A Talk with Helen
by James Dodd, Jr.
After work on Friday Bernard stopped at the barbershop before picking up his suit from the dry cleaners. Before bed he arranged a shirt and his favorite yellow tie with the suit and laid the completed masterpiece on the couch while sipping a small glass of Dewar's. He awakened as if for work, showered, and left the house with more than an hour to spare, leeway for possible inaccuracies in Helen's directions and his ability to follow them. She'd called on Tuesday. It had been long enough since they'd last spoken that Bernard had forgotten exactly how long it had been. She said she wanted to see him, soon, Saturday. We need to talk was how she put it.
Her directions were precise and he arrived at her apartment forty minutes, starring from his car window, restless, for what seemed much longer than the three minutes his watch proposed. On the drive over he'd noticed a coffee shop just around the corner and figured a cup would kill some time and slow his trickling patience.
"What can I get ya, Sir?" An older man behind the counter with the name RALPH pinned to his orange and red cap asked. The shop was busy with customers lounging in athletic wear and jeans while soft jazz muffled their conversations and newspaper shuffling.
"A large cup of dark roast, please," Bernard said.
"Room for cream?"
"Yes. Yes, thank you."
When Bernard and Helen were a couple they'd spend loose weekends in coffee shops like this one, generally seated towards the back, and talk. Or rather Helen would. Quick to ambush any small talk, she'd reflect on her life's critical milestones; a fearful first day of kindergarten, the anxiety of testing for her drivers' permit, the destined failure of her first job interview. The specific event was irrelevant, each its own ugly scar and once reopened, raw, the wound was available for renewed examination. She was not looking for answers, a cure, there were none, instead she applied a new darker layer of reasoning, a fresh coat of misery. She was a woman who had been hurt, forever. These talks could last for hours or, like the afternoon she'd opened the bathroom door to find her stepfather sitting on the toilet and the calm in his reaction, could reduce her to ruin in less than fifteen minutes. Bernard's participation was welcomed, but pointless. After all, what could he be expected to do for her now?
"Here ya go," Ralph said, handing Bernard a cup wrapped in a thin napkin. "Careful now, its warm."
Bernard wiped the seat of an empty table and blew at the lid of his coffee. Betty, an older woman from his job, suggested Helen never really loved him in the first place. Sound to me like she ain't all there. He'd confided in Betty during an impromptu lunch the Monday after Helen left. But he was sure she had loved him. They shared moments of honest happiness, too pure to be mistaken. Helen was true and real and genuine, amazing in her simplicity. When they made love he felt safe.
He took a slow sip of the coffee.
"God Damn!" he yelled, spitting through his words. Eyes appeared above newspapers and conversations slowed. How hot could they make this shit? Reaching for a napkin he suddenly realized their texture was better suited for scriptures. Frantically he wiped the table then addressed himself, dabbing the lapel and sleeves of his jacket and pants as the napkin dissolved into a wad. On first inspection Bernard felt he'd missed himself. Thank God he'd spat and not dribbled. But what was that? There, right there, just beneath the knot of his tie? Drops of dark coffee.
"God Damn it!" he said again. This second outburst caused some customers to begin arranging their belongings. What good is a clean suit and shirt with a stained tie? He couldn't see Helen like this.
He rushed to the counter. "Do you have any real napkins?" he asked Ralph.
"Too warm for ya?" Ralph said with something related to a smile on his face.
"It's too damn hot period! I mean how can you expect someone to drink…? Look, you have a towel or something better than these flimsy ass napkins? My tie," he drew it closer for Ralph's inspection. "Just look at it."
Ralph squinted. "Sure. But it's not really that bad," and offered a dingy brown rag.
"You're kidding," Bernard tossed the rag back. "That's worse than what I've got."
"This or the bathroom, Mister." Ralph pointed toward the corner. "There's real good paper towels in there. Up to you."
Soap and water with some time to dry, things might be okay. They had to be. Bernard half jogged towards the restroom. He was eyed as he passed. "Hot! Hot!" He said, holding his fingers beneath the stream of frigid water. Of all days. Of all damn days! He held the tie to the mirror and saw five unmistakable circles. Ralph was a blind fool, no wonder he worked here. In the mirror his eyes drifted from the soiled tie to the beads of sweat dotting his forehead and the dampening ring around his collar. He had to calm down or he'd be a mess.
Bernard got lost on his drive home. Helen wouldn't understand, hell, he didn't even understand. But he'd come up with something rational for an excuse. But not now, not today, he didn't want to talk to Helen anytime soon, ever maybe. The morning she left she gave her only hint of an explanation. "I'm fucked up," she said, packing the last crate into her car. "And the sad part, the thing that makes me so mad, is I didn't do it."
He finally understood.