The city park with its neatly maintained flowerbeds and ornamental trees always looks like a small square of dark chocolate in the morning, when it’s shadowed by hulking office buildings. Lily can’t complain, or at least she feels that she shouldn’t; for many years she has made good money from her first-floor coffee shop, across the street from the park.
By now the morning rush is just about over. A few cars go by, their daytime running lights soft and glittering like fireflies in the shadows. But mostly everyone is at work now, settling into their cubicles for another day of ringing phones and clacking keyboards. Global commerce is an impatient master.
Lily always thought she’d had it easier with the coffee shop, where she could be her own boss. She hadn’t seriously questioned that assumption, nor had she realized how much stress had crept into every part of her existence, until last year when she got the breast cancer diagnosis. That had left her even busier than usual, of course, what with all the medical appointments and making sure she could keep the shop properly staffed when she wasn’t there. But all those weeks of lying on a hard table getting radiation treatments every day had given her plenty of time to reflect on things.
She smiles at a regular customer who just came in. Gunther is retired, like most of her midmorning clientele, and he walks here every day from the senior citizens’ apartment building a few blocks to the north. Sometimes he plays chess or checkers in the park, if the weather is good and he can find someone interested in a game. He has kindly blue eyes behind his trifocals and a short white fringe encircling his mostly bald head.
“So, Lily,” he says, in a voice that’s still gravelly from decades of smoking, though he gave up the habit a few years ago after a heart attack. “I heard you’re selling the coffee shop and going to work for a cruise line.”
“It’s true,” she answers, bracing herself for a Love Boat joke and wondering who blabbed. She still hasn’t said anything to her parents or brothers about her plans, even though she now has a definite start date on a South Pacific cruise ship next month. She comes from a practical Midwestern family descended from Eastern European shopkeepers. No doubt the first thing they’ll do is get on the phone to everyone they know, gossiping about how she has totally lost her marbles.
Much to her surprise, Gunther promptly declares, “Good for you!” His big white head bobs emphatically as he settles into his usual booth with the red-checked tabletop; Lily favors retro décor. As always, he puts the brown carrying case for his chess/checkers set beside him on the bench seat, just like the briefcase he carried to work for so many years.
“I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he confides, lowering his voice as if he’s afraid to say it out loud, even now. “But that was just a foolish thought—everyone would have said so. Instead I did the sensible thing, got my degree and became an accountant, putting aside enough savings for a comfortable retirement. Now my wife is dead, my kids all moved away long ago, I sold the big house in the suburbs because I couldn’t stand the emptiness, and what use is the money I saved? I should’ve followed my heart and trusted that the Lord would provide, just like for the birds and flowers. Isn’t that how it goes?”
He blinks earnestly up at Lily through his glinting lenses as the young waitress Samantha, blonde hair pulled back in a waist-length ponytail, brings his usual coffee and blueberry muffin to the table.
“Yes, ‘consider the lilies.'” She smiles again, wryly this time. “I haven’t been much good at that myself, for all that my name is Lily. But at least I feel that I’m heading in the right direction now.”
After picking at his breakfast a little, Gunther speaks again, this time not looking up. “If I were younger I’d move out West and start a new career just like you, but it’s too late even to think about that.”
“Not necessarily.” Lily can’t imagine what’s gotten into her to start giving advice like this. Usually she is all friendly chatter, just a lot of meaningless words, nothing that could ever upset a customer or make her sound pushy. She had more than enough of busybodies when she was growing up, and she vowed long ago that she would never become one herself.
But maybe that also had been doubt and fear keeping her silent, in a different way.
When Gunther looks up again, Lily goes on talking, her words feeling solid and right even though she’d had no idea what she was going to say. “Ranchers need accountants just like anybody else running a business, don’t they? You could keep the books part-time on a ranch, learn the business, and then maybe buy your own ranch after a few years.”
Across the street, the park comes to life in vibrant colors as the sun finally rises above the office buildings. On clear days like this, Lily always has felt drawn to the brilliant sunshine like a moth; and now she imagines that she’s seeing the tropical ports and ocean vistas of her longtime dreams. She knows, even before looking back, that Gunther has followed her gaze. When she glances at him again, she sees in his blue eyes the wide-open skies of the West’s mountain ranges.
This is the first story in a series of three. Click here to read the second.