Another Afternoon at the Paramount Café - Lawrence Farrar

            Hector Ewert peered through clear plastic framed glasses into the street below his second-floor efficiency. He sighed; nothing had changed; it was a day like every other day. He did not know what other kind of day he expected. Still, he felt disappointed. Some inchoate, undefined longing clutched him. He tried to wish the feeling away. But he failed.
            He checked his watch (2:00 p.m.), then stepped into his tiny bathroom, where he postured in front of the mirror. Hector sighed again. Random gray hairs and, worse yet, splotches of gray intruded into his once solidly ash blond crew cut. Forty and, as he described it, a bit more, Hector was a self-effacing, self-contained man. Nonetheless, vanity exercised its private, attention-grabbing demands. Perhaps one of those male hair products advertised on television…
            Hector picked up a neatly folded newspaper, tucked it under his arm, and went out into the hall. He locked the door behind him, jiggling the handle ‒ just to be sure. You could never be too careful. Then, his left hand sliding along the worn-smooth banister, he negotiated his way down the dimly lit stairway, stepped out onto the sidewalk and set off on the two-block walk to the Paramount Cafe. It had become a Saturday afternoon ritual–coffee and perhaps a piece of pie. It had also become the high point of his week, and nervous anticipation gripped him, as it always did.
            Hector strode purposefully along. It was an unremarkable day, like every other unremarkable day ‒ neither hot nor cold; the air comfortably warm, neither humid nor dry; the sky neither blue nor gray. Somewhat pleasant. Yes. He supposed it could be considered a pleasant day, but one quite ordinary.
            Like the day, Hector, too, seemed unremarkable, a bit round-shouldered (too many years hunched over a drafting table), a man of middling height and middling build. He wore a dark blue, open-neck shirt, crisply laundered; tan gabardine trousers, sharply pressed; and sensible brown shoes, diligently polished. He exuded a kind of shabby gentility.
            Neither in the city nor out of it, Hector’s street featured nondescript shops, restaurants, and two- or three-story apartment buildings. It was that hodgepodge kind of street where you could buy a used book, grab a quick meal, repair a vacuum cleaner, pick up a bouquet of roses, get your nails done, select a child’s toy, or, if so inclined, have your fortune told.
            The neighborhood had seen better days. The Olde English street signs and decorative lamp poles once installed by civic-minded businessmen had fallen into disrepair; mosaics of cracked concrete decorated the sidewalks; and here and there For Lease signs on empty shelves leaned against dusty windows. In any number of places, a mason’s trowel or a painter’s brush could surely have been put to good use. A bus rumbled by spewing fumes and demanding right of way from a delivery truck with flashing lights. It was, Hector thought, a thoroughly ordinary place, like thousands of other ordinary places.
            He passed a pair of drivers playing backgammon on the trunk of a taxi, disregarded the paper cup extended toward him by a homeless man, and sidestepped an elderly woman creeping along behind her walker. He’d encountered all of them before in the course of this weekly passage to the Paramount Cafe.
            The rather grandly named Paramount Cafe was, in fact, an ordinary cafe, like every other ordinary cafe. It occupied the ground floor of a two-story building, the second floor given over to apartments. The cafe blended nicely into the undistinguished homogeneity of the structures that were its neighbors. Its gray stucco exterior was unremarkable, save for a few clinging strands of exhausted ivy and for its sidewalk windows that invited passersby to gaze directly in at customers wolfing down their sandwiches and beers. In warm weather, the proprietor cranked down an awning and crammed three or four tables outside on the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to pick their way through the diners or to step into the street to get round them.
            Hector paused on the sidewalk and, as if by way of confirmation, contemplated the pinkish-red neon sign in the window. Open. Of course, he already knew the cafe was open, but the lighted sign welcomed him, marked the cafe as a place where he would be accepted, where he could drink coffee at his ease, read his paper undisturbed. A regular customer, thus, he claimed the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. He could pass time. He could find refuge from the everyday, oppressive and, truth be told, lonely life he led.
            Not only did the place provide sanctuary. Above all, Norma Driscoll, a waitress, worked in the Paramount. In Hector’s world of ordinariness, he considered her anything but ordinary. She was, alas, much too young for him, perhaps fifteen years too young. He searched for a proper description. Perky? Almost pretty? No. He decided she was actually pretty. He thought of her short-cropped black hair, her lustrous white skin, and her eyes which seemed to have seen it all ‒ and been made more knowing by the experience. She stirred in him a faint hope, a slim hope, but one he knew in his heart to be delusional. Fifteen years too young and likely wooed by a veritable cavalcade of suitors. Still, when he thought of her, feelings long dormant touched him. Hector could dream.
            Heart thumping with excitement (his doctor would disapprove), Hector pushed through one of the long-handled double doors, crossed to the counter, and climbed onto a stool. The owner and cook, Jack Bligh, a large man, bull-necked and shaven headed, grinned at him and pointed at a printed sign hung above the cash register. In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash. It was their private joke. Hector always paid; and he always paid cash.
            Although the noontime crowd had cleared out, the air remained ripe with cooking smells: whiffs of garlic-laden spaghetti, lingering traces of bacon, and touches of some savory soup. Hector liked the smells; he liked the old movie posters, the incongruous paper lanterns, the red and yellow flowers in little bottles decorating the tables. He thought of the other patrons as comrades; he knew some by name, most by face. True, people rarely spoke to him, but they sometimes greeted him with a welcoming smile, an upraised hand, a friendly nod. The atmosphere in the place, familiar and ordinary, reassured him.
            As Hector put down his newspaper, the heel of his hand came to rest on a sticky spot ‒perhaps jam, perhaps syrup. It smudged and tore his paper. About to call it to Norma’s attention, he had second thoughts. He did not want to begin his afternoon sojourn with what she might take to be a complaint, a criticism. On the other hand, she might appreciate being made aware of the condition. What to do? He decided to say nothing, at least not initially. Perhaps he would mention it later. He sat silent as a Trappist monk.
            “What’ll it be today?” Norma asked. “The usual?” The usual. Confirmation that she remembered him, that he occupied a niche, however modest, somewhere in her mind. He felt reassured ‒ the usual.
            “Yes, please.” He lifted his eyes and smiled. He ordinarily said nothing more.  But now, emboldened, he added, “How are you today?”
            “So, so. How about yourself?”
            Her response, he concluded, revealed her interest in his well-being. What a wonderful feeling.
            “Fine.  I’m fine, thank you.” Perhaps he could mention his stiff neck. No, that might seem too intimate, too forward. But surely it would not be untoward to iterate that he felt fine. And so, he did. “I’m just fine,” he said.
            “That’s good. I’ll be right back.”
            He watched her take several steps to the large silver urn located behind the counter. She moved with what struck him as feline grace. Comely, perhaps that was the word he’d been searching for. She merited being described as comely and, he thought, shapely. Her beige waitressing dress and white apron simply failed to do her justice. Simply failed.
            “Here’s your coffee, honey,” she said. She placed the cup and saucer in front of him. Why had she included the little container of cream? Didn’t she remember he didn’t use cream? Fortunately, the fact she called him honey compensated for this small slight. Anyone knew honey was a term of affection.
            “It’s a pleasant day outside. Quite nice,” Hector said. He wanted to say something more interesting, but nothing came to him.
            “Yeah. I guess. Doesn’t look real sunny though.” He detected a slight nasal quality in her voice. It’s barely noticeable, he told himself.
            Norma moved down the counter to tend to an elderly couple who’d come in for a late lunch. They smiled, and Norma laughed. What could be so funny? She disappeared into the kitchen, and Hector picked up his paper. He sipped his coffee and worked his way through the international news.
            When two young men from the power company slid into a booth, Norma reappeared to take their orders. Again, Hector could not hear what they said, but Norma dismissed the two with a wave of the hand while they laughed convulsively. Hector hoped they hadn’t been rude. Some of these young fellows treated waitresses with a lack of respect.
            His mug nearly empty, Hector signaled for a refill.
            “How you doing over here,” Norma said when she arrived with the glass pot. Attentive to his needs. No doubt about it.
            “Fine. Just fine.”
            “Just let me know, if I can get you anything else. How about a piece of pecan pie?”
            “Maybe later. Oh, by the way, there’s something spilled here on the counter.”
            “Be right back.”  She went off to the sink and fetched a wet cloth.
            “Sorry about that,” she said on her return. He wished she didn’t chew gum, but it was a habit easily forgiven. He watched her hands as she wiped away the spill. Red from work, nonetheless, her fingers were slender, sensitive-looking. Was he the only one who’d noticed? He nursed along the second cup of coffee. While so engaged, he removed a pencil from his plastic protected shirt pocket and tried his hand at the paper’s crossword puzzle.
            “You look ready for that piece of pie. How about it?” Norma said.
            “Yes, please. But, do you have apple?”
            “Sure thing. How about a scoop of ice cream with that?”
            Something extra; how thoughtful. “That would be good.”
            She returned and said, “Pie ala mode. Here you go.”
            He decided her small features lent her a kind of sweet faced, Kewpie look. But her eyes seemed disinterested. He suspected she likely found him as boring as gray paint in a closet.
            “Did you hear about the two antennas that met on a roof, fell in love and got married?” she said.
            His reverie interrupted, Hector looked puzzled. “I’m afraid, I don’t…”
            “The ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was great.”
             Hector smiled. “Oh, I see the reception was…antennas.” Norma was joking with him. She’d never done that before.
            His elation was brief. she walked away to give the old couple their check. This time he caught snippets of their conversation. He heard her say, “Did you hear about the two antennas that…” She was sharing the same joke with others. Hardly inappropriate, yet, he felt a little disheartened, a little envious. It rendered the earlier sharing less special.
            A third cup of coffee seemed like a stretch. He glanced at his watch. He’d been in the Paramount for the better part of an hour. No one pressed him to leave. Yet, he felt awkward ‒ just sitting there. Perhaps one more cup.
            Her voice. “Mind if I look at your paper for a minute? I’d like to check the movie listings.” My goodness; she had returned.
            “Please. Here.” He scooped up the entertainment section and handed it to her.
            She stood behind the counter, holding the open paper in two hands. “Do you ever go to the movies?” she said from behind the paper.
            “Not often, I’m afraid.”
            “Here it is. There’s a show at the Rialto I’ve been dying to see. Eight o’clock.”
            Hector said nothing. His mind whirled. Was she suggesting they go together? Impossible. He dismissed the notion as deluded.
            “I don’t like to go alone, though. Know what I mean?”
            No. He didn’t know what she meant. Not really. Perhaps it was an invitation. What to do? What to do?
            “Oops. Customer. Thanks.”
            With that she handed back the paper and whisked away to tend to a man and little boy wearing baseball caps. Were they going to or coming from the game? It didn’t matter. Norma’s remark about the movie had captured his full attention. Hector laid the paper out on the counter and ostentatiously scrutinized the listings. His stomach knotted. Should he ask her? Could he ask her? She might think him presumptuous, even fresh. Did people still say fresh? Probably not. Almost anything seemed to go these days. Still…
            He raised his eyes and saw her bringing him the check. “Don’t feel rushed. Take your time,” she said. Perhaps delivering the bill without being asked to do so simply provided an excuse for her to talk to him. She wanted him to stay. That must be it.
            She looked at her own watch. “I get off at seven thirty. Just time to make it.” Was she merely thinking aloud? Or had she transmitted yet another signal?
            “I was wondering if perhaps you would…” He foundered on the shoals of indecision. “I was wondering if perhaps you…would be good enough to bring me some more coffee.” His resolution failed, the magic carpet of anticipation transformed into an elevator hurtling straight down. Few things, it seems, are more incalculable than the ebb and flow of confidence.
            “Sure. It’s on the house,” she said and stalked off.
            At least he believed she had stalked off. Had his failure to respond irritated her? Disappointed her? Or had he read more into her words than they warranted? Hands over his face, he deliberated behind his palms. Be honest with yourself, he thought. You’re an absolutely ordinary person. There is no way she could be interested. He allowed his mind to explore their exchanges ‒ trivialities, all trivialities. In assigning meaning to any of them he’d deceived himself.
            Hector extracted a twenty plus a five as a tip from his wallet and placed the money on top of the check. He drained his cup and stood, ready to leave. Norma had disappeared into the kitchen and, he decided, it would be best to be gone before she returned. Like a man in pain, he walked slowly toward the exit, twice looking back over his shoulder. He thought he glimpsed her coming toward the door. But, although he lingered outside on the sidewalk, she did not appear. Their encounter had been nothing other than a glorious, but childish, dream.
            Wrapped in a cloak of martyred melancholy, he trudged back to his apartment building, made his way up the shadowed stairwell, fiddled with the key, and let himself into his confining little apartment.
            There’d been a brief respite at the Paramount, his afternoon there an elixir he hoped would carry him through the coming dreary week. But, already a fresh wave of loneliness rolled over him. He sank into his old recliner and stared at the television set, without turning it on. Today had eclipsed yesterday and would soon evaporate into that insubstantial yet moving thing called time. And time slipped by, carrying him along with it. He could find no language for what he wanted to express. He wanted to weep, but could find no release. There was no escape from the dreary, humdrum life he was fated to live.
            He pried the cap off a bottle of beer, nibbled some crackers, and munched a little Brie. Lolling in his recliner, serenity embraced him, and he began to smile. In some respects, it had, in fact, been a better than ordinary afternoon at the Paramount. He should have realized it. Norma had talked to him a half dozen or more times. She’d joked with him. And she’d hinted she would like him to take her to a movie. His assessment had been wrong. He had given up too soon. He wanted to believe this. And did. Perhaps some of that hair treatment, perhaps next week. A jumble of thoughts and counter thoughts bombarded him as he anticipated another afternoon at the Paramount Cafe.
            Then it struck him. Why wait? The time for Hector Ewert to act had arrived. Damn right. The time had arrived.
            At 7:20, freshly scrubbed and outfitted in gray slacks, a white shirt, and checked sport coat, Hector Ewert stepped back into the Paramount Cafe, now busy with customers. He hovered just inside the door. Two or three of the regulars greeted him as they passed by. The room was lively with the clink of cutlery, the murmur of voices.
            Norma emerged from the ladies’ room precisely at 7:30 dressed in a simple white blouse, straight brown skirt, and flats. She carried a purse.
            “Hi, Mr. Ewert. You forget something?” she said when she reached him at the door.
            “Yes, Norma, I forgot something.” He looked at his shoes, and then screwed up his courage. “I forgot to ask you if … if you would like to … to go to the movie with me tonight? The one at the Rialto.” Nervous apprehension grabbed at him, and he trembled at the expected answer. But he had made up his mind. He had to escape the ordinary. At least to try.
            Her lashes fluttered, like those of a Southern belle in an old movie. “Why, Mr. Ewert. I thought you’d never ask.” She looped her arm though his, they went out the door, and he hailed a cab. What could have been but never was now might be. For Hector Ewert, today had turned out to be an extraordinary day.

Lawrence Farrar served multiple diplomatic tours in Japan, Europe, and Washington, DC.  Government assignments also took him to thirty-five other countries. He says, “I spent a lot of time climbing in and out of airplanes in places I’d never heard of growing up in Minnesota. I have stories to share, so I’m writing.” Recent pieces appeared in Main Street Rag, Blue Lake Review, Evening Street Review, and Haunted Waters (Splash). For a sampler, click on https://www.northoakswriter.com. Farrar is a member of a cadre of Foreign Service “Japan Hands.” He lived in Japan as a graduate student and as a naval officer. Not surprisingly, many of his ninety published stories have a Japan connection. He adds, “I am especially drawn to stories of people who find themselves encountering the cultural norms of a foreign society.” Farrar and his wife, Keiko, live in Minnesota where he is a member of The Loft Literary Center.