Tuesday, February 11, 2014
It started as a game, a simple game that they played on Sundays between cups of coffee and blueberry muffins. The endless stream of faces, familiar and new, would ebb and flow and they would take their fun as they could, here and there, in seconds, in minutes, in half hours of down time, moving chess pieces on a board that sat on top of the case displaying crumb cake, cookies, and croissants. Some of the regulars took an interest.
“Whose winning?” they would nod to the board before placing their order.
They would say, never revealing that it was impossible to tell. They each cheated frequently, re-arranging pieces when the other's back was turned, or moving knights like bishops and bishops like queens as though it were natural, sometimes trading color mid game. If a customer paid using a two dollar bill the entire board would have to be reset. If someone asked to break a hundred both players could reclaim a lost piece. The game never ended.
Sun filtered through the dusty windows, crowds of friends gathered at the mismatched tables and chairs. Lonely souls sank into the worn cushions of a maroon couch turning the pages of paperback novels whose covers had been torn off. Men and women dressed in filthy sweatpants, tattered sweaters and knitted gloves with the finger tips cut off, came in to beg or buy with change obtained through begging.
* * *
She liked the timbre of his voice, the unruly curls atop his head, the way he gracefully navigated the crowded space behind the counter, never missing a beat. He liked her crazy laugh, the flowers she wore pushed behind one ear, the way she looked deeply into the eyes of whoever was speaking, as though they were the entire world. Sometimes that was him.
He opened and she came in an hour later. He left after noon and she left an hour later. Once he thought of staying until she clocked out, but the only excuse he could think of was to continue the game. Then it might actually end, so he left.
* * *
Sundays came and Sundays went. Crushed leaves littered the sidewalk and were carried in by the scuffling of shoes like jagged orange and yellow confetti. Leaves gave way to rain thumping on the windows, leaving streaks in the dust. Umbrellas lingered in the stand by the door, sometimes forgotten, red, black, yellow, gray.
Eventually the windows were washed clean by the rain and the sun grew meekly brighter, polished by a crisp wind that begged buds out of the naked arms of the tiny trees outside. And still the game went on, hundreds broken, two dollar bills accepted.
One afternoon he was close to winning. He began to evade the game, too busy with foaming milk and shots of espresso, restocking cups, lids, wooden swizzle sticks, and napkins. Tables long neglected suddenly received his orange scented devotion as he carefully polished their scratched wooden surfaces.
Every old lady who passed through the door filled his heart with hope. Surely, in that oversized handbag within the folds of an overly somber pocket book his salvation had arrived. At last a blue haired woman saved the day and the board was reset.
* * *
There were excuses for touching, Brushed fingers as a cup was passed, hands on shoulders as one slipped by the other in the narrow space, a hug to say hello or goodbye. Buds turned to blooms of pink and an idea developed in his mind, a perfect reason to see one another outside of work.
He would take her to see the forest of cherry blossoms in the park, invite her to meet him outside the tea garden. They could walk, get caught in a spring shower, huddle together under a pavilion where he could slip his hand around her waist.
And then one, day, before he could utter those words, rehearsed to ensure perfectly casual delivery, calculated to be an enticing command rather than a question, “Meet me in the park in the morning.”, the schedule was changed.
* * *
He was fated to come in as she was leaving. Though their paths crossed, there was no time, no in for those words, just a wave then absence. The game continued slowly, one move each every Sunday. But it was more than a game now, it was a token of affection that was growing colder, more distant as the words died unspoken and the petals drifted from the blossoms to the earth and blew away into gutters. Green leaves sprang up in their place.
One week she was out sick. The board sat untouched, collecting a fine layer of dust. Someone, midweek, sensing the abandonment, put the board and pieces away. The following Sunday she returned to find that the game was over.
* * *
She was strangely distant as they crossed paths at the door. It was the fist truly hot day, and she murmured something about Baker Beach and slipped away down the sidewalk after he asked her,
“What’s up doc?”
It felt so cold, the way she barely answered, like a ghost, the way her body moved, shrinking in to avoid accidental touching, as though they were strangers. His mind fumbled with numb confusion as he watched her depart.
When he found the display case neatly polished and the chess board and pieces gone, a hollow feeling seized him. Had she done it? Had she given up? If not, did she think that he had? Did she think hat he would quit their game?
He was in agony between cups of coffee, blueberry muffins, and feigned smiles. He broke hundreds and accepted two dollar bills, the endless stream of faces familiar and new trailing off into an empty Sunday night. He closed the store alone and walked home, his heart feeling as though it were being wrung like a rag by a washer woman in a depressing black and white film.
It was Allegro Non Troppo without music, cartoons, or jokes. It had started as a game, a simple game they played on Sundays. But when the game died, what was underneath it was lost too.
* * *
That night he dreamed. As the two dollar bill was passed to him over the register he thought of resetting the board and looked at the empty display top. In that desperate sad moment, instead of shutting the register drawer doling out change and smiling vacuously at the next in line, he doled out the change, took off his apron and announced:
“I’m sorry everybody. I have to close up right now, I’m very sorry.”
He jumped over the counter and ushered them out into the late afternoon sun. He locked the door, ran home, found his car on the street collecting club advertisements and got in. He drove to Baker Beach and found her sitting there alone on the sand in a striped bikini, flower tucked behind her ear. He sat beside her, looked her in the eyes and said,
“Bishop to King 4.”
She smiled. The panoramic golden gate stretched out behind her, breeze softly ruffling her hair, sun sinking into the golden pacific.