Agnes Alone

A short story by james bowlby

Agnes, weighted down by a heavy woolen blue coat and a bag of her belongings, comes to the door of a café.

It is like at a bus station. Uneven sidewalk. Familiar. Cheap old plastic and chrome chairs. Worn table tops, their pattern worn away by time and scrubbing.

“This will be fine, won’t it?” She hears Michael’s agreement.

Agnes notices there is a couple at another table talking, basically ignoring her, but of course listening to her.

Across the café, there is an obnoxious teenager, who yells to her, “Hey lady, they have places for people who talk to invisible friends.” His buddies, laugh and suck on their cokes.

Agnes goes to the counter. The waiter knows her by name. She  didn’t tell him. She isn’t able to be annoyed. “Well, Agnes, what will  it be today?”

Agnes looks at the man. She doesn’t want to talk. Her head goes  down. He waits. She waits. Then when someone approaches from behind  her, she almost panics. She then looks up. “Soup. Just soup. If the roll  is free, I’ll take it.”

Michael says, “That was too loud.”

“I know,” she says.

She counts out the quarters and dimes. She takes her tray with  soup, roll, knife and spoon to her table. As she walks, she is  distracted by small things in the air maybe specks in her eyes or  smudges on her glasses, which she isn’t wearing and shuffles to her  empty table.

She looks out the window of the café. It looks bleak. Bleak.  Yes, that’s the word. As she shuffles, she hears herself saying, “So, it’s March, march, march, March 28. My anniversary; Ben in the river  down gone. She is suddenly so black. Like bleak. But worse. She looks at  the soup and thinks of Jesus Christ. Why is he here? So she sings:  “Thankful, Thankful, all adored him.”

That’s all she sings. She doesn’t want the soup to get cold.

The boy calls out, “Get a guitar. Might help you carry a tune.”   The soup is nice. Warm.

She thinks she should be hospitable. So she looks at the black woman almost invisible with the harsh light behind her.

“Come and sit here. I’ll share.”

The tall skinny boy laughs.

“What are you starin’ at. I have rights ya know. Pay no attention to them, Michael. We will just have our nice warm soup.”

The dark woman disappeared. “She didn’t want to sit with us.”

She hears the river. “I tried, you tried, Michael. You tried, but he’s gone, you’re gone. I know they’re gone.” Black.

Agnes turns to the couple. ”What‘re you staring at? I can talk  if I want. You don’t have to listen.”  The soup has disappeared. She  lights a cigarette. She inhales, “So it’s the same again today, I’m  waiting for the father, son and holy smoke.”

She takes a drag. Blows smoke into the air.

She sings “Hallelujah,” in her own off key inimitable way. She  was famous for it. When she sang across from the theatre, the actors  would come out, “Want a part in our play?” She didn’t know them. Maybe  they were like the black lady.

“I don’t know why I came here. I should be down at the Cove.  Someone will listen to me and I can sing and pray almost. I’m waiting  for the father and the son. And Jesus shall come and the lord be  prayed.”

She belts out some more hallelujah singing. Only she knows it  is not hallelujah.  The words are her own words, not sung by anyone  else.

I’ll go to the river. I’ll save him, wear my blue coat, the  blue coat I wore the day of my wedding and wore to save Ben. Round and  round he went. Like the river wanted him. Stayed in the river, stayed,  for one hour gone no more. He’s here, not on the other side like my  father and mother. Have a drag on your cigarette in the name of the Holy  Smoke, that’s the truth. Amen.

Agnes, to the invisible server, “I’m fine. I still have some of  my roll left. Waiting, just waiting for the glory and the sun to shine  on us all and Jesus, father and the son and the holy smoke.”

This is a patio. Came here for tea at 10 o’clock, but no soup until 11:30. No one will sit with me except the blessed Saviour.

“Haven’t seen you since I woke up and the light came.  It’s  true and all of us shall sing together. Jesus loves me and Ben, my son,  who’ll come again.”  She turns to the people at the table next.

 “I heard your smart remark, don’t think I didn’t.”

Agnes exits.

When I walk along the ground is broken, frozen. I shouldn’t have to feel it or hear it. Others don’t.

When I say so they think I’m round the corner. I keep hoping to  see him. When the tap turns and it splashes I need to turn, turn, turn  away.

We used to go walking out into the field high above the lake.  Open the basket, take out the sandwiches - egg salad, Ben’s favourite,  spread the blanket. Most kids like peanut butter and honey. “Don’t go  running off. Come and sit down, Ben. Oh all right don’t sit, but don’t  run around eating. You could choke on a crust or something."

Oh Ben, your hair. Shake your hair. It’s shining gold in the  sun. You are too shining. Too rich, too gold.  Not valued until gone.

“The ground crunches; it knows me. I don’t think I belong anymore.”

She lays down and the dark comes and she rests.

“Don’t be so rude. I can talk to myself if I want to.  I’m here anyway. Need to come in out of the cold.”

She gets up and walks around the table. She calls out, “Bring  me lunch and I’ll do the dishes. Yes, just call me Agnes and I’ll do the  dishes.”  The soup appears on the table. Vegetable beef.  Home made.

I used to say that to my mother. ‘Just call me Agnes and I’ll  do the dishes.’ And we’d laugh. She laughs softly to herself. These days  her laughing comes from a different place.

“Nice soup – warm.  Come sit here,” she mumbles to someone. “What are you staring at? I have rights you know.”

“Michael, I’m so sorry. I could have tried, should have learned  to swim. No, round and round, your coat, your coat blue too, too heavy.  Your father should have taken it off. I was once a ballerina, chased by  a dragon.  Where was my helper? No. No.”

Agnes goes out onto the patio. Takes out a cigarette.

“In the name of the father, son and holy smoke. Was I talkin' to you, kid?”

The tall skinny teen is back. “Yeah, you, you crazy old bitch.  Don’t stare at me. You could put a hex on me.”  He and his friends  laugh.

Agnes wants to leave. “Where’s the sunshine? Be glad Jesus is coming in the name of the …”

The teen comes over: “What the fuck do you know, you …”

Agnes puts hand up. “Don’t use that word – God gave you – I  know the difference. I’m sure, kept pure so don’t foul me. Waiting for  the father and the son. Don’t foul me.”

The teen stares at her, enjoying her discomfort: “You’re fuckin’ crazy.”

Agnes chastises him, “Go now, out, out into the field white with dandelion fluff.”

“Fuckin’ crazy.”

The server comes from behind the counter, “Hey kid. Get a life. Leave her alone.”

The teen sneers: “So, she’s your mother or somethin’.”

“Yeah, she’s my mother. Where are you from, some other planet? I’m calling the police.”

Agnes’ head jerks up at the word mother. “You’re not my son. Ben’s not – not like you.” She snaps at the kid.

The teen is slightly intimidated, “You’re fuckin’ crazy.”

Agnes continues her rebuke, “Love – kindness – speak kindness, I  know. I used to know the love.” She goes back to her soup. “Round.  Round, round. Like the river had arms. I should have learned to swim.  But I had fear.”

Agnes looks up. She smiles at the dark lady. “That wasn’t a  nice thing to say. I like your smooth black hair. Why can’t I get good  shoes like yours?”

The three teens have gone.

Agnes looks at her table. It looks just like yesterday, but the  soup today is vegetable. Yesterday it was - Something else.  She  slurps. She laughs at the sound.

Someone touches her shoulder.  She looks up. It is the man from  behind the counter. She wants to tell somebody. “Thank you. Ben didn’t  come today. Maybe I should pray harder. Or sing louder.”

“I don’t think you should sing here. Go sing in the alley across from the theatre. They like your singing.”

“Agnes. Agnes,” she says. A long, white afternoon awaits her.