By John Griswold
In the Sunflower Café the waitresses sat down in booths with elderly customers and watched them shuffle photos of grandkids like decks of cards, as if looking for a good hand. Some early retirees—robust, tanned, and laughing — described the waitresses to me as “booze hags.”
The women’s hands shook as they poured coffee. They moved round each other in a practiced dance, hollered obscene jokes over the din, ministered with buttered toast. Three of them said they’d drop by to see my dad on their way out to the bars. They’d be off at two but were going to someone’s house to shower and change first.
My father and his wife ate breakfast there six days a week for eight years. He had collapsed, the first time, in the lobby a month earlier. One of the Greek owners, George, stood over him, shouting to my stepmother, “It’s okay, he’s breathing, he’s alive!”
Now he was dying in a hospice room that had a view of a manmade lake with a fountain in the center. The nurses said to look for the resident gator, but the late sun made the water a mirror, and the blinds were kept shut.
My father was glad to see them when they came in loudly, smelling of perfume, smokes, and the gin they’d had before they left the house. Their faces looked harder and more worn, the disappointments more obvious, now they were made up to go out. They cooed and smiled, and one was missing teeth. They were very beautiful.
They sat around the bed and caught him up on all the news from the Sunflower. George was still an asshole and took advantage. One of them had walked out after another shouting match with him then walked back in the next day. A former waitress, whom my dad and his wife might have remembered, had finally lost everything—hard drugs, they said—and had gone away with nowhere to go.
They’d been there half an hour before they realized my father didn’t have the breath to speak. He was embarrassed and frustrated, so I told them about his work for U.S. AID in Vietnam and Afghanistan, his job as an advisor in the tin mines in Indonesia, the sabbatical he’d done in Paris at a lost-wax gold foundry. “Oh, isn’t that interesting,” they said. “You do get around, don’t you, Hon?”
They could see he was tiring, so they said their last goodbyes. They were headed out to the beach, where there were drink specials. I had to go in the bathroom while they kissed him and patted his hands and said see you at the restaurant soon.
I had breakfast at the Sunflower one last time, the morning I flew home. The three were supposed to be working, but only two had made it in, and I said it was nice to see them again and thanked them for everything. When I went to pay at the counter, George, who mans the register eternally, asked how much I wanted to tip. The bill was ten bucks, and I said to add five. George dismissed me. “That is too much. Two dollars, that’s enough,” he said in his accent and started to punch in numbers on the credit card machine. “No,” I said firmly. “You’ve all been very kind.” He was bald with a fringe, in his fifties, and had soft-boiled eyes.
We stood awkwardly while the transaction went through. “We are sorry about everything that has happened,” he said finally. He ripped the receipt off and put it down for me to sign. “But what can you say? There is nothing to be done. We are born to die.”
John Griswold's novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, is forthcoming from Wordcraft of Oregon. His essays, stories, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Internet Tendency; War, Literature & the Arts; Natural Bridge; Perigee; and Ninth Letter.
photo by Dinty W. Moore