Our Café

Martina Berscheid
Our Café
The scent of my childhood lingered in the air: coffee, butter crumbs and cinnamon. How I once sat at the round table next to the rubber tree. I miss the clatter of the plates, the rustling of the newspapers, the murmur of voices and laughter. Silence had settled down like an unwanted guest.

On the door hung a sign that read: “Closed due to Sickness”.

My eyes burned from exhaustion. Early in the morning, a call from Mother’s neighbour woke me from my sleep. Last evening while decorating the Christmas tree, Mother had fallen from the ladder and was lying in the hospital with a broken leg. I hung up the phone and stared at my shaking hands. Then I packed hastily and took the first train. Hours later I stood in front of the door and with a beating heart looked upon the golden letters: Café Kieser.

Kieser. Mother’s name. And mine.

I stored the ladder away; the hay stars with which I used to decorate the café at Christmas time lay on the table in front of me. Often I watched my mother as she decorated with them, stretching her arms out with her own kind of elegance. I was 14 when I began to really observe her. I remember a particular day in May. The sun was sprinkling a pastel glow over the ground, strawberry pink clouds scurried across the sky and over the town lay a scent of vanilla. Mother stood at the window, stroked a strand of hair from her forehead and marvelled at the morning. Her frilly blouse rustled with every move. Lost in thought, she tied her white apron around her waist. I studied the movement of her hands, measured the curve of her mouth. My gaze slid down her slender legs and paused at her black leather high-heels. A dark feeling spread quickly through my chest that cast a shadow over the love that I felt for her. In the evenings, I secretly tried on her high heels. I posed in front of the mirror and tried to imitate her graceful steps, but I couldn’t manage more than a stumble.

Snowflakes twirl outside. The faces of pedestrians are as dull as the grey sky. Right now, a cappuccino would be just perfect. I listen to the rumble of the automatic coffee machine. Mother held out a long time against “that modern thing”. For some guests she still brews the old-fashioned filtered coffee. And naturally for herself: strong, black, with two spoons of sugar. The coffee in the hospital is too watery for her taste.

“Nasty muck” she greeted me when I visited her earlier, pointing to her mug.

“What happened exactly?” I sounded like an investigator.

She smiled. “The devil just jabbed me.” I bit my lip.

“It would be wonderful, if you could look over the café,” she said quietly. “I don’t know how long I will be gone.” She pulled me towards her and put a set of keys in my hand. “Naturally you can stay in the apartment as well.” Pleading she looked at me with her hazel eyes, her grey-black curls enclosing her face. She was as beautiful as ever.

“I can’t stay,” I lied, got up, hugged her hastily and left the clinic. But the keys I clutched in my hand.

I drink the cappuccino while standing and gaze over the room. Over the light green drapes on which I had once drawn stick figures with cocoa powder. Over the wooden chairs that squeaked with every move, with their red velvet upholstery. Over the dark parquet floor across which Mother would glide in her high heels. Behind the counter, old black and white pictures still hung on the wall, from an older couple, he wearing a baker’s hat.

“Are they your parents, Mrs. Kieser?” the guests asked, and Mother answered, “Yes, can’t you see the resemblance?” And yet they were complete strangers. Mom had bought the photos at a flea market. We never had contact with my grandparents; they had quarrelled with my mother because of my dad. About him I know that he left my mother when she was pregnant and that he was tall, blond and slender, like me.

My heart begins beating. I did have time for the café. My sabbatical year had just started and there is no one waiting for me. Suddenly I notice a man in a black coat at the front door. He stares at the sign, hesitates for a moment and then knocks.

I sigh and open. “We are closed.” I flinch, because of the “we” that slipped out.
The man looks me over. I guess he is in his late seventies. His face is full of wrinkles and age spots, over the upper lip sprouts stubble. He looks like an old cat.

“Teresa?” he asks quietly, and with that voice I remember him: Friedrich.

He was a regular at the coffee shop and the other guests used to secretly call him a bum, because of his shabby suit and that he rarely could pay.

“If you feed strangers, you will never make profit,” I used to tell her, although I liked Friedrich and even sympathized with him. Secretly I was proud over my mother’s generosity.

She smiled and caressed my cheek. Then she walked over to the small table at the window from which Friedrich always adored her, served him a mocha and a piece of Linz cake. As always he would stammer, “Forgot my cash, tomorrow?” And Mother would nod.

“Hello Friedrich. Come inside”. He slips past me and sits down at his table. On his coat the lowest button is missing.

“Coffee?” He nods.

“What’s up with Marga?” He asks me in a brittle voice as I set his coffee down in front of him. I sit with him and tell what happened. He stirs his cup.

“Why did you leave back then, Teresa? Marga was sick with sorrow. She never told you, did she?” I gulped and was at a loss of words. Gently he touches my arm.

“Stay here! You belong in the café. Without you Marga will not be able to keep it running.” He finishes his cup and says good bye. For a long time I sit here lost in thought, until it is too late to go back home.

Slowly I climb the stairs up to the apartment. In the hallway I notice Mother’s black heels on the shoe rack. I lift them up. I smoothly touch them with my finger. And return them to their place.

A couple days later I stand behind the counter early in the morning. With my cuffed blouse I am wearing black jeans and a burgundy waiter’s apron. My feet are in crème-coloured ballerinas. I breathe in the scent of coffee beans and fresh baked apple pie. The doorbell rings. A couple enters the coffee shop.

“Good morning,” I greet them and smile.
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