“Funeral crowd,” says Janie, in her typically sympathetic, but now somewhat quieter voice. I turn my head to see what she’s talking about, and take in the nearly full tables behind me—the ones I had walked past just seconds ago when I entered Janie’s coffee shop. In my haste to get to the counter, to see Janie, I hadn’t even noticed all these people dressed in black, filling her trendy west-end cafe with their muted conversations. “We get them all the time,” she continues, “with the funeral home being so close and all.”
I clear my throat before speaking. “That’s depressing.”
She shrugs her shoulders. Takes her eyes away from mine. When they come back a few seconds later, she asks me if I want a coffee.
“Sure, just like a half a cup though.”
“You’re not trying to quit again are you?”
“No, I’m pretty sure I’d die without caffeine.”
As the words leave my mouth, I feel someone in my peripheral. A woman about my mom’s age, dressed in a conservative charcoal sweater, black skirt to her knees and black stockings. I offer a wordless apology and she returns a sympathetic smile beneath a sad pair of eyes, before politely asking Janie for some napkins. Janie hands the woman a small stack of brown recycled ones and the woman turns past me, keeping her head down, on the way back to a table of similarly clad mourners.
“Nice choice of words,” Janie says as she hands me a half-cup of pitch-black coffee. I shrug it off.
The amount of times I had been to Janie’s place, you’d figure I would have noticed these crowds of funeral goers before, but I suppose I’m not exactly the observant type when I’m here; not counting the details I pick up on Janie today: the red nail polish, how great her ass looks in those dark jeans, and the loose gathering of sandy blonde hair that’s fallen out of its pony-tailed confines and now rests tucked in the most equally adorable and intelligent way behind her left ear.
“This doesn’t bum you out?” I ask.
“Not really. I kind of take comfort in it,” she says of the grieving. She tells me that it feels more like she’s watching it all from a distance. “And I like the stories,” she says. “These fleeting glimpses into other lives. I hear about stoic grandfathers and uncles—men of few words, from generations gone by. I hear about tireless mothers, and sisters and aunts who were everyday role models. It’s comforting to hear about how much people were loved in their lifetimes.”
“These people are actually in the mood to talk?” I ask.
“Not everyone. Sometimes somebody just wants to hear a new voice, or wants a new set of ears. I feel a bit like a bartender that way. Only I'm not drowning sorrows in booze.”
“No, but those salted brownies of yours are pretty addictive.”
“Is that your way of asking for one?” she asks.
“Depends. Is that your way of offering?”
“Here,” she says, sliding a small bowl of brownie pieces over the counter. “I've got some broken ones. On the house.”
“Not what I had in mind, but okay.”
“Am I going to see you tonight?” she says to me, before tending to a few new customers who have trickled in behind me.
“Might be a little later than usual, but yeah. I’ll swing by.”
I return to Janie’s cafe when she’s closing up alone. She unlocks the door and lets me in. As I stand in the middle of the cafe, trying to adjust my eyes to the darkness, she grabs a bottle of red wine from under the counter, and two water glasses from a neatly arranged stack of others. I follow her lead and we sit down at the furthest table from the door, the furthest from street light, from passing eyes. We playfully chit chat about simple, irrelevant things—the types of days we had, if I’ve tried to grow a beard. I lean in to kiss her and she moves down my neck, says something about smelling the day on me. We finish another glass of wine each at the table, and follow it up by fucking over the veneer desk in her cramped office. We find our way through each other’s buckles and buttons by the light being cast from nearby counter displays, and from the dimming computer screen that jostles as we do. When we’re done, we both re-dress quietly.
“You should get out of here,” she says. “I gotta finish closing up.”
“What if I want to go again?” I ask.
She laughs. “I’m not sure you have it in you, old man.”
“You’re probably, right,” I say, buttoning up my jeans. “Better off saving it for next week.”
I wait for Janie to finish putting her shirt on before kissing her and heading back out the front door, which she locks behind me.
The next time I’m at Janie’s place is a little over a week later, after a four-car pile-up on the highway. I file into the familiarity of her cafe with the unfamiliarity of people I don’t know—Janie’s surviving family, and a group of what I presume to be a mix of her old friends and cafe regulars. Of the four cars in the pile-up, Janie’s Toyota Venza was the most impacted, mainly on the driver side. Her son and daughter both survived and are here to mourn with the rest of us, but they sport the price of their survival. Her son has a cast on one arm—still unsigned, while her daughter hides a new permanent limp by refusing to leave her father’s arms.
I do my best to blend in with the regulars since they seem almost as displaced here as I do. It gives me some much-needed anonymity, and allows me to avoid any contact whatsoever with Janie’s husband. I make it through the emotional tributes, hearing about all the sides of Janie I didn’t know—the perfect daughter, the loving big sister, the smart but occasionally reckless college roommate. The only person I spend any amount of time talking to is one of her aunts, an older woman dressed in the requisite blacks and greys, but who doesn’t mourn like the rest of us. She’s more at ease, eager to start up a conversation, provide a shoulder, eat the tiny sandwiches. She tells me that she travelled in from Florida, and we have a brief conversation about the humidity in Tampa, and about Janie. She tells me about when Janie and her parents would stop for visits on their summer road trips to Disney, and how she was hoping Janie would have had the opportunity to do that now, with a family of her own.
“It was difficult, I guess, finding the time off with her own business,” she laments. “Do you know what will happen with it now? Will they put it up for sale?”
“I don’t know,” I say. And begin to think again of my life without this hidden part in it. Without the cafe, the weekly visits, Janie.
“So, how did you know Janie?” she asks me, filling the empty air.
“Just from here,” I answer back, eyeing the door that leads back to Janie’s small office. I think about what her husband might find when he cleans it out: recipes and receipts, dates jotted down with a name he doesn’t recognize, the smell of unfaithful sex on the furniture, my missing shirt button.
“Well she must have made quite the impression on you, for you to be here today.”
I drift off again and almost forget to acknowledge her statement. “She did,” I finally say and wonder if, unlike me, Janie would find any of this comforting.
About the Author: Troy Palmer is the founding and managing editor of Little Fiction. When he’s not designing covers or putting together the stories, he can be found writing, walking too fast or thinking there’s more he needs to be doing. He currently lives and rarely sleeps in Toronto. You can follow him on twitter here: @troy_palmer
Story Song: "Dark End of the Street" by Cat Power