Mr. José Niagara hasn’t always been the typical gentleman who wastes his afternoons after work, hanging around the Old Jukebox Diner in the middle of Orlando, Florida, listening to 50’s jazz. Building homes for those who need it is one thing. Another is actually finding out what the public really needs.
On the usual Wednesday, José orders his BLT burger, French fries on the side, with a classic bottle of soda pop to quench his thirst. The sizzle after popping the cap sings like birds in the morning. The sweet smell of carbonation stings his nose hairs as he goes for a sip of the famous drink.
Drinking from the glass bottle reminds Mr. Niagara of his father, who worked in the construction business before he. He remembers the days when he and José Sr. would lean against the fire escape banister of their apartment in the Bronx. They would sneak in to watch the Yankees home run the pants off the Red Sox. The Niagara family belongs in the sun.
It’s raining today.
On rainy days, José cannot stand the outdoors. It’s much too humid to go walking out when it’s pouring cats and dogs. Plus, no one else wants to associate themselves with the dark, gloomy weather. It’s also bad for business. His boss hates to jeopardize the work when the ground is muddy and everything is easy to sink into it. Soon as it starts to rain at four fifteen that afternoon, the boss calls it quits for the day. Of course, there goes part of Mr. Niagara’s paycheck.
Two seats down from him, a young woman, covered in an oversized overcoat, hops onto the stool and immediately secludes herself from being talkable. She is soaked from her hair to her sneakers, and the frown on her face explains how much she likes that. Before the waitress could finish her question what she would like to drink, the customer just points to a specific line on the menu, knocking her fingernail against the counter. Fortunately enough, the waitress gets the message and nonchalantly walks over to the soda machine.
Mr. Niagara tilts his head, but no matter which way he does, this lady is doing her damnedest to make sure she’s not identified. His brain was stung by the needles of unsurity. It hurts Mr. José Niagara more than the average person. There has to be a way for him to do something for this woman, who even he knew was deep in trouble in some way or another.
The waitress returns with the glass of soda, which was light brown in comparison to Mr. Niagara’s drink. She asks the woman if she’s ready to order, but all the customer does is shake her head. The waitress replies that she’d be back in a few minutes and walks away from the counter to take orders elsewhere.
Mr. Niagara looks down at his quarter eaten fries, and his stomach rumbles. He shakes it off with a bite of his burger and pushes the tray of fries along the countertop until the female customer acknowledges the motion. Startled, she finally glances over at the construction worker. It’s the first time Mr. Niagara’s heart stops beating for a mere second for a woman.
Her face is a pale one, decorated in smeared blush and mascara. Her brown hair is tied but has been unraveling with the weather. But her eyes themselves are what makes Mr. Niagara frozen the most. Those sad green eyes that beg for help though her demeanor towards the waitress says otherwise.
Mr. Niagara never considers himself to be a ladies’ man, nor has he ever taken a girl out for years. It is very much his mindset that no woman should be going out anywhere with tears streaming down her face. As she stares at him after looking down at the fries, he nods his head once with a modest grin crawling onto his face.
She smiles back. It’s not as big, but Mr. Niagara doesn’t expect anymore right away.
He stretches his arm and pushes the fries closer to her with his dusty fingers.
Her left hand shifts away, and her own fingers tremble.
José leaves his kind smile to work. His sturdy hand gestures to the fries once again. As confident as he might look, his heart is pounding, and it hurts like everybody’s business.
Finally, after looking down at the peace offering for half a minute, she reaches for the longest fry she can see and starts eating.
José quickly, yet heavily, exhales. The waitress returns with another bottle of soda pop, asking Mr. Niagara if he wants another basket of fries to replace the ones he gave away, but he kindly refuses, shaking his head.
As the slowly cheering up woman intakes one fry after the other, José rips a napkin from the holder and steals the pen from a pairing receipt holder on his left.
What is your name?
Sticking the pen’s clip on the side of the napkin, he slides it across the counter next to the fries basket. She pulls the napkin closer to her and gives him a confused look. José offers his smile again, which leads her to writing. When the napkin comes back to him, Mr. Niagara’s whole way of communication has changed.
Mr. Niagara has never spoken a lick of Spanish since his grandfather died of a stroke. That’s ten years ago. Being in the English-speaking environment for so long has his Spanish word bank fading away on him, but a few simple phrases would still let him be able to communicate with this stranger.
Discúlpame. Cómo se llama?
Once the napkin returns to her possession, her lips form an “o,” and she goes to writing again.
Felicia. Y tú?
Felicia lets out a giggle from her nose as she covers her widening grin. José’s cheeks run pink the more he gazes into her shining eyes. She holds her finger up with realization and write on the other side of the napkin. The longer message brings more effort to translate it.
Mi madre está enferma con cáncer en el hospital y mi padre murió pasada mes. Estoy solitaria aquí.
Thanks to some simple words, the meaning comes quicker to Mr. Niagara than to what he expected. This poor woman is alone, and one bad event after the other isn’t helping at all. At least this girl isn’t running away from an abusive husband or something. Then, Mr. Niagara would’ve felt a lot more helpless.
Fortunately, one phrase that his grandfather used to say comes to mind when it comes to curing the illness known as loneliness. He grabs a new napkin from its holder and writes one sentence in larger letters.
Estoy aquí para ti.
Tears return to Felicia’s green, beautiful eyes. The rub of them smudges the rest of the mascara from above her cheeks. José pats the bar stool next to him and waves her to come over. She reciprocates and wraps her baggy-coated arms around his muscular torso. Her heart beats against his. A part of Mr. Niagara’s goal is set at peace.