By Ronan Ryan
Janet had a weakness for weakness.
That was why she was drawn to Denny, and not romantically, God, no; she was drawn to him in the way people are drawn to the images they see on TV or online of bomb sites, cars wrapped around trees, murder scenes, that kind of thing. She looked at him and thought what happened there? He appeared to be on the downward slide and she was curious whether he had it in him to pull out of it. If she was honest, she wasn’t optimistic.
She remembered the first time he walked into the café she managed, how startled he was by the chime of the bell over the door. He wasn’t much older than her, maybe mid-fifties, or a few years younger and he’d let himself go a bit, although the belly he had on him wouldn’t have been as obvious if he wasn’t wearing a tight-fitting white t-shirt over similarly tight blue jeans, and, as he joined the queue, falling in behind a woman with a stroller, he felt the need to assure her, ‘Don’t mind me, take your time. I’m just here for a coffee, a black coffee, and what a lovely child you have!’
Except she wasn’t minding him; someone else was before her in the queue and she had to take her time; he wasn’t trespassing and he was under no obligation to justify his presence to his fellow customers; and with the back of the stroller to him and the canopy lowered, the child wasn’t even visible to him so he was only guessing that he or she was lovely – Janet did glimpse the drooling, sleeping child, without determining its sex, and evaluated him or her to be of middling loveliness – and the mother smiled politely at Denny and didn’t otherwise engage.
When it was his turn to be served, he asked Janet about her day, gave her an unprompted review of the weather, and complimented the establishment, both were also ‘lovely’, but he became flummoxed when he got to the ordering part, scanning the board for something he couldn’t find, until she suggested an americano – if he didn’t add milk, it would qualify as a black coffee – and he was agreeable, then was flummoxed again when she asked if he’d care for a bite to eat too, ‘Like a muffin?’
And he smiled as if a treat such as that might be the solution to all his problems.
He sat at a table by himself, slurping his coffee and tearing his muffin to pieces before eating them, smiling at people without receiving many smiles in return, and, when he left, she thought that’d be the last she’d see of him but he returned a couple of days later, and a couple of days after that, and they were soon on a first-name basis and, as he became one of the most regular regulars, they stuck to cheerful small talk, or he was cheerful and she did her best to reciprocate, and, while they didn’t divulge the personal details of their lives, she noticed things about him.
An americano and a chocolate-chip muffin were his ‘usual’ and he had a favourite table, in the far corner from the bar, by the bay windows, and he never brought a book or a magazine. Occasionally, he might occupy himself with his phone, texting or briefly scrolling through something on his browser, although mostly he left it to the side, and on some days he wore a wedding ring, and on others he didn’t, but he didn’t give off a married vibe, not really, like she thought he might be recently divorced or permanently separated with a divorce pending. That made more sense than the idea of him having a wife at home, waiting to take loving care of him, and he was behaving like he was single, idling his time away here and if an attractive or semi-attractive woman was sitting alone at a table in his vicinity, he’d try to catch her eye and engage her in conversation, then if she was at all short with him, he’d back off as if burned, and try his luck again the next day with another woman. And Janet never observed these conversations go anywhere. If there were pot-bellied middle-aged men out there who were adept at picking up women in cafés, Denny wasn’t among them.
An avid people-watcher herself, she recognized that his table was the prime vantage point in the café, providing him with a view of everyone inside as well as of the footfall on the pavement outside, and extending to the comings and goings of a massage parlour across the street, a small place with a shopfront in need of a new paint job and with a sun-bleached poster of its cheap prices in the window, and, when she visited its website, she couldn’t tell for sure how shady it was – a disclaimer stated that they ‘offered non-sexual massages only’ but then there was a gallery featuring full-body shots of the exclusively young and pretty girls who worked there, posing with hand on hip and smiling fetchingly, over captions describing them as ‘highly attentive’, ‘eager to please’, and ‘very popular’.
Janet had never seen Denny go in or out but she wondered if he was a regular there too and if he could be stalking one of the masseuses. She could imagine him being a stalker, not an aggressive or violent one, more of a creepy-friendly keeps-a-respectful-distance stalker. Or maybe this was unfair and, without dismissing the line of thought, she felt bad about it when he’d greet her with his needy-friendly, not so much creepy-friendly, smile, or when he was leaving and he’d wipe his table with a napkin, bin the gathered crumbs, and return his cup and saucers to the bar, to save her and her baristas the hassle.
Then, one day, he arrived with company, a woman in a buttoned-to-the-collar blouse and highwaisted pleated trousers, clutching her shiny purse, and he held the door open as she walked in past him, then she paused to consult him on what appeared to be an important matter and a decision was reached. He went and secured his table, and he hung his jacket over the opposite chair to his preferred one and sat with his back to the room. Meanwhile, his companion came to the counter. She was younger than Janet had thought at first glance – she had dressed, and layered her face in powders and creams, to look more mature and sophisticated than she was – and, up close, Janet guessed she was twenty-one or twenty-two.
And as picture-perfect as her smile was as she ordered two americanos, she was a little frantic in how she searched in her purse for her wallet and in how she searched in her wallet for cash.
Janet said she’d have their coffees brought over to her and her ‘friend’, a designation the girl didn’t correct, so Janet was left none the wiser as to who she and Denny were to each other, and, while she was easily young enough to be his daughter or a niece, their body language didn’t shout blood relations – she sat straight with her hands folded on her lap and her knees pointed away from him, and he was slouched over his bare forearms, which he laid on the table, and they both appeared nervous; it was just that her nerves made her rigid and his made him go slack – and there was no sign of sexual tension between them either, so Janet ruled out any notion that this could be a drastically ill-conceived date. Maybe they worked together, and Janet had never asked Denny his profession but this was also hard to imagine. It wasn’t yet five, on a Monday, so they’d have to work somewhere that didn’t have nine-to-five hours, or not strict ones, and the girl was dressed more formally than him, he was in his usual undersized t-shirt and jeans, indicating different positions but she was almost certainly too young to be his boss and he wasn’t comporting himself like he held authority over her; making himself smaller with his slouch, he looked like he was appealing for forgiveness.
Or maybe Janet was reading too much into everything, and they were related in some way, or having a mad love affair, or they did work together, or some combination.
Dymphna, the new barista, wasn’t nearly as intrigued by customer dynamics and, having made the americanos, she was staring at Janet with her caterpillar eyebrows contorted in timidity and, before she could summon the courage to ask if she should bring them over, Janet took the drinks from her and said she’d do it.
And so, walking towards the corner table, a saucered cup in either hand, she heard Denny saying he was sorry about something, and the girl replying, ‘Don’t worry yourself, it could have happened to anyone!’
Then they thanked her repeatedly as she delivered their coffees, noticing that today Denny was wearing his ring, and, although they looked at her like they didn’t want to be left alone, she didn’t linger.
The girl only stayed for another twenty minutes, probably burning her tongue with how quickly she drank her coffee, and, when she stood up to go, Denny stood too and they shook hands, him leaning in, her leaning back, both of them kissing air, and, after she was out the door, the chime echoing in her wake, he moved to her seat, leaving his jacket on the empty chair, and he pulled his cup closer and stared out the window, vacantly – the sun had set and none of the people passing by, their faces strained in the faint yellow of the streetlights, were piquing his interest.
Janet took pity on him. She’d be closing the café soon and the last two muffins in the display were bound for the bin, so she picked the freshest-looking and brought it over, telling him it was a freebie, but the gesture caused his eyes to well with tears, then he was apologizing and to get him to stop, the tears and the apologies, she fixed him with a look and said, ‘Denny, listen, I’ve had a long day and I’ll be finished here in half an hour and I could do with a drink. A drink, no funny business. Would you like to join me?’
The offer surprised his tears away, and he said, ‘You mean an alcoholic drink? And you don’t mean, like, you and I going on a you know, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t. In fact, I—’
‘Yes, alcoholic, it would need to be. And, as I said, no funny business, a drink and a chat, that’s it.’
He agreed, looking so uplifted you’d swear he’d never gone for a casual pint before, and, wary of him doing something to give her a reason to second-guess her offer while she was cleaning, such as smiling at her too much or inviting Dymphna to join them, she told him he should go on ahead to Cassidy’s down the road and she’d follow, and off he went, eating his muffin out of his palm as the door swung shut behind him.
But she was second-guessing herself anyway. What had she gotten herself into? Yes, she was mildly curious about him but he’d want to tell her about every problem in his sad life now, expecting her to be his shoulder to cry on, and she’d have to be very clear about her boundaries: so no hugs, no patting of hands, no physical contact whatsoever; if he started with the waterworks again, she’d hand him a tissue and that would be it. Christ.
She dragged her feet closing up, allowing Dymphna to leave early, with that other, more deflated muffin in her bag, and half-hoping that Denny would be annoyed and wouldn’t hold on for her if she took longer than she’d said, but, no, when she arrived at the pub, an hour after him, she found him at a secluded table, with a full pint in front of him and an empty glass by his elbow, and he was nothing but pleased to see her. She got herself a beer and, ignoring how he shifted over to make space for her on the comfy banquette where he was sitting, she pulled over a stool and sat across from him, then she sighed into her pint and, as kindly as she could, she was about to ask why he was upset earlier when he asked, ‘So why was your day so long?’
Until he reminded her, she’d forgotten saying it was and she told him it wasn’t one thing. She was essentially the sole manager of the café but technically she was the co-manager and the other co-manager was doing fuck-all, when their deal was to split the workload evenly, and he could get away with this because he was the owner, she didn’t own as much as a sachet of sugar, and it was grating on her a little bit extra because he’d lifted his finger to hire the new barista without consulting her – Dymphna’s lone qualification for the job was that she was his sister-in-law’s daughter – then he’d left it to her to train the poor girl, who barely knew her ass from her elbow, and twice today she’d snapped at Dymphna, falling just short of pointing her ass-elbow confusion out to her, when she didn’t want to be a mean person, and Dymphna had spent the latter part of her shift looking like she was expecting to be smacked at any moment, and it wasn’t only Dymphna who Janet was treating badly, she was being curt with customers too, which was rude and unprofessional and bad for business, she could feel herself deathstaring anyone who was slow with their orders, and she was worse with the women than with the men, maybe she saw more of herself in them, what she didn’t like in herself, and, oh, she should mention that the owner was her younger brother, the golden child of their family, and she was the black sheep and had been ever since her marriage had ended, something she was ashamed about. Her husband, her ex-husband, wasn’t the most thrilling man in the world, or the most understanding, but he was a good man, decent, and she cheated on him, after always being someone who despised cheaters, and this ‘affair’, if she could call it that when it was over almost as soon as it began, it was with a woman, and she’d never been with a woman before, and she told herself it didn’t count quite as much as if she’d cheated with a man, which of course was nonsense, and this woman, you’d think women would be more respectful to other women than men often are, but, no, she was heartless and she threw her away the instant things got emotionally intense, and Janet guessed this whole mess meant she was bisexual, and she felt like a fool making a discovery like that so late in life, talk about the revelations that come with a mid-life crisis, and her husband was right to demand a divorce, good for him, and she’d moved out, from their family home to a one-bedroom apartment, and their sixteen-year-old son had remained with his father and he was confused and angry and hadn’t forgiven her either, who could blame him, and all her friends and family knew everything. It was why she hadn’t stood up to her brother: she was afraid of what he might say back to her if she called him out, what he might use against her; and she just felt so judged by everyone and she was tired of it, she was tired of deserving to be judged so harshly, and she was tired of judging others harshly too, she was judging everyone who set foot in the café when she didn’t know the first thing about any of them, and she was tired of judging herself, she couldn’t look in a mirror without thinking what happened there? Something was wrong with her and she was trying to do better, to be better, but she had ruined everything and she was lost.
By the time she stopped unloading on Denny, she’d finished her pint and he’d finished his, and, throughout it all, he listened to her with unflaggingly sympathetic eyes, and he didn’t interrupt to try to fix anything with presumptuous advice, but then, when she said she was sorry, she hadn’t meant to say all of that, it had kind of spilled out of her, he thanked her for showing so much trust in him, not everyone did, some people thought he was ridiculous and they weren’t always wrong, and it was a gift to be trusted with someone else’s heartbreak, he didn’t take it lightly, and he said, ‘You’re too hard on yourself, Janet. We’re all human. We all make mistakes,’ and, sure, these were platitudes but it was good to hear them, then he motioned to her glass and said, ‘Same again?’ and she nodded and said she’d get the next one, and she didn’t flinch when he patted her shoulder on his way to the bar.
Once he was back, she’d turn the attention on him, ask about his day, about his life, and, whatever he might confide in her, she wouldn’t judge him. Well, no, realistically, she probably would a bit, maybe more than a bit depending, but she would try not to, she promised herself she would listen and she would try, because, whatever failings Denny might or might not have, she could tell he had a weakness for weakness and bless him for that.
Ronan Ryan is an Irish writer, based in Dublin. His debut novel, The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, published by Tinder Press, was named by the Irish Independent Review as one of their ‘Books of the Year’ and was a finalist for The Lascaux Prize in Fiction. His work has appeared in The Irish Times, Banshee, The New Guard, The Honest Ulsterman, Boston Review, and Action, Spectacle, and was a finalist for the Machigonne Fiction Contest and a two-time finalist for the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. Ronan has won bursary awards in literature from the Arts Council of Ireland and Dublin City Council, and held Writer in Residence posts at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, the Kerouac House in Orlando, and the Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island.