Because he hadn’t a lot to do, he sat at the same outdoor cafe, enjoying the sun in the little bursts in which it came on lunch breaks. He endured the musky stench of nicotine from everybody else who seemed to enjoy the space for the ablution of their bad choices, as with every inhale and exhale, the evidence of the tar that would eventually kill them was swept and vanished in the wind. Every lunch he sat and basked in the smoke and sun, and the others, with only slightly more of a nihilistic purpose than he, accepted him into the fold.
It wasn’t that he was doing nothing, though. He often had his phone flipped onto the table with a little metal ring that served as a stand, and he watched whatever came onto the screen. If phone calls interrupted the video he’d swipe the call away. He had nothing to buy, no money to offer those who wanted him to buy something, and he’d long run out of favours to call in or give.
The waiters have long since learnt his order. From time to time they raise their eyebrows as he deliberates over cracked, laminated menu.
He never sways from his choice, though. Not in sun, not in rain. Not in the afternoon when other menu choices sniff their way out from lunch and beckon.
He prefers the seat with the sun, though if that is taken he will hobble over to the next table, where there is less shine. Colleagues of his would once in a while, swing by. They would give the usual chuckle and usual laugh at seeing him there and the matching name badges glitter as they were bumped across the chest with every step. On the wall inside where the cashier is the radio once blared but now sits replaced by a TV that has grown with the years, or at least has seemed to with its upgrades in size.
The restaurant has changed hands once. The son who runs it has taken over from his father; the father usually cooked in the back, while the son managed the outside, but once the old man gave the business up, the son stepped in to improve the place. While the smoke stayed, he transformed receipts from being handwritten and stabbed through an iron nail to ink printouts on glossy paper. He gave the outside seating a little bit of cover; for rainy days, he says, so that on rainy days, customers won’t be bothered by the weather, though customers and cooks alike knew the flip side too, that business too wouldn’t be hurt by days of rain.
The days went by still, and still ordered his plate at the cafe. Smoke rose and made thin clouds in the canopies building a stench, but the wind blew nevertheless, and days, just like business, came and went.
Was it restlessness that led to the final change for the man? One day, the boy-turned-owner takes the time to implement one more rule.
No eating beyond two hours. You eat, you leave. Nobody has ever eaten over an hour. Not the smokers. Not the man. The sign is hung next to the television which has stopped growing, and hung outside for customers to see.
He was there when the owner hung the sign up. The two had seen each other many times, given and taken the same order, many times. The owner arrived to take his order, and the man, spotting the sign, sitting in the sun with the smokers, rose to leave.
“Where’re you going?” The owner asked. He had his phone out. His fingers were trained and poised, halfway through putting in the usual.
“Eat somewhere else.”
Bemused, the puffers turned around to watch.
“Why’s that? You’ve come here, what, ten, twelve years now? Without missing a day.”
He nodded, and picked up his phone from where it lay on its side.
“Yes. But I’m leaving now.”
The owner stood. Another customer waved from behind him, and called out his name, but he didn’t turn around to acknowledge them. He was not ready to lose his father’s oldest customer.
“Ehm. Might I ask why? Maybe we can make a change for you?”
In the smoke, the smokers nodded in agreement.
“Oh — is it the… fresh air? I can get some fans —”
“No. It isn’t the air.”
“Is it the table? We can see if we can rearrange the seating.”
“It isn’t that either.”
He walked, half-out into the sun now, and the owner sauntered out to gently but firmly take the man by his shoulder.
“Please. We’d appreciate your feedback. What is it?”
The two turned, and the man pointed at the sign. “That.”
“That? But you don’t… you’ve never stayed two hours. No one has.”
“Yes. That’s it. No one ever has.”
He then shrugged free of the owner then and walked out into the sun. He had his phone out, his eyes drawn down into a squint, his head nodding and the screen by his rounded belly. He had never smoked a day in his life and on that day the fresh air stank with the lack of it. Without looking up, he strolled down the sidewalk, following his feet, nose, and felt sweat on his scalp as the sun. He wandered, and looked for a place with sun, with maybe some smoke, and a seat where he could sit, however he chose.