Quiet Light and a Stable Place for a Cup - Brian Collier

Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.
                                                                -Ernest Hemingway

    It was late and everyone had left Ishmael's except for a girl who sat at the table in the alcove where the fluorescent light hammered her skin white. In the daytime cigarette butts piled up beneath the tables on the sidewalk out front, but at night the barista took her stub of a broom and swept the concrete naked. The girl liked to sit there late because it was quiet in the evening, and she felt the difference. The cashier and the barista behind the counter knew that the girl was a little unstable, and while she was a good customer they knew that if someone came in and looked at her, she might start shouting, so they kept watch on her.
    "Last week she tried to kill herself," the barista said.
    "She gave up."
    "On what?"
    "How do you give up on nothing?"
    "She's young. She has plenty of fear in her blood."
    They leaned against a counter that butted against the refrigerator case full of pastries and looked out at the sidewalk where the empty black tables stood sentry between the café windows and the street. An old man jogged by with a dog. Thin white cords bled from each ear and disappeared into a white pod cinched to his arm with a red band. The dog's long red fur bounced as it hurried beside him.
    "Her father will be here looking for her," the cashier said.
    "What's it matter to you if she gets what she wants?"
    "She had better hit the street now. Her father will come in here and blame us for letting her stay so late."
    The girl sitting in the light rapped on the table with the cream pitcher. The cashier went over to her.
    "What do you want?"
    The girl looked at her. "Some cream," she said.
    "You'll be in trouble staying out so late," the cashier said. The girl looked at her. The cashier went away.
    "She'll stay all night," the cashier said to her partner. "I've got a paper due. I never get out of here before one o'clock. She should have killed herself last week."
    The cashier took the cream carton from behind the counter and marched out to the girl's table. She splashed cream into the pitcher.
    "You should have done it last week," she muttered under her breath. The girl pulled the lace of her long sleeves down until it covered her fingers.
    "Could you pour a little in my cup?" she said. The cashier poured on into the mug so that the cream slopped over and ran down the side into the saucer. "Thank you," the girl said. The cashier took the carton back behind the counter. She leaned on the bar with her colleague again.
    "She's out too late now," she said.
    "She's late every night."
    "What did she want to kill herself for?"
    "Like I know?"
    "How did she do it?"
    "She tried to slit her wrists with a broken mirror."
    "Who found her?"
    "Her uncle."
    "Why did she do it?"
    "To see the skeleton inside."
    "You think she's got anything to live for?"
    "She's got plenty of time."
    "She must be sixteen years old."
    "Maybe. I'd say she was fifteen."
    "I wish she would go home. I never get home before two o'clock. What time is that to get home?"
    "She stays late because she needs to."
    "She's got time on her hands. I've got things to do. I have a paper waiting for me on my kitchen table."
    "Her parents are both dead."
    "If they were alive, her parents would be worried to death right now."
    "You never know. She might be better if her parents were alive."
    "Her uncle looks after her."
    "You think so?"
    "I know. You said he saved her. I wouldn't want to be a teenager. A teenager is a selfish thing."
    "Not always. This girl is neat. She stacks her dishes. Even now she's wiping up the cream you spilled. Look at her."
    "I don't want to look at her. I wish she would leave. She has no regard for people who work for a living."
    The girl looked from her mug across the street, then over at the cashier.
    "Another coffee," she said, pointing to her mug. The hurried cashier came over.
    "It's all gone," she said, speaking with that kind of lie adults employ when talking to children or the mentally retarded. "Everything's empty."
    "Come on. Just one. Please," said the girl.
    "No. You're finished." The cashier pushed the empty chair under the table and shook her head.