Tulips for Alice

When it rains, we seldom have any customers at the cafe. Not that we ever had that many anyway. The most we ever have usually come at lunch, mostly from the courthouse and the bank and the local businesses, peppering mixed throughout the day with the elderly gentry who have nothing else to do with their retirements. The small town is drying up and it knows it, but in the stubborn way all small towns do, it refuses to give up. Maybe that's a residual effect from all the combined residents that make up Daisy Field. I don't know and stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago.

There's nobody out front, no reason for me to be out there hovering over the coffee pot, so I'm sitting back here watching soap operas and staring at my notebook. I stole it from my middle girl on the pretext of writing out a grocery book and never gave it back. I should have bought one for myself, it's just a cheap spiral bound notebook, but I just couldn't. Nobody in the house knows I write, not even my husband, and I'd like to keep it that way for a little while longer. At least until I could write something I wouldn't mind sharing with somebody. High school broke me from the habit of showing everyone what I wrote. There was only so many times I could listen to them snickering at my stupid little romances before I pretended like I gave them up. I never did, I couldn't, but it made life easier when my friends and teachers stopped trying to convince me to do something worthier with my time. They never went so far as to offer any suggestion as to what that might be, just to quit wasting my time.

So far this morning, I've scribbled a couple of ideas in my cabbaged notebook, some things that came to me earlier this morning that I thought might make a good idea for another romance novel, but none of them are panning out. Like so many of my previous affairs of the heart, these are turning out to be duds. Everything I write is starting to get a sameness to it, and it's starting to look as dull and endless as my own life. Work, kids, home. Cook, clean, drive. Smile, hide, and cry.

The chimes above the door tinkle together but I wait a little bit before I go out front. I really want something I've written to turn into something good. I'm not even asking for gold. Quartz would be nice. Just something tangible so I can show it to somebody and say, hey, I did this. I guess my baby and me are the same when it comes to wanting someone to say we did a good job.

I wait for the magic, but nothing happens. I slide off the barstool and head out front, pad and pencil in hand. Pleasurable small talk and good tips are directly proportional to one another and I need every little dollar bill I can get. So I pour coffee and gossip and smile- a lot more than I feel like smiling. I have two standard greetings for my customers and I use them depending on my mood. When things are nice, when the kids or my husband or mama aren't giving me any problems and my customers have more or less been nice, then I give a big smile, welcome them to the Daisy Café and point out the soups of the day and recommend the coffee and the pecan pie. When things haven't been so good, I say "What you want?" and stand there with one hip cocked and my pad and pencil in hand and wait for them to decide. It's a "What you want?" kind of day.

My customer, the only one inside, is an older lady sitting at one of the booths lining the dirt-smudged windows. She watches a coal truck rumble by, spraying mud and slop in a wash onto the sidewalk. A lot of it hits the window. She leans back like she's afraid of getting splashed, and then laughs at her own foolishness when it splatters the window. Her laughter is loud and full, a surprise coming from her tiny body.

I've never seen the woman before. She looks like she's on the far edges of her sixties. Her hair is covered with a daisy-patterned scarf to protect it from the rain but curls of silvery hair sneak free. She's slight the way most petite woman become when they age. Her face is small, spotted with age, but her features still delicate. Her neck is the same as those of a million old women, but her chin is like a cliff that refuses to give in to an eroding ocean. I can't see her eyes behind the slash of reflected fluorescent light across the lenses of her wire-frame glasses, but none of that draws me to her table. The tulips do that.

The tulips spill out of the crinkled green paper in a garden of yellow, bright as smiley faces against the dingy Formica.

"Somebody sick?" It's the first time in two years that something other than those two things have come out of my mouth.

She looks up at me, for one moment startled to find someone towering over her. Her thin, nearly lipless mouth turns up at the corners, a mischievous smile any two year old would be proud of.

"I'm sorry, dear, but I'm deaf in my left ear. What was that?"

I gesture to the tulips wrapped up in crinkled paper with a stab of my chewed-up red pen. "The flowers. You going to the hospital or something?"

She leans one arm on the table and stares up at me, the smile growing wider. "Hell, no. These are for me."

The profanity takes me aback, but I find myself smiling back. "Boyfriend?" I say with a wink.

She makes a rude noise. "You ever saw a man that could pick out halfway decent flowers? I saw them in the window at that little flower shop down the street and I decided I wanted them. Nothing special. I just wanted them."

It seems fair enough for me. I can't remember the last time I bought flowers just because I felt like it. It always seems there's something else crying for the money more.

"What can I get you, ma'am?"

"What do you recommend, doll?" She hasn't opened the coffee-stained menu yet and doesn't reach for it.

I feel like I'm in sixth grade math and called on to answer a question when I haven't been paying attention to the lecture because I was writing another one of my stories. "The pecan pie is really good today. Coffee's fresh and hot. Just put it on."

"Sounds fabulous."

I scribble 'coffee and pecan' on my little pad and give her a smile. "Be right back, ma'am."

"Stop with that ma'am stuff," she practically yells at me as I retreat behind the counter.

I didn't ask if she wanted black or decaf, but I'm pretty good about reading people when it comes to coffee. Bottom of the pot coffee drinkers are worlds apart from the two creams and three sugars. I grab the pot with the black rim and a clean green mug with white daisy petals off the counter. I slide open the door to the little refrigerated display and take out one of the Saran-wrapped slices of pecan pie and juggle all three items across the café to the booth.

"Here you go." I pour a cup of coffee, let it rise almost all the way to the rim, and then set the little plate of pie in front of her. No coffee or sugar for this one. She'd probably look at me like I was silly to ruin perfectly good coffee with cream and sugar.

"You call me if you need something, okay?" I smile, know it looks as fake as it feels, and turn to go to my little stool in the back room and finish watching the soap opera on television and moping over my notebook.

She grabs my apron before I get two steps toward the counter. She tugs, practically drags me backwards into the booth.

"Get your butt back here. I haven't talked to anybody all day and if I've learned nothing in sixty eight years, it's that waitresses know all the good gossip."

"I don't," I say.

She tips her head to the side, her silvery curls touching her shoulder. "Bullshit," she says cheerfully. "That either means you're a liar or you are the gossip."

I'm definitely not the gossip. I couldn't be any less the gossip if I didn't exist. I look down once again at the tulips. "Those are some pretty flowers, ma'am." I say, not knowing what else to say.

"Alice, dear. Ma'am makes me feel old." She sips her coffee, her mouth leaving red crescents on the rim of the cup.

I touch the tips of the petals and smile at the softness, like a baby's kiss. I can't remember the last time I got flowers for anything. I can't even remember the last time I wanted flowers.

"You don't belong here," Alice says. "You're not happy."

"I'm happy," I say, surprised at how unconvincing I sound.

"The war cry of every woman in the world who can't justify her misery. She just ignores it and hopes it will go away. Trust me, dear, it won't. You have to do that for yourself. Besides, you're too smart to be working in a place like this. Why on earth are you even here? Why aren't you in college or something?"

"I was," I say, defensive even in my own ears.

"Why aren't you now? That's the important question, isn't it?"

"You know how it goes," I say, talking more to the flowers than to Alice. "First one youngin needs glasses, then another needs braces, then I break the crankshaft in the Escort and my husband gets hurt at work and has to miss for a couple of weeks. You know, stuff just piles up and I haven't seen a tree yet that sprouts dollar bills."

"Men make plans and the gods laugh," Alice says. I must look really confused, because she smiles and takes my hand. "It's Greek. I used to teach literature to high schoolers, dear. What is it you really want to do? I know this isn't it."

I laugh because I don't know what else to do. Alice holds my gaze and I see a little bit of that schoolmarm who took no nonsense from students who could do better if they just would.

"I write," I say.

She doesn't blink. "Write what? Stories? Poetry? Come dear, that doesn't tell me much."

My face starts to burn with embarrassment. "Romance stuff." I wait for the patronizing smile but it never comes. Alice still watches me with those bright blue eyes, warm and patient.

"Well, what kind? Historical? Contemporary? I'm not a psychic."

"Historical." I smile. "You're the first teacher I ever had who didn't tell me I was wasting my time writing romances."

She waves her hand. "I have no idea how talented you are or are not, dear. All I know is that you write."

"Well, I used to. I ain't in a while, being busy and all."

"Life happens while you make other plans."

"Is that Greek, too?"

"John Lennon, love." She takes a cigarette out of her small blue clutch purse and lights it. She extends the pack to me. I start to reach for it, then clasp my hands together in my lap.

"I quit."

"So did I." She waggles the pack and I take one, a Cool, and put it in my mouth. She flicks the striker and the silver cigarette lighter comes to life. It has the Mack Truck logo of a naked lady on it. I stare at it, surprised. I've seen a dozen just like it, but never in the hands of a little old lady.

"It's my ex-husband's." She snaps the cap and puts it back into her purse.

"You're divorced?"

"Three times." She exhales a cloud of smoke above her head, makes a smoke ring and spears it with her fingers. "Well, go get me something to read."

"But I- I can't- I mean, I'm supposed to be working?" It comes out as a question but I'm so afraid that I can't make my voice more than a squeak. I was in high school the last time anyone read anything I wrote.

"I'm sure all the patrons of this establishment will gladly grant you a few moments to let an old woman read your stories." She gestures to the empty room with a wave of her cigarette. "Go on, I know you have a notebook or something here."

I go because I'm afraid not to. I get my filched notebook from the back room and bring it out to her, holding it to my chest like a shield. She takes it from me and starts scanning. I stand for a while, feeling the urge to bolt, but she continues to ignore me. I sink back into the seat; clasp my hands nervously in my lap. Her eyes at first skim the lines, then slow, moving word over word across the lines.

"Pen!" she commands. I take the chewed ink pen from behind my ear; the best I can do, and hand it to her. She takes it without looking and begins marking all over the page. I open my mouth to tell her to stop, because its mine, the only thing I have that is completely mine, but I shut my mouth and hunker down and wait for the worst to be over.

She continues to write, making savage pen strokes and jotting notes in the margins. I dig my fingers into the table, accidentally stick my finger into a wad of chewed gum stuck to the underside, and try to read through the notebook to see what she's doing. After fifteen minutes of reading, she finally comes to the last page and puts the notebook down. I expect blobs of red ink to be staining the pages like blood, but I see only a few spelling changes and interspersed commas.

"It's a nice start, dear."

I wait for her to add, for a silly romance, but she doesn't. I wait for anything, but she doesn't speak. "But?"

"It's a nice start. That's all you have written so far. I can't very well critique a book that hasn't been written yet. Write more. You are going to write it, aren't you?"

"I guess."

She purses her lips together and once again the terror of the classroom peers through. Like a student, I forge ahead. "I don't really have time to write right now."

She waves her hand again then stabs the pencil at me. "Let me tell you how to deal with your issue of lack of time. Your children are old enough to start doing things for themselves. Let them. They won't like it, but they will adjust. I know. I raised five, most of the time without help. If I could find time to paint during all that, then you can find the time to put words on paper. I guarantee your husband can do more for himself than you're letting him. We have a tendency to spoil men anyway. Take an hour for yourself of an evening. Lock yourself in the bathroom with your little notebook and sit in that water until something comes to you. Stay there until you're a prune if you have to. Lock the door and don't let them in for anything. Even if they say they're about to bust, don't let them in. Little boys can go outside behind a tree if they have to. Let them. They'd probably like it."

Knowing my little boys, she's probably right. John probably wouldn't like it, though.

She lights another cigarette. "I know I'm probably going to hell for this, but the road is much more interesting. You think about what makes Trisha happy, dear, and let Johnny, Suzy, and Billy figure out how to deal with it on their own."

Alice glances out the window. The rain has stopped and the sun is struggling to break through. Outside, another coal truck rambles by, showers the window with a film of muddy water.

"I should be going now, if I want to make Asheville by dark." She reaches across the table and squeezes my arm. Her skin is soft, reminds me of a handkerchief a lonely teenage girl might hide away in a trinket box with locks of hair and unsent love letters.

"I will expect to see your name on a bestseller's list someday. I'll be looking in the bookstores everyday until I see you there."

"You'll see me," I say, hoping again for the first time in a long time that might be true." She heads for the door, leaving her flowers behind.

"Alice, your flowers."

"Keep them, dear. Where ever in the world would I keep them?" The chimes of the door tinkle again, and I watch her float down the sidewalk and around the corner. Just like that, she's gone and I know I'll never see her again. I finger the yellow petals, and then take them and my notebook to the back for something to put them in until I get home.