Leaving the halfway house, Newman turned onto Brady Street. Heading to the bus stop he passed Le Bistro, a cute bright coffee and pastry shop with Parisian murals and Bastille Day posters. When it opened in July, bedecked with fluttering tricolors, Newman abandoned the shabby Kwik Koffee shop on the corner. Le Bistro was cheery, new, and upscale. It was cheaper than Starbucks, and the coffee was just as good. Ignoring the ornate glass cases of fat glazed donuts and sugary cinnamon buns, he ordered French Roast and sometimes treated himself to an eighty-calorie almond biscotti. Sitting at a window, he read the newspaper, savoring a cup of coffee before catching his bus to the food pantry.
On his second or third visit he noticed the blonde. She was thirty-six or thirty-seven, slim and long-legged, with a firm bust and a bright smile. She had the look of a model turned TV reporter, but more likely worked at Northwestern Mutual or sold real estate. Dressed in a trim business suit, she entered the shop with the beaming confidence of a Congresswoman up in the polls.
The first time she bought a large French vanilla and left quickly. On the second morning, she arrived with a list and left with a red-white-and-blue paper bag full of strudel, éclairs, crullers, health muffins, and carrot sticks. Snacks, no doubt, for office mates or an early meeting with clients. As she waited for the girl to fill her order, she glanced at Newman. A lingering glance. Taking her bag, she walked past his table and smiled. Newman watched her walk out the door, noting the curve of her calves.
Newman arrived earlier than usual the next morning. He was reading about a terrorist bombing in Syria when the blonde slipped in, quickly followed by a pair of hardhats from the condo project next door. The men spoke loudly about estimates and invoices. She was obscured by their heavy torsos and thick tool belts. When the men stepped forward to order, the blonde was gone.
Two. . . no three days later she returned, this time with a longer list. Either the pastry was more popular than she expected or she had more clients to serve. She stood alone at the counter, leaning forward so that her heels slipped from her white pumps. Tapping her French nails on the glass counter as if to prompt her memory, she ordered an assortment of tarts, pain au chocolat, financiers, bichon au citrons, madeleine, palmier, and angel wings. Waiting, she stepped near Newman, glancing at his plate.
“What is that?” she asked the girl.
“Biscotti. Over there,” she pointed to the end case. The blonde moved closer and smiled, noting the decorative cards listing the low-calorie and gluten-free items.
“Are they any good?” she asked Newman.
Her tongue slipped playfully back and forth over her upper lip. “I’d better get a dozen of them,” she said, tapping the glass case. Leaning toward Newman, she wrinkled her nose and whispered, “Have to feel guilt-free sometimes.”
She smiled again, giving Newman a longer, lingering glance.
The salesgirl came from around the counter with a pair of red-white-and-blue bags. The blonde took them, glanced at the clock, bit her lip, then looked at Newman.
“You here every day?” she asked.
She gave him a last prolonged glance and left. Newman watched her cross the street and carefully place the bags in a white SL convertible. She donned sunglasses, swept her hand through her hair, and drove off.
The next morning Newman woke early and headed to Le Bistro. Walking briskly down Brady Street, he paused to adjust his tie in the window of the Up and Under. Newman knew he was handsome. He had discovered his appeal in junior high when he overheard a friend’s older sister call him “Movie Star.” High school girls named him “Male Model” or “Mr. GQ.” In college Sandy Berman referred to him as her “soap opera goy,” and Jilly Chen, buzzed on tequila shots, once hugged him suddenly in an elevator and gushed, “You better not be gay.” Paralegals and temps at Corcoran and Cross, dedicated Mad Men viewers, dubbed him Don Draper. Newman never had to ask anyone for a date. He merely lingered around women he caught looking his way, making himself available for the veiled suggestion about hanging out after class or grabbing a coffee after work. A gaze and a smile was all it took for him to hook up.
But that morning on Brady Street, looking in the window, he saw the translucent eyes gazing back at him. Faint and ghostlike. Through his half-reflection he could see the interior of the dark pub with its tiers of bottles. Jameson and Jack Daniels. Jim Beam and Early Times. Newman stepped back, his throat tightening.
How could he return to Le Bistro? The blonde’s smile was inviting, but Newman anticipated the pain of her reaction if their conversation ventured beyond biscotti. Are you single? Where do you live? What do you do? He could be evasive, so she might assume he was married, gay, or just interested in friendship. They could strike up a casual light acquaintance, trading comments about coffee and the weather. She would be a charming diversion, something to look forward to each morning—but a constant reminder of what he had lost, what he was missing. She might stir up needs and feelings he did not want face. After eight years in prison he was already lonely, and a beautiful girl like that would just stab his heart. And if he wanted to take it further, how could he? Where do you live? What do you do? How could he ever answer those questions? A decade ago, he welcomed those queries from women and was so eager to casually, effortlessly respond with words that worked liked aphrodisiacs. Townhouse condo at University Towers. Junior partner at Corcoran and Cross. Attorney. Yacht club. Marquette. Mercedes. Listening, women gripped their wine glasses tighter and leaned forward to ask if he were single.
Now what words could he bring to the occasion? Drunk driver? On parole for vehicular manslaughter? Living in a halfway house? Working the Eastside Food Pantry at ten dollars an hour? Reporting to a parole officer? Doing community service to make up for running down two college girls?
He turned to walk on, hesitated, then retraced his steps and retreated to Kwik Koffee to sit among the homeless men nursing hangovers. Sipping the bitter house blend, he read the headlines about budgets and bombings, not wishing to touch the smudged pages with his hands. He never returned to Le Bistro. It became another place on a growing list of places that was that were off limits. Places where he might be recognized, places he could no longer afford, places that reminded him of his former life and hammered home the limitations of his future.
At the bus stop Newman joined his fellow commuters. The hunched woman who, rain or shine, wore a child’s raincoat and galoshes. She lugged bulging shopping bags filled with odds and ends. Old shoes and clock radios. The ancient Gimbels bags were oddities themselves. Standing next to her was the obese black custodian whose tight green uniform fit him like sausage skin. For whatever reason he bore two ID badges, one clipped to his belt and another hanging from his neck like a press pass. Today the long-haired music student was missing. He and Newman sometimes chatted about Sondheim and Sinatra, Brahms and Bernstein. Newman found his absence troubling.
When the bus arrived, the driver, sour-faced as usual, released the door, which parted with a Star Trek hiss. Newman took his customary window seat and watched the sunlight dazzle on fluttering gold leaves. Glancing at the clouds, he remembered flying first class. Tapping out motions on a laptop or reading depositions while soaring over the Rockies, glass in hand. The bus pulled into traffic and glided down Brady. When it passed Le Bistro, Newman closed his eyes.
About the Author: Mark Connelly’s fiction appeared in Indiana Review, Cream City Review, Home Planet News, The Ledge, Digital Papercut, and Better Than Starbucks. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014 and Third Place in Red Savina’s Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction in 2015.