Mabel almost misses the turn for the restaurant, it’s so tucked into the dense trees on the winding road, but she slows and pulls in, leaves crunching under her tires, then peers up at the old place. A wooden structure with a haphazard flight of stairs and wraparound porch, and what was that up there?, oh, bird feeders of some kind. She parks the car in the nearly empty lot.
Her first steps are a little shaky, as if she hasn’t felt solid ground in too long, and it’s true, she started very early this morning, right as the sun rose, and has driven for 4 or 5 hours already. She avoided the freeways, following the shaded mountain roads flanked with huge trees, an occasional glimpse of open meadow, and doing what she planned to do, finally getting some time to herself. Now she’s hungry and craves that first sip of coffee. She’s earned that, hasn’t she? This whole trip has been about earning things- a good night’s sleep, a spectacular view, peace of mind.
Climbing the stairs, she hears a distinct buzzing, as if many moths were bouncing against a lit bulb, but the porch has a low overhanging roof so she can’t see where the sound emanates from. She pulls open the screen door and enters, only a few other patrons in the place. 2 guys in flannel shirts and jeans -that must be their truck in the lot, weighed down with tools and sheets of plywood. And an older woman with curly hair who drinks from a mug and looks out the window. When she slides into the booth, Mabel finally catches sight of the spectacle outside. Hummingbirds. Dozens of them. Hovering, rising and lowering, their long narrow bills dipping into the feeders, tiny chests iridescent, blurry wings sweeping in figure eights. That was the buzzing sound- their wings- and it floods through the window screens.
That’s something, isn’t it? The waitress says, putting down the menu and pouring coffee. Mabel looks up. The waitress has a long braid, and loose hippie skirt, bracelets rustling on her freckled wrists. Her name tag says Anna. It sure is, says Mabel, trying to take it in. This is migration time, the waitress says, we’ve got even more than usual.
Mabel hasn’t had a waffle in years but she looks at the line of cast iron cookers behind the counter, smells the batter burnt to the sides, and decides to order them. With strawberries, she adds.
One of the guys calls Anna, drawing out the name. And Mabel remembers that Anna is a palindrome. A name that comes and goes, travels back and forth.
We’re leaving now. He announces. Big deal, Anna responds and shrugs. Then she catches Mabel’s eye. He’s my brother. Rufus, she says. Even more annoying than when he was little.
The waffle is sweet and light, Mabel dips her fork into the syrupy nectar. She is feeling comfortable on the padded bench, the hummingbirds like busy little engines outside. A game Mabel played with her sister when they were children pops into her mind. They’d pick someone, nudge one another, and say, that’s you. And the other sister was forced to think of that person as the future them, who’d they become. Mabel looks at the older woman sipping her tea and thinks, That’s me. And that feels OK to Mabel. If she has to be someone, why not this woman, contentedly watching birds in a small café. Mabel sees now that the woman has a journal and is jotting notes. Even better, she thinks, a writer.
Mabel stays through two more cups of coffee. She’d like to stay even longer. She feels herself relax, her thoughts paused as if held out on the palm of her hand. The older woman gathers up her things, leaning in to speak to Anna at the register.
Is she a regular? Mabel asks after the woman leaves. Kind of, says Anna, she vacations here- a few months a year. Anna hands Mabel the check, Come back sometime, she smiles.
Mabel takes a last look out the window, one hummingbird hovers directly in front of her, its miniature face both comical and heartbreaking. She pictures herself returning here, year after year, like the curly haired woman, comfortable in this temporary refuge, travelling light on a breeze over a wooded road, flitting by again and again.