WAITING • by Peter Rowney

The last train to anywhere was gone. Outside the night was foul; rain spattered on the windows and ran down the glass in sorry rivulets, leaking through the skylight at a couple of places where glazing putty had cracked and fallen away. I’d mentioned it several times to the maintenance man–while he was busy gazing at my boobs.

At a back table of the otherwise deserted waiting room sat a man, poring over a newspaper laid on the Formica tabletop. Something about him seemed familiar: forty-ish, I guessed; charcoal gray suit, conservative necktie, and pale shirt with just the right amount of cuff showing at the wrist; dark, well groomed moustache and hair, the latter graying slightly at the temples.   Perhaps the familiarity I felt was simply that he fit my idea of how a well-heeled middle-aged gentleman should look.

I squirted Windex at the huge mirror behind the refreshment counter, furtively watching the man’s reflection.

Without lifting his eyes he slowly moved a sun-browned hand to a black trench coat lying on the seat beside him and took a silver cigarette case from one of its pockets. Then he pulled out a lighter… not a seventy-nine-cent disposable but a hefty little chunk like a Dupont or a Dunhill. Suddenly he looked directly at me and, feeling a flush come to my face, I fell to buffing the mirror with exaggerated care. Should I say something? He must have seen me eyeing him.

“I made fresh coffee,” I blurted out, unnerved by the stranger’s sober gaze. “Would you care for a cup?”

The man lit his cigarette, one of those acrid smelling French things. He puffed smoke, slid scholarly-looking reading glasses down the bridge of his angular nose and quietly cleared his throat.
“Thank you, yes; that would be nice.”

“How do you take it?” I asked with forced geniality. For some reason I expected him to order it black but he asked for it creamy–“With a little extra sugar!”

I set a clean cup in a saucer and took another glance in the mirror as I turned to the coffee maker; his reflection was watching me.
“The south-bound is gone,” I said;  “Nothing will be through here for some time, not counting the one-oh-five fast freight.”

He folded his newspaper, then his glasses and laid them on the paper. Leaning back in his chair, he passed a well-manicured hand over obviously tired eyes.
“I imagine it will be here soon enough,” he said, a little pensively.

Outside the rain paused and a watery moon crept from behind tattered clouds into a patch of indigo sky. I wondered again about the man’s familiar look and decided to take a stab at it: “Haven’t you been here before?”  The dash of cream I’d put in his coffee made a little whorl.

“You’re very observant,” he said, and for the first time I noticed the hint of an accent. The legs of his chair scraped noisily on the floor as he stood and started forward, negotiating his way around the furniture to stop directly in front of me.
“I came this way once before, but it’s been a while.”
He was quite tall and athletic-looking, and I made an attempt at what I hoped was a disarming smile–though I wished I’d had a gun hidden somewhere close.   The coffee cup rattled in its saucer as I slid them across the counter.

“No charge,” I said, my heart in my mouth; “You’re our one-millionth customer.”

A smile brought friendly wrinkles to the corners of dove-colored eyes, and he spoke in a tone cool as stream water.

“Please; you need not be alarmed young lady,” he said.

Nevertheless, my heart raced.

“Oh?” I bleated.

“I’m old enough to be your grandpa,” he chuckled, “and feeling none too nimble right now.”

My anxiety eased a bit;   “I get some real characters in here sometimes and, well… you know.”

The man crushed out his smoke in an ashtray and, squaring his shoulders a little, extended a hand across the counter.

“My name is Kirby Roush,” he said; “May I know yours?”

I flopped my hand out like a wet fish and swallowed almost audibly.

“Sylvia Malone; my friends call me Coco.”

He laughed softly; “Enchante, Mademoiselle Coco.”

Then, gently taking my hand, he bowed slightly and began to lift my flaccid fingers toward his face.
“Oh God!” I thought; “He’s gonna kiss my friggin’ hand!” But he didn’t.  Releasing it, he picked up his coffee and turned away. My stupid hand hung in the air.

Thunder growled nearby as Kirby Roush returned to his table, chair creaking sharply as he sat. I  busied myself with side-work as rain again began seeping through the skylight to drip and puddle on the cracked linoleum. I glanced at the man more openly.

He sipped his coffee, holding the cup handle almost delicately between finger and thumb with his pinky raised like a little antenna and the other hand cradling the saucer a few inches below his chin. I wondered incongruously if the posture was meant to demonstrate good breeding or merely showed a simple desire to avoid dripping coffee on his tie.

“You picked a rotten night to travel,” I said. “There’s a storm warning for the whole east coast.” He rested his cup carefully in its saucer and gave a faint smile.
“Yes,” he said, looking up at the roiling clouds outside the window. “Thank goodness for trains; I’ve always hated flying in this.”

We exchanged banter about the weather for a couple of minutes before the conversation lagged and I retreated behind the counter. A squall carried the distant wail of the approaching freight train.

“What kind of business are you in?” I asked, looking up.

But Kirby Roush was gone.

As I tidied his table I noticed the headline of the newspaper he’d left.   It read: “Train wreck demolishes station.”

A single chime of the ancient wall clock marked the passing of the first hour of Friday, October thirty-first.

 Peter Rowney  thinks readers should know that this story started life as  an exercise in creating characters of the opposite sex.

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Joseph Kaufman