“Hey, welcome! Do you mind if I take your picture?” a very perky Starbucks clerk smiled at a young woman wearing the red-and-black plaid flannel pants she’d obviously slept in, her huge sunglasses masking a face bare of any makeup.
You could sense the girl’s reluctance: Uh, are you kidding me?
“Oh, I know you’re not dressed for work ’cause it’s Tuesday and you’re off, but it’s my last day here, and I’m taking pictures of all my favorite regulars. I don’t want to forget any of you!”
“Oh, well, then okay,” muttered the girl.
Click. Now her image was forever captured on the cashier’s throw-away camera.
I watched as the Starbucks clerk took one snapshot after another–even asking the owner of a funny-looking, mixed-breed dog tied up outside to take a photo of his canine regular, since she couldn’t leave the counter.
Some customers wished her well, some offered good luck. She told anyone who asked that she had been promoted and was excited to move into management.
“I really want to remember all of you,” she smiled, genuinely happy on her last day. “This way, I can always look at your photos and never forget.”
Funny, how when you are watching one episode of mundane life unfold before you, past episodes suddenly come tumbling forth.
I immediately thought about my friend who owns a small seafood restaurant a lifestyle away on the West Coast. I re-read in my mind the poignant email he sent on Sunday about one of his guests, one he’d unexpectedly connected with the week before. He couldn’t get her out of his mind, he said, “because of the photos.”
Apparently, a very pretty girl had left her table midway through dinner and wandered into the kitchen. No one on the staff knew what to do with her when she refused to leave. “They finally came and got me, and I walked her outside,” wrote my friend.
He went on to describe her tears and her rambling, nonsensical thoughts about how she didn’t want to be there, didn’t even like seafood, didn’t know half the people she was dining with. He asked if she’d eaten dinner, and she replied she hadn’t eaten anything all day, maybe since yesterday morning.
Something about her confused vulnerability struck at the heart of my otherwise all-business friend. Thus, on a very busy evening, he ushered her away from his place and across the street to a tiny park, and he used his cell phone to call for a pizza to be delivered. There they sat, on a park bench under a canopy of chilly stars, the sad woman picking pepperoni off the one slice she barely nibbled, while my friend used his phone a second time to call a taxi to take her home.
When he returned to his restaurant, the dinner guests she had walked out on were enjoying after-dinner drinks. “They didn’t even notice she was gone!” he wrote. He told the apparent host that the woman had not felt well, and that she had taken a cab home. “Oh, well, okay,” was all the man said in response.
And that was that. Until my friend read in the paper a few days later about the beautiful, sad and confused guest being killed in a single-car crash on a two-lane road. What tiny role had he played in her last days? he wondered. Had he been her short-lived knight in shining armor–one she seemed to so desperately need that night? Had he made any difference, made her less sad, in those last days?
“Seeing her photo in the paper, it keeps coming back–that night,” he wrote, clearly still trying to make sense of it.
Which conjured up a long-ago memory of my own, of some 17 years ago, when I owned a funky kids’ party place that featured sets and costumes. I received a call around noon on a Wednesday from a mother wanting to book a party for her two sons for that weekend. I usually booked a month out, but we happened to have a slot for her, and I knew my teenage helpers would happily work back-to-back parties.
“My sons have birthdays two weeks apart,” she said in a thick Slavic accent. “It is easier to have the one party, yes?”
Sure. I didn’t care. These were her boys. “They are six and nine,” she continued. “Is it okay, do you think, to have just the one party?”
She almost sounded anxious, but I wasn’t sure if it was her accent that added to her seemingly strained tone.
“One party is fine. We have one room that is bigger than the other, or we can open the whole place up, if you’re worried about the size of the group.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I am not worried about the size. It will be small. Just a few of their friends and me.” She paused, and asked a question that haunts me to this day: “And when we are all there, you can keep the door shut, yes, so no one else can come to the party?”
I wasn’t sure what she was getting at. “No one who is not invited will be in the room. The door to the party room will be closed, and it’ll be private,” I said, hoping that was the answer she wanted.
“Yes. I just want the door closed after we get there,” she said, sounding relieved.
I got her name, which took me several tries to get down correctly because of the foreign pronunciation, and wrote down her address and credit card information. We agreed upon an outer space theme for the boys. I described the games and activities we usually planned for that particular party, and she laughed, now so much more relaxed, and said it all sounded “like much fun.” She said she’d call later in the afternoon to finalize cake and goodie bag details, but now she had to leave her office to go to a lunch meeting.
She didn’t call back that day, but I figured we’d touch base the next morning. The party was so close at hand, after all.
Later that night, my husband asleep beside me, I half listened to the late-night news as I scribbled some last-minute notes for the next days’ events–buy markers, more poster board–when I heard her name, the distinct foreign-sounding name of the woman who had booked her sons’ party.
“…apparently gunned down by her estranged husband in the parking lot outside her office building at approximately 12:15 this afternoon. She was found next to her car, as was the body of her ex-husband, the result of a self-inflicted gun shot wound, according to authorities.”
No! No, no no! No!
I woke up my husband, who groggily listened as I tried to explain what I’d just heard on the news. “She booked a party with me today! What do I do? Should I call the police?” I was frantic.
“What about her family? I think I was one of the last people to talk with her,” I cried to him. “What should I do?” But we agreed, there was not much I could do at 11:30 p.m.
I didn’t sleep that night. As soon as I dropped my kids off at nursery school the next morning, I sped to my party place and dug out the contract I had worked on for the woman’s sons’ event. I read it and re-read it. I put it aside and tried to do other work. I couldn’t.
What to do with her contract? What to do about any of this? Was there anything I could do? Should do? My thoughts circled through my mind, over and over, a skipping record.
I called the police. They thanked me for my story. But I know it made no difference.
There was nothing more to do about this.
The murder-suicide was all over the local news for the next couple of days. I stared and stared at the woman’s photo when it appeared in the newspaper, and I read how relatives were coming to get the boys.
What became of those two little boys, those boys who are now in their 20s, who may or may not know that their mom’s last thoughts were about them and the celebration of their births? But I know they were in her heart and foremost on her mind, because she and I had briefly connected, on her last day.
I thought about my friend’s experience, and I thought some more about mine, all the while watching the Starbucks clerk snap another photo of one of her regulars.
“Awesome! Thank you,” she said to an older man and his wife.
It felt good to drift back to the present. It felt good to be back in this clerk’s moment.
So many photos she’d have to remember her guests by, and stay connected with. On her last day.