Early evening, streetlamps emitting a nascent glow, an impudent wind sauntered up the street to havoc the long loose hair of three fresh-faced women studying the daily specials chalked on the a-frame signboard and deliberating whether to enter. Through the cafe window, my companion and I had watched them gather, one by one, blonder than blonde, these Copenhagen girls, as though they were silent players in a pantomime and whose entrance into the cafe seemed to release a damburst of girlish laugh and giggle. Then just as swift, their gushing effervescent voices modulated to meld with the somewhat less dinsome gabble of spoken Danish.
Acclimated already to the cheery happy-hour hubbub of the mostly female patrons, we still had to shiv our words thru music for the air was thick with American jazz in which both a tenor and alto sax twined and sparred and finally settled down to engage in sapient conversation. I’d made a point of sitting on her left for I’d suffered some hearing loss in my left ear back in my army days standing too close to a badly fumbled grenade. We leaned in, cocked our heads to catch the words.
“No men?” I asked.
“We students, shopgirls,” she began, “we do not need men attached to our hips like conjoined twins. What is this music?”
“Be bop,” I said and our menus were laid aside. Taking our order, the proprietor himself poured into pint glasses Carlsberg with a precision born of much practice.
“Your first time in Copenhagen?” he beamed, “Souvenirs!”
He pointed to the window ledge and a strew of touristy postcards, prompting my lady friend to glom a handful, inserting them quite deftly into the oversized canvas bag slumped at her feet.
A tiny white tea rose stood yellowing in a bud vase of cobalt blue. An arsenal of silverware wrapped in cloth napkins was cached in a crystal beer stein. We picked out what we needed when the food came.
The proprietor explained that he had intended a New Orleans style atmopshere with Cajun cuisine but when his first cook had absconded with the night waitress, he had been forced to hire a Korean merchant seaman whose sole experience had been working in a Thai restaurant in Honolulu.
“We’ve learned to compromise,” he said.
The food was hot, spicy hot, but tasty. I regulated my intake with beer. She sampled freely from my plate. and offered to share her own, but since she had selected from the five-star items, I begged off.
I signaled with a sly smile and her eyes followed my eyes to where cosseted in the corner were the only other couple. The young fellow had surprised his girl, much to her unmaskable delight, with a diamond bracelet, fastening it gently around her dainty wrist. My lady friend gave me a slow motion nod, a knowing smile, and we both wondered if we ourselves would ever get to that place in our relationship. If so, it won’t be in this joint.
“I’ll pay tonight,” I said, “but first, a detour.”
“Don’t ask how much,” she advised, “ you should ask ‘price please’ and then you don’t sound so ignorant.”
The passage to the toilets was half-blocked by small glass bottles of Coca-Cola cubbyholed inside old wooden crates whose faded red paint had long ago begun to peel and flake. Attempting to slip by, my middle-aged stomach jostled them setting the stacked cases to jitter and clack. Coming back I just sucked in the gut a bit to get by and walked over to settle the bill. I asked how much, noting that my lady friend had stepped outside to light up a cigarette. I let the proprietor pick out the appropriate coins from my palm.
Nightfall had solidly set in and across the the square the city lights glared, garish and bright, as we merged into the still steady stream of folks out about their business. We passed a sign posted on a boarded-up storefront. FOREIGNERS PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE US ALONE HERE WITH THE DANES.
“My favorite sign,” she said.
Three newspaper hawkers crisscrossed the square, papers proffered in the fluttering breeze, handing them out free to passerby. One raffish lad reading my expression of interest, changed subtly his own course to intercept me. I snagged the newspaper easily. Then as nimble as a relay baton exchange, from my left hand to my right hand to her left hand to her right hand and the paper was relegated to her bag.
At night this beautiful heritage-steeped city shows its whorish face, bedecked in gaudy and vulgar neon corporate logos mounted along the rooftops of these grand centuries-old buildings, some of the concessions to commerce the city made as each of us must make accomodation with this modern world.
Off the main thoroughfare the signage became less strident, foot traffic dwindled to a trickle, our steps resounded with the echo of our heels on cobblestone. Along the row of antique shops we paused to peruse the assorted goods displayed in the windows. Her attention harked to large dark-olive military supply case.
“Tomorrow,” she said, “you go ask that hag her price on that case.”
“Oh, ho!” I said, “You think she has a different price for Americans?”
“That’s just what I am thinking,” she said. We both laughed, excited by the prospect that we were hatching a caper.
Grocers trundled in their last produce racks and rattled down their awnings for the night. The eerie clarity of the spring eve brought even faraway stars into sharp focus and I could see the faint mist of her breath form in the air in front of her face as one by one all the extraneous details were effectively deleted from the scene and our very words fell softly away, as did their need.