Charles H. Warren limped down the ramp at the Rochester platform, happy to be free of the sonic trains, a more efficient, faster descendent of the 20th century’s “bullet trains.” He was a throwback to the days of slow transportation and found hurtling across the countryside in a speeding sound vacuum unsettling.
In Chicago, the forecaster had claimed sunny skies across the northeast; the newspaper had predicted rain. Charles, unused to such blatant contradictions, hadn’t known what to do. He walked into the downpour without an umbrella.
The nighttime streets were gray, lined with faded brick buildings, failing streetlamps and peeling posters. Most motorists steered clear of the chaotic and potholed streets that ran through the area, and Charles couldn’t blame them. Even the sidewalks were in ruins.
He passed by the fire-gutted apartment building on Winthrop avenue in silence. Two weeks ago an explosion had torn the front of the building to hell and caused an inferno that blazed uncontrollably for hours. Neighboring buildings were evacuated, the power in the block had gone out and fire fighters arrived too late because their new engines had no traction on the cobbled streets.
He had to skirt around the mangled wrought iron stairwell that fallen during the inferno. It had been moved, which suggested that free dwellers had taken residence in the wreckage of the Winthrop Fire. Despite structural instability and thick layers of powdery ash, some people preferred to live in ruins instead of a government-monitored complex; they were most likely criminals or ‘stache-heads trying to stay off the radar.
It was several blocks before he came to the coffee shop. He had frequented the shop through numerous management changes and renovations, even petitioning the city to keep the old building as-is during the revitalization project of the early 2000s. It had an air of antiquity that was refreshing to his generation and a few burnt out members of the next.
He stood under the awning and shook the water from his wiry hair before entering. On the far wall, behind the wooden countertop, a memorial had taken place during his absence. Cards and scraps of poetry-line paper crowded around a faded black picture of Alice, the friendly barista who died in the Winthrop Fire just days before he’d left for Chicago.
Charles ordered coffee and a newspaper from Beth (Alice’s replacement) before taking up his haunt by the fireplace. The crackling fire radiated heat deep into his limbs, unknotting his muscles and easing the limp he’d gotten from working in the mills as a young man. He draped his overcoat on a wall hook and enjoyed the warm fire. It made forgetting his umbrella a non-issue.
Beth delivered his order and presented him a free scone. He took it with a smile and ran his fingers over the rough edges of the paper before asking,
“Is the smoking ban still in place?”
Beth looked conspiratorially around the empty café. “Well, it is a slow day, Mr. Warren. I don’t think anyone will mind.”
“In that case, have a seat. I’ve come from a funeral and I could use a smiling face.” He reached for the gently mashed pack of Silver Arches in his breast pocket. Beth retrieved a mug of coffee for herself and an ashtray.
“Whose funeral did you go to?” she said, settling in for one of his famous stories.
Charles sighed heavily and took a drag of his cigarette. “It was a woman I never married,” he began, “some fifty-odd years ago, before you were born – back when communism was falling and women were just starting to keep their maiden names after marriage…”