Angelina on My Mind

One of the things I like to do every morning on my way home from work is stop at Rosenthal’s drugstore and have a fresh cup of coffee. There’s a fountain just inside the front door with eight stools, and it’s an ideal place to sit and watch people walking by or waiting for the Halsted streetcar. Unlike me, most of them are on their way to work. These days, I work what we call the “graveyard” shift. Shortly after the war started, the government directed the plant to begin operating 24 hours a day, so I volunteered to work from midnight to 8 am. It was hard at first; I kept nodding off at the wrong time.

Tom, who owns Rosenthal’s, offers one of the finest dime cups of coffee around, and the price includes refills. Tom bought the store from the prior owner a few years after he finished pharmacy school. When he isn’t filling prescriptions or waiting on customers, Tom spends time visiting with people. He knows everyone in the neighborhood.

Rosenthal’s is one of my favorite places, and not just because Tom and I went to grade school together and are good friends. And not just because I’m partial to his coffee, although it is a great incentive. I like the smell of the place, Tom describes it as “a mixture of Essence of Peppermint, Camphorated Oil, Tincture of Arnica and Oil of Eucalyptus.” I also like the steady stream of interesting people who stop in on their way to work for a quick cup of coffee. Few of them, by the way, ever stay long enough for a refill.

Yesterday morning, however, one did; a short trim woman with a lightly powdered face, a hint of rouge, and lips a bright red. More telling was the fragrance of her cologne. It was heady but not over-powering. For some reason (probably because it resembled my own) I noticed the strands of gray hair at her temples. Tom greeted her by her first name, as if they were old friends. It was Angelina.

I was sitting on my usual stool by the window when she entered, and the fragrance trailing her made me look up as she walked to the opposite end of the fountain, climbed up on a stool and placed her purse on the counter. At first my pride was hurt because she hadn’t looked at me, then I was glad because I realized I was staring at her.

There was something worldly yet innocently appealing about Angelina. A freshness seemed to surround her that logically, ought to have been a blatant contradiction in a woman her age, but was not. On the contrary, this mystical aura was wholly plausible and actually quite tempting. I suddenly had a desire to know more about Angelina.

Without pretense, she ordered a cup of coffee then lowered her voice and spoke softly at length to Tom. I would have paid a week’s salary to hear the conversation. I wanted, that much, to hear more of her voice and learn more of her thoughts.

Angelina had two refills, and so did I. I was determined to stay after she left and learn all I could about her from Tom. While she drank her coffee, Angelina acted as if she had all the time in the world, and only stopped talking to Tom when the phone in the prescription department rang or a customer interrupted them. The minutes slipped away and the only thing she did in addition to drinking coffee was nod and smile at two older men who came and went, at different times, during the hour she was there. I would have followed her out at nine-thirty, but I was eager to learn just who Angelina was. As luck would have it, Tom was busy and couldn’t talk.

Heavy rain came that night and continued into the next morning. Radio announcers reported many of the viaducts in the city were flooded and people who took public transportation could expect long delays. I had seen the rain when I left for work so I had taken along my umbrella. When I left the plant at eight that morning, I easily walked the mile to Rosenthal’s for coffee.

Tom saw me come up the steps to the platform outside the door and put a steaming cup of coffee on the counter in front of the empty stool by the window. I shook my umbrella, closed it and came in. Sitting down and looking around I saw, except for Tom and me, the store was empty. That was unusual. I looked at him as I carefully sipped the hot coffee. It felt wonderful going down, just the kind of comforting warmth I was hoping for. Rain or no rain, however, I hadn’t forgotten Angelina.

After several more sips, I asked Tom to tell me about her.

His face turned red and he smiled. “There’s really not much to tell,” he said. “She’s a regular customer. Comes in for coffee and cosmetics, mostly.”

“Come on, Tom. I saw the two you whispering yesterday. I’m not blind, you know. What’s the story? Something going on between the two of you?”

Tom looked away for a moment. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. “Will you keep what I tell you just between us?”

“Tom, you and I’ve shared a lot of secrets in our lives,” I replied. “What you say now goes in the same safe place.”

“Well, it’s like this,” he said slowly. “Angelina and I are very special friends.” He paused to let the statement sink in. “I don’t think I’m the first. And I don’t know if I’ll be the last. She seems to be the kind of woman who’s a friend to men. But I don’t know for sure. Anyway, that’s all there’s to it.”

“Tom, I can easily understand why you’re friends” I said. “Angelina’s lovely. In fact, she’s almost irresistible!”

“I have to tell you, she hasn’t had an easy life,” Tom said, his voice getting serious. “She was deeply in love once, a long time ago…I mean deeply. Then the guy she loved and hoped to marry heard her father was mixed up in the bootlegging racket. It was even rumored he was involved in the St. Valentine’s Day business on Clark Street. Once the word got out, the guy dropped her like a hot potato. And no one else would get near Angelina, not for years, no matter how desirable she was. When her father died, she was in her thirties and still single. To make matters worse, she still loved the guy who ran out on her.

“She’s a good person,” Tom continued, “and deserves better. If she’s a friend to men it’s because she has a lot of love in her heart and she’s lonely. Money has nothing to do with it. Her father left her plenty. Angelina even owns a nice brick three flat over on Bissell. I’m alone so I see her every night or so. We talk, drink and laugh, and then I go home. Sometimes I stay over. That’s it.”

I listened to Tom, but I could only think about Angelina. Her age didn’t matter to me. In my mind, she was beautiful. That was enough. Hell, I wasn’t exactly a spring chicken myself. Maybe she’d like me anyway. Tom and I were quiet for awhile.

“You don’t mind if I call her sometime do you?” I asked…“that is, if whatever’s between the two of you doesn’t go anywhere?”

“Only if our relationship doesn’t get serious,” Tom said. “Why shouldn’t you share her friendship and affection? You’re a nice guy. She deserves nice guys.”

“By the way, Tom, what’s Angelina’s phone number?” I asked.

“Ask me in a couple of months.”