At some point over the last few years, his eyes had drifted back behind massive folds that almost disguised the grey in shadow.
“I want my coffee black, of course,” he said, “Coffee with milk in it tastes like shit.”
The waitress looked amused and fully prepared to humour the old man she saw.
“Anything for you?” She turned her smiling body to me. Not just her head, her entire torso turned as though nothing could be more important than what I had to say.
“Say, how’s Dominion?” He leaned across the table.
“She died a year ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” He sat back and looked put off. He was quiet a moment, then said, “Did you see the wart on that girl’s chin?” A slow smile crawled onto his face.
“She has a wart? Are you sure it’s not a mole?”
“Bah!” he muttered and flopped back again in the chair. He furrowed his brow and gestured with his right hand, “Did you see the dirt under her nails?”
“You people see nothing,” he laughed, “You all make such lousy artists because you’re too busy trying to not see what people would rather hide. Maybe it makes you a better writer,” he winked.
“What?” I laughed.
The waitress came back and put the coffee in front of me. I glanced at her smiling face and smiled quickly back. But when she put the coffee before George, he suddenly reached out and grabbed her hand. He patted it warmly, “Thank-you, my dear,” he said. She looked uncomfortable but smiled back and said, “You’re welcome.”
I imagine she walked back and immediately complained about the creepy old man at table six. Or perhaps she was actually mildly pleased and kept it to herself. Perhaps she thought it was genuine. She may have gone back there and told her coworkers about the sweet old man and his daughter sitting at table six, how he seemed warm and she seemed cold.
“Well,” he said. It was not questioning.
“Did you see? You didn’t see.”
“What are you talking about? See what?”
He laughed and took a sip of his coffee. He furrowed his brows and nearly buried his eyes, “This is bitter. It makes my teeth feel like chalk.” He wrapped his hands around the cup, “It’s hot, though.”
“Mine is good,” I said, and sipped some more. It tasted a little harsh but nothing worse than I made for myself every morning.
“So,” he said, and looked down in the cup, “I guess you’ve probably heard about it from Joe.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m pretty done with it all. They said it’s not doing any good, anyway.” He looked up. “I’m not back here to stay, either.”
I nodded. I had guessed as much, really. When I first met Joe, he told me of his father, The George Herin, whose painting stood as prints in Gallery Hall, past the English department. But he described him as someone unrelated and mostly intolerable. That never became my experience. And in spite of my separating from Joe seven years ago, I was the one sitting with George at this table. Not Joe.
“Hi,” he’d said on the phone.
“How are you?”
“Listen, my dad is coming back and wants to see you.”
I looked across at the old man. The hands that held the mug would not move. His eyes were settled on my eyes. He was motionless but I could sense the blood pumping through him still full of power.
“Why did you want to see me, George?”
“I don’t know.”