Café Atlas

             All the chairs and tables in Café Atlas were arranged in neat rows. The manager, Greg, was a squat, dense man, billowy and unpatterned in his dress, but cropped short in his hair and beard, as though all measure of fastidiousness might be condensed to one aspect of grooming. He was also pathological in his awkwardness, and fully aware of the effect, but unable to resist the compulsion for another comment, joke – one not even intended, or believed, to be possibly funny – or otherwise discomforting behavior that afterward would sink him into an unbearable self-consciousness and resolve to change, a resolution immediately martyred at the next opportunity.

             Wendy was his true love. True in an abstract, not-yet-realized way, for she had not yet shown any reciprocal sign of interest. But there could be hundreds of plausible explanations for this: he did, for example, with his freshly trimmed hair and beard, cut an imposing figure. And besides, if not a conscious reason, like any self-actualizing Freudian, there existed the bottomless depth of the subconscious to plumb for suitable explanations. In fact, her subconscious desire for him was likely so strong that the only sensible way her mind could cope with such overwhelming feeling, was indifference.

            When Wendy went missing, Greg was the foremost suspect. As it turns out, when given even the slightest provocation, or opportunity, the staff at Café Atlas were willing – eager, by the detective’s description – to throw, heap, and bury their manager in spurious (as Greg would call them) accusations. It appeared that as much as Wendy’s desires may have remained unobserved, his own were the everyday target of much gossip and endless chatter effected by workplace boredom. All of it, as Greg assured the detective, was completely unfounded. Indeed, so distraught by the news, he had offered to lead a tireless search party, to which the detective had said, politely, if not sternly, that it would not be necessary.

            After a week had passed, and Wendy still had not shown up, the looks Greg began receiving from the Café Atlas staff grew dark. He had tried to act as he typically did, which unfortunately, did not reassure anyone. On the street, outside work, he was confronted by one of Wendy’s family members, a large burly man, with overly tight clothing and close set, beady eyes. Greg had seen the man talking with Café Atlas staff earlier in the week, and could only guess what manner of idea he had formed. Greg smiled nervously, placatingly, on the street, and the man shouted back, bringing his face, and his permanently narrowed eyes closer. Greg tried to sidle around, his hands raised in harmlessness. The man shoved him, and Greg tumbled backwards, knocking into a metal garbage bin and sprawling onto the street. He sat confusedly in the scatterings of garbage, his hand torn from the pavement. A car, that had plenty of space to go around, repeatedly honked at him. A crowd began to form on the sidewalk, looking interested, but shiftily, not wishing to appear responsible for what they might see. The man collected himself under the presence of the crowd, though still felt compelled to curse at Greg one final time, before knocking his way through the onlookers. With his uninjured hand, Greg pushed himself to his feet, as another car honked angrily at him. His clothes felt sodden with street grime and garbage; he kept his head down, hurrying away from the crowd, one hand cradled in the other.

            At home, he tried to clean his hand, and wrapped it in a bandage. The next morning his hand felt afire, inflamed, swollen and grotesque. He peeled part of the bandage back, but lost his nerve, taking several painkillers from the cabinet instead.  He called in sick to his work, and felt the indifference of the assistant manager, who gave a brief “feel better,” before abruptly hanging up. He still felt unable to work up the nerve to remove the bandages, so decided to pour antiseptic over them, letting it soak through, and then took another pair of painkillers, and went back to bed.

            Two weeks later Wendy showed up. She had decided to quit her job without notice, and take an impromptu camping trip with a friend, completely off the grid. She was surprised to return to a fanfare of sorts, including a detective that questioned her, asking her why she had not told anyone where she had gone; she had replied, “Why should I ever have to do anything?”  The detective had scratched his head, but concluded the questioning.

            Three weeks later, the body of Greg was found, his landlord having had Maintenance open the door. His death was determined a complication from infection. The coroner doing the report had shaken his head, thinking to himself how the idiot should have gone to the hospital and he would have been fine. When Wendy heard the news, she had shrugged, saying “Oh, he was always a creep.” She had been re-hired at Café Atlas, the assistant manger had been promoted, and the staff (and even the customers) were all much happier.