He wouldn’t have noticed her if she hadn’t been smoking a cigarette. That she was doing so while seated directly under a sign that read ‘Thank You For Not Smoking’ made him feel strangely anxious.
The barista announced that a flat white was ready for ‘Kyle’. This was the incorrect interpretation of his name that he had by now learned to listen for. This made him a better listener than the very high “dude” taking orders but that was of little comfort on this particular morning.
He claimed the mislabeled cup and scanned the room for an available seat. There was a vacant stool across the table from the smoking girl but he wasn’t particularly interested in sharing a table with a stranger and he was less interested in sitting within her cloud of smoke.
Rough timber boards traced the bottom of the walls, giving way here and there to too-small seats attached to the wall with too-rusty hinges that looked ready to buckle at any moment. The interior designer responsible for all of this had overshot both ‘authentic’ and ‘vintage’ and landed instead on ‘dilapidated’.
Not one of these rickety seats was empty. Nor were any of the cushioned couches that lined the wall just inside the door of the café. Nor were any of the milk crates that doubled as furniture on the front sidewalk. Annoyance blossomed into heartless surrender as he accepted that the stool across from the girl was the only free chair in the cafe.
He turned to reassess the stool’s availability and saw that the girl was watching him with a placid expression. She took a drag and then exhaled smoke, studying him dispassionately all the while. After a few seconds she motioned to the stool with the hand that held her cigarette. To not join her now would be deliberately rude.
She watched him take the two or three steps across the wooden floor and she kept her eyes trained on him while he sat his coffee on the small table and leaned his bag against the legs of the stool. He finally sat before her, unbuttoning the jacket of his suit as he did so.
-Thanks. Real estate is hard to come by today.
He waved his hand at the sea of seats behind him to demonstrate their occupied state. She responded only with a raise of her left eyebrow and he thought that this change in her expression revealed some annoyance. It could have also been regret over having invited him to sit with her.
He extended his hand for a shake, which she only meekly accepted – or had she presented her hand for him to kiss? No, that would be ridiculous.
They shook hands awkwardly as she spoke into her cloud of smoke.
-Nice to meet you, Ronnie. I was worried that I might have to go back to the office.
He motioned over his shoulder in the direction of his office. Even as he did so he realized that she didn’t care where his office was and he felt appropriately foolish. Nobody ever cared about these kind of details. His own parents didn’t know the name of his employer – why, then, would a stranger care?
She nodded toward his coffee.
-Hence the takeaway cup.
Lyle looked down at his cup as though he had forgotten what he had ordered. He looked at Ronnie and shrugged.
-Preparing for the worst, I guess.
She considered this while slowly exhaling another mouthful of smoke.
-Aren’t we all?
This response struck Lyle as being too intense for their setting. He could only think to nod and so nod he did. Ronnie picked up a small notebook from the table and began to scribble on one of the first pages.
-Rough day, then?
She stopped scribbling and he could see that he was beginning to annoy her. Normally it took him a few moments more to alienate new acquaintances.
-I just came from a job interview.
Lyle could connect the dots rather easily from here. He reached into his client-facing repertoire of expressions and unfolded a sympathetic one for her. It was the same expression he deployed when informing single parents that their mortgage application had been declined.
-You didn’t get the job?
-No, it’s worse than that.
She took a long drag off her cigarette and ashed it in her empty coffee mug.
-They offered me the position.
Ronnie was yet another woman that Lyle would never understand, but he was as used to not understanding women as he was seeing Kyle being scribbled on his coffee cup.
Still, the appearance of genuine worry – the same scrunching of the brow demonstrated by clients who are attempting to refinance or negotiate a lower interest rate – was spread across her face. She was guarded, sure, but the signs were all there. Lyle had sat this training session.
-Well, that doesn’t sound like bad news.
-I haven’t decided if it’s good or bad yet.
-How could it be bad?
-It represents total surrender.
-Surrender to what?
She continued to scribble in her notebook but she stopped long enough – without bothering to look up – to orally recite a list of perceived enemies.
-Failure. Mediocrity. Security. Life.
She looked up at him before declaring her final enemy.
Lyle smiled at this.
-You assume that I’m a part of the machine because I’m in a suit?
She shrugged and resumed scribbling.
-Maybe I work for the Department of Health and I’m here to fine you for smoking in a cafe.
-You’re not buying it.
She leaned back but kept her eyes on her notebook.
-Do DOH flunkies wear tailored suits? They strike me as more the type to be swimming in too-big suits bought right off the rack.
She had a point and it made Lyle laugh.
-Fair enough, but The Man might still run you out of here for smoking.
He pointed at the sign hanging above her head but she continued to look at her notebook.
-The owner doesn’t mind.
She finished the cigarette and stubbed the butt against the bottom of her empty mug. Having executed this metaphorical punctuation of their debate, she was back at work in her notebook without having so much as glanced in his direction.
He looked around the shop now, considering his own situation. In the next fifteen minutes he would have to will himself back to the office. The prospect of doing so was wholly unappealing.
He was the only person in a suit that he could see. Most of the other patrons were aggressively bohemian in appearance, including Ronnie. Multi-colored dresses competed for attention with plaid-patterned pants and thick-rimmed glasses. No single aesthetic was winning or losing, which left everybody in a strange limbo in which their styles – while myriad in execution – were contrastable only against his own well-manicured presence.
He looked back toward Ronnie and pointed at her notebook.
-Are you listing pros and cons?
She didn’t look up or stop moving her pen.
-No. It’s a poem.
He saw her eyebrows furrow before she continued.
-At least, I’d like it to be a poem.
-What’s it about?
-A girl. Not unlike me.
-And that’s… helping you?
-It’s not hurting me.
Ronnie’s ability to not answer his questions was beginning to give him a headache. This quick escape from the office was meant to relieve tension, not generate more. He had all but given up on her when she finally took the lead.
-You don’t have anything that helps clear your mechanism? Something to help you make sense of everything?
-Does bourbon count?
She didn’t look up, let alone laugh.
-Not really. I mean an outlet of some kind. You ever try writing?
-Once or twice, sure.
Now it was Lyle’s turn to shrug.
-And I still work at the bank.
She stopped writing now and looked him in the eyes for the first time in what seemed like many years.
-So you are a part of the machine.
-I never said I wasn’t. I suppose that makes me a sellout?
She dropped the notebook onto the table and leaned back against the wall.
-I couldn’t begin to know. But it sounds like you know.
She had a point once again. He elected to move the spotlight back onto her.
-What is it you do, then?
-I’m an artist.
He glanced at her notebook, which was sitting only tentatively on the edge of the table.
-Only when required.
-The rest of the time?
-Painting mostly. Some photography, but there’s no money there unless you want to chase brides around on the weekends. So: mostly painting.
-And that’s where the money is?
-Well, not anymore. Hence my dilemma.
She spread her hands in surrender but it was unclear what she was surrendering and to whom she was surrendering it. They now stood together at her existential crossroads.
-You any good?
-You tell me.
She motioned over her left shoulder with the pen that was still in her hand.
-That one’s mine.
Lyle looked above the ignored No Smoking sign and found himself dumbstruck. Hanging there was a painting that he had admired ever since it first appeared in the cafe about three years before. Now he was sitting across from the person responsible for creating it.
-I really like this one.
He hoped she could see on his face that his praise was authentic.
-Well, that makes you and the owner.
Lyle began to see the painting in a new way. It assumed a new dimension; was coloured by the elusiveness of its creator.
-I always thought it was hilarious.
He panicked for a moment, not quite believing that he had vocalised this thought. Her expression, as always, was static.
-What’s so funny about it?
Once again she was giving little away. He had possibly offended her. Moments ago he wouldn’t have cared but he was now desperate to impress her.
-To me it always looked like he was a dog chasing his own tail.
Her expression remained unchanged.
-What should I do, Lyle?
Now he was being trusted to give an opinion. He had to get this right.
Had he earned this trust with his genuine appraisal of her work? Had he seen in her painting a deeper meaning that she was tired of other people always missing? Was he thinking about this too much? How long until his boss would notice he was missing from his desk? Was her notebook falling off the table or was it a trick of light from the window?
-You’re right, Lyle. I get it. Thank you.
She stood quickly, picked up her notebook and tore out the page that contained her poem before handing him the book itself.
-Maybe now this will help you.
He took it with unreconciled bewilderment and watched her dart out the door and nearly bowl over another bohemian walking his dog. All of this left him in a state of shock. Where had he gone wrong?
He opened the notebook to where she had torn out the page and saw a sketch of a man in a tailored suit carrying a takeaway coffee cup and a bag not unlike his own. Behind the man were more men in the same mold. Each man was composed with fewer details than the one before, and this pattern continued all the way to a final man who was little more than a stick figure.
At the top of the page were scratched the words ‘The Last March of the Kyles’.
Greg Joachim is a writer of fiction, memoir and personal essays. He lives in Sydney with his wife Claire where he is working on a collection of short stories and essays while pursuing his PhD in sport for development at the University of Technology, Sydney.