Faces

A random meeting at a café could change Dana’s outlook on life forever — but was it really random?

Cup of Coffee

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Faces often looked vaguely familiar. These encounters, especially when Dana saw the same folks over several days, left her uneasy, but she couldn’t explain why. The strangers were going about their daily affairs, same as her, and posed no obvious threat. Few gave indications of recognizing her in return. Perhaps this should’ve offered comfort, but it didn’t, and she remained at a loss to explain the days when she saw them everywhere. In the lobby of a movie theater. In the checkout line at the grocery store. Sitting at the table across from hers at an all-you-can-eat soup and salad buffet.

This week had been especially thick with random sightings. Just walking the four short blocks to the deli for lunch, she spotted two faces she thought she knew and a third she was certain had been at the bank earlier in the week. She smiled her polite teller’s smile, and the woman responded with her own, more hesitant version as they passed each other in the crosswalk.

Now, two teenage girls, eyes on the menu board, slid in front of Dana as if she wasn’t standing there waiting to place her order. She should’ve protested. No question Chrissie, another teller, would’ve thrown out a loud rebuke and demanded to be served first. Dana shifted her weight from foot to foot but said nothing. Maybe they were late for class or had an urgent appointment. But for girls supposedly in a big hurry, they took their time before eventually settling on two Diet Pepsis, a Reuben, sour cream chips, slaw (barely beating out potato salad), and a brownie. They were sharing everything but the drinks, they announced. Like the order clerk cared.

Lots of people were ready to tell you too much. The bank had its share, gabbers oblivious to customers queuing up behind them. Gladys for one, though Dana liked Gladys with her updates on the state of her affairs. A detailed explanation of her latest medical complication, lab readings included. Complaints about the son who never called or the one who pestered her constantly. The incompetence of the maintenance staff at her apartment complex. Whatever the story, it was delivered on the first Wednesday of every month, Gladys making sure Social Security had landed in her account as promised. The deposit had never been off by a single day, but Gladys had been around long enough — now 87, she’d been trumpeting her age for six years — to know only the naive believed the past guaranteed the future.

After ordering, Dana waited at the counter for her name to be called, then carried her usual to an empty booth next to a window. She was early today, too early to be really hungry, because she’d switched times with Chrissie, who’d needed a later slot.

 

First thing this morning: “Dana, Sweets, mind trading lunch with me? I’ve got …”

“Sure.”

“Don’t you want to know why I’m asking?” Chrissie’s station abutted Dana’s, and she pounded a calculator, entering night deposits into the system.

“Doesn’t matter.” Dana pounded her own calculator, her assignment the unusually high stack of mail deposits.

“It does matter.”

Why the annoyance? Hadn’t she just agreed?

The click click of Chrissie’s fingernails against keys stopped, the silence an abrupt interruption to the morning rhythm. “You let too much slide.”

Dana ignored the comment and the stare that accompanied it.

“People take advantage of you.”

“I don’t know why you say that.” She gave her own hands a break, rotating her wrists in small circles. No carpal tunnel taking her down.

“Sweets, my sweets. People take advantage of you every day.” Back to the clicking. “And you invite them. Don’t shake your head at me, because it’s true. You do and they do.” Faster clicking, then slower. “Sam has an ortho appointment. One of his bands popped again. I swear, I don’t know what the boy does with his mouth. Anyhow, that’s the reason and now I feel better that you have a reason, even if you don’t care.”

“I thought the braces were off.”

“Sam wishes. It’s a miracle the boy hasn’t been struck by lightning with all the metal in his mouth.”

Martin, the branch manager, unlocked the doors. Dana positioned her face in its how-may-I-help-you expression and was pleased to see the first person through the doors heading her way, choosing her over everyone else. Had Martin noticed? Had anyone?

Money got exchanged and deposits and withdrawals made. Three people asked for cashier’s checks and one wanted a money order. A slew of customers needed traveler’s checks. Why this urge to run off, all of them at the same time?

Just before lunch, two clients complimented her scarf, a near perfect match for the hazel eyes she considered her best feature. She’d expected an earlier comment on this latest find from Nordstrom’s Rack. The piece was that snazzy. Hadn’t both sisters already asked to borrow it? Her clothing budget was limited, but she prided herself on shopping smart. Employees were the bank’s ambassadors, according to Martin, and should dress the part, make a favorable impression on the public.

 

Her smoked turkey on onion roll tasted the same as always. Ditto for the tomato salad, dill pickle, and iced tea — plain, not exotically flavored, no sugar, a squeeze of lemon.

“Mind if I join you?”

She looked up into the plainest face she’d ever seen. Clean-shaven. A small bump on the bridge of the nose the man’s only irregular feature. He would’ve been an excellent bank robber because no one would remember him. That bump? Hardly noticeable, especially during the chaos of a robbery.

“Everything else is taken.”

She eyed an empty booth across the room.

“Thing is, I prefer a window.” His fingers tap danced along the edge of her table. “Always digest better with a window. Come on, Dana. Be a sport.”

He recognized her. A refusal would’ve been awkward, so she pointed to the seat opposite her. But who was he? A client? How did he remember her when she was baffled by his identity? A switch from her usual, being the person in the know. She wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or piqued.

“You come here often?” He placed his food on their table, walked away before she could reply, and returned with extra napkins. “I’m surprised we haven’t run into each other before,” he said as if she’d answered.

“My favorite lunch spot.”

“Close to work,” he said. “Convenient.”

There. A customer. She’d never known anyone to read, much less remember, the name plaques at tellers’ stations, but he must be the exception. Had she served him this morning? Absolutely not. Even with his plain, plain face — an odd quality in itself — she’d remember him. How about during the past week? Been at the bank then? Maybe. No one could keep such extraordinarily ordinary features in mind for long.

“Always come here for my sandwiches,” he said. “Salads aren’t bad either. Everything fresh.”

“I’m addicted to their smoked turkey.”

“Smoked turkey?” He angled his sandwich to give her a better view. “On onion roll.”

“Tomato salad, dill pickle on the side,” she said.

“Iced tea. Plain. Bit of lemon.”

“That’s my order,” she said.

“Mine,” he said good-naturedly.

She grinned at the silly coincidence. He knew her name, ordered her meal. Next time he transacted business with her, she’d make special note, plain face notwithstanding.

“Fred. Jake. Amelia,” the deli loudspeaker announced.

She could come right out and ask, Who are you? But somehow that felt like cheating. Outside their window, a steady stream of people went past. Mainly workers on lunch break. Like her and … She turned back to him. “You’re on lunch break?” If he mentioned where he worked, that might be enough of a clue.

“Eating close to noon, so I guess you could say that.”

She turned to the window again, feeling slightly chastised. Same as when Martin said she took too long with entries, though tacking on a compliment about her accuracy to soften the reprimand. In their line of work, wasn’t accuracy better than speed? She never made that obvious point, just agreed she should be faster.

The two of them turned full attention to the food. When she looked up again, he was studying her closely. A speck of something on her mouth? She swiped at her lips with one of those extra napkins he’d placed on their table.

“You’re early today,” he said.

How did he know? Intuitive, or had he been at Chrissie’s station and overheard Dana mention a preference for late lunches? If so, he hadn’t picked up that tidbit today. The only mention of lunch happened before Martin had unlocked the doors. “I switched with Chrissie.” She expected a reaction. Surely he used other tellers besides her, had their names memorized too. But, no reaction. “Her son has an orthodontist appointment.”

“Kids cost a mint.”

“So I hear,” she said.

“I don’t have any either.”

“I don’t know how Chrissie does it,” she said. “Five kids and a husband who travels and a full-time job.”

“Orthodox Jew or Catholic? Nobody has five kids these days except Orthodox Jews and Catholics.” His smile took the edge off any criticism suggested. “Or the very rich. Can’t forget the very rich, reproducing like rabbits on hormones.” She couldn’t say whether the slight hitch in his voice was merely a catch in the throat or an attempt to contain his displeasure over people taking more than their share of dollars and children.

“Alan. Zack.” The loudspeaker called out more orders.

“You work close by?” Dana asked.

“That’s fair to say, I suppose.”

Outside, the sun had vanished, and the day grew shadowed. Cheating or not, she was ready to solve this mystery. “Where is it you work exactly?”

“You’ve forgotten?”

She flushed, embarrassed by his accusatory tone. “We have a lot of customers is all.”

“Sure.” He still sounded disappointed, so much so that she couldn’t think how to press further. “Actually, I’m an easy guy to forget.”

She jumped in with polite denials, but he dismissed those. “Common face. That’s me,” he said with a tinge of brag. “Helps in my profession, I guess you might say.” He looked down at his plate, avoided her gaze as if having admitted too much.

She turned back to the window and took another bite to cover the silence, turned suddenly awkward. Outside, people walked more briskly, the sky growing ever darker. Any minute, the thundercloud would burst. Should she wrap the remaining sandwich, abandon the rest of the meal and make a run for it? Why hadn’t she thought to stuff an umbrella in her handbag? Because when she’d left, the only stain in the blue sky had been a few marshmallow clouds, too benign to forecast danger. Storms lurking? “Ludicrous,” Chrissie would’ve said, other tellers agreeing.

The plain man sighed loudly, forcing Dana back to him.

“No umbrella,” she said. “Wouldn’t you know it?”

“Me neither.” He grinned cheerfully and she answered in kind, though not quite as cheerfully.

“David. Vern. Lou.” Those three stepped to the counter for their take-outs, then hustled out the door, replaced by the next hungry arrivals.

She glanced at her watch.

“You have time,” he said. “Plenty of time.”

“I don’t want to make Chrissie late for the orthodontist.”

“The kid won’t mind.”

“Chrissie will. Given her schedule, even a few minutes throws her off.”

“With five kids, what can she expect?”

“She doesn’t complain. Not much. Not like my sisters. They each have two apiece, but they’re not organized like Chrissie. Otherwise, they would’ve had more. One, maybe two more.” Sidewalk traffic was sparse. Pedestrians had found shelter before it was too late.

“Your sisters didn’t have more children because they weren’t organized?” he asked, amused.

She kept her focus on the sidewalk, but her jaw stiffened. What made him think he was entitled to amusement at her sisters’ expense? He’d never met them, and even if he had, that didn’t give him any rights.

“Hey now, Dana,” he wheedled, and when she turned back grudgingly, that plain face had molded into the most placating of countenances. “I’m sure your sisters are admirable women.”

He sounded like she did when appeasing disgruntled customers. The reason you show a higher balance is your last deposit hasn’t cleared yet. Some days, clients acted like demanding children who’d never outgrow their petulance. Did this man, whoever he was, see her as she saw them? To cover the comparison, she blurted the first thought that came to mind: “My sisters whine over every little thing.”

He nodded, sympathy replacing amusement.

“They’re stay-at-home moms. I know that’s not always easy, but still. No bosses to answer to. Lunching with girlfriends every other day. Summers at the pool with the kids. Living in houses they own.” She took a breath to block the litany which could’ve taken them through the whole afternoon. If she were Gladys, who knew what else she’d confide to this man whose face concealed more than it revealed?

“I see people like that every day,” he said. “Have to get that bigger house, better clothes, nicer vacations. After that? Bigger still. Better still. Nicer still. More, more, more.” Maybe he did know her sisters.

She pulled turkey from the second half of her sandwich and piled it between the pickle and salad. “Husbands don’t make enough. Things cost too much. The boys need this, need that.” What had gotten into her? Why was she telling him this? Wasn’t discretion one of her best qualities? Hadn’t Martin mentioned that just last week?

“Why don’t they get jobs?” he said.

Wasn’t this what she often thought herself? Their identical deli orders. Now this identical take on her sisters. What next?

“You only have nephews?” he asked.

“Strange since it was us three girls growing up. Me stuck in the middle, knocked one way by my older sister, in the opposite by my younger. Just us three though. No brothers.”

“Stranger things happen every day.” Thunder sounded loudly. A charge crackled through the deli. Then, in a microsecond, their window was awash in rain.

Thick drops pelted the panes until she could not make out what might be just inches away. “I waited too long.”

“You’re fine,” he said.

The minute hand on the red-and-yellow art deco clock above the counter ticked just past noon. “If I leave right now and fast-walk, I’d only be a minute late. Maybe two.”

“In this? Don’t be crazy. Chrissie will be okay.”

“Chrissie will not be okay. She’ll try not to show how peeved she is, but she’ll be peeved. My sisters are the same when I can’t babysit. I never fabricate an excuse, but that’s what they’re thinking.”

“You can tell,” he said.

“They’re my sisters. I can tell.” Sisters, if the three of them were any example, always knew more than reason could explain. “You have brothers? Sisters?” Might that be another clue to his identity? Gladys wasn’t the only client who mentioned family, though odds of this man having done so seemed small.

He nodded without specifying which or how many. “You shouldn’t let the sisters guilt trip you. And you shouldn’t let them take advantage.” Was he in telepathic communication with Chrissie?

“They don’t take advantage.”

He waited a split second too long before answering. “Good,” he said. “That’s good. You shouldn’t let people take advantage.”

“They don’t,” she insisted. “Nobody takes advantage.”

Diners lingered at the entrance. Umbrellas or not, no one dared venture out. Everyone here was getting an extended lunch hour, a break from their usual schedule but not one they’d earned. Circumstances had intervened — thunderstorms were nobody’s fault — and they’d been left with no choice. The orthodontist would have to accept that. Chrissie too.

She reached down for her pocketbook sitting between them on the floor.

“Another tea?” he offered. “My treat.”

“I was thinking coffee.”

“Sure,” he said cordially. Wasn’t that the much better idea? “Sugar or cream?”

“Don’t you know?” she teased, though she’d never been the teasing sort.

“Don’t spread this around,” he whispered theatrically, “but I don’t know everything.”

“Black,” she said.

“Same as me.” Of course.

By the time he returned, the downpour had eased, but not enough to tempt anyone to leave. “Let me pay you back.” Again, she reached for the pocketbook. Again, he was too quick for her.

“Forget it. My treat. Like I said.”

They drank in companionable silence, watching the rain splatter their window. The deli manager hadn’t called out names for several minutes. All customers had been served and new ones weren’t arriving until this deluge ended.

Talking was restrained, diners preferring the hypnotic drumming of rain to conversation. An order clerk stared out the door, lost in herself and looking grateful for this temporary respite.

Then, suddenly as it had started, the torrential rains faded to a drizzle. The deli, though still quieter than usual, carried more energy, reluctant acknowledgment of this being only a brief interlude before everyone was forced back to whatever their lives demanded.

“I should get going,” she said.

“Not every day a person scores free coffee.” He slid her mug, still half full, closer to her. “A person should drink down every last drop of free coffee.”

“That’s your philosophy?”

“Philosophy?” He raised a quizzical brow, the expression adding dimension to his face. “Me? A philosophy? I like that.” He swooped a hand across his chest and down with a flourish. After a formal half bow from the waist, he cleared his throat, an actor approaching the microphone. “My philosophy,” he proclaimed. “Use every gift you receive, every drop.” Pause. “Graciously, if you can manage.” He smiled, graciously she thought.

“Chrissie will be upset.” Still, no way to carry that ceramic mug back to the bank. The deli was accommodating, especially to its regulars, but there were limits, and walking off with one of their mugs crossed the line.

“The kid will be relieved.”

“I don’t owe him anything,” she said.

“And what do you owe her?”

“A full lunch hour.”

“She gets less time if you’re late?”

“Not exactly.”

“Which means exactly not.” For a moment, forehead furrowed, his face again took on a specific dimension and demeanor. Someone who was observant might remember that face. But the expression passed and the neutral features slid back into place.

Customers gathered at the door, umbrellas at the ready. The low hum of conversation rose until the quiet of earlier might’ve been an illusion, a distorted version of reality.

“I’ve been trying and trying to remember,” Dana said. “You’re a bank customer. A business account, I’m thinking.” She had no idea whether he was associated with a business of any sort, just threw that bait into the mix to see what she’d catch.

His turn to look away, eyes on those diners preparing to leave.

“I’m afraid I can’t recall your name.” She made the words apologetic and friendly at the same time. Bank training. Always be friendly. Always let the client know you value their business, even if it’s a paltry $9.75 deposit.

Slowly, he turned back to her. “We all have to make a living, pay bills. Agreed? Don’t we all do what we have to do?” His tone, resolute, reminded Dana of clients who, after much dithering, stumbled into an investment. Decision reached.

“Most times, people look out for themselves. Numero uno.” He stabbed an index finger into his chest. “Here’s some advice.”

“Advice?’

“Don’t let people take advantage.” He repeated what he’d said earlier but more deliberately and with greater emphasis as if really meaning it this time. “Promise me.” His ordinary brown eyes held hers.

They didn’t know each other. She’d likely miss his commonplace face in a crowd. Yet still she could not look away.

“Okay.”

He licked the tip of a finger, swiped an imaginary scoreboard. “My good deed for the day.” He tilted his head to the side, studying her again. “Who knows? Maybe this counts for the whole week.” He gave a second lackluster swipe at his faux scoreboard.

“What’s that you’re saying?”

He slipped out of the booth, came around to her side, kissed her temple as if he were the brother she never had or a family friend. Before she could respond to this surprising intimacy, he was out the door and gone, swallowed by the multitudes rushing away.

She needed to get back. Really she did. She leaned forward for her pocketbook, and as she did so, froze at what she saw next to her. A burgundy leather wallet. Hers. She looked around bewildered, her gaze sweeping over everyone in the deli. It had been in her pocketbook on the floor the whole time. Right against her foot. Well, no, not right against but close by. He’d dropped a couple of napkins on the floor, bent to retrieve them. A second time, from the corner of her eye, she’d glimpsed him leaning forward as she stared out the window. Nothing else came to her.

Quickly, with trepidation, she unfastened the wallet. Her driver’s license frowned back at her. Three credit cards in their appropriate slots. Ditto her health insurance card. The twenty, two fives, six ones, all there. Nothing missing.

“Barry. Max. Elaine,” the manager called and the lucky three stepped forward.

Dana, somebody, somebody. Her name, all their names offered up for anyone to grab.

She shuffled through her pocketbook. Keys. Ratty hairbrush. A nearly empty tin of mints. Sunglasses. Receipt from last night’s grocery trip. Pre-school pictures of two nephews. Loose change rattling at the bottom. Anything missing? Not that she could tell. She shoved the wallet back into her pocketbook as she exited the deli. In a hurry now. Trotting now. In too much of a hurry to linger over faces, familiar or not. Up Delaware. Across Wisconsin. Left on Maine. Her building, at the end of the block, looked washed clean. Was someone watching at the corner, or was that conjecture on her part? Through the double doors, to her station.

“I was wondering whether you’d run off for good,” Chrissie said.

“The rain,” she said. If she ever got an urge to run off, she probably wouldn’t succumb over lunch hour.

“I had to reschedule Sam’s appointment.” Highly peeved but trying to hide it. “We’ll have to switch lunch periods again. This Friday. That’s the new ortho date.”

“Friday?”

“Yes, Friday.” She shoved her drawer closed, locked it.

“Friday won’t work.” Dana busied herself with reviewing a description of a new product. Leave your money with us for five years and look what we’ll give you. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to ask someone else.” She was afraid she’d spoken too softly, and Chrissie would demand she repeat herself. But no. She’d been plenty loud.

Chrissie stopped at the far station to whisper something to another teller before taking her very late, unusually late lunch. The second teller glanced at Dana, but that might have nothing to do with what had just transpired.

Had Dana imagined recognizing all those faces? Was the deli guy a man she’d never met? And if so, why had he chosen her over all others? She fingered her scarf, expensive but on sale. Had that drawn him to her? What difference did it make? When you receive a gift, use it. Graciously. Coffee? Drink it. Advice? Follow it.

She scrutinized the new product brochure as if it held information crucial to a successful future. When she looked up, Martin, less somber than usual, seemed pleased to catch her engrossed in the material, readying herself to serve clients, the source of all their livelihoods, as he often said. Contemplating a raise for her? Her fifth anniversary was only weeks away. Likely, she decided, and gave him a broad smile, transforming her face into a collection of unforgettable features.

Featured image: OlegDoroshin / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. This was an interesting story, Ms. Guidry. I like your writing style combining the conversations with important descriptions along the way. It doesn’t seem like a random encounter, but honestly don’t know what to think. It has a supernatural aspect and some ‘Twilight Zone’ weirdness, but no definitive conclusion I can come to otherwise. Maybe that’s the point.

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