A Bottomless Cup of Coffee
short fiction by Ken Goldstein
Steam rose from the coffee as it cascaded out of the pot and into Paul's waiting, empty cup. As his eyes followed the vapors towards the ceiling, they caught those of the man pouring it. They were warm eyes in a tired frame. The few strands of gray weren't enough to cover the wrinkles that had accumulated in the more than half-century that he'd been behind that counter. He was much older than Paul, and he spoke in a soft tone that implied complacency with his life. "That's a bottomless cup of coffee, you know. Refills are free, just stay as long as you like and I'll keep filling it up for you."
"Thanks." Paul picked up the cup and drank deeply, sucking the coffee into his mouth. He finished the cup in three gulps and looked up at the counterman, "Good coffee. I'll take you up on that second cup."
"Not just seconds, but as much as you'd like," he said as he emptied the pot into Paul's cup.
"With an offer like that I may never leave."
"Oh, you'll leave all right. Everybody does. But there'll be plenty more coffee waiting for you when you decide to come back. Everybody comes back too."
"I don't know about that. I'm usually more of just the leaving sort. No, not everybody comes back."
"Are you running from something, or are you still searching for it?"
Paul thought for a moment. This was a strange conversation to be having with somebody he'd barely even met. But he could feel from the almost casual way it was asked that the old man meant no malice. He liked the way the old guy asked about searching, like he'd been on a few searches himself. "Still looking, I suppose, but don't ask me what for."
"Just relax, look around. Take a little time and you may realize you've got everything you need right where you are. Now, if you'll excuse me a second, I've got to go in back and dig out a new box of coffee filters." The old man disappeared into the back room leaving Paul alone in the diner.
He sat on his stool savoring his coffee, not following the old man's advice. He didn't look around at his surroundings. He didn't see the Formica topped booths, with the torn leatherette benches. He didn't see the vintage 1950's jukebox, with all original 45s. He didn't notice the flickering of the florescent lights, in need of replacement. He just stared into his coffee cup, hypnotized by the steam rising up and vanishing into the air.
Suddenly, his peace was broken by the sound of the phone. On the fifth ring Paul called for the counterman, but there was no reply. On the ninth ring he walked around the counter, looked into the back room and yelled. No reply. Finally, on the fourteenth ring, he answered the phone himself. "Uh, hello?"
"Harry?" It was a woman on the other end of the line.
"No," he looked around for help, but he was alone. "Harry's not here. Can I help you with something?" He hoped he couldn't.
"Yes, I'd like two ham and cheese sandwiches delivered please."
"Fine." He was about to hang up, then thought he'd better get some more information. "Where do you live?"
"This is Liz, ask anyone there for directions. I'll see you in a few minutes. Bye."
"No, I don't ..." he started to explain his situation, but she'd already hung up. Shaking his head he returned to his stool, and his bottomless cup of coffee.
A moment later the old man returned smiling, and carrying a box of coffee filters. "They were in the trunk of my car. Glad to see you're still here, I'll have a fresh pot going in no time."
"There was a phone call, I tried to find you, I finally picked it up myself. It rang about a hundred times, guess you couldn't hear it out there."
"No problem. Any message?"
"Some girl called Liz, says you know her? Anyway, she wants a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches brought over to her."
"What did you think of her? Nice girl, really bright, pretty too. I think you'll like her." As he spoke he got out a loaf of bread, meat, and cheese from the refrigerator under the counter.
Paul thought it sounded like he was Liz's father. "She thought I was Harry. Are you Harry?"
"No, I'm Max. Harry left about three weeks ago. Just disappeared one night." Max sliced into the cheese. "Left here, never made it over to Liz's place. But I told her he'd be back."
"What makes you so sure he'll be back?"
"It's like I told you before, everybody comes back." He took a tomato out of the refrigerator and cut into it.
"He could be an exception. He could just be sick of it here. Maybe it was another woman. Maybe he'd had one too many ham and cheese sandwiches. Maybe he was just tired of Liz."
"I don't think that was it. She's a wonderful girl." Now Paul was sure Max was her father. Max went on as he wrote an address onto a small brown paper bag, "That wasn't the problem. But you'll know in another couple of minutes when you bring her the sandwiches."
"What do you mean? I thought you were delivering those to her?"
"You took the call, you deliver the food. That's how we work it here." He put the finished sandwiches into the bag and placed it on the counter in front of Paul.
"Hey, I was just doing you a favor with the phone, I wasn't asking for a job."
"If you don't take the job here, and I deliver the sandwiches, who'll watch the shop? Go on, what could it hurt? Bring the girl her dinner now. If you want a job, we'll talk tomorrow."
Paul didn't answer, he just rolled his eyes and turned back toward his cup of coffee.
Max was staring at him. When he spoke again it was slower, and in a more serious tone than before. "Are you going anywhere else?"
Paul thought for a moment. He couldn't answer, clearly he wasn't going anywhere. He picked up the bag.
The door opened and Paul saw that Max was right, Liz was pretty. Despite the lines under her eyes, her youth and beauty shined through her smile. Her sandy-brown hair sat gently on the smooth skin of her firm shoulders, exposed by the strapless yellow of her sun dress. The dress hung to just below the knees, from there the milky smooth skin continued to her bare feet. "Come in," she said, "I've been waiting for you."
Paul entered and followed her through the apartment. Liz appeared to glow as her dress was in complete contrast to the drab furnishings around her. The faded earth tones of the sparse array told of the life she had led. The dress told of the life that she wanted to lead. He thought about her bare feet. Had she dressed in a hurry? Had the dress been picked out just for him?
"Max called to tell me you were on your way. He was glad you stopped by." They entered the kitchen, she took the bag from Paul and put the sandwiches on the two plates already on the table. "Of course, I'm glad you're here too," she said as she sat down. She pointed at the empty chair in front of the second sandwich, "Here, join me for dinner. You do like ham and cheese, don't you, Paul? Max said you looked hungry, and he didn't think you had much money. Please, sit down, I'd really appreciate the company."
He didn't know what to say. He was expecting to leave the sandwiches and get right back to his bottomless cup of coffee. But he was hungry, and she was pretty. He was hungry. He sat down and picked up the sandwich. "Thank you. That's very kind."
"Harry would always bring a couple of sandwiches home after work at the diner. Max told me to expect a miracle, but sometimes it's so hard to keep going." Despite her words, her tone was up, her smile hadn't faded since she had opened the door. "You know what we need with this?" she asked, jumping from the table. "Wine! What do you think goes with ham and cheese, red wine or white?"
That was the icebreaker that finally put Paul at ease. They talked and laughed at the kitchen table long after the sandwiches, and the first bottle of wine, were gone. Only once or twice did she mention that Max could use someone like Paul down at the diner. She hadn't talked with anyone like this since Harry disappeared, and he couldn't remember when he'd had such an enjoyable evening.
After two hours, and most of the second bottle of wine, there was a knock on the door. Liz got up to answer it, leaving Paul sitting with his back to the door. As she opened the door the woman on the other side stepped right through as though she lived there. "I heard voices, so I just had to come right over and see who you were hiding in here." She walked across the apartment in long strides as she spoke, halfway across she saw the back of Paul's head. "Harry!" she asked, moving faster.
He stood and turned in the direction of the approaching women, extended his hand to greet the new face, and said, "No, Paul. Pleased to meet you."
"Karen lives next door," said Liz, following her neighbor closely, trying to grab hold of her arm.
Karen looked confused as Liz caught hold of her, and started to lead her back towards the doorway. "Right... next door. Nice to meet you too, uh, Paul? Well, I don't know what's happening here, but I'm sure you two have lots to talk about..." By the time she finished the sentence Liz had dragged her into the hallway, closing the door behind them. Paul was alone in the apartment.
Paul could hear their voices in the hallway, but couldn't make out what they were saying. He stood up and walked toward the door, trying to figure out if they were talking about him. He reached the entryway only in time to clearly hear Karen's door shut down the hall. Liz pushed her door back open, nearly knocking Paul over.
"I'm sorry about that interruption." She reached for Paul's arm to lead him back to their wineglasses in the kitchen, but he was unsure. Was he in the way? Had he overstayed his welcome? Where was the evening leading? He held his ground.
"It's getting late, I should probably be going now. Thank you, I've really had a wonderful time."
Still holding his arm, she turned to him and asked, "Do you have a place to stay?"
They were standing close. He could almost feel the warmth of her body. He knew he couldn't tell her the truth; that he had no place to go. He said nothing.
She took another step towards him, they were practically touching. "You could stay here."
They were staring into each other’s eyes and speaking slowly, quietly. "Are you sure it's okay?"
She nodded yes.
He leaned slowly over to try to and kiss her, at the same moment she turned to lock the door. His lips and the tip of his nose were met hard by her forehead, he sprung back. Before he could say anything else, she'd disappeared into the bathroom, leaving him standing in the entry, alone and confused.
She came out of the bathroom in a full-length nightgown. She opened a closet and extracted a pair of men's pajamas, which she handed to Paul. "They were Harry's favorites."
He took them from her and silently moved into the bathroom to change. He still wasn't sure where he was expected to sleep when he heard her voice through the door, "Be sure to turn out all the lights before you join me in bed." When he was done changing he walked through the apartment turning out all the lights.
He got into the bed next to Liz, and moved to put his arm around her. He leaned over to kiss her and realized she was already sound asleep. He rolled back onto his side of the bed and looked over at the clock on the night table.
One o'clock in the morning. He let his eyes drift over the other articles occupying the tabletop; the tissue box, the reading lamp. A chill went through him when he saw a picture of himself with Liz.
He rubbed his eyes, squinted, looked again. The moonlight is playing tricks with my eyes, he thought. He blinked and looked again. This time he could see that the man in the picture was not him at all. The man in the picture was younger, stronger. Harry perhaps? That's it, Paul thought, it must be Harry. He rolled back onto his pillow, shut his eyes and went to sleep. But while he slept the picture stared back at him. The picture of Liz and Paul.
Paul and Liz entered the diner together first thing the next morning. "Good news, Max," Liz shouted to the old man as he brewed the coffee that would soon be filling all those bottomless cups. "Paul's decided to stay!"
"That is, if you were serious about offering my a job last night."
"Of course! Glad to have you, Paul. You could start right now and make your friend here an omelet. She likes lots of cheese, and a little grilled onion in it. You'll find everything you need right back there in the kitchen. Make yourself at home, and shout if you've got any questions."
Paul moved behind the counter to investigate the kitchen. Liz sat on a stool at the counter, Max moved up close to her. "How are you Liz?"
"I'm fine." She looked into the old man's face and her tone grew more serious. "Do you think he'll stay this time?"
"Liz, we'll hope so, but you know the question you have to prepare yourself for is really, how long will he stay?"
Liz looked down at her hands, and her once beautiful nails, now bitten away to nothing. Almost to herself she asked the more difficult question, "And how long will he stay away when he does go?"
Paul came out of the kitchen smiling and wearing an apron. "Look!" he said, "It fits!"
© Copyright Ken Goldstein