Family Cafe by Cezarija Abartis

The restaurant was a family restaurant featuring hamburgers, fries, milk shakes. I myself had no family. I stepped off the hot pavement and into the relative cool of a room filled with checkerboard-patterned tablecloths and red vinyl-covered chairs. It was like stepping into the past. The linoleum was green as hope in summer. On the wall were framed photographs: three tow-headed kids at the beach–probably Kittredge's kids–a calendar, a photograph of these same kids, older now by a few years. In my purse was a gun.

The vintage air conditioner over the door struggled against the summer heat and a ceiling fan labored to create a breeze. The air was heavy with grease and salt at the end of the day. A fly catcher hung in the corner. Next to it, one feeble philodendron dangled from a pot. My husband used to fill our house with plants: dieffenbachia, coleus, bromeliad, rubber tree. He would sing as he watered the plants, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" or "Ain't No Sunshine." We used to come to this restaurant, though he played guitar in the one out by the mall.

The waitress, a college-age girl who was not in college, lumbered up to my table and took the pencil from her apron pocket, the ketchup-stained white cloth stretching over her belly. "What can I get for you, Miss? Coffee? Pepsi?" She stared at me, as if she knew me, was trying to remember.

But I had stared at her too. "Coffee, thanks." I turned over the menu, but I was not here to eat. The sunset coming in through the window was, for a second, green, but that may have been moisture in my eye.

"End of the shift for me," she said. "Then I go home to my baby. Work there too. It never ends." She shook her head with resignation and good humor.

Was the baby Kittredge's? No, I decided. I could attribute all manner of bad behavior to him. Only a fool would allow his girlfriend to keep working at his restaurant. He was not a fool.

She would've been pretty if she were twenty pounds lighter. I had lost my pregnancy fat by dieting and jogging. I hadn't thought Brian would like a fat young mother. She slouched toward the kitchen, her thick-soled white shoes scuffed and worn on the sides. I had been a waitress when I was in school, and I determined then to finish college and get out of that life. Which I did.

On the radio, a classical music station was playing a Bach violin partita. I would’ve expected pop music in this kind of restaurant. My husband used to be in a rock band, but he had also studied classical guitar, and he talked about music.

I had quit my teaching job the day before yesterday and left Cincinnati without packing anything. I had moved there to live with my mother, but the anguish had wormed back into me. The calendar told me Kittredge had been released. I, however, was not released. I returned to this town, where Brian and I had gone to school and married and had a daughter, and where they died and my life ended. I had thought I could move away from the pain, cut its head off.

The waitress brought me a mug, and I sipped it black. She did not wear a wedding ring. For all I knew, she was a widow too.

The name tag pinned to the top of her apron said Cassie. "Have you had enough time to decide?" she asked.

"Yes, I have. But I was wondering where the owner was. Don Kittredge?"

"He's not here on Sundays. He has three other restaurants. He and his wife usually visit their kids Sunday evening." She pointed to the wall with the photographs.

I nodded. Something about this waitress looked like me a while back, the height maybe, the way she wore her brown hair in a pageboy. "A family man."

"Yes."

The music on the radio lengthened, became as keen as a cry in the night. "I heard he was in jail for a few months and recently got out."

She stiffened. "I wouldn't know about that." The overhead light shone on her round, unknowing face.

I wondered if she was really that unknowing.

I thought about going to my motel room and returning to the restaurant tomorrow, but something changed my mind. I had driven six hours and felt I was on the verge of achieving my desire. "I had a family too until a couple years ago. An idiot driving too fast on the icy road rammed into my husband's car. My baby daughter was in the back seat. She was in a child seat, top-of-the-line model. They were both killed."

"You're the wife and mother. . ." Her hand went protectively to her stomach. "Sorry, so sorry."

"Yes, I know. The world is filled with accidents. I know that. Train wrecks, lightning strikes, electrocutions, fires, drownings, disease, trees falling. You are not responsible. I know that."

Her watery eyes focused on me with suspicion and pity. "What do you want?"

"Eternal life? My husband and daughter back. But I'll settle for talking with Don Kittredge. He bought himself a good lawyer. I want to talk to Don Kittredge." I looked at my purse where the gun rested.

Her voice was tired and low. "He'll be in tomorrow."

"I want to see him tonight. I guess I have an impulse control problem. I stayed with my mother after my – after the accident. And then she died last month." I looked to the window to my ghostly reflection and the darkening parking lot with its struggling cones of light shining down on the black tarmac. "And now I'm back home. I want to see Kittredge, Mr. and Mrs. Kittredge. Are they happily married? Do they have a puppy?” I tried to keep my sarcasm from screeching.  “Is his name Fido?"

She brushed at her apron. "They don't like animals. They like things clean."

"I like things clean too, now."

Puzzlement passed across her tense face. My husband once had a cat who was semi-feral. The cat was afraid of me but watched me, followed me around, wanted to like me. I think the waitress wanted to like me. She looked toward the counter. "Are you going to order food? Or just coffee? The kitchen will be closing in a while."

"Yes, I'll have apple pie."

She seemed relieved and left. I pulled out a piece of paper on which I had written Don Kittredge's address, but he did not live there anymore. He lived somewhere else. He lived.

I fanned myself with the piece of paper, but it was small and did not cool me off.

Brian, Lucy, and I had lived a regular life until an idiot in a car snuffed it out and made a hole that could not be filled up or papered over or have its ragged edges sewn together.

She brought a plate with apple pie and set a knife and fork on top of the napkin. "Here it is," she explained. She added, by way of further explanation, "Mr. Kittredge is a good boss."

People liked all kinds of people. People loved and respected thieves; people went to bed with murderers; people loved adulterers and wife batterers and pet beaters and child abusers. Something inside us needs to love.

The coffee was strong and good, but the pie was mealy and bland. Cassie hovered beside me. Her brow glistened with perspiration.

A strand of hair stuck to her cheek. "Mr. Kittredge is a good man."

She was protecting him. Perhaps I was wrong and he was the father of her child. I wanted to find out where he lived and put an end to my anguish. "Glad to hear that."

"He always pays me on time. He said he'd save the job for me when I had my baby." She pulled at her skirt to even it out. "After I had the baby, I came back."

"Who covered your hours?"

"He hired part-time people."

I pushed the knife and fork aside. "Then they were let go when you came back?"

She shrugged.

I'm not sure what lesson I was giving her: that Kittredge was not infinitely good, that the world ground you up, that someone always paid. I pushed the pie away.

"How old was your baby?" she asked me.

"Lucy was two."

Sadness sharpened her face, and the features didn't seem unformed anymore. "Awful," she said. "Look, the pie's on me."

I almost laughed, but then I said, "Thanks."

"I used to work at Mr. Kittredge's other restaurant, out by the mall, but this one is closer to my apartment."

I had taught girls like her: they floated through life, not planning, not thinking, not wanting more than the next Saturday night party. Well, we were both here. My plans and ambitions came to the same place as hers.

"Mr. Kittredge helped me out."

"The father of your baby wasn't able to help you?"

"No." She gave a reluctant sigh. "It was a mistake. We weren't in love." She looked at the empty parking lot and shook her head. "I'm going to make this right. I'll do right by the baby. My mom and dad will help."

This girl, who I thought was soft and puffy, had a steel-sharp edge.

"Anyways, he's dead. He left me, went back to his wife and baby daughter." She stared at me, with a look of infinite pity. For me or him or herself? She continued. "He died in a car crash. It was in the papers. I think it was Mrs. Kittredge driving. I think she was drunk, but Mr. Kittredge swore he was the driver. Mrs. Kittredge helped me move to a bigger apartment while Mr. Kittredge was in jail. They're good people. They both swore off alcohol. They volunteer at the Salvation Army."

I had been so certain of the truth. But I was wrong then and wrong again.

“I love my baby,” she said. “I take good care of him.” She sat down opposite me at the table and knit her fingers together. She sat straight as if this were church. “I hated a man once, when he left me. And then he died. My hate turned to guilt.” She tilted her head as she searched my face. “You don’t look like someone who would hate forever.

My hands were in my lap, flat. “I’m exhausted.” I let my purse slip to the floor. It dropped with a heavy thump.

“Let bygones be bygones. I found another path.” She stared at me. “He loved his wife.” Now I thought the pity was for me. “I want you to know that.”

I leaned forward and the knife slipped off the table and clinked on the floor. In one graceful action, she bent and picked it up and placed it on the table between us. She folded her hands and waited.

Someone in the kitchen changed the station on the radio. Johnny Cash was singing about love's fire. They switched it again. Louis Armstrong's trumpet blared "Melancholy Blues" with resignation and acceptance of the mystery. Outside, the moon had risen and gleamed clear as the clouds feathered away into the night sky.

I had been so certain of the truth. But I was wrong then and kept being wrong. Perhaps I could somehow be right.

"We gotta close," Cassie said, her eyes moving around the old restaurant. "You take care now." She stood up, inhaled deeply as if she were breathing fresh mountain air, and lifted her hand in a wave that was like hello. She walked to the kitchen with a light, dancelike step.

I had quit my teaching job, but the principal didn't want me to quit. Maybe they would hire me back.  The principal felt sorry for me. People felt sorry for people. We were a sorry bunch.   

This piece was formerly featured in Crimson Fog.


Cezarija Abartis' Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Pure Slush, and New York Tyrant, among others. She participates on Fictionaut, ShowMeYourLits.com and Zoetrope.com. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 Online Fictions of 2012.  “History,” published by The Lascaux Review, was chosen as April Story of the Month by The Committee Room. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/