Skip to main content

Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
Contact Us

The Letter


by Kate Brandes


James saw her in the beveled mirror as he slid into the leather booth, his left leg aching from the long walk. He cursed the seven-year pain and the car crash that had caused it.

Setting his camera on the worn marble table, he shrugged off his backpack and pulled the small English-Spanish dictionary from the front pocket before taking a look around.

“Old world café,” the guidebook had said, “Like stepping back in time.” And it was.

Wooden pillars with burgundy marble bases stood on a floor tiled with granite. Tables of people sat close, their companionship magnified by mirrors that ran from the high ceiling to the tops of the booths that rimmed the cafe.

Reflected in one of those mirrors, sitting alone, framed by the front windows, she sat with dark wavy hair and lipstick the same shade as her red high-heeled shoes. Caroline had had shoes like those.

James put his hand over the dictionary, sliding it beneath the table.

A waiter appeared, pen and pad in hand, eyebrows raised, blocking his view of her. The waiter’s eyes started at James’s forehead, ran past his left eye, and down to his lower cheek, tracing the scar that branded him. He looked down to free himself from the waiter’s stare.

Café con leche,” James said.

Algo más?” the waiter asked.

James, unsure of the question, responded with an automatic, “No.”

It was like this, he’d found. Traveling in Spain without speaking the language was like traveling through life with a ruined face: The less said the better. His boss, the head of the computer-programming department, had told him they would no longer pay for the vacation days he never took. If he was going to be forced to go on vacation from a job he’d grown to hate, he didn’t want to have to talk to anyone while doing it.

He carried around the dictionary, not to learn from, but instead as a sign to others that he could not be expected to converse. The language barrier provided a comforting deafness.

The waiter moved on to get his coffee and there she was again, lit by the sun streaming through the windows.

Outside those windows it was all action and urgency. People hustled in and out of the metro stop as six lanes of traffic rushed by, past fast food, billboards, and stucco facades.

But inside this place from an earlier time, a better time, her legs were crossed and she wore a navy sailor dress with white piping along the hemline and white strips along the waist. There was a tie in front of her breasts.

She looked up at him and smiled. Her eyes, he could see now, were large and brown, with long lashes, and they did not fixate on the left side of his face.

She wrote on white stationery with an expensive looking green pen. The sun glinted off her ring, probably a wedding band.

She looked up at him again, demurely. Her eyes lingered. She uncrossed her legs and crossed them again.

Was she flirting with him? He thought that perhaps she was.

He put his dictionary back on the table and opened it for the first time to the introductory section on basic conversation.

When he glanced up, she was looking at him again. There was definitely a connection between them.

He guessed they were the same age. He looked around the room. No one seemed to have noticed this woman and what was unfolding between them.

The waiter came with his coffee, obscuring his view of her for the second time.

Perhaps this was it, he thought, as the waiter set his coffee down. This was how it happened.

Despite the smile she’d given him, he sensed unhappiness. Her shoulders slumped a little and faint circles cupped her eyes. Was she tired of her marriage? The sadness in her only attracted him more.

Perhaps they could share things. Things he didn’t talk about, like the accident and all those months in the hospital, alone. He‘d tell her what had been taken from him – his fiancé, Caroline. They’d been on their way to vacation, their yellow suitcases in the back. But they’d never made it and then there’d been no way back. Into life.

Outside on the street a small, white stray dog stood at the entrance to the metro station, as if to remind him again of Caroline. She’d had a dog that size, one that he’d also come to love. Only he and the dog had survived the accident, but afterwards he’d had nothing left to offer their beloved pet. He swallowed hard thinking about how he’d finally given the dog to a friend of Caroline’s.

He ran his finger along the lines in the phrase book. He practiced in his mind, “Buenas tardes. Cómo estás?” He looked at the woman again. Her head was bent. She was writing, while she tapped the table silently with her left index finger.

James imagined that she was looking for someone too. She glanced at him and then began writing again.

He felt like he needed to do something. He stood up from his chair, never taking his eyes from her as he approached. He heard the step-scuffle of his feet across the floor.

He slowed almost to a stop when he was beside her. She looked up. He held his breath.

She barely nodded to him, no smile, wariness in her look and went back to her pen and paper. He moved past her and on to the bathroom.

He went in, closed the door and looked at himself, his eyes taking in the left side of his face. The marker in his life of who’d he’d been and what he’d become. The accident replayed in his head. He closed his eyes against it, but it came anyway.

“Don’t,” Caroline had said, pulling a map from the glove box. “Let’s use this.” Over cautious and old-fashioned, James remembered thinking of her at the time as he pushed buttons on the GPS while trying to watch the road.

He found out later that the driver in the oncoming lane had swerved to avoid a piece of plywood. If he hadn’t been caught up in the newest navigation technology, he might have been able to save Caroline. And he might not have lost himself.

Things could have gone on, as they were, back then, when he’d still felt like a normal good person. Instead, it was their yellow suitcases cracked open and the contents strewn over a quarter mile of road that troubled his dreams. That and the guilt that yawned before him like a cliff he should have jumped from a long time ago.

He washed his hands, splashed water on his face, and went back out in the café intending to put the woman there out of his mind.

But she no longer sat at the table. At her place was a white envelope, which he picked up.

His eyes went to the door, searching. Nothing. He looked out the window. There. She stood in the sun near the entrance to the metro, petting the white dog. With the envelope in his hand, he took three steps toward the café door before she disappeared into the crowd.

He returned to his seat and took the first sip of his coffee, now cold.

He opened the envelope, cutting a finger in the process, and unfolded a single sheet of white paper. It was a letter written in English. Had she intended for him to read it?

Dear God,

I am writing this to you as an offering, a prayer.

I’ve been paralyzed for weeks by my secret, while death’s breath chills my cheek.

As I write this, I feel drawn to a man across the room from me. He is a kindred spirit who knows pain and loss. Watching him, for the first time I understand that only these moments remain.

I ask you for strength, for my little girls whose eyes so big and dark will look to me for answers I don’t have and for my husband whose big hands will tremble with the news I have kept to myself. If I choose to tell them at all. What is the kindest thing?

Whatever I decide, let them find happiness when I’m gone. That is my prayer.



James folded the letter in a neat square and placed it in his shirt pocket. He pressed it with his hand against his chest for a long moment. Good God, he thought.

He paid the bill and went outside where he stood watching the cars speed past.

He noticed the white dog still standing by the metro station. It was looking at him. He crouched down a short distance away. The animal walked over to him. He touched the wiry fur, just as the dark-haired woman had done, and the dog wagged its tail.

James stood with the dog, tucking it under his arm, before walking on.