Honey Locusts
by Naomi Kimbell

The windows of the coffee shop looked across the street to a deli. It had a blue awning, a neon sign with a stammer, and outdoor seating occupied by a few gregarious pan handlers. The weather was bright and cold and the leaves of the honey locusts spun to the ground in yellow funnels. Inside, the shop was dark and smelled of sweet rolls and coffee and the beer-soaked floor of the adjoining bar. We — he and I — chose a table and settled into our coffee pose: hands around our cups, faces pushed into the steam. I smiled. He glanced at me, glanced away, and then settled on a point beyond my shoulder.

I asked, “How’s your coffee?”

“It’s pretty hot. It’s good.” He paused and then added, “When I was homeless, black coffee and cigarettes were the only things I cared about.”

“Those things are still important to you.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Which was most important, the coffee or the cigarettes?”

“Cigarettes.”

“You know, I thought about you when you were gone. I thought it was my fault you left.”

“You weren’t my only problem,” he said.

It was noon. Students flocked in and perched on the coffee line. The machines behind the counter hissed and spat and the barista leaned away to avoid the plume. She spooned thick, hot milk into a glass prepped with espresso, set it on the counter and called, “Double latté,” but didn’t say it loud enough for the drink to be collected.

“I’m going to ask you something,” I said. “I’m going to ask you to leave her.”

“I can’t,” he said.

“After last week, I thought things would be different. Is it still the cats?”

“The cats and other reasons, the cats are important to me.”

“Because you don’t have kids.”

“That and other reasons. I have a vasectomy.”

“What are the other reasons?”

He said, “I’ve tried to figure how custody would work, but the cats can’t be separated. They’re friends with each other.”

“That isn’t a different reason.” I said, “They’re just cats. They’re flexible.”

“You’re not a cat person.”

“No. I’ve never had good luck with them.”

“They’re not for everyone.”

“I used to have cats. They peed on things.”

“The other reason is my wife. I never wanted to get married.”

I said, “It was important to her.”

“I was sitting on our porch in the sun, wondering if I would try to mow the lawn that year when she proposed. I said yes because I felt like she needed it. It was something I could do for her.”

“What about you?”

“As long as I can paint, I’m happy.”

“Sometimes I say that about writing,” I said, then added, “It’s funny to me that you paint squash.”

“I paint portraits of squash in the style of the old masters. You’ve seen Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation.”

“No,” I said and ran my hands through my hair. “I wouldn’t try to write in the style of Henry James.”

“It’s not for everyone,” he said then smiled. “Your hair used to be short. I like it long.”

“I think I’ll have it cut. I’ve been thinking about it. You’ve never told me what kind of squash you paint.”

He said, “Mostly winter squash, for the variegated colors. I like acorn varietals and turban squash the best.”

“I wish I could see them.”

“You know I can’t invite you to my studio.”

“Not even when she’s at work?”

“A lot of our neighbors are on disability. They spy,” he said. “But I’ve just hung a few pieces at this little gallery, though you won’t like the owner.”

“Does he wear black-on-black suits and only drink wine from Paso Robles?”

“He’s from the High Line but he calls himself Vitale.”

“There are Italians on the High Line.”

“He isn’t Italian and his real name is Wendell. We’re friends, though he’s stolen a couple of my paintings. I guess I don’t mind,” he said. “I help him out now and then.”

“You are a cipher,” I said.

“How so?”

I shrugged. I shook my head and he took my hand in a covert moment of tenderness. We were sitting at an old pine table. It was wobbly and sticky and held together with glue and wood filler; our wrists lay naked in a skiff of sugar while our coffee went cold. Around us, students bustled from tables to samovar, levering refills, leaving quarters in the dish on the honor system. Some bought cookies. Some asked for pie.

He said, “Should we talk about the reading for this week? Have you finished the Oedipus Cycle?” He took out his book and I took out mine. He flipped through the pages while I laid my book flat, crushing whatever sugar was left on the wood.

“No,” I said. “It’s my Navajo rug.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“How many times is that now?”

He shook his head. “Remember, we agreed to read the complete Oedipus Cycle.”

“I remember, but I’ve only read Antigone. I read it twice. She’s entombed alive by her uncle, King Creon, for breaking his decree. Burying the living is an abomination against the Gods. Creon has hubris.”

“My wife doesn’t believe that we’re here discussing Greek literature. I’ve tried to manufacture evidence by reading in front of her. I’ve nearly finished the trilogy.”

“She’s right,” I said, “unless you want to talk about Antigone. I’ve read Seven against Thebes but that was a few years ago.”

Seven against Thebes isn’t part of the series,” he said, and then, “a few years ago, I wasn’t married.”

“But I was. My daughter is eight now. I suppose it’s axiomatic to say that divorce is hard on a kid.”

“I suppose it is,” he said. “I’ve had a vasectomy.”

“You’ve said that twice.”

“Just saying I wouldn’t be a good father.”

“You and your wife have cats.”

“I’m a good father to them and my wife is a good mother. She takes good care of my kids.”

“She takes good care of your cats,” I said. “I feel like we’re rehashing a lot.”

“We are,” he said, then closed his book and pushed it away, slowly, two inches.  “Cassie and I are starting marriage counseling next week.”

“Good,” I said.  “Good for you.”

Wind gusts opened the door a crack. Leaves blew horizontally along the street and a woman in a red coat struggled not to fall down. After the king had entombed her, Antigone’s betrothed, the king’s son, rolled back the stone to find her already dead: she’d hanged herself. Haemon wept and committed suicide while his father, the king, waxed misérable upon the wretched agony of human life.

“Did you read Antigone?” I asked. “Did you get to the part where Haemon finds her dead?”

“No,” he said and looked up from the table. “In France men can have a wife and a mistress.”

“Is that how you think of me?”

“It would make things easier for us.”

“I don’t think of myself as your mistress.”

“Then what are you?”

“One of my friends says I’m tacky.”

He sipped his coffee and we listened to the din. Outside, the wind had nearly denuded the trees. The sidewalk was yellow and leaves stuck to the windows like Post-it-notes. Sophocles wrote that rotting meat rained down upon Thebes before Creon redressed his sin. The Chorus sang: We told you so.

I said, “I think this is the last time we’ll meet.”

He said, “I don’t want to say that it is.”

“Then leave her.”

I could tell he wanted to say something else but “I can’t” is what he said.

We gathered our things and almost as soon as we stood, students dropped books on our table before staking a claim on the line. We pushed through the door into the wind, passed a storefront advertising bail bonds, and walked to the corner. We looked at one another and at first I couldn’t speak. My throat was frayed. I wanted to lean against him. I wanted to smell his coat, his shirt and his neck. The time we met at my apartment, he’d brought his toiletries along with his book and showered before going home to his wife. He smelled like sandalwood when he left and he asked me not to walk him to his car; he knew people in my complex.

I said, “The light’s green.”

He said, “See you next week,” and stepped off the curb.

The wind picked leaves from the pavement. They stuck to my shoes and socks and the hem of my skirt. His black hair was blue in the sun. He walked with a long, loping stride and wore a pea coat, but whether or not it was the same from years ago, I had forgotten to ask. 


Jackie Rhoades