I was sitting across from the order pickup counter, in the third from the end of a double-sided row of booths that ran the length of this one-room, inner city diner. The main entrance was to my back. To my left, across the isle and along the outside wall of the restaurant, another row of booths, each filled with anticipating or recently satisfied patrons.
The original construction was likely ’50s or ’60s, but the vinyl seats were relatively new, the tile floor repaired so many times that fewer original pieces remained than those which were replaced.
I sat facing a large, multi-pane window at the end of the restaurant opposite the entrance. I took note of the river, brown and gray, whose surface was without substantial features. It ran parallel to the outside wall of the restaurant, from left to right. The river’s bed was maybe eight or nine feet lower than the city grade, its banks gently sloped, brown leaves over green, a confused mid-state between winter and spring. The water was cold in the overcast light, low clouds obscuring any view of the sun and sky.
I was with two men, business associates I believe, for we were wearing button-down shirts tucked into our pleated slacks. The man seated across from me had arrived with a long rain coat, the kind that is worn over a suit in cities like Chicago, Boston, or New York. He carried a briefcase which rested open on the end of the dining table, adjacent to the partition between our booth and the one on the other side. This dream did not provide much detail for the man to my right, seated on my side of the booth.
Through my small portal to the outside world, I lost focus on the intent of the meeting. My business associates spoke to one another, waving hands and tapping fingers on printed figures whose sheets lay scattered between three times filled yet half empty cups of coffee and small plates which held the remains of a quickly consumed lunch.
I did my best to pay attention to the conversation, and yet I remained transfixed to the water whose swirling brown eddies carried white bubbles and debris through elliptical orbits eventually overwhelmed by the rules of gravity and flow. I looked down to my hands on the table, then up to my associates’ faces, giving a well-timed, polite nod of approval to something I did not fully comprehend; then back to my front and again the window.
One of the eddies broke open, water thrown to the sides as a woman’s head broke the surface and rose from the river. Just a dozen feet from the bank, she struggled to bring herself upright, exhausted and I could only imagine, very cold.
I stood half way up from my seat, as far as the confines of the table would allow, holding myself upright with my hands as much as my legs.
The woman found purchase in the river bottom and half walked, half pulled herself toward the shore. She looked back over her shoulder with some difficulty, reaching to take the hand of a child whose body just broke the surface. The young girl could not have been over the age of twelve years.
As they pulled themselves onto shore, the river continuing to flow over their bare feet, I noticed that both were wearing dresses that I would place in the 1700s, something now found only in theater or a movie. Plain, worn, and tattered from work and wear. Their hair was wet, gray and brown and streaks of black intermingled, as though they had been in the river so long to absorb its color.
I had stood fully now, sliding from the end of the booth. The woman and child lay on the river bank, grass and leaves beneath their palms, knees and sides. I noticed the translucent nature of their dresses, the cloth soaked and clinging to their shaking bodies.
As I watched them gain their feet, I realized with some level of disbelief that it was not the dresses that were transparent, but the woman and girl themselves, for I could see the bank of the river through them.
The girl clung to the woman’s hand and thigh, the skin of her outstretched hands as colorless as the dress. The woman turned, looked over her left shoulder away from the child, and stared directly at me from across the river, up the bank, and through the diner window. Even at this distance, I received the moment of her stare as though she were standing before me. I received anger, pain, and fear, causing me to intentionally hold back my own emotion.
I quickly looked back to my associates, to the two men at my table. They saw my face, followed my stare out the window, and back to me again.
The man across from me, his back to the diner window and river asked, “What’s wrong?”
“There,” pointing to the window which overlooked the river, “a woman and child just came out of the river. I, I think they nearly drowned. There, look, can you see them?”
Their heads turned quickly to the window, as did a few others in the restaurant having overhead my statement, or curious for what we witnessed outside. The two men rose from their seats and quickly followed me to the window. Those seated in the last booth recoiled with discomfort as we pressed ourselves to the window, one of the men kneeling on the edge of their booth.
But no, they did not see them, nor now could I. I aggressively pressed myself to the window, forcing the others, which now included a woman who sat at the last booth, out of my way. I looked frantically from side to side, scanning the full bank of the river that was visible to me.
“They’re gone. God, what could have happened? I need to go see if they are alright.”
I turned back to face the restaurant. A good majority of its patrons were now looking at me and the commotion by the last booth near the window. It was oddly quiet for a restaurant. Even the waitresses had stopped serving. Someone mentioned calling nine-one-one, but posed it more as a question than a command.
I hurried back to our booth, intent on gathering my things. My associates walked behind me, quiet, unsettled, I was certain. I paused for a moment, questioning what I had seen, not certain now of my own integrity of my own experience.
The man who sat to my right slid past me and into the booth. As I stood there, not certain what to do, I lost my balance, stumbled and knocked an emptied soup bowl and spoon to the floor. Startled, the waitress moved quickly to assist me, as did my associate who was nearly seated, but I was already kneeling on the floor to collect the fallen ware.
The three of us saw what had happened next, at the same time, and simultaneously froze.
I set the bowl upright, on the floor, and then placed the spoon in the bowl before bracing myself to rise. I reached for the bowl, but before I could make contact, the spoon flipped to the other side as though my hand were magnetic and of an opposite charge.
I nearly lost my balance and looked up to see if anyone had noticed. They were both silent, intent upon the bowl, then me, and the bowl again. I reached again. The spoon spun a full circle in the bowl, the ladle in the center, the handle riding around the rim.
I pulled back and nearly sat down. I looked at the bowl and spoon, my hands, and then back to the bowl and spoon again. I waved my right hand over the bowl in a circular motion and the spoon spun wildly, round and round and round for as many times as I motioned with my hands, even continuing for a full turn of its own momentum.
The waitress stepped back and uttered a sound that was somewhere between a shriek and a reprimand, as though I should know better than to do such things in her restaurant.
Now one knee and one hand on the floor, I looked up. My business associate was staring with such focus that nothing I did at that moment could not have distracted him from the bowl and spoon.
My other associate, to my left, had now risen from his seated position in the booth and while leaning over the table, nearly fell when his arms gave way to the weight of his trembling torso.
I felt cold, anxious, and scared. The image of the woman’s eyes reaching mine was mixed with fear and delight. Sweat ran freely down my spine and the front of my chest. Even my neck was warm, on this otherwise cold, wintry day.
I looked up, not to any one person but across the whole restaurant. Words pressed against the back of my throat, an acidic bile that I tried to swallow. My stomach convulsed, and then I said, “They’re coming.”
And at that instant someone at the far end of the isle in which I crouched cried out, and the whole assembly of the patrons were immediately aware of the sound of dozens of footfalls, wet human feet moving across the restaurant tile.
I looked down to the bowl again, then rose up to my feet with the bowl and spoon in hand. I looked down to set them on the table, and when I looked up again the woman and child from the river bank stood before me, and behind them a dozen more pairs of women and children, some boys, some girls.
All were wet and cold with shivering pale blue gray skin, their feet bare and bodies covered with ragged dresses, nothing more. More opaque now than what I observed before, but not entirely solid, I wanted to reach out to touch the woman to my front but recalled my arm and hand afraid that I would not touch anything at all.
I was torn between wanting to jump over the booth and run or embracing them to give them warmth. But all I could do was sit on the edge of the table while I held the woman’s stare. The girl at the woman’s side held what I now know to be her mother’s hand and thigh, the same as when they crawled onto the river’s bank just moments before.
The woman’s eyes offered no greater detail now then when she was fifty yards away. I could neither feel comfortable nor turn away. I felt a great deal of emotion welling up inside. No end to sadness and despair. I don’t know why, but I said, “I am sorry.”
She looked down at her daughter, then walked past me, all of them followed, wet feet sliding across the tile floor. To the end of the isle and window they walked, and without hesitation, through the wall, to the river, and back again into the water.
One by one, their feet, thighs, their entire bodies and heads disappeared into the eddies. Small white bubbles swirled round where the last of their flowing gray, brown, and black hair submerged.
© Kai Staats 2009