let me cuddle up to her, and we would talk. Oh, how we would talk.
She liked to teach me things she thought mattered – things the school system couldn't really touch for fear of offending someone – and I would listen as she explained her own ideas and those of others, nourished by the sickeningly sweet smell of her pillow that means I still can't pass the liquor store without getting flashbacks. She told me stories when I was young, then explained what they meant as I got older. She loved words, my mother. She loved to knit things with consonants, tying them off with vowels into a beautiful but often impenetrable pattern. Sometimes I would find a loose thread in what she said, and I would follow it right into the centre of her thinking, and then sit there, absorbing the rare intimacy with a woman who could sit at the breakfast table and honestly forget who I was.
"If," I said, "as some believe, man is a fallen angel, he has only to remember what goodness is and how to exemplify it. Points of view that imbue man as the only creature capable of goodness often come from some seed of a theory about expulsion from paradise; of angels and man as a celestial being, bound to stretch out and touch the stars, to do wonderful things because he is Man. King of the Earth." I patted a loose fist against my chest in a woeful impression of Tarzan. "It's his duty to be brilliant and marvellous and to not dishonour his ancestors.
"If, however, man is an ascending ape, he must first figure out what goodness is, and before he can do that he has to admit that he doesn't know. And admitting that is sort of the philosophical equivalent of admitting he's still, in some ways, an ape. Just another animal – incapable of great things when he can't even understand such a basic concept as goodness, supposedly the showground of mankind since time immemorial. Which is a blow to the ego, don't you think? Be an angel and be arrogant, or be an ape and be ignorant."
The man just stared at me.
I flushed, aware I'd gone beyond my boundaries. There's a reason Candy talks and I don't, and this was it. For all I'd grown up and taken responsibility for Joey and everything else in my life, inside, at that moment, I was still very much Square Peg Meg. I could almost feel the ill-fitting Birkenstocks cutting into my feet, and the uncomfortable scratch of glue under my bra.
I started to get to my feet. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to - "
"Nah," he said, low but firm. "S'alright. I don't think I understand completely what you're gettin' at, toots, but I got a friend who talks like that sometimes an' I've learned enough from him that I think I get the gist of what you just said." He scratched his chin. The stubble made a 'scritch-scritch' noise like sandpaper. "I think."
"You aren't offended?"
"Do I gotta be?"
"Hopefully not, but I do seem to have this unfortunate habit of swallowing my feet when I talk to people, or else prattling them into oblivion. It's one of the reasons I work in a place where talking isn't encouraged. No other establishment would have me."
For a second I thought he was going to say something. He opened his mouth, paused, then closed it again and rubbed once more at the back of one hand. "Angel or ape. Huh."
"Hey, Meg." I heard Candy call me from the desk. There was a shipment of young mothers coming up the driveway, their snotty-nosed kidlets visible through the glass doors. The afternoon squadron from the day nursery had been let loose. "Incoming."
"Oh dear." I rose to my feet, tidying my things away and loading up the tray. "I'm afraid I must babble at you and then leave you, my enigmatic sir."
He eyeballed me. There's no other way of putting it that really captures his look. He eyeballed me so that I stood stock still, and then he also rose. "Probably best I make tracks, too."
Mentally, I shook myself. "You're not going to check anything out?"
"Nah. Got me enough to chew on for a while."
"Oh." I must admit, I sounded a little pleased. "Well then, I'm glad to have been of service." I hesitated a second, and then bobbed a satirical curtsey – impact lessened somewhat by the mugs nearly overbalancing on my tray. "Da- uh, whoops."
A smirk. A tip of the head. And then he was gone.
"You two were getting pretty cosy," Candy remarked when I'd left the mugs in the sink and come to help her behind the counter.
"Were we? I hadn't noticed," I lied.
"Don't play coy with me, young missy. I didn't know you liked the rugged type."
"So did you get his number?"
She shook her head. "But you know his name, right?"
"Oh, Meg, you're absolutely hopeless!"
I don't regret not asking his name. However, after I'd picked Joey up from the after-school club and we went for tacos – his favourite – and after we'd watched yet another round of Beyblade on television – also his favourite – I couldn't help but think of the strange man I'd met that day.
I wasn't attracted to him, per se, but he did stir something within me that hadn't really been stirred in a long time. Synapses long dormant fired at the back of my brain, slowly chugging to life with ideas I'd last mused on when they came to me in a smoky alto.
So when Joey was in bed, and I'd cleared up the taco wrappers and tidied the couch, I got out my old battered laptop – Frankie, as he's called; built from the bodies of other deceased laptops. It was the first time I'd opened it in months. Usually I'm so tired after fighting to get Joey into bed that I just collapse in front of the television or over my tax forms, but tonight, pacified by his favourite things, he allowed me to tuck him in with minimum fuss.
I listened to the familiar whine of the cooling fan, hastily muted the sound after the welcoming piano jingle, and I started to write. I wrote like I haven't written in a long time – I wrote not to escape my life, but to remind myself of it. I wrote to crystallise the strange conversation while it was still fresh in my mind, and to try and get across how it made me feel both satisfied and bewildered at the same time. I have never met a man quite like that man before. He wasn't especially unusual in appearance, and though his grammar was appalling, he had a sort of shrewdness about him that makes me think of cats landing on their feet, or foxes trickily avoiding the gamekeeper's gibbet.
And so here I am, still typing when it's nearly one in the morning and I have work in a few hours. I've read over everything, and I'm reasonably pleased with what's down here. It's accurate to the best of my memory.
Maybe I'll never open this file again. Maybe it'll sit on floppy disk in the bedside drawer, next to my unfinished novel. I'm not sure. As I told the subject of this tale, my oracular skills are limited. Still, I'm glad I took the time to do this. It's nice to stretch the old writing muscles again. Maybe I'll take more time to write in future. It would be nice if I could fit it in.
Perhaps I'll see him again sometime. I can't say I wouldn't be pleased if I did. Still, short stories aren't known for following you around after they're done. That's the beauty of them.
So maybe … just maybe … this is only an opening chapter to something bigger.