Off a Main

In a café somewhere a light switch clicked behind a blue paint-chipped door. The bright light which crept out from between it and the worn wooden floor disappears and two men watch from a small table across the room. They quietly sigh, raising their eyebrows at each other as if both feeling a sense of relief that something uncomfortable had finally left the room. Shuffling a little back into rusted metal chairs they jump back into their conversation over espresso cups and crumb covered plates.

There was a difference in age between the two friends. The older man had a stained white beard and his clothes were worn and short on him. While he lit and puffed on his wood pipe, he casually spoke about his children back at the village from where he was visiting and his younger friend was also from. The tidily dressed young man wore a collared white shirt, trousers with suspenders and had a stylish coat hanging off the back of his chair. He listened to what his friend was saying like an intellectual with his sharp facial features and tiny spectacles that he pushed up with his fingers. He was a student at the local university and besides the two of them the decrepit European style café where he would normally come down to study in was empty. This was not unusual tonight due to the recently enforced curfew and the fact that this small brick building that he also lived in was on a quiet snow packed side street. The old man paused for a moment to gently tap the ashes out of his pipe against the metal table onto the wooden floor. The young man seemed to have found a chance to speak when the old man’s eyes darted over to the entrance of the café. The front door creaked open ringing the tiny bells that hung from them.  As the door slammed shut the old man stroked his beard and looked the young man straight in the eyes. The young man whose back was facing towards the entrance became nervous, looked down and folded his hands on the table.

A couple who looked like they had just come from the theater or maybe a nice restaurant in town stood at the entrance of the small café. From their car parked in the front and the way he was dressed, the large middle aged man was most likely an Official for the region. Officials or soldiers were the only people who would be out past the curfew. He brushed the snow off his coat shoulders with his gloves while inspecting the room and his wife stood behind him rubbing her hands from the cold. Both seemed relieved to have found something open and warm at this time of night. While his wife took her tiny black hat off her head to remove the snow from it, her husband looked directly at the men who surprisingly hadn’t acknowledged them. The young man continued to look down at the table while the older man stirred his coffee looking seemingly out the window behind them at the snow falling. The woman looked up from her hat to see the men, felt uneasy and suggested to her husband that maybe they should go somewhere else to ask for directions. Also from her husband’s mood from the recent political climate and the way he was taking the time to look the men over she knew that there was potential for trouble. Ignoring her, the man walked up to where the two men were seated.

He immediately focused on the young intellectual and hunched down slightly to try to get a better look at his face. After pausing for a second he firmly stated who he was and asked the young man if he could give him directions back to the main road. The young man remained silent and the old man continued to look past him out the window while stroking his beard. The Official looked satisfied as if he had figured something out and then asked the young man again, this time louder and closer to his face.  This almost seemed to have woken up the old man who looked up at the large man as if seeing him for the first time. Noting his agitation, he smiled and explained that his friend was just studying here. He then turned his attention to the young man and asked him to kindly provide directions to the Official since he was more familiar with the area than he was. The young man had only a few words leave his mouth when the Official interrupted him to harshly ask the old man what his young friend was still doing here. He didn’t wait for a response before telling the old man that he was also a traitor and would have no problem reporting the two of them.

The young man went quiet and the old man peered up at the Official stroking his stained beard, this time pensively. He sighed and apologized that their presence here upset him. He told the Official that there was not much he could do to help him with that but that he did notice however that he and his wife were lost and that he could for now help them by telling him where they were. The man’s wife continued to watch from the entrance hoping her husband would let the situation go so that they could leave. She repeated that they should go and again he ignored her. He briefly wondered to himself how he forgot that they were lost. He decided for now the old man was right and that he would inform the soldiers as soon as they got back onto the main road. He straightened up and asked the old man where they were. The old man again picked up his small cup and in a hushed voiced said a few words before he took a sip. The Official became startled as if by a loud noise. He then quickly turned his head as if he had suddenly noticed something behind his wife. He stood fixated looking past her through the window onto the street behind her. Turning ghostly pale his eyes turned to her. She didn’t hear what the old man had said and nervously looked behind her to see what her husband was looking at but there was nothing there but the falling snow and their car. She called over to him asking what he was looking at while not wanting to leave where she was standing. She was hoping that whatever frightened her husband would make him have the sense to walk over to her to leave the café.

The old man slowly pulled himself up to barely stand up by his chair while it screeched against the floor. He gestured to the Official to come closer and he began murmuring into his ear with his thin lips and pointed at the wooden blue door. The man started shaking, glanced at the door and then back at his wife. The young man who was still sitting looked up and reached back into his coat pocket.  He pulled out something bright and metallic which he gave to the old man, who then proceeded to place it in the Official’s hand. He then nodded to him to make his way towards the door across the room.  While he began slowly walking across the cafe his wife this time took a few steps towards them and he urgently gestured with his other hand to stay where she was. Not looking back once he continued until he reached the door and turned the iron knob to open it.  All there was behind the old solid door was a small empty dark closet except for the single metal light fixture hanging from the ceiling that was missing a bulb. He looked down at what was in his hand at what turned out to be a simple light bulb and then back at the old man with a look of fear and confusion. The old man gazed down at the floor and nodded once more encouraging him to continue. They all watched the man from behind as he stood in the dark closet, reached up to the hanging fixture and carefully screwed in the light bulb.

When he was done, not looking back he closed the door behind him. A few seconds passed before a click could be heard from behind the door while no light appeared from the space underneath it. The old man sat back down. A few more seconds passed as the woman not believing or understanding what she had just seen stormed over to the two men demanding to know where her husband went. The young man looked up at her with soft eyes. He began explaining to her where she was while reaching again back into his coat pocket. While listening to the young man, she noticed some movements from the street and turned her head to look. Outside the café window sitting in the darkness and falling snow was their car engulfed in orange flames with the silhouettes of two people in the front seat. Shadows of soldiers and locals could also suddenly be seen running past the café window against the flames. With the sounds of cries and gun fire resonating in her head, she slowly turned back to face the two men. As she was doing so from the corner of her eye she thought she saw against the glowing wall behind them what looked like the shadow of wings.

Subir Das was born and raised in Montreal. Although he works in Los Angeles in Organizational Development, Subir also enjoys writing short stories and prose. His writings have been published in Montreal Serai since 1994. He is one of the editors of Montreal Serai and currently also serves on the board of advisors for the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team.