The Late Night Cafe
Emma walked the three blocks to the bus station, waited in line at the newsstand and ordered a Cuban coffee to go. She lingered in the middle of the bus terminal; glancing at her watch, sipping the dark rich coffee, watching the people get on and off the buses. She played with the idea of not showing up to work, calling in sick and meeting friends at Johnny’s Bar but the rent was due next week and she was over a month behind on the electric bill.
She walked through the bus station, passing the used book store and Pete’s Barber Shop. Both had closed for the day. Slowly, she made her way down the long corridor to the Late Night Café. She pushed against the door and was unmoved to find the empty restaurant.
She placed her purse in a cabinet under the counter and wrapped a polyester apron around her body and tied it. She combed her fingers through her short, blonde hair and fussed with the skirt of her dress, smoothing the fabric at the waist and hips. This was her favorite dress, coral-colored with tiny white flowers, one she had found at a thrift store. She stepped to the back of the restaurant, to the kitchen, and found Julio sitting on a wooden chair reading the paper.
“What’s the special tonight?” she asked.
“Arroz con pollo, queres un poco?” he asked in his low, grumbling voice.
Julio was full in body, barrel-chested, with a round tanned face and dark, grey mustache. During the day, he worked as a mechanic, fixing cars in his front yard while at night he cooked for the Cafe, making tortillas, rice dishes and thick, rich soups. A married man with five grown children, Julio’s hand was often extended to Emma; a meal, a ride home at night, an invitation to family gatherings on weekends.
The Late Night Café was the smallest restaurant Emma had ever worked at. There were four tables in all, each covered with plastic red and white checkered tablecloths. The walls were painted a cobalt blue and photographs, mostly done by the students at the local community college, hung from them.
Emma placed the silverware and red cloth napkins on the tables and lit the white enclosed candles. Around seven, two bus drivers came in and ordered the special. While they ate, Emma sat behind the counter, leaning over a discarded Southern Living magazine and began reading an article about growing impatiens from seeds. She looked up at Manny as he entered the restaurant and sat at the window table. She reached for the dishrag and waited.
“Emma, the table’s sticky again,” he began and added, “you know I’ll have to tell management.”
The bus drivers glanced at Emma and laughed.
Manny was a regular at the Late Night Café. He reminded Emma of a child, small and eager, with a quick confident gait and exaggerated use of gestures. Each day, he arrived at the bus station just after sunrise and stayed until dusk. Emma had seen him in the morning, sitting on one hard bus bench and then moving to another. He would find styrofoam coffee cups and tattered newspapers the passengers left behind and toss them into garbage cans. He kept quiet except for the complaints he mumbled to the hurried bus drivers as they passed him.
“Grilled cheese and sweet tea, Manny?”
“Yes, please,” he said, wiping the crumbs from his elbows.
Just after eight, a group of high school students crowded around a front table eating hamburgers and slices of banana cream pie. They ordered one glass of iced water after another and Emma grew bored, listening to the inane conversation about school and friends. She searched for another magazine in the lost and found box but instead discovered a stack of paperback books. All were in Spanish except for one. She glanced at the white and yellow cover, thumbed though the stale-smelling pages and began to read.
An hour passed and the high school students exited the restaurant, leaving Emma a twelve-cent tip. She considered walking out and yelling at them but instead, cleared the table, banging the plates and glasses against each other as she stacked them.
She walked into the kitchen. Julio was asleep, his body cramped on the same wooden chair, his head fallen to one side. Quietly, she placed the dishes in the sink, one by one, and returned to the front to find a new customer.
He sat at the table closest to the door.
“Hello. I didn’t hear come in,” she said.
“Hello. Just walked in,” he said.
She grabbed the dishrag and began wiping and scrubbing the table the high school students had sat at. She cleaned off the crumbs of pie crust and puddles of spilled water and ice cubes discarded and scattered over the tabletop.
He waited and watched her as she walked back to the counter and tossed the dishrag into a dishpan. She wiped her hands on her polyester apron and asked, “Would you like a menu?”
He nodded and she did not smile but brought him a menu and walked back to the counter and picked up her book.
“Love in the time of Cholera.” he said.
She glanced at the cover of the book and then at him.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
He was about her age and tall with broad, bony shoulders that bent over his lanky frame. He was wearing jeans, t-shirt and his dark hair was cut short, nearly a crew cut. He looked familiar to her and she wondered if they had worked together at Francesca’s before it closed or Madison’s on Hibiscus Highway. He stared at her but didn’t say anything and she thought about getting up and waking up Julio.
“I just got off the bus.” he said and it was then she noticed the tattoo of the green iguanas on his forearm.
“It’s a bus station. That happens a lot here,” she said.
He laughed “Funny. What’s your name?”
“Emma.” She picked up the book and began to read again.
“When did you move to Begonia?”
She didn’t look from her book and shrugged her shoulders and said, “How do you know I’m not from here?”
“I grew up here and it’s a small town and I don’t remember you from school.”
“I moved here after high school and it’s not much of a small of a town anymore,” she said.
“I’ve been away awhile. Why did you move to Begonia?”
“My mother got a job here.”
She glanced away from the book and looked at him and said, “they usually order food. Are you going to order?”
“I’m on my way to my dad’s house. He won’t have dinner. His name is Sam Shepperd,.”
“He owns Shepperd’s Hardware. Across the street.”
“I know him,” she said. ” He comes in here to eat sometimes.”
“See, it is a small town.”
She put her book down on the counter. “Special is chicken and yellow rice.”
“Sounds good. I’ll have that,” he said.
Rory ate quickly but stayed until closing.
He watched as Emma blew out the white enclosed candles. She pulled off the tablecloths and set the chairs upside-down on the tabletops.
“Is it always this quiet here?”
Emma shrugged and pulled her apron off and turned off the overhead lights.
“Food’s good,” Rory said and placed his chair on the tabletop. “I can walk you home.”
“Julio will give me a ride,” she said.
“Who is Julio?”
“He cooks for restaurant,” she said.
Outside the Late Night Café, Rory waited as Emma locked the door. It was there, she looked at him and his eyes met hers. She blushed, noticing for the first time, his smile was which was guileless and without limits.
Julio appeared with his bike, waiting for Emma. He steadied the bike as she pulled herself on the handlebars, holding the skirt of her dress
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Rory, this is Julio,” she said.
“Buenas,” Julio said. He balanced himself on the seat and started to peddle through the long open corridor.
“Will you be here tomorrow night?” Rory yelled to her but they had already turned the corner of the bus terminal and were gone. Rory threw his sea bag over his shoulder and began to whistle.
He walked through long open corridor and was about to cross the Hibiscus Street.
“Carne con Papas,” Emma appeared, still on the bike’s handlebars. Julio struggled a bit with the bike but maneuvered it onto the sidewalk beside the street, close to Rory.
“That’s beef stew with potatoes and yes, I’ll be here,” she said.
They passed him and she noted that smile again on his face.
Julio crossed Bluebird Avenue to the quiet residential roads of Begonia.
“No. No novio.”
The street was quiet and dark, lined with oaks and magnolias. Julio began to whistle as he peddled. The leaves and limbs of the trees rustled with each gust of warm wind. Emma looked up into the dark sky and to the stars until they were finally lost among the many trees.