By CHRIS HELVEY
Stairs, smooth and dark and glowingly polished over decades by human palms, curled above him into the darkness of the upper floors. The old man paused for a moment and caressed the railing with the palm of his left hand. He kept the horsehead cane in his right one, resting his weight on it, weaving slightly as though caught in a rising tropical wind.
Memories washed through his mind, and he stood there with his eyes open, seeing nothing but the memories until a nagging little creature who lived at the back of his brain roused him. He swallowed, blinked and shuffled toward the elevator door, gleaming like old silver on the other side of the octagonal foyer. Ten years ago, he told himself, maybe even five, and I would have climbed those stairs. Hell, there was a day when I could take them two at a time all the way to the seventh floor and not even be breathing hard at the top. His head shook a little as he moved, stoop shouldered, across tiles that had once been white but were now the color of last year’s straw.
“That him?” The young waiter fingered the diamond stud in his left ear.
“That’s him, the man I’ve been telling you about. I was wondering if he would come.”
“Thought you said he always came on this day.”
“That’s right, he always has, leastways as long as I’ve been working here, and that’s over 30 years. Why, it wouldn’t seem like a real August the 24th if he didn’t show up. Still, with his failing health and all, I just wondered.”
The young waiter ran the palm of one hand across his face as he watched the old man. His acne felt worse today, he frowned. “Looks like a dead man walking. How long has he been coming here?”
“Son, I couldn’t rightly say. He had been coming here long before Eulas Jackson arrived on the scene. I remember, just as clearly as if it was last Tuesday, old Arnold Washington telling me to be on the sharp lookout for him. He was already famous then, him and his wife. Now there was one sweet lady. Always had a smile for everybody. Oh, they was a handsome couple back then, very distinguished looking. Mannerly too, always made you feel important, never complained about nothing—not that they had any reason to. I seen to that for sure. Straighten up now, son. Here he comes.”
“Evening, Mr. Cathcart. So good to see you again this year,” Eulas said.
The old man curled his lips up at their ends and nodded. “Evening, Eulas. Evening, sir.” By the time the young man remembered to nod Mr. Cathcart was already halfway to the elevator. He paused for a moment and nodded at the young girl behind the hostess stand. “Evening, Louise. You’re doing well, I trust?”
“And your mother and grandmother?”
“They’re both fine, sir, just a little older and slower.”
“Aren’t we all. Now you be sure and say hello for me.”
Damn, he looks old, the young waiter murmured to himself as he watched Eulas put a large hand on the old man’s upper left arm. Looks like an old buzzard. Positively ancient.
“Here, let me get that for you, Mr. Cathcart.”
“Why thank you, Eulas.”
“Nice weather we’ve been having.”
“Lovely for August. Humidity’s been down. Humidity now, that’s what makes it feel so awful, like some heavy old wool blanket has been wetted down and slung over your shoulders.” The old man raised his head and gazed into the eyes of the man with one finger on the elevator button.
“Oh yes, yes sir, that sure is right, Mr. Cathcart.” Eulas smiled at the old man. Failed considerable since last year, he thought. Wonder if this year will finally be his last. Then his eyes started stinging for no reason, and he pressed the 7 button and the elevator hissed upwards.
“You’ve been well, Eulas?”
“Oh fine, sir, fine. And yourself?”
“Still hanging on. Old age is rough on a fellow. You have to battle all the time, and still you fall behind.” He nudged Eulas’ shoulder companionably. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“No, sir, oh no, sir. I wouldn’t say that. Fact is, I know you are right, from experience you might say.”
“Well, expect you do at that. How long have you been working here at the Madison, Eulas? Must be 30 years.”
“That’s right. Was 30 years the 15th of March.”
“You’ve seen a lot of people then.”
The elevator jerked a little and the door opened smoothly. Eulas Jackson put his left arm across the doorway. His right hand gently cupped the old man’s elbow, and he began to steer him toward the private room at the back. “I’ve seen a lot of people. I sure have. When you consider it all, I’ve seen a lot, period.”
They walked slowly, content with the pace and the moment. Quiet reigned on the seventh floor. It was segregated by black lacquered screens into shadowy islands of privacy. Although the entire floor was one large room, half-walls and archways and innovative table placements gave the illusion of a half dozen small rooms, segmented like the rattles on a rattlesnake’s tail. Except for emergency lighting they were all dark, all except the room at the end of the snake. There a dozen candles flickering on a banquet table and recessed lighting laid down a soft landing pattern on the ceiling. Not that the old man really needed any guiding lights. He had been coming this way each August 24 for years, 55 to be exact. He moved with a slow, cumbersome confidence through the dimly lighted passages, tapping his way with his cane like a blind man, feeling Eulas’ hand against his elbow with a satisfaction that only came with the companionable years.
On the first floor, behind the hostess stand, a young girl picked up the telephone from the shelf under the slanting top and dialed a number she didn’t have to look up. She was in her early 20s, with large dark eyes and skin the color of warm cocoa. Even in the subdued lighting, her eyes glittered.
“He came, Momma. Came again this year just like you said he would.”
“I never doubted it, child, never. Did he come alone?”
“I’d heard she’d passed. Guess I just didn’t want to let myself believe it. That’s so sad, him coming alone after all these years. I don’t know how he stands it. I truly don’t.” The phone line crackled. The voice on the other end of the phone sighed deeply. The older woman fell silent for a moment, memories crowding together in the corridors of her mind. Then she cleared her throat.
“And how’s he looking? Can he get around much? I ‘member you telling me he was on the cane last year.”
“He’s mighty feeble tonight. Eulas had to help him to the elevator.”
“My, but it’s awful to get old. I recall when he was the most vigorous man I ever saw, the very picture of health.”
“Momma, he inquired after you and Grandma. Asked to be remembered.”
“Ain’t that sweet. Mr. Cathcart always was the nicest man, a real gentleman, one of the old-fashioned kind.”
“You’ll tell Grandma?”
“Sure will. She’s right here with me. We been watching the Braves on the television. You know your Uncle Carl, he used to play for—”
“Sorry, Momma, I’ve gotta run, more customers coming.”
“Bye, baby-child,” the woman said to the dial tone.
“Your coffee, Mr. Cathcart.” Eulas smiled and nodded at the silver pot in his right hand. “As I remembered you always like coffee with your meal. Decaf, I believe.”
Mark Cathcart looked up and nodded, returning the smile. “That’s right, Eulas. I don’t sleep as well these days, so there’s no use aggravating Morpheus.”
Eulas poured with a steady hand. Steam swirled up from the dark liquid, hovering for a few seconds in the quiet air like a delicate silver mist.
“Why don’t you grab another cup and pour yourself some, Eulas. I seem to be in the mood to visit.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that.”
“And why not?”
“Why, Mr. Cathcart, ’cause you’re the customer and a waiter can’t sit down and drink coffee with a customer.”
Mark Cathcart massaged the bottom of his face. “Thought the customer was always right.”
“Well, he is, but—”
“But nothing, Eulas. Go on now and get a cup and join me. I know you keep them on the second shelf of that mahogany cabinet over there. I insist.”
“Well, I don’t—”
“Am I not a good customer, Eulas?”
“Oh yes, sir, Mr. Cathcart, for over 50 years. I’d allow that makes you a very fine customer.”
“And the customer is always right?”
Eulas frowned. “Yes.”
“That settles it then. Besides, you and I have been hooking up this way for a long time, a damn long time actually, and I think it is about time we had a cup of coffee together.”
Eulas rubbed his mustache. Lately, in the old gilt-edged mirror that had been his mother’s, there had been a silver tinge to the black. Under his hand, he smiled a little. “All right, if you say so, Mr. Cathcart.” Eulas walked across the room. He was glad it was evening and his legs had loosened up. Some mornings the old arthritis was so bad that he could barely shuffle to the bathroom. He retrieved another bone white china cup and poured himself a cup. He added two spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of cream from the china pots standing on the black lacquered tray that resided on top of the mahogany cabinet. He hadn’t bothered to carry the tray to the table; Mr. Cathcart always took his coffee black. Eulas Jackson carried his coffee carefully to the table and eased into a chair directly across the table from the old man.
“That looks like muddy branch water, Eulas. You must use cream.”
“Yes, sir. Just a splash. I use half-and-half at home.”
“Well, now, my birthplace was in Cadiz, Kentucky. But we moved out of there back when I was still in school. Daddy hooked on with the L&N down here. A buddy named David Davis got him on. He ended up working there for 33 years. Was chief conductor the last four.” Eulas Jackson blinked away the memories and came back into the small upper room. “Sorry about the rambling. Anyway, these days I live over on Warwick, number 137 Warwick.” He glanced across the table at the old man. “Warwick is over on the south side, Mr. Cathcart, down by the old fairgrounds.”
“Yes, indeed, I know Warwick. At least I used to. For years my uncle Alex had a mechanic that lived over there. Don’t remember exactly where. Think it was the fourteen hundred block. Remember the house though, a little yellow clapboard with roses out front, red roses, lots of them. Tom, that was the mechanic’s name. He sure could grow roses, absolutely beautiful roses. Was a great man, with a Studebaker, too. Did you happen to know him? Think his wife’s name might have been Annie, or maybe Frannie.”
Eulas took a sip of coffee. “No, don’t think I ever heard of an auto mechanic on Warwick. Studebakers, you say.”
“Yes. Course, he could work on any model. That was back in the days before they computerized cars. But Studebakers were his specialty, those and Chryslers.”
“I used to drive a Chrysler. Had me one of them big old Newports. Bought it off a fellow that had got laid off by a bread company. Forget the name of that company now. Drove that car for years. Absolutely loved it. It was a rare treasure, don’t find ‘em like that these days.”
“My wife always liked the way a Chrysler rode. We had a New Yorker for years ourselves.” The old man shook his head and sipped at his coffee. It had a full-bodied, robust taste. Traveler’s House always served superb coffee. He knew for a fact that they ground their own beans.
“You married, Eulas?”
“No, sir. No way no woman could stay married to me. I’m a private man when I’m off work. Makes me hard to live with, being turned that way. I ought to know, been doing it for over 60 years now.”
Both men chuckled a little and sipped at their coffee, their eyes wandering around the room, seeing things they had seen before, allowing their gaze to linger now and then on an object that jumpstarted a memory. The room grew very quiet. Eulas could just hear the faint wheeze of the old man’s breathing. It was a faraway sound, as if it were coming from some piece of machinery in the basement of the old hotel. He could see the old man’s eyes cloud over and knew Mr. Cathcart was seeing something that had once been cherished. Eulas kept his body as still as he could, only now and then sipping at his coffee and stretching his legs out when they wanted to cramp.
Traffic sounds died slowly out on the street, while in the quiet room the candles flickered and the puddle of coffee at the bottom of the old man’s cup grew cold. Time slid by unnoticed, like a dark cloud on a cold dark night. Finally, the old man blinked and took a deep breath, his chest rising and falling. He dabbed at his eyes with a corner of his linen napkin.
“It’s hard, Eulas.”
“I know it is.”
“Fifty-four years, two months, three days, seven hours and nine minutes. That’s a long time.”
The old man shook his head. His white hair rose and fell. It had once been thick and a glossy mahogany brown. Now it was the color of aged cotton and as fine as silk. Turning his head, he stared out of one of the high narrow windows that opened onto Commerce.
“I miss her, you know. Miss her every day, every damn day.”
Eulas merely nodded. As the Bible said, there was a time for everything. He knew there was a time for loving. He remembered reading once in a book a Kentucky man named Fenton had wrote that love is like a ripe peach, and you had to take it when or where you found it. Eulas understood. No point in letting something you love just sit around. Why, if a man was lucky enough to find even a slice of ripe peach, or a slice of love, he had better enjoy it right then and there. Cause things had a way of passing and what was sweetest always seemed to pass the fastest. Then only the memories remained; faded, but still lovely, like the petals of a flower pressed between the pages of a favorite book.
For several minutes the waiter sat quietly with his shoulders against the chair back and his feet stretched out under the table, watching the old man he had known for over 30 years. Eulas was good at waiting and watching. He had a lot of practice. A private-turned man gets a lot of that sometimes. The old man was very still. Only his breathing body seemed to be in the room. After a long time Eulas could hear the bells at the Church of Christ striking. They rang nine times. As quietly as he could, he eased up out of his chair and crossed the floor. He went out of the room and used the house phone near the elevator to ask the young waiter to tell Chef Rick not to be anxious. Mr. Cathcart’s supper would be later than usual this year. Then he wandered slowly back to the last room and leaned against the door frame where he could keep an eye on the old man. Just in case.
Inside the old man’s mind fragments of 54 years, two months, three days, seven hours and nine minutes whirled like so many colored glass marbles, spinning and turning and tumbling and rolling over themselves, clanking together now and then with a sharp, high glassy sound. He remembered long walks through damp woods and goldfinches on purple thistles and meadowlarks rising against the sun and slow dancing with sweat running down his face and the ocean at night, white-capped and mysterious, and she was always there, intertwined with each memory fragment. He recalled the way her little finger curled and the way her hair spiked in the morning when she got out of bed, and her slow spreading smile, and the way she lifted her eyes, and the way moonlight played peek-a-boo in her hair, and the way her face looked in the glare of neon as they passed through strange towns on one of their all-night trips. All these things and a thousand more, spinning and turning and tumbling and rolling over themselves. And then there was a lump in his throat, and it was hard to breathe, and he reached out for her hand, forgetting, for that moment, that it would never be there again.
Then he was back in the little room at the top of the old hotel, and the candles were flickering a mellow yellow light, and someone was playing a violin very faintly, and he felt all the memories shift fractionally in his mind, and he wanted her so much he felt like crying. But he didn’t cry, and tears wouldn’t bring her back anyway, since, he believed, in some enigmatic, glorious way she was there and always would be there, as long as he came to the quiet little room on the seventh floor of the old hotel on the 24th of August.
So he swallowed hard and smiled at Eulas, leaning ever so casually against the door frame. “I think I’ll order now.”
Eulas stepped into the room with supreme dignity. “Yes, Mr. Cathcart, and what will you have this year? I expect you know our menu by heart. Chef Rick told me last week he would fix whatever you fancy.”
The old man leaned his head back against the chair and smiled. Candlelight reflections danced in his eyes. “You know, Eulas, I think I’ll have the Louisiana quail in raspberry sauce, with wild rice and green beans.”
“Yes sir, and crème brûlée for dessert like always?”
The old man nodded. Eulas Jackson started to turn to go, then just for a moment he let himself forget and pressed the palm of his right hand on the old man’s shoulder.
The old man looked up and put his right hand on top of Eulas’. They smiled at each other across the years. The violin music was very soft, and candlelight fluttered in an unseen breeze.
“You know what, Eulas?”
“No, sir, Mr. Cathcart. What?”
“The order I just gave you.”
“That’s what I ordered the very first time.”
“Your wedding night supper?”
His face widening in a mystified smile, Mark Cathcart looked up with suddenly young eyes. “Why, yes, Eulas. That first night was our wedding supper. How did you know? I don’t believe I ever mentioned that over all the years.”
Eulas smiled down benevolently. “Sometimes, when a man really, truly treasures something so very deep in his heart, it just sends out a message, a song carried on the wind that other people who treasure things deep in their hearts hear and understand. I’m a man what treasures things, beautiful special things, I surely am. I cherish and look at them whenever I start to feel the lonelies coming on. The truly beautiful things might fade just a little over the years, but they never totally leave a man, not as long as he’s living.” Eulas cocked his head to one side, his eyes glittering like jet as he peered across the years. “And you know, Mr. Cathcart, I’ve got me this notion, been studying on it for years, that maybe when a man passes, those treasures don’t pass with him, but float free and drift around this old world waiting for another heart to open.”
For a moment Eulas Jackson was living again in another time, when a few special treasures had found their way into his heart. Then he blinked and came back into the room to find Mark Cathcart smiling at him in a way that put him in mind of ripe Georgia peaches, and he patted the old man on the shoulder, and then they were very still, listening to the sweet night fall softly all around them like God’s own benediction.
Chris Helvey’s short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and reviews, including Kudzu, The Chaffin Journal, Best New Writing, Modern Mountain Magazine, Bayou and the Dos Passos Review. His chapbook, On The Boulevard, was published in 2011 by Finishing Line Press.