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“Why do we still do it?”

The two men had been talking for a few minutes already. It was the same every time. They’d covered what was in the paper, who’d died, and who would do everyone a favor if they did. And they always each nominated the other in the latter category, as men who are old friends will do.

They paused to let the waitress put their cups and a pot of coffee down. She somehow produced a small stainless cream pitcher and put it down without spilling anything. A basket of biscotti was already waiting for them. She left, knowing better than to interrupt.

They were at a table by the big window that wobbled if you shifted your weight wrong. They came on Mondays at 7:30 in the morning, rain or shine.

The man who had spoken about their days as starving writers poured another splash of cream into his coffee until the color was the way God intended. He picked up a spoon — made the same decade as the pitcher — and stirred the required three circles. The table, which had probably been in many  dives—and as many auctions—had been new — and in its first auction — in 1929. The years left their mark, but the table still stood where people gathered. Even if it had developed a slight wobble, just like the men.

The other man lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, as if to hurt himself, then pushed the smoke up toward the ceiling. It rolled over itself up there and hid in the dimness like old, sad memories. Another long draw and exhale, more memories. He finally looked down into his coffee, watched the steam, felt mildly curious about when the waitress had poured it. He took a quick sip, blew a little to cool it, then took a longer drink. He looked through the dust of the window and watched the sun try to warm the old brick building across the street.

Carved in a limestone block at the top of the building were the block letters “W. C. T. U” for Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an anti-alcohol organization from the late 1890’s and early parts of the 1900s. The size of the building indicated how important that group had been. The dilapidated face of the building told a story of changing times.

“I wish I knew.” One side of his mouth twitched in what once had once been an easy smile. He raised his eyes, caught those of his friend for a moment and looked back out the window. A gust kicked up and blew something past. A white paper sandwich bag.

“Maybe… I don’t know….He stopped.

“Maybe its because the world is so fucked up.”

“Maybe I’m the one who’s fucked, and I never got the memo. Maybe…. .”

He trailed off and took another sip.

“Maybe what?”

“I have this nagging fear that we are living on borrowed time. It never leaves me. All of us. Everything. I just have this feeling that if I get it right—some day, even just once, I write the perfect thing, something of absolute and final clarity that is a plea for forgiveness—then maybe God will give us one more chance. The hell of it is, I’m getting old. I just don’t know how much time I have, or what it will take.”

Neither spoke again. There really was nothing more to say. They looked through the hazy glass as the coffees grew cold.

 

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