It was after five and the Café was closing. Rose had just finished wiping the booths and window ledges and was ready to mop the tiled floor when a police officer appeared at the door.
How’ve you been, Rose?”
She moved aside as he made his way to the counter. “Keeping busy.”
She ignored the question about her daughter. “Can I get you a coffee, or something?”
He shook his head and popped two mints into his mouth. “It’s getting nasty out there; storm’s coming up. George going drive you home?”
“I can manage.”
“I imagine you can.” He reached inside his jacket, and pulled out a photo, an adolescent girl, a head-and-shoulders view against a white background.
The girl in the photo had short brown hair, combed straight back. She reminded Rose of her own daughter Anne. They both had the same eyes, dark, guarded, revealing nothing. “Came around. About two weeks, steady. Never saw her without the hat. Gray, it was, pulled down low. “Someone looking for her?”
At first, Rose had mistaken her for a boy, a thin boy with skin so pale it seemed to have never seen the sun. Except for the gray wool cap, she was dressed all in black.
A man came in directly behind her, closer to Rose’s own forty than the girl’s eighteen. Everything about him suggested someone who didn’t belong in the Café. He was small and neatly turned out, in dress pants and a short sleeved shirt. The shirt’s two chest pockets were stuffed with clip-on pens as if he were ready to jot down notes or take orders. From afar, the back of his right hand appeared to be bruised, but when he came closer, she saw that the hand was covered with numbers and symbols written in blue.
It was not so much the markings on his skin that made Rose uneasy — she had come to accept eccentricities at the Café — but his connection to the girl. What possible reason did they have for being together? And what possible reason did she have to care, asked her husband, George, when she told him about the girl and the man. She could not explain to George, or even to herself, what seemed to be both clear and unclear. Things could matter without her knowing why.
At the counter, the girl had asked for a coffee and a doughnut. Her voice was barely a whisper and Rose had to lean forward to hear. The outer edges of the girl’s eyelashes were encrusted and she smelled of stale smoke and dampness. Rose filled her order — a double double and a chocolate glazed doughnut — with forced cheerfulness. That morning she felt terribly tired. Her arms and legs were uncommonly stiff, her body defying her. She placed the doughnut on a paper napkin before handing it over, wishing that the girl hadn’t come in, but unable to tell her to leave, to go home.
Coffee and doughnut in hand, the girl shuffled to an empty booth at the far end of the Café, stopping every once in a while to hang onto the back of a bench; the man followed, and coffee sloshed out from both their mugs onto the black and white tiled floor.
As soon as the last customer in the queue had been served, Rose reached down under the counter and pulled out a fat manila envelope filled with pictures she had saved from old calendars and magazines. She spread the pictures on the counter — fields in flower, lighthouses on stony shores, mountain lakes. She needed to brighten the place up, she told her herself, bring in a bit of cheer. This time she chose a photograph of a black lab. The dog had a duck in his mouth and was swimming to shore. She tacked the photograph up on the small bulletin board near the door and then walked past the booths, checking to see if everything was all right.
The girl, her small head bent, was eating slowly, methodically — a bite of doughnut, a sip of coffee.
Rose’s daughter, Anne had eaten that way, too, taking little mouthfuls of food, a small piece of chicken, a bit of lettuce, a carrot slice. Her eating had irritated George. The slower she ate, the angrier he got; the more he shouted, the slower she ate. Stubborn. More alike than different — and neither one understanding what Rose saw.
They had taken a trip to Niagara Falls once, the three of them, rented a room in a small motel just outside town. Children under twelve could stay free and Anne was five. The room was clean. Cable television and a buffet breakfast were included. George had calculated that with a full breakfast, a light lunch and an early dinner, they would have more money to spend on special excursions and souvenirs.
“Why can’t she eat like everyone else?” George had hissed at Rose, as Anne took a small sip of orange juice, a mouthful of cereal, then a sip of orange juice.
“She’ll be finished soon.” Rose had begun to fill a plastic tray with the remains of the breakfast – coffee mugs, plates smeared with jam and crumbs, glasses, crumpled paper napkins. She reached out to touch George’s arm. “You want to wait in the lobby?”
He slapped his forehead in impatience. “Just because I won’t see it, doesn’t make it right.”
“But. I can deal with her better, when you’re not around.”
“Bathroom.” Anne started to get up, looked expectantly at her mother.
“Need to go to the bathroom? Finish your cereal first.” George’s thumb struck the edge of Anne’s bowl. Rose winced as the bowl tipped ever so slightly, and then righted itself.
Anne slipped further off the chair and began to whine.
“Do as Daddy says, hon. Finish up.” Rose felt her face grow red. She glanced around the room, smiling apologetically at everyone in the restaurant and at no one in particular.
George fed Anne the cereal, spoonful by spoonful, insisting that she eat. Until Anne finally wet herself.
When the girl in the gray cap finished her doughnut and pushed away the cup, she and the man left the Café without a word.
Rose wondered if the girl had always been so quiet. Had she been like that with her mother? Did her mother know why she had left? There were families, she supposed, where daughters and mothers confided in each other, without hurting, accusing, or even worse, shutting themselves away from each other. Hers wasn’t one of them. She had humored her family, accommodated it, pacified it, believing all the while she could keep it together, make it happy. But it had all come to nothing. She knew she had missed doing or saying something that would have made things turn out all right, but she still didn’t know what it was.
At fourteen, Anne had kept to herself a lot, stopped seeing most of her friends, talked to Rose infrequently, and to her father not at all. At seventeen, she went to live with the boy who washed dishes at Charlie’s Hotel and Bar. He had a free room off the kitchen and earned minimum wage.
Rose had met him once. Joey, not Joseph or Joe, but Joey, a child’s name. He wore an earring and had a tattoo of a whale on his arm. She had not thought much of him then; he had seemed a little slow-witted for her liking, not like Anne at all.
The night Anne left, Rose walked into Charlie’s. There was no one in the hotel lobby; at the registration counter, a small cardboard sign propped up against a bell said ring — the end was ripped off. Rose hit the bell button, but the sound was more a feeble clunk than a sharp ring. She waited for someone to come, and when no one did, she opened the heavy double doors leading into the bar. The cover charge was five bucks, one drink per hour minimum, and no hassling the customers, the bartender told her. When Rose showed him a photo of her daughter, he cursed under his breath; then, as if thinking the better of it, said he’d see what he could do, told her to go home, and cursed again.
Anne phoned the next day, insisted that she stay away, said the hotel would put Joey out on the street if she made trouble. Rose begged her daughter to come back one minute, raged at her indifference the next, then cried again. Anne couldn’t stand all the arguing at home, she told Rose, even though Rose kept saying that there was no such thing as a family that didn’t argue; besides, they spoke less than most.
The days turned into weeks, and someone said they had seen Rose on a bus heading south. The police said they could do nothing because she was seventeen going on eighteen, and George set out to erase Anne’s memory from the house. He packed away her books and tapes, her stuffed animals, and put the boxes in the basement. He dumped the contents of her dresser drawers into a garbage bag and stripped the sheets and covers from the bed, leaving them on the bathroom floor for Rose to pick up. Then he went out and got drunk.
Three months later, in early March, Rose received a letter from her daughter. She went into Anne’s bedroom and closed the door. Outside the window, the sky was sagging under the weight of dark gray clouds. She sat on the edge of the bed with the envelope on her lap, feeling the sharpness of the envelope’s edges, the smoothness of its stamp. She thought she heard the branches of the red chokeberry bush rubbing against the side of the house. She sat for the longest time before finding the courage to open the letter. There was a small gap where the envelope’s flap was not completely sealed and she carefully put her finger in and tore it open. She unfolded the letter — one thin page covered in a small, fine script – smoothed it out, and began, Dear Mum. . .
Rose read and re-read the letter, till in the end Anne’s words became her words, and they were both a plea for forgiveness and an affirmation that she was going to be all right. This is more than I could have hoped for, Rose told herself. She lay down on the bare mattress, wrapped her arms around herself in an embrace and cried till she was spent.
The girl and her companion came into the Café every morning for two weeks. On the last day there was a certain nervous energy about her. She took quick, small steps towards the counter; the man followed, a step behind. Rose smiled at her, an offer of acceptance, of calm. She’d be with her as soon as she finished pouring coffee for Jerry, one of her regulars.
The girl waited and scratched, picked, dug at the dry crusty scabs on her hands.
“It’s cold outside. Cold. Cold day, today.” Jerry’s voice filled the small Café.
“Snow’ll be here soon.” Rose slid a coffee mug towards him.
“Cold today. Cold yesterday. Cold tomorrow.” Jerry’s hands shook, coffee spilling.
“He’s stupid. That guy’s stupid.” The girl’s companion pointed to Jerry and smiled. His thin lips seemed to disappear above the gums, a wide fleshy red band in a small hole of a mouth.
The seated customers stopped talking; some leaned forward.
Rose scanned the room, squinting fiercely. “Snow’ll be here soon,” she announced. She would tolerate no fighting in her Café, certainly not one started by a newcomer. She filled two mugs with coffee and placed the doughnuts on paper napkins. The girl’s companion pursed his lips. He looked at Rose, turned towards the girl, then back at Rose. His eyes turned flat and colorless and bewildered, as if he didn’t know where he was.
The girl, oblivious to his confusion, reached for his arm and yanked it towards Rose. Her bitten-down fingernail jabbed at the numbers and symbols that covered his forearm in a dark-blue rash. “End’s coming,” she said to Rose. “Dusty’ll save me. He’s making plans.” She spoke not in a shy or hesitant manner, but with a matter-of-factness that belied the improbability of her belief.
In those few minutes the girl said more to Rose than she had said in the two weeks before, and Rose felt brave enough to ask, “You sure?”
“Ask him yourself,” the girl said, pushing him forward.
He extended his hand across the counter, and Rose had a fleeting desire to ask him to explain the inexplicable, to decipher the equations on his arm. But he was only reaching for the mug. Rose shrugged, as if it were immaterial whether he spoke to her or not. She turned instead to the girl and said, “Take care.” She wanted to tell her something else, something wise, but she could think of nothing else to say, and so she repeated, “Take care.”
At the table the girl tore off a scab from her thumb and pressed the new, pink skin to her lips, while he wrote furiously on his arm. The coffee and the doughnuts lay between them, untouched.
That night, at supper, Rose waited for just the right moment to tell her husband about the girl in the Café; she waited till her husband had started eating, and before he opened his first bottle of beer. Rose knew that the stories from the Café were better left untold, but sometimes she needed to talk — to somehow fill the silence between herself and George.
“It must be comforting to know you’ll be saved,” she said.
“Safe and crazy, you mean. Two crazy loons.”
She felt strangely feverish. Beads of perspiration formed along her hairline and between her breasts. “Don’t say it.”
“What? That they’re crazy?”
“I wasn’t talking about craziness. I just thought it was sweet, that’s all. Her sharing that with me.”
His chin and mouth glistened with grease. She handed him a napkin, and he used it, instead of wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, as he preferred to do. Though ordinarily she would have accepted this gesture as an apology, this time she had an overpowering urge to grab him by the collar and shake him. After all, at fifty-two, it was not unreasonable to expect him to use a napkin.
George pushed back his chair. “God, it was cold today. Probably be cold the whole friggin’ week.”
Rose ran a finger along the rim of her water glass. Lately it seemed they had tended to let words and disagreements drop between them, and she was never certain whether this was because the disagreements were not that important or because arguing would take more energy than either of them cared to expend. He asked her where she had put his blue flannel shirt, and she told him that he needed a hair cut.
Her day began early. Yellow pools of light from the street lamps spilled off the sidewalk edge and into the road. Except for the sound of the cars, or the occasional greeting of a lone passer-by on his way to work, it was quiet in the early morning darkness. Rose pressed her large black handbag against her side as she hurried down Queen Street, through the school yard, and then up Dundas, past the pawn shop, past the gas station, past Seymour’ s furniture store, boarded up over a year now ever since the gold mine had closed down.
There were rumors — there were always rumors — that the mine would re-open. Gold prices had gone up and the local paper was full of photos of geologists and executives who were ready to announce a deal. In the meantime, the provincial government had promised to build a district college, a satellite campus they called it, and a health center. Various reasons were given for the influx of money; the most popular being that the province was getting ready for an election. The town council also had plans; it was busy resurrecting stories of past eccentrics, dreaming up folklore, petitioning the government for money to preserve heritage that was more fiction than fact. Last summer, tourist attractions had sprung up: a wilderness camp for adolescents, a fishing and hunting camp, a historical site and museum that paid homage to the first prospectors.
She turned down Labelle. At the end of the street was the Café. The white painted letters on the window spelled “TOWN CAFÉ”, and just below that “welcome” and in smaller letters underneath, “bienvenue.” Too small and too run-down, located off the main road, the diner had not been profitable for years. The town had taken it over, converted it into a drop-in center where the lost, the lonely, the near-mad could come out of the cold, get a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.
Rose’s husband didn’t like her working there, didn’t like her waiting on drifters or town drunks or men on dole. He couldn’t see any dignity to that at all, he said. Not much money, either. Nevertheless, Rose had persevered. She had put her name forward and was hired. It was her first job, and she was proud of herself even when she found out weeks later that she had been the only one who had applied. It was Anne’s leaving that had given her the courage to defy her husband, and that realization had been both a source of regret and surprise. It had not been hard to simply ignore his complaints, but it pained her to know that she could have done so all along.
Sometimes she imagined the long narrow Café as a train car, and herself as the train cook, except that once on board there was nowhere for any of her customers to go.
She started the coffee, arranged the platters of day-old doughnuts and muffins, opened up a new box of napkins, found extra plastic stirrers, filled the milk jugs and the sugar bowls. In the utility room at the back, she filled a bucket with bleach and water, dipped the clean rag she had brought from home into the bucket and then wiped the dull turquoise counter, the counter stools, the row of booths against the windows, the tables and benches and the window ledges, even though she had done it the night before. When she was finished and satisfied with her work, she placed the bucket near the door, picked up a broom and went outside. The first rays of pale light were beginning to dissolve the morning darkness.
With strong vigorous strokes she swept away the newspapers from the front door, dug into corners, flicked away the broken glass and cigarette butts. She brought out the bucket, dumped its contents in front of the Café and watched as the wet stain spread across the sidewalk and onto the road.
All that day she waited for the girl to come in. She wanted to find out her name and tell her that she had a daughter the same age. Maybe the girl would be back tomorrow. She’d bring in a jar of blueberry jam for her. It was Anne’s favorite. She liked it better than strawberry or raspberry. George would laugh at her, if she told him how she had waited. Moved on, more than likely, he’d say.
The police officer came at closing time. He questioned her. About the girl. Told her about finding the man, his arms slashed. All up and down, he said, pointing to the inside of his own forearm. Razor blade. The police officer paused, his mouth open, and Rose could see the mint he was sucking, white, thin, flat on his tongue, like a Communion wafer. There had been other razor attacks in Porcupine, Timmins, Kirkland Lake. When she had told him everything she knew, he gave her a card with a telephone number she could call if she thought of anything else.
The picture of the girl was still on the counter. She picked it up and pressed it to her breast, and then as if she could do no more, she let out a long low moan and pinned the photo on the Café bulletin board, just above the picture of the black lab. She noticed how the dog’s mouth stayed open, holding the duck in its teeth, without bruising the feathers or the flesh. But the bird was dead, nevertheless.
Tomorrow there would be a story in the local paper; the town council would once again talk about closing the Café and increasing the police presence in town; George would remind her that she was surrounded by crazies and Rose would tell him that she was not surprised by the razor attacks. She would watch him closely to see if he understood.