Woman of the Lower East Side

Woman of the Lower East Side

A Story by Tionge Rosalie Johnson
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I wrote this for my senior portfolio, I am very proud of this one since it took me a month to write :). I hope you enjoy!

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Every day when I clocked in for work, I caught him staring at that crack in the window. He’d take one sip of the cappuccino without sugar and milk, then push it aside and leave it there. The steam from its hot liquid always disappeared by the time he took his next sip.

Sometimes I would catch him muttering things to the crack: something about a Charlotte? Or Sara? I don’t know, someone he was close to. I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying anyways, thanks to all the chatty toddlers without a filter.  The coffee shop sounded like a Chucky Cheese joint where children and parents wafted in with their fanny packs everywhere.

Whatever he told the crack, it apparently listened. It seemed to lure him in somehow. His clear eyes locked into place and glazed over. Was he a stoner? He’d sure been acting like he was on something, and the matted grey hoody gave into the stereotype very well; the sleeves worn down to its original fabric. An interesting choice in fashion for someone who always gave me a friendly smile. Or slight nod of approval every time I’d compliment him on his cool Converse shoes, even if they were almost brown from the muck of New York slush. I often saw him always wearing big glasses with the circular lenses too, which made me wonder if he listened to some unknown band people were too “mainstream” to know about, making me feel less cool.

Staring at cracks in windows has to mean your fucked up though, right? If it wasn’t weed, it had to have been acid. My brother used to be hooked on that stuff. He’d go on these things he called “journeys.” Whatever that means. If god forbid this guy ended up in rehab, I would sure miss how he noticed my $20 maxi skirt and Payless heels. Maybe when I got rich and famous I could show up in a real maxi skirt and not a thrift store knock off. That would really open his mouth. Get him to say cliché s**t like, “I really like your skirt, it’s pretty.” My brother paid no mind to compliments, so it would be nice. I guess he didn’t want me to grow up thinking I was Paris Hilton.

As I continued making my rounds, I rubbed off stains and dirt from tables that were already clean and continued to dodge children clawing at my skirt. He suddenly cleared his throat and made me jump, forcing me to wrap up an order with a couple before quickly attending to him. Without surprise, he just nodded and smiled. I had to stop myself from giving him the middle finger, hands curled into fists.

I swore if he asked me for the check right before closing again I would kick him out. Not actually kick him out, but kick him nonetheless. He needed a good shaking up anyway, with his habit of staring at window cracks, becoming a leech that wouldn’t come off. A worse scenario than the wailing cries of kids whose parents dragged them on the way out.

As if on cue, he told me he was going to use the restroom after asking for the check. I noticed the cappuccino was almost full still, the cup on its saucer. In his absence I looked at the crack in the window to see if I could find some mystical quality to it, forcing my eyes to travel down its weaving paths. I found nothing; a part of me relieved, and another disappointed at missing out on something interesting. The moment had me leaning into the window so intensely my head banged against it, the loud noise summoning him to me.

“Are you ok?”

I kept my face towards the ground. Then I remembered I was the barista and he was the customer.

“Yes, sorry about that! I’ll bring the check right over!”

My heels carried me behind the counter and I grabbed the check. When I handed him the slip of paper, his hand grazed over mine. The sudden warm sensation made my hand shiver. Like when you get goose bumps, but worse. I grazed my hand over his in return, mainly because it felt nice against my dry skin. I thought I heard him laugh and I couldn’t help but snort accidently. I swore I had the worst laugh but he never complained. I also swore that I was not funny. Yet he continued to laugh.

I had to stare at him a bit to let this sink in. To check for a pulse on his wrists to convince me that he was indeed alive. When I did this, the action caused him to laugh even more, filling the entire coffee shop and making my cheeks hot. My grin became wide enough that I could have been mistaken for The Joker.

His clear hazel eyes also became less fuzzy to me now that he was closer. His pupils enlarged and contrasted with its rings of color. I realized the coffee shop should have been closed a couple of minutes ago, but I was focused on something more important. My brother once told me over the payphone that you make time for people. There was no such thing as street smarts or book smarts to my brother. Life smarts was what got you going. He knew life like a pre-med student knows biology. I was going to figure out what this guy’s deal was, even if it meant closing an hour late.

“What is it out there you keep looking at?” I pointed to the crack in the window.

He cocked his head and said, “What do you mean?”

“You keep staring out the window every time you come.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?”

“I wasn’t staring out the window.”

“Well, you were.”

His eyes locked and glazed over again.

F**k. I just had him and now he was gone, a sudden stiffness to his face. He leaned against the plastic chair that contrasted against the dark grey shade of his hoody, an excellent opportunity for a snapshot if his face adjusted to face me. I tried to reclaim the conversation we had lost but without much luck. Not a single nod of acknowledgement or apology from him.

What made it even worse was the fact that the entire time I stared at him, the more I could hear his whispered secrets. It seemed inappropriate to mention them out loud, so I didn’t. I felt like I was prying into someone’s intimate text messages while logging into their phone. Some kind of love affair going on that I was not about to mess with.

A special bond I was unwilling to break, though so badly I wanted to slap him across the face.

I suddenly felt odd about the situation. A massive gush of emotions that went on a joy ride as I thought about those late nights in bed, attacked by dreams of my brother sitting in a beige colored room with a single flowerpot. His bed was always made and his body was curled into fetal position. My brother and this guy were potential lunatics anyways and I let them do whatever they wanted. Me the doormat, always the doormat, I was told growing up. I thought of painting the words “welcome” on my forehead the moment this strange guy set foot again in the coffee shop.

 “You’re still here? Thought you’d be home by now-Oh!” The large shadow of my manager appeared over my shoulder. He glanced at the guy sitting across from me, still staring out the window.

 “I couldn’t just leave him here with his coffee cup and saucer, haha,” I quickly got up and grabbed them. Apparently I did this too fast, as the cup filled with coffee slipped from my hands and onto the floor with a large crash.

I made a heavy sigh, “S**t! I’m sorry, let me clean it up!”

Before I could go into the kitchen, a chubby hand tapped my shoulder lightly, “I got it. You should go home.”

I pointed towards my silent stranger. “He won’t leave.”

The bluntness of my outburst made my manger almost burst into a laughing fit and sure enough, he took a deep breath to compose himself before speaking, “I see…well, make sure you lock everything up and turn off all the lights when you leave. I’m heading home, can’t stay out any longer or my son would kill me. Don’t know why I’d promised him a bedtime story every night. Now that he’s reading Gulliver’s Travels.”

He rolled his eyes and smiled at the vision of his five year old son’s taste in literature.  I couldn’t help but giggle at the image of the little boy’s tiny glasses sliding off the bridge of his nose.

“Wow, Gulliver’s travels! I’m 24 and I can’t get through it.”

“I blame his mother. She wants him to get into that gifted school on 59th Street,” he laughed, later taking care of the brown liquid on the floor. I awkwardly stood over him while he cleaned, occasionally looking for any movement from the man I had a few words with. My disappointment only grew as his face leaned against the window. His lips once closed now moved slightly, which only made me more frustrated. For those whispers were too interesting to pass up… and, besides, I needed to help him. I’d already lost a brother to an institution in the middle of nowhere and I needed to keep this guy in check.

Besides, I was convinced he was in some form of purgatory, for I’d seen a spectacle like this before. My brother used to ignore my useless banter when I’d visit him on weekends, or at least try to. The institution didn’t allow any form of drugs on sight, so he couldn’t have been high. Still, when I’d asked how he was doing, my only response was his face looking out into the hills covered in dandelions. The grass was infested with the stuff, even though it had been groomed a few days ago. The groundskeeper’s were usually on top of that s**t.

But, when the lawn was un-groomed that afternoon he’d stopped noticing my footsteps.

I remember trying to wake him from his aloofness, letting my palm touch the top of his hand in an attempt to show a form of comfort. As soon as I made this gesture, I noticed his hands were the same temperature as the mini stone statues in my parent’s garden. I would hide behind them when we’d play hide and seek as kids, and they were cold and damp to the touch.  

He brushed my hand off and I stood there. Trying to hold back the moisture from my eyes.  My chest cavity felt like it would cave in at any moment, a heaviness that seemed to weigh into my lungs and make it difficult to breathe.

I had wanted him to look at me, just one glance. Acknowledge all the times I’d sacrificed my time to see him.

Not even the woman who raised him, or the man who cared more about his sermons then his own son, ever saw him. He was on the Lord’s good list, as he called it, and my brother and I were obviously not on it. Making the holidays become lonelier as the string that bound us together snapped apart.

I at least tried to tie it back up again by making an appointment to see him every f*****g month.

Though this connection between my brother and I had been lost, I knew I could at least free another. Feel like I was saving an entire war zone or something.

My brother used to play Call of Duty in the living room when I was a kid. My mother calling us out on our interest in violent video games, warning us it would turn us into serial killers. When clearly it taught me more than killing an entire regiment in one sitting.

My manager handed me three wet towels covered in dirt and wiped his greasy hands off his old jeans. “Well, all cleaned up.”

I put them on the table behind me and waved goodbye to him as he headed out the double doors. When he was gone completely from my sight, I turned my attention to the guy I could try and tie back up together again. I proposed snapping my fingers at his face or slapping him like I considered before, but refrained. It may come across as disrespectful and though annoyed as I was, there was no use aggravating him. I’d already had my fair share of smart-a*s toddlers and didn’t need any more confrontation for the day. Not considering the fact that I’ve never seen him angry and didn’t plan too.

“Thank God he’s gone… Don’t worry she’ll leave… It’s not my fault,” I heard him say. It was a surprisingly clear tone and his facial expressions came to life. Not in the way I wanted it to, for they were wrinkled and too forced, but just enough to let me know he was alive again. I walked over quickly enough to hear more and sat across from him.

“What’s your fault?” I asked, completely ignoring the fact that this supposed person didn’t want me around.  I just really wanted to know more about this guy, and sadly he didn’t answer.

His head perked up and his shoulders pulled upwards, once again brining me back to the day we dropped my brother off at the center.  My voice was a little shaken.

“Hey, try to relax.”

Again, nothing came out of him and his body went completely stiff. I had to realize that this was definitely different from my brother.  You sneak a pill into my brother’s mouth and your good. No need to f**k with this guy if it turned out to be some miracle that he was actually sane, which wouldn’t be good for me. I would rather not be the insane one. Constantly obsessed with finding out who or what he was talking too, when in reality he didn’t speak to anyone. Just a man who enjoys talking to himself, yet, isn’t that fucked up too?

This guy really had my head spinning and the silence he constantly gave me only drove my curiosity. I got that he didn’t know me that well, but I had a right to know. He was staying here way past closing and it was beginning to annoy me. Prying information out of him was the price he had to pay for keeping me here, anyways.  

“Hey buddy, you really have to go. I mean…I gotta close.”

No answer still, f*****g great. I might just have to slap him after all because he wouldn’t budge.

Suddenly, there was a large crash within the kitchen and I jumped. Plates and bowls started bagging into each other and something flew across the room. I didn’t know how anyone could have ignored that, but apparently he did.  If those plates and bowls making a disturbance behind me didn’t phase him, my words sure wouldn’t.  

I was about to make an excuse to get us out of there, when one of them slammed the back of my head before I could even suggest the matter, causing my head to fall forward and hit the table. A hand touched my shoulder to shake me awake from passing out. This time, me being the one who took awhile to give an answer, as the constant throbbing from the blow became too loud to hear over his voice.

“Oh my god! Are you ok?”

“Ya, my head just hurts. What the hell was that?”

I knew what it was, but I was interested in his answer.

“A pot.”

For f**k’s sake!

“No! Who was it?”

“There was no one there.”

“How can you be so calm!” My face got hot and I took a deep breath, head still throbbing.  (If I gave him the middle finger now, it would be justifiable right?).  

“You might want to take Advil before you go.”

“Me go! I can’t go until you go!”

His face turned pale, I’d hoped this didn’t mean he’d go back to being silent again. Yes, what I said was rude, but it was true, and I feared it would make him stop talking to me again. It sure wasn’t my fault, because he had practically given me the cold shoulder all day.

“Fair.”

Really?

“That’s it?”

“Ya…” (Can I give him the middle finger now?)

The lights in the coffee shop started to flicker, yet again the plates and bowls crashed. The floor began to vibrate as our table shook from its force. I had to clasp my hands on both ends of the table to contain myself.  I thought you were supposed to duck in cover when these things happened, but it seemed too unusual to be an earthquake. For flying plates coming straight at me was not a normal occurrence, even if I’d never experienced one. While I grasped for dear life onto the table, his face shot up at to the ceiling,

“Stop! Stop this!”

“Who is there Godamnit!”

He scanned the coffee shops concrete walls, as if he were searching for something,

“F**k you!”

A plate flew past my ear, causing a breeze to brush against it. How the hell were these plates coming at me and not at him?

“Is this a joke? Because it’s not funny.”

He stood up suddenly and stared out the window again. His eyes looked directly at the crack and everywhere around me grew cold and dim.

I’d never seen anyone so serious before in my life. A face resembling the doctor, the one who told me my brother was not normal. It was not a happy occasion, but it wasn’t a sad one either. I realized he’d be out of there soon and he would be better. At least he would be less serious as the man who stood before me. A man who whispered under his breath,

“I’m done.”

Done with what? Would he ever say more than what his lips allowed? What was he done with? Why do I let myself deal with a man who won’t let me help him? Now I wanted to slap myself for letting him stay here so long. Screw making time for people, I’d had enough.

The lights flickered faster and another plate flew past me. The overhead radio now blasted classic rock, an Aerosmith tune. There was a sudden change in his tone as soon as it echoed overhead,

“I like this song!”

Any doubts I had for my sanity before, had been answered. This guy was definitely insane. At least his seriousness had gone. But, I needed to know what was going on though. For this hadn’t been answered yet.  

“Why the f**k is the radio on now?”

“Who cares, this song is awesome!”

Damn. Even when he was bright and cheerful he worked me up.

“Will you ever answer my question? Jesus!”

“What question?”

Was he serious?

“What the f**k is going on!”

“I don’t know.”

What a liar. The cheekiness in his lopsided smile was enough to convince me that he knew exactly what was going on, another exact reason why I’d clock out before all the other baristas. I had no time to deal with all of these useless complaints from customers, day in and day out, from news of family quarrels to mothers gossiping over their “horrible spawns of Satan.”  

People, coming in and leaving without even bothering to care about my own concerns. My “spawns of Satan.” How could he be any different?

My cheeks grew soggy. His face angled straight at me when he heard my nostrils suck in air. In his eyes the rings of colors were clearer and bolder then before, throwing me off balance a bit. One of my hands had to hold onto my chair to keep my body level with the floor.  

He walked over to the counter and reached for a napkin, extending his arm towards me.

“Thanks.”

He nodded and continued to stare, every detail processed by him, a dissection of every aspect of my personality. I eagerly snatched the napkin from him and wiped my face with it immediately. I swallowed, preparing myself for what he would say to me if he spoke.

Luckily he did, though it was confusing.

“I didn’t think you would notice her.”

“So, there is someone here?”

He smiled at me and I could sense less cheekiness, a slightly sinister edge to it.

“You’re wrong. There is no one here.”

He looked around the coffee shop, “At least, there shouldn’t be.”

“The crack doesn’t think so.”

“To be honest, I never realized I talked to it.”

“Why?”

“I just come here to drink coffee. “

I didn’t want to ask him about meds at this point. For it was rude to ask damaged people these things. A reminder to them of how not normal they are. How fucked up they were really were.

And even if he wasn’t normal, he at least had the right to feel like it.  He wasn’t a complete jerk and complete jerks don’t deserve that kind of treatment. Ya, he cared more about a crack in a window, but at least someone felt my presence, someone noticed I was around.

It wasn’t ideal, but it was something.

“Well, you talk to the crack. You even named it I think.

“Oh, yes. Charlotte.”

My Joker smile came back,

“I thought I heard you say that name. She your girlfriend?”

His eyes grew wide,

“No! Oh god no!”

Good. Also, I’m pathetic for feeling any slight bit of excitement I felt for him in that moment.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

He laughed at his own cleverness after saying that. I shook my head, no, in response.

“Good. I have to admit, I feel pathetic for being this interested.”

I told him we weren’t in high school and no one was watching. A full-blown grin pulled his cheeks back, as the cold air drifted out into the New York streets.

 

                                  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© 2014 Tionge Rosalie Johnson



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Added on December 24, 2014
Last Updated on December 24, 2014
Tags: short story, fiction

Author

Tionge Rosalie Johnson
Tionge Rosalie Johnson

Syracuse , NY



About
I'm a graduate student at the S.I Newhouse School of Public Communications studying Arts Journalism where I am specializing in theatre. I have a great passion for writing and editing written work and .. more..

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