Dano was bussing the last table of the day when he saw him.
The table had been occupied by Miss Jess, the resident spinster. She wasn't really old, and she had at one time been married, but her dreams of having children were never realized. It wasn't something she talked about openly, but St. Laurent's wasn't a big place and people talked. They could see it in her countenance, the way she walked hunched over, hands in her pockets clutching tissues-the walk of a much older woman. They could tell from how her smile lingered over their own children, her face aglow with the mundane—the laughing and playing and fighting of children. Still, she was all in all a happy person, and tried to display that to the world, but still they talked and there was nothing she could do about it.
Dano always felt badly for her, and felt guilty about feeling badly. She wasn't asking for anyone's pity, and he felt that his earnest wish for her dreams to be realized was insulting.
"More coffee, Jess?" he had asked as quietly as possible. He didn't want to disturb her; she was reading. She set her book down, using her palm as a bookmark—not setting it facedown how some non booklovers might.
Dano was taken aback. He had done it. He had offended her. She could tell that he believed some of what he heard about her. She could see right through him.
"On what?" he managed to sputter out.
"If you'll join me. I was going to get out of your hair here shortly, but if you sat with me I'd feel less like I was putting you out."
"Nonsense. You can stay as long as you like."
He stood awkwardly holding the coffee pot and looked out the window.
"Are you going to sit down?"
He was laughing at himself while bussing the table. He must have looked like such a fool to Miss Jess, stuttering and stumbling over his words—a grown man acting like a schoolboy. He was laughing and clearing her silverware into his gray plastic container. They clinked against her empty coffee mug. He noticed when he put it up that it was still a little warm. It unnerved him how much he lingered. The warmth was from the coffee, not her hands. It was then that he looked up and saw his friend stumbling and falling. He was sure that it was Ole, even with his recognizable gait clearly impaired. He set down the gray plastic tub and wiped his hands on the front of his apron before opening the door to his diner. The bell tied to the handle tinkled lightly. He shouted:
No response. The figure stumbled again and fell flat on his face. Dano walked out fully, letting the door fall closed. He called out again, walking forward now.
"Ole! Are you alright?"
He had the figure's attention now. He lifted his head up and looked.
"You're laying in the middle of the road."
Oleander was able to get up on his haunches by the time Dano reached him.
"Guess I fell a bit," he said, rocking back slightly. Dano rested his hand on his friend's shoulder to keep him from falling over backwards into the road again.
"A bit? Didn't know you could fall just a bit."
"'s a gift."
"Let me help you up. Why don't you come get some coffee in the diner?"
"Bitty!" Ole basically yelled, his voice cracking at its peak volume. Dano said nothing, but hoisted his friend up and draped his arm over his shoulder.
"Gonna have to walk a little, Ole. I'm not as strong as you are."
They made their way slowly back to the diner, the short walk a marathon with Ole's inebriation and Dano's rather average body strength. Dano walked with his head down, his shoulders forced to hunch with the weight of his friend. It wasn't until they were nearly at the diner's door that he looked up. He looked up because he heard his own bell.
The bell had been a gift from Ole actually, several years before-just after Ole had showed up in town. He had been sitting at the counter, drinking his black coffee while Dano pretended to wipe down the counter with a dish rag.
"Don't have a bell."
"Your door," he said. "There's no bell on it. What if you're in the back and someone shows up?"
"I don't know."
Here was this man who Dano had only just met, telling him how to run his diner. Ole left a generous tip for his coffee and said:
"I'll get you a bell," and left.
So it was Ole's bell that rang out in the clear night as Dano dragged his friend. Dano looked up at the sound of the bell, and Ole mumbled, "Bell." Miss Jess was there, book underarm, glasses fogged, holding the door open.
"I came back," she said, and Dano cringed. He was too busy with Ole to wallow too much in his embarrassment. He was glad for that. As she had left earlier he had said,
"Come back anytime you like," and she had smiled, ignoring the ridiculous nature of his comment. Of course she can come back whenever she wants. It was a restaurant.
"I'm glad. Don't know if I could have opened the door and held this one."
"Drinking?" she asked.
"Certainly looks that way."
They hauled Ole together into the booth she had earlier occupied. The gray tub still sat atop it, the coffee mug with the warmth still balanced on top of her plates and silverware.
"I'll make some coffee," Dano said.
He left for the kitchen. The swinging kitchen door rocked in and out, showing brief glimpses of Dano preparing the coffee, but as its inertia waned the window into the kitchen became smaller and smaller until Dano was obscured entirely. Miss Jess turned to Ole.
"It's my fault," he said without a trace of hesitation in his voice. Jess tried to shush him, but he wouldn't listen.
"It was my fault."