On a cold foggy Thursday morning in March, in cheerful Café Brava, a bakery café in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, Maria Viera pays for her latte and pumpkin muffin and carries the skinny chrome number holder to the table where she sits every morning for forty-five minutes before going to work at Brindisi, a snazzy clothing store, her number today 17.
The men usually wait to approach her after one of the servers has brought her coffee and pastry, but this morning a man approaches her the moment she sits down and asks if he might share her table. In a glance she appraises him with a thoroughness that would stun him were he aware of how much she knows about him now; and judging him harmless she nods without smiling.
Men have been approaching Maria avidly and ceaselessly since she was twelve. Now twenty-eight, lovely though not remarkably beautiful, easy in her body, her black hair worn in a short ponytail, she has no idea why she has this power over so many men. She does not dress provocatively, nor does she look at the men before they approach her. Having experimented endlessly with her clothing, her hair, her ways of sitting and standing and moving, she knows her power is transcendent of anything obvious, but knows not the source. She accepts her power as a fact of life and often makes use of it.
“I’m David,” says the man, sitting across the table from her. Good-looking, mid-thirties, longish brown hair, he beams at her and says, “I see you’ve already ordered. I should get something.”
“Excellent food here,” she says, knowing he lives in a big city, works for an internet technology company, smokes dope every day, plays video games, says he wants to be a writer but rarely writes, and none of his relationships last long.
“Oh, I see,” he says, looking around the busy café. “You order at the counter and they bring it to you.”
She opens her notebook and starts writing a letter to a friend. She knows David isn’t sure he can trust her to save the seat for him, and she also knows he won’t ask her to save the seat because he doesn’t want to appear desperate.
“I’ll be right back,” he says, giving her a hopeful look as he goes to order something.
She watches him take his place at the end of the long line and calculates he will be gone for at least ten minutes.
Now Bernardo, one of the café servers, brings Maria her latte and muffin, picks up her number, and quietly sings a line from ‘Eleanor Rigby’. All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
She shrugs and smiles sadly in answer to Bernardo’s question.
“Hey Maria,” says a burly fellow with curly black hair, the odor of his uncleanliness preceding him. “You got company?”
“Yes,” she says, knowing him from the pub where she sometimes goes for a beer after work.
“Can I sit here until they show up?” he asks, hoping to prolong his contact with her.
Knowing the best response to this guy is no response, she resumes the letter she’s writing and he leaves.
Foggy morning, latte and muffin at my table in Café Brava. The first man who approached me today is the perfect foil to keep the others at bay while I write to you my big news. I got a raise to twenty-five dollars an hour, plus an increase to five per cent commission! With tourists mobbing the town a month earlier than usual, I will be able to spend a week in LA with you this summer, not sure when yet, but I’ll let you know. The other news is Tony Macklin, the Tony Macklin, is shooting a big-budget movie here and the town is crawling with…”
“Pardon me,” says a smirking fellow with tousled brown hair and a French accent, his clothes expensive and poorly cared for. “May I share your table?”
Maria shakes her head and says, “Friend in line.”
“Alas,” says the Frenchman, bowing to her. “Perhaps another time.”
She doesn’t respond and he wanders away.
Now David returns, sets his Number 29 on the table, breathes a big sigh of relief to be sitting with Maria again, and resists his urge to interrupt her writing.
She continues her letter to Anna for several minutes, occasionally sipping her latte and nibbling on her muffin.
When David’s pancakes arrive he can’t restrain himself any longer and says loudly, “Ah here we are. Now you don’t have to eat alone.”
She sets her pen down and takes a long drink of her latte. “Where are you from, David?”
“Oh, here,” he says eagerly. “Well… I haven’t moved here yet, but I want to. Can’t wait to get out of the city. Portland. You live around here?”
“I do,” she says, nodding. “I was born here.”
“Amazing,” he says, gawking at her and wondering if she has big breasts.
“Why amazing?” she asks, curious to hear his answer.
“Just… I don’t know, I mean… you so rarely meet people who were born where you meet them.” He manufactures a little laugh. “I mean… I was born in New Jersey and moved to Florida and then Nevada and then Los Angeles and then New York and then San Francisco, and now Portland, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actually lives where they were born.”
“We are a very mobile society,” she says, nodding.
“Are you…” he begins anxiously. “I’m just here for a few days, you know, checking things out, and… would you like to go out with me?”
“I’m busy for the next couple weeks,” she says, picking up her pen.
“Of course you are,” he says, rolling his eyes derisively. “But it never hurts to ask.”
“Never hurts you,” she says, looking for signs of empathy in him and seeing none. “You didn’t even ask me my name.”
“Sorry,” he says, sounding more annoyed than sorry. “In my experience, asking you out before you vanished forever seemed my best bet.” He shrugs dismissively. “Oh well. What’s done is done and I am who I am, and believe it or not, I’m okay with that.”
“I believe you,” she says, knowing exactly how old he was when he ceased to develop emotionally – twelve.
Now she gathers her things and walks out into the foggy day feeling slightly miffed to be leaving the warm café ten minutes before she had to, but not wanting to stay with David there.
In Brindisi, a few minutes before the shop opens, Maria hangs new shirts on the racks – slinky long-sleeved shirts all the rage these days – and chats with Leslie, the owner of the high-end clothing store, thanking her again for the recent raise.
“Well-deserved,” says Leslie, who is from New Jersey, short and slender and fifty-nine. “You’re the best salesperson I’ve ever known, and I’ve known some very good salespeople. Don’t ever leave me.”
“You choose such good clothes, it’s easy,” says Maria, this her second year at Brindisi after five years as a checker at Walker’s Groceries, the one big grocery store in town, her income now four times what she made as a checker.
“You help me choose, honey,” says Leslie, noticing people peering in the front windows. “You have a great eye. I’m gonna call UPS and see if the Wild Side shipment came in and then we’ll open.”
Maria continues hanging up the slinky shirts and recalls the day eighteen months ago when she came into Brindisi on her lunch break, her back aching from ringing up groceries for five hours. A middle-aged man approached her and asked if she’d model a blouse for him. “You’re about the same size as my wife,” he said, mesmerized by her. “Would you mind?”
Curious to see herself in the exquisite clothes, she tried on two blouses and a skirt and a pair of pants for him, all of which he purchased. When she came out of the changing room in a hurry to get back to work, Leslie said, “Thank you so much, Maria. You just made me nine hundred dollars. I’m looking for somebody part-time on the weekends if you’re interested.”
Two months later, Maria quit her job at the grocery store and became Leslie’s full-time employee.
Leslie unlocks the front door and greets the first customers of the day – two middle-aged couples, the wives making beelines for the clothing, the husbands at loose ends, one leaving after telling his wife he’ll be at the bookstore, the other drawn to Maria as if by a powerful magnet.
“Hello,” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “Beautiful store.”
“Thank you,” she says, feeling safe in her role as salesperson. “May I help you find something?”
“Yeah,” he says, looking around. “You have jewelry?”
“Earrings,” she says, gesturing to the large glass display counter.
“Show me some?” he asks, lowering his voice. “For the wife.”
“If you see any you want to take a closer look at,” she says, sidestepping his request, “we’ll be happy to get them out for you.”
Now she turns to the man’s wife who is holding one of the slinky shirts up to her and frowning at her reflection in a mirror.
“We just got those in,” says Maria, smiling approvingly at the woman. “That one would look great on you. And the red one would be perfect for you, too. Want to try them on?”
“Oh God, I love them,” says the woman, grimacing. “But they’re three-twenty. Jesus. I know I’ll want both of them.” She gives her husband a hopeless look.
Maria gives the man a look, too, challenging him to prove how generous he can be – and the man feels Maria’s gaze as a strong caress.
“Oh try them on, honey,” he blurts. “If you love them, we’ll get them for you.”
“Really?” says the woman, sounding young and amazed.
“Yeah and some earrings, too,” says the man, grinning at Maria. “We only live once. Right?”
In the late morning, a heavyset man in his forties enters the store and finds Maria adding new pairs of earrings to the display counter.
“Oh good,” says the man. “I thought you had earrings.”
She looks at him without smiling, knowing from his two previous visits he doesn’t buy anything and only comes into the shop to be near her.
“Turquoise?” he says, approaching the counter. “You have any turquoise earrings?”
“Yes,” she says, indicating the turquoise earrings in the case. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m helping someone right now. If you find anything you want to take a closer look at, let us know.”
She goes to greet a middle-aged woman emerging from a changing room wearing one of the slinky long-sleeved shirts and elegant black pants two sizes too small for her.
“You look very nice,” says Maria, sincerely.
The woman looks at herself in a full-length mirror and grimaces because she obviously needs larger pants and sees no cleavage at the generously open neck.
“I need to lose twenty pounds and wear a push-up bra with a shirt like this,” says the woman, despondently.
“No, no,” says Maria, shaking her head. “You’re fine. You’re a beautiful woman and that’s a great color on you. How about we find you a more comfy pair of those pants?”
“Okay,” says the woman, soothed by Maria’s praise.
While the woman is changing into larger-sized pants, Maria returns to the earring display and says to the man who has been watching her avidly and has yet to look at the earrings, “Find anything you like?”
“Yeah, these uh…” He glances at the blur of earrings. “The dangly ones look interesting. Try them on for me?”
“Can’t right now,” she says, waving to Leslie for help. “My colleague will help you.”
“Never mind,” says the man, fleeing the store.
Maria returns to the woman who is now wearing the right-sized pants and they share a good laugh about how much better life is when one’s pants aren’t too tight.
After supper in the little house she shares with her mother and younger brother – her mother a checker at Walker’s Groceries, her brother an orderly at Mercy Hospital – Maria walks across town to the rec center for a jazzercise class.
Feeling fantastic from their workout, Maria and her friend Felicia go to Big Goose to have a beer and listen to their friend Ricardo play piano with his pal Ray accompanying him on standup bass.
Sitting at their customary table close to the little stage, Maria sips her beer and closes her eyes – the sweet jazz soothing her.
When Ricardo and Ray take a break, a handsome guy with shiny black hair wearing a mostly unbuttoned black shirt tucked into too-tight blue jeans approaches Maria and Felicia’s table and makes big eyes at Maria. “Mind if I join you? Buy you a drink?”
“No gracias,” says Maria, wanting to be left alone with Felicia.
“Place is full,” the man persists. “Empty chair at your table. Come on. You’ll like me.”
Felicia, a gorgeous woman who does not possess Maria’s power over men, looks around the room and says, “I see lots of empty chairs.”
The guy winces, goes away, and a bespectacled fellow with wild red hair approaches. “That seat taken? I like sitting close.”
“Taken,” says Felicia, nodding slowly.
Reluctantly the man goes away.
“You want to stay or go?” asks Felicia, who is rarely approached by men when she’s not with Maria.
“I’d love to hear more music,” says Maria, finishing her beer, “but Ricardo takes such long breaks and I have to get up early tomorrow.”
Making their way through the Big Goose throng, Maria and Felicia wave goodbye to Ricardo and Ray, and are almost out the door when two jovial young men intercept them.
“Don’t go,” says the taller of the two. “Stay and let us beguile you.”
“Too late,” says Felicia, smiling at the guy and liking his vibe. “We have to go to work in the morning.”
“Oh marry us,” says the shorter of the two, “and you’ll never have to work again. Assuming one of us wins the lottery.”
“What if we like to work?” asks Maria, sensing how wonderfully different these two are from most of the others.
“He’s a hyperbolist,” says the taller, addressing both Maria and Felicia. “Surely you’d like to date a couple absurdist romantics.”
“Speak for yourself,” says the shorter, feigning offense at the label and winking at Felicia. “I’m more of a hopeless optimist.”
Maria and Felicia exchange looks.
“We’ll be here next Thursday,” says Maria, smiling at the lovely young men. “We’re Ricardo’s groupies. Come early and sit with us.”
“How will I sleep until then?” asks the taller, placing his hand on his heart.
“I don’t know,” she says sweetly. “I know many things, but not that.”
The next morning in Café Brava, Maria shares her table with two middle-aged women, tourists from England, both busy writing postcards. Thus Maria’s forty-five minutes of writing letters and enjoying her latte are pure pleasure.
When she rises to go, two men jump up from their tables intent on reaching her and they collide.
A few moments after Leslie opens for business, a fellow with short gray hair and red-framed glasses enters the shop.
“Good morning,” he says, approaching Maria. “I’m Tony Macklin. I’m shooting a movie here as you probably know. I saw you at the café yesterday morning and at the pub last night fending off the Romeos and I would love for you to play the part of a waitress in a couple scenes in my movie. A few juicy lines, you’ll get your SAG card, and I’ll pay you a small fortune for a couple days’ work.” He appraises her with a knowing eye. “I’m not just saying this, sweetheart, but you’ve got It, the It everybody wants and so few have. You could be a very big star.”
Maria smiles at him and says with utmost sincerity, “I appreciate your offer, Tony, but the last thing in the world I want to be… the very last thing, is a movie star.”