The one with the thick silver mustache and a tiny band-aid on the bridge of his nose takes a sip of his coffee and shuffles his tongue back and forth inside his mouth. “College football is a big thing, now. It’s not just the majors,” he says, making eye contact with his friend. “Rosemary loves it. She is in her glory. Whenever she watches a game she sits there like this,” he says, mimicking the anxious fist squeeze Rosemary makes. “Her favorite is Florida. I think they have it where you come from. Buffalo, right?”
His friend doesn’t talk as much, but when he does, his voice is softer and strained. “Yes.” His hair is white around the sides and back of his pale head, and of the top he’s bald. He nods and picks up his paper napkin, folding it in half and pressing the crease.
He wipes his palm across the table, brushing away crumbs. “It used to get so cold up in northern Connecticut,” Mustache says, gently patting the table with splayed fingers. “I remember the ground was so cold it was hard as a rock. And I fell down one time, you know. And it hurt like the Dickens, I’ll tell you what.” He nods to himself as he gazes across the room.
Friend picks up his paper cup and gently sets it back on the table with a soft tap. The napkin needs to be folded once more in half. Both men sit in silence as the barista busies herself with the clanking of metal trays, heating up treats for her customers.
Mustache folds his fingers together on the table. “My stepgrandson moved down to Florida. Got himself into a bunch of trouble. Honestly, my stepdaughter wasn’t fit to be a mother. I should have raised him myself.”
Friend picks up the paper cup and places it on top of the twice-folded napkin, then moves it to the side with a tap on the table. He unfolds the napkin and turns it out, then begins to refold.
“Rosemary said you went to college up in New York,” Mustache asks, crumpling up the wax paper bag from their bakery treat. “This was when you were in California, wasn’t it?”
Friend nods, and a throaty “yeah” escapes the weak voice box.
“It’s expensive isn’t it?”
Friend nods. “Yep, yep.”
“Was Shiela working at the time?”
Mustache lowers his chin to look at Friend over the rim of his metal glasses. “Do you remember much from your time there? Did you like it?”
Friend blinks, gazing off at the wall opposite from him. “It was fine,” he says. “Just fine.”
“And you had a car at the time?” Mustache asks, taking a sip from his coffee without breaking eye contact.
Friend clears his throat, and smile lines appear beside his eyes and at the corners of his downturned mouth. “Yes. I had a car.”
“I bet you had fun working on it. Did you do a lot of work on it?”
Friend’s smile lines deepen. “Yes, yes. I did all the upkeep myself. In the… garage.”
Mustache pushes his metal glasses up the bridge of his nose and lightly rubs the tiny band-aid. “You know I got my first car for sixty dollars? Yeah it was a piece of junk. An old Chevy,” he said, straightening up. “It needed so much work. I found somebody who could do the work in their backyard and we had that car for – that was our primary car for four years. It was stick shift. Was yours stick shift?” He mimes shifting gears at the table.
Friend nods as if to say Only the best ones are.
“Yeah, Rudy refused to learn to drive it,” Mustache says, shaking his head. “So I just drove us everywhere we needed to go.” If he were standing, he would probably straight the waist of his pants. “When you were in California, did you have chi- Did you have children at the time?”
Yes, Friend nods. “One child. William.”
“So, at that time, you had Shiela with you, and you had one child, and you didn’t get paid very much, did you?”
Friend’s heavy eyelids draw his gaze to the tabletop. “No,” he manages to say.
“That must have been hard.” Mustache slides his tongue over his teeth behind closed lips. The espresso machine shirrs behind the cafe counter. Off in another corner of the bookshop, the bubbly squeal of a toddler makes him smile.
“So, were there times when you had to walk to get to work, then?”
Friend blinks a few times before rubbing at the gray whiskers on his chin. “Sometimes,” he nods, and takes a slow breath. “Mostly for school. Classes. It wasn’t far.”
“Were you in grad school, there?”
Friend reaches for the napkin and slides it closer. He puts the empty paper cup on top of it. “Yeah, yeah.”
“And overall, it was a good time when you were there? You learned a lot?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah.”
“When you look back on those times, it’s a feeling that maybe you did something, you did something good. Right? You had an apartment.” He picks up his own napkin to tend to his nose.
Friend smiles with a frown. “The apartment was just the right size. Had a decent landlord. Just enough space for us. At the time. I could study in the living room. Just enough space.”
Mustache licks his teeth again as he listens, nodding every so often as Friend talks. “So, you got a job after that in Ohio? And then you drove all the way back to California. That must have been interesting.” He crinkles up the wax paper packaging. He listens to Friend as he pushes his chair back, the wooden legs squawking across the tile floor.
Friend nods. “I didn’t like making the trip. The first time back to Ohio, I said, that was it. Too much to drive.”
“So overall, you liked your time in Ohio?” Mustache picks up his coffee cup and peers into it. “I’ll be right back. Do you want some water? I’m going to get some water.” The chair squawks again as he gets up and takes the empty paper cups with him.
Friend sits quietly, blinking at the wall across the room in front of him. He waits with his elbows on the table and his fingers playing with the folded napkin.
“So overall,” Mustache says when he returns with two small plastic cups of ice water. “Ohio was – the time you spent in Ohio was good?”
Friend clears his throat and accepts the cold cup. He pulls it close and peers at the surface of the water. “Not always. We struggled. I couldn’t walk everywhere like in L.A.”
“But the living, in Ohio, was easier than L.A.?”
“Well,” Friend chuckles. “It was cheaper, certainly.”
“So you struggled sometimes, but you had good times, too. And you made it through.”
Friend sips on the water. He nods.
Mustache glances at the time on his phone. “That’s all you can hope for,” he says, reassuringly. He combs at his mustache with his fingers. “Ohio did one thing for you, didn’t it? It gave you an opportunity to branch out and try something new. Isn’t that when you started the work with plankton?”
Friend nods, turning the cup to sip from the other side.
“So it really was a good thing, see?” He glances at his phone again and sits up. “I guess we should be getting you back,” he says, careful not to scrape the legs of the chair on the tile as he stands up. He watches Friend take another sip from the water cup and push it back to the center of the table so he’ll have room to brace with his hands. “Can I give you a hand?” Friend slowly gets to his feet, never standing fully straight.
“Will you come for me tomorrow?” he asks as Mustache steadies him by the elbow. “I enjoyed getting to know you.”
The mustache twitches as his head drops just a bit. “Sure, Dad. Of course.”