I had the idea for this story quite suddenly one day when I was washing dishes.
Café de la Vie has a legend. You wouldn’t think so to look at it, nestled here on a New Orleans side street between the redbrick apartments on one side and the hattery on the corner. You could pass it by and never even notice, except for the rich scent of coffee and croissants that drifts out the open windows and lingers enticingly in the chill morning air; but then, I of all people should know better. I can’t help smiling to see it again. The streets of this city may be strangers to me after fifty years, but this little coffeeshop, with its cracked sign and the sunlight glinting off of the golden letters, will always be home.
A college student sitting by the window looks up as I approach the door, and hurries to rise and hold it open for me, a cup of espresso still in his hand. The white hair of my reflection peeks at me through the panes of glass, and I can’t help remembering another bright winter morning. The reality of it all sweeps over me like the scent of coffee as I enter, and I smile at the young man as I step through the door.
The girl behind the counter looks up from her conversation with a customer as the bell above the door chimes. A strand of her dark hair, escaped from her bun, keeps falling into her bright hazel eyes as she comes forward to wait on me. Croissants gleam temptingly from the display case, and the deep green of spinach hides in the depths of little quiches. I order breakfast and move around to a high stool by the counter. A businessman in a suit and a cherry-red tie stands as I approach, and at the far end of the counter an older man nods and smiles in greeting.
The bell above the door sounds its familiar chime again as a young woman enters. She waves across the room at a group of her friends, pauses to talk for a moment with two men who stand to greet her, and orders coffee before making her way to the table of girls. The businessman turns to me, his red tie shining in a stray beam of sunlight.
“I don’t think I’ve met you, ma’am. Jacob Lanphier.”
“It’s good to meet you, Mr. Lanphier.”
The waitress arrives with my breakfast; smells of coffee and hot food tickle my nose as I lean over it to say grace. As I pick up my fork, I notice a bookcase set in the corner of a window, across the room. Books pile the shelves: upright, on their sides, some lying open across the tops of their companions; but on top of them all one stands upright, its pages fanned and its gold trim glinting in the sun.
I turn to Mr. Lanphier. “What book is that?”
He sets down his fork and smiles. “Oh, there’s a story to that one.” He pauses, leans back, and takes a long sip of coffee. The waitress ambles over, and her white towel makes a rhythmic swish, swish as she wipes the counter. Mr. Lanphier sets down his cup. “I wasn’t there myself; it happened a long time ago. Years and years, they say. But everyone knows the story.
“There was a girl; I don’t remember her name, but they say she came to the café every morning. She’d always order the same thing: a quiche, and a latte. With whipped cream.” The waitress nods in agreement.
“Everybody knew her, and she knew everybody else. It was pretty much like it is now, I guess.” He glances at the waitress, and she smiles back. Mr. Lanphier leans forward, setting his elbows on the counter. “and every morning she’d sit here at the counter, and she’d take out her notebook and pen. She was a writer, you see.”
The pen flew across the faded lines of the paper; the half-eaten quiche sat to the side, atop a faded little Bible with worn gold lettering. One corner of the cover had been torn off.
“Whenever anyone would ask her what she was writing, all she’d ever say was, ‘A story.’ But she’d sit there every morning and write until she lost track of the time, and when almost everyone had left she would finally realize what time it was, and rush out the door. And everyone was used to it, and the waitresses would always make sure she got to work on time. ”
I chew thoughtfully, savoring the taste of the quiche as I remember. At the other end of the counter the old man stares into his coffee, a smile hovering about his lips.
The pen, the paper – they were life. They were every moonless night; they were every violinist on every street corner; they were every tiny flower pushing through a crack in the sidewalk, every cracked window that somehow gave a more piercing beauty to the stars. Here, in a coffeeshop, they all came to life.
“If anyone asked her why, she would say that she had to; that the words were penned up inside her, and she had to let them out. And so they let her write, and though none of them would ever have admitted it, they were all waiting for the day when her story would be finished, when they could finally read it. And that was just how it was. Until one day.”
The chime of the bell over the door cut through the words and the scent of fresh, hot pastry.
Mr. Lanphier pauses to sip his coffee. I pick up my own cup, and close my eyes as the richness of coffee and cardamom floods my mouth.. No one makes a latte like Café de la Vie.
“A man came into the café one day.”
His casual business suit was immaculate. He smiled brightly at the waitress as he ordered a croissant and a large espresso, no sugar.
“He came and sat next to her, and introduced himself.”
The light cream color of the card he laid down shone against the dark marble of the countertop. Graceful scrolling lines formed the image of an open book below his name.
“His name was Charles Crawford; he was a publisher.”
Outside, a group of teenage girls saunter past the window. Their dark hair glows in the sunlight, and the wind twirls strands of it into their faces. Two young men hail them from across the street.
“He fell in love with her writing as soon as he saw it, and he asked her if he could publish it when it was done.”
“It’s not ready yet.”
“I guess he didn’t realize at first that he was falling in love with her, too.”
I savor the velvety sweetness of whipped cream as memories wash over me.
He came every morning. At first he just ate his breakfast and drank his coffee and left, but before long he started staying longer to talk. And for some reason, when he was late, I found that my stomach did a flip every time the bell chimed.
“It seems she fell in love with him, too. They grew to be great friends; and as time went on, everyone realized they were becoming much more than just friends. Every morning they would meet here. Sometimes they would come in the evenings too, and then they would talk for hours.”
Somehow, the words seemed to come so much easier when we would just sit there in the morning, I writing, he doing whatever it is that publishers do. The day I finished my first draft was a day of celebration – not just for us, but for the entire café. The college students who always sat at the corner table by the window bought a whole tray of pastries, and the waitress sprinkled my whipped cream with chocolate curls.
“But then one morning it all changed.” He stares into space as the waitress twists a corner of her towel, caught up in the old story. Outside, one of the girls tosses her coppery hair in laughter.
The warmth of coffee and hot pastries enveloped me as I stepped in out of the frigid morning air. Two of the young men at the corner table waved in greeting, and one hoisted his chocolate croissant into the air with a grin.
“One day, he didn’t come.”
He must be late. But I waited until everyone had left except the old men, the ones with nothing to do but sit in the sun and talk; and still he didn’t come. Every time the bell chimed, I would look up. Surely it would be him; but it never was.
“He didn’t come the next day, or the next.”
I came every morning, just like I always did; like I always had. And I worked on my story, losing myself deep in the world of paragraphs and sentences. But somehow it was harder to work through the gritty details of sentences and phrases, to evaluate each and every word, while part of me was always listening for the chime of the bell above the door. And I still waited.
“She waited for weeks, even months.”
I sat, alone, gazing into the patterns of the dark marble countertop. The pen lay idle by my hand; outside the stars were clouded over.
“He’ll come back.” The young man sat beside me and set down a half-eaten chocolate croissant.
I sipped a cup of tea, and the spicy cinnamon taste of chai flooded my tongue. Finally, I looked up. “How do you know?”
“She came at night, too.”
My third cup of tea was half empty; the little Bible with its torn cover lay open atop the faded notebook. The words swam before my tired eyes; or maybe it was tears that blurred the prayers of the ancient psalmist.
“And she kept writing. She threw herself into it, losing herself in the story.”
My pen was no longer just a sword. All of the hopes and fears I hadn’t really known I possessed poured out onto the pages. I was a flower, shaken and tossed and nearly broken by the winter winds. I was drowning in the river of my own dissolving dreams, and my pen was the trumpet that cried for help.
“They say she prayed for him every morning and every night.”
And in the stillness of the night, I was answered.
“They would see her there late at night, head bowed over her notebook and a tattered little Bible.”
The bottom of the page was wrinkled with dampness; whether tea or tears, who could tell. But the words were still visible.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
“Well, she waited, until winter turned into spring, and summer to autumn, and autumn to winter again.”
A frigid wind whipped the scarf about my face as I stepped out the door. Clouds cloaked the moon, and the pale yellow glow of a streetlamp hid the stars. Only a few pedestrians hurried along the darkened street, eager to escape the wind and threatening rain.
There was a man just coming up; he reached out to hold the door as I left. I turned to thank him, but as I looked up, I saw his face.
“And finally, one night, he came back.”
The glow of the streetlamp over us was golden, and the wind was forgotten. But then he looked at me, and all I saw in his eyes was sadness.
“He had been called up north to care for his mother, who was dying.”
His words washed over me with a wave of sorrow. I knew that grief; I had lived it, twice.
“It had been sudden, and he had left right away. He had come back one last time to say goodbye. “
“I had been going to give you this.” His whisper came out choked.
“He had to go back, and he hadn’t known how to tell her that he couldn’t ask her to go with him.”
The gold of the ring was cool against my fingers as I took it from his palm. The jewel shone silver as I slipped it on my finger.
Mr. Lanphier gazes absently out the window, the long-forgotten coffee cup silent at his elbow. Outside, the girls are finally heading off down the street; one flips her copper-colored hair back over her shoulder as she turns to wave goodbye at the boys, and two of the others share a knowing laugh.
“The wedding was just a few days later. They were married in the café, with a waitress for a bridesmaid and the biggest wedding cake you’ve ever seen.”
I had no wedding gown, just a stylish green dress with a matching scarf; but the waitress had picked me a bunch of winter wildflowers so big I could barely hold it. The clouds were gone, and a winter sun beamed through the windows. The pastor of the church down the street intoned the wedding vows, and when he kissed me, the whole café burst into cheers.
“And then they left, and went up north, and no one here ever saw them again. But they heard about her. The book she wrote finally got published. She was a famous author, and the world knew her name. But the world never knew her story. They never knew how she got married in a coffeeshop – our coffeeshop.”
I look up to see the sun still shining through the windows; only now, it’s shining on Mr. Lanphier, and the young waitress who smiles back at him. But the old man at the end of the counter is looking at me. He winks at me as he raises his chocolate croissant ever so slightly in salute; and I know there is still one person who has not forgotten my name.
So I turn back to Mr. Lanphier and the waitress, and I look at them both with a smile as I set down my coffee cup. “Let me tell you a story.”