The waitress glanced over at the bearded man in the corner. He had been sitting here for several hours, now, and she was starting to feel a little concerned.
This wasn’t the first time that a senior citizen had wandered into the coffee shop and refused to leave. The waitress could still remember that incident a couple of months ago, when a man with Alzheimer’s insisted that his daughter “would be along to pick me up any minute.”
So, once she had a few free minutes between waves of customers, the waitress sidled over towards where the bearded man sat, his cup of coffee in front of him long since gone cold.
“Sir?” the woman said as she stepped up to the table, her tone not impolite. “Sir, is everything okay over here? You’ve been nursing that cup of coffee for a while.”
The man glanced up at her as she spoke. His eyes were bright and focused, she observed with a hint of hope. Maybe he would turn out to just be some philosopher, reflecting on some problem for a local college, or some harmless story like that.
“Oh, things are quite fine, Virginia,” he replied, his tone gentle. “I’m just reflecting back on my past, you know? Trying to think of, if I could do it all over, what changes I might make. What I might do differently.”
The waitress was startled for a moment. How did this man know her name? But then she remembered that she was at work, in uniform – including a name tag – and relaxed. A glance towards the front of the shop showed no angry and impatient line of customers, so she slid down into the seat opposite the elderly man. Her back fit smoothly into the two indentations carved into the back of the chair. It felt good to take the weight off of her feet, even if just for a minute or two.
“Well, I certainly can think of a few things I’d change!” she commented, rolling her eyes. “But hey, you made it to this age without killing yourself or losing any limbs, so you must have done something right?”
The man just smiled kindly at her, his eyes twinkling in amid the mass of white hair. He had similar gray running all down his back, and his hands looked wrinkled but still able to move and grasp. He looked oddly like one of Virginia’s grandparents, in that distant sort of way that all older people look the same. Something about him radiated trustworthiness, insisted that he couldn’t cause any real harm. Despite her natural cynicism, Virginia felt oddly at ease.
“I suppose that I’ve done a lot right – but in broader terms, wouldn’t you say that the world is a bit off track?” he asked, spreading out his hands as if to encompass the whole globe in a single shrug. “Maybe, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out, they wouldn’t have had such war and bloodshed.”
Virginia couldn’t hold back a laugh at that. “Really? Dinosaurs? The big lizards with the huge teeth?” she replied, still chuckling. “You think that they’d ever learn to get along?”
“Intelligent plants, perhaps? I do like the photosynthesis. They wouldn’t go to war with each other.”
“What, like the whole world would get six months’ vacation every winter?” Virginia asked, almost liking the idea. “But wouldn’t they all start fighting over who has to go live in cloudy places like Seattle?”
The man laughed at that – a rolling, deep belly laugh that was naturally infectious. Virginia laughed along with him, imagining the absurdity of plants that could actually think. Impossible!
“So, you like how things turn out,” the man finally concluded, as his laughter subsided. “You think that everything went as well as it could, in the end?”
“I mean, nothing’s perfect, but that doesn’t mean that any big changes would help,” Virginia replied after a minute of thinking. “You know what I mean?”
The man didn’t reply, but lifted his cup of cold coffee to his lips, gazing over the brim as if waiting for the waitress to continue.
“I mean, nothing ever works out like it should, does it?” the woman continued, feeling suddenly uncomfortable, as if speaking on a stage. “Like, we plan for it all to go perfectly, but no amount of planning accounts for everything that ends up going wrong. There’s always some moment where we have to sort of scramble to keep things together, but it all works out in the end. Doesn’t it?”
The man smiled at her, his eyes twinkling again, and Virginia felt as though she’d just managed to ace a speech. Warmth bloomed inside of her, and she couldn’t help but smile back. “It’s good to hear someone talk like that, with such an optimistic view,” the man told her, still beaming.
And with that, he pushed back his chair, standing and stretching his limbs out to the sides. “I think that I’m about done here, then,” he said, as Virginia rose up across from him.
The waitress also started to stand, but she felt herself catch for a minute against the back of the chair, and had to twist around to get free. “Although if there is one thing,” she started.
“What would that be?”
“Well, these wings,” Virginia said, gesturing at the offending appendages hanging off her back. “I mean, the scientists say that they help with balance or something, but they’re always getting in the way, and they can’t even keep us aloft more than a few seconds. It would be great if they weren’t in the way so much.”
“No wings,” the man said, nodding sagely. “A good suggestion. I thought they’d be perfect, but it’s like you say – things never quite work out perfect.”
“And while you’re at it,” Virginia kept going, suddenly feeling on a roll, “maybe you could get rid of this bobby glowing thing up above our heads. Makes it really tough to fall asleep at night.”
“No halos,” the man repeated, as if he was making a mental checklist in his head. “Got it. Anything else?”
Virginia shrugged, the wings making the gesture quite elaborate as she headed back up to the front of the coffee shop. “I think that’s about it,” she said. “So, do you need me to call someone to come pick you up, give you a ride home?”
Silence was her only answer. The waitress glanced up, and was startled to see that the man was gone. He must have ducked out the door while she was busy getting through the thin passage back behind the counter, she reasoned. Once again, her wings had gotten in the way, slowing her down.
About forty minutes later, after the next rush of customers was subsiding, she glanced down at herself, and noticed that her name tag was missing. She didn’t find it until she went back home that evening.