“The Old Woman at the Coffee Shop” by Simon Boehm

As usual she is sitting in the far back, floating on the sofa like a dead fish on the surface of the sea. She looks tired, eyes half closed, a cup of coffee on the table in front of her. She mumbles to herself without a break and without a sound. Words that only she can hear. She may recite Joyce, Shakespeare, Beckett, a friend from long ago, all the same. Life is but a dream for her and all she wants to do is wake up.

I take my own coffee and sit down at a table halfway between the entrance and the woman in the back. From here I watch all sorts of people come in. Businessmen and women in suits, schoolchildren in shirts and sneakers, students, housewives with babies in strollers. They buy fair-trade coffee from Honduras, chocolate bars made in Ecuador (a dollar from every bar goes directly to the harvesters) and water from somewhere in Asia. They look around the shop searching for the perfect table and finally point to it: there, yes, there, let’s sit there. It’s always a table somewhere near the entrance.

The woman in the back keeps rambling on throughout. I look at her more closely now. Her black hair streams in greasy streaks down over her face. She wipes them away with a hand that’s full of mysterious dark spots. There’s a fat ugly wart on her right cheek. Underneath her black raincoat she wears a spotty brown-greyish sweater which can barely contain her large, flabby belly. She breathes heavily, head against the back of the sofa, her mouth always mumbling.

You can see the customers wondering why she’s allowed in here. None of them have warts. They have homes and jobs and families. Things that are nothing but words to the woman in the back and images of a past, maybe. Any past.

I suddenly feel the urge to find out what she’s saying. Is she conversing with herself? With a memory of the past? Or is she just talking for the sake of it? Maybe I could get answers if I went over. But I don’t dare. I’m afraid of the smell, afraid that she might touch me. Afraid of what other people will think. I’m ashamed of this last thought but I can’t help it. I’m one of them, am I not?

I finish my coffee. It tastes bitter.

When I come back the next day she’s not there. Neither the day after that. Or the one thereafter. The nights have been cold lately, too cold. One can only fight the cold so long and she was probably old, I think. It’s hard to tell once they’re past a certain point. They all just start to look so old.

I get my coffee and sit down at my usual spot. People walk in and order their coffee. They look for a spot and scatter all over the coffee shop. Some look at me. Some don’t. I watch them and wonder who they are. Whether they ever mumble to themselves. At home. In their car. Anywhere.

In the back, two young girls sit on the sofa, in the same spot where the old lady used to sit. They’re laughing.

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