The girl with the pink bubblegum hair bites her lower lip. She twists and twirls her pencil over her fingers. She’s perched on the edge of a stool at the counter and clicks her tongue in the back of her mouth. She sighs occasionally. It’s a deep sigh that puffs her fringe out ever-so-slightly each time she exhales. Then she’ll stop. Perfectly still as she glances towards the doorway in the hope that he might walk through it.
Me? I’m in the rear corner, my usual spot. More than anywhere else in the world, this spot is where I like to write. I’ve never been published, of course. I tend to write mostly for myself. I guess that I just like to express myself this way. Never bottle shit up. Fiction and non-fiction; sometimes I just need to get it out of my head and onto paper.
Wallace’s Little Coffee Shop is the one place in this city that doesn’t seem to mind the constant clicks and clacks of my typewriter. Folks at those “American” chains tend to get pissed off real easy. Here I’m free to do whatever I want. I reckon that Wallace’s lets it slide because they only really have two customers. That’d be me and the mystery man over there. He’s just walked through the door. I know this without looking up. Jingle jangle rings the bell. Who else would it be?
He’s a creature of habit too. He comes in, sits with his back to the door (that’s goddamn strange if you ask me) and just waits.
He never ever tries to get the waitress’s attention. The mystery man seems perfectly happy to while away the minutes in silence. He never calls for service. He never raises a finger, and he never performs the oh-so-subtle head tilt that says “I’d really rather like some service over here please.” Nope. Like I said, he’s happy to wait. He just sits there. Calm. Calm and fucking composed beyond all reasonable measure.
So the girl with the pink bubblegum hair sits perched at the end of the counter. She chews on her pencil and finishes reading the paper. The mystery man waits. Outside the windows you see suits going left and right. Briefcase and umbrella in hand. Like carbon copies of one another they brace themselves against the rain. They pull up their collars and lean into it, like old soldiers marching into war. Marching into bullet fire. The whole world seems to walk on by. All the while I sit here. All the while mystery man sits there. Back to the window and oblivious to the hundreds of stories taking place behind him. Still he waits. And still she reads. And I type. Click. Click. Click. Click.
After an age, she finishes her paper and glances over to the mystery man. She winks a small acknowledgement (as if the bell above the door didn’t exist) and swivels her long legs out from under the counter. With one hand placed firmly on the back of her stool, she gently rises and wanders back behind the counter towards the coffee pot. A tune escapes her lips in a soft whistle. I don’t recognise it. She takes two mismatched mugs and fills them with coffee. The mugs aren’t deliberately mismatched. This is not one of those places where the men with beards and thick-rimmed glasses and tight trousers come to pose. If they served cocktails (they don’t) they sure as hell wouldn’t come in a reclaimed jam jar. Wallace’s isn’t quaint. It isn’t quirky. Nor is it popular. It’s simply cheap. Not particularly cheerful mind, just cheap.
With both mugs in hand, the girl with the pink bubblegum hair saunters over to the mystery man’s table. He watches her get closer. This week I’ve started to notice how pretty she is. This hadn’t struck me before – and she does wear those legs incredibly well. Of course, he doesn’t watch her like that. His gaze is more of the friendly kind. The girl with the pink bubblegum hair is clearly comfortable enough with it because she sits with him. Same as yesterday and the day before, and the days before that. Three months and she’s never once sat with me.
She gets closer and he kicks out the chair opposite just enough for her to swing into it. Pushing his coffee towards him causes the black tar to slosh out and drip its way down the side of the mug. In thick gloops it begins to spread onto the table. Neither one of them pays that much notice. They nod in unison and they drink. The coffee here is never too hot, and often times it’s burned something rotten. Still, they nod and they drink.
They both drink deeply like you can with lukewarm coffee. In unison they put their mugs down. Formalities over, the girl with the pink bubblegum hair speaks. She speaks in a soft southern accent. I remember being startled the first time she spoke to the mystery man. That was six days ago, and it was the first time I’d heard her talk. Well, it was the first time I’d heard her hold a real conversation. All I’d received these last three months was the cursory “more coffee darlin?” and “see you tomorrow darlin” or “that’ll be two fifty-five darlin”. Truth be told, I’m not even sure that the mystery man pays. Maybe the conversation is payment enough.
With her hands still wrapped around the mug for warmth, the girl with the pink bubblegum hair speaks. Her eyes burn with excitement. She leans forward expectantly. Wondering what’ll be on offer today. I can’t help but lean forward too. I silently curse my body for this betrayal.
“Who are you today stranger?”
Oh – I should have started with this. Mystery Man is a fucking liar. He’s a liar and we all know it. Only, the most frustrating thing in all of this is that she loves the lies. So here we are again, the girl with the pink bubblegum hair and the mystery man with their own fucking daily circus. Showtime is 8:30am until whenever he runs out of imagination. It’s so goddamn easy for him. The lies just seem to roll off his tongue.
You see, my stories are just for me. That’s all I need. I’m not a showman. I’m quite proud of this. Subtly is a rare pleasure these days. It seems impossible to turn on the TV without having to endure some wannabe proving why they don’t have what it takes to be The Next Big Thing. Some folks clearly need a crowd. Like mystery man here. Hiding in the comfort of a crowd is the best disguise for the lonely or insecure. Even if it’s just a crowd of one, people like him are not content to just be by themselves. It’s pathetic really.
Still. I lean forward, drink my own coffee, and I listen. What else have I got to do today?
“Who are you today stranger?” asks the girl with the pink bubblegum hair.
She starts with this same line every day. Well, except for Day One. That was different. Neither of us knew what to expect. When the mystery man walked in the door that first time, we were both taken aback. For three months, other than the casual take-away-coffee customers, I’ve been the only real patron of Wallace’s. Yet in he walked. He sat down. Placed both hands firmly on the table and waited. He didn’t look up, didn’t even seem to blink much. He just waited like that. Like some kind of fucking statue. This is when the girl with the pink bubblegum hair and I had our first, and only, “moment”. We glanced at each other. I think for assurance more than anything else.
“What’s your story stranger?”
That was what she asked on Day One. I’ve been wondering these past few days how differently things might have gone had she not asked that question. If only she’d just taken his order. If only she’d shown her usual disregard for human interaction.
But no. “What’s your story stranger?”
And with that the mystery man told the story of his previous day. How he was an account manager who’d found some strange irregularity with the books. It had led to a local mobster and a conspiracy at his firm. It was dramatic. Exciting. Terrifying. Brilliant. A lie.
Of course we had no goddamn idea that he was lying. Not on that first day. He was so convincing. He could tell you that the sun had turned black and you’d believe him. The girl with the pink bubblegum hair fell under his spell. She lapped up every word and once he had finished his story she allowed a short whistle to escape her lips. With a long, heavy breath she shook her head in amazement and then wandered back to the counter. She poured a coffee for them both and as soon as he’d finished it, the mystery man left without so much as a word. I’m not even sure he noticed I was there.
On Day Two he was a fireman. He’d pulled a sick day, so he said, because he’d got spooked at a callout the day previous. You see, that’s the thing – he had no interest in always being the hero. This time he was a coward. His colleagues were fighting fires whilst he put his feet up.
Of course, by now we know he’s lying. And he knows that we know he’s lying. We’re all in it together, this strange circus, and we all play our part.
The Day Two story ends. It ends with tragedy. A few tears roll down the cheeks of the girl with the pink bubblegum hair. The mystery man looked different that day. He seemed taller, stronger, more confident. Hell, he looked like a firefighter. But he’s not. He’s a liar. Yet I want to believe every word he says.
By Day Three the firefighter has been transformed into a primary school teacher. He gave us an uplifting story of community, love and a side order of redemption. I swear to god that the girl with the pink bubblegum hair leaned over the table and kissed him on the check when it was over. I nearly lost my shit.
This continued day after day for a whole week. And here we are. Day Seven.
“Who are you today stranger?”
He looks different again. He seems stretched. Old. Withered. And there’s something in his eyes. It’s as if a light has gone out. Despair. That’s how I’d describe it.
This is going to be a good one.
So the girl with the pink bubblegum hair pulls her mug closer to her face and let’s the warmth wash over her. Her eyes flicker with excitement as his words begin to flow.
For the first time we hear his name. It’s Matthew. A smile fades just as quickly as it appears at the mention of her name.
They’d met at University. He’d seen her at fresher’s week and had pretty much fallen in love at first sight. She was utterly perfect and lovely and on a different course from him.
So, as people tend to do when in love – he did something equal parts foolish and adorable. He switched from History to English Literature and made sure to sit with her in class.
They dated, they fell in love, they got married, and they were happy. It’s a sweeping tale of romance. Yet the mystery man chokes up for a moment. The strong firefighter from Day Two is nowhere to be seen. His shoulders tremble as he sobs.
You see, Melissa died last night. The disease that spread through her body had broken them both. He couldn’t cope. He had watched her fade away into nothing. More trembling and more tears.
He told the girl with the pink bubblegum hair that Melissa was the reason he woke in the morning. She was the reason he worked. She was the reason he laughed and now he had no reasons. No reasons at all.
In the hospital, as she drifted in and out of sleep in her final moments, she said that she was “going home”. He had held her hand and told her it was okay. She didn’t have to fight anymore. She’d been brave enough and strong enough. It was time to rest if she wanted.
And with that she was gone.
And with that his tears stopped. He cleared his throat and drank deeply from his mug. He placed a crisp note on the table while the girl with the pink bubblegum hair wiped at her tears with her sleeve.
He stood and turned and began to leave. Through a sniffle the girl with the pink bubblegum hair asked if she’d see him tomorrow.
He didn’t look back, but with a sigh and slumped shoulders he shook his head.
“No. I’m going home too.”
And with that, he left.