The Urban Cowboy and the Stranger

A story by Herbert Gold

Model? Artist? Designer? It was a North Beach coffeehouse speculation. He sat with both his hands wrapped for warmth about his mug, comfortable in the knowledge that he could stare at her in the little Danish and Italian San Francisco coffee shop and she would not see him; she was imperious; no, she was imperial, with her slim light body floating someplace inside the beige pantsuit, her morning Chronicle propped against her cappuccino, the pink part in her hair shining up at him as he watched from the shelf-like balcony.

Perhaps she was not tall enough to be a model, but she had the slimness, the gawky grace, the perfect light bones and tight skin, the contrasting black eyes and black hair and pale envelope of flesh. She might be a student; she was a serious student sort—perhaps a few years older, a graduate student—utterly contained as she sat every morning at almost the same time, reading her paper, silent, always alone. There were no openings. She suggested no openings. There were no hints of an opening or a shyness or a teasing or a fear. She was just doing precisely what she was doing and wanted to do. She sat with the paper neatly folded and leaning against her cup. She ate a bran muffin with butter. Sometimes she ate a croissant with butter. Always she had a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. He drank his own sometimes while watching her from above, so that they were both tasting the little floating shreds at the same time—a kind of a toast to her in which she did not participate.

Sometimes she left the butter on her plate. Sometimes she took orange marmalade. He discovered no pattern in these choices, but he felt her precision about them.

She enjoyed her twenty minutes, her half-hour, of silence, her paper folded, and then if he looked away— glanced at his own paper, say—she might be gliding silently out, or she might be gone already, her neat plate, its crumbs, the orange juice glass, left like a palpable shadow behind. Her breakfast routine was regular, like his, and her eyelids barely flickered as he stepped gingerly by her for a refill of his coffee. At the early hour they shared, the place was usually nearly empty of breakfasters. It was silent. For once he had the brains to say nothing to her, perhaps only a nod if, in reflex to a sound or motion, she flicked her glance in his direction. For once he had the brains to respect her privacy, and this for once lasted for weeks, for months.

The seasons changed in that drifting, shading way of the San Francisco Bay, and she came to the Morning Kettle alone. Her invisible aura of privacy and selfshelter was something she evidently required. It had a long history, he believed. For once he was somewhat intelligent about a lovely young woman. However he pried in his mind, he stayed away, he did not intrude, he let her follow her own needs.

Twice during this time she violated the rules. They were not rules he knew she had made; they were rules he had made for her, from watching her over the fall and the winter, regular at breakfast, never elsewhere or at another time, drinking her coffee and juice, taking small bites of her small treats, wearing mostly suits that did not hide the slim length of her body, the face impassive, the eyes solemn over the newspaper.

But she violated her habits. One Monday morning she came in with a lover. There was no doubt about it. He was a big, russet man with a moustache, urban cowboy clothes, somewhat stained teeth like a devoted urban cowboy’s. (Dan guessed he was a teacher in an inner-city school; a practitioner of ghetto do-goodism who probably told the kids he kept a motorcycle for weekends and expected them to like him for it. Dan had flights of jealous fancy over his coffee. He was wearing boots himself.) The man adored her; that was obvious. He mooned over her as they took their breakfast. She was smiling, madonnalike, a little paler than usual, and looking down at her breakfast things as she neatly went through them; he was looking at her all the time. He said something now and then, and stared, and she answered very softly, with downcast eyes. When they left, the man, who was very tall, put his lanky, blue-jeaned arm around her slim shoulders and she submitted to the protection as they pushed past the later breakfasters. She did not snuggle. She did not protest. She was wearing a filmy suit of some floppy yellow material and carrying a briefcase.

She never appeared with this lover again. Dan was sure it was the impulse of a Sunday evening, a mistake she would not repeat. He felt her discomfort with the lover. His jealousy was trivial. He would just have liked to know how it happened—some acquaintance who had taken her to a movie or to dinner, some loneliness, some insistence, some kindness or generosity for the urban cowboy’s need. He felt her regret. She liked to be alone mornings. She was sufficient for herself.

Another time she was there with a woman friend, a somewhat older woman—or did she just look like a graduate student, a model, a designer, a young artist?—with a child. The little girl, aged four or five, could not sit still, of course, but roamed restlessly about the table, and his lady smiled and teased her, gave her things to eat, laughed several times—for the first time he heard her laugh, a high, musical, chiming laugh—and her face changed into gestures of animation, smiling, laughing, listening, concern, while the child’s mother told some evidently engrossing story. At one moment she took the child on her lap and hugged her, nuzzling the active little neck. So she obviously knew this mother and child rather well. He noted at the cash register that she paid for all three of them.

But she never appeared again with these friends, either.

On both occasions, adored by a lover to whom she was indifferent, or attending to a friend with a child, she seemed to him to be in control even of the interruptions in her routine. It was something about the grace and neatness of her costuming; it was something about the way her friends looked to her, explained to her. And the rest of the time her routine was controlled and perfect. Silently she came and went with her coffee, her juice, her muffin or croissant, her newspaper. He loved watching her. He was not content with only this, but he loved watching her, too.

One day, without planning it, as he walked by for a coffee refill, he caught her eye, and instead of nodding one quick nod, their usual gesture to say, Here we are, seeing each other again, he spoke. “Hello.”

She answered with a smile and a nod, but then a very soft Hello and a smile. White and small her teeth. He nodded the familiar nod and moved on, his heart pounding at so much unaccustomed conversation. He knew the thing he had done best this year was not to speak with her. It was the wise thing and the prudent thing and the right thing.

But it was also okay just now that he had spoken the one banal word. I am still being very wise for me, he thought. He returned to his table with his coffee, bent to his own paper, and when he looked up again she was gone. The orange juice glass, the coffee cup, the buttery crumbs of croissant, the unused ashtray. Today she had left her paper behind. She must have stayed longer or finished more quickly. Usually she tucked it under her arm, fitted it between her slim body and the portfolio she carried, when she left the Morning Kettle shortly before nine A.M.

He wondered if she saw the urban cowboy again, and if he was grieving for her.

Even more, he wondered when, during what part of day—on the weekends?—she saw her friend with the lively child who so delighted her.

He was not jealous, of course.

He spied mornings until she went to work, disappeared from his sight, and then he also went to his job.

Hello. For these times, it was not much of an advance into a love affair. But it felt like more than an advance: a breakthrough of trust and amusement and recognition of the coincidence of big-city life that had thrown them together for breakfast over the months. He was almost content with this one-sided romance. He was luckier than the urban cowboy; he had not lost her. Hello, mysterious breakfast companion.

One morning, during the season of the late winter rains, there was a storm and he expected not to see her. Both of them should be sensible, do breakfast at home, pour out the cereal, pour on the milk, brew the coffee, eat the orange or banana, it’s not so complicated—why should they be creatures of habit?

But he thought he saw a lull in the storm, a patch of pale blue in the furious blue and gray of the sky, the pelting rain, and he found an old black umbrella in his closet—his former wife and he used to walk under that umbrella—and he leaned his way through the wind to the Morning Kettle. She was installed already, her long, straight, black hair shining, her high boots purplish with wet, her face cool and her eyes focused on the newspaper neatly folded and neatly leaning against her coffee cup. This time the ashtray had a slip of paper crumpled in it. He got his things, as usual, but didn’t climb the few steps to the shelf where he usually sat. He sat at a table nearby. Today they were the only customers. Breakfast was not a busy hour in the Morning Kettle; lunch was busier. The speakers played a morning program of baroque dances, announced by the familiar, caramel voice of an announcer who had been doing this since Dan’s divorce. He had lost a wife to talk to; he had found FM music in the Morning Kettle.

She was gone.

He stood up and saw her in the rain at the door, struggling with her umbrella. Without thinking, he abandoned his coffee and ran with his own umbrella and his jacket, trailing it by one sleeve as he put it on, and found her laughing and pulling at a blown-out umbrella which flapped and snapped in the gusts like a baroque drum. She was laughing at the impossibility of getting the thing to work. “No shelter from this storm,” she said.

“Here”—and his big black doorman’s umbrella, old man’s umbrella, snapped open and held—“here, get under. We’ve gotten to know each other, haven’t we? I’ll walk you wherever you’re going.”

“It’s so wet, what a foolish—”

“I’m out, I might as well get rained on,”he said.

He held the umbrella in such a way that she had to hold it too. Their hands were near each other, like kids choosing up sides on a baseball bat. She was still laughing and murmuring, Wet, wet, wet, her wet lips hardly speaking the words.

Under their shelter, black silk tugged but sustained in the rain and freaky gusting, he began to speak. He said, “Tell you something funny, okay? I remember you with a lover—only once. It was a Monday. You looked bored or stuck and were in a hurry to get away. Another time you were with a friend and a child. You looked the opposite—happy! You were very sweet with that kid. I have a kid, lives with her mother in Tahoe. I liked the way you were with that kid. We have a long history, don’t we? A silent one? Are you a, well, I was trying to think, are you a designer, sort of?”

Ducking, she turned to look at him, close under the patterned roof of silk. “Mister Private Investigator,” she said, “I work at the courthouse. I’m the city’s hired gun—an assistant D.A.”

“You see, I didn’t really figure you out.”

“But I didn’t figure you for such a strong umbrella, either.” She had been holding the shreds of hers. She flipped them into a trash can with bags, cans, and one other skeletal wreck of an umbrella. “So we’ve been equally ignorant,” she said.

“You think it’ll last in this wind?”

“Your umbrella? You’re stubborn, you have a tendency to last, Mister.”

They were walking, leaning into the weather, fighting the wind and rain, and bumping together. She touched his hand on the umbrella. It was no longer like choosing up sides. It was not an adversary situation for the slim assistant D.A. The drops running down her face looked like tears, but they were only rain and she was laughing. They passed his automobile parked near his flat. She lived a few blocks farther on. They kept on walking.

She was smiling up at him from those dark eyes, that creamy, oval, self-certain face, and he believed that his long patience might make a difference this time. But she was saying, “I know someone else who wears boots like these of yours.”

“The urban cowboy,” he answered. She looked puzzled, of course, so he went on quickly, “I have a kid, you probably don’t know this, comes to visit me on some weekends and holidays—” □