Walter forced himself into a casual slouch. He ceased tapping his finger against the half-empty porcelain mug accompanying him on the cafe’s table. Locking his polished loafers onto the floor, he averted his gaze from the door as another customer entered. The view out of the corner of his eye told him all he needed to know. The woman, slightly too plump, also didn’t have Susan’s evergreen overcoat or her honey-blond ringlets.
Staring into the black-and-white framed photograph of someplace far and exotic, Walter kept himself in his chair, waiting. He finished off his coffee, lest the brew chill, while another half dozen folks arrived, ordered and departed into the waning afternoon.
Pauline appeared, and wiped up crumbs from the nearby table where a man and a muffin had spent the last hour. “Did you want a refill, Walt?”
He blinked away from the door where a woman of the right shape but wrong style strode inside, and situated herself at the counter.
“Sure.” Walter checked his watch as Pauline swept up his cup, and slipped behind the array of metallic spouts and kettles. She served the woman a non-fat latte with vanilla, and returned a few moments later, balancing his steaming mug with ease.
“You’re here a lot longer than usual, today.”
“Hum?” Walter flicked his gaze between the entrance and her timid smile. “Oh yeah, I guess so.”
She folded her arms across her black polo, and kneaded at the dishrag in her hand. “Waiting for someone?”
Walter heaved out a long sigh. “Yeah, but….”
“She’s late. She was supposed to be here two hours ago.”
“Didn’t she call?”
Pauline winced. “I’m sorry, Walt.”
He brushed aside her apology in a vain attempt to keep the reason for her sympathy from finding a home in his thoughts. “It’s no big deal. It was just coffee, you know?”
Pauline nodded, and chewed on her lower lip.
Walter stared into his brew, noticing the swirl of cream. Taking a sip, he found the right amount of sugar. By the time he looked back up, Pauline had slipped back behind the register, bantering with a lanky gentleman in a tweed coat. Walter watched him depart with his double-shot cappuccino, and stared through the glass as dusk settled. The streetlights flickered on, illuminating a gradually emptying sidewalk. Gulping down another mouthful, Walter fetched his book from his coat pocket, and indulged in a chapter punctuated by brief glimpses at every entry chime.
As he neared the back cover, Pauline’s sweeps foretold closing. Around him, the rest of the regulars made their way out with clinks of cups into the black tub and promises to return tomorrow.
When everyone else had gone, and Pauline doused the Open sign, Walter folded down the page’s corner and stowed his book. He stood, and draped his suit coat over his arm. Scooping up his cup, he headed for the counter.
“Thanks,” said Pauline, taking the empty beverage.
“You too,” said Walter. He met her smile with a wavering one of his own.
“You…you wouldn’t be interested in any leftovers would you?”
“I am a leftover,” said Walter with a smirk.
Pauline laughed. “I mean these,” she said, pointing at a tray of sliced carrot cake, flecked with raisins and walnuts, waiting by the register. “I’d hate them to go to waste.”
“Sure,” said Walter, digging out his wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
Pauline traded his empty mug for two plates from the stack of clean dishes. The china rattled against one another in her grasp. “Nothing if you’ll join me for another cup.” Her grin wobbled like the dishes, as if about to tumble off her lips.
Walter gripped his wallet. “Seriously?”
Pauline nibbled her lower lip. “Well, yeah. I mean, it’s just coffee right?”
“Right,” said Walter. A tremble raced up his spine, and his palms grew sweaty.
“Take these then,” said Pauline, her smile rebounding as she shoved over the plates and tray of cake. “I’ll get the drinks.” She spun with his dirtied mug to the pot she’d yet to empty for the night, snagging another cup along the way.
Walter watched her add sugar and milk, two spoonfuls and half and half for him, a trio for her with soy. She topped off each with the last brew of the day and had both in hand when she turned back around.
Stuffing his wallet away, he grabbed the plates and tray. “Perfect.”
“You’re pick then,” she said, nudging her chin at the array of empty tables.
Leading back to his corner spot, Walter set the tray in the middle and one plate at each seat. He pulled out the chair facing the door for Pauline as she arrived, and savored the sudden blush on her cheeks.
“Thanks,” she said, perching on the edge.
“Thanks for the invitation,” said Walter. He took the opposite chair, the one putting his back to the door.
“It seemed like you had a rough day.” She took a sip on her coffee. “Anyone I know?”
Walter frowned. “I don’t follow you.”
Pauline grinned with visible embarrassment. “Your date, was she anyone I know?”
“Oh,” said Walter. “No, just someone from work.”