A coffee cup, a ring of dried sludge around the bottom, a pair of round, tortoiseshell glasses -- one lens tinted dark where it bakes in the sun, the other clear where it sits in the shade, a marled wood fountain pen, and a book: "Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke; bunched in a purposely haphazard manner, they huddle in one corner of the black, wrought-iron café table on the sidewalk.
It is my favorite table at the café and I've been eyeing it since I turned the corner. It is the one I sit at every afternoon from two o'clock to three o'clock as I take a break from struggling to find the right words to put down on paper.
I like that it is always half in sun and half in shadow at mid-afternoon, straddling the proverbial and cliché light and dark, and fully representing my constant stroll along that threaded breath between the two. I like that it affords a view of the park across the street, and the dogwood tree that tosses its spent petals to the ground like velvet confetti, a gust of wind throwing them into living, swirling dervishes along the path.
I stand staring at the offending intruders on my table, but sense they are not marking a place for someone present, but rather, are forgotten possessions left behind.
I glance around.
I ask Micah about it when he comes out to greet me, already carrying my large, soup-bowl-sized mug of dark-roast latte, the extra foam swirled into a ribbed heart.
He furrows his brow as he sets the coffee down, his gaze following my previous glance. "Huh," he says. "I don't know. I'll ask Becka, but I don't remember seeing anyone out here."
I nod and slip into my seat opposite the pile of ghostly belongings, staring at them as I lift the enormous cup to my lips. The rich, smoky, slightly chocolate aroma pulls my eyes closed for a moment.
When I open them, I glance through the glass behind me to see Becka's gaze flick toward me as she talks with Micah. She purses her lips, her shoulders shrug, and she shakes her head.
Micah returns. "Becka has no idea, either. I can just take them inside -- "
"No…" I reach for his hand, gesturing for him to leave them. "No, don't. Maybe someone will be back."
"Hoping for inspiration?" he teases.
I smile. "Always."
He nods, and I am left to my quiet communing, unable to ignore the magnetic pull of the stranger's possessions. Things have a vibration to them, given by their owner. It hums quietly around them, a colorless aura. They are alive, as though imbued with a fraction of the owner's own spirit. The whole world vibrates, really, but things…things do so in a different way because their pulse is born of a touch from another.
I stare up and down the street, which is fairly quiet save for a few young professionals, phones to ears, gazes inward, and one skateboarder, pants slung, earbuds in, eyes to the street.
The dogwood lets loose with a cascade of petals that I see in the corner of my eye.
In my mind, I see an older man, his fingers twisted, the skin thin and slightly blue, pulled tight over sinew and veins. He is wistful, happy, lost.
Turning my attention back to the glasses, pen, and book, he is there -- in the seat across from me -- his visage faint, sheer, dogwood petals tumbling through his face, his chest…
I pause, my hands cradling my cup on its saucer, my breath shallow and silent.
The man tips the coffee cup and scowls at its emptiness, nudges the tortoiseshell glasses farther into the shade and pulls the pen and book toward him.
A shock of silver hair is still a dense tumble of curls around his head, unkempt but somehow tidy. His face is long, chin tapering to a fine, barely-rounded point, cheekbones prominent as the hollows below sink to shadows. His eyes…
His eyes seem at once golden and green with hints of palest blue, and are as full of youthful light as his face is tired.
His shirt collar is open beneath a worn, comfortable, brown tweed jacket, and when I glance through the ironwork of the table, I see two lanky, stick legs clad in worn jeans over scuffed, broken-in, brown wingtip shoes. He crosses one leg over the other, the top one hanging, swinging freely as though connected together by a loose hinge and unencumbered by muscle.
He glances up. I am startled, forgetting he is not looking at me, as I am not there for him. I don't know if he looks at nothing, or someone else. He rubs his hands through his curls and smiles, his eyes shining with either tears or sun. Maybe a bit of both. He looks away too quickly.
Then he opens the cover of the book and poises his pen over the title page. He looks to the sky, down the street, at his hands.
A few words are jotted down, interrupted once by a cough and a reach for the coffee cup, forgetting it is empty. He rubs his eyes, pen straddling two fingers, then pauses, looking down the street one way, then the other, then back over his shoulder toward the dogwood. I follow as he tips his head, his gaze sliding to the top of the tree and the milk spill of clouds above.
The pen slips from his hand and he stands, his head still twisted round toward the tree. A gnarled hand absently reaches toward the glasses but misses and he abandons the attempt. I nearly reach out to help, forgetting myself.
But he simply turns fully away from the table, stepping toward the curb, gaze never leaving the dogwood tree. He pauses just a moment, hesitating, nearly turning back toward me but never quite makes it, instead stepping off the curb toward the park, and gone when a young woman on a bike blasts through him without slowing down.
I breathe, unaware I hadn't been, the girl checking traffic and arcing her way onto the bike path through park. I wipe my eye, unaware of the tear there, and leave a dark, salty stain on the leg of my jeans.
I am alone, save for my nearly cold coffee and a set of belongings across from me on the table in the same place they'd been since I arrived. But the light has shifted, and now both lenses are clear, glasses in full shadow.
Reaching for the pen, it is warm, smooth, the chrome nib catching a brief wink of sun. Two pigeons erupt from sidewalk to eve. I pick up the book, turning it over in my hands, it's rubbed spine and yellowed pages echoing of repeated readings and long ownership.
I feel my heart in my ears as well as in my chest. I run my fingers across the cover, catching the corner with my thumb and gently, softly, pull open the cover to reveal the title page.
Along the top, in black fountain pen ink it says, in the uncertain, tense script of a an old, bent hand, "For you…yes, you."
I slide the book beneath my dog-eared notebook, lift the glasses from their shadows and set them near my coffee cup, and roll the pen between my fingers.
He is gone, to the dogwood, to the milk clouds, to the whirling vortex of petals, but he is here at this table, in the glasses, pen, book. I don't know who he was -- or is -- I don't know where he went, or where he was from. But I'm suddenly very sure I can also say the exact same thing about myself.
This is my favorite table, at my favorite café, at my favorite time of day. The dogwood seems to have an endless supply of confetti petals to shake onto the walkway where a towheaded toddler suddenly stops, tiny hands outstretched, watching the unexpected rain from above float into his palms.
I can say the same of all of us, I suppose.
Where is it we come from? Where is it we go? How much of it matters, and what does -- how much?