Fiction — October 25, 2011 14:06 — 4 Comments

Wrong Way – Kevin McLellan

The waitress came from behind the bar and placed the coffee before them. Two porcelain cups on a marble tabletop. She even brought tiny crystal cups of sugar and cream with silver spoons. It was all very nice.

The woman looked at the man who sat with her over the coffee. Or, rather, she regarded him. He wasn’t bad looking. He was older than she was, but not so much that it would ever trouble her, if it came to that. And there were his good cheekbones, plus hands strong and athletic, but, she concluded, without final shaping or finish. Something redolent of a bad State University – a place with fluorescent lighting, plastic chairs, and those wretched little blue exam books – lingered about the man. He talked about interest rates and team sports. He described a motivational seminar he had attended. He mentioned money a few times. “Sugar?” the man asked the woman.

“Yes, it needs sweetening,” she replied.

The woman heard the man speak, his words flowing out into the café where they sat late one fall afternoon. She even returned his glance, but her eyes were empty. She was thinking – remembering the concert violinist she had met last month, the museum director who took her to dinner at the great hotel (and knew the wine), even the brilliant surgeon with all the patents for … for … she couldn’t remember exactly. But he had matriculated at Princeton. That’s what he said … matriculated. She sipped her coffee.

No, the man wasn’t bad looking, but he wasn’t good looking either. And the woman knew the difference. She knew it so well it made her slightly nauseous.

The man talked and drank his coffee. He summarized an editorial from the newspaper. He held forth on lawn care. Then he spoke of money again. The woman noticed tiny lines form and unform near his lips as the words tumbled out. Then she imagined these same lines deepening into wrinkles and crevasses in his face over the years. Suddenly, her hand moved to her own face, to brush away a wisp of hair, and she touched her cheek. She had heard that as the flesh weakens and fades, it better retains the fragrance of perfume. The very thought chilled her to the marrow. But there it was, her own skin – still firm, still smooth.

“You look nice tonight,” the man said.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” the woman replied. It was a lie. Most everything was something to her now, as she examined her hands and the blue veins which surfaced just last year. She wondered where they’d been all this time. ‘Just waiting there, beneath the skin, waiting to deceive.

“Nice outfit, by the way,” he continued. It was a new blouse. The man imagined she had selected it for the occasion.

The woman provided a smile, trying to respond to his attention. It was another lie, but it didn’t bother her. The woman had reached a point in her life where she wasn’t wrong about much of anything anymore. She knew enough, she told herself, and it suited her. Her mind had drawn a sharp circle around all that she understood, and loved, or thought worthy of attention. It was a line, a circle, she knew well.

But outside it? Well, that’s where things weren’t as they appeared to be, the place where things didn’t work out, where illusions formed, ignited, and dissolved. There signs read Danger Ahead! Or Wrong Way! Sometimes there were no signs. It was all outside the circle. Then she remembered a word the brilliant surgeon had used, or maybe it was the violinist with the beautiful hands – circumscribed. She knew the meaning of the word. Circumscribed. It didn’t have a nice sound.

The waitress stopped at the table. She was young and pretty, but then at her age, they’re all pretty, the woman thought.

“Everything OK?” she asked.

“Honey?” the man said. “Some chocolate for your coffee?” The woman shook her head softly. The girl retreated. The man shifted forward, his elbows against the table, his eyes level. Yes, he was handsome, she sighed, in the way a fine retriever or German shepherd was nice to look at. Maybe it was the good shoulders and straight teeth – a kind of bland health like he’d always done it right – square meals, fresh air and plenty of sleep. He’d actually done all that. And there wasn’t a mark on him.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” he commented, hopefully.

“Good?” she responded abruptly. “What’s good?”

“The coffee, dear. Your coffee.” A cloud appeared on his face.

“Oh yes, good. I suppose it is. It must be,” she answered, looking out the window of the café at the people along the sidewalk. They were well dressed and seemed to be going somewhere. Was there a show nearby, she wondered. No, the man wasn’t bad looking, but that was all. It may have been easier if he was ugly. That, at least, would be something to work with. But he wasn’t ugly, not really. The woman’s heart sat perfectly still. It didn’t move at all. But she could hear it.

The girl reappeared and asked if there would be anything else.

“I think I’ve had enough for now,” the woman answered. The man looked at her, searching, like a man does. She wouldn’t meet his eyes. She could be cruel. She knew that, but not now, not with this man, though he may have deserved it, even welcomed it. But even cruelty bored her now, though it wasn’t always that way. Even that amusement was inside the circle. Circumscribed.

The girl left a bill on the table.

“No, please. I’ll get it,” the woman said as the man reached for it. “You’ve been kind, bringing me here. It’s a nice place,” she lied.

She fingered the little silver spoon. It was too light. It was fake, not silver at all. They rose to leave.

No, she wouldn’t be wrong this time. She knew this as they left the café and walked to his car. The man opened the door for her and she got in, and he smiled at her, and she remembered the German shepherd. And as they drove away the man talked again and the woman looked out the window thinking … wondering if she had time … if she had enough strength … to be wrong again.


Kevin McLellan lives and writes in Memphis, Tennessee. During the day, he is a real estate developer, but the best action occurs after the sun goes down, he reports. Although he has written business journalism in the past, this is Kevin’s first publication of creative work. He is also working on a noir novel set in Memphis.


  1. Rob says:

    This was a good short read.

  2. I wasn’t at Wildacres last summer, so the story is new to me. I loved the double meanings in the situation. This wasn’t just about the couple drinking coffee, but a lot of other things. The mood of the piece was a downer, just as it should have been.

    Excellent story! I wish the author success in his many literary endeavors.


  3. Johnny says:

    NIce read with excellent interiority.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney