Sheila's Menu

By Ralph Barhydt
  • 24 Sep - 30 Sep, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Sheila was always there at exactly 5:30 every evening. She stood at a careful angle to the window so that he wouldn’t notice her, but she had a very good view of him. It only took her three nights to have a complete grip on his face. He looked Japanese but he was tall. And. He was very handsome. It was Sheila’s opinion that the menu really wasn’t that interesting but that her handiwork, her calligraphy must have caught his eye. For ten, twenty, thirty minutes every night, he studied her handwriting like he was reading the menu. But the content of the menu rarely changed, she just created a new menu every day emphasising different form and aspects of calligraphy. It was good, what she did and she knew it. It came from her soul. It came from her heart, it came out of her fingers and was set by her eyes.

That was the first thing she noticed about him, his eyes. They were almond coloured, not really dark, but not brown either. They looked alive, like they had a mind of their own. Dancing across the menu, they seemed not exactly to be reading, but feeling, sensing. Clearly they understood the words, but they were interested in the shapes and the shapes of her calligraphy. Sometimes, they acted surprised. “Oh, what’s this? How interesting, how did she do that? Did she do that on purpose?” She couldn’t tell how, but she was sure that his eyes knew that she was a woman. Probably just projection on her part, but somehow it seemed real. Sometimes, they prompted the lips to smile with a sort of satisfied look, appreciative, happy.

“Gaijin, that’s what I will call him. Ha, ha, that’s the Japanese word for ‘foreigner.’ He is not really a ‘gaijin’; well, except in this country he is. That’s funny. Slightly wrong and slightly ironic and carries the Japanese sense of caution when considering a ‘foreigner.’ Foreigners are suspect in Japan and for many centuries simply unwelcome. This gaijin is definitely welcome. He is handsome, sensitive, tallish, especially for a Japanese man, graceful, intelligent, artistic and bold.” She stopped, “Bold? Why did I say ‘bold?’ Hmm. Well, he is obviously appreciative of my work.”

“Oh really? He knows ‘your work?’ That’s interesting. How do you know that?”

Sheila sighed. Her real name was Tomoe and she was the daughter of the cafe owner. She was Japanese, short, attractive, intelligent and gifted. Her attractiveness did not shine through, she was very modest and seemingly worked to conceal it. Her shyness had hindered her all her life, isolated her in school and prevented her from developing relationships. Calligraphy, gorgeous, dynamic calligraphy was only one of her many talents. Gifted as an artist and a musician, violin, she avoided recognition. Her family were Buddhists and they attended a rather large Buddhist sanctuary close by in the neighborhood. Sheila and another shy Japanese girl on piano played frequently as a duo and were stunningly beautiful in their presentations and expressions. The attending Buddhists from the community treasured them greatly and tried to encourage them to reach out with their talents and make something of them. But, to no avail. They were determined to hide their light under a bushel.

At the cafe, Sheila ran the cash register and acted as hostess. Many people in the community knew her and often remarked on how deeply attractive she was and yet she seemed to “not want to be.” She was gracious with a lovely smile and quite diplomatic. In general, people, especially neighborhood women, adored her.

At the local community college, she had excelled at calligraphy. It’s the kind of thing you find at a community college and it suited her perfectly. Kanji was something she knew quite well and she drew complex characters, but it was English letters where she really excelled. People would frequently do a double take when they looked at the menu. Frequently, they would think it was an artistic caricature of a menu and not the actual thing. Her father had to create a budget item for replacement of all the missing menus, but he didn’t mind. He was very proud of his daughter and her art. He had all but given up hope of prodding her out into the world at large but he secretly was glad she stayed so close to home even though he knew it was not best for her. He never called her “Sheila.”

Gaijin had stopped by the window every single day for two weeks now and she was finding herself more and more attracted to him. She had started changing the menu in little ways with different examples of calligraphic art every day and watched from her special angle as Gaijin studied the menus. Her father had noticed her behavior almost immediately and wondered about it. He said nothing about the daily menu reprint and studied it himself. He was completely amazed at the subtlety and elegance of her small changes. A small spark of hope appeared in his heart for his lovely daughter, but he did not know what to do about it.

Sheila came to know that she had to try to communicate with Gaijin, but she couldn’t just rush out of the cafe and accost him. Maybe she could invite him in to try the food, but that was just too bold. He was clearly interested in her calligraphy and she started to wonder about reaching out through her art. To that end, she developed a plan. A bit iffy, but if he caught on, he would definitely be interested in her. At the top of the menu, every day, she drew a single letter of her name, just one starting with “S” and progressing sequentially daily.

The next day when she placed the menu in the window, at the very top of the menu, centered, was a stunning “S” in calligraphy. The character was about twice as large as all the others and it seemed inexplicably significant. Only the author knew why it was there. Sheila was waiting in her usual place at 5:30 when Gaijin arrived right on schedule. He quickly displayed the slightest show of emotion or interest then resumed his study of the menu. Sheila watched his eyes. They returned to the “S” several times and she knew his curiosity was piqued.

The following day, she drew another lovely character at the top of the menu, an “h.” It was in the window waiting for Gaijin’s arrival, as was Sheila. Gaijin came. His right eyebrow lifted slightly.. He definitely noticed. His eyes returned to the “H” several times and Sheila was pleased. Now, will he put it together? What will happen tomorrow?

Tomorrow came with the attendant “e.” The menu placed carefully in the window, Sheila was waiting. Gaijin came. He saw the “e.” His lips moved almost into a smile, recognition was there and Sheila was pleased again. She didn’t realise that she was investing a great deal of emotion in this little game. Three days later, the final “a” was posted and Gaijin noticed it.

In fact, his lips actually moved. His mouth formed the word “Sheila.” He repeated it a few times and smiled. He looked for Sheila but she was standing just out of his line of sight, breathless and heart pounding. She was thrilled, but then, what? It struck her with a force that she had no plan. Gaijin had looked for her, didn’t see her and walked away. “Wait, that isn’t right. What am I going to do?”

When Gaijin returned the next day, the menu had another artistically drawn letter at the top of the page. It was a “T.” He smiled again and actually looked relieved. Looking around a little inside and, as usual, not seeing anyone who looked like the perpetrator, he left. Tomoe smiled and felt happy. But still, she had no game plan. “Tomoe” was also six letters, so she had five more days to figure out what to do, then the game would end. It would fall flat.

Fall flat it did. Tomoe crafted another letter each day for the next five days and Gaijin came every day. He read the letters and on the last day his face lit up uncharacteristically. Tomoe saw his beautiful, handsome smile and it almost broke her heart. The next day, the disappointed look on his face when he saw that there was no letter on the menu did break her heart. The following day, when he did not return, it really broke her heart. She slowly transformed to a very depressed young woman and she broke her father’s heart.

Gaijin did not return. She held out hope for a long time, moving to the window at 5:30 every evening and lingering just for a moment. But, no Gaijin. Life moved on. Sheila didn’t turn ugly or develop a sad expression, but her form lost life, her sparkle and radiant smile disappeared. She became dull and perfunctory and, well, hopeless and a year passed.

Tomoe faded away and Sheila carried on.

One late Spring day, a little more than a year after the last Gaijin visit had occurred, a sweet young Japanese girl appeared at the window around 5:30. She was so cute thought Sheila and Sheila watched her a little bit. The girl also noticed Sheila and smiled as she walked away. The next day, the girl returned. She stood reading the menu and smiling. When Sheila moved to the window, the girl looked at her, smiled and gave a little wave. It looked like she giggled and then she ran off.

She returned the following day, dressed in a super cute little girl’s dress, a lovely shade of pink with soft delicate flower petals. The girl was almost beyond cute thought Sheila as she moved to the window and saw her. Sheila was so moved by her young loveliness that she went outside. The young girl was slightly startled but looked at Sheila with a big smile. “Hi,” she said. Nervously, she asked, “Are you Sheila?” A huge look of surprise covered Sheila’s face and the girl turned and ran. “Wait, come back,” yelled Sheila, but the girl had disappeared around the corner.

Sheila was stunned and disappointed. She was also terribly curious. How had that young girl known her name? The girl was definitely not from the neighborhood, or, at least, she was new. What to make of this? Sheila had no idea, but Tomoe stirred.

The next day, the sweet young girl reappeared wearing the same dress. She stood at the window reading the menu with a card envelope in her hand. Her face seemed slightly wistful and amused, anticipatory. Tomoe had been waiting at the window for her and when she appeared, Tomoe waited for a minute or two, then ventured out.

“Hello,” said Tomoe. A big smile took its place on the little girl’s face as she turned and looked up at Tomoe. She seemed almost mischievous when she asked, “Are you Tomoe?”

Tomoe was so startled she let out a little squeak. Her face flushed and she stammered absolutely nothing. The little girl grinned and said, “Daddy said you were. He was right, wasn’t he?” She handed Tomoe the envelope. “Please open this.”

Tomoe almost fainted and was definitely breathless. She carefully opened the envelope and took out the card. It was a beautiful drawing of a tall, graceful, elegant tree standing at the head of small group of two or three similar, but smaller trees. Inside was a note in quite exquisite calligraphy. “Dear Tomoe, My wife passed away suddenly about a year ago. She left my daughter, Mika, and myself in great sorrow and grief. The tiniest bit of hope that I was able to cling to was the beauty and depth of your art. It’s been over a year and I hope it is not too late to reach out to you. I have seen you occasionally all this time but never had the nerve to speak with you or even appear to you. For me, I feel that it is time that we at least meet. So, I asked Mika to deliver this invitation to you to come home with Mika and join us for dinner. I hope you would like to do that.

Tomoe burst out in tears and Mika wrapped her arms around Tomoe’s legs. Tomoe’s father came rushing out of the restaurant in great alarm. He moved quickly to Tomoe and saw that Tomoe was crying profusely, but there was no sorrow or sadness or hurt in her face. He looked at the little girls and saw that she too was crying. Tomoe sobbed for a little bit then gained some semblance of composure. “Father, I am going over to Mika’s house for dinner. It should be very nice.

I’ll be home in a little while.” She took Mika’s hand and they started down the street with Tomoe’s father smiling in front of the cafe.