The Black Cup
by Michael Dalelio
Joe wondered where she was.
Instead of going to his regular coffee spot he decided to stop at a café he had seen on the way to the cemetery. The last bit of dirt was just settling around the casket where his mother now rested, and the waitress was nowhere to be found suddenly, though he had been watching her since he sat.
It wasn’t the coffee making him jittery, it was her. She skipped between the sofas and chairs, giggled with a young man, then chatted with a woman. She twirled. He saw her. Someone stretched out a shoed foot, and seeing it, she switched her line of travel, twirling like it wasn’t an apron around her waist but a tutu.
“I’m so sorry,” the man who nearly tripped her said, “didn’t see you coming.”
“O, no biggie,” she said and laughed.
What was it? The happiness? The boots?
She wore boots. Army boots. What pretty girl wore army boots? He hadn’t realized it, but she was pretty. Not the type of girl who normally adorned his arm. He thought of whoever his girl-of- the-moment was, as more of a bauble. His latest, Bethany, never Beth, was quiet, beautiful and hardly ever asked a thing of him. He would pick her up, and she was happy to come along wherever he was going. In the bedroom she was as accommodating with her body. This girl, short black skirt, striped stockings, and a t-shirt, never stopped moving, like a cat in a roomful of beetles.
Suddenly, she reappeared. He watched as she hopped between the tables and bodies, leaping legs, avoiding distracted costumers with agility.
After a while, he tried to catch her eye. He told himself it was to order a slice of pound cake, but it was really that he needed to speak to her. The sound of her voice, which he had only heard for an instant as he ordered coffee earlier, had created, in him, a desire for more, the cool timber of it, and the soft edge of it, like the quiet fall of a crumbling snow bank.
It was a busy place. He shifted on the sofa, frustrated he couldn’t catch her. The remains of his sandwich, torn bits of lettuce, crisscrossed crusts, and a smudge of mustard, cluttered the plate in front of him. The kind of sandwich you forgot the taste of the moment it’s finished.
On the table, in a thin glass vase, a single yellow flower drooped. It was made of plastic and fabric, and didn’t look like any of the flowers he had seen earlier at the church, laid at the base of the altar and casket. He’d been to funerals where the foot of the altar was a forest of color, not particularly important people, but well remembered. Today, the flowers were few, from him and his father. The mourners weren’t many more than that. Mostly people he had never met. His dad updated him on each arrival, a list of the lost.
“That’s Mary Jacobs. She played drums in your mother’s band. She’s the last alive now. My god that’s Ellie, don’t know her last name. Your mom met her the first time she went to rehab.”
Both looked well past their junkie days. Survivors, Joe guessed, all the scars hidden, now. One was with an older daughter, his age. The other with what was probably her husband, who held her hand and rubbed her back.
“That’s John, haven’t seen him in years,” an older man was walking along the pews, looking for a seat. “He worked with me back then,” his Dad got up to say hello.
Joe knew none of these people. He had barely known the woman in the casket. She had dropped him into a world of broken men. His father, full of rage at his life without her, had bandaged himself with work and Budweiser. Joe was mostly raised by a grandfather who rarely left a leather La-Z-Boy, body made useless from years of work and cigarettes.
Joe shifted in the pew, chilled in the height and width of the empty church. His dad was Catholic, and Joe was baptized, communed and confirmed, before he could drive. He hadn’t been to church in a long time. It struck him that the high roof ribbed with timbers, and the odds and ends of Christs and crosses, were a kind of machine. He was a plumber like his father. He understood how systems functioned. The pipes, the heater, the drain and faucet, all linked together made a shower. The machine that surrounded him, so much like the hold of giant ship, was designed not to travel, but to move. The details, on the altar and walls, covering the stained glass windows, all pulled the eye up to the ceiling covered in symbols and angels. Anyone looking ended up in the images of heaven.
“The priests today all talk about forgiveness, but when I grew up all you heard was punishment and reward. The good went to heaven and the sinners were sent to the flames. Today everyone goes up, all’s forgiven. What bull,” his grandfather once said. Joe pulled his eyes from all the upward tending things he saw and focused them down. He saw dust under the pew, and a used match in the shadows. His grandfather was right. What good was forgiveness if it meant no one ever paid for their lives?
What is her destination?, Joe thought, glancing at the coffin. His mother’s soul was on a ride and he was stuck in the ship.
His father came back, sat next to him again. It was strange to see his father sober. It seemed more and more of late every time Joe visited he was drinking, never drunk but always drinking.
“It ripped me up when she left,” his father told him one night. “I’d fallen for her fast. It seemed like the day after we met we were never apart.” Joe had moved out maybe a month before, but had dropped by a couple times a week. His father never talked about her, but that night maybe he was drunk.
“I asked her to marry me six months after I met her. She cried. She said yes, and I don’t remember ever feeling as happy as I did right then. I think I knew it wouldn’t last. We were out every night. She was always singing for some band or another. She had a beautiful voice back then. We did a lot of drugs and had a lot of fun. When she got pregnant it was great. She even quit drinking, and the harder drugs. She was excited. I was excited.” Joe wasn’t sure what to say or think. His father hadn’t mentioned her in more than a grumble in twenty years.
“When you were about six months old I started to worry. She was out every night, with or without me. I’d gotten the plumbing business going and couldn’t keep up with her. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t fun anymore. But to her it was different. She thrived on it. I knew she was cheating on me. She disappeared for three days and when she came back I told her to get out. She was with me for two years before she started cheating. I think that was the longest she ever stayed still for anyone, and that’s why I think she might of even loved me.” That was the first time, as an adult man, Joe was angry with her.
The atmosphere of the café felt like a weight on him. The chair legs and real legs, the sofa cushions and coffee cups, it reeked of comfort. The chatter of patrons, some silly, some serious, all banal, peppered him. The waitress was gone, again. Maybe she was picking up coffee from the counter, which he couldn’t see from where he sat. He saw a group waiting. Sitting without food or drink, setting aside jackets and gloves, preparing themselves for their orders, not yet quiet enough in their bodies and minds to talk whatever talk came over them.
“People will talk themselves witless if they get the chance, boy,” he remembered his grandfather saying as they sat on the porch one afternoon, watching a group of kids, joking and laughing, pass by. Joe remembered his voice, like a velvet bag full of nails. His grandfather could complain about sunshine.
“Why, Grandpa?” Joe asked.
“Trying to figure it out, I guess.”
“Figure what out?”
“Themselves. What to do? Who to do it with? Where to go? What to want? It’s just talk and talk so nothin’s ever answered and all they ever end up doin is talking.” Joe knew it was true, people loved to talk.
The waitress drifted back into view balancing cups and walking on her toes. Her hair was short but somehow very feminine. It turned over her forehead and a curl twisted out behind her ear. He would let her drop the drinks before he tried to get her attention.
They hadn’t held a wake. His mother was a mess before she died, living on the streets Joe had heard. He had seen her infrequently over the years. She would drift back into town, stop by the house. His father would never leave him alone with her and refused to speak to her, even when she spoke to him.
Joe remembered the day after his eighth birthday. His father wouldn’t let her in the house. They were sitting on a bench on the front lawn. She had a guitar. Someone was in the car at the end of the driveway waiting for her, just a dark shape. It was late. The sky was dark and full of stars. The shadow behind the windshield watched while she sang him a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Her voice filled the night, covered the sounds of crickets, and late summer cicadas. She strummed the guitar hard, and sang “Happy Birthday to you,” like a punk rock singer, her voice beautiful. They both laughed and she hugged him as they did. He cried when she had to go. He always did, and his crying made her cry, but she went anyway. She left the guitar with him, his birthday present. He saved it but never learned to play.
The waitress was walking by and he said, “Excuse me.” She turned and smiled unruffled, relaxed despite the full tables.
“O, sorry. Can I get you something else?” she said. She was smiling. She had very brown eyes and he made sure he looked into them when he spoke to her.
“Yes,” he said, “you can. I would…,” suddenly he could not remember why he had called her over. A twist of dark hair shifting over her forehead had interrupted his thoughts, reminded him of something from the funeral. In the highest part of the church, as the priest spoke about the better life of the dead, he noticed a small bird on a rafter. It was still and as long as he looked it did not move. But when his eyes momentarily drifted to the cross behind the altar, and then back, the bird was gone. Where it had been sitting he saw a tiny piece of grass dangling like a wisp of hair. He found himself, in the middle of trying to order pound cake, pondering how a small bird might enter and than escape a church.
“Maybe dessert?” she said, saving him.
“Pound cake, please, a piece of pound cake. Thank you,” he said. The waitress smiled and a feeling went through him. Not sexual. A physical relief that had no reason for being, a tightness in his gut, and a kind of happiness that was new to him. He could not have described it and had nothing to compare it to. After a moment he felt a keen sense of guilt at the feeling. She nodded and turned away and disappeared behind the wall.
“She can’t stand still, Joey,” his grandpa told him once. Joe didn’t remember what he had asked, only the answer. “She’s never planned a thing in her life and nothin’s been good enough to make her stop. What’s good is always the next thing to her. The going on, that’s what she likes. She hurt a lot a people doin it, too.”
When he saw her on satin, cloistered in the polished wood of the casket, it had been six years since he’d seen her. He had six postcards in a drawer with socks and underwear. Most from Los Angeles, but the last two from Texas, the last one saying she might be in town soon and would “stop to see her growing boy.” Six years, six postcards. Six goodbyes, he thought, that’s what they amounted to.
A movement, and the click of the edge of the plate touching the table in front of him, drew his eyes from a woman sitting alone, a guitar case resting on the ground next to her, at a table in the corner, to the pale white of the waitress’s arm rising up, as she bent back straight, smiling.
“There you go,” she said.
“Thanks,” she started to turn away from him but he said, “Hey, what’s your name?”
She turned back, her smile slipping a little, “Uh, Lucy.”
“I’m Joe.” he noticed, now that she was close and still, that beads of perspiration wet the edges of her hair where it touched her forehead. He realized it was hot in the café, and he supposed all the moving she had to do would make her even hotter.
“This is a pretty good place,” Joe said,” Have you been working here long?”
She relaxed a little as if she had decided it might be nice to have a conversation with him.
“A long, long time, but it’s easy enough. I just give them what they ask for,” she said with a laugh.
“Right,” he said. He noticed a table across the crowded room. A dark haired man was staring at Lucy’s back, needing her.
“Looks like you’re wanted,” Joe said, nodding at the table behind her. She turned and saw the man, who smiled without smiling.
She turned back and said, “Back to work. Maybe we’ll talk again, Joe.”
She walked away, dodging a tall woman in a business suit whose stiff hair bounced like horns, then swung her hips out of the way of a chair pushed back by a short grey haired man who had a pig nose and was missing about half his teeth, then ignored another lady who was covered in tattoos and had six piercings in each ear and a bull ring in her nose and was trying to get her attention from a table across the room. Joe glanced again at the woman sitting alone. She had no coffee or food in front of her, waiting for Lucy to give her what she asked for.
Joe paid and left. He was relieved. After leaving the crowded café, the open air of the world felt fresh and the light of the sky was new. He doubted he’d go back, the food was forgettable and the patrons were worthless, though you never knew what your life might lead you to. He figured he’d see Lucy again if he wanted to, he knew where she was.
The next day he stopped at his normal place for coffee. He had left the day before behind. The guy behind the counter had only a few teeth and the top of his mouth was raw red gum, his long tongue ran over this exposed expanse as Joe ordered. Joe wasn’t repulsed. He had grown used to it.