I couldn’t say why I chose Andy’s Place that day. I suppose it seemed as good a place to hide as any. The joint was a throwback, a tip of the cap to the cafes of old with their vinyl seats and lacquered table tops. The atmosphere balanced upon the thin line between retro and seedy. I didn’t take much note of the decor that first time through the doors. Broken, on the hunt for something, anything, to hold myself together, I ducked inside. Later, when my mind cleared, I would contemplate the mysterious workings of life and spirit and wonder if more had been at play.
Two hours and my second cup of coffee in, my hands still trembled with the need gnawing my soul like rawhide. I tightened them around the mug and stared into the black depths of the liquid, counting the rainbow oil slicks on its surface. Determined not to see my mother’s face, or the last look she had given me from over my hospital bed. The look of defeat after a long struggle.
The weight of eyes fell on my bowed head every few moments, and once I jerked my face up fast enough to catch the gaze of the man behind the counter. He wore wire-rimmed glasses that framed his eyes like paintings and studied mine unabashedly. After that, I began watching him back, not out of admiration, or even curiosity, but for a distraction from the mental flailing I’d been doing. I still jumped in surprise when he slid into the seat across from me.
“Hello,” he said after a second. That was all. Hello. When I looked up, he studied my face with a bright hazel gaze.
“Hello,” I murmured back.
“Anything else you need?”
My eyes snapped back to his. “Coffee is fine, but thank you.” I wondered if he thought I was loitering.
The edges of his lips turned up. “I meant, can I do anything to help?”
Blood beat a hasty path up my neck and pooled in my cheeks. “I don’t need help.”
He didn’t press, just sat back, the motion accompanied by the creaking of the seat, and steepled his hands on the tabletop.
“My name is Andrew.”
I wet my chapped lips. “Sandy.”
“I ordered us some sandwiches, Sandy. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
Sweat broke out in the small of my back. “I…” I had enough change in my pocket for my coffee, nothing more.
“Don’t worry.” He flapped a slim hand in the air between us. “I don’t like to eat alone, so you’re doing me a favour.”
That smelt like a load of crap. The sort of fluff someone said to appease the pride of someone like me. But, pride would only carry a person so far. My stomach sat up and growled at the prospect of food. “Thank you. I am hungry.”
Neither of us spoke until the sandwiches were reduced to a few crumbs upon the chipped plates before us. Andrew crumpled a napkin between his fingers and sighed. “So, is it booze or drugs?”
I flinched, and my hands tightened to strangle the porcelain mug between them.
Andrew nodded as if I had given him an answer. “Booze.”
I jerked my head up and down. “I just got out of the hospital. Again.”
“Are you working?”
I was surprised enough to meet his gaze again. “No, not presently.”
“I want to offer you a job.”
“Because that’s what I do.”
“You give jobs to drunks?”
“No, I help people when they need it.”
I looked around. The server who brought our food stood chatting and laughing with a customer at the counter.
Andrew followed my gaze. “Heroine. He’s been here three years.” Pride coloured in his voice and showed in the tilt of his chin, the kind a parent takes on when their child excels. I took the opportunity to study him, to soak in the calm he exuded.
“Sometimes all someone needs to heal their soul is someone else who is willing to listen.” Seeing my confusion at his words, Andrew opened his mouth, hesitated, then nodded to himself.
“Someone who gives time from their day, and in doing so tell the other person, ‘you are important’.” He drew a deep breath, turning his attention to the window a moment. “Many of us find it easier when we have the crush of our own lives upon us, to ignore the pleas of others, be they verbal or otherwise. It is easier to protect ourselves and go about the day I’ve never been able to tune it out.”
The prickle behind my eyes surprised me. I blinked, staring down at my scuffed hands with their broken nails. “Can I work tomorrow?” The words spilt out of my mouth before I understood my brain had formed them.
“Be here at eight Am.”
I didn’t sleep that night laying on my mattress under the weight of thirst and thought. For the first time in a long time, I had a plan extending past the question of where would I get my next drink. A place to be. I found a spot in the world, however small. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted my breaths, waiting for the next day to begin rather than dreading it.
The next morning Andrew greeted me with a quick, side-armed hug. My skin crackled under the weight of his limb. The last touch I felt was my mother’s hand slipping from mine the day she left the hospital.
After giving me a tour of the cafe, Andrew explained my work in quick, simple terms. He introduced me to the others; I couldn’t help but think of them as his collection.
“There’s only one rule here, Sandy.” Andrew pushed his glasses up his nose and leaned back against a countertop. The others left us to go about their business. Through the kitchen’s swinging doors I could hear the bustle of patrons as the day began.
“I’m listening.” My hands shook, but now from nervous excitement.
“You come to us when you need to. When those moments come, and we know they will, you come to us before you allow a drop to cross your lips.”
I nodded, swallowing. “I understand.”
“Good, let’s get to work. Remember to listen, Sandy. Listen to their stories, and you are taking the first step to help them.”
Andrew was a magnet, and those of us who entered the cafe doors were scattered iron shards. Andrew with his hands that formed ideas and spread them in the air like maps ever ready to give us direction. He always had a plan, and he wore peace about him like a cloak.
As weeks, then months passed, I watched him release my coworkers, my new family, back into the world, one by one. I comforted him when at the end of the day I found him with tears on his cheeks after those goodbyes. I helped clean up the new ones when they came through our doors, chipped and broken like the plates Andrew couldn’t afford to replace.
I renamed it Haven Cafe in my mind those first months, and so it remains to me. I asked Andrew once how he identified those who needed him. He said, when the people who were meant to be there came in, a feeling would strike him. A hollowed out ache in his chest he believed to be an echo of their pain. I knew the term for it, for someone who tuned in to the intense emotions of others. Empath.
A year went by before Thomas came in. He sat in the booth where Andrew and I met the first time, and something drew me forward. A wildness in his demeanour. He was a brewing storm caught in a glass jar. Pain and fear pulsed from his sunken blue eyes. The grubby bill he shoved across the table at my approach spoke of a need to prove himself before I could reject his presence. I turned, hands tight at my sides and found Andrew watching me.
“Your turn,” he mouthed with a crooked grin, his chin tipped and his framed eyes bright with pride.