On Her Way to the Square
Kathryn pulled the door handle toward her and shook up the bells hanging from the coffee shop’s door. The regulars at the counter turned to see who was about to join them, and the old man sitting at the corner table looked up from his book about the history of the Roman Empire. He quickly returned to his reading, but the men at the counter casually waved at Kathryn as she made her way to the empty stool beside them.
Bob walked out from the kitchen, saw Kathryn straightening the bunched up rug that had nearly tripped her, and poured a cup of his strongest blend. He snapped on the plastic lid and said, “Here you go, Kathryn. Can I get you anything else?”
Bob knew his customers by name and knew what they wanted before they even sat down, which is why Kathryn liked his place better than any of the other shops in town. She needed only to appear at the counter, and a cup of just the right kind of coffee would be set down in front of her. Bob always asked if she needed anything else because that’s what he asked everyone, but Kathryn never wanted more than that one cup. Today, though, would be different. “Actually, I need another cup like this but with some room at the top. Julia’s meeting me here in a few minutes, and she likes a little cream.”
Julia had been Kathryn’s closest friend since they met in a knitting class where they each fumbled with the awkward needles and made an irreparable mess of a skein of yarn. When Kathryn’s husband left her, Julia listened to her cry. And when Julia opened up the town’s only bridal shop, Kathryn promised never to be a customer. They laughed at each other’s jokes, and they kept each other’s secrets.
Just the night before, Julia had confided that her husband was being transferred out of state, and she would have to close down her shop or sell it. She didn’t want to make an announcement so soon, though, and had asked Kathryn to keep this one last secret until she was ready.
Tom, the man beside Kathryn, folded the first section of the newspaper and set it down on the counter, picking up the sports section, which had been well read that morning but poorly reassembled. He sorted out the pages, rattling the paper and grumbling about inconsiderate readers. After a few minutes of organizing and careful creasing, he held the paper out at arms’ length and focused on the football schedule for the high school games that would be played on Friday.
“Are we gonna win this week, Don?”
Don was resting his elbows on the counter. His shoulders were hunched up around his thick neck, making him look even broader than when he stood upright with his hands in his pockets. He took a big sip of coffee, swished it around in his mouth before swallowing it hard, and ran his tongue over his teeth. After a sufficient pause, he answered, “I think we will, Tom. I think we will. I got a good bunch of boys this year, and they’ve been working pretty hard.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Tom said. “You’re doing a great job with that team.”
Don took another mouthful of coffee, swished, swallowed, and wiped his teeth, the way Kathryn’s father used to do when she was a little girl. She wondered why Don would make such a spectacle out of drinking a cup of coffee when a simple sip and quiet swallow would do. Must be something about aging men, she decided.
The bell rang, and they all looked at the door expecting to see Julia, but it was Daryl instead.
“Hey, Daryl,” Tom waved to the postman who was dropping off the morning’s mail. In exchange, Daryl picked up a ready cup of coffee with a few packs of sugar.
“Here you go, Daryl. Got time to sit for a while?” Bob handed him a wooden stick for stirring.
“I got a few minutes. Julia's shop is next on the route, but she hasn’t opened it yet.”
“She’s stopping here, first,” Kathryn offered. “Then we’re going to walk down to the square to watch the time capsule being buried. She won’t open the store for another hour at least, I’m guessing.”
“The time capsule,” Tom shouted, slapping the sports section down on the stack of papers. “I nearly forgot about that. I got something being buried in that thing, you know. Thanks for me reminding me.”
“What are you burying, Tom?” asked Bob.
“An auto insurance policy, void of course, and a personalized pen from my office. I thought it would be interesting to see how cars change in the next fifty years. And, well, you can’t exactly bury a car. I threw the pen in just in case I’m not around when they dig the thing up.”
“Where are you planning to be?”
“You never know. I might be in Florida, or I might be dead.”
There was a slight sound of clinking glass coming from behind the counter, as if bottles were being rattled and sorted. Kathryn could hear whispering mixed with the clinking and was curious enough to lean over the counter to see who was down on the floor, out of sight and being so hushed. No one else seemed concerned, but she had to know. She could just see the top of a little girl’s head, a girl who was kneeling on the floor rearranging empty soda bottles on the shelves.
“That’s Bob’s granddaughter,” Tom said without looking up from the paper. He had picked up the want ads, which he read every day just in case he should need a new job.
“She comes in here with me sometimes when my daughter has to work.” Bob held up a pot of fresh coffee and offered to top off Kathryn’s cup. “She plays with these bottles until I take them in for the deposit.” There was a drop-off station in the grocery store parking lot, and he liked to wait until he had a trunk full before bothering with the trip.
Kathryn took the lid off her cup to allow for more coffee. She smiled down at the little girl. “What are you doing with all of those bottles?”
The girl raised her head to see Kathryn peering over the counter, looking down at her and the empty bottles. “They’re just talking.”
“To each other. They have to go back for the deposit today, so they’re saying good bye’ in case they get separated.”
Before Kathryn could ask another question, Bob added, “She gives them all names, and they have a little family and a school and what not, and then when it’s time to return them for the deposit, they all say “good-bye” and wish each other well. My wife says someday her imagination will either earn her a million dollars or land her in prison.”
Kathryn sat back on her stool and listened to the whispered story of friends departing and their promises to keep in touch. She had lost so many friends of her own over the last few years as people moved on to other jobs and other homes, and she took comfort in this steady group of coffee shop pals. She had the sense that even if one or two of them were to move to Florida in their old age, most of them were there for the duration.
“So, what are you burying in that capsule, Daryl?” Tom put down the paper and tried to wipe the ink off his fingers.
Daryl had to think for a minute. It was at least a month ago when he dropped off a little box of things at the city hall. “Let me see. I threw in a few stamps, because you never know what the cost of mailing a letter will be in fifty years. And I got to thinking that we might not even be using stamps then. Who knows? I copied a few FBI Most Wanted sheets. Thought it might be interesting to see if they ever catch those folks. Oh, and an old rubber stamp. Everything’s printed electronically now, so we don’t really use that old thing anymore.”
Tom thought about the FBI posters. The oldest people in town liked to say the world was worse than it ever was when they were younger, and they were glad they wouldn’t be around to see it go to ruin. He wondered if that was really true and if the FBI would be looking for the same kind of criminals in fifty years or would they be looking for worse. “I wonder,” he said. “I wonder what kind of crime we’ll have in fifty years. Do you ever wonder about that Don? Ever wonder what this place will be like then or what kind of kids will be in school?”
“Nope. People are people. People were mean a thousand years ago, and people will be mean a thousand years from now, those who want to be. They may come up with new ways to prove it, but we’re all the same. Nothing ever changes.”
The old man in the corner cleared his throat, and everyone turned to acknowledge him. He held up his book and said, “The Appian Way.”
“That’s my point exactly,” Don said. “Crucify some 6,000 slaves along a road for miles and leave them there to rot. Now that was a rough time to live in. You can’t tell me we’re worse off now than those poor fools were way back then.”
“Huh.” Tom wasn’t sure. He would have to think about that for a while. He hoped he would be around when the time capsule was pulled out of the ground and opened up, and he would be the same old Tom, but he wasn’t sure what the rest of the world would look like. “I wonder,” he said, picking the paper back up and looking it over to see if he had missed a page. “How about you Kathryn? Did you give anything to the capsule?”
Kathryn was listening to the saga of the bottles, the departing sorrows and hopes for the future, and she was lost in sound of glass touching glass and plastic crates scooting on wooden shelves. She was suddenly aware that Tom was looking at her, as was Bob, waiting for an answer, but she hadn’t heard the question. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I asked if you gave anything to be buried in the capsule.”
“No, you know, I couldn’t think of anything I thought would be significant. I looked around the house but just couldn’t think of anything the town might care about.”
“Not a single thing?”
“I’m afraid not. I guess I should have put some more thought into it.”
The girl behind the counter stood up and brushed her hair away from her face. She reached down to the shelf below and pulled out a soda bottle, empty and rinsed and ready for recycling. She handed it to Kathryn and said, “You can take this if you want to. You can bury this.” She looked at her grandfather to see if it was OK to offer a bottle. Bob nodded.
Kathryn took it and thanked the girl. “Are you sure? You won’t miss this one?”
“No, it’s OK. I got a hundred of ’em.’”
“Well, then thank you. I’ll take this down to the square and hand it to the mayor. I’m sure he’ll be happy to add it to the collection.”
The brass bell rang, and everyone looked at the door in time to see Julia rush through. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she hurried to the counter and gave Kathryn a quick hug. I got caught up with something at home and just couldn’t get away.”
“That’s OK.” Kathryn held up the bottle. “We should hurry down to the square so we can make sure this gets put in the capsule before they seal it up.”
Julia looked puzzled, wondering why Kathryn would want to bury an old soda bottle.
“I’ll tell you about it on the way down,” Kathryn said as she grabbed her purse from the floor beneath her stool. Bob dumped out the cup he had set aside for Julia and poured her a fresh, hot cup, remembering to leave room for cream.
Julia handed Bob enough cash to cover her order and Kathryn’s and fixed her brew up just the way she liked it. Daryl pulled a bundle of mail from his heavy shoulder bag and handed it to her. “You might want this,” he said. “Mostly junk, I bet, but you never know.”
“Wait,” Don picked up the sports page and ripped out the article about the football team winning their most recent game. It was full of names of the boys he had worked with and had seen grow up to become young men. He thought that when that capsule would be opened up in fifty years, who ever lived in this town would need proof that not everyone was like a criminal on a poster from the post office. He handed the article to Kathryn. “Would you mind?”
She took the article and rolled it up carefully, sliding it into the bottle. “I’d be happy to include it, Don.”
She and Julia waved to the men at the counter and to the old man at the corner table. They walked out onto the street, letting the bell ring and the door shut behind them.
A minute or so later, they could hear the brass bell ringing as Don and Tom stepped out to go hear the mayor’s speech and to watch the commissioners bury a sealed box of what most of them thought was important and what they all hoped would represent them well for the next generation.
“Now, tell me about this bottle and why it’s so important we put it in a time capsule,” Julie asked as the two women started the three-block walk to the town square. They could see a small crowd gathered in the park on the corner where the flag pole stood surrounded by nearly a dozen trees that had been planted during the town’s centennial celebration a hundred years before.
Kathryn knew nothing could stay the same, with or without a time capsule or a few friends in a coffee shop or commemorative trees. She slipped her hand through the crook of Julia’s elbow and said, “It’s just a way to pretend something is permanent even when you know very little ever is.”