The Inside Rail

The three of them talk, then pause, then another burst, then another pause. They pull up ideas, memories, monuments like they’re pulling up weeds from a garden. Occasionally a flower, a fruit, a gem to keep, to hold. Eyes moisten, but only for fleeting moments, the public results of private thoughts. No one notices.

The coffee shop bustles. Morning traffic. Standing room only. School mothers, kids dropped off, cluster like leaves in a window well. Some are going to work out, yoga pants, tight, hair pulled back, short socks and running shoes. Some are going to ride horses, breeches, tight, paddock boots, some polished, some scuffed. A husband sits at one table while his wife sits at another, now, that’s teamwork. Men, collared shirts and khakis, country casual, come in and walk out, coffee on the go, always. The flies take their last swipes at life, it’s October, frost warning last night, they’re fading fast but still going strong. A man whips off his hat and knocks one out of the air, it’s a lost cause, but he feels a moment of accomplishment.

An old photo comes out. A pen sits idle. A notepad, a few notes, a scribble, but that’s about all. A phone is scanned, thumb, swiping right, like a deer on ice. Another cup of coffee brews. Another one is ordered. Another one is thrown away. Another one goes cold.

The oldest of the three – the mother, the widow – gazes, distantly, her two coffee friends pluck at what’s good, what’s useless, what’s important in their thoughts, their words, their memories. She barely hears them as she drifts between yesterday and today, then comes back as vibrant as before. “Loved the outdoors…the War…his kids…” There is nothing like the importance of the right word at the hard time. “This is a book,” one of them blurts. They nod in unison. Yeah, a book. People always dream about the pages of a book as they bleed over the lines of an obituary, the agony of a few lines somehow elicits dreams of a book.

They talk about the CIA, what she knew, what she didn’t know. I still don’t know. One slouches, one fidgets, one sits erect, back as straight as a flagpole, like she’s waiting for her prom date. They lean in close, then back away, lean in again, then back away, a life unfolding, staccato, the ebbs and flows of a life, the wife, the daughter, the writer, comrades comforting at an uncomfortable time.

The daughter turns to the writer, “Just tell me what I owe you.” The old newspaperman scoffs, his eyebrows raise and his head rocks back, his hand wagging like he’s brushing crumbs away from the front of the toaster. “Buy me a cup of coffee…but not now.’ Too much coffee already.

The writer has some notes, some thoughts, the bricks from the family. He’ll add the mortar – it’s written, now he just has to write it. He’s consructed so many of these, it’ll spill out like always. A spigot, not a vein.

The daughter digs through her purse, pulls out out an envelope, folded up like a treasure map, hands it to her mother. Long delicate fingers unfurl two sheets of yellow paper, folded three by three, six squares and three rectangles. Some of the lines are scratched out, some are written for eternity. She reads them, again, her eyes moisten, ever so slightly, again, nobody notices. They share a laugh, she hands it back the way it came and her daughter slides it back into her wallet. Notes, folded papers, photographs, memories. Like that old song, that’s all that’s left now.

The daughter places another envelope on the table, a card, this hasn’t been folded, hasn’t been sent. It’s pristine. A letter, a note, sent today. I wonder if it’ll be pulled out on some tomorrow, somewhere down the line. Perhaps, the daughter’s sons piecing together her life. Maybe, maybe not. She pulls out a stamp, places it with delicacy in the top corner, where it’s going is anybody’s guess.

Old fingers curl around new cups. A homemade scone breaks in pieces, a croissant is savored, a cup of tea is emptied and the bustle of the coffee shop begins to wane, the morning rush has come and gone.

“Amazing life…”

I can’t tell who said it.

• A version of this article originally appeared in Country Spirit Magazine. Click here to read more about it. 

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