The last customer waves goodbye, one of the permanent fixtures camped out in the far, windowless corner with a laptop, and it looks like we might actually close early when Cooter looks up and through the door comes this girl carrying the largest purse I have ever seen. And he stares at her for too long a time, trying to place her from somewhere else, maybe, when suddenly he ducks behind the counter to grab a washrag. He leans over and whispers softly, Jason, don't look up right away, but it's her.
The girl from the papers, he says. He stands up and begins wiping down the counters with a strange hostility. Through gritted teeth Cooter says, The trial, man.
What makes you think it's her?
Look. Cooter elbows me hard in the ribs. Would you just take a good look at her face?
Our store is one of the bigger branches in the neighborhood and she's browsing through all the useless schwag we've got on the shelf, the dusty French presses and mugs with ironic phrases, the outdated promotional CDs, and from that angle she could be just about any pretty brunette that's ever come in here, but then she goes to the bags of Sumatra across the wall, turning one of them carefully in her hands, and then I get a good look at her face. Even in the distance I can see what has been done. Then I say, Oh Christ, it is her.
You have to understand, the media was in a frenzy over the trial. I would read the morning edition on the subway, put it down for a while as the train crossed the bridge and watch the sun rise upon over the East River, and once we were back underground I would read it some more, transfixed. They had bloggers updating every fifteen minutes on the website, which you could check on one of the computer kiosks we had in the store. For all their talk about unspeakable horror, they spoke of it frequently and in great detail; her exhaustive four-hour testimony, the six kinds of rope he used to bind her wrists and ankles, the shriek of the teakettle, the prosecutor using the word 'survivor' over and over again as she recapped the atrocities for the jury, the way the stenographer got up halfway through the recap to vomit into a wastebasket, the way the defendant kept his head in his shackled hands the entire trial and refused to speak to anyone, not even his own attorney.
I'm going to go in the back, Cooter whispers.
Don't leave. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but I know I didn't want to be alone. The possibilities were terrifying. Just stay nearby, I said.
I can't, he says. I'm sorry, man. But I can't stay here.
But Cooter goes into the storeroom to bang around boxes and restock the flavored syrups and already she's making her way to the register. And the routine kicks in like a reflex, my tired, hopeless smile and I hear the word come out of my mouth like something being unwrapped:
She drops her purse on the counter and holding the bag of coffee she says to me, There's no price tag on this.
The beans are fifteen dollars.
Fifteen dollars? she says. It costs that much?
I'm sorry, I say. I look away and there are still some blueberry scones leftover in the display case. They are going to go stale by morning, but maybe Cooter will try to sell them to the commuter rush anyway. The house stereo shuts off and I can hear him in the storeroom now, singing to himself, high-pitched and tuneless.
For a while she stares at the bag of coffee in her hand angrily, gripping it tightly, as if she were going to hurl it at me.
We have cheaper blends over there if you want.
That's fine, she says, dropping the beans in front of me. I want this and I want a grande cappuccino, skim milk, light on the foam.
What was she? She might have been Mexican, or part Mexican, and it surprised me a little, her long thin nose and pinched lips, the husky rasp of her voice. Already I was cataloging the details. But the more important questions you need to ask are, Did it look as bad as it sounded? Was she pretty? How was she holding up? It was. And she might have been, once. Like something precarious, like something balanced on a wire.
Light on the foam, I say. Sure.
The machines have already been emptied and wiped down and the trash has been taken out but I open a new bag of grounds and a fresh carton of milk. I make that fucking cup of coffee to the best of my ability. When the steamer for the milk whistles I see her wince, a whole body affair, like a bright light being turned on in a dark room. When I look down my hands are shaking slightly. Why were they shaking? I was wrong about him using six kinds of rope. He used her computer cables too.
When I am finished I put the cup of coffee between us. Here it is, I say. Grande cappuccino. Skim milk.
She stares at the cup of coffee before looking up at me. Well? How much is everything?
I slide the coffee closer towards her. Please, just take it.
She blinked slowly. What?
It's on the house. Everything.
Her features darken, her lips curling in upon themselves, and I can see, faintly, the patchy scald marks that her foundation did not fully cover. Why is it on the house?
For a while none of us speak. I don't know, I finally say.
She made a face as if she were going to spit. You don't know?
What was I, with my stupid nametag and greasy apron, a poorly rolled joint waiting for me in my back pocket? I had lived as long as her and I had not an ounce of suffering in me. Please, I say.
No, she says. I'm going to pay. Do you take credit card? She opens her giant clam of a purse and begins rifling through it violently, maybe a little too violently, because everything inside thing comes tumbling out, a compact, a tube of lip balm, a crushed pack of Marlboros and a handful of smudgy pens, dozens of faded receipts fluttering to the ground like so many dirty secrets.
Dammit, she says. She's just staring at the mess, both hands on the countertop, gripping the edges so hard I can see her tendons straining. Her fingernails are polished pink, the color of slapped skin. Goddamnit.
Her driver's license slides in front of me and I see her name. I didn't mean to, but there it was. I didn't even have to turn my head. Her hair had been longer before, dyed chestnut, and she was from Washington, another thing that surprised me. I had gotten it into my head that she was from here. You have to ask, Was she pretty? She was beautiful.
I'm sorry, I say. I begin gathering the pens and the receipts. Our faces come nearer and I catch the tiniest smell her, the scent of roses and stale cigarettes.
What do you mean, you're sorry? she says, her voice shaking. She looked like she might have lost it right then and I'm not sure what I would do if she did. Please, I imagined myself saying to her, you have to be stronger than that. Without looking, she begins re-stuffing the contents of her purse, fistfuls of it at a time. Would you stop saying you're fucking sorry? she says. Look at this mess.
It's okay, I say.
Our eyes meet. You don't even know, she says softly.
You don't, she says, louder this time. You don't know anything.
She gathers up her purse and takes the cup of coffee and pitches it hard against the wall behind me. It might have been the best cup of coffee I had ever made and now it was streaking down the wall, the bits of steamed milk gathered in my hair. That's what the papers said too. She never did cry, not even once.
I watch her leave, out into the busy sidewalk. I try to keep track of her. Did she take a train, or maybe hail a cab? But from where I can see she could be anybody. After the door swings shut, Cooter comes out of the supply closest. When he sees the aftermath on the wall he lets out a low whistle. I look down and the bag of Sumatra is gone too. Cooter slides the tip jar in my direction, a handful of gummy ones and some quarters, as if I could be bribed. Well? Cooter asks, a shy smile on his face. You going to give me the details or what?
By the time I'm done confessing to Cooter, his dirty money tucked safely away next to my crumpled joint, the streets are mostly clear. Even as I wave bye, I know I can never go back. I could wait a lifetime there and never see her again. I didn't tell Cooter her name. It was the closest thing to a secret I had ever kept, the closest to honest I had ever been, and now I said her name again and again to myself as I made the long journey home. I said her name to the empty newsstand, to the sound of a distant, wailing siren, whisper softly to the subway turnstile as I slid my card. Why? Why do any of these things? To ward off bad things, maybe. To remind me how much a coward I am, of all the things I will never feel and never know, and how thankful, how grateful I am for it.
About the author:
Jonathan Padua's fiction has appeared in Fugue, Perpetual Magazine, Undrawn Lines: An Anthology of Hawaii Writers, and has work forthcoming in A Thousand Faces. Originally from Pearl City, Hawaii, he now resides in Brooklyn.