There hadn’t been any reason for Jane to believe that she would never see him again. She saw him every day, after all. At least during the week. Ten minutes to seven, brown boots, a cigarette butt between his fingertips that he flipped into the garbage can before opening the glass door. You should really stop smoking, she always told him. After three months, she knew him well enough, in an odd sort of way. But then he always showed up the next day and flipped his cigarette, like she knew he would. Makes me feel less cloudy, he would say, smoothing his messy hair. A little higher.
It was a Monday when he didn’t show up. Nothing extraordinary about the day. Overcast, like it usually was, with dark clouds dotting the gray sky. Knights in White Satin was playing in the background. Powerful, hopeful, though later it would always be depressing to her. She was already sitting at their favorite booth, her thin, blue-jeaned legs crossed in a round little bench by the window that half-mooned its way around a black-tiled table. Her jeans were too long and too thick, and they rested beneath her tennis shoes, a bump beneath her heel that she was accustomed to. Their drinks sat on the table in tall orange mugs. Coffee, black, for Sheldon, and a chai tea for herself. The best way to start the work day.
She held the warm mug between her thin hands as the clock ticked past seven, then inched its way to quarter past the hour. He had never been late before, but then, that in itself was unusual. No one was always on time, always where they were supposed to be.
She finished her tea, stood up, and walked her way across the tile. Diane, a waitress who had been picking up empty mugs and sweeping floors for as long as Jane had been coming there, stopped what she was doing and stared at Jane as she walked toward the door. Jane ignored her, pulling her wool hat over her hair, short and messy red. The cold air slapped her in the face as she walked out the door, and it felt refreshing, like the promise of a good day. She wouldn’t only spend her morning and her afternoon filling food bowls, cleaning litter boxes, and building crates, but she would help more than one family fill out adoption papers. It was just that kind of day. Nothing glamorous, no big pay, just helping broken animals find new homes.
She arrived at 6:30 AM the next day. Earlier than usual, but then she was anxious to see Sheldon, to find out where he had been. She sat at their table and flipped through the morning newspaper that she had purchased at the newsstand outside. The news was depressing more than not, and she knew that she could find everything that she needed to know on the internet, but just the same, her day wasn’t right if she missed a perusal of the paper on her way to work. She used to think that she would be a journalist, one day, traveling to foreign countries and uncovering stories that would change the world, and she guessed that part of her still held the dream close.
She shook her head, flipping past the obituaries. It was something that only Sheldon knew about her. It’s the kind of friend that he was. He knew the little details about her that even her mother and her sister didn’t know. He had no idea what her living room looked like or what her favorite pizza toppings were, but he was just distanced enough from her to be closer, in a strange way, than all of the rest.
It had been September and warm when he had first sat down across from her, three months ago, and placed his coffee on the table. You sit here a lot. She had smiled politely and nodded, not sure whether to be frightened or amused. Her eyes had fallen on his silver watch, and she had noticed that it didn’t even tell the right time. Stopped at 5:15. I sit over there a lot, he had said, gesturing to the corner. A dark place that she had never really noticed. Might as well sit here with you, instead. He had pulled out the chair across from her, then, and she had taken a sip of tea, already scrolling through a list of nearby coffee shops in her head. The corner of 3rd and Elm. Down the street next to the bank. Somewhere else, anywhere, to enjoy her morning mug of tea the next morning.
She checked her watch, now. Slipping past 7:00 again. Diane brushed by, her feeble arms reaching a long broom beneath the table.
“How are you today, dear?”
Jane took a sip of tea, letting it warm her all of the way down. “Oh, just another day.”
Diane nodded, bustling on her way. “It’s always another day, with you. Well, I tell you, it’s another beautiful day, indeed.”
Jane shook her head, glancing back down at the paper. As she reached to turn the page, her eyes caught a little square of info in the bottom corner, a pictureless blurb. Sheldon Richards, 29, died unexpectedly on Sunday.
She didn’t read any further. The words were cloudy now, anyway, a blur of black and white. She couldn’t possibly have read them right. She pushed the paper away, as far across the table as she could. She felt ready to be sick.
A sitcom played on the television. Jane propped her socked feet up on the coffee table and gripped a 9:00 AM glass of vodka and lime tightly in her hand. Someone in the laugh track cackled over and over again, high-pitched and obnoxious, and she picked up the remote, flipping through the channels. Morning soap opera. 80s sitcom. Weather. Discovery Channel. She put down the remote, watching a deep sea diver picking through seaweed with gloved hands that swam heavily under the water.
She hadn’t gone to work. She had wobbled straight out of the coffee shop, straight back down the sidewalk, straight back into her apartment. She had pulled the hat from her head as soon as she had walked in the door, leaving her orange-red bob of hair a mess of wind and static. I’m not feeling well today, not at all. I’ll try to make it in tomorrow. She didn’t know why she hadn’t told them what had happened. They would have understood. But she hadn’t.
She sighed and shook her glass back and forth, just to hear the ice clang. Vodka spilled over the side onto her hand, and she bent down, licking the drops from her thumb.
She didn’t even know where he had lived. Close enough, just down the road a ways. She had never questioned him further. Did he have a family? A group of brothers who would carry his casket? A mother who would weep with a handkerchief pressed to her eyes, or an estranged sister who would tiptoe into the chapel and stand in the back, feeling out of place but feeling, too, a regret stitched through her insides? Jane didn’t know.
She did know, though, that Sheldon watched the Discovery Channel every morning, from 6:00 AM to 6:30 AM, with a bowl of dry Frosted Flakes in his lap. It made him feel like his dreams could still take him places, and so he ate his way through his cereal a frosted piece at a time until he was ready to leave, when he would go to the coffee shop and order a mug of black coffee to keep him afloat in the real world for another day. She could just see him there, in the apartment that she imagined for him, sitting cross legged and having not even combed his hair. It was brown, dark, and it stuck out from his head in every direction. She had liked that. The indifference.
She knew, too, that he wanted to climb a mountain one day. A real one. He was scared that people would think the idea childish, but something down inside of him made him thirst for it. For the accomplishment. And he told her, often, that he thought God to be only a convenience, and the devil too. The thoughts haunted him every day. He hated to sleep and would instead lay on the sofa in his boxers every night, unable to turn off the infomercials that he knew were doing nothing but stealing time away from him. He would stare at the screen instead, in a state of insomnia-induced fascination, and he always kept his phone out-of-reach from the couch, because he knew that his curiosity would never triumph his laziness. When he did sleep, he slept with socks on because his feet were always cold. He was terrified to die, and he was terrified, even more, of seeing it happen to anyone else.
It was just how it had been with them, from that first day. So far away from each other, but then again not at all.
She turned off the TV. Stealing time. She drank the rest of her drink in one gulp, and it burned bitterly all of the way down. She closed her eyes and wished that she had known the color of his front door, or whether he kicked his shoes off when he got inside on rainy days or if he tracked water and mud all of the way through the house.
The cats didn’t meow often, but the dogs were always barking. On a normal day, on any other day, Jane liked the noise. It made the place feel alive, full of animal love. Today, though, it gave her a headache.
She rolled the cotton sleeves of her shirt to her thin elbows, filling a pail with water at the utility sink. Her body missed the caffeine, the tall mug of tea that it had grown accustomed to every morning. But she just couldn’t do it. And never again.
Becca was working with her, that day. Cleaning cages together. She walked up behind Jane, out of breath, holding a heavy bucket of cat litter in one hand and a pile of old dishcloths in the other. She leaned toward Jane and kissed her cheek, so affectionate all of the time. It was strange, something that always irritated Jane, but she turned and forced a smile, picking up a broom with her spare hand.
“How are you today, hon? Ready to give the kitties some cleaner homes?”
Jane nodded and eased into step alongside her coworker. Becca’s flip flops swished against the floor, left and right. She was picky about her shoes, liked them fancy, so she always took them off to clean the cages. Jane shook her throbbing head.
“We can get this done in no time, can’t we, hon? Two hours flat.” Becca ran a manicured finger through her blonde tresses, tucking them neatly behind her ears. Jane shrugged, setting her pail down in front of the first cage that they reached. Butterscotch, an orange tabby, who had been there heading on three weeks now. How could nobody want him?
Becca knelt down, taking care to place a clean towel beneath her knees, and she opened Butterscotch’s cage, coaxing him into a carrier. Jane leaned into the cage, pulling out the litter box. She stood up, wiping her brow with the back of her arm. The room was hot and sticky, just then, closing in. “I think I need a drink of water, Becca. I’ll be right back.”
She walked down the corridor, narrow and dark and smelling of animals masked with vanilla. Winding her way past the dog cages, she reached her hand into Lilac’s cage for a quick pat to her wet little nose. At the end were the empty cages, the ones that Jane always hoped to find sitting cold and dogless, holding no new strays.
She glanced into the empty cages as she walked, and her heart sank a little when she saw that one less cage was empty. She stopped to peer inside, her eyes falling on a scruffy brown mutt, all fur and paws. She stuck her hand into the cage. “Hi there, sweetheart. You’re a good little boy, aren’t you?” The dog slopped its tongue over her hand, and she glanced at the specifics posted on the cage. My name is Dakota, and I’m three years old. My person passed away, and now I don’t have a home. Please welcome me into yours!
Jane stared, the dog still licking her motionless hand.
“Linda?” She shouted around the corner, toward the front desk. “Where did this new dog come from? The mutt?”
Linda’s voice crept around the corner. “He was taken from an empty apartment yesterday. His owner died a few days ago.”
Jane knelt down, peering more closely. The dog stared back at her with black eyes, his tail thumping the back of the cage.
She would watch the Discovery Channel with him in the mornings. Just the two of them.
The wind blew fiercely, but the sky was a little bluer than normal, almost a cornflower gray, when she went back to the coffee shop. She didn’t know why she did it. She had told herself that she would never be back, yet there she was. Her stomach hurt as she walked through the door.
Dakota was at home, his first full day there. She hoped that he didn’t chew through her furniture or pee on her rug, but really she didn’t much care. He could pee on every rug in the apartment, as long as he was still there when she got home.
She sat down at a dark little booth against the wall, one that was perfect for just two.
“How are you doing today, hon?”
Diane balanced a pile of dishes in her hands as she peered at Jane curiously. Jane forced a smile, something that she had gotten used to doing the past few days, and she debated how to answer. It wasn’t just another day. Her friend was dead, but then she had a new friend waiting for her at home. “I’m okay.”
A smile spread across Diane’s face, a huge smile, and she continued on her way. “It’s a new day, Miss Jane. A beautiful new day, indeed.”
Jane turned her attention back to her tea, cupping her hands around the warm mug and taking a slow sip. She could see their booth across the room. A mother sat there, now, bouncing a child on her lap with one hand and eating a muffin with the other. Jane looked down, twisting the mug in circles on the table. She spread her newspaper out in front of her, staring at the words but not reading.
“She’s well today, I think.”
The words were muffled, spoken from somewhere behind her, and she could only hear one side of the conversation.
“She smiled, at least, and I haven’t heard her talking to herself today.”
Jane strained her ears to hear, curious.
“I’m not sure. She didn’t order coffee for him today, so she must not have brought him along. That’s a good thing, indeed. Not only for the other customers, but for her, too. We’d all be better off without Sheldon.”
Jane furrowed her brow, confused. She turned around in her seat, but the waitresses didn’t know that she was watching them.
“She finally said that she was doing okay, when I asked. Maybe it’s a turn. A sign that she’s getting better, that things are changing in her head. I don’t really know. I don’t know much about these sorts of things. But this is the first time in a long while that I haven’t heard her talking to Sheldon, and she’s never said that she was okay before.”
Jane turned back around, staring at the back of the empty seat in front of her. Talking to herself?
She stared, staring until her eyes hurt from not blinking, staring until the mug of tea grew cool in her hands. She turned her head, finally, glancing around the little coffee shop at the other customers. A man at a table a few feet to her left, watching her. A woman across the way who shook her head sadly and glanced down as Jane caught her eye. A pair of teenagers who whispered in the corner.
Taking a last sip of tea, stale and cold, she stood up, heading for the door. Her too-long jeans bunched beneath her shoes as she walked, the same as they always did. Diane watched her walk out, the same as she always did, and the wind hit her coldly in the face, the same as it always did. Instead of heading down the sidewalk to work, though, skipping the cracks with her left foot and stepping on them with her right, she turned and walked straight into the busy street, closing her eyes.
Carrie Bachler is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2009, Carrie Bachler