“Caffeine” by David Larsen

     Stuart Bickel had become an anachronism, and he was well aware of it, something out of a backward age, before electronic wizardry and gadgets and minds that had become tethered to the internet. But what the hell, he was what he was. And he wasn’t about to change. Even his attire was outdated and quaint. His wool jacket and pleated corduroy trousers were clean, but haphazardly pressed, his shoes well-worn and immodestly scuffed. His antiquated outfit was his armor; it protected him from an onslaught of mediocrity. He felt miles above and a world apart from the trendy masses that had overtaken his favorite bookstore during what he considered the dark period, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

     The holidays had for years been difficult and had gotten worse the older he became. His couture, ho-hum, if not downright shoddy, at least in comparison with the sartorial exhibitionism of the other patrons, credit-card-wielding gabbers, gossipy dynamos, posh upper-middle-class automatons decked out in designer sweatpants and puckered, iridescent ski vests that made them look like the Michelin man set afire, was the least of his worries. The shoppers’ impudence was what bothered him the most. Their crassness and their self-satisfaction. He was too smart to fall for any of it.

    What was usually a quiet hangout for old-timers and loners like himself was now awash in caffeinated invaders. And Stuart resented their being there. If they weren’t entranced by whatever nonsense was on the screens of their cellphones, they were yammering mindlessly about PTA meetings, cruises, sushi and God only knows what else.

     Stuart dolefully scanned the room; his gaze fell upon a pair of fresh-faced young girls two tables over from his own. No older than thirteen—fourteen tops—the young women weren’t reading from a book or a computer screen or from those confounded electronic pads people read from these days, trendy devices Stuart had no understanding of, nor interest in. His tattered hardback copy of a collection of Chekov short stories was just fine with him, thank you. The teens intently studied whatever images they had found on their cellphones, then shared whatever they’d discovered with the other. Innocent enough. At least they were quiet about it.

     His concern was that the two girls, each with a pricy, frothy caffeinated drink in front of them, financed by overly-indulgent parents who’d apparently dropped them off at the bookstore so that they could pester serious readers like Stuart with their youth and exuberance, would soon lift their noses from the screens of their phones and become giggly and annoying, and that there would be no empty table for Stuart to retreat to if need be. Everyone, this time of year, was just a little too vibrant to Stuart’s liking.

     His unsweetened green tea, in what was supposed to be a festive holiday cup, but looked more like a miniature green and red clown’s hat, was too hot to sip. He’d have to wait for it to cool, but what was the hurry? He had no place to go and nothing better to do. As he searched the page he’d last read—yesterday afternoon, at this very table—he tried to remember the story’s

plot and who the main character was: a widowed man, like himself, he vaguely remembered, but that was all he could come up with. The older Stuart became, the longer it took for him to recall what he’d read the day before. At eighty-four, his mind wasn’t what it had been just one year ago. He could feel it. He sensed it. He was slipping. And he didn’t like it one bit.

     The Christmas music that bled from the unseen overhead speakers was enough to drive him to distraction, if not rage; his memory lapses, as well as the irritatingly jazzy versions of Jingle Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, added to his already tepid mood. When the holidays were over, the store would revert to its old ways, quiet and underachieving, the way Stuart preferred it, less crowded, less chaotic, without the terrible renditions of holiday tunes polluting the atmosphere, and thankfully without holiday shoppers posturing as serious readers. As if any of them had read a book in years.

     Conspiratorially, the two girls leaned across the table and spoke in hushed tones; smiled and gazed into each other’s eyes, a scene from a bad made-for-TV movie. Too young for tattoos, but not for piercings (the taller, slightly older girl, at least older-looking to Stuart, had a small gold ring through the columella of her thin, pointed, perhaps Iberian, nose) they were enraptured by every word the other whispered, most likely about boys in their homeroom or snooty cheerleaders who had dissed them or about a dreary English teacher who’d given one of them a low grade on a book report, an insistent teacher, like Stuart had been in his day, a stickler for detail who had little tolerance for a dismissive attitude when it came to literature.

     Skinny young girls, thought Stuart, so totally innocent. But just you wait, your time will come. Someday you’ll be alone in a bookstore with no one to talk to. You’ll get old and cranky.

Just you wait. Bifocals. Wrinkles. Cataracts. Even liposuction. And, for you, mammograms and the likelihood of varicose veins. By that time, all the microwaves from your phones will have scrambled your brains. And, just you wait, acid reflux will make nights unbearable.

     The younger girl, cursed (or blessed) with the same porcelain skin Stuart had lived with his entire life, a bleached veneer with an abundance of freckles, blushed as she smiled dreamily at her friend. Her fingers, thin with nails painted blue, touched her friend’s black-nailed fingers as they each held onto their cups on top of the table. More than a momentary, inadvertent brush, flesh to flesh, finger to finger, the contact was prolonged, innocent and sweet. Again, each smiled and looked admiringly into the other’s eyes.

     My God, thought Stuart, I’m witnessing young love, unlike anything I ever saw back in Indiana. If two young girls carried on like this in my day, the whole town would have been aflutter. But yet, how nice. How special to be a witness to these young ladies’ private moment.

     For good measure, or so it would seem to most people, the girls’ fingers entwined in the most wondrous knot the world, or certainly Stuart, had ever seen. He had to smile, his hardened heart softened and ached ever so slightly. Nobody in the room, other than one elderly curmudgeon—Stuart—had noticed the gentle, naive display of affection. And for that he was grateful and honored. This was their moment. And his, but his, without their knowingly sharing it. He was simply borrowing a bit of their pleasure, like a cup of sugar from a neighbor, something you have no intention of ever returning.

     Stuart would have thought that he would find their behavior unseemly, but to his surprise, it was tender and it was heartwarming. He certainly wasn’t an advocate for gay rights or lesbian

rights or whatever. Trans, bi, queer: they were just words to him. Somebody trying to get away with something not quite acceptable. He was too old and set in his ways to understand any of it. Yet, these girls were so pleased to be together, innocently, or not so innocently. All that mattered to them, and now to Stuart, was that they had found someone who cared. Was he becoming soft in his waning years? Was sentimentality a symptom of impending senility? Or was he just happy for two young people who were doing their utmost to find their way in a confusing world? For but a second, he allowed himself to be caught up in their adventure. But for no more than a second.

     She’ll only break your heart, thought Stuart, more for himself than for the girls. At his age he couldn’t afford to be caught up in their reverie. Yet, in spite of himself, he couldn’t shake it. You’re both losing a lot more than innocence. You’re losing so much more, but gaining everything…a world. If only for this moment. But at what cost? If only you knew what lies ahead. Disappointment. Drudgery. Deceit. Decay. Yet, for just this sliver of time, a blink of an eye, you have uncovered bliss and encountered what some might think of as the divine.

     He smiled, then closed his eyes. Not to avert his attention from what he was witness to, but to remember…back so long ago.

     Dorothy Tanner, in a booth at Woolworth’s in Indianapolis, at a table much like these tables in the bookstore, had smiled at him—seventy years ago—with the same affection and intensity that these two now shared. She had played cutesy with him while they shared a sundae and fell hopelessly in love. Of course, it was a love that couldn’t last. Or could it. Perhaps it had lasted through all the years, as it was supposed to. In this café, at eighty-four he was every bit as smitten as he had been in that booth at the five-and-dime. Maybe more so.

     Whatever became of Dorothy, that red-haired girl of his adolescent dreams? Of course, there were others, a few others, after Dorothy, before Margaret. But that moment…that special moment…was special. There was no better word for it. Would Dorothy still be alive today? Somewhere? She couldn’t be old and withered like he was. He could never allow that. And what of love? Dorothy captured his heart as only she could. And hadn’t he suffered just as these girls—at least one of them–would soon suffer. How devastating, that first heartbreak. Yet, to go through it again he would give almost anything. Had he loved Dorothy more than Margaret? Margaret, his devoted and loyal wife for fifty-three years. He did love that girl in Woolworths. But somehow it was different. A love you only get to experience once. Stuart suspected that he was someone else back then, someone he liked better than the bitter man he turned out to be.

     He opened his eyes. The girls were still entranced with each other.

     Had Dorothy Tanner actually worn a blue and white gingham dress that day? Or was that something he’d invented to jazz up his memory? Something out of a Jimmy Stewart movie. Donna Reed, was it? Or was it June Allison? He could never tell those two apart. And was Indiana really all that idyllic? For him, it might have been, but for these girls, their special moment would have been forbidden in that place at that time. How narrow that town was, and perhaps still is. Everyone was pretty uptight back then.  And now in this dreaded holiday season, in this crowded Denver bookstore, luckily, these two girls were a world away from his home town. One in jeans, fashionably torn and ragged, the other in leggings and a loose-fitting sweater, both with hairdos that were loose and casual, they got to play the role of Dorothy Tanner for each other, someone neither would ever forget. For these girls nothing would be impossible…though, truthfully, everything is impossible. But, what the heck!

     The girls gathered up their purses, their phones, their expensive drinks and left, not hand in hand, but bumping shoulders all the way to the door. Parents waited outside in cars, most likely SUVs, unaware of what a joyous season it was for their daughters. Stuart watched with envy, each step they took. Together.

David Larsen is a musician and writer who lives in El Paso, Texas. His stories have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines.