With every step he was fighting against the rain, trying his best to hold his hat in place. It was a fedora. Ballcaps are overdone and overrated. He was making his way down Volusia Avenue toward the ocean, as that was his goal, to reach the unburdened roiling of the sea. It had been a while.
From the corner of his eye, he could see a rail-thin black cat trying its best to walk sideways against the wind, but occasionally giving up ground in order to pounce at something caught by the small river flowing into the gutter. The oncoming car that burst into the moment sent a small tidal wave, along with the cat, gushing onto the curb at his feet, and in that moment, he didn’t know whether to curse the car or laugh at it all.
Laughter won. He reached down to pick up the flailing cat as it tried to regain its footing, causing it to writhe all the more against a spontaneous kindness it perceived as a threat or perhaps couldn’t fathom at all. Whatever the reason, the feline continued its struggle as he placed it, with great effort and much pain from the claws to his hand, into the messenger bag at his side.
“You should at least be a bit drier in there for a while,” he said, barely able to hear his own voice above the wind-whipped downpour. The only reply was a hiss and the violent rattling of the bag against his hip, which gracefully and intermittently subsided after a moment. He pressed on toward the beach. He was close now. He could tell by the tears that started to caress his cheeks. A Shoney’s restaurant suddenly appeared in the gray mist to his left.
The tile of the foyer floor looked ancient, or at least from the 1950s: little white rectangles all laid out in parallel and perpendicular angles to each other, and all dirtied and slapdash from the rainy-muddy feet they had had to endure this day. He thought he could make out a familiar face in the haphazard patterns of the grime. Eliza? The bag stirred and rattled lightly at his side, perhaps in protest or approval of the No Doubt song playing faintly in the background.
“Dining alone today, sir?” the hostess asked in a tone that actually seemed genuine in its cheerfulness.
“Solo,” he replied, having to clear his throat and repeat the word more clearly. “Alone sounds so negative.”
“Oh,” she chirped with a plastic smile. “Right this way.”
He was lead to a roundabout booth at one of the front corners of the building, and took instant comfort in the way the rain played against the window, now soothing, now thrashing, now calm and rolling and pittering again. If he counted himself, there were four customers in the place, and none of them appeared to be so young as he, nor as high-strung. In fact, their calm and unconcerned demeanor was like a slap to his face.
“Afternoon… welcome to Shoney’s!” The voice startled him, and his start in turn caused the waitress to flinch a bit. “Start you out with something to drink?”
“Your hair,” he said, nearly whispering.
The waitress almost-defensively put a hand in her wavy auburn locks, shoulder length and a source of unhideable pride for her. “What about it?”
He stared at her, his eyes dancing from hers and then to her hair and back, sustaining an uncomfortable seconds-long silence. “I knew someone,” he finally replied, turning his gaze back to the window.
“I’m sure it’s quite a story,” she said. “Drink?”
“Coffee,” he said. She nodded her head, and as she began to turn away, he grabbed her elbow with a swiftness that both scared and somehow electrified her. “Hot,” he said with authority. “Hot, hot-hot, hot coffee.” The bag rustled and bumped on the booth cushion beside him, and he wondered if she had even noticed.
“Straight from the pot to the microwave,” she said with a forced smile, and, turning, fled abruptly.
An elderly gentlemen, trying to enjoy a turkey club a couple of tables over, had sensed the awkward tension in the vicinity, and turned not in time to see the terse interaction between server and customer, but a wet young man in the corner booth, hunched over and talking into what appeared to be a decently-sized brown purse.
The rain was beginning to ease up when she returned. The cup she sat on the table before him was bellowing forth a cloud of steam, a veritable veil forming between them. “Are you ready to order?”