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                                                                                                Adelaide B. Shaw



Have a Nice Day

"A tall coffee, please," Tess told the smiling girl behind the counter." She put her coat on one of the empty overstuffed chairs by the window and turned it away from its mate, eliminating the cozy tete-a-tete arrangement. Tess had no wish to invite conversation with another customer. She came for the coffee, not to meet people.

Today she bought a glazed donut. Plump, with a constant worry about gaining weight, Tess limited her sweets and fats, but she felt the need for a special treat. She wanted the comforting sticky feel of melting sugar in her mouth, the adrenaline rush she would get afterwards.

It was a routine, this visit to The Coffee Cup at two-thirty every afternoon. Tess could spend hours reading, oblivious to the grinding of coffee, the shouts from the help, the bursts of talk and laughter. Occasionally some bit of music from the sound system would get her to raise her head and tap her foot. Even the cries of babies and kids when the mommy crowd came in mid-afternoon didn't disturb her for long. She could shut them out of her visual and audio world as easily as shutting a door.

It was a talent she had, useful at times, to block out unwanted stimuli. Over the years, she had extended that ability to block out unwanted emotions and feelings as well. In her youth her body was porous, absorbing everything, sounds, scenes, emotions. She had dripped good will, happy feelings and love for all in general and for someone in particular. All those good feelings and love had been squeezed out of her, not once, but twice, when she was twenty and didn't know any better, and again when she was thirty-two and should have known better. Now at the half-century mark she thought none at all about good will and love.

At three-fifteen, on schedule, the mommies began arriving with their children. They nodded and smiled at Tess, as they usually did, and she, in spite of her preference to being left alone, nodded and smiled in return. They appeared an affable group, happy and content. If they were bored, it didn't show in their manner or their conversation. Not that Tess deliberately listened, but sitting so close she often overhead the talk. They spoke about diaper rash and diarrhea, homework and dieting. They spoke of their social obligations and of their husbands' jobs, making them sound exciting and important.

Working in the stock room from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, six days a week, Tess unpacked boxes and cartons of nails, lug wrenches, and paint solvents. It was not exciting, but it paid the rent and bought groceries and kept her emotions neutral. It suited her needs. How could anyone get emotional about nuts and bolts or toilet plungers?

"Excuse me. Is this chair vacant?"

Tess looked up from her book. The man was in his late sixties, tall and reed thin with white hair, thick and coarse like a shag rug. His eyes, a dark blue, looked at her intently. His smile was one of anticipation and hope.

"Yes, it's free." Tess quickly returned to her book.

"I've seen you here before." The man sat, working the chair around with his feet to the original tete-a-tete position. "You're always reading and this chair's been occupied. I went directly to a table in the back."

Tess nodded.

"My name's Charles... Charlie... Charlie Tilton. I'm new in the village. Moved into a condo at Sunshine Meadows a month ago. My wife died three years ago, and I got tired of living in that big house all alone. I reached a point in my life where I like to have close neighbors. You know what I mean?" A hand with fingers long and bony like the rest of him shot forward across the low table between them.

Tess looked at the outstretched hand, the fingers extended ready to make contact, to grip another hand-hers. Like his smile, the hand was expectant, hopeful.

"Hello," she said letting him shake her hand. His grip was firm and quick. She gave firm and quick in return. His smile remained. He was expecting more. Her name and her marital status, perhaps? "Tess Bellamy," she said and withdrew her hand. Her marital status was none of his business. She returned her eyes downward to her book.

"The coffee is flavorful, isn't it?" Charlie Tilton asked. "It's a bit strong to drink at night, but I can handle it in the afternoon. What are you drinking?"

Charlie Tilton had brought no book to read and had ignored the newspapers in the rack. He came to talk apparently.

"I'm drinking the flavor of the day, whatever that is. I didn't ask.  Excuse me. I have to leave. Good-bye." Tess slipped on her coat and gathered her book and the paper cup of coffee that wasn't quite finished. She'd finish it while walking to her car.

"Happy to meet you," Charlie called after her. "Have a nice day."


Tess approached The Coffee Cup slowly. The two easy chairs by the window were vacant. If Charlie Tilton-Chatty Charlie-were to come in and sit beside her, she would leave. It would be a nuisance and a disappointment, but she was prepared to leave again if her afternoon were disturbed.

Charlie did not come that afternoon, nor for the next three days. Tess had forgotten him entirely when on Friday he was back, with his smile and outstretched hand.

"Well, hello! I guess we've been missing each other. I've been in, but I think I've come too early. Now I see, you're a two-thirty person. That's what time it was when we met before, wasn't it?"

He leaned over her. "It's Miss... No, perhaps it's Ms... But don't tell me. It's Tess...?" He shook his head and shrugged. He thrust his hand out another inch and leaned over a little more. In that bent over position his upper body appeared loose and separate, as if it would pitch forward and fall into her lap. Tess recoiled against the back of the chair.

"Sorry," Charlie said. "I've forgotten your name."

"Bellamy. Tess Bellamy. And it's Miss, not Ms."

"I'm Charlie Tilton."

Were they to go through this every time they met? His hand waited as before, looking lonely stuck out like that. She clasped it briefly. Firm and quick and with a slight thrust upward to assist him in straightening up his lanky frame. Once up he immediately fell backwards into the waiting armchair, wiggling his bony backside against the cushions to get comfortable.

"What are you drinking?" Charlie asked. "I've got a cappuccino."

"I don't know. I never ask what the daily flavor is. They seem to taste the same."

"Always good, though, isn't it? Especially on such a cold day. Can you believe it? It's going to drop to ten below tonight. But that's February for you."

Tess debated about leaving or simply turning her chair away from him, but he appeared the type not to take a hint. She would need to be explicitly rude with Charlie. She would have to say, "I don't wish to talk," and was prepared to say it if necessary.

"I'm a history buff, World War II history. I just got a new book. All about tanks used in the war." He held up a heavy volume for her inspection. The dust jacket depicted flaming tanks in a muddy field. "I can get lost in a book for hours sometimes." He dropped the book on his lap, and, without another word, he began to read.

Tess, her body still poised, muscles flexed, ready to bolt and retreat to the rear, was undecided. Would he really get lost in his book for hours and leave her alone? Slowly, she relaxed and leaned against the back of the chair and opened her book, expecting Charlie to comment on her choice of reading material-a murder mystery. She had no intention of discussing her book, but from the opposite chair there was only the occasional shushing when a page was turned.

The mommies and babies came, nodding and smiling, and Charlie continued reading. After a while Tess forgot he was there. They sat with their chairs facing each other, book pages turning, sometimes in unison. Periodically they sipped their coffees, also sometimes in unison. Once their eyes met as they lifted their cups. Charlie smiled briefly before returning his gaze to his book.

They could have been an old married couple, sitting comfortably in their living room, whiling away a cold afternoon. When the music changed from sixties pop to Puccini and "Nessun Dorma," Charlie looked up and said, "Ahhhh.  Lovely." Tess nodded, leaned her head back in the chair and listened as Charlie was doing.

"Goodness. How time flies," he suddenly said. "It's four-thirty. Must go." He slipped on his coat, hat, scarf and gloves, but then removed the glove from his right hand. The hand shot out in front of her face again. Another quick pump up and down. "It's been a pleasure to see you," Charlie said. "I'm sure we'll see each other again. Have a nice day."

Tess hated that phrase. Charlie had used it before. Everyone used it, as if that's all it took, a wish from a stranger and your day will be nice, will be calm, will be pleasurable, free of pain, of loneliness, fear, anger, poverty, illness. "Have a nice day," salesclerks said. "Have a nice day," when she bought gasoline or phoned the building manager to complain about the absence of hot water or her neighbor's noise. "Have a nice day," from people who were, perhaps, not having a nice day. So, why did they say it? What good did it do? Were they really interested enough in a stranger's day to wish it were a nice day? What did Charlie Tilton care about her day?

Tess closed her book, picked up her empty cup and napkin and carefully wiped the table. At least Charlie Tilton had picked up his own trash and hadn't left it there for her to clean up. She thought little of customers who left behind dirty cups and crumbs. Satisfied that the area was clean and orderly, she put on her coat and turned to leave.

"Have a nice day," Charlie had said in parting. So far, the day had been "nice." It had been bitterly cold, but she had been warm working in the basement of the hardware store. She had her unpacking to do and her radio for company, and the workday had passed quickly and pleasantly enough. The afternoon had been pleasant, as well, once Charlie Tilton had settled down. He'd be back, of course, and probably at two-thirty again. Talkative old man. She didn't know what she'd do with her afternoons if she didn't come here.

She'd been coming to The Coffee Cup for three years. Before, she had gone to the library after work. She could go there again, but she enjoyed having coffee and a snack as she read. She could, of course, go home in the afternoons, but... But, she reluctantly admitted, the real reason she went to the cafe was not for the coffee, but because it was lively and friendly. The help smiled, and the mommies nodded. She hadn't realized that those seemingly insignificant actions had become important to her. They weren't friends, even acquaintances, just strangers. Yet, they were friendly strangers.

She would come back tomorrow, regardless of what Charlie Tilton did. She wouldn't get up and leave if he should sit near her again, as long as he had a book and let her read. Chatty Charlie fortunately didn't chat all the time. It wouldn't be so terrible to see him again.

"Bye now," the girl behind the counter called out and waved.

"Good-bye," replied Tess, returning the wave. "Have a nice day."


                                                                                                Adelaide B. Shaw

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Loch Raven Review Winter 2005 — Vol. I, No. 2
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