Read Parts 1, 2, & 3 here.
A Stranger’s Hands
Part Four – The Beginning in the Ending
Gil handed Cora one of the beverages he held. Her fingers curled around the cardboard cup, absorbing the warmth of the coffee inside.
Cora’s voice came out in an unnatural pitch and she felt a blush creep over her cheeks.
“I walked,” she added unnecessarily.
“I see that. Hope it’s okay if we keep walking.”
She nodded and willed her pulse to quiet. Taking a sip of coffee followed by a deep, slow breath, she stole a long glance at Gil.
His chocolate-hued hair looked freshly combed and his face freshly shaved. He wore a thin, black fleece jacket over a red and gray flannel shirt, which was untucked over his dark jeans.
How comfortable he looked. How at ease. It softened her own anxiousness a little more with each passing second.
Gil led them further into the modest downtown stretch of shops, cafes, and bars side by side along Second Street. Cora took in the picture windows of the various boutiques. It’d been too long since she’d strolled this way.
“Nervous?” Gil asked.
They were waiting at a crosswalk. Cora met his eyes.
“No,” she said, “not anymore.”
In between a hair salon and a music shop that sold used vinyl records and musical instruments, Gil turned down a narrow alley Cora hadn’t noticed before. She followed with full curiosity.
They arrived in a courtyard of sorts behind the shops. It was all grass, no sidewalks or paths, and bordered by a solid wall of waist-high shrubs. Gil and Cora entered through the single opening in the shrubs. A crowd of about twenty men and women, with a few kids in the mix, were already assembled there on folding chairs that filled the lawn.
At the front of the gathering was a large area rug on which stood a six-piece band: five men, one woman, two guitars, one banjo, a fiddle, an upright bass, and a bongo drum. The band members all looked to be in their 50s and 60s. A single microphone stood front and center, connected to an amplifier, which in turn was connected to an extension cord running through the back door of the music shop.
When Cora’s jaw dropped, Gil laughed aloud.
“I take it you didn’t know about this?”
“What is it?” she asked.
“They call themselves The Alley Cats. They play back here once or twice a month, as well as in the neighboring towns. Mostly old bluegrass and folk tunes. I have a gut feeling you’re going to love it.”
“I think you have a smart gut.”
Gil led them to two empty chairs in the middle of the crowd. Nearly everyone they passed greeted Gil.
“You’re a regular here then?”
He nodded. “Yeah, and a lot of them are customers at the coffeeshop too.”
Cora’s mind tiptoed through the notion of sitting beside Gil every time The Alley Cats were playing here. The man seated next to her reached around her back to slap Gil on the shoulder.
“Gil! You gonna sit in on a song or two tonight?”
“No, no,” Gil shook his head, glancing at Cora. “I’m here to listen tonight, that’s all.”
Cora turned in her seat. “Sit in?”
He ran a hand over his face, a smile playing on his lips.
“I’ve been known to, um, bang on a bongo drum now and then.”
“Oh, do tell me more.”
“Shhh,” Gil held a finger to lips. “I think they’re starting.”
Cora giggled, a sound unfamiliar to her own ears. She pointed her knees forward again and watched the band pick up their instruments. They kicked things off with a boisterous bluegrass tune. Throughout the hour-long set, Cora caught Gil watching her. Eventually, she leaned over, her shoulder against his.
“This is perfect, Gil. Thank you.”
On their return walk, they chatted about music and concerts and memories.
“You really enjoyed it, Cora?”
“So much. It was great.”
Gil slid his hands in his pockets, a satisfied expression on his face.
“Of course, there is one thing that could have made it better,” she said.
He frowned. “What’s that?”
“Next time I want to see you play the bongo drums.”
She watched him toss his head back and laugh. It warmed her even as the chill of the evening made her shiver.
“Next time. I promise,” Gil said as he removed his fleece jacket and handed it to her.
Gil unlocked the front door of Second Street Coffee.
“Are you hungry?”
“Very,” Cora admitted.
She stepped into the café, absorbing its stillness. Without the lights on or the sound of staff and customers surrounding them, it almost felt like a place she’d never been – someplace intimate and unexplored.
She squashed the resurgence of her former nervousness.
“Should we find somewhere to eat dinner?”
Gil didn’t answer but moved toward the kitchen, gesturing for her to follow.
A motion sensor turned on the lights as they entered. Two high-top chairs from the dining room were pulled up to a countertop. Two sets of plates, utensils, and glasses were already laid out. On the stove was an empty wok pan and in a matter of minutes, Gil had chicken cooking in an aromatic peanut sauce. Bowls of vegetables he’d chopped in the afternoon waited beside the stovetop to be added at the right time, and rice steamed in a rice cooker. Gil kept watch beside the stove, occasionally stirring the chicken and sauce.
Cora perched on one of the tall chairs, her legs crossed at the knees and her hands toying with her glass of lime seltzer water.
“Is Gil short for Gilbert?”
“You’d think so wouldn’t you?”
Gil gave no further answer but instead held her gaze in a coy stare. Cora crossed her arms over her chest. She matched his smirk and stare until he broke into a laugh.
He raised his hands in surrender.
“My parents loved jazz and blues. My dad was an especially big fan of Dizzy Gillespie.”
“Your name is Gillespie?”
“Time to add the vegetables!”
He tended to the food with exaggerated urgency.
“Gillespie,” she repeated.
“It’s not like I hate it,” he said with his back to her. “I used to as a kid, of course, but now it’s… special, I guess. Bit of my dad to always be a part of me.”
He turned to face her again, leaning against the countertop.
“Still, most people don’t know it.”
“I won’t tell.”
“How about you tell me something most people don’t know about you? Even things out.”
He said it casually enough, but Cora saw the way he shifted his weight and looked down at the floor as he made the request.
Let him in.
The voice in her head was so clearly Theo’s that it shook her from the inside out. Her mouth went dry as sandpaper and her hands trembled. She had to set down her glass.
“I’m sorry. Forget I said that.” Gil waved a hand in dismissal.
He finished the food and prepared their plates in silence.
Cora savored her first bites of the meal, then set her fork down.
“I tried to be a magician for kids’ parties as a side job for a year in college. I failed miserably.”
Gil’s fork full of chicken and peppers hung in midair.
“Miserably,” she said, drawing out each syllable.
She watched his smile widen and his brown eyes alight with humor.
“Every time I think about it, I thank God that kids didn’t have smartphones and viral videos weren’t a thing back then.”
He didn’t say a word. His smile every time he looked her way said enough and Cora didn’t think she could ever tire of seeing it. Her heart clutched with hope and worry together, but hope held a slight edge.
“Can I walk you home?”
They’d finished their dinner and shared a generous portion of the coffeehouse’s decadent caramel cheesecake. They stood now, facing each other in the doorway between the bright kitchen and the shadowy dining area. All their contented conversation ebbed into hesitant words.
“I think I’d like to go alone, if that’s alright.”
“I hope you had a good evening, Cora. That’s all I hoped for tonight.”
Ten steps from the front door, Cora brushed the edge of her hand against his and their fingers slipped together. Gil lifted her hand and kissed the back of it. Warmth radiated from the spot like circles around a stone tossed in a body of water.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Gil, I haven’t enjoyed myself this much in….”
“I know how long.”
She ran her other hand over their intertwined fingers.
“This day started with a stranger’s hands and all I could see was something ending. Tonight, with you, allowed me to see the beginning in that ending.”
Gil’s expression was a testament of confusion.
“I’ll explain some other time.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“An excuse to do this again soon.”
She spoke jokingly but Gil responded in earnest.
“You are the only excuse I need.”