WOKEN • by Miriam Hall

She waits, the last customer at the neighborhood sushi joint, in the far corner chair, where she can see both those walls outside the window and the ones closing her in.  Anyone walking by would say she could just as easily be an employee as a customer finishing a meal – her glance, unnoticing, set at a point far off from Ashland Avenue, goes unmet, and her focus is undefined.

She is, in fact, a customer, or would have been more of one if he hadn’t stood her up.

“In the age of cell phones there’s no excuse for this kind of thing,” the waitress offers indirect and unasked-for commiseration to the waiting woman, who does not, mercifully, even hear her.  She also does not see the $1.52 check for her Sprite in a red plastic Coca-Cola cup, nor does she notice that everyone else has left; only that he never arrived.

The blond, 40-ish woman who’s been there all dinner hour and well into the end of the drinking crowd has gone unnoticed by anyone but this waitress. Never has she gone to the bathroom or strayed from her station. She grips her cell phone as if to strangle it in her right hand, her forehead half against the glass and left hand wrapped around her waist, cradling or holding herself.

The last employee, a young Panamanian man, doesn’t even notice her until everyone else has left. He figures she must be asleep, and as they don’t use a vacuum cleaner or anything loud while wiping things down, he decides he’ll let her rest. She does not even flicker when he shuts off the neon sign declaring them “OPEN” (it had lost the N last week, leading locals to joke with their country yokel friends that “OPE” was Japanese for “OPEN”).

The waiter takes his time, both so he can clock out on the full hour and to respect the sadness she’ll feel on waking only to find her date never showed. For that must be her story, he concludes. That she got stood up. He wonders about her, had gotten a small snippet or two from her waitress as she departed. In fact, he becomes so attached to this waiting woman and the little stories he’s made up for her — that she’s a widow who will never find love again, or 40 and still single — that as he sweeps closer to her he dreads waking her, wonders if he can just leave her there. Then he realizes she will panic if she wakes truly alone in the restaurant, especially if he locks her in.

He studies her in what remains of the street lights — like that Hopper painting he saw at the Art Institute last year, of the two folks in the café, sitting side by side, staring out the window, totally alone.  Lonely, without even trying, together alone. 

He becomes a bit resentful. “Why do I have to be the one to wake the lady?” The clock ticks closer to the hour and he realizes he will have to wake her, he has to clock out on time or they will wonder what kind of shenanigans he is up to. 

“She must be deaf,” he thinks, as he sprays her table with ammonia, “How can she not have heard me by now?” Then he really begins to worry, “What if she is DEAD?” Her eyes don’t even appear to flutter the blinks that closed and dreaming eyes do. He takes his rag with ammonia and sets it under her nose, thinking the fumes can be the test. A bit like smelling salts.

It works.

She opens her eyes slowly and he sees her blue irises squeeze and contract with new light, though the place is the dimmest it’s been all night. 

She does not look confused.

“Finally, you came,” she smiles and reaches over to pull his head to hers. 

“I waited for you all night,” she sighs, without a hint of complaint, as if she is saying it is sunny outside today. Which it had been.

She kisses him on the lips.

Miriam Hall is a writing and photography teacher in Madison, WI. She has a new chapbook of poetry entitled Dreams of Movement coming out in early 2010 with Finishing Line Press. Her current chapbook: At Home Here, can be found on Amazon or through Finishing Line Press.

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