pages The Man in the Cafe

by Jeff Barker

Published in Issue No. 18 ~ November, 1998

The man entered the small, brightly lit café and quietly sat down in a high-backed vinyl-upholstered booth. The wire caged clock over the door drew the man’s attention. Why such an institutionalesque clock in a diner? It was 3:12 a.m.

The café’s latest and only patron, tall, with distinguished gray wisps looked around the small dining room. There were only two other souls. One, who the man determined to be the waitress, sat at a table in the back. Her long red locks lingered loosely in a bun held together by a yellow pencil.

The other person in the diner was a short-order cook hovering over a newspaper. The cook was young but you couldn’t tell by his matted dark hair and ten o’clock shadow. His eyes rolled up from the newspaper onto the new customer but made no immediate attempt to draw the red-head’s attention to take the man’s order. The curious look in the sunken eyes of the portly cook made the man feel uneasy. After a moment of empty scrutiny, he went back to studying the sports page.

The man’s attention went back to the waifish waitress. Something about her struck his interest. His fancy? No, not exactly. But it was something. He watched her as she prepared the silverware to be used by the breakfast crowd. The café would be packed in just a few short hours. The waitress neatly folded the napkins one by one. Napkin. Knife. Fork. No spoon. Then, she rolled the napkin tightly. She went about this rolling with great delicate technique, as if creating a masterpiece. A precious creation in her eyes. The man imagined that in only a short while, these creations would be undone in a split second with a slight flip of the wrist.

“Hey Buddy, the waitress’ll be there in a minute.” The cook’s voice was as harsh as his appearance. This eruption caught the red-head’s ear and she popped to her feet and slankered toward the man in a café-waitress-sort-of-way.

Her foot hit the Wertlitzer half way to the man’s booth. “Damn! Son’s-a-bitchin’ jukebox!” Now, she limped towards the booth. He felt only a small amount of pity for the woman.

“Whathca gonna have?” The delicate manner of the waitress had gone away. “Well?” She was short on patience while the man scrutinized the menu.

“Coffee. Cheesecake. That will be all.”

“Coffee! Cheesecake!” The short-order cook again rolled his eyes from the sports page.

“You gotta seaman’s coat. You a sailor?”

“Fisherman.” His eyes returned to the caged clock above the double glass doors. It was 3:30.

“In a hurry?”

“Oh, no. Of course…”

“Ah shit! You stepped on my damn sore toe!”

“Can I have my coffee now?”

She stepped away with an exaggerated limp. He was not interested. He picked up the napkin holding his silverware and gave it a flip. The stainless steel utensils made a loud clamor as they bounced across the Formica tabletop and then to the floor. He stood up from his high backed booth. Gave another glance around the café. The disapproving look in the waitress’s eyes only made him feel better about leaving. He turned and walked out of the café, recalling the discriminating look in the cook’s eyes when he first walked in. From the oversized coat pocket, the man fished out a wooden match and a quarter, turned toward the glass doors, and waited a few seconds before walking back toward the bright lights of the café.

“For your troubles.” He flipped the quarter through the air and it landed at the waitress’s feet.

The man, for the last time, turned again toward the doors and lifted his head toward the sky. It was 3:35. He walked out. He knew all he needed to about the waitress and the cook.

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Jeff Barker is a Training Designer by trade. He resides in rural North Carolina and is working on a screenplay entitled "Scenes of America From a Fleetwood." This is his first fiction publication.