It’s the day before the September equinox. Black clouds pile up to the north of Denver and a stiff breeze whips the tablecloths on the patio of a streetside sandwich shop. Diners clutch their newspapers and napkins, and their eyes dart across the busy street toward the approaching storm.
High school students on lunch break wander the sidewalks, deep in a dream of themselves.
Beneath the awning an elderly couple sits at a table for two. They are regulars; the waiter knows what they want to drink before they order. She wears an orange silk and lace ensemble, loose like pajamas, precisely the same shade as her hair — the color of ripe papaya flesh. She tries to apply lipstick in the same shade, fumbles with a small gold hand mirror, and gives up. The wind blows wisps of hair across her mouth.
He stares intently at a hardcover book, opened to its first pages. It’s the new James Ellroy, Perfidia, the name of the Glenn Miller song that Rick and Ilsa danced to as they reminisced about Paris in the movie Casablanca. A bold red circle dominates the book’s front cover.
She goes inside to fix her lips and he reads.
When she comes back, a swift gust of wind sweeps up one of the blue umbrellas at the other end of the patio and sends a table tumbling loudly. The diners’ heads snap and they watch as a young waiter vaults the low brick wall and grabs the whole thing before it blows into the street. The umbrellas are lowered, forks go back to clicking on plates and the woman returns to her seat, her blue-veined hand pressed against her breastbone.
“When do you think it’ll come down?” he says, pointing to the clouds. She says maybe it won’t. She says this will be one of the last days they’ll be able to sit outside before the weather changes for good.
Their food arrives: hers, a hamburger too thick to bite and a tumble of French fries; his, a grilled cheese and a bundle of grapes. They laugh as she raises the ridiculous burger to her lips. It stretches from her chin to the bridge of her nose. He urges her to take knife and fork to it, but she begins devouring it in small bird bites.
The waiter brings them a box for leftovers. They order a piece of peanut butter pie to share. He gulps a fresh cup of coffee and she sips at hers.
The pie arrives, topped with a swooping bouffant of whipped cream. She claps her hands like a girl at a birthday party when the cake arrives. He takes a bite and says, “What is this?”
“Peanut butter pie,” she says.
“Peanut butter?” he says.
“Pie,” she says.
He frowns and puts down his fork. He glances at the check the waiter has left and pulls a checkbook out of his back pocket.
“What’s the date?” he says.
“No,” he says, “what year?”
She licks her fork and plunges it into the pile of whipped cream.
“It’s twenty-fourteen.” She glances at him. They lock eyes. “Two-thousand fourteen.” He holds his pen in the air and keeps looking at her.
“Two. Zero. One. Four.” She says this slowly and steadily and he writes the numbers down as she dictates them.
“Look,” he says, a smile lighting his face. He points across the side street to a wall covered with Virginia creeper gone orange and red. Beneath it, a small whirlwind on the sidewalk has scooped a clatter of fallen leaves into its spin.
“What’s that book about?” He points to the bright red circle on the cover.
“It’s the new James Ellroy,” she says. “Remember? We read about it in the Denver Post yesterday. We bought it at the book store.”
He shakes his head. She drops it into a shopping bag.
“We can take it back if you want to.”
“No,” he says. “It’s really interesting.”
She gathers her bags and they stand up to leave. Her silk pants flap against the bones of her thin legs. He takes her elbow and leads her to the small gate where the hostess stands, waving goodbye.
Overhead, the clouds have broken. Sun warms the sidewalk.
His back is strong and straight, his hair silver and neatly trimmed above his navy blue collar. He extends a broad hand and fits it snugly across the small of her back. She leans against him and they walk past the Virginia creeper, into late September shadows, red and orange and gold.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.