May 15, 2021

Fading Shadows

45

“A pirate,” he said.

“Pirate? How do you figure,” I replied.

“How do you not? He has a pigeon perched on his shoulder and he’s wielding his walking stick like he’s a swashbuckler in a B movie. Add to that his attempts to loot people as they pass by him and the story is complete. He’s a modern day Blackbeard.”

I could see his point but I hardly believed that the homeless man we were staring at outside the restaurant would make much of a pirate.

“You know what I see?”

He smirked at me. “Let me guess, you see some hard luck story about a man knocked down in the prime of his life. A tragic tale that would bring a tear to even the most hardened heart?”

“You don’t know me well enough to make fun of me like that. Drink your coffee,” I said as I moved ever so slightly away to serve my other customers.

“Wait. I was just kidding. Don’t leave, this is the most fun I have had in – well I don’t know when.”

His smile was forced but the tone of his voice hinted that he might just stab himself with the butter knife if I left him alone. He had walked in off the street a few hours ago and it hadn’t taken long before we were engaged in deep conversation and making up stories about the lives of those around us. He was entertaining and smart and my sense of connection with him had been immediate. But even as we flirted with one another I could sense his underlying sadness, a lingering shadow waiting to swallow him whole.

“What I was going to say, smart aleck, is that he reminds me of a carnie. One of those guys who is so desperate to have you pay to enter his house of oddities that he is reduced to yelling at you as you walk by. The pigeon is just a prop he uses to catch your interest. You look at him and you think if he’s weird just imagine what crazy and wonderfully strange things he must have inside.”

“If he is a carnie, does that make us a part of his menagerie of strange objects?” he replied.

“Well,” I said “it certainly explains your presence here doesn’t it?”

He smiled again but this time it wasn’t forced. His blue eyes danced with mine for a moment before he looked over at the couple mating in the booth by the window.

“More likely he is selling tickets to the show,” he said.

We both laughed awkwardly. “Hey you two,” I yelled “take a breather, you’re scaring the wildlife.”

The young couple broke off their passionate kiss and looked around the restaurant with mild embarrassment before going back to embracing each other again.

“Kids today,” he said “no respect.”

“You got that right, pal.”

We both turned to stare at the intruder.

“Oh Max, they aren’t that bad. They’re just in love,” I said.

Max was one of my oldest customers and although we had never engaged in anything approaching a deeply personal conversation, he reminded me of my grandfather, weathered and bony like a gnarled tree standing stiff against the wind in the graveyard of life.

“Bah, love.” Max spit out the words with such vehemence he had to lock his lips to keep his dentures from squirting out. “That isn’t love. Look at him? His heart’s so busy pumping blood to his hard-on, his brain’s on life support. And don’t even get me started on her, the harlot.”

“Max!” I said, trying my best at mock outrage.  “She isn’t a harlot.”

“In my day, a lady kept her legs closed in public. No offence to you Audrey, but girls today got no class, always running around with no panties on, it ain’t right.”

Before I could offer a further defence of the young lovebirds, the guy snaked his tongue so far down the girl’s throat he looked like a plumber attacking a drain. She wasn’t offering any resistance to his advances and, judging by the small mewing noises he was making, I was guessing she wasn’t gripping his bible under the table.

We stared at their indecency the way you might look at a pair of rutting animals – uncertain where to cast our eyes but too transfixed by the raw passion to look away.

Max spit again and reached into his pocket for money to pay the bill. He said thanks and, muttering to himself, glared at the back of the couple’s heads as he pushed through the door to the street beyond. I smiled after him and absentmindedly collected up the change he had left for a tip.

“Audrey. That’s a nice name.”

I looked up at him trying to decide whether he was making fun or simply being polite.

“It was my grandmother’s name. It may be old fashioned but I like it.”

“And so you should, it means noble strength. I dare say a perfect match for you.”

“How did you -“

He tapped his iPhone with his index finger and said “I looked it up. I have a fetish for learning about people’s names. Did you know that some people theorize that a person’s personality is influenced heavily by the meaning of their first name?”

“Sounds like new age mumbo jumbo to me. What does Max mean?” I asked.

“Old fashioned.”

“Seriously?”

He looked up from his iPhone and laughed. “Nah, I’m just kidding. It means the greatest or the best or something, which judging by his comments, he probably isn’t.”

“Guess that pretty much decimates your theory then. Of course, maybe he was the greatest and now he is stuck thinking about his glory days. Sad when that happens.”

The lingering shadow swept over his eyes again and for a moment I considered asking him what it was he was running from but before I could form the question, the shadow of sadness had been replaced by a gleam of playfulness.

“Maybe Max was a butler before he retired. But not just any butler, a true English butler, maybe the Queen’s own butler. That would explain his obvious discomfort with public displays of affection,” he said.

“Sounds like a reach to me. I think it is far more likely that Max was an underwear designer, hence his obvious anger at young women today, out there running around shunning his intimate designs. No doubt he blames Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan for destroying his business. You’re a lawyer aren’t you? Maybe you can take on Max’s case and get him justice.”

“Lawyer? Why do you think I am a lawyer?”

I gave him an appraising look and said “dark suit, red tie, insomniac, confident, cocky – in this town, you’re either a lawyer or a politician.”

“Neither actually, though I’m not certain whether I should feel flattered or crestfallen.” He gestured ridiculously like he had been stabbed in the heart and I smiled.

“So what is it you do than Mr. -“

“Marcus but lately I have taken to calling myself Squeaky. And I don’t do anything, actually.”

There was the shadow again, only this time it darkened his whole face and snuffed out the light in his eyes. He looked away quickly and the sudden silence between us made the restaurant feel like a funeral parlor.

“Why so sad Mr. Marcus?”

“No,” he smiled faintly, “just Marcus and who said I was sad?”

I could see him struggle to push out the darkness but even with his obvious effort, the shadow was still there, lingering behind his eyes. I wanted to tell him that I could see his pain but instead, I just shrugged. “Forget I asked.” I finished collecting up the money Max had left and took out a dishcloth to wipe the counter.

As I opened my mouth to reply, she levelled her gaze at me. “You might want to close your mouth sweetie; in a place like this someone might mistake that as an invitation to stick something in it. Now, be a dear, will you, and run along and get me a coffee.” She dismissed me with a wave of her hand and returned her gaze to Marcus.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that my story is, well, complicated. And still pretty raw, you know. I’m not trying to be evasive but, well, alright I suppose I am but I am sure you get a lot of sad stories in here and I would like not to be one of them.” His voice trailed off as if he was going to say more but thought better of it.

“Listen Marcus, we just met, you don’t owe me any explanation,” I said.  “Plus, let’s be honest, with me in your life, you won’t have time for sad stories.” The words came unbidden from my mouth and judging by his expression, he was just as shocked as I was by my sudden uninhibited banter.

“Intend to keep me busy, do you,” he said.

Once again his eyes danced with mine and I had to resist the urge to touch his face and kiss him. Instead I said simply, “so what’s with the name Squeaky?”

He grinned at me and said “oh, it’s just a part of this plan I’ve hatched.”

“Sounds cryptic, care to tell me about it?”

“Delighted to, although, I must warn you, it may sound a bit crazy. I mean it really is supposed to be a top-secret, are you sure you’ve got clearance?”

His eyes darted around the restaurant in mock paranoia, before locking with mine again. I gave him a puzzled look and waited patiently for the other shoe to drop.

He leaned in slightly and said, “I am going to become a circus clown.” His eyes lit up as he spoke the words and his grin was so broad it seemed to blot out the rest of his face.

“A circus clown,” I said.

“Squeaky the clown,” he replied. “Big red nose, matching shoes,” sensing my confusion, he added “that squeak — big red shoes that squeak when I walk.”

“Right, well, ya…” I said hesitantly, “of course, shoes that squeak.” I paused not sure what to say next. “Right, well, good luck with that. It has been nice talking to you Marcus, I hope it works out.”

Crazy I thought. Of course, he is crazy, what kind of sensible guy sits in a diner in the middle of the night flirting with the waitress he just met by making up stories about the people around him? A guy whose ambition in life is to become a circus clown, that’s who. Yikes.

“Audrey,” he said touching my arm lightly as I went to leave. “You don’t understand, I’m not crazy – well, maybe a little bit, but aren’t we all? I mean, it isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Don’t leave.”

“No offence Marcus but I get a lot of strange people in here — night shift in a downtown diner and all — and that is pretty well one of the craziest things I have ever been told. Or maybe not crazy but silly, I don’t know. But either way, I’m just coming off a relationship and I’m not looking to take up residence in crazy-town.”

“Listen, I really like you and I get what you are saying. And I suppose now would be a bad time to point out that some of the greatest entertainment on earth involve clowns – have you ever been to the Cirque du Soleil?”

My look must have confirmed I had no idea what he was talking about.

He pressed on, “they are one of the largest and most profitable circus acts in the world. They have multiple shows in Las Vegas.”

“Ya, you see that – Las Vegas — that’s crazy. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I don’t believe you but I don’t see this,” I said, gesturing with my fingers pointing at him and me, “going far if you are on the next bus for Vegas, do you?” I didn’t wait for his answer before I said, “So, good luck to you Marcus, Squeaky, or whatever, it’s been fun but I think we are done here.”

He hadn’t stopped staring at me and I held his eyes waiting for his response. Truth is, while my mouth was moving, my body wasn’t.

“I understand, you must think I am crazy but would it help if I told you I was a billionaire?”

“Right,” I said. “Pretty young for a billionaire aren’t ya?”

He laughed. “You’re right, I don’t want to lie to you, I’m not a billionaire. But would it help if I was?”

It was my turn to laugh. “Have plans to be a billionaire too?”

“Just as soon as I get you on board with my clown idea,” he said with a smile.

“You only just met me, why should it matter to you whether I think your plan is crazy.”

He hesitated for a moment. “Well, I hate to add another crazy statement to the pile at this point, given your comments, but, well, I know you will think this is a pickup line, but I just feel like – like I have known you my whole life.” He spoke the words softly and searched the wall behind me with his eyes. “I know, that probably seals my fate as a nut job, but there is just something about you, Audrey, a connection I can’t quite explain. I know, I know, I have just violated every rule in the dating handbook, ‘never be too forward’, ‘don’t press too fast’, ‘women want a strong man, not some vulnerable, over emotional, wuss’, ‘always…”

I stopped him before he could rhyme off any more worn out clichés. “Stop it,” I said.

He looked up at me with alarm in his eyes. “Sorry. I’m not very good at this. But –“

I cut him off again. “You’re doing fine. Well, except for the clown part, that’s still pretty crazy.”

He smiled shyly at me and said, “well, if it helps, I could still try for the billionaire thing too.”

We both laughed.

Before he could say anymore, we were interrupted by a blast of cold air as a slim-looking woman I had never seen before glided into the diner and took the stool opposite Marcus at the counter. Though, she was dressed casually, everything about her screamed money. Even before she spoke I knew her sudden appearance was bad news.

“Marcus,” she said. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you and here I find you slumming with the local hussy while I have been worried sick about you. And not just me, Daddy too, he has been frantically calling everyone looking for you.”

As I opened my mouth to reply, she levelled her gaze at me. “You might want to close your mouth sweetie; in a place like this someone might mistake that as an invitation to stick something in it. Now, be a dear, will you, and run along and get me a coffee.” She dismissed me with a wave of her hand and returned her gaze to Marcus.

“Marcus, don’t pout. I’ve come to take you home.”

While I hadn’t known him long and had no idea what his relationship was with this woman, it was clear from his body language that Marcus was not keen on going home. In fact, as he tried to tuck his head into his body, he had taken on the look of a turtle trying desperately to slip back unnoticed into the pond before he was devoured by this looming predator.

“Oh don’t give me that look. I know you weren’t happy working for Daddy, but really, a circus clown? Honestly. What would I tell our friends, ‘I’m sorry we have to cancel the wedding, my fiancé has run away to join the circus’? I won’t let you make a fool of me, no matter how unhappy you claim to be.”

Sensing that I was still hovering, she looked up at me again and said “are you still here, dear. You are the waitress, aren’t you?” I was so dumbfounded by her comment all I could muster was a nod of my head.  “Well, then be a good girl and get me a coffee.”

“What do you want from me Celeste?” said Marcus.

“What do I want?” she said. “What kind of question is that? What do I want? I want you to come home Marcus. I want you to stop moping. I want you stop with this craziness of becoming a clown and get back to the real world. You have obligations, commitments, to me, to Daddy, to our friends. You can’t just ignore that. For heaven’s sake, what did you think Marcus? I would simply read your email and walk away? Let you throw away everything I have been working so hard for. Let you throw away our life?”

I didn’t like this woman. I mean I could understand her complete disregard for me, I got that a lot. An occupational hazard really, especially among the high society set. Stumbling in here after a show, looking like a million bucks and ordering me around like a servant with dripping sarcasm and high-brow attitude, but I was paid to put up with her type. Her entire attitude towards him though, reprimanding him like he was a dog who had just chewed through her favourite shoe, made me want to strangle her on principle. If Marcus was trying to run away from this demon witch, I could hardly blame him.

As if she were reading my mind, she glared up at me. “Honestly dear, if you are incapable of getting me a cup of coffee would you at least stop drooling over my fiancé like a dog in heat. He’s taken. Now, move along.”

My face flushed in anger. I couldn’t remember ever meeting someone I hated more than this woman.

“Listen,” I said with as much calmness as I could muster. “I don’t know how you found enough dead puppies to fuel your broomstick to fly here tonight, but if you take that tone with me again, I will do more than drop a house on you.” I locked my eyes with hers and smiled thinly.

“My, my, spunky aren’t we. Well, sweetie that kind of trash talk might work well with the local rubby-dub pawing at your chest with his grubby fingers late at night, but you’d be well advised not to try it with me. I have seen your type before, sniffing around for money like a dog searching for its bone; the only thing scary about you are your two dollar shoes and that cheap haircut. Now, if you don’t want to lose your job, and fall even lower on the rung, I suggest that you zip it and find me a cup of coffee.”

Before I could lunge across the counter to choke the life out of her, Marcus intervened.

“Stop it Celeste. Don’t talk to her that way.”

Though she didn’t quite wither at his rebuke, she seemed to understand that she had pushed too hard. And while she forced herself to smile at me, it was clear she now considered us mortal enemies.

“Of course, Marcus, of course, I didn’t mean to offend your new friend. I just thought she might be considerate enough to do her job and to give us some privacy. I didn’t mean to try and educate her on her manners.”

I hated this woman. Every time she opened her mouth, I hated her even more. I gave Marcus a pleading look as if to say, please let me knock the witch out.

“I’m sorry Audrey. I am not sure what’s come over her. She is being ruder than usual. Do you mind giving me a minute to take care of this and then we can resume our conversation.” It was more a question than a statement.

I was reluctant to move away. “Sure,” I said.

Unable to resist one last shot, Celeste flashed a haughty smile.  “Audrey? How quaint. Well, Audrey, I would still love that coffee.”

“Leave her be Celeste,” said Marcus.

She averted her eyes and I resisted the impulse to throttle her again. I moved to the other end of the counter never quite taking my eyes off him. How on earth did he end up with someone like that? Not that their outward appearance suggested an odd pairing, on the contrary, at first blush, they looked like the typical young urban professional couple – affluent, educated and well dressed. If I had just seen them enter the diner together, I wouldn’t have thought twice about them; but after what I just witnessed, it was clear that he was a prisoner of this demon witch.  As I watched them argue, I considered the sadness I had seen earlier in his eyes and felt an urgent need to rescue him.

To be continued…

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