A very strange thing just happened to me.
I’m sitting here at the little pocket park between two buildings, on a park bench in a tiny sliver of shadow because it’s only just past noon. I took the day off to get a good start on unpacking into my little apartment above a Mexican restaurant. It’s April – and a warm day for spring in St. Louis! Almost 80 degrees. Last weekend when I hauled all the boxes to the second floor, it was just rain, rain, rain, which seeped into me and gave me a cloudy attitude, but that’s behind me now. Today is a tonic on my soul. Or at least it was. Or maybe it still is.
I let myself sleep in this morning, and I woke with a powerful hunger, but my kitchen’s cupboards are still bare, other than a few slices of dried-up delivery pizza. So I ventured out to explore my adorable new neighborhood on Cherokee Street. I decided to wander east, toward Jefferson Street, and then cross Cherokee and head back west on the opposite side. It was on the opposite side, between Iowa and California, where I caught the delicious scent of baked goods wafting out of a bakery. The sign above the door of the narrow shop was faded, but I could still make out the cursive lettering: Cherokee Bakery. Inside was a long glass bakery case to the left, and a few café tables to the right, room for half a dozen people. One table was available. I pored over the treats, craving almost everything. A heavyset brunette woman grinned patiently at the far end, where a silver countertop broke the long line of the glass case. Behind the case was another women, an ancient lady who was absent-mindedly pushing a cleaning rag back and forth on some storage shelves. She seemed hypnotized by the motion: back and forth, slowly, a pause, and then back and forth again. However, she was decidedly watching me as I studied the selections.
I ventured a look at her, nodded slightly, but I was shocked at how old she was. Everything about her was gray, almost dusty. She wore a faded floral dress with a cardigan over it, both in a nondescript color. Her hair was pulled back in a bun; her skin looked almost transparent, it was so thin and crepe. Only her eyes still had life to them. They were round and dark brown, almost black. They were on me.
“I’ll take an apple turnover,” I told the brunette at the counter. “And a cup of coffee with cream and sugar.”
”You got it,” she answered and began to assemble my order. I moved to the counter, away from the glass case and the ancient one behind it, but the ancient one turned her gaze to me. I avoided eye contact with her. I paid. I took the items to the empty table, which was unfortunately the one closest to the ancient lady.
The turnover and coffee tasted wonderful, and I enjoyed them with my back to the ancient shelf-cleaner. I could feel her watching me, though. By the third bite, my turnover lost its appeal. The coffee tasted sour in my mouth. It was as if the sight of the aged creature had ruined my appetite, had filled my mouth with dust. I feigned a stretch and looked toward her. She was staring straight at me, just as I had felt. She wasn’t cleaning the shelf anymore, though. She was standing closer to the glass case, her face just above it, and she was grinning.
My appetite was completely gone. I stood and left the bakery and nearly ran a whole block before I slowed down. My heart was beating wildly. I found the pocket park and dropped myself into the park bench.