Round Table, Short Story by Bj Neblett
The single almond biscotti lay on a white porcelain serving plate. Slipping an arm into his jacket, Joe glanced down at the left over biscuit. He could still taste the bite of licorice from the anise flavoring. Normally, this second treat would find its way to Joe’s apartment as a light bedtime snack; but not today. Hoisting the leather satchel containing a large black bound notebook over his shoulder, Joe headed out the door. Pausing, he looked back through the store window. The young stranger who had shared his table glanced around. Corkscrew strands of flaxen hair swayed and bounced like tossed confetti rolls as she scanned the small coffee shop. Finally she reached for the forgotten biscotti. Whistling a tune, Joe turned and headed down the sidewalk.
“Would you like anything?”
It was the first time either had spoken. Passing curious, suspect glances across the small round corner table, they normally sat in awkward silence.
“I said, would you like anything,” Joe repeated.
Through long dark lashes, she glanced up at Joe. “Oh, no, no thank you.”
Drawn by the store’s welcoming warmth and sweetly scented odors of freshly baked pastries, the young fair haired woman had wandered in from the cold, timidly sitting across from Joe. It was late Sunday morning and the intimate neighborhood coffee shop and bakery was busy, the empty chair at Joe’s table being the only seat available. She had smiled meekly, hesitated, looked about, and then dropped her buckskin shoulder bag and settled into the comfortable wooden chair. Over the next four Sundays the scene repeated. Joe watched bemused as the striking woman unconsciously sipped at her tea, busily writing in a dog eared diary. Occasionally she would pause to glance up, looking at nothing, her thoughts turning inward, recalling a forgotten memory or picturing an elusive future. After a time, she would give the teabag a differential swirl in the steaming liquid, take a small sip, and return to her writing. When their eyes chanced to meet, Joe would smile, holding her expressionless gaze before it blinked back into quiet contemplation. Sometimes, an old jazz tune playing in the background would pull the woman’s attention. Then her bright blue eyes would glazed over, and what Joe perceived as a thin, sad smile momentarily broke the stoic demeanor of her gentle features.
Joe had plenty of opportunity to observe his silent companion. Each Sunday she’d enter the coffee shop, pausing to look around. Sometimes other seats were available. Like Goldilocks, the young woman would approach one chair then another, always ending up at the round table, in the seat across from Joe. Dropping her shoulder bag, she’d head to the counter, returning minutes later with a large mug of English Breakfast Tea garnished with a lemon wedge and a generous portion of honey. Allowing the tea bag to steep, the steaming concoction grew darker and stronger as she alternately wrote; thought; glanced about, and wrote further in her diary.
The woman’s yellow ringlets and round child-like face reminded Joe of Shirley Temple. Several times he found himself idly wondering if her curly locks were natural. The thick fur collar of her vintage leather bomber’s jacket was always turned against the wind. Her tired jeans were cuffed above well worn Army surplus boots, while baggy flannel shirts did little to conceal her slight frame. She was tall and thin, to the point of leading one to question if she might not be malnourished. She was an attractive girl Joe decided, despite her attire.
But her most striking feature was her eyes, ice blue and piercing as the March wind. One day, while returning to his seat, Joe’s leg bumped the table, nearly upsetting her drink. Looking up, the girl gazed mutely across the round table. Holding her silent stare, Joe peered deeply into her clear blue eyes. In them he found sadness and pain.
“Almond or blueberry…?
Her blue orbs narrowed in question, “What?”
“Biscotti, they now have blueberry biscotti.”
Ignoring her protests, Joe rose, “You’re right, who ever heard of blueberry biscotti? Almond it is.” Minutes later he returned with a pair of white serving saucers. Each held two freshly baked traditional biscotti. Taking his seat, Joe watched his companion deeply inhale the flavorful aroma. The fragrance was too powerful. Without looking up, the young woman dipped the biscotti into her tea.
“Thank you, mister.”
“Ah, a traditionalist,” Joe remarked, submerging the tip of his own biscuit into his coffee. “I’m Joe.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Blankly staring at the diary, she shyly nibbled at the pastry’s moistened end. “My mother, she always dipped her cookies into hot tea.” Blue eyes brightened momentarily. “They used to call her Alice B Toklas…” Looking up, she tilted her head, a half smile crossing her face at the memory. “Because of her cookies…” The smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. “My name’s Rain.”
“Well, it’s very nice to finally meet you, Rain.” Joe fought an impulsive grin. “That’s a very unusual name, but very pretty.”
“Yeah, pretty unusual; that about sums it up. I was born during a hurricane.”
Joe sipped his coffee, carefully studying her. “You sound a bit bitter.”
Rain laughed, flipping a corkscrew curl to one side. “You think? Try going through school with a name like Rain.”
“I see your point, kids can be cruel.”
“That’s not the half of it.” Settling back in her chair, Rain tucked one leg up underneath her. Finishing off the first biscotti, she licked at the tips of her fingers, raising one eyebrow. “Why did you buy me those?”
“I’m not gonna sleep with you.” The straight forwardness of the statement took Joe by surprise. Before he could reply, Rain reached for the second biscuit, as if she expected Joe to snatch it back. “These days, guys see a girl like me in torn jeans and think she’s easy; that she can be had for a dime bag and a bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple wine. I’m not like that, despite what you think or how it may look.”
Joe shook his head. “Well, Rain, I don’t smoke; I prefer my wine red and with dinner, and I’m old enough to be your father.”
“Hey, what does age matter?” Her voice grew with mocking disdain. “It’s the seventies, man, the Age of Aquarius; free love and woman’s lib and right on baby!” Gesturing, she raised a defiant fist into the air. “Just be careful what you wish for… sister.”
Joe sat in stunned silence. This wasn’t what he’d expected; not at all how he had imagined her. He didn’t know what to think. The contradictions in her appearance and speech confounded the situation. Finally he managed to speak. “I didn’t mean… I just thought you looked hungry… that’s all,” he said with a friendly shrug.
The following Sunday Joe sat in his usual seat. But he couldn’t concentrate. Time and again he found himself looking up from his work, his eyes searching the small café. When Rain appeared in the doorway, an uneasy mix of anticipation and anxiety flooded over him. She crossed the room, stopping at her seat. On her side of the small round table sat a pair of almond biscotti and a cup of steaming tea. Finally she dropped her bag and wiggled out of her jacket. Settling into her seat, she set the bag of English Breakfast Tea to steep. When Joe slid a plastic bear container of honey across the table, she looked at him suspiciously. “How’d you know?”
“I asked at the counter.”
They sat quietly, Joe sipping his coffee, trying his best to concentrate on his work; Rain writing intently in her diary, idly nibbling at the tasty cookies. Finally Joe broke the uncomfortable silence. “Poetry… or just idle stream of consciousness?” he asked.
Rain looked up with a puzzled expression. “What?”
“Your writing, is it poetry, free verse, deep thoughts, existentialism?”
“If you must know, it’s a concise argument against the random hiring of women for executive positions,” she replied, a marked edge to her voice, “not that anyone will ever read it.”
Joe sat up straight in his seat. “So you’re against women’s rights?”
Dropping her pen, Rain stared across the round table. “I’m against doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Big corporations are feeling pressure to hire unskilled and untrained individuals just to satisfy unreasonable quotas. The hiring process should be fair and equitable for everyone, regardless of race, color or sex; but on a fair playing field of skill and ability. The solution doesn’t lie simply in the equity of the numbers.”
The brief treatise had redden Rain’s cheeks; causing her voice to rise and reverberate across the room. Many customers looked up from their Sunday papers; listening with interest to the passionate young woman’s emotional speech. Joe glanced about the coffee shop, finding a disturbing mix in the faces of the other patrons. Some nodded in agreement and understanding; many grunted and ruffled their papers in annoyance at the uncalled for declaration. Turning his attention back to Rain, Joe asked, “Are you always this passionate?”
“About things I believe in… yes,” she replied firmly.
“Okay, so what’s the fix, Ms. Friedan?”
Rain’s breath heaved in frustration. “Now you’re making fun of me.”
“No, no, not at all, honest; tell me, what are your ideas for a solution?”
Rain sank back into her chair. She looked dejected; defeated. “Even if I had an answer, no one would listen. This is the seventies, women are supposed to be gaining their rights. But the world is still run by men. I want to work for equal rights for everyone, especially women. But no one will hire me because I’m a woman.”
“That’s quite a ‘catch 22’, isn’t it?” She looked up at Joe. His heart sank; there were tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Rain, I didn’t mean to…”
“No, it’s alright. And you’re right; it’s just so frustrating.”
“Maybe we should change the subject for now. Last week, you started to tell me about your mom.”
Rain smiled half heartedly, taking a deep sip of tea. She picked up the half eaten biscotti, considering it carefully. “Mom and dad were the original Beats… Beat Nicks to you. I guess these days you would call them Hippies. Last time I saw them they were campaigning for George McGovern for president. When Nixon was re-elected I think they went to Canada or something.” She shook her head, golden curls bouncing about. “Don’t get me wrong, they loved me and meant well, but they were so caught up in doing their little counter-culture thing. They had no clue how to raise a child.” Rain laughed aloud. “I think they just gave up when I was in fifth grade and chosen as hall monitor. Their only daughter an authority figure was too much for their liberal minds to wrap around.” Relaxed now, Rain crunched into the biscotti. “My parents moved around a lot; I never had any real close friends until college. Most of my memories of my folks involve smoked filled rooms, Coltrane or Parker or Ellington playing in the background, and someone reading On The Road aloud or quoting Alan Ginsburg.”
“I once caught John Coltrane at Birdland.” Joe sighed, “Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Buddy Rich, Satchmo and Ella Fitzgerald. Man, what a sound!”
Rain glanced across the round table, “You know jazz?”
Joe smiled but didn’t reply. Instead he asked, “So what happened?”
“Oh, there’s not much else to tell really. Despite my crazy and disorganized life – maybe because of it – I was a good student. I liked school. Somehow I won a scholarship to NYU.”
Rain stretched lazily and yawned. “And now I’m a twenty-five year old woman with a useless master’s degree in political science and no prospects for a job in my field.”
“Useless degree… no prospects…?”
“Trust me, I’ve tried. I’m tired of trying.” She sipped her tea. It was cold. Glancing at her watch, Rain jumped up. “Damn, we’ve been talking for almost three hours.”
“And is that a bad thing?”
Pulling on her leather jacket, she reached for the fringed buckskin bag. “No, but I’m late.”
“No, silly, a job, I wait tables at a steak house across town. I have an early shift today.”
“Hang in there, kid.”
Rain rolled her eyes and started for the door. “You too, old guy,” she called over her shoulder. “See ya next week.”
Joe was surprised to find Rain already settled at the round table when he arrived at the coffee shop. But there was something else. A steaming cup of black coffee and two biscotti awaited him. As he sat, Rain slid three packets of sugar across the table. “I asked at the counter,” she announced with a coy grin.
“You really shouldn’t, you need to save your money.”
“You definitely don’t sound like my father. But it’s cool; I had a big tipper last night.” She couldn’t help notice him staring at the white serving saucer. “What, you got something against blueberries?”
They sat in silence for a time, each caught up in their own pursuits. Rain wrote in her tattered diary, pausing from time to time to stare at the ceiling in thought; sometimes furiously scratching through a recently completed section and letting out a prolonged sigh. Meanwhile, Joe concentrated on his black notebook, tapping his foot and softly humming to himself. After a while, Rain set down her pen and looked up. Lazily dunking the tea bag, she watched Joe closely. “So,” she finally asked, “what about you?”
“What about you,” Rain repeated flatly. “It’s your turn today, give.”
Closing the notebook, Joe considered her question as he sipped his coffee. “Okay, fair enough,” he replied, dipping a blueberry biscotti into his cup. “I guess I’m one of the ones your generation is so set against.”
Rain wrinkled her nose at the statement.
“You know, the establishment, the man; never trust anyone over thirty,” Joe explained with a sad grin. “Anyway, it’s boring.”
“I’m a lawyer, a corporate lawyer. A corporate lawyer who once thought he’d lay the foundation for great reform. Instead, I just lay the foundation for mergers and takeovers.”
“Maybe, but you’re a corporate lawyer who knows his jazz. That’s something.”
Joe relaxed back in his chair, folding his hands, conjuring the ghosts. “I come from a privileged family. I was so privileged I rarely ever saw my parents. They were always off somewhere, to some fund raiser or gala or whatever. I had a nanny, a wonderful, full-of-life black woman who read me Mark Twain and Langston Hughes, and sang old Negro spirituals as she worked, and taught me the difference between Dixieland and Ragtime, and all about syncopation and meter and beat. She even arranged for me to take saxophone lessons.” Joe laughed aloud at the recollection. “When my parents found out they almost fired her.”
“Oh, you don’t understand. That’s when jazz was poor man’s music, looked down upon; like trying to get adults today to listen to Dylan and The Byrds. As I got older, I’d sneak out of the house and steal my way into local jazz joints, watching and listening from back stage. Whenever my parents went off to one of their social functions, I’d pull out my secret stash of records and play along. I was good. By age 15 I could match almost anyone note for note. Playing jazz was all I ever wanted to do.”
Rain leaned forward, her eyes wide and attentive. “So what happened?”
“Life, life happened. From birth I was destined to follow in my father’s footsteps, become a lawyer. Ironically, I was never very good at school. Influence and money got me into Harvard. Repeated reminders from my father of being permanently cut off from the family kept me there long enough to earn a degree. With dad’s blessing and connections, I entered the corporate world as a financial litigator, a fancy name for a high profile bean counter.”
“What about your music?”
Joe downed a slug of coffee. “Music…?” He opened his black notebook, flipping it into the middle of the round table.
Rain ran a finger across the pages. They were filled with musical notes and notations and scales. “You wrote this?”
“I still fool around with it when I have the time, mostly just here on Sundays.” He shrugged. “You gotta have priorities, you know.”
She slammed the book shut, glaring up at Joe.
“I’ll put it in words you can understand. You sold out.”
Joe nearly came out of his seat. “And what about you Ms. I wanna save the world! When was the last time you followed your dreams?”
“That’s different,” she nearly screamed. “There are just no jobs for women in my profession.”
“Bull shit! Update your resume; apply for a real job. If there aren’t any jobs then go out and create one if you have to. Use that degree.”
“You just don’t understand.”
Joe closed his eyes, taking a long deep breath. He held up his hands to steady them and looked at Rain. “All I’m saying is to not give up; keep trying.”
“Simple for you to say; you’ve had it easy all your life. I’ll bet you’ve never taken a chance at anything; never once put yourself out there. Do you even know what it’s like to fail at something?”
She was right. Joe knew it. He settled back, fiddling with his napkin. “Maybe you’re right,” he said softly. “I did take the easy, safe route. I sold myself out. But you, you’re still young. There’s still plenty of time for you to pursue your dreams. It’s too late for me.”
They fell silent, each knowing the other was right. Both instinctively knew the other’s thoughts; knew what they had to do.
A month later, Joe entered Jazz Alley. He’d passed by the intimate neighborhood club often, sometimes stopping to read the list of upcoming performers. Searching the dimly lit room, he found Rain seated at a small round corner table. “Well?” he asked, shedding his overcoat and taking the seat across from her.
Rain looked up, an uneasy excitement in her voice. “It’s not much, really. I start on Monday. But I’ll be working to raise voter awareness among woman and minorities.”
Joe nodded his approval, “It’s a start.”
“Yes, it is.” The squeal of audio feedback interrupted their conversation. The house lights dimmed and it was Joe’s turn to be nervous. Rain touched his hand. “Break a leg!”
Fastening the strap of his saxophone around his neck, Joe swallowed hard and mounted the three steps leading to the stage.
BJ Neblett © 2015
Bj Neblett has a story coming out in a national anthology
TiTle: Beyond The Hedge
Vol 1 The Light And The Dark
Publisher: Fuzzy Hedgehog Press
Release Date: July 1, 2016
BJ Neblett is a continuing contributor to Romance Magazine. He is the author of Elysian Dreams, a contemporary romantic fantasy about searching your dreams while seeking your destiny. His newest work, Ice Cream Camelot, is about his growing up during the Kennedy administration. BJ hosts two blog sites: www.hereforaseason.blogspot.com for poetry, and www.bjneblett.blogspot.com for his short stories and other writings. BJ has written about JFK for the Kennedy Library, MLK Jr. on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial blog site, and his poetry may be included at the Vietnam War Center in Washington. You can find more from BJ in eFiction and Northern Liberties Review, as well as online at:
BJ’s Home Page: http://www.bjneblett.com
Stories & Blog: http://www.bjneblett.blogspot.com
Poetry Blog: http://www.hereforaseason.blogspot.com
Elysian Dreams Page: http://www.elysiandreamsbook.com
Ice Cream Camelot Page: http://www.icecreamcamelot.com