“R… ” Dawn begins. She stops. “I’m not going to say it,” she says. “You say it.”
Merle stiffens. “For God’s sake,” he says. “Can this wait till we’ve finished our coffee?”
“It can always wait,” Dawn says. “If anybody knows that…”
“Here we go,” he says.
At the next table, a woman with a pair of twins in a double stroller turns around. She looks at Merle. When she realizes he has finished speaking and is waiting for Dawn’s reply, she turns to Dawn.
Dawn takes a drink of black coffee. Merle always orders his coffee with cream and asks for a second cup with extra cream in it, so he can add more. “Black coffee,” Merle says. “I can’t stand to look at it.”
“Dada,” one of the twins at the next table says.
“Mama,” the baby’s mother says. She rocks the stroller encouragingly.
“Black coffee is not the only thing you have trouble looking at, Merle,” Dawn says.
“Here,” Merle says. He moves his cup of cream toward Dawn’s coffee. “Let me put some cream in there.”
“Don’t you dare,” Dawn says. She puts a hand over the top of her cup.
An old man limps past the woman and her twins, leaning on a cane. He is wearing a Canadian Legion beret with a matching jacket, medals pinned in rows to the jacket’s breast. He sits at the table on the other side of Dawn and Merle, takes a drink of his coffee and lights a cigarette.
“Excuse me,” Merle says.
“Merle,” says Dawn.
“Excuse me,” Merle says again. The man blows out a cloud of blue smoke.
“Sir,” says Merle. The man narrows his eyes and looks at Merle suspiciously.
Merle taps his finger on the red and white plastic disc that is fastened to the man’s table. “This is a non-smoking section,” Merle says.
“Yeah,” the old man says. He coughs out a cloud of smoke and takes another drag of his cigarette. He crosses his legs and turns away from Merle.
“Excuse me,” Merle says. “Excuse me.”
Dawn takes her head into her hands.
“Communist!” the old man says.
“There are empty tables in the smoking section,” Merle says.
One of the twins in the stroller begins to cry. “For God’s sake, Merle,” Dawn says.
The old man swings around suddenly, holding the end of his cane to his shoulder like a rifle. He cocks his head and closes one eye, staring down the shaft of the cane at Merle. “I suppose you’re a member of Greenpeace, too,” he says.
Dawn rests her forehead on the tabletop. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she says.
“As a matter of fact I am,” Merle says.
“Communist!” the old man says into the handle of his cane. “Communist!” He stands up, throws his weight onto the cane, picks up his coffee, and walks to the other side of the donut shop.
Merle smiles a satisfied smile at Dawn. She shakes her head. “I can’t believe you, Merle,” she says.
“What?” says Merle. He looks at the faces of the twins at the next table, blubbery beneath identical blue hats.
They sit in silence for a few moments. Dawn looks into the blackness of her coffee. Merle adds more cream to his. Its color has changed from dark brown to beige to a pale off-white.
Dawn looks at the milky liquid in Merle’s cup and sighs.
“Well,” she says after a while. “I guess if anybody’s going to say anything, it’ll have to be me.”
“Now what does that mean?”
“Never mind,” she says. “I’m sorry I said it. But Merle… ”
“But Merle,” Merle says. “Whose idea was this?”
“Whose idea was what?”
“Having coffee is nice, Merle. If you call what you’re drinking coffee. It looks like cream to me.”
“Har, har, har,” says Merle.
“It’s been six weeks,” Dawn says.
Merle takes out a pocket calendar and begins leafing through it. “I don’t think it’s been six weeks,” he says. “Let’s see,” he runs a finger down a page. “Here it is. Six weeks! It’s barely five weeks and four days.”
Dawn lets her chin fall down onto her chest. “Merle,” she says.
She sighs. “Never mind,” she says.
“You may not think this kind of detail is important,” Merle says.
“I don’t want to say it, Merle. I’ve said it again and again. I’ve said it so many times I feel like a bigger and bigger fool every time I say it.”
Merle looks at her expectantly, as though he has no idea what she’s going to say. He takes a sip of his pale coffee and pours more cream into it. It is white except for a faint brown swirl.
“I can see how far this is going to go,” Dawn says. She lays her hands flat on the table and stands up.
Merle pulls a spoon out of his cup and examines it as though he expects to find something there. He turns the spoon over and watches as the rather viscous, creamy liquid breaks away into streaks against the cheap metal and drips, drop by slowly forming drop, off the bottom curve of the spoon and back down into the cup.
When he looks up it seems to him that only a few seconds have elapsed. A minute at the most. But Dawn is gone. He looks at the next table for the woman and her twins, but they have disappeared. He glances over at the smoking section, but the old man in the legion beret has left as well.
Merle makes a face. “I don’t want to say it, Merle,” he says. “I feel like a bigger and bigger fool.” He stands up to leave and notices Dawn’s cup, half full of black coffee. He picks up his cup and pours the cream into Dawn’s coffee. He stirs it with a spoon until the contents are a smooth beige.
“What was so hard about that?” he says. He picks up Dawn’s cup and drains the cold coffee and cream in one gulp.