By Patricia Hemingway
On a narrow side street in downtown Manhattan, inside one of many unobtrusive doorways, the lights were still on in Malik’s Automat Cafe. The surrounding offices were dark and inside them the elevators sat at ground level, empty and quiet.
The security guard who lounged behind a desk in the lobby next door to Malik’s, whose face reflected the small TV screen, paid no attention to the soldier, wearing his usual camouflage-print jacket and pants, making his slow journey up the sidewalk. The soldier halted at the door to the automat. He did not look around but steadied himself and turned toward the vending machines at the back of the Cafe.
Malik was wiping down the tables as the soldier appeared in the doorway. The soldier’s mood appeared to be as usual, a continual alertness behind eyes that could not bring clarity to his surroundings. As if he had not been to this small Café many times before. Dinner was waiting for Malik at home, and he reminded himself that he should be closing. But he knew he would keep the café open for his last few customers.
The soldier moved to the row of glistening vending machines. Each offered a single serving behind a glass window just wide enough for the customer to reach in a hand to retrieve the selection. The soldier stood still, as in wonder, at the operation of the machine that beckoned him to drop in coins or slide a dollar into the green-illuminated slot. He surveyed the offerings of wrapped sandwiches, cups of soup, and slices of Middle-Eastern style meatloaf, searching for the window that promised a slice of pie. Pumpkin pie had been the recent offering, easily detected because it had no top layer of crust. It shone in comparison with the criss-crossed lattice of the all-season apple pie.
The soldier’s hand trembled as he pulled a dollar bill from his jacket pocket and unfolded it. His attention went to the bright green slot that blinked at him. He took a sudden step back from the flashing light and looked for a moment as if he might turn on his heel and exit. Malik came over and put his hand on the soldier’s shoulder. “Good evening Paul. Are you having the pie?”
“Paul.” The name resonated in the soldier’s ear. He aimed his hand tentatively toward the slot that beckoned to him. Malik steadied the soldier’s hand, the dollar bill was sucked in, and Malik said quietly, “B14.” The soldier pushed the button. The small window swung open.
Malik poured the soldier a paper cup of coffee, and turned around to see if Paul looked steady enough to carry it. The soldier was moving toward the table nearest the door. Malik followed him and set down the coffee. This was an automat. Malik was not supposed to be assisting the customers. There were no tips to be earned, and his dinner was waiting at home. The old ways stayed with him. Service was ingrained in him, and he still enjoyed it.
The soldier sat down to the table. His eyes settled on the darkness beyond the front door and he seemed to ignore the food and drink in front of him. A voice came from the corner of the Café: “Do you like pie?”
Paul jumped up and knocked the table over. He turned toward the sound and saw an old woman surrounded by the shadows of folded blankets stacked all around her. Hiding in the corner of her stall at the market. The familiar odor of damp wool and sawdust reached him. He could not place her but he knew she was watching his movements.
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Malik watched from the other side of the Café and decided not to intrude for the moment.
“Do you like pie?” she inquired again.
The soldier stood still and tried to focus on the voice that kept mentioning pi. An odd word in a language unfamiliar to him. It might mean information. The old woman could be offering him the description of a certain car parked around the corner. For a price.
“I love to bake pies. I make the crust myself.”
The soldier stood listening, then looked over to Malik and back again, and realized, slowly, that the old woman was not the vendor from the marketplace. He looked down at the spilled coffee collecting around his shoes and the uneven fragments of pie that protruded from the upside down paper plate on the floor, beside the table, now on its side. He began to cry softly and put his hands over his eyes.
There was no other sound in the café.
The woman gestured to Malik to stay where he was. She got up from her table and gathered her coat and her shoulder bag in her left hand. She walked to the soldier and put her right arm through the soldier’s left, gently pulling it from his face.
“Why don’t you come with me and I will make you a pie. I have no one else to cook for. After all, it is Christmas eve.”
She guided the soldier out the door of the Café and headed toward her own apartment. Malik waited until they had left to close the door, and to turn around the hand-lettered sign that said:
Come, whoever you are.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.