It was a little café like any other around the country. It had a homey feel to it, as if when you walk through the front doors you could sit on any number of the brown or black couches and prop your feet up on a coffee table and relax. The lighting were simple bulbs shining down from the ceiling, casting shadows in their wake along the edges of the tops and bottoms of the walls. There were square tables with old comic strips sealed into the finish dotting the center of the cafe. Along one wall was the counter where people placed their orders of coffees, sodas snacks and cakes—no sandwiches or hot meals, thank you, ma’am, but plenty of delicious baked goods.
Three men sat a table for four, each one of them with the café’s black mugs in front of them, the yellow emblem of a silhouetted young lady holding a tray to her side and the words Chloe’s Café beneath it. Their hair had grayed over the years and a few more wrinkles lined their faces than the previous year. Charlie had gotten a little heavier, while Will seemed to have thinned a little. Bob was just Bob with little change in his appearance other than what Time had done to him.
“I was at work,” Charlie said. “Four hours into the day.”
The other two nodded, but said nothing. This was a ritual of sorts for the three friends.
“I was walking down the hall on the second floor. I passed one of the break rooms. It rarely had one or two people in there, but on this morning, there were a dozen or so people staring up at the television set. Several women were crying. I stopped and peeked in.
‘Everything okay?’ I asked.
One of the women, her name was Valerie, she said, ‘A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.’”
Charlie took a swallow of the black coffee in his mug, wiped his lips and continued. “I ain’t gonna lie. I had never heard of the World Trade Center then. I had no reason to really know what it was, but that didn’t stop me from stepping in the break room and nudging my way to the back of everyone. There, on the screen, were the two towers. One of them was on fire.
Then it happened, while I stood there with everyone else. It was a couple minutes after nine and that other plane—Flight 175—flew onto the screen. It wasn’t there but for a second or two and then it was gone and there was an explosion.”
Charlie shook his head as if he were still in disbelief. Perhaps he was.
“I went up to the shop and told my workers to turn on the television. We got no work done that day. The four of us stood in front of that tube watching as the smoke billowed up into the sky and then as the first tower, and then the second one, fell.”
Silence followed for several long seconds. Then Charlie lifted his mug. “To Jamie,” he said.
Bob and Will lifted their mugs, clinked them together and echoed him. They each took a swallow, set their mugs back on the table, Charlie’s went on Snoopy’s face, Will’s went just beneath Hagar the Horrible’s feet and Bpb’s ended up on top of Spaceman Spiff’s crashed ship.
Will took a deep breath and began his story. “I was on a plane from Charlotte to Toronto that morning when the first plane struck the towers. None of us on our flight knew what had happened until we started getting calls from people trying to find us. Carrie called. I could tell she was crying.
‘Where are you?’ she asked.
‘On the plane,’ I responded.
Her voice cracked when she said, ‘Oh my God.’
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘A plane hit the World Trade Center a few minutes ago and now a second one has just crashed into it.’”
He shook his head as he fought back tears that still managed to fall from his eyes. “I could hear the fear in her voice. She was terrified.
‘Will, we’re under attack.’
I didn’t know what she meant by that at first, but then our plane veered to the left and the pilot came on saying we were turning around and heading back to Charlotte.”
He shook his head and took another deep breath.
“I thought we were going to die, just like all those folks in those planes that hit those towers.”
He licked his lips, raised his mug. “To Jamie.”
As they had done a couple minutes earlier, the others raised their drinks, repeated Will’s words, clinked the mugs together and took a swallow.
Will and Charlie looked at Bob. He nodded, but before he began, he motioned for the waitress to come over. She was a pretty red head, her hair pulled back and away from her face. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“Can I get another mug, please?”
“You want another cup of coffee?” the waitress asked and reached for his mug.
“No, Ma’am. I would like another mug—just the mug, please. No coffee. Nothing in it.”
The redhead gave him a curious smile, one that could have been a frown on anyone else’s face. She was gone only a minute, but in that time none of the three men spoke. They didn’t really even look at each other, but down at the mugs in front of them, each one with just a little bit of coffee left in them.
“Here you go, sir,” the redhead said with a smile and set the cup on the table.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Bob said and picked up the mug. His hand shook badly. He placed it in the spot set for a fourth person, one who wouldn’t make this dinner, one who hadn’t made these dinners for the previous 15 years. He turned the mug so that if someone had been sitting there, he could easily pick it up. Then he moved his shaking hand away and placed it in his lap.
Tears hung on his bottom eyelids. One fell. Then a second one. Bob didn’t try to hide his emotions or wipe the tears away. He let them fall, just as he always did.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he said, his voice cracking. He raised his hand and pointed at the empty seat to his right. It was shaking worse now. His sentences were clipped statements, words he had said a million times in his own head and maybe half as many to the two men at the table with him. “I had been sick. For a couple of days. I was scheduled to fly out on the tenth. From Columbia to Boston. Then from Boston to Los Angeles the next day. The next day. The eleventh.”
The tears fell freely now. He saw the redhead, the startled, worried look in her eyes, and motioned her away with a hand up, palm out, and a nod that he was okay.
“Jamie said he would go in my place. It was a four day trip. With about five hours of business in between. He boarded Flight 175 right around the time…”
Bob shook his head. He sniffled, wiped his nose. His bottom lip was poked out and seemed to be eating the upper one. He coughed once, but not because of a tickle in his throat but because he was prompting himself to speak again.
“It should have been me.”
Another long silence and Bob held up his mug. “To Jamie.”
Charlie and Will did the same.
Then Bob picked up Jamie’s mug, held it above his head. “To you, my friend.”
There wasn’t much more to say. Truthfully, they rarely said much after Bob had given his ‘testimony of guilt,’ as he put it. Minutes later they said their goodbyes. Charlie and Will did as they always did, and walked back to the hotel they shared the previous night, wondering if Bob would be alive the next year. They were always surprised to see him roll up in the place they picked to meet at in any given year. But he always rolled up, whether he was well or sick…he was always there.
Bob stood, took one last look at the place where his childhood friend should have been sitting. “To you, my friend,” he said again and turned to leave. Before he could reach the door he heard a faint whisper, or maybe it was his imagination. Either way, he turned around when he heard, To me, but he saw only the mug still sitting on the table with the other three near it and several dollar bills underneath one of them.
Bob smiled, though there had been no joy in it for at least fifteen years. “To you,” he whispered back and pushed the door open. A moment later, it swung shut…