Olivia was tired.
It had been a long afternoon, busy with a lot of difficult customers. She had just finished refilling the salt and pepper shakers, replaced the setups that needed replacing and had just finished changing the specials in all the menus; she was wiping down the counter and glancing at the clock when he walked in.
“Sit wherever you want,” she said, her eyes sweeping across the restaurant. It was empty except for the two elderly DeVito sisters sitting in the corner.
He didn’t say a word as he walked to the far end of the place, taking a table that was as far away from the front door as possible, but sat down in a chair facing the front door. He glanced around the room, seemed satisfied, and opened the menu.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked, walking over to the coffee pots.
“A coffee, please, with Equals, if you have, thanks...” he said without looking up. Olivia placed a cup and a saucer of Equals and milk and half and half on the table. He handed her the menu.
“Just coffee for now, thanks,” he sighed. Olivia turned to replace the menus back at the counter, when she turned back to him; she looked down to see his cup was empty.
“Thirsty?” she asked, smiling.
“It’s good coffee,” he said, smiling back and nodding.
“I just never saw anyone drink a cup of coffee that fast.”
“I like my coffee black and hot, and your coffee is perfect.”
“Well thanks. My name is Olivia. Just let me know if you want anything else.”
“And my name is Mike. Thank you, I shall,” he replied.
Olivia had a waitress’s innate ability to size up a person at a glance but Mike was different. He was tall and big and, well, bulky she thought. He wore ill-fitting clothes and could be mistaken as a Bronx apartment house janitor. He seemed to have pockets everywhere, and he kept glancing at his smart phone as if expecting an urgent message. How old he was, was also a mystery. He could be late 50’s or even older and it was hard to tell because of his gray thinning hair. He had bushy eyebrows and a big bushy mustache that gave him a grandfatherly look, especially when he took out his glasses to read the menu. He had large thick hands, and no ring on his left hand, but that didn’t mean anything nowadays.
Mike was now coming into the diner on a regular bases, and since it was usually late at night, his regular chair was empty. Olivia saw him walk in, and carried a cup of coffee and a saucer of Equals, milk and half and half, and placed them in front of him.
Mike was filling out a lottery ticket, carefully blacking out the dots with exaggerated care, stopping only to guess at what numbers to choose. He looked up at her.
“Hey, Olivia, do you have any favorite numbers? Any lucky numbers? I’m filling out this lottery ticket and I have one panel left…”
“Sure, the number 13,” she said smiling.
“Thirteen, huh? You’re not triskaidekaphobic?”
“Only you…” she said smiling again. “Anybody else would have said some like “What, you afraid of the number 13?” she said mimicking a Bronx accent
“Well, that’s what you get from a misspent childhood.” He went back to filling in ovals.
“Are you lucky?” she asked.
“Lucky? Hell, I’m the luckiest person on the planet. I’ve hit life’s jackpot countless times.”
“Really?” Her eyes widened. “Are you a millionaire and you’re not letting me know?”
“No it’s not that. But I am lucky. I’ve been hitting jackpots all my life, right from the start: Here: Jackpot number 1. I was born in the United States of America. Jackpot number 2: I was born in the greatest city in the world. Jackpot number 3: I was born to great parents. Number 4: I had great teachers growing up. Jackpot number 5. I had the best job in the world, an NYPD Detective. Hell I could go on, but I think you know where I’m going with this.”
“I never thought of it that way but I think you’re right. Most people don’t count their blessings, but I do”
“I know, that’s what adds to your charm,” he winked at her and smiled. “And getting to know you, my darling, is Jackpot number 6 in my life so here goes...” he said holding up the ticket. “Tell you what, if this thing hits I’ll split it with you.”
“What?” she said stepping back.
“Sure,” he said shrugging, “if this thing hits I’ll split it with you. Why not? It’s good karma.”
“Wow, just like that movie,” she laughed.
“Right, just don’t get all “Rosie Perez” on me like she did in the movie—promise?”
“Promise! Promise! I promise I’ll be all Brigit Fonda, I swear!” she laughed, crossing her fingers in the air.
Morris Park, New York was extraordinary in its ordinariness. It had everything every small town in America had, a main street: Morris Park Avenue, of course. There was Einstein Hospital, where everybody in town was born. There was Our Lady of Solace Church, where everybody was baptized, and married. There was Maestros Catering Hall, where every had their wedding reception, there was Van Nest Bowling, where everybody went on warm Saturday nights to bowl a few frames and have a few beers. There was Conti’s pastry shop that hadn’t changed since the 1930’s, or the Morris Park Bake shop for a mousse mouse, and Anne Clair’s Hero Shop. There was Morris Park Train Station, that was built in the 1890’s when they expanded the New York Westchester Line and brought newlyweds to Morris Park from the Lower East Side to buy the newly built houses along the Esplanade, or to rent the apartments along tree lined Pelham Parkway. Their children attended St. Clare of Assisi school on the corner of Rhinelander and Hone Street. And on cool October days St. Clare’s School would sponsor a trip to the Morris Park Zoo, just off White Plains Road and the Bronx River Parkway. And in the end, you would laid to rest at St. Raymond’s’ far off near the Throggs Neck Bridge. Extraordinary in its ordinariness.
Mike would visit the diner almost daily now, and he would sit in the same chair, at the same table at the same corner. But it wasn’t just any seat: it was a seat at a theater, a theater of everyday life, and the drama and comedy played itself out almost every day.
There were the Devito Sisters of course, who occupied the same table at the same hour every day, arguing over whose turn it was to pay for the tea and Linzy Tarts.
There was Dominic, who sat near the party room, and the loud guy, who would carry on a conversation with himself, and laugh uproariously at seemingly nothing.
There was the Mafioso wannbe but nevawuz, holding court with a round table of shifty looking guys and talking conspiratorially of real estate in Brooklyn, Diesel gas, and saving the Chinese 100 million in taxes. He would begin every sentence with a wary glance around the room before speaking but talked so loud that that Javier in kitchen could hear him. There was the owner, Bob, who glared at the waitresses, except for the one he was sweet over; there was Hanna, who every day had a new story about her kids for the customer who would ask.
There were the phone orders who asked for deliveries as far as Parkchester (No!) or to Bronx Park East (Okay but just this once, and because it was a big order).
There were the two large screen TVs and in the spring it was baseball, in the fall it was football and in winter, hockey. There was the radio the seemed to endlessly play Adele.
And then there was Katie.
Turns out that Olivia was Katie’s Mom, and she would come by to visit, and she would carry in her hands her latest masterpiece made of oak tag and ribbon and confetti that she couldn’t wait to show Mom. And Mike knew nothing of Katie until the day she walked in to the Diner and Olivia glanced at the door as she always did to see who was coming and in, and it was then that Mike saw the way Olivia’s eyes met Katie’s and Olivia’s’ face would light up, and Katie’s face would light up and Mike knew then, just then, that what he saw was magic. And it was real magic, not the carnival side show magic, or sleight of hand magic, or the magic of swamis and psychics but real magic. The type of magic that inspired music and artwork and short stories and poetry.
But it made Mike sad because he knew he could never experience this magic for himself. Sure, he had nieces and nephews who loved him, and he spoiled them in return. Or maybe he just wasn’t seeing the light that he saw in both Kathy and Olivia.
Mike’s consolation was to return as often as he could for coffee and companionship.
Mike came in and sat down at his usual spot. Olivia placed a cup and a saucer of Equals at his table, and quickly returned to refill his cup.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“You know what, how about just my usual?” he replied
“Okay, bran muffin and a fruit salad. Coming right up.”
Mike ate quickly, had three more cups of coffee, and went to the register to pay.
“What’s the rush?” Olivia asked handing him the receipt.
“Oh just got a lot of stuff to do. I’ll be back later in the week.” He smiled and took his change.
Olivia went back to his table and began to clear the dishes. After placing the cups and saucers into the plastic bin she picked up her tip. The singles were attached to a small three by five index card by a tiny gold paper clip. She turned the card over, and began to read:
I look for you in all the wrong places;
On passing trains and in people’s faces
I think of you at all the wrong times
While righting wrongs and writing rhymes
I always wonder where you are
Whether you’re near of whether you’re far
All this things I’ve said are true
Oh, I miss you, I do.
Olivia put her hand to her chin, lowered her head and closed her eyes. She remained that way for a minute, then looked up, and carefully folded the card in two and tucked it into her apron, along with the rest of her tips.
When Mike came in several days later, Olivia brought him his coffee, and the sat down across from.
“To what do I owe this great pleasure?” he asked smiling.
Olivia reached into her apron and held up the card in hard, holding it like a lit cigarette.
“What is this?” she asked, waving it. “What is this? “She asked again placing the card on the table.
Mike smiled. “It’s a three by five index card with some writing on it, I think…” he said smiling again.
“Don’t be a wise guy! You’re embarrassing me!” Olivia said covering her face with her hands.
She shook her head, and continued looking directly into his eyes.
“You have to stop this. Why are you doing this?”
“Look I wasn’t here for a few days but I was thinking of you, so I put some lines together. It’s lousy poetry I know, but I thought it would be nice to leave something more than a tip.”
“Look, you have to stop,” Olivia said.
“Stop what? Being nice to you? Is that what you want?”
“No, but this is too much. You shouldn’t be doing this, it just isn’t right. Stop it!”
Mike looked around and then back at her. For once he was at a loss for words. He shook his head, slowly got up, and placed a twenty dollar bill on the table, and left.
Mike would return and would return often to the diner. He would the same meals, sometimes for weeks on end, and Olivia dutifully brought him his black coffees and equals that he drank by the gallon. He would look forward to Katie’s visits and hearing her progress at CCD and first communion practice, (Mike offered to pay for her dress but Olivia wouldn’t hear of it.)
It was a Friday night, and Mike was working overtime. It was raining, one of those terrible September rains that seems to never end, stopping only taking a breather to come back even stronger. Mike finished his meal, and asked Olivia for the check. She placed it on the table while Mike did the “Macarena,” looking for his wallet, or at least some cash.
“Hey, it looks like I left my wallet home. I’m gonna just run down to the bank on the corner, can you wait a sec?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, silly,” Olivia said, shooing him away. “Besides, what are you gonna do at the bank without your wallet?” She smiled, folding her arms.
“Wait, wait, just wait a sec….” Mike reached into his shirt pocket, and behind his glasses he found a lottery ticket.
“Here, I think there’s a few bucks on this one, I haven’t cashed it yet. Think of it as a tip until I get back,” Mike said handing her the ticket.
“Oh go on, you’ll pay me next time,” she said, waving her hands at him.
Mike reached down and tucked the lottery ticket into her apron, and winked at her. He left, walking out into the stormy night.
Olivia hadn’t seen Mike for two weeks. She wondered where he was but figured that he was assigned to another job site, or just took a week off, or something. But she knew that eventually he would come back.
It was a Sunday night and a guy came in and asked for a coffee at the counter. There was something about him that was different, and yet familiar. He was big guy, but his hands weren’t the type that held or carried heavy tools. (Olivia noticed things like that.) He didn’t seem in rush, but looked around the place the way Mike used to. She placed the cup in front of him and said, “Here you go, ninety nine cents.”
He placed two singles on the counter and turned to go.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” Olivia said; almost nervously. “You work with a guy named Mike? Big guy, dresses like you. I think he works on the subways…?”
He turned, holding the cup, and testing its heat. He lowered the cup and bit his lower lip.
“Mike is a big guy, grey hair, gold glasses and a big walrus mustache? She asked further.
“Yeah, I know Mike. How do you know him?” he asked.
“Know him? He comes in here like almost every day. “She looked around; “he used to say that this was his combination living room and dining room, fer chrissakes,” Olivia said, looking around.
“Aw jeez,” he said, lowering his head and looking around. “Maybe we outta sit down…”
Olivia and the guy walked to one of the tables and sat down. He opened the container of coffee, took a long drag and recovered it leaving his hand on top of the cup, keeping his hand warn. He cleared his throat and began:
“See me and Mike, we worked together. My name is Tom by the way. We work in the subways; we check the tracks in the subway yards. Well, a couple of weeks ago me and Mike was walking thru the Morris Park Yards, and it was raining, and the rail road ties, they get wet, and the wet don’t mix too well with the grease that they put on the switches to make them loose, see, and well, he was walking and he fell.”
“Okay, so he fell…,” Olivia said not comprehending.
“Well he fell and when he fell he had his hands out like this “Tom pantomimed, stretching his arms wide.
“He fell and he went to brace himself for the fall, but he put one hand on the running rail and the other on the hot third rail, and connected, and well next thing you know he just goes. You know he had a bad heart, and he was heavy, and you must know he drank pretty good, so he was gone, just like that.
Olivia sat there and just stared. She didn’t know what to say, if anything, and not knowing if what she was hearing was true. But of course it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be.
“Hey let me ask you something: Your name Olive? Or Olivia?’
“Yes it is…” Olivia said softly.
“Wow, I have to tell ya. I never thought you existed. You know, he used to talk about this waitress that worked over at Morris Park, and he was going on and on, and we all thought “Hell, sure Mike…some waitress,” but he said he would come there all the time and have coffee and would hang out and talk, and we all thought he was putting us on. He was kind of a weirdo, you know. But not in a bad way. He knew all kinds of facts, and we would try to stump him, and he always had the answer just like that. We’d laugh but he was serious. And he liked cats. He’d feed the strays all the time and we all thought he was strange but strange in a good way, I guess.”
Olivia just stared.
“Look I gotta go, I hate to be bearer of bad news Miss, but I got to get back. The guys are in the truck we had a break in the fence over by the Parks Department so…” he got up and finished the cup of coffee.
Olivia stood up and straightens her apron with her hands, and rubbed her hands together and looked around. The diner suddenly seemed even quieter. Almost absent-mindedly she placed her had into the pocket of her apron, and found the lottery ticket Mike had given her. She completely forgot about it.
Olivia went across the street to the candy story and with trembling hands placed the ticket under the red laser light of the ticket reader. The blue LED Lights flashed…..
“Winner! Winner! Prize : $100,000.00
You must see your lottery retailer for more information”
About a week later Olivia went downtown to the lottery headquarters and was presented with a ridiculous over sized check in the amount of $100,000.00 but it really wasn’t because after taxes she ended up with about $47,000.00. (This was a second prize to a jackpot of $21,000,000.00.)
Olivia paid off all her bills. She gave her Mom and Dad a thousand dollars. She had all her teeth done. And she bought Katy the nicest communion dress she could find in Bloomingdales. The rest she put away for Katy’s college fund.
Olivia went back to work after another week she took off for vacation. Roberto wasn’t happy but with all the publicity from the lottery winning, he had more customers.
Olivia came out from behind the counter, and began refilling the salt and pepper shakers, and the menus, and the placemats. She glanced at the door, and then back at the clock.
Olivia was tired.
Ike Ilkiw is the founder of New York City Adventure Tours.