Stranger’s Child

by Anna Schwind
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“And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger’s child;”

–Alfred Tennyson

I have one of those faces. The kind everyone finds familiar. Two or three times a week someone will ask me if I didn’t bunk with them at girl scout camp, or if I didn’t attend that poetry workshop last summer, or whether I go to a yoga class at the rec. center.

The answer is always no. I don’t know them. I didn’t go to high school with them. I’m not Jessica nor Heather nor Megan nor Nicole.

You’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t take no for an answer.

Are you sure you didn’t…?

Yeah, I’m sure.

I don’t know how I got one of those faces. My mom doesn’t have one, nor does my dad. Something about the space between my eyes or the thickness of my lips tells people they’ve met me.

For a while, I tried dyeing my hair a rainbow of colors. Then I tried wearing hats and scarves a lot. Finally I tried piercings. But even with all that shiny metal, people still stop me and ask if they know me.

So you can imagine what sort of special hell a face-to-face customer service job like being a barista at Starbucks is. Still, there’s a limited number of places a girl with eyebrow piercings and a lip ring can work, isn’t there? And it’s an ok job for a wage slave. There are definitely worse places to work.

He recognized me when I handed him his change. His eyes met mine and he started to say “Thank you.” I like a person who says thank you, though he never quite got it out. He was very old school: suit and hat, even though he must have been retired. His eyes widened, then quickly narrowed. That’s the recognition sequence. After that there’s usually a furrowed brow, a pause, and then the inevitable question.

Not this guy. He pulled his hands back like he was afraid, gripping change in one hand and drink in the other. He rushed out without sweetening or lightening his coffee.

Something I learned at Starbucks: a lot more people will tell you they like their coffee black than actually like it that way.

So the guy ran out and I thought, “Huh, that was strange,” because it wasn’t by the playbook. He’s not supposed to get scared when he sees me, he’s just supposed to ask dumb questions and wander off bemused, convinced I’m lying about knowing him.

I didn’t know the guy, mind you. Just like all the others, the recognition was not mutual. But the weirdness of his exit made me remember him.

So when he peered in the glass front the next day, I knew he was checking to see whether I was working.

“Here it comes,” I thought.

He came in, placed an order and stared at me while I prepared it. It was a slow time, and I was alone in the store. I moved, for lack of a better SAT word, lackadaisically, as I prepared his drink. I gave him time to practice the “Do I know you?” question.

Only he didn’t ask. He stared and stared and stared at me, his eyes on me like he was peeling back my skin and looking inside. Reading my entrails.

I handed him his order. He paid me. He didn’t look at the bills he handed me, or the change I gave him.

I waited.

He made a small noise, an “uh-huh”, as if he had verified something he’d suspected.

But he didn’t ask me. They always ask me!

“Thank you,” he said. He had a very slight accent. I figured English wasn’t his first language, but he’d been speaking it a long time. Maybe he was German.

He put sweetener in his coffee and sat by the window, looking out in that dreamy way people do when they’re looking inside their head.

On the third day, I’d pretty much had it with the weirdness. I hadn’t slept well, see. I have these weird nightmares sometimes, about drowning in the ocean. Maybe it’s exposure to the Titanic movie at an impressionable age, because I’ve never even been to the seashore. So my customer service smile slipped a bit. When that guy came in yet again, with his non-descript overcoat and old-fashioned hat, I stalked him to his comfy chair by the window.

“Ask me. Get it over with.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You know you want to. So go ahead. Ask.”

“Ask…what?”

“Ask me if you know me.”

“Ahhhh,” he said, nodding,”That.”

He looked out the window. Sipped his coffee. Looked at me, still standing there, waiting.

“No. I think not. Not yet.”

So he thought he knew me. And I knew that he thought he knew me. But he wouldn’t ask me. What was he waiting for? I got curious, of course, and started watching him.

He didn’t come every day, but at least three times a week. He must have been seventy. Sometimes he’d read the newspaper. He never said anything to me, except to give his order and thank me for it. He always thanked me, after that first day. I never confronted him again. I felt sure he wouldn’t complain; he didn’t have that eager to be affronted air so many customers have, so it wasn’t getting in trouble that stopped me. I knew it wouldn’t do me any good to ask him. He wouldn’t say. I wouldn’t ask.

Maybe it was taking him that long to figure out where he knew me from. Or thought he knew me from.

One day, he forgot a slim book of poems he’d been reading. I picked it up and put it behind the counter, figuring I’d hand it over the next time he dropped in. I don’t really read poetry. It’s just a little too melodramatic. But I was bored, it was too slow, I’d done inventory and wiped down twice, and I hadn’t brought anything else to do. I leafed through it, then read the only non-poetical piece in it: the about the author paragraphs. It was by some Swedish chick, named Ingrid Lund. She was apparently some kind of wild proto-feminist who had a kid out of wedlock, hung out as the only woman with some literary notables, and comitted suicide in her mid-thirties. I looked at the facing page to the back cover. I read the poem there, then the one before that, and the one before that.

By the end of the workday I’d read the whole book. I don’t know anything, critically, about poetry, despite passing that stupid, stupid requisite literature course. I can’t tell you whether these were good poems or not. But they hooked me. It was hard to believe. Her poetry was real, it meant something, I could get where she was coming from.

It was a pretty good feeling, but it freaked me out a little, too.

When the guy came back, I handed him his book with his change.

“Did you like it?”

This guy thought he knew me. Man, that pissed me off.

“I don’t care for poetry, so I didn’t read it,” I answered shortly.

He looked at me in the skin peeling back way he had on that second day.

Damn. He knew I was lying. I felt like I was seven. I noticed he wasn’t taking the book, or his change, from my extended hand.

Fine. I give.

“I liked it,” I growled, using my most aggressive hostile youth voice.

“Then, please, as a favor, keep this. I have my own copy.”

He took his change from between my thumb and the cover of the book. He smiled.

The next day he showed up just as I was going off-shift. I was still a little angry about the book thing, so I clocked out in a hurry. Mr. Know-it-all would have to get coffee from someone else today. But he didn’t want coffee. He was waiting for me.

I wasn’t scared that he’d gone all stalkerly on me, because he was so old, and I was sure he was harmless. He matched my pace.

“I think it’s time I introduced myself,” he said,”I’m Henrik.”

“Ahh. Swedish. I thought you were German. I’m Octavia.”

“That seems a fitting name.”

“Are you going to follow me home, Henrik?”

“No, no, no.” He waved his arms as if appalled.

“Then what?”

He stopped walking, so I did, too. It was windy. I zipped my jacket.

“We’ve met before.”

Not “do I know you”. Different. I waited.

“I’m so happy to see you again. Born again, fresh body, new name. I’ve missed you.”

I put my hands in my pockets. I wanted to run. I wanted to stop listening. He spoke foolishness, craziness. There was no point in listening to him. And yet I had to stay until I could make sense of Henrik. Rationalize his words. Explain away the quiver in my belly. Discount the reeling of my mind as too much caffeine or too much standing in the cold.

“I’m not so sure I should have given you the book, but now that I have, I would like to show you something else.”

He reached into the inner pocket of his coat. I flinched, would have stepped back if I could have. The freakometer on this exchange was veering deep into the red. And worst of all was me wrapped up in it instead of rolling my eyes.

You don’t know me. You can’t.

Henrik pulled out a worn, leather, tri-fold wallet, which he unfolded. He slid a small picture out. When he extended it toward me, pinched at the very corner between thumb and forefinger, his hand shook a little. The wind flapped the picture up over his finger but failed to wrench it from Henrik’s grasp.

I looked without touching, leaning forward with my feet still planted. It was me. Or someone who looked like me, a half-century ago. I recognized myself in the old photograph and then, it was my turn to look at Henrik and peel back the skin. Because I recognized him, too.

He smiled. I smiled back.

“I’ll be on my way,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

That night, I started writing poetry again.

11 Responses to “Stranger’s Child”

  1. Tessa Conte says:

    This is one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time.

    Poignant and touching without any hint of sentimentality. I love it!

  2. Fallon Crowley says:

    This piece is amazing. Really stunning. I love it.

  3. Helice says:

    Very nice! Fits well into a short story, though it would be a great intro to a novel.

  4. Melodie says:

    Excellent story, good pacing and evocative language.

  5. Willow says:

    Fantastic–I loved this story. The ending gave me chills!

  6. Wow. I was sucked in from line one and kept going. The tension in this builds well, and I couldn’t stop reading. What a terrific little story that starts out with something that happens every day and then takes a turn to the odd. Thanks!

  7. This one flows well; the protagonist has a strong voice; there’s a well-built sense of mystery throughout. Good work!

  8. Guinevere says:

    Oh wow, love this piece. Fun, imaginative, and well-written.

  9. stan stuart says:

    what a lovely story. So well written and it kept my attention from beginning to end.

  10. Gordon says:

    Nice work. You know it’s good when you finish wanting more … I was also hooked from the first line.

  11. Nikki says:

    I stumbled on this story while looking for places to submit work and wow, it just stopped me in my tracks. The first paragraph pretty much grabbed me and wouldn’t let go until the end. Beautifully, movingly done! Forget submitting my own work; I’d rather just read more of yours! Thanks for the great story.

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