Late at night I’m sitting on the patio drinking coffee with one of the café owners. We’re under a maple tree that’s just dropped all its flowers, thousands of yellow blossoms lying on the pavement like a skirt a girl has loosened and let fall around her ankles. Leonard is talking about this year’s crew of waitresses, some of whom are new while others are old hands. I say “old” but you must understand they’re all quite young. The owners only hire women to wait table, and to get the job you have to be good-looking and fast on your feet. Leonard has a full red beard that he squeezes as he talks.
“Have you checked out Nikki II yet?” he says.
“The nosy one. Has she asked how old you are?”
“She asked you that? You know what she asked me? How much rent we pay here. Can you believe it?”
“Then she said, ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking.’ I told her, ‘Yes, I do, so don’t do it again.’”
This girl has a profile like Queen Nefertiti, the pointed chin and a neck like a playground slide. She has that kind of regal bearing too, moving without the slightest sense of urgency no matter how many orders she collects.
“She’d be fine,” he says, “in a vegetarian restaurant run by some religious sect. She could sit at her customer’s table and compare notes on yoga instructors.”
“That’s not this place.”
“No, it isn’t.”
This place he owns and where I work every summer is the biggest outdoor café in Yorkville, and we both know what can happen when a good rush hits. I suppose Nikki II is history, but I don’t bother asking if he’s going to fire her because I know he won’t tell me. He’s cagey that way about anything to do with the business. Really, though, it’s a foregone conclusion. Soon we’ll be back to just one Nikki on staff, Nikki of the colored tights. A different color for every day of the week, the whole blazing rainbow on display, bar by bar, for as long as the cool weather lasts.
A silence develops that Leonard prolongs by not asking the question that’s been hanging in the air between us like a wisp of the night’s fog. All this talk about waitresses is just an expression of curiosity on his part. I’ve only been back from Mexico for a week, and he’s already wondering which of the girls I have my eye on this year, who I’ll be spending the summer with. He doesn’t press because he knows he doesn’t have to. He’ll find out soon enough. He finishes his coffee and stands up.
“You never told me. How was Oaxaca this year?”
If he really wanted to know, he wouldn’t have stood up before asking.
“It was the same as ever. When are you coming down again?”
“I’ve got a kid now,” he says. “Those days are over.”
When I shrug and look away, he tells me I shouldn’t hang around much longer.
“I’ll just do the baskets,” I say. “And then I’m out of here.”
Once he’s gone, the patio is empty except for me and Iris, who’s sitting at her regular table with the Tarot cards and sketch pad. I light a cigarette and watch her drawing. Mad face almost touching the pad, the pink tongue wedge corking a corner of her mouth.
A waitress comes out and starts removing the clips from the tables. The clips make a clinking sound as she drops each one into a plastic container. From over on Bloor I can hear an ambulance siren that seems to take all the night’s noise with it, and then everything is so still and quiet, I can hear Iris packing her things to go.
She comes in two or three times a day and nurses one of our ridiculously overpriced coffees while chainsmoking and sizing up the customers. Then she’ll approach a woman sitting by herself or a couple of girls and offer to read the cards. Sometimes she’ll hit on a waitress if nobody else is around. But never a man, she won’t have anything to do with men.
I’ve seen her around for years, but I’m thinking of the impression she must make on first appearance with those incredible bugged-out eyes, the lashes above caked with mascara and those below painted onto her skin in thick exclamation points. She wears her dyed blond hair in a bouffant and has a drawn, chinless face.
The waitress is removing the tablecloths, a jumble of them pressed to her breast while she pulls another free. Her figure is tall and willowy, long hair wavy and black, and there’s a preoccupied look on her face that allows something to shine through she might otherwise try to conceal. I consider these two figures caught in the shadows of a closing café, the one blasted and sexless, the other with a beauty that seems inexhaustible. Assuming for the moment that God in his infinite wisdom has ordained this order of things, who can explain or understand it?
Iris charges five bucks for a reading. A couple years ago, when I was sleeping with Nikki of the colored tights, I asked her if Iris was any good with the cards. I wanted her to be good for some reason, wanted her to possess one skill so fascinating it would redeem all the rest. Nikki sneered, lying in bed with her head on her arm, looking years younger without any clothes on.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “I got up and left before she finished. She mumbles so much you can’t hear what she’s saying, but even if you could it wouldn’t make any difference. She gives everyone the same exact reading. You can tell she’s memorized it by the way she hurries to get through.”
Last week was rainy and cool, which meant we didn’t have many customers and Iris couldn’t do many readings. One night she brought in a sheaf of her drawings and sold them to the staff, sold out instantly because they were impossible to resist. The color scheme was all soft pastels, and each drawing represented another scene from a fairy tale. The men wore tights and bell-boy-type jackets, and the women were all in gowns and crowned with tiaras. And everyone—men and women alike—had eyes just like Iris, huge, protruding, and expressionless, with thick black lashes above and below.
On my way inside to get the watering can for the hanging baskets, I take a five-dollar bill out of my wallet. The waitress who was removing the tablecloths is standing by the counter cashing out. She’s one of the new girls. I’ve never spoken with her before, but I know her name is Sheila and that she has eyes so green and clear they appear to be translucent. I place the bill on her tray.
“This was on the patio.”
She’s counting her money and it takes a moment for her to adjust. She looks up and blinks.
“Where?” she says.
“Out there, under a table.”
Then I get the can and find the clippers and bring everything back outside. Five minutes later she’s out there with me. While I give the flower baskets a drink and a trim, she removes the last few tablecloths and starts stacking the chairs. We work in silence for a few minutes, and then I can tell she’s not doing anything, just standing there looking at me as I lift one of the baskets back onto its hook. I have to stretch all the way up and this lifts my tee-shirt, giving her a flash of belly.
“What’s your name?” she says languidly.
We leave together in a rain so fine it’s only one step removed from mist. She says she knows of a speak where we can get a cold bottle of beer. Won’t that be lovely, she says, a cold beer this late at night? It’s pleasant walking with her through the mostly empty streets, the air cool and the rain like softly pointed needles. When we can’t find the speak, she says, Well, well, I could have sworn.
I don’t say anything. We’ve stopped under a streetlight, and when I look up into it I can see the rain going crazy, all the drops falling in different directions, as if the light itself is churning them up. Then I hear her say, Well, do you want to go by my place? I’m sure there’s a cold beer there.
The apartment is on the second floor of a building made of yellow brick. In the lobby, there’s a threadbare patch running down the middle of the carpet with salt stains on either side. Mirrors cover the wall by the two elevators, and an urnlike ashtray sits on the floor in the space between. When Sheila unlocks her apartment door, the first thing I notice is a medicinal smell, and I can see two hallways, one going directly away from us and the other running at a right angle to the first. Both are dark except for yellow nightlights set along the baseboards every meter or so, giving the floors the appearance of airport runways at night. So there’s a smell like camphor and the little low-down lights, and a stillness so intense that I know at once there’s someone else in the apartment, someone who has heard us come in.
The kitchen has a single nightlight, which is barely bright enough to show the contours of the table and counters. When Sheila opens the fridge door, the light springs out, and I can see a birdcage behind her and in it a small bird that looks like a canary. She takes two beer bottles from the fridge and sets them on the table, then walks behind me and switches on the overhead light. In the sudden brightness, the bird takes on a reddish sheen.
“Sit down, why don’t you.”
I sit and watch the way she opens the bottles, not by twisting the caps but using a church key she takes off the freezer door. She sets the bottle above her hip and puts the church key in place and then the bottle seems to do the rest by itself, and I know that the café in Yorkville is not the first place she’s waited table.
“You want a glass?”
“Sure,” I say.
When she pours the beer into a pint glass, the foam crests and settles into a two-finger head. She hands me the glass and clinks it with her bottle.
We both drink, me sitting at the table and she standing with one hand on her hip. The beer is so cold it makes my eyes water. She sits and plants her elbows on the table, then rests her chin in her hands. At that moment the canary starts to sing, not loud, but warbling quietly, as if it’s trying to settle itself back to sleep. Sheila’s face relaxes in a way that it hadn’t after she swallowed the beer.
“Well,” she says. “You know that moment when the tiredness hits all at once?”
“Yeah, I know that moment. Would you rather I left?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” She shakes her head and smiles to herself.
The fridge is pasted with pictures cut from glossy magazines. All of them are clothing ads with the same model, a fine-featured young guy with an accusatory look in his face.
“My brother,” she says when she notices me looking.
“He works in New York?”
“Where is he now?”
“He isn’t anywhere now,” she says. “He’s dead.”
I’m about to ask what he died of, and then I think that would be a stupid question. Instead I say sorry. She shakes her head and smiles, and just then the other shoe drops. I can hear someone coughing from another room in the apartment. It’s the kind of cough that as soon as it starts, you know the person’s lungs are in terrible shape. It settles into a long, wet hacking that continues until it’s difficult to tell whether the person is coughing or vomiting or doing both at once. This sound also has an effect on Sheila’s face, as if it’s carving away any excess flesh, setting her eyes deeper into their sockets, and cutting lines on her forehead. I watch the transformation proceed until a final heaving from the other room. When it’s quiet again, she speaks without looking at me.
“My mother is not supposed to stay up watching the talk shows. But she does anyway, watches every single one of them. She watches Leno while taping Letterman, then watches the late-late guys and finishes with the Letterman tape. The monologues make her laugh, and the laughing always starts a coughing fit. But she says they’re the only thing that gives her pleasure anymore and she can’t resist.”
Then she looks at me. “What am I supposed to do, break the TV? She’ll get out of bed now and come in to say hello.”
“I should get going.”
“Why?” she says and her puzzlement seems genuine. “Relax and drink your beer.”
Then she reaches across the table and covers my hand with hers, which is warm and light and dry.
“It’s okay,” she says. “My mother likes having a man around.”
I hear a door open and a padding rolling sound coming from down the hall. This sets the canary warbling again, a little louder than before. Then there’s a click and bumping, the sound a piece of luggage makes when you wheel it over a metal divider. She’s in a bathrobe so long it brushes her slippers, and her head is wrapped with a blue bandana to conceal the baldness. She’s pulling a little oxygen tank along behind, and as soon as she enters the kitchen, she nods in my direction.
“Don’t mind me,” she says. “Please.”
Her voice is whispery and light. There is a piece of tape on her lip to hold in place the tubes going into her nose. She must have been tall when younger, but now walks bent over with her eyes trained on the floor.
The sight of her walking like that brings to mind an incongruous thought. At the café, there’s a dishwasher named Mohammad who likes to flirt with the waitresses, and they don’t seem to mind because he always keeps it light. Once I was standing nearby while he talked to one of the younger girls as she emptied her tray of dishes onto the counter. She listened and then gave him a level look and said, “You’re a nice guy but a little over the hill for me.” When she was gone, he turned to me, knowing I was about the same age as he.
“In Iran we have a saying,” he said. “Every man has something that tells him what to do first thing in the morning. When he’s young it reminds him to shave. But when he’s older, it just tells him to shine his shoes.”
As Sheila’s mother opens the refrigerator door, I hear her say, “What’s his name, anyway?” And Sheila says, “Oh, now there’s a question. What is your name, by the way?”
I laugh and don’t say anything while her mother takes something from the fridge and slips it quickly into the pocket of her robe.
“Very funny.” She shuts the door and hangs there for a moment catching her breath. “Such a comedian.” She’s looking at me but is talking to her daughter.
“Have you noticed his glass is empty?”
“I have, mother. If he wants something more, he can speak for himself.”
“Oh,” she says and lets her head drop so she’s looking at the floor again. “Well,” and the head comes up and I can see the eyes look washed out and burning. “You’re on your own, mister. For what it’s worth.”
She lets go of the door handle and takes a couple of steps, pushing the oxygen tank in front like a stroller, then turns and pulls it up short behind. She positions herself to speak directly to Sheila.
“But you remembered to feed the birds before you left?”
Her voice is just a breath, a breeze through the leaves.
“Yes, I told you, mother …”
“Because they’re not so good at fending for themselves.”
“ … before I left.”
“And it’s much too late now, they’ll be fast asleep.”
“They’re right as rain, mother.” She takes a quick sip from her beer bottle.
“I want you to think about what I said before.”
“Here we go.” Sheila shakes her head.
“One buyer for the whole lot. Give them a good price or do whatever you have to.”
“I’m looking after them just fine, mother. It’s no big deal.”
“You can’t even remember whether you fed them or not. So how is that looking after them?”
“Haven’t missed a feeding yet.”
“It’s not just the feeding. It’s the breeding and the coloring and all the rest.”
That her voice is soft and breathy only seems to give her words more force, perhaps because of the effort they cost.
“Which hasn’t been done properly since your brother left us.”
“I’m not about to start consulting those notebooks of his. All that genetic gobbledygook? Let free love reign, that’s my motto. Let nature take its course.”
“I know all about your motto.”
“Now, let’s not have a spat in front of our guest.”
“He’s your guest, not mine. I have a point to make and it’s an important one.”
“Well spit it out,” says Sheila. “What is your important point?”
“That those birds should go before I do. Not to be too selfish about this, but that will make it easier on me. I’ll have one less thing to worry about. You,” she says, and on that word runs out of breath. She pants for a moment, sucking in oxygen through her nose. “You’re enough of a worry for anybody. At this point, I’d like to have my mind clear to concentrate on you. If that’s not too much to ask.”
Something happens then to Sheila, as if the good humor that’s been sustaining her leaves all at once. She shakes her head and bites her lip, then stares at the floor with nothing to say for herself. At the same time, her mother runs out of gas completely, doesn’t seem to care whether she’s scored a point or not, and for a moment the resemblance between the two of them is so strong it’s frightening.
The older woman shuffles with her feet till she’s pointed at the door and then begins to make for it.
“Good night to you, Mr. What’s-your-name.” She twists her neck to give me a farewell glance, and saliva runs from the corner of her mouth. “Mister Empty-glass. I’m leaving now. I’m returning to my bed of nails.”
We listen to her padding down the hall away from us, and then it’s quiet and I imagine her setting up the oxygen tank by the side of the bed and climbing in carefully to keep the tubes in place. Another bout of coughing begins. Sheila gets up from the table and opens two more bottles of beer and hands one to me.
When I clear my throat, she says, “Let’s just sit here for a while and drink, shall we? You shouldn’t feel obligated to make conversation for my sake.”
“Then there’s something I want to show you.”
After a minute or two, she puts her head in her hands and starts to cry in a way I’ve never seen anyone cry before: in perfect silence, her hands pressed against her face and the tears seeping through her fingers. The beer is dark in the glass, and when I drink there’s a flavor of chocolate and burnt wheat.
“Shut off the light,” she says.
Sheila’s standing in front of what looks like a door to an old-fashioned pantry. When I shut off the kitchen light, she opens the door and flips on a switch inside. A muted light angles out of the space created by the partly opened door and throws her shadow on the floor behind. She holds her hand up to keep me in place and starts humming a song that might be “Rock of Ages,” but she’s doing it so quietly I can barely hear. The birds inside the pantry start to answer, first one, then a couple more, and then they’re all warbling together, like a flock of wild birds on a morning in spring.
She motions me over, but as soon as I appear in the doorway, they all shut off at once. The space is narrow and deep, with one light over the doorway just bright enough to pierce the recesses. The cages are on two shelves that run along the wall on the left and the short wall at the back. Some contain pairs and some singles, and there must be thirty canaries all together, shifting uneasily on their perches and staring at me with suspicion in their eyes.
“Oh, they can’t stand strangers,” she says and laughs.
The odd thing is that the birds aren’t the standard canary yellow but varying shades of red. I ask if they’re different breeds.
“No, it’s done by putting vegetable dye in their feed. My brother started this years ago, and he used to sell the really red ones. He made just enough to cover his expenses. But now I look after them in my own haphazard way, and when we get too many, either I give some away or start smashing the eggs.”
She’s arranged the birds so that the lighter colored ones are by the door, and they get progressively redder in the cages towards the back. On the top shelf at the very back, there’s only room for one cage, and the single bird inside is a deep scarlet. When the bird fluffs its feathers in the dim light, it looks something like a heart beating in an opened chest.
The doorway is so narrow that we’re pressed against each other side by side. From the cages comes a cedary, pet-store smell that carries certain childhood associations. When I look at Sheila, she doesn’t turn away and I can see her eyes are dry now and have the clarity that was part of what attracted me to her in the first place. She kisses me and pushes against with her hips. The thought occurs that there would be something twisted—or difficult—in sleeping with her under such circumstances. But in the end, it’s the difficulty itself that appeals to me.
In bed, we lie there looking at each other the way people do, and after some time goes by I ask her to say something.
“I trust you,” she says. This isn’t at all what I wanted to hear, so I don’t say anything more. She falls asleep the way a little kid does, instantly and with trembling eyelids. I wait until her body shudders, pressing a sigh from the lungs, then I get out of bed to use the bathroom across the hall. I try to flush the toilet as quietly as possible, but it makes the same noise a toilet always makes.
In her room, dawn has lightened the window. I pull on my jeans and stand there watching the way the light comes up from the pavement until the streetlights shut off. I’m about to finish dressing and go, when there’s a rustle in the sheets behind.
“Come back to bed,” she says in a voice that’s gone hoarse with sleep. “Come back to this bed of nails.”
This story appeared originally, in a slightly different form, in The Fiddlehead’s summer issue, 2005.