Corner Noodle – 2012
Short story written entirely while working at a law office. Shh! Don’t tell my former employers!
A man in a long coat and tie pushes through the curtain and finds a seat at the counter. The edges of his shoes are damp. Two hours ago there was a rainstorm. He places both hands on the black tile and spreads his fingers. Outside, yellow leaves drip off a ginkgo.
Behind the counter, a chef smooths a wrinkle by his left eye and looks at the man. The man looks back. Checking the boil on the large iron pot, the chef heats two pans and cracks an egg into the pan by the wall. There’s a picture of a girl in a red raincoat. The man in the long coat and tie moves his fingers together and back out.
In the street there’s little traffic. The stoplights blink, a mockingbird sits on the awning and pulls feathers. A cloud of steam from the burners pushes below the curtain and moves across the sidewalk, stopping to fill in cracks or hug the limp heads of browning grass. A light breeze takes the smoke down the road. It’s cold, nearing winter.
As the egg sizzles, the chef seasons the second pan with a splash. A car passes while its windshield wipers move back and forth. Rain drips from the needles of tall pines; the sky above is motionless. The man breathes – lungs taking the salt and air – and exhales. He counts to five silently and breathes again. From a heavy ceramic jar, the chef grabs a handful of buckwheat noodles. He drops them in the second pan and one noodle slips to the floor. With two fingers, he lifts it into a waste-bin beneath the counter.
The man moves to check his watch but thinks better of it. He pushes his fingers until they’re firm together instead.
“Two noodle bowls, make those soups, with chicken” the man in a long coat and tie says and turns to the pale woman beside him. “It’s a good day for soup.”
The woman smiles and shifts on her stool. She tastes pink lip gloss. Behind the counter, the chef straightens his apron and takes two porcelain bowls dyed with flowers from a cabinet.
The sky past the curtain is dense but the clouds have shifted and the sun has moved higher. Now, everything is white: the leaves, the pavement, the woman’s low-cut dress. She feels a chill and watches the chef ladle dark broth, hoping it will help.
The man moves his fingers back and forth and somewhere a car horn sounds – loudly – and disappears. He traces the sound in his mind and up the woman’s spine: like long drives in the city or trips in the backseat of his parents’ car, looking out the window. A cold wind pulls beneath the curtain. The pale woman breathes and the man breathes and the chef shells two hard-boiled eggs before cutting them into fourths. The eggs patter like rain in the bowls.
“We’ll have to make this quick. Got a meeting at one-thirty. God, I wish I didn’t” and the well-dressed man picks the spoon from the napkin and dips it into soup. Beside him, the woman closes her eyes. She shudders when steam gets tangled in the fine hair along her arms. The woman lifts hot broth from the bowl and sucks it. It tastes like summer. Summer’s long gone.
Three men pay their bills and drive away. The sound of rubber spinning wildly is caught for a while against the curtain. Behind the counter, the chef reaches to his back and tightens the knot on his apron. A stray thread.
The chef clears half-eaten plates and wipes down counter-tops. He pushes a wet rag. Trails of soapy water; packets of salt and sauces arranged in bowls; deep lines of his face mirrored in the tile. He pulls at his cheeks until he’s smiling.
The chef throws the rag in the sink. He leans against the wall, settles in a chair, and crosses his legs. He touches stubble. It feels rough, the fur of an old dog. He looks at the girl in the red raincoat. Is she happy?
The curtain moves – heavily – but nothing comes inside.
A man in a long coat and tie pushes through the curtain and finds a seat at the counter. It’s cold again but the roads are dry and the man knocks the dirt from his pant legs. A radio sings from the back room while the man breathes deep. His mouth fills with the basil steeping in the large iron pot. There’s no-one but the man on either side of the counter. He moves his fingers – one at a time – through grooves in the tile.
The chef appears and takes two pans from a cabinet by the stove. He lights the burners while the sounds of a saxophone wrap softly with the fire. Though it isn’t much, the man can feel the heat from the burners. The chef tugs at the hair around his ears. Outside, a dog with heavy fur is panting alone beneath the ginkgo.
A phone vibrates three, four times before it stops. The man, the chef, even the mangy dog – everyone ignores the phone.
Two hours ago the day ended. For awhile, the sky was dazzled with sharp oranges and reds and yellows but now everything is black like the trim of the pale woman’s dress. She’s alone today. The woman crosses her arms – lifting her breasts – and watches the chef turn the pages of a small book with one hand. The space heater is on behind the counter, trying hard to keep the shop warm. The counter is clean and black and cold like the pavement outside.
A car parks across the road. Its doors lock. The chef folds a page and closes the book. Hurriedly, the woman leans on bent elbows and stares at light caught in her nail-polish. Her neck becomes hot, cold, then hot again. She listens as too many feet knock closer along the sidewalk.
“So how’d you hear about this place, a friend?”
“Yeah a friend,” and three young men toss through the curtain. They look at the store, at the chef, at the pale woman by the wall before taking three seats together. The woman is careful not to look at them. She keeps both hands in her lap, both eyes on the stove, and both ears waiting for the phone. Her face is a deep ravine.
The chef finds three paper menus and spreads them on the counter. The first man scratches his scalp below a baseball cap.
“That’s the point, though, isn’t it? To leave there with someone?”
“You could say that, definitely.”
“So how do we make her wanna go?”
The men flip through the menus and order beers. The chef twists the caps off three lagers with a washcloth. Outside, everything is quiet: the leaves of the ginkgo, the stiff awning, the parked car. The pale woman smells the beer. It’s bright, crisp and colorful. It reminds her of summer. She glances at her open handbag while hops and grain glide across the room.
A phone rings. One of the men is saying something but the chef looks at the woman. She looks at the leather purse by her stool. The phone rings again. The pale woman pulls the purse onto the counter, rushes her fingertips between the zippers, and finds a vibrating, pulsing, blue everything of a phone. Her neck is hot but her hands are numb.
“That might work, yeah, but shit – right now, I’m just hungry.”
“Eyes on the prize, man, eyes on the prize.”
“Hello?” says the woman.
The chef chops four green onions and drops them in bowls. One man shakes his head and slaps the other two on the back. “I was worried you wouldn’t call.” A few splashes from the stove when the soups are poured. The men laugh loudly. “You’re late but that’s fine, oh it’s so fine – I’ve really missed you.” Steam rises from the bowls. The man in the baseball cap has a spoon now and he’s banging the tip on the counter. The chef pops the cap off a second round. “Oh, ok. Yes darling, I understand. Some other time.” A dark, wet wind tussles the curtain from outside.
The shop chatters as the three young men slurp noodles. The chef sits in his chair with the small book across his knees. A brown, heavy smell hugs the room. The woman puts the phone away. She looks for something – anything – and sees the picture of the girl in a red raincoat.
“When I was eleven,” says the woman. “When I was eleven years old,” she says, louder, and this time the men turn and watch. “I went to a summer camp. It was a typical thing, a month long, and I’d been going for a few years, since I was eight I think. There was nothing special about it really. Nothing special at all.
“But that year we took a trip into town. We were going to an amusement park, one with lots of cheap rides. We got on two buses and rode down just after dinnertime and got to the place at sunset. It was later than they usually let us stay up, so I imagine everyone was excited. I spent some time playing games with my friends but after a while they went off together for a ride and I was left alone by the food-stands.
And that’s when I talked to this boy I liked.”
Wind rolls against the curtain from the outside.
“He was tall, smart and lovely,” she goes on. “We only saw each other in the summers, at camp, but I was drawn to him from the beginning and I thought he liked me too. He bought me something at the stalls, a drink or something, and then we hit it off. We rode the rides, walked through the house of mirrors, and shared a funnel cake. At night, all the little lights turned on. It was magic.
Anyway, he grabbed me. By the shoulders, just like this. We were by the carousel. My heart was – well – pounding. We were standing so close I could smell the sugar in his mouth. And he says – of all things, he says: ‘How does it feel to know that everyone here wants you?’
I thought I misheard, so I asked him what he’d said, and he just repeats: ‘How does it feel to know that everyone here wants to have you? To touch you, open up every little bit of you and have you for their own? How does that make you feel?’
His hands moved down a little, close to my chest. They didn’t go any further but when I felt them move I just sort of knew that everyone else around us – all the boys, girls, the man at the counter taking tickets, the two camp counselors that were chaperoning, everyone in that lit up carnival – were looking right at me. They were waiting to take something from me and never give it back.
But you know, the funny thing about it is that I sort of felt relieved. It was so obvious, like seeing snow for the first time. It was the most natural, perfect thing in the world.”
A truck shakes past the ginkgo and rattles the asphalt. The awning moves, the walls of the shop move, and for a second the picture pinned above the stove moves too. The woman sees her face in the black counter-top. Her lips are bright, beautiful and painted red. When the truck is gone, the woman’s lips are still trembling.
Carefully, the pale woman rises from the stool and slips the leather purse around her arm. She breathes – deeply – and smells: the broth stirring in the pot; the sweat below the beer bottles; the yellows and browns of a sun-drenched summer far away. The curtain moves and the woman passes along with it. Cold air swells behind her and the chef checks the dial on the space heater. For awhile, the hair raises on everyone’s arms.
And then the fabric settles.
A man in a long coat and tie pushes through the curtain and finds a seat at the counter. The streets are glossy and slush slips off the sidewalks and into the road. The man’s shoes are wet and his pant-cuffs are dark and cold. He shakes his legs against the stool. Sometime in the night, round clouds rolled in from the west and covered the stars. The temperature fell and hard belts of freezing rain covered the streets, the stoplights, the knotted branches of the ginkgo.
The man sighs and pulls at stiff gloves. His fingers are puckered underneath. The shop’s silent and the lights are off. The space heater’s off too. The man pushes his hands onto the counter until blood colors his palms.
Somewhere in the back room, a toilet flushes and a faucet goes on. When the sink stops, the chef comes out. He turns on the lamps, the burners, the space heater. When he’s finished, the chef looks at the man in the long coat and tie and the man looks back. For the first time, the man notices the picture of a girl in a red raincoat.
A sheet of ice falls from the awning and cracks on the sidewalk – church bells. The chef heats a pan. Breathing deep, the man feels the four hard lines of his phone pressing at his chest. He slips a hand below his coat. His fingers stop at the pocket. The phone could ring at any time, but for now it’s quiet.
Red and yellow smells drift above the counter and the room is getting warmer. The air is stiff like June grass. With both hands on the black counter, the man in the long coat and tie spreads his fingers wide apart. Behind him, the curtain is cold and firm – threaded through with frost – but the frost is starting to melt.
The man closes his eyes and waits for the day.
Gareth Livesay, 2012