This story is by Danie Botha and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The business of attending the funeral of a parent was no trivial matter.
He was not going.
In spite of having dressed the part: suit, tie, sapphire shirt, dress shoes, and cufflinks. He stood waiting for the taxi outside the hotel when a gust ripped around the corner, showering traffic and pedestrians with ochre and copper leaves. Tucking his coat, he hurried across the street, allowing the draft to steer him.
The lineup at the coffee shop was short; it was early. He remained standing, to the side, savoring the aroma. Stole a second glance at the barista who had served him. Something about her. He turned to find a seat.
He tried to recall a day with his father that was without bitterness.
He hated himself for it.
He tried harder, probed the attic spaces of his childhood memories. Again he came up empty handed.
There was only this tart taste.
He was shocked when he had received the text. Nothing prepares one for the death of a parent. Sent from Michelle’s phone.
Dad has passed.
Instant relief had flooded him.
He laughed. Then he cried.
“Your second espresso.”
“I’m sorry. Thank you.”
What was it to her if he ordered two coffees?
Last night he spoke to his other sister.
“Mark, you need help. You are wallowing in self-pity. Here’s the number of a psychologist.” That was Mandy. Always taking care of her older brother. “Think happier thoughts, Mark.”
Happiness. Hah. It’s an illusion. Chased by millions and seldom obtained.
“Father. The bastard.”
“He’s dead, Mark.”
“He’s still a bastard. Look what he’s done to Mother. To the two of you.”
“Mom’s okay. She’s forgiven him. Dad had his good points. We have to do the same. The forgiveness thing. That’s why I gave you the number.”
“I won’t go to a shrink. I’m not paying someone to listen to a sob story about my unhappy childhood that has permeated every segment of my life, has destroyed my self-confidence, is partially responsible for the failure of my marriage, is the reason I replace my secretary every six months, exercise compulsively for two hours every day, and drive a red two-seater.”
“Sir? Your next espresso.”
“Oh, thank you.”
He noticed how she eyed him when she pushed the cup closer. What’s her problem? I’m not the only one with a suit in here. I can order as many coffees as I bloody well like. He glanced around at the other customers, suddenly uncomfortable.
How dare she?
She has blue lips. Why hasn’t he noticed it?
Who in God’s name puts, em>Bleu de France,/em> on their lips? Her hair is cropped too short. Moth-eaten. The highlights saved it. Thirty-something. Strong face. Body’s okay. Lean.
He shook his head and pulled a napkin from the dispenser and searched for a better seat—a corner stool.
It has to be by the window.
There is science involved with coffee shops. Where to sit. Which way to face. And, what to drink.
Oh, the sorrow.
The taxi had dropped him off at the hotel the previous evening. He had declined both sisters’ invitation to go and stay with one of them. It was better this way.
There were few happy moments growing up. Limited laughter.
Father allowed running, but not on Sundays. Or playing with friends.
It was a sin to do anything else on a Sunday.
Except go to church.
He startled when a small twister blasted arms-full of sienna and ochre leaves and dirt against the window. The entire summer is gone. Half of my life is gone. What with all the shit with Sandy and the lawyers. Dear Lord, he hated lawyers.
Father seldom hit them. But he knew how to hurt. With surgical precision, he’d leave laser-sharp wounds. Belittle them. Humiliate. Those were wounds of the soul. Scars of the heart.
I hate the man.
He pulled out a high chair and slipped out of his jacket.
Reading was allowed on Sundays.
He again heard Mandy’s voice. “Damn it, Mark. You’re talking about stuff of thirty-five years ago. Let it go!”
No. It’s inexcusable. Dad died without ever saying, “I’m sorry for all the misery I’ve put you and your sisters and mother through.”
The pretentious bastard.
He ordered another coffee.
Glanced at his wrist.
There was time. It wasn’t until two.
They will miss him.
Mother. The twins. They must be in a panic. Michelle feeding off Mandy. They’ve never stopped doing this.
He ignored the chiming of his cell phone.
When Mark took his fourth espresso from the dispensing counter, the barista with the blue lips smiled at him, as she did with all the customers. But she held his eyes this time, not breaking contact. That was fraternizing with clients, wasn’t it? He looked away first.
Her eyes implored, are you okay, sir?
Did she see his hurt?
He took his cup and shuffled to his corner.
Mother. A smile broke through as he observed people rushing past, leaning in against gusts that swooped them along with the fading leaves.
Dearest mother. How did she do it? Stayed the course with Dad for fifty-eight years.
And I didn’t last fifteen with Sandy. Couldn’t stand her in the end. She was the one who had an affair.
He slipped the folded sheets from the jacket’s inner pocket. Ironed it flat with his hand, careful not to knock his coffee over. A piece he had written.
,em>How do we pen—the grit, the good, the damage, the smother?
So easy to choke in our hurt,
forgive him we must—less bound we will stay in the dirt …
His eyes brimmed. His shoulders sagged. Two hours. He noticed the barista wiping tables behind him. ,em>Blue lips. What a way to make a statement. He smoothed the papers with an aggressive sweep. This time the cup toppled over. He grappled helplessly as the liquid streaked down. Mark lurched toward the napkin counter.
He thwacked into Miss Blue-lips, sending her flying.
Red faced, he scrambled to his feet, mumbling, “Sorry, Miss.”
She allowed him to pull her to her feet—pupils wide. Face glowing. Chest heaving.
Close enough to read her name tag: Sophie.
He breathed cherry blossoms.
She pried her hand free.
Mark blinked and wiped over his eyes.
He insisted on helping her wipe up his spill.
She dabbed the coffee from his paper when her eyes caught the title; scanned the last lines.
Blue-lips sucked her breath, bit her lip. “You’re dressed as if for the office. But you’re not going?” She handed him the stained sheets. “You’re hurting.”
She reached out again, uncertain.
He rustled the pages. “Dad’s funeral.”
“Who’ll be there?”
“Mother. Two sisters.”
“You can still make it.” Her eyes softened. Hopeful.
The eyes said yes. “I have to get back.” She paused. “I’m off at four. Perhaps … there’s a park nearby.”
He put out a hand. “Sophie, I’m Mark Miller.”
She squeezed his hand and disappeared into the back.
Mark reached the church with fifteen minutes to spare. He wiggled past his mother and plopped down between her and Michelle. Mandy, on the other side, rose and swept Mark to his feet for a proper embrace. She raised her voice above the din and organ music, “Rascal. We almost sent the marines!”
Once the pastor had finished the brief service, Mark took to the lectern. Halfway through reading, Ode to a father, he choked up. Mandy and Michelle raced to his aid.
Mark slipped into the coffee shop at ten to four without placing an order. The lady with the blue lips met his eyes and gave a discreet wave.
Outside, they shook hands again.
The apron was gone, including the blue lips. She shivered, buttoned her crimson coat to below her chin.
He touched his lips. “Why did you take it off?”
“You didn’t like it.”
“I never said that.”
“Your eyes did.”
Sophie pointed the way. They ambled in comfortable silence, Sophie having taken his arm when a crisp wind billowed her coat.
They crossed the park, crunching leaves, to find an empty bench.
“Do you mind if I read the entire piece?”
He scooped a bronzed linden leaf, placed it on her lap. Then he told her about him becoming unable to complete the reading. About his sisters bolting to the front and holding his hands.
They wandered farther.
“Did you invite me here out of pity?” He searched her eyes. “I’m a mess. You don’t want to become involved.”
Sophie shook her head. “I’ve had my share of sorrows, Mr. Miller.” She clasped his hand. A bounce returned to her step. “You’ve stirred a feeble flame inside.” She dabbed her chest. “I’ve given up on mankind. On men. Will you walk with me?”
Mark stopped, held her back. “Only if you paint your lips blue again.”