The tiles were layered with dust, dirt was caked in the grout, and footprints showed faintly over the entirety of the floor. I drew my attention away from the ground and tried to focus on the menu layered in plastic. The words were all handwritten, there were no pictures whatsoever, and there was only an option for half of each thing: A half a sandwich, a side of a sliced bagel, one piece of toast… there wasn’t even coffee on the menu.
I decided on just getting a sandwich when the waitress strolled over to my table, a strange Lucille Ball look-a-like with her red lipstick and curled hair teased into an up do. Even her nametag said “Red” on it. She plopped a glass of water with no ice onto my table and flipped open a tiny notebook, scribbling something down even before asking what I wanted.
I looked up at her curiously and she said, “What’ll you have, then,” but not in a questioning tone, as if commenting on the color of the sky.
“Sandwich, please,” I replied, unperturbed when she twirled around instantly and swaggered away.
I stared after her in mild amazement before gazing around at the walls covered in bleached-out pictures of what I was sure were family members of whoever owned the place. In the corner of the room, there was a small TV set playing an old kid’s show from who-knew-back-when, with a dog sitting in front of it and watching the screen intently.
In the next booth an old couple sat across from each other, and I could hear them arguing about their mortgage payments in dull voices. My mind began to wander from their lulling conversation to the scent of cooking meat coming from the kitchen. I leaned out from my booth and looked towards the kitchen, where a man was making something there.
I got up, and as I made my way to the counter I got a better look at him. He was tall with long black hair pulled back from him scruffily bearded face into a loose bun. His nametag said “Hot,” which I thought was odd.
“Hi, Hot,” I said reluctantly. I could see he was grilling burger patties.
“Welcome to my café,” he replied, smiling as he sprinkled salt over the meat.
“Cute dog,” I said as I glanced over at the Labrador in front of the TV set.
“His name is Chili Peppers,” the cook said, shooting a quick look at him.
I grinned at that, and after noticing Red emerging from the back, scurried back to my table to await my coming dish.
She didn’t come to my table immediately as I’d expected, so I tapped my fingers and kept myself occupied with looking around absently. I could smell the mustiness of the air conditioning vent, the cigarette smoke drifting in from outside, the sickly sweet smell of the old couple, the vague smell of damp dog, and the aftermath of a spritz of Windex on the only clean window in the café, the one in the kitchen.
Finally, Red brought my half a sandwich and slid it onto the table. I was surprised at how gorgeous it was, with neatly sliced white bread and a strategically layered assortment of turkey, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. There was a thin wood stick pushed through its center, with colorful plastic streamers dangling down from the top of it. It was all set atop an immaculately clean little china plate.
I was in awe, and ate it delicately to give this sandwich the honor it so deserved. Afterwards, I strolled over to the silent jukebox and chose an Elvis Presley song, “Falling in Love With You,” which was the only one of the options I recognized.
Suddenly, a woman at the counter let out a shrill scream that seemed to shake the very foundation of the old café building. Everyone stopped, and all eyes went to her as she paced back and forth, her scream fading to heaving gasps.
Red ran over and put her arms on the deranged woman’s shoulders, trying to calm her down. The woman halted and grasped Red’s dainty hands in her trembling ones.
“It used to be our song,” she said, her voice shaking.
Red looked even more confused. “Our song?” she ventured, her head tilting slightly to the side.
The woman’s eyes were unseeing, staring straight through Red into some universe only she could perceive. “Johnny…” she exhaled his name with pain etched on her face.
Red’s expression softened. The woman had tears in her eyes. She began to sway in time to the song, and Red started swaying with her. The woman hesitated, and then all at once swept Red into a tight embrace, and they were dancing together.
The song played on as the widow and the waitress waltzed about the café, the woman enraptured in her grief and Red in her sympathy. The people about just stood and watched.
As the song came to an end, the woman and Red slowed. The last notes played, and everything was still. The woman looked up at Red, her eyes like that of starlight and her face aglow. She was not in the Hot Spot Café any longer. She was with her husband in that moment, before the war took his life.
The song ended, and for a moment there was a stifling silence.