The old man at the café
He saw everything through those big glasses frames,
the ones his daughter picked out for him,
before she got too busy to come visit.
He saw the woman see that he was eating alone,
saw her glance at, and away from, his face,
knew she’d try to position herself at her own table
to avoid having to look directly at him. Which was fine
because then he’d not have to see the pity in her eyes.
He could have made his own breakfast at home.
Since his wife died he’d taught himself how to fill up the days
and a café breakfast was one of his tools. A ten minute drive,
maneuvering his old Mercury through familiar streets,
letting a kind waitress escort him right by the PLEASE SEAT YOURSELF sign
to a back table, then five minutes reading the menu, in case today
he’d order something other than black coffee,
wheat toast, and oatmeal with skim milk.
While he waited for his food, he pulled a small plastic bag
from the pocket of his sportscoat – apple butter for his toast, apple butter
from the remaining jar that his wife had put up.
And so the wait for food took another eight minutes; he’d learned
when the busy times were, not to avoid them
but to use the lag between ordering and eating
to further fill the day. He slurped his coffee,
and once saw the woman at the other table looking at him.
With pity, of course.
His eyes filled with tears of loneliness
so he concentrated on troweling apple butter
onto the just-delivered toast.
He took a bite, chewed slowly, then wiped his mouth with the paper napkin.
A crumb fell from his chin into the oatmeal. He hadn’t felt the crumb,
but that woman saw the whole thing.
And her eyes – Christ, that crumb made her cry.
Eating slowly was harder than you’d think – too slow and the oatmeal
would get cold and congeal in the bowl – but he’d had a couple of
years to practice and had gotten the pacing down.
And he was able to make the meal last ten minutes.
Seven minutes to pay out.
He stood, his black and white houndstooth jacket hanging unevenly
on his convex frame. He checked the fly of his pants with his right hand,
used his left to steady himself against the back of the chair,
and shuffle-stepped toward the door.
He saw the woman trying not to notice him, and wanted
to stop and talk to her.
But tell her what? That it was only
breakfast, a way to eat up an hour?
That he was lonely?
That she should check on her own father, and invite
him to breakfast?
Or that he’d never, ever
get used to his empty house?