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Three Encounters in a Café

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He walked in the door with a gust of wind and rain. Marie looked up from where she stood behind the counter of the out-of-the-way coffee shop and examined him. Young, almost as young as Bobby—mid-twenties, but dressed better than the college sort. Start-up businessman, perhaps, with his tailored suit and expression grim enough to match the storm outside, though that deep red hair seemed a little too wild to fit the part.

“Hey there,” she said with a smile—no use encouraging any more thunderstorms than the one present—“what can I get you?”

“Coffee.” His voice was deep, and his eyes—there was something in those eyes, something that made Marie revise that age estimate a few years upward. And yet he moved with the strange gangly grace of a boy who hadn’t quite grown into his skin yet.

“That’ll be two dollars,” she said. “Cream and sugar?”

“No.” He handed her two perfectly crisp one-dollar bills. Marie eyed them. They looked too clean, but it wasn’t like anyone would take the time to counterfeit singles, so she shrugged and poured him a cup from the pot sitting on the burner.

“You headed back out into that?” she asked conversationally. It was only four in the afternoon, but sky was covered over in threatening clouds wind flung the rain in gusts against the windows. Few enough people ventured into this little hole-in-the-wall place, most of them coming for the greasy breakfasts cooked up just like Momma taught her. In fact, Marie wondered what the businessman was doing here at all. There was a Starbucks a block or two down that was probably more his style.

“As soon as I have my coffee,” the man said curtly. He drummed his fingers on the counter and eyed the to-go cup she held in her hand.

Marie didn’t understand people these days. Always acting like they had to be somewhere right now, but never really getting anywhere. Still, who was she to judge? She handed the coffee over to him with a smile and said, “Have a nice day.”

The man growled, pulled his coat closer, and left.

*

Marie had yesterday’s paper spread out across the counter when the bell above the door jangled and she looked up to see that man. It’d been almost a year since the last time she’d seen him, but he didn’t look like he’d aged a day. No, that wasn’t quite right. He was a little taller, the lines of his jaw a little more set, but his eyes... it was like he’d found a way to turn back the clock, not entirely, but just a little, and it shone there in the corners.

“Hello again,” she said with a smile. “Good to know that storm didn’t blow you away.”

He startled, then ran a hand through his orange-red hair. “Er, yes,” he said. “Can I get a coffee?”

“Two fifty,” Marie said, wondering at how much less self-assured he sounded. None of that businessman’s bluster, though he was still dressed to fit the part.

“It was two flat last time.”

“It was a year ago last time. We’ve all gotta deal with inflation.”

The man shrugged and laid his cash out on the counter again. Marie grabbed a to-go cup and went to pour his coffee, but the man said, “No—can I get it for here?”

Her back was turned, so Marie allowed herself to raise her eyebrows. Hiding from something, he was. But it wouldn’t do him any good to tell him that. She’d dealt with enough kids over the years—her own, and now the first of theirs—to know that the way to get them to talk was to make them think you weren’t all that interested. “Anything you want, sweetie.” She turned to grab a mug and saw him wince at the epithet. So, old enough that he didn’t want her calling him sweetie, but scared enough of what he was running from that he’d come to this place to hide. Typical. Men just didn’t grow up the way that women did, she was sure of that.

She set the coffee down on the counter and nudged it toward him. It was spring, there was sun outside, and the coffee shop was almost deserted, aside from a couple of construction workers eating slices of chocolate cream pie in the corner. There were a couple of chairs along the bar, and Marie found herself hoping this stranger would take one of them.

She was surprised when he actually did.

Marie wiped down the bar, bused a table, and then came back to read her Sunday paper. She very deliberately made herself finish the article she’d been going through before looking up and seeing how the man was doing.

He was nursing the coffee, staring off into space with a look of extreme concentration, the kind that Marie knew meant he was replaying a scene in his head, examining something real close. “It’s a beautiful day out,” she said.

“What? Oh, yes, I suppose it is.” His eyes came back into focus, and he looked over at her, trying to make her out.

“Good time for a family picnic in the park,” she said with a smile.

His jaw tightened and Marie knew she’d pegged him right. A few more seconds...

“Family,” he muttered, frowning, and took a drink of his coffee.

Marie leaned an elbow down on the counter. “Wanna talk about it?” she asked.

“I mean, my family...well. It’s complicated,” he said, running a hand through his hair and making it stand on end.

“Isn’t it always?”

He laughed, and for a moment he seemed so much older. “Yes, I suppose it is. But...this feels different.” He paused and looked down at his hands, like he was trying to figure out whether or not he should continue. He looked up and said, “You see, there was something of a feud going on—still is going on, it feels like—with me and my…brothers. Well, really just one brother. I’d been avoiding him, living my own life, being a success and hoping it would make him jealous...and it didn’t. It just made him kind.” He looked over at Marie. “What I did—what I said—I remember it. All of it. And he does, too. But he forgave me.” Marie could hear the disbelief in the man’s voice, and the pain that it caused him.

“Forgiveness is hard,” Marie said. The man’s eyebrows narrowed, and he looked like he was going to vent some frustration, but Marie continued. “It’s hard for the one who gets forgiven—not just for the ones who do the forgiving.” She watched the muscles of his face relax again, just a little. Oh, she’d nailed this one.

“He shouldn’t trust me,” the man said after a long pause. “I don’t.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Marie said, not caring if it would exasperate him. “When you’re as old as I am, you’ll understand—that’s the kind of thing that family’s for.”

He gave her a look like he didn’t quite believe her. Marie had seen that before, on the face of each of her own children at some point or another: the look that said, Momma’s starting to make some sense, but I’ll be damned if I let her know that.

“Now,” she added, “you want to throw your brother for a loop like the one he’s thrown you for, you know what you do?”

The man shook his head.

Marie smiled. “You trust him back.”

*

She didn’t see him for a long time after that. For some reason, it worried her. When the planes hit the twin towers and there were all those bodies in tattered suits being pulled out of the wreckage, she kept wondering if the next face she saw would be his. She knew it was silly—he’d never told her what he did, after all, or whether he was even from here or just passing through—but she stopped watching the news for a while, afraid of what she might see, and not too sure of why. She started up again, eventually, and after a time she almost forgot about that businessman who thought his family problems were somehow worse than everyone else’s, though every so often she’d see something out of the corner of her eye or just when she was waking from sleep and she would be reminded.

So when he walked through her door one more time, several years down the road, Marie was a lot of things, but she wasn’t really surprised. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” Marie said.

“Haven’t been here in a while,” the man replied. “Two coffees.”

Another man had entered, following the businessman, but Marie had assumed they were separate. He wore jeans and a casual button-up, and his red-blond hair fell almost to his shoulders. “Who’s your friend?” Marie asked.

“This is my brother,” the man said. “We’re in town for the weekend.”

The second man extended his hand. “Michael,” he said, smiling with his whole face. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Marie,” she said, taking his hand and shaking it. He had a good grip—firm, but gentle—and she felt like she’d never seen a more sincere smile. “You must’ve gotten all the manners,” she said, pouring the coffees. “Your brother’s never introduced himself.”

Michael eyed his brother, who rolled his eyes in return and said, “You can call me Luke.”

“Pleasure to be seeing you, Luke,” Marie said, handing the men their coffees. “Your parents must’ve had quite the taste for biblical names. An archangel and a disciple. Any devils in the mix?”

Luke looked at Michael for a moment, then back at Marie, and said, “No…not anymore.”