Cut Quill

Le Petit Bistro

A long, glassed-in picture of a Georgia forest, kudzu-grown and hung with Spanish moss, reflects the long row of counter-lights at the bistro. The white sign with a silhouette of an Italian waiter appears round, stretched and rippled, and dreamlike in the haze of overhead light glaring on the picture frame. I cannot in the reflection read the name on either side of the Italian’s picture. This is just another bistro serving the same cappuccino as the next.

The coffee is not scalding, nor warm, but just hot enough to sip just enough at a time from. The milk is skim, and I told the man I wanted extra coffee in mine — and he charged me a dollar too much — but the coffee is still weak. That is not to say it is unpleasant at all; only that its tastes too creamy to rank as more than an average drink. It tastes more like coffee-with-two-creams than it does espresso.

The tables are close-packed, and the place is not full, but busy. A long countertop with high stools borders the hallway, and I tried to perch there to drink my coffee and watch the bistro through its dim forest-reflection, like looking in a grimy subway-window; but another man had his legs extended almost to the stools, and I did not want to talk to him. So I sit low, with my half-finished cappuccino and my legs cramped around the huge antique wrought-iron leg of my table, and I look across the hallway at people dragging themselves to travel right and left and north and anywhere but here; and at the reflection of the bistro whenever the woman who has seated herself at the bar and in my way shifts herself to a new, less-uncomfortable position.

The man with the coffee machine wants to be anywhere but here, where he is constantly disturbed in his mental journeys by travelers asking,

“Do you serve regular coffee here?”

No mindwork is necessary to serve these people, and little more courtesy than a camaraderie that says, “I know you. I’ve always known you, and I just talked to you a moment ago, so I know you don’t expect special treatment.” He is not impolite, just unimpressed. He watches so many exactly like so many more walk past his hole — disheveled or militarily polished, old, young, feeble — even beauty rarely moves him unless it happens to be attached to the rare pleasant customer. He can see anyone he wants, so sight alone holds no special pleasure. Few enough people, and fewer still travelers are human to him; and the rarity of humanity makes it the only thing that sticks to his soul. A nod from a crone slowly making her way elsewhere is more memorable than an unrestricted view of an oblivious face, even if it were Helen of Troy.

But for a wisp of foam cooled from its former heat and immovable in the bottom of the paper cup, the coffee is now gone. I sit still for a space. Then, as I think about him, hungry for humanity, I fold a dollar in my pocket for a tip. I go back around to the counter where the many extravagant dainties typical of coffee shops are displayed. I’m not hungry.

“What’re those?” I ask him.

“Hey, man! You’re back.” He had tried to sell me a dessert when I bought my coffee. “Those’re ee-clares. Got whipped cream in the middle.”

We chat a moment — moments are sold as minutes in the fast trot here — about high costs, low quality and the general end of the world. Then I say,

“How much are they?”

“I dunno, two-ten or something.”

“I’ll take one.”

He packages my éclaire, cool and hard, in a stiff white coffin, while I shuffle around for my money. The total is two-eighty-one; I give him my money and he returns my change and receipt.

“You have a good one, man.”

“Yup,” I reply. “Have a good day.” I take the white cold box, trading him my tip for the already-purchased pastry. He looks at the dollar. “You have a good day,” I repeat.

“Yeah, you too, man. You too.”

I walk over to where the other travelers are seated, waiting for the plane, and sit down below the large photograph of the forest. The lunch counter stretches two store-fronts, the bar, and the coffee shop tacked on the end each fill one. The deli shelves bow in their refrigerated cases from trays piled high with fruit, meat, cheese, and anything to put on a salad, from olives and pickles to red and purple “greens.” The bar bends under the weight of cares drunken travelers must be running from.

The coffee shop, where he works, has neither the bright scrub of the deli nor the dim overlighting of the bar, but is in all, a pleasant-looking place. I look from one side of the shop to the other, so stretched-thin and shallowly built. Above each of the rooms, and in large pink letters on either side of an Italian waiter’s silhouette, is posted the name I had not been able to make out in the reflection: “Le Petite Bistro.”