The clouds were low and dark, heavy really, you might say, as if hiding something with evil intentions. Jeff was walking briskly a late fall afternoon, somewhat anxious, glancing at the sky furtively and often. From the outside, it might have appeared as though he felt stalked. He accelerated his pace, leaving traces of steam with each exhale, vaguely regular, which may have been SOS smoke signals if you knew Morse code.
Jeff had been in the military. He never liked talking about it. He lost too many friends and people under his command. Not that he felt guilty. He had done his best, more than his best. He was just tired of explaining. He was tired that he’d had to be responsible for men and women who would end up dying no matter what he did. He carried each and every one in his heart. He loved them all. He vowed to never ever forget anyone, not by talking about them, but by remembering them, as if in subtle forms of prayers, keeping them alive in his thoughts. He remembered their names, their nicknames, and what made them who they were, little quirks or a particular sense of humor, and sometimes their bouts of anger or fear that made them oh! so human.
A few more steps and Jeff entered the café he frequented almost daily, remaining self-absorbed, at least to an outsider. He did not need to look around to know who was new at the tables. Years of duty gives one that extra sense; the discernment between the familiar and the not so familiar. Hence, he noticed, without looking, a young woman between two men, fidgeting with a straw. The men were unfamiliar. The people at the other tables and the café staff were all familiar. The young woman fell somewhere in between. But why did she feel familiar? He knew he’d never met her. He felt in his chest a yearning pain, and a dull cramp in his stomach. He asked for his usual to Alex, the barista.
All the tables were busy and yet Jeff sat at his table. Skip was there. Gray haired man, with a mustache, steal eyes, yet a strange softness in them, or was it a resignation? He stood up and nodded briefly at Jeff before going to sit at a table next to the young woman.
“Do you mind?” Skip asked the women who was busy typing on her laptop at that table.
“Be my guest!” she said. Jazz had curly blond dyed hair with gray roots. She wore a dark jacket over a pale green blouse. Her makeup was precise, if only a tad overdone.
“Writing your memoir?” Skip asked.
“Some people like to draw,” she said out loud, then she waited a little longer than expected. Skip thought she was done, turned to the table next to his and looked at the young woman, who also looked at him. The two men around her remained engaged in conversation.
“I like to eavesdrop, and write what I hear,” continued Jazz, so everyone could hear. And she laughed indicating it was a joke, or perhaps it was her natural sarcasm. Skip stopped looking at the young woman to answer the older woman, but she was deep into her writing. So he looked back at the young woman and smiled, and she smiled too, as a response to what Jazz had just said.
“First time here?” he asked the young woman.
“You know damn well it is!” interrupted Jazz loudly, “Is that why you sat here, to flirt with her?”
Skip’s face flushed. He smiled at the young woman, “You were saying?” he said quietly, ignoring the older woman’s words and tone.
“My mother needs home care,” she said, “I came back to help her.”
“You’re… from here?”
“Yes, but my dad took me away when I was five and…”
“Drew?… Drew Johnston?”
“Yea… Yes! That’s me!” she said.
Everyone knew Drew’s story. Her mother Diana went through a terrible divorce some twenty years earlier and Robert Johnston kidnapped their daughter and disappeared. Diana was irate and desperate.
“Were you in touch with your mother all along?”
“Not right away. It wasn’t easy…”
Jeff knew the story very well because Diana had paid him to find Drew. Diana was Tracey’s daughter who died under his watch. He felt it was his duty to help one of his beloved soldiers’ family member. He’d found Drew almost immediately, about 1,200 miles away. He was ready to kidnap her to bring her back to her mom. But he overheard a conversation between father and daughter that changed his mind. Robert had offered Drew a chance to choose between him and her mother because he did not want to cause her any pain. He had tears in his eyes when he said, “If you choose your mom, I may not see you again until you’re 16 or 18. It’s up to you!” Drew wanted to stay with him.
That day, duty, which came from his mindset, and his heart were in conflict for the first time. His wish to respect a young person’s free will prevailed. It tore him up inside. He went back to Diana and told her the truth. She yelled at him and swore she’d never want to see him again. He knew the feeling of an angry woman. “Gertrude,” he thought.
Drew continued, “When I was 16, he told me he was grateful that he had me and he could not hold a grudge against mom because he would not have had me without her. So, he put the two of us in touch. I called her. She cried on the phone. But I could not forgive her as easily as dad could. I was scared of her. So I accepted to talk with her on the phone but I did not want to see her in person. Not yet. But then she became ill, so I came. I came with body guards. She pointed to the two men around her with her face.”
Drew did not look anything like Diana. Nor did she look anything like Tracey. “So why does she look familiar?” Jeff wondered. He instinctively did not look directly at her as if to protect himself. Not just that she might know who he was while he did not yet know who she was. But if she came with ill intentions, to look at her would open the door for an interaction that would put him at a disadvantage.
Suddenly, she was standing at his table, looking straight at him. Her eyes wide. A faint smile. “I hope you enjoyed your last cup of coffee,” she said.
“Gertrude!” he thought, “Of course! She reminds me of Gertrude who swore she’d have me killed when I visited her on her death bed.”
“You’re not Drew,” Jeff said, “If you only knew the truth… you may not have carried out the last wish of your great grandmother.”
She sat down. “Tell me!”
“It’s too late now… don’t you think? The way you drew out that story of yours…”
“We can call for an ambulance!”
“Your great grandmother, Gertrude, wanted to sleep with me and I said no. Not many refuse such offers in the military. You can imagine, she felt deeply insulted. She asked me if I was engaged. I said I was. She asked me who it was, if she could see a picture. I said I did not have one. So she thought I was lying. She thought I was rejecting her. In truth, I did have a picture, here it is…” And Jeff showed the young woman an old wrinkled black and white photo of a young female soldier and him, with the name Natalie and the year 1959 hand written on the back. Jeff continued, “But Natalie did not see me that way and I did not wish to bring more discomfort between us by drawing attention to my love for her publicly. I was deeply committed, heart and mind, and I could not get myself to be with any other woman.”
Jeff fell off his chair. The young woman came to her knees by him and called for someone to call 911.
“It’s okay,” Jeff whispered, “It’s a good way to go, by the side of the great granddaughter of a woman who once wanted me. No regrets.” Jeff took his last breath, a peaceful one.
The medics came in. The clouds had lifted outside. It was getting dark and the sky reflected orange and purple colors. Inside the café, everyone had gathered around Jeff. The medics took control. People made a circle around them to let the process happen. People had made a circle but remained quiet. There was not much to share. Many people knew Jeff, but few had talked with him.