You could say The Swan is a bit of an anachronism. Actually, you could say it’s a complete and utter, outlet-on-a-castle-wall-in-a-bad-movie anachronism. Maybe that’s what I like about it. It’s an honest to goodness, bad lighting and vinyl swivel stools diner. Has been since the forties. It used to be in good company on this street, but over time, all of the small independent shops ran to seed, and were bought up by this and that chain of cafes where coffee comes in a paper cup and cost three times what a coffee should. Hell, maybe It’s just my age, but I like it that at The Swan you still pay less than two bucks for a coffee that you can nurse well into the night without being bothered.
My coffee’s getting cold. I look at my watch. Have to squint to read the hands. Feels like an hour has passed since the last time I looked. Nope. Seven minutes. The waiting has become the hardest part.
The Swan is the kind of place where, in days gone by, blue-haired ladies would come on an afternoon to eat soggy-crusted pie and drink tea from those metal pots with hinged lids that would never close properly. A place where people would take a paper serviette from the metal stand on the table, unfold it and place it on their laps.
Whatever happened to all the blue-haired ladies? Nowadays they all take yoga classes and join book clubs. They drink decaf coffee and eat sugar free cookies. Lord above.
I have my usual table, a booth right next to the front window. The glass is late-night black and I see my shadowy, transparent self looking back at me. I want to put my hand out to see if it will go right through my reflection, but stop myself. I watch my face. Seems it’s been a while since I shaved. Can’t remember the last time. An all-night streetcar rumbles by, confusing the images. I look away.
The coffee tastes weak, but it does twice the job, caffeine-wise, of a coffee you get anywhere else. Another reason I like the place. And they serve it in those off-white cups and saucers with a band of off-white swans swimming around a robin’s egg blue rim. Robin’s egg blue. Not a color you hear of much anymore. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the last time I saw a robin. Let alone a robin’s egg.
The middle-aged waitresses here are also from another time. Their uniforms are that color–since we’re on the topic of almost extinct colors–that used to be called mint: that pale, slightly sickly green that went out of fashion decades ago and for good reason. But I kind of like it. Here at any rate. It wouldn’t be the same if the waitresses were all eighteen and went around in tight black tee shirts and jeans. Wouldn’t be the same at all.
The clientele has changed over the years. And not for the better. They all look the same these days: the old and young, the rich and poor. And everyone looks so damned clean and fresh and healthy. Squeaky clean. Much as I hate to admit it, I’d love to see a kid with a hipster afro, or a foot-high punk mohawk hair-do walk in here. Hasn’t happened in ages.
I look down at my wrist again. Eleven minutes. That’s better. Though I’m starting to get that fluttery, colony of moths in my gut feeling. I’m sure they should have been here by now. But, as I know well enough, there’s no rushing these things.
I tap my cigarette pack on the table top. Used to be able to smoke in here. Not anymore. Not for a long time. The waitress is glaring at me from behind the counter. She’s already given my cigarettes a warning stare. Now she’s coming over, slowly, on white sneakers that squeak slightly on the linoleum floor; the kind of shoes you can only find in service uniform shops. She reminds me of an overworked nurse as she makes her way to my booth, holding out the coffee pot like it’s a bed pan she’s just changed. I feel sorry for her. I really do. She looks tired. But I can’t help fidgeting with the end of a cigarette, pulling it slowly out of the package. The damned thing is I don’t even smoke. Never have. But I like the way a pack of cigarettes feels in the hand. Just noticed that my hand’s shaking. More than usual.
She comes closer. Then out of nowhere, I get the taste in my mouth. God. Can’t even begin to describe it. And it’s a bit different with each person. Depends, I guess. Although I try not to, I find myself chewing. There’s nothing in my mouth but that taste. And as I chew, the image of two people appears, just behind the woman, grainy in a bad TV reception sort of a way. One’s the waitress. The other some guy. Their images sort of cling to her as she saunters through the diner; warping slightly each time she takes a corner. Damn. They aren’t always this strong, but she must have been musing on it today. Whether relishing or regretting, I’ve no way to know. Don’t much care, either.
“Refill?” she asks. I nod and put the cigarette back in the pack and push the pack away. She pours coffee that’s never quite hot enough into the cup. The swans keep swimming around and around. I swallow half the cup in one go. She walks away and I notice that one heel of her white sneakers is worn down more than the other one.
The bells over the front door jangle to life and my heart bounces into my throat. My hand rests on my throbbing neck as I turn to see who’s come in. I’m disappointed. And relieved.
A young couple bubbles through the door. They’re nuzzling each other and smiling like they just got away with a bank robbery. In spite of the hour, they still look annoyingly, artificially fresh. I’ll bet they go to a tanning salon. That’s probably where they met.
They approach the booth next to mine, then stop for an instant. Their faces change as they look over at me, then carry on to a booth further down the row. I don’t take offense at their not wanting to sit at the next table, I’m not looking too terribly fresh these days, but what I do take offense at is that they don’t look the least bit embarrassed by not wanting to. Can’t say I’m not used to it. And I can’t say I care. Really.
One thing about waiting is it gives you time to think. And one thing about thinking in a place like The Swan, is that the thinking tends to head in a backwards direction. Mine does anyway. I’ve never been one to think to the future much. The past has always been more comfortable territory. Funny, there seems to be a whole lot of it all of a sudden. Not quite sure when that happened.
The bells jangle again. This time I know it’s them and don’t bother to look around. My heart jangles in my chest just like those bells. They approach my booth. It’s just two of them, the man from the graveyard and another one. A sick man. A man who looks like he’ll be dead by morning. I’m pretty good at guessing.
My tongue feels like it’s swelling with an unpleasant bitterness. I try not to chew, but can’t help it. This guy’s full. I try to ignore the army of shadow people that’s starting to form just behind him. And I do mean army. One of them is him in a uniform.
They slide into the vinyl bench opposite me. My heart feels like it’s going to keep on jangling till doomsday. I fumble with the pack of cigarettes. Feels good to have something to hold onto.
The man from the graveyard leans across the table and whispers something to me in a voice that never lost its Welsh lilt. I’m only half listening. It’s all things I’ve heard before. Over the years. Over. As though we were standing on a tall bridge looking down. I feel dizzy.
A memory appears stubbornly at the forefront of my brain; like a dog demanding to be taken out to pee: The first time I met the graveyard man. It’s a memory I haven’t dusted off for a long time. I was napping under a tree in a small graveyard on the edge of town, well what used to be the edge of town. He came over and said something to me. I thought he was joking at first, pulling my leg. Pay me to eat someone’s sins, he’d said. Ha. Thought he was crazy, once I realized that he wasn’t taking me for crazy. Never thought much of sin. One way or the other. Not my rules.
Used to be, I had to do it over the corpse. Good thing I’m not squeamish about that sort of thing. A body’s a body as far as I see it. But for the last few years, he’s wanted me to meet the person and actually hear their sins just before they die. Don’t know why they don’t just meet with their priest and tell it all to him. I thought that’s how it was done. I asked the graveyard man about it once. He told me that some people preferred it this old method. I said – then why the change? He got this kind of funny smile and said that people didn’t trust their families to take care of these things properly anymore.
The graveyard man brings a wooden cup and a wooden bowl out of his knapsack. The other man hasn’t said a word to me. Not yet. I watch the quick movements of the graveyard man. Efficient is what I’d call him. He’s bringing out a small thermos of beer and a paper bag. He pours a bit of beer into the wooden cup and recaps the thermos. Then he opens the paper bag and takes out a dinner roll. This he puts into the wooden bowl. Dinner is served. He sits back and leans into the sick man’s ear, saying something so quietly I can’t hear it.
The sick man jolts as though he’s just become aware of where he is. His eyes open wider. The whites of his eyes are yellow. A nasty yellow. Stitched through with red. I swallow hard. So does he.
The sick man puts his hands palm down on the table top. I find that I’m relieved to see that they’re older and wormier looking than mine. I wait. You can’t rush these things. He closes his eyes. I wait. The fluttering moth colony in my gut is doing a group tango. I try to ignore it. It really is getting worse each time now.
Finally, slowly, as though he knows he’s doing something deliberately for the last time, he opens his eyes and fixes them on me. They’re grey. The part that isn’t yellow and red, that is. Same color as mine. The last time I really looked.
I wait. He stares and I can feel a lifetime of experiences–good and bad and everything in between–packed, genii-like, into those burning grey irises. I run my hand through my hair. At least, I still like to think of it as my hair. There’s a bit left. Around the edges. Sounds better than saying I’m rubbing my head.
He takes a deep breath. The air rattles into his lungs. Then he speaks. I watch him.
Funny, I don’t often think of what’s going to happen to me, you know, after. When it’s my time to die. I’ve never been a religious man. Never believed in God. Well, that’s not quite true, but true enough. Sometimes I do wonder. More often than before, it seems.
The sick man is still talking. I resist the urge to pick up my cigarette pack, and force myself to keep staring into his eyes. He’s telling me things and I find myself listening, really listening, not just the polite half-listening I usually do. See, I’m not a busybody; never really been that interested in other peoples’ lives. Never bothered myself much with other people at all, for that matter. Too much trouble. Too much mess.
Now I’m listening, and I want to keep listening, to these scraps of this man’s life. Sins, sure. A couple of pretty juicy ones, but most are fairly harmless. I look into his eyes which are so much like mine in their colour. I try to guess his age. No idea. I try to guess what he might have done in life for work. He doesn’t give me any clues. I find myself trying to guess at the missing pieces of his life story, the gaps he leaves unfilled. But it seems I’m no good at that kind of thing. Don’t even know where to start. I feel like I’m sitting for an exam that I completely forgot to study for. Or worse, like I wasn’t even aware of being enrolled in the class in the first place. No wonder I’ve developed this hunger for other peoples’ sins. Easier than collecting my own. I guess.
Now his eyes aren’t burning like they did at first. I can tell he’s close to finishing. He stops. There is the slightest phantom of a grin at the corner of his mouth. His eyes close for a long minute and his hands slide off the table into his lap. He looks frail and thin and done. I feel like I could wave my hand right through him and fan him away like a cloud of smoke.
After a moment, the graveyard man lays an envelope on the table next to the cup and the bowl. It’s a clean, new rectangle of white. So improbably clean against the stained melamine. I stare at the table top. Stained by how much coffee and ketchup and powdered gravy and fake maple syrup and cigarettes and newsprint. Years and years and years of stain after stain after stain. But isn’t that why I like the place.
I reach for the wooden cup, but hesitate a moment before raising it to my lips. The graveyard man notices. For an instant, I see a look on his face that I’ve never noticed before. I can’t quite read it, but it seems soft and almost pitying. After a couple of seconds, I realize that I’m not the only one who’s gotten older. There is white at his temples and his face is lined like an old leather glove. Why hadn’t I noticed that earlier? For an instant I feel a piercing tenderness for him. For us both. But only for an instant. In half a thought, his look has reverted back to the usual cold, impersonal look I’m familiar with. Truth be told, I prefer it.
He manages to get the sick man out of the booth, and puts an arm around his waist. Without another look or word to me, he helps the sick man out of the diner. The young couple at the end of the row don’t notice. The young don’t seem to notice anything these days. The waitress looks up then quickly looks back to her crossword puzzle. The bells jangle, and for the first time, my heart doesn’t jangle along with them.
The wooden cup is at my lips, but I haven’t taken a drink yet. The feeling of the wood in my hand is suddenly unpleasant. So is the smell of the beer. I’ve never liked the stuff. I put the untouched beer down and look at the dinner roll nestled in the bowl. It lies there like a small, cold fetus. Next to it lies the untouched envelope. Stupid of me to think they could feed me forever.
With a bit of difficulty, I manage to reach down and pull a handful of change from my trouser pocket. Lately, the coins I’ve been getting are larger in value and more plentiful. I look into the window-mirror again. No wonder. I count the coins and lay out the exact amount for my coffee. In a pile next to it, I leave the waitress her tip. I’m a good tipper. Always have been. It’s not an easy job they’ve got. I’m sure she’d rather be at home sleeping right now, or watching the late night movie on TV. Or maybe just sitting in a dark room owning her own time.
I put the rest of the coins back in my pocket and get up slowly. My knees hurt. They always do after I’ve been sitting for too long. A bit of a walk’s what I need. I’ll head down to the park. Yes. A walk would do my knees a world of good.
I nod to the waitress. She gives me what I choose to take for a return nod. Leaving the cup and the bowl and the envelope lying on the table behind me, I push the door open and the bells ring overhead. Simply bells over the door of a diner that’s on its last legs. From the corner of my eye, I see the waitress walking towards my booth carrying a plastic tray–salmon colored, if you must know–to clean up. I turn away before she gets to the table. I don’t need to watch.
The sidewalk is empty. A taxi sails past, then the street is silent again. A halo of moist Summer air cups the streetlights. My toe sticks out the side of one shoe. I put my hands in my pockets and walk away with what feels almost like a smile on my dry old lips. I lick my lips. I think how damned good a cigarette would feel right now. Might just be the day to take up smoking.
I’m a Canadian artist and writer currently living in Germany. My works have appeared in Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, Not One of Us, Scheherezade’s Bequest.