I was on the way to a movie, something to get me out of my room. My TV had dropped dead again and by the afternoon I’d read all the newspapers. Then there were the scurrying noises in the ceiling, little feet scratching their way across the plaster, that didn’t come from little kids and sure didn’t make me feel welcome. The movie was convenient and it didn’t matter if I’d seen it before. I’d probably be snoring before the titles were finished, anyway. I think it was an old Bogart picture, but I may have been misinformed.

It was early evening, the time when the angle of light was low enough so you could see the dust in the air. When the elevated train roared by overhead the dust was churned, making eddies like fast water over rocks that first ran with the train, then settled back to float downward through the pale twilight air.

Except for some stragglers, the street was empty. By this time, everyone had finished their meal and were either hanging out the window to watch the passing show or were watching their TV. There were a couple of guys setting up a card table in front of their house to play some dominoes. Dominoes was pretty big in the neighborhood. I guess it was as good a way as any to pass the time, but I didn’t know anyone to play with. Not that I was antisocial or anything. It’s just that I kept to myself and I expected everyone else to do the same.

I was a couple of blocks from the theater when I saw the light still on at Jimmy’s, the coffee counter I hung out in. I could see a couple of people sitting at the counter, a man near the register and a woman down the other end. Jimmy had his back to the street, but I knew it was him by his GI haircut. Jimmy was the only guy I knew that still cut his hair like that, like he was still in the service. Since I had some time to kill, I crossed the street under the El and made it a four-some.

“Hi ya, kid,” Jimmy said. “Regular?” Jimmy was always sparse with the words. The ever present toothpick hung from his mouth as he spoke.

I just nodded.

As Jimmy went off to pour my cup, I took my usual seat on the stool at the far end of the counter away from the door. From this spot, I could watch the comings and goings and see whatever had to be seen. I inherited this spot from another guy, an older guy that had been a regular until he gave it up, his life and his seat, about a year ago. I’d been coming to Jimmy’s for maybe five years, since I was discharged, and the old man had always been at his post in this seat reading his newspaper. He was a down and outer, busted shoes and all. Five years he never took his nose out of his newspaper. I don’t think we ever spoke to each other, the old guy and me, but then he took the pipe and I got his seat. I never did know his name.

While I waited, I took the time to look around. The woman was maybe in her late twenties. She was attractive in a hard way: tight, close to the head little curls of jet black hair, pale skin stretched over her high cheekbones, lips pressed close together around a lit cigarette hanging from her mouth. I filed away a mind bet that when she got older, her hard little face would tighten even more and she’d come to look like a clenched fist. She sat stiff, her spine like steel. She seemed to have something on her mind as she sat, her eyes nearly closed, staring into the blackness of her coffee cup.

The guy was different, not just from the woman, but from other guys. He was young, maybe in his early twenties, and flounder-belly white. I never saw a guy so white. He sat slouched over, as if his big head was too heavy for his skinny body. It looked like if it wasn’t being propped up by his right arm, his big head would collapse and hit the counter. While the girl looked intense enough to be combustible, the guy looked like he had been kicked in the head. He looked dreamy, like he was somewhere else. It was probably a good idea.

There wasn’t anything unusual about Jimmy’s place. The counter wasn’t particularly clean; neither were the cups and silverware. Neither was Jimmy, but it would all do. Jimmy had the usual stuff: the big coffee maker, the grill, the toaster, the sink. Nothing special. I guess the best part of the place was the big plate glass window that looked out onto the street. Jimmy made sure to keep it clean as crystal. Looking out, you could see the El and the people pass by on their way to somewhere else. When the train passed, you could see the dust whirl and the vagrant newspapers and dried, crisp leaves whip along street in the train’s wake. Sit there long enough and see the world go by, at least that part of the world that lived in that part of New York.

Jimmy brought my coffee and that morning’s paper. “Looks like we’re headin’ for another long, messy war, kid,” he said. “The papers are full of it. Lots of people goin’ be killed. Take a look.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I said, idly taking a paper I had already read. “But don’t say ‘we.’ ‘We’ ain’t headin’ anywheres. You and the rest of the country can head anywheres you want. Me, I’m headin’ to the movies and then home.”

The young guy seemed to suddenly wake up. His back began to straighten and he shot me a glance. I figured it was something I said. The girl never turned a hair. I turned my attention to the newspaper, to the sports section.

“You don’t believe in fighting for your country, pal,” the guy said?

I ignored him.

“I said, don’t you believe in fighting for your country?”

“What makes you think this is my country,” I said. “It used to be my country. When it was, I fought for it. I fought all over goddamn everywhere. Then I came home. I came home to no job, no house, no money, no wife, no nothin’. Just a big scar on my leg. So don’t hassle me about me and my country.” I turned back to the paper, but I also caught a glimpse of the girl checking me out. I began to see some possibilities for the evening after all.

“You own this place,” the guy said to Jimmy?

“Yeah, you might say I do,” Jimmy said. “Me and the banks. So what?”

“How come you let creeps like that in here? Creeps that don’t support our boys.”

“Well, how come,” Jimmy asked, “you ain’t over there fightin’ instead of in here mouthing off at that guy there?” Jimmy said pointing at me.

“I’m in school, I’m a student, otherwise you could bet I would be,” the guy said, his voice getting louder.

“Well,” Jimmy said, “since it’s my place I decide what creeps I let in and which ones I show out, and I’m showing you out. So, out.”

“Fine with me,” the young guy said. “The coffee was shit, anyway.” The guy threw a buck on the counter and made for the door.

It was fine with Jimmy, too. He put the buck in his pocket and cleaned the guy’s spot at the counter. It was like he was never there.

“More coffee, Miss,” Jimmy said to the girl? Except for her checking me out that one time, she hadn’t moved a muscle since I sat down. She just shook her head no and put down her coffee. Her hand was shaking.

“I overheard your conversation with the other guy,” she said to me, still staring into her cup. “You got some strong feelings.”

She was right. I got some strong feelings. I got strong feelings about a lot of things and I was beginning to get some about her, too. As she looked up at me I could see her tight little face soften a little. A smile peeked through her lips, as if she wasn’t sure it was safe to smile.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” I said.

She stared into her cup awhile and I guessed it was to figure out her next move. I reread the newspaper’s sports pages. The Yanks were getting a new guy, some new phenom. I didn’t have time to mull that situation over because it didn’t take her long to make up her mind.

She picked up her cup and walked over to me. She looked nervous. “Can I talk to you for a minute? Maybe sit at a booth?” she said. It sounded like a good idea.

We walked to the booths and took one facing each other across a cold Formica-topped table. She wasn’t as pretty as when she was 20 feet across the room, but then again, I wasn’t too busy this particular night.

The darkening evening sky had nothing on her mood. She looked like she had just lost her best friend. I was beginning to figure the movie could wait for the next night, wondering, actually hoping, where this night would lead, when she proved me right about her best friend. But it was her fiancée.

“What you said about the war to that guy, about how you done your part, and all, and how when you came back you had nothing, well, I understand. I mean, I think you’re right. That guy, that kid, has no idea what it’s like. My Jack, my fiancee, was sent over two months ago.” She stopped and grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and started to twist the hell out of it. Her eyes started getting wet, which is usually my signal to either put my arm around her or to get the hell out of there. This time I just sat.

“That kid, he doesn’t understand. You went and came back to nothing. My Jack, he went, and now I got nothing. I just got this letter from his mother,” she said handing me a piece of paper, a letter, written in a small, tight scrawl. I scanned it quick and picked out “sorry to tell you,” “Jack shot,” “great loss,” “keep in touch.” I gave her back her letter.

“So, since you and me, we understand about these things, I thought maybe I could talk to you a little. If you’re not busy, I mean. I mean, if you have something else to do I’d understand. It’s just that I’m here by myself now, and what with Jack not coming back and all, I thought maybe I could buy you another cup of coffee.”

So we drank some more coffee and talked. I heard all about Jack, her job at the dry cleaning shop, how her and her family didn’t get along so well so she didn’t think she’d be able to go home, how Jack was the best thing that ever happened to her.

When Jimmy finally closed up, we went back to my room. It was late and the TV still didn’t work. We talked some more with me mostly pretending to listen sympathetically. To be honest, she was a sweet kid, but she just about wore me out. I’m as good a listener as the next guy, but this evening hadn’t gone exactly as I had hoped when she first smiled at me. I guess some evenings are like that.

She finally got tired and laid down in my bed. She stared at the darkness out of the window awhile, and then went to sleep. I figured nothing else much was going happen so I pulled the cover over her and then sat all night in the chair, looked into the darkness and listened to the scurrying noises.

She was gone when I woke up, cramped and stiff. The chair may look comfortable, but don’t try it for a whole night. I never got her name. But my TV still isn’t working, so I guess I’ll catch the Bogy film tonight. I plan to go past Jimmy’s. You never know.