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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2322034-Choke
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Food/Cooking · #2322034
I keep a picture of you on my wall...
Jenny made a left turn at McLaren Lane, steering her rusty Honda Civic down the curving two-lane state road which led against the setting sun to the countryside. She drove silently past old familiar landmarks: the tiny, grubby Sunoco, Rockwood Church of Christ, her neighbor's cousin's truck repair shop.

Her mind felt numb and unresponsive, guided by blind instinct to the only place she had ever known happiness.

On the corner of a solitary blinking yellow traffic light at the intersection of a county road, she pulled into a cracked, weedy parking lot, dodging mud-filled potholes. A crumbling wooden sign still bore faint traces of a name: Ryan's Family Restaurant.

Jenny parked the car in front of the tumbledown remnants of what was once her husband's thriving business. She folded her arms on the steering wheel, resting her head there. For a long time she sat, reliving the love, the loss, the pain.

"Where are you, Ryan?" she whispered. "Six years since the war ended, yet you never came home."

Shadows stretched longer as the sun sank towards the horizon. Jenny's phone beeped in the back seat. She ignored it. Memories of life with Ryan filled her heart: his hard work and enthusiasm, his bright, exuberant personality and steadfast devotion. It felt so real… His green eyes sparkling, warm voice discussing a new way to streamline production of his favorite recipe or the management minutiae of running the restaurant…

Her half dreaming reverie was shattered by the crunch of tires as a sheriff's Explorer pulled up next to her Civic. The driver got out and went around to Jenny's driver's side. She rolled down her window. It was Deputy Laura, a good friend of hers, who leaned on the door.

"Everything okay? I noticed your car as I went past. You don't usually stop by the property this late."

"This is as close to Ryan as I can get." Jenny sat up and wiped her eyes. "I wish I knew how to go on without him."

"I'm sorry. It must be terrible not having any closure."

"It's been so many years. No one has ever been able to tell me what happened to him."

"Missing in action." Deputy Laura sighed and shifted her weight away from the window. "In another year you'll be eligible for widow's benefits when he's declared dead. That'll be a financial help, at least. You've struggled so much since the war."

"It's been awful. I have to visit a soup kitchen and food pantry twice a week. They're so unkind. All they give us is dregs—expired cans, stale bread and poorly prepared meals that make me sick. Ryan would be horrified."

"You can sell this property to get a little money."

"I can't bear to let it go—Ryan worked so hard to buy our bit of land. He always dreamed of owning a restaurant. What if he comes back and I've sold it away from him?"

"He wouldn't want you to be living in hardship."

"No, but I don't want to sell it." Jenny's voice was firm. "Ryan purchased that for us."

"You're holding on. You think if you sell, it'll be the end and you'll never see him again. I don't think that's wise. It's time to move on."

Jenny wriggled in the driver's seat. The gathering gloom of evening settled down over the parking lot. A single orange incandescent street light blinked on, casting a shadowy glow inside her car.

"You're right," she murmured. "I can't let the building deteriorate anymore. It's becoming an eyesore."

"You can open your own restaurant, maybe." Deputy Laura perked up at the thought. "It would be nice to have one in this area again."

"Oh, I couldn't." Jenny shuddered. "I know nothing about running a business."

"You can learn. But hey, who said it has to be a business? Ryan was so kind and generous—a pillar of the community. Remember Free Breakfast Tuesdays?"

"Of course. But how would that…?"

"It's a brilliant idea!" Deputy Laura announced, waving her arms dramatically. "You said yourself how miserable it is to eat food from a soup kitchen. Open your own! Show everyone what true charity is! Start a GoFundMe. I'll be your biggest advocate!"

"Good grief," Jenny's eyes widened. "Maybe you've got something there. I could contact our Congressman. He loves publicizing charity fundraisers and helping the community."

"I think it would make Ryan happy. Imagine what a pleasant surprise he'd come home to."

Jenny's drive home that evening felt like a dizzy dream as she grabbed onto the lifeline her officer friend had thrown.

***

It took off like one of Elon Musk's rockets. The state newspaper ran a headline: Wife of Missing Soldier Wants to Open Soup Kitchen in His Memory.

"The concept is much more than a soup kitchen," Jenny explained to the reporter. "I want it to be a place where anyone can sit down and have a comfortable meal without worrying about the cost. I want everyone to feel at home, like someone really cares about them."

In six months, with the help of Deputy Laura and the support of the entire town and most of the state, Jenny's Cafe of Hope celebrated its ribbon cutting.

"I wish I'd thought of this sooner," she said to Laura as they stood in the dining area, surrounded by chattering patrons, snapping cameras, pompous local leaders, and the mouthwatering aroma of lovingly prepared breakfasts.

"Better late than never," Laura declared, balancing a donut in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

***


The drudgery of Jenny's undertaking became apparent over the next few weeks, as the initial glitz wore off and selfies with local celebrities at the new charity cafe were no longer trending on Facebook.

Jenny spent all her free time at the cafe, doing everything that needed to be done alongside her volunteers, from cooking and cleaning to figuring out logistics and finances.

She made personal connections with most of the people who ate there: the elderly, the single moms, the disabled, downtrodden and impoverished of her community. All were welcome, treated with respect and dignity.

"You saved my life!" one young lady told her tearfully. "I was all alone and didn't think anyone cared. You're more than a mom to me!" She hugged Jenny and whispered, "I'm praying for Ryan's safe return. He'll be so proud of you!"

One typical morning in June, two months after opening, Jenny scooted from table to table, taking orders and greeting people.

"Hi, Joe, how are things?" she inquired of a frail man in his seventies, pouring him a cup of coffee.

"Barely chugging along," he croaked. "I miss my wife…"

"I know how you feel." She patted his shoulder. "It'll get better."

"Hey, Jenny!" A spunky three-year-old skipped up, followed by her young harried mom who was pushing a stroller with a baby. "What's for breakfast?"

"Oh, it's you again, eh, little Half-Pint?" A portly red-faced man held out a blueberry muffin. "I saved this for you. Can't eat the sugar, myself."

"Did you find another job yet, Mister Frank?" the little girl asked as she reached for the treat.

"Yes, I did!" he said with a broad grin. "Unfortunately, the boss didn't like me, and I was gone by Thursday." Frank's smile sagged at the corners.

Jenny directed his gaze to an elegantly lettered sign hanging on the wall.

"With God all things are possible," she read. "Remember, we're praying for you."

As she made the rounds of her cafe, Jenny noticed one man sitting alone in a corner. He had a long, bushy beard and a tangle of hair bursting out from underneath a tattered baseball cap. His bulging backpack lay on the seat next to him, and a tired brown mutt rested on the floor at his feet. He looked up with a crease in his brow as she approached.

"I'm sorry, are dogs allowed?"

Jenny couldn't speak for several seconds. Her mind raced. She stared into the man's green eyes. They were Ryan's, as surely as she was alive. His voice bore some hint of the kindly warmth she knew so well. But really…? She gathered herself together.

"Certainly, if they're well behaved." Jenny bent down and offered her hand to the dog. "May I get you something to eat?" She handed him a menu. "We don't charge anyone for food."

"A worthy idea." He placed an order.

Jenny personally served it, including a bowl for the dog. She sat down in the seat across from the man. Her hands trembled. She had to know who he was.

"So," she said, trying to maintain a calm demeanor, "What's your name?"

"My dog knows me as Danny," he said.

Jenny felt a rush of disappointment. But she studied his facial structure carefully. Though sunburned and careworn, it could still be…

"Are you a veteran, perhaps?"

"Not that I'm aware of," he responded with a sweetly crooked smile that pierced Jenny's heart like an arrow. Ryan had that exact smile. Impossible…

"Would it alarm you to know I suffer from amnesia?" he continued. "I woke up all alone in the hills of Afghanistan with a head injury six years ago, and that's the first thing I remember about myself. So for all I know, I could be a veteran, which would explain what I was doing out there."

"Indeed, it would," Jenny agreed. She paused, trying to think of what to do next. "I believe God led you to my cafe. Why don't you come over my house after breakfast and clean yourself up? I have some things I'd like to share with you."

She could barely handle the drive home, her nerves were so shaken. She didn't want to tell him about it, for fear of causing pain to both of them if she were wrong. The tattoo… if someone loses who they are, does that mean they forget they ever had a tattoo in a place they can't see it?

At home, the man went to wash up. His dog curled up and fell asleep on the couch. Jenny gathered her memories at the kitchen table: their wedding album, home videos, Ryan's army portrait before he was deployed to the Middle East.

Jenny looked up when he walked in. There was no mistaking his face now.

"Ryan!" She cried without thinking. "It's you!"

She leaped up and reached out to him. He edged back.

"I'm sorry," he said, eyes filled with unease. "I have no idea what you mean."

Jenny took his hand and led him to the chair next to her at the table. She picked up a mirror.

"My husband Ryan had a unique tattoo on the back of his right shoulder in honor of us. My name, inside a bird outline, for "Jenny Wren." That was his pet name for me. So let's get that settled before we go any further."

She pulled the neck of his polo down on the right side and uttered a cry.

"It's true! You're my Ryan."

"Good heavens!" He craned his neck and angled the mirror to get a better view of it. "How sweet is that. I had no idea it was there. But… I wish I could remember who you are, Jenny… Wren." He laughed hesitantly.

She wrapped her arms around him.

"It's okay," she whispered. "We'll get you into therapy. In the meantime, I have memories enough for both of us."

Memories, indeed, had been choking Jenny for six long and heartbreaking years. Now she was ready to step into a new reality.

Word Count: 1931.

notes

lyrics to Choke


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