The air was that perfect, nearly indescribable, crisp breath, hammering relentlessly against our faces as we rounded each bend. She had always wanted to visit Tianmen Mountain, captivated by its rugged cliffsides and the emerald vegetation that spills over the fringes. So, ultimately, that was our first honeymoon destination. And what a destination it was, to feel as though you are sitting amongst the clouds, to dream of evaporating with them. And maybe it was that slight bit of precipitate that I forgot to account for. That otherwise insignificant bullet of water that took shape on the steering wheel.
Of course, I read the warnings. She did, too. She was relentless about them. But our convertible dazzled in the light, and the unobstructed air spirited us away. No matter how oppressive the sun felt, burning into the tips of our ears, that breeze propelled us further. And I let my foot sink further against the gas pedal. She hollered, but it wasn’t out of fear—no, it was the freest sound I’ve ever heard. And it was the last sound I can recall before I allowed myself to look at her face, emancipated and effervescent, and neglect an incoming vehicle and a hairpin bend at the edge of the mountain.
Our car must’ve hurdled over those barriers. Those concrete walls designed to trap you within. Maybe we just felt, if even for a moment, too free. Maybe those are emotions that we just aren’t meant to feel. Maybe we were only ever supposed to get lost in someone else’s sense of liberation. That’s all I’ve got, though. I wish there was something more.
The man said all of this with an unsettled ease. His eyes were worn, glassy, and distant, as if he were peering listlessly at something just out of sight. A silence then followed as he laced his fingers and rubbed his thumbs together. Then, his wife rested her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed and she appeared, at least, to be at peace.
Although the couple only sat ten inches apart, separated solely by the distance between the café’s barstools, an intangible, limitless space removed each of them from the other. Those stools: cold and pristinely white with red cushions—the kind that might just swallow someone whole if they sat there long enough—were rarely populated. Despite nearly twenty of them lining the café’s bartop, only the solemn couple sat upon them. Others often found a place at the tables scattered about the expansive dining room, engaging in quiet, intimate conversations. The conversations that one would crane their neck to hear until the end, stealing truths that had not been offered to them. Their voices created a low cacophonous hum that filled the room.
“You never told us your name,” the woman lifted her head from her husband’s shoulder, past the two glasses of drinks that obstructed her view, and stared into The Waiter’s eyes.
The voice of The Waiter came slowly, raspily, as if the words were carving his esophagus as they escaped. “People just call me The Waiter.”
“No one ever asks you?”
“People do not come to learn about someone else. I am only here to be at your service—for your hospitality.”
“And you’re okay with that?” She pried.
A small smile sneaked onto his face. “Of course. This place is incredibly busy, people come and go, it is hard to be bothered about such a thing when there are so many others out there to learn about,” said The Waiter.
The woman swiveled around on her stool and looked at the crowd of individuals who sat at the tables. She seemed to long for their histories. She seemed to reach out to them, grasping for a new story to latch onto. The light from outside the windows, blindingly white and radiant, reflected lustrously against the marble tiles on the floor. It sent golden, glistening sparkles into the air and she grinned at the sight.
“Are you ready to go, Elaine?” Her husband took one last drink from the glass before him and gave her a gentle tug on the arm.
She turned back to face her husband, then glanced in the direction of The Waiter. It was as if she was searching for an excuse to stay. The Waiter’s mouth opened briefly, but his attempt to speak was interrupted. “All right, Bruce, let’s go. Don’t forget to tip The Waiter.”
Bruce nodded, then aggressively fumbled for his wallet. After an uncomfortable period of watching the man pat the outside of his pants in search of cash, The Waiter’s hand motioned for him to stop. “It is not a concern. Thank you both for stopping in today, and please have a safe trip.”
Elaine offered The Waiter a brisk wave, then took Bruce’s hand in her own. The couple awkwardly shuffled between the rows of crowded tables, apologizing to everyone they passed. They were nice. Or, they were too afraid to be discarded or detested. Deep down, they both might fear that very thing about the other; they might fear the result of being left behind, neglected, and forgotten if they ever spoke their minds about how they truly feel. The image of the couple pushing against the solid, silver doors of the café and dissipating into the blinding light outside imprinted itself in The Waiter’s eyes.
Steady in his disposition, The Waiter’s body remained stoic behind the bar. Thoughts of Elaine and Bruce attempted to gnaw at the back of his mind, but they were quickly dispelled. It would be a wasted effort to continue dwelling on such an unhappy pair. A couple so thoroughly trapped and blind to the cage that kept them locked within. They would, hopefully, finally be able to feel free, decided The Waiter.
Upon glancing at the bar, it became apparent to him that a fine layer of dust coated the porcelain countertop. It would be invisible to anyone else, but for an individual who has grown accustomed to the brilliant sheen and reflective quality of the surface, it was certainly grating. And although he was happy to serve in his role, a feeling of resentment for the custodial responsibilities of the job surrounded him. His fist clenched shut and thoughts of why no one else would join him probed his consciousness. How could he be the only one?
A squeal emitted from the countertop as The Waiter’s hand forced a towelette against it. Circular streaks of liquid were left behind, trailing the damp cloth. The cleaning routine persisted until satisfaction washed over his visible reflection.
Every so often, someone would walk up to the bar, sit stony-faced for a long while, then begin to talk. Each person rambled aimlessly, recounting scenes from their past and conversations that latched onto their consciousness. With frequent, calculated nods of the head, an atmosphere was cultivated by The Waiter that permitted and encouraged café visitors to expel extended monologues from their mouths. The same smile remained fixed on his face. Unchanging.
The monologues, while mostly disinteresting, contained minute gemstones of information that gripped at The Waiter. Elaine’s emancipated face as she felt the wind tussle her flowing hair and the adrenaline of rounding a mountaintop at superfluous speeds. Nathaniel’s mended spirit as he ripped open the silence of an underground bar with an improvised saxophone jazz solo for the final time. Rachel’s physical weightlessness as she sliced through the sky as an arrow, severing clouds and air currents, and soared to the earth in a wingsuit. The monologues held secrets, unspoken and deeply personal. They ought to be excavated and made known. To be understood. Then, once the stories concluded, and the visitors finished their drinks, they bade farewell to The Waiter and disappeared out the silver doors.
The polished surface of the countertop haunted The Waiter once people left. It was as if his beige flesh faded into the backdrop of the café—he was nothing more than a mere extension of the room itself. The black, flat mop of hair atop his head became the sheets of crystallized minerals that etched across the marble flooring like veins. The café breathed because air pumped through his lungs. For him to exit through those silver doors would surely be to shutter the café.
As various visitors gradually materialized at the tables throughout the room, one particular person caught the attention of The Waiter. Her body came into focus gently, just as morning dew condenses on a leaf. She was adorned in a yellow dress that set the room ablaze and diffused embers when exposed to the light. A straw sunhat, wrapped in an elegant pink ribbon, concealed the details of her face from view. She sat, frozen in time, one leg crossed over the other, and feet completely bare. The woman was ethereal.
Remaining planted in his position, a discordant symphony of thoughts echoed throughout the mind of The Waiter. There were responsibilities that were expected of him to upkeep. It would be irresponsible to abandon the bar. Careless. Sloppy.
The Waiter stepped forward, beyond the confines of porcelain countertops and microscopic particles of dust. The ground squealed lightly beneath his shoes as he pressed toward her. Before reaching the woman, who began to twirl her ribbon between two fingers, probably impatiently, an unseen weight tethered The Waiter in place. There would be no words that she would like to hear—none that could be conjured by him. The ground squealed again as his feet pivoted him away from her.
“Excuse me,” a voice called, “please, come back.” It came from her direction. The sound of her words embraced The Waiter and held him for a moment. Then, inexplicably, they carried him toward her once more, releasing the unseen weight that had previously frozen him in place. She lifted the brim of her hat and smiled as a ray of light danced across her face.
“How can I help you?” The words fled from his mouth haphazardly, colliding into one another.
“I’m not so sure how I got here,” she said, then looked off toward the floor, seeking something that couldn’t be found.
“That’s common around here.” The script implanted in The Waiter’s mind began to flow. Every note of inflection or minute pause between words had been meticulously crafted after an immeasurable number of recitations.
The woman stared absently as she was told that she had died. Her eyes fluttered for a moment, and she clutched the frills stemming from her dress. She died, then found herself in a café dining room, sitting alone at a table, surrounded by others who had learned the very same details.
“Are you God?” she asked.
“People just call me The Waiter.”
The woman released her grip on the fraying fabric and looked up at The Waiter. There was a visible fear situated just behind her eyes. It was shrouded amongst the hazel clouds, tucked away, but ever-present. “People just call me Ilona. I think.”
“What can I get you, Ilona?”
She laughed. It began as a giggle that crept out of her mouth, but the more she attempted to stifle it, the more raucous it grew. The laugh bubbled out of her gut and erupted into the air. It ruptured the hum of conversations in the room and brought the café to an eerie silence. Then, all at once, she stopped. The eyes of the café visitors lingered for a moment longer before returning to their prior discussions.
“Sit down, Waiter.” A bewildered expression took form on his face. But his body remained still. Ilona scanned his stance, then kicked a chair out from under the table. She nodded her head toward the seat and repeated her command until it was followed. “So, I’m dead?”
“You shouldn’t lead with that,” Ilona said, then crossed her arms. The eyebrows on The Waiter’s face furrowed. “That little speech you gave to me; you should change it. People shouldn’t always get the truth. I mean, you’re practically begging for chaos in here.” She took in a heavy breath. “You really call this place Midway Café?”
“They do,” said The Waiter.
Ilona’s eyes darted around before she whispered, “Who are ‘they?’”
The silver doors caught the attention of The Waiter. “Those who went out the doors—who left this place. This midway point that leads to elsewhere.” It was evident that Ilona wanted to know more about what existed outside. The curiosity was in her trembling lips, the water flooding in her eyes, and the blazing splotches of pink that leaped from her face. “But they shouldn’t have done that,” The Waiter said, his voice was resolute.
Ilona’s eyes narrowed and pierced into his. It was a clinical stare; she wanted to find something inside him. “There must be something out there, Waiter. There always is.”
The Waiter got to his feet and pressed his fingertips against the table. There would be another smudge to clean. “Of course, that’s what you might think. They all do. You’re so convinced that there’s something more waiting for you. That you’re entitled to another space. You’ve only been here for moments and yet you’re certain that this is only midway to somewhere else.”
“I didn’t believe in an afterlife,” she admitted. “I knew what was going to happen to me.” Her eyes burned into The Waiter and held him in place. There was nothing that his body could do. The feeling of the porcelain tabletop under his fingers forced the attention of his eyes. The walls still held his skin as a melted wax plastered against the room. It breathed.
Ilona’s eyes tumbled downward and lingered on the floor. The shallow wrinkles just beneath them twitched as if something stirred deep within her. Something that she struggled to let herself speak openly. It was immense, and it gradually scaled her interior, hoisted itself into her throat, then pried through her clenched lips. She was in pain; the memory seared her flesh and thrashed about in her mind. She couldn’t keep it locked in. She was powerless.
She only had hours left.
I only had hours left. It spread to my brain. I heard people saying that I wasn’t really me anymore. Of course, their thoughts were never told directly to me; instead, those hallway conversations slipped between the cracks in the door and paraded around my room. I felt like me, but I guess that couldn’t be true.
I only wanted to escape the constant clicking and beeping and moaning of the machines that conquered my every waking moment. So, I did. I cut myself free, and in that singular moment, I felt like I didn’t belong to anyone. I wasn’t some puppet tied down by technology that might string me along for a few more days. But why would I want that? After all, I wasn’t really me on those strings.
I slipped on my favorite yellow sundress and took the straw hat that hid in the corner of my room. And before anyone could notice, I went out the back door and laid down in the yard. The sun was intolerable, honestly, peering down and clubbing my skin with burning waves of force. Any spontaneous burst of strength that propelled my body out of that dreary, withered house was evaporated by the heat.
I counted each blade of grass that brushed up against my cheeks. Seventeen. I wondered how someone could stop being themselves. Even if I changed, I am still me, but new. I’m just not the idea of me that someone else held any longer. There was some sort of peace, I decided, knowing that there would be nothing waiting for me past this moment in the grass. It was freeing to lose all sense of those wicked expectations. I counted the blades again and felt new.
Ilona’s words flooded the room and suffocated the ears they fell on. She knew who she was. She was confident. She didn’t need anyone else. Her eyes climbed back up to meet The Waiter’s. The two maintained a prolonged moment of tranquility, without another word to penetrate the space.
Then, it became clear. She was the one to wait for. Ilona was the person that kept The Waiter behind the bar as a set of lungs for the café. She was tortured throughout her life, battered and worn, and left with no hope for a different outcome. There would be no purpose for her to expect anything more from such a troubled existence. Ilona could stay. She would.
“There is nothing beyond this room that is good for anyone,” The Waiter told her.
“So, you do know what’s waiting for me—us,” she motioned to the room of eclectic individuals sitting behind tables, enjoying the company of others.
A subtle snort slid out of The Waiter, then he said, “I am not paid enough to know that much. But you hear things. Not always, of course, but enough if you stand in one place for a while.”
The accumulation of questions stockpiling in Ilona’s mind became evident on her face. She settled on positing, “What have you heard?”
A stroke of silence painted over the two. Perhaps there were a hundred answers to this question. Perhaps there would be an answer that she wanted to hear, and perhaps one that she needed. The Waiter dropped his head and let it hang below his shoulders. To the outside eye, it would appear that an invisible force was pulling the top of his skull into the floor to engulf him completely.
“Cries, mostly,” The Waiter said. “And not the sort that most are accustomed to. These are different. It is as if the noise is unjustly torn from their throats and let out into the open. A kind of inhuman cry that tangles your abdomen in an impossible knot. Except my knots no longer torture me. I live with them.”
Ilona leaned back in her chair and scanned The Waiter. She folded her lips into her mouth and offered him another smile. “So, that’s it. All there is to expect is punishment. Long, extended pain for something we have no conscious memory of doing.” She sat in her thoughts for a moment and allowed them to swaddle her. Her focus drifted behind The Waiter and spoke to the room, “And I’m supposed to know what to do with all of this.”
“I do not think anyone truly knows.”
“I left my last life suddenly. I decided what I wanted. I decided I was exhausted by what was and was not expected. And now I know: that is all there is that’s left for me beyond those doors. Some other room, some other existence, that punishes me with unruly expectations and—”
The Waiter interrupted, “Or, you can stay here.”
Ilona’s words trailed off. She glanced about the room, her head jolted from side to side as her bottom lip trembled. “That’s not an option.”
“Who decided that?” The Waiter prodded.
She forced her chair backward forcefully and winced at the shriek that emitted from the legs against the floor. For one brief moment, Ilona held onto the gaze of The Waiter with her own. Then, suddenly, she pushed past the table and bounded for the great silver doors. The eyes of The Waiter continued to latch onto her, glued to her impassioned gait. Ilona reached out her hand and clung to the sterling handle on the door.
The Waiter moved with purpose toward her, avoiding the others that occupied the dining room seats and filled the air with uninspired hardships and recycled revelations. They would all leave, and it would make no difference. Another would fill their seat at the table with similar misfortunes. They could all leave, except for her.
Ilona began to pull on the handle, letting a shred of blinding light penetrate the café’s interior until The Waiter forced it shut once more with an extended arm. He stood over her, unmoving. “You know you cannot go.” Her eyes fell and fixated on the floor. “You will torture yourself out there. You will experience pain and anguish, constantly, no matter how much you try to search for nothingness. It does not exist.” The Waiter removed his grip on the door and stated, “You cannot cease.”
His words swept under her feet and she collapsed to her knees. In that moment, she was helpless. There was nowhere left for her to go. She needed something, anything. The Waiter reached down his hand and presented it to her. Ilona lifted her head, stared at it blankly, then got to her feet without taking his gesture. Of course, she would not admit that she needed it.
She asked, “When do I start?” And The Waiter smiled and ushered her behind the bar.
As the two passed her old table, The Waiter caught a glimpse of its surface. Immaculate. It was as if no one had ever been there. There were no traces of prints or smudges. There was nothing to clean. The Waiter lingered by the table for a while and considered the absence of grime throughout the dining room, but then his legs abruptly carried him behind the bar to tidy the counter.
Oh, My Word! This short story is broken up into two parts. The second part can be found here: https://ohmyword.blog/2021/10/27/the-midway-cafe-part-2/.
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Oh, My Word! is a weekly updated blog featuring fiction, poetry, drama, and essays for the world. #OhMyWordWednesdays
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