I don’t go there any more. Sure, it was cheap and the location handy, but the food was never very good. I guess I only went because of Belle. And Belle isn’t there any more. Where is she now? Nobody seems to know. She’s just gone.
The day I first happened to wander in it was cold and the wind walked in the door with every customer. There were two people behind the tiny lunch counter – a big blond round-faced counterman, whistling “Summertime” a little off key, filling the orders easily. The other one was Belle. She couldn’t have been more than 5 foot three, but she must have weighed close to 300 pounds. The raveled sleeves of a cotton-knit man’s undershirt covered her great upper arms and protruded from under her faded blue wrap-around uniform. Big silver disks shone at her ears against a skin as dark and rich as she was large.
I slid into one of the narrow stools and ordered coffee and a cheese sandwich. I didn’t have much time and that day I was lucky. She filled a cup with coffee and set it on the counter in front of me, slowly, ponderously. I thought first the cup was awfully small, but then I saw it was just that her hands, light inside as if the color had been rubbed off, were tremendous. During the following days I found out that nobody here was allowed to be in a hurry. But by that time it didn’t matter. I could have sat there all day watching Belle. Like watching a freight truck squeeze through narrow traffic. It occurred to me that she must have started here when she was small and had grown up and out in that little space behind the counter, like a melon in a bottle.
“Belle, let’s have a cup of coffee over here”. The counterman looked at her a minute, trying to figure out if she had heard him. She paid about as much attention to what he said as an elephant to a flea. “Cup o’coffee, Belle”. Then he seemed to notice some sign of assent that escaped me and finished making up a batch of sandwiches. Belle took another order, and finally, as if it were a motion she had planned long, long ago, filled another cup with coffee and, spilling some on the saucer, set it down for him to pick up. A curious pair, and I wondered how come the boss kept somebody as slow-moving as Belle on. Seemed to me the blond guy could have run the place better by himself.
I ate there every day after that, mostly so I could watch Belle. Within a couple of weeks, the blond man had given way to a nervous thin kid, who moved in jerks, but seemed to know his business. When he cut a tomato and put a sandwich on a plate it was something nice to watch. “Coffee, Belle”, he said. “Black”. She continued mixing a coke and answered, “Ham on rye, no lettuce”. The ham on rye came. Belle poured a cup of coffee and set it in front of one of her customers. She washed some glasses. The kid was beginning to be upset. “Hey, Belle, I got a coffee comin”. And then she got it, but not because he had reminded her. She hadn’t forgotten. But there had been other things she planned to do first, and she had done them. Everything in its place. Even if the place had caught fire, I think she would have finished washing the glasses and dishing up the ice cream before turning to put it out. Well, nature doesn’t let herself be rushed either.
It wasn’t long before the kid was gone too. Subsidiaries, flies buzzing around a mountain. Sure, they get things done, but a lot the mountain cares. It just is.
Occasionally, Belle would talk with a thin stoop-shouldered man. I never heard what she said, except she would laugh silently and he would say, “Tell Harry I went down the street”. Or “Jake’ll be late tonight”. Or “When my brother comes, tell him I’ll be back in 15 minutes”. Always talk of places where someone was or would be. And Belle would give him a chocolate soda, gathering in the information. Whether Harry or the brother ever turned up I don’t know. I never saw them.
If one sat at Belle’s end of the counter, at least you were sure of getting your coffee. But more than once I saw customers finally give up and, muttering to themselves, leave. If I’d been in a hurry I might have too, but as I’ve said I like sitting there watching that slow elemental motion of hers.
And then came Steve. He wore a peaceful sort of expression on his broad face, but the eyes were alive. At first he waited for the coffee too, but then I noticed that he would sometimes get it himself. Not in any spiteful way, but just naturally pour it if she was at the far end, or reach around her almost as if she weren’t there. It couldn’t always be done. He still had to ask her now and then, and she still took her time. But she was puzzled. Obviously.
So that was how he did it. I’m sure he was aware of what he was doing, knew that the one thing Belle couldn’t take was to be ignored. And then he got a second coffee pot for his end of the counter. That must have been the last straw. I wasn’t there when it happened. I just know that when I came back from my vacation a small new girl stood where Belle used to stand, and a coffee pot sat at each end of the counter.