painting by James Augsburger
Jim's favorite coffee shop was a short walk from his home. Since retiring five years ago he hardly missed a day there. The coffee shop catered to the college crowd. However, nonscholars frequented enough to keep the place real.
Since retirement, he engaged in a passion once held at bay for decades—painting. He last painted his first year of college and from that point on, he simply could not find the time. His career as a surgeon, husband, and father left little time for anything else. There were, of course, no regrets; after all, painting, though a passion, was not a priority.
Over the years, in reflective moments, he’d catch sight of something and mentally paint it. He must have stored away a thousand images but painted none.
Jim walked into the coffee shop. It was a cozy place. A variety of comfortable chairs and tables; a place for folks to meet and exchange thoughts, theories, concepts, and reminisce. Before reaching the counter, Henry, the manager had his coffee ready.
“Thanks, Henry,” Jim said and handed Henry two dollars. “Keep the change.”
“Have any of my paintings sold recently?” Jim said.
“Not since last month,” Henry smiled. He looked around to see if perhaps another had sold without his knowledge.
Jim also looked around to where four paintings remained hanging. “Perhaps I should just take them down and give them to friends. They seem to be doing no more than collecting dust.”
“I dust them, Henry said. “I’d hate to see them removed. Customers enjoy them.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Jim said. “I’m certainly not doing it for money, although there is a certain satisfaction in knowing somebody views them worthy of purchase.”
“By the way,” Henry said, “notice the man in the brown sweater.” He nodded to a man sitting at the front of the shop.
Jim glanced. “Yes, what about him?”
“He’s in here a little later than normal,” Henry said. “He’s usually one of our first customers. He sits in the same spot and looks at your painting all the time.”
“Coming here, I don’t doubt his taste in good coffee but to be that attracted to my painting, I doubt his taste for good art,” Jim smiled.
“You’re far too modest,” Henry said.
“You’re far too flattering,” Jim said. “Do you know who he is?”
“No,” Henry said, “but speaks with an accent. It may be German. It’s not heavy. I never ask him to repeat himself. Actually speaks better English than three-fourths of our customers. He’s polite and tips the same as you do.”
“Hmm, a big spender,” Jim quipped.
Jim sipped his coffee. “Very good coffee, as usual. I think I’ll introduce myself to the man. Perhaps he’d like to meet a modest artist.” Jim smiled and walked to the table where the man in the brown sweater sat.
“Hello,” Jim said to the man. “Allow me to introduce myself, I’m James Rupert. That is my painting above your table. The man at the counter, Henry, says you seem intrigued with my painting.”
The man leaned back and gazed at Jim. He smiled coyly. “James, I’m Wolfgang Broeger. Please, have a seat.”
They shook hands and Jim sat at the small table across from the Wolfgang.
“I retired from medicine a few years ago and started painting,” Jim said sensing something peculiarly familiar but unable to recall anything. “I brought my work in here; one reason, for people to enjoy and another reason, my wife said my paintings would clutter the house.”
“Wives,” Wolfgang grinned, “you can't live with them, you can't live with them.”
“She’s right,” Jim said. “What good are they unless someone at least looks at them."
"We are talking about the wives or paintings," Wolfgang smiled.
"I guess it could be both," Jim said to play along. "But paintings have a way of calming folks.”
“I’m a retired professor from the university,” Wolfgang said.
“What department?” Jim said.
“Economics,” Wolfgang said, “Eastern European Economics is what I taught. I started out in med school but it was too challenging. So I switched to something I better understood.”
“You’re from Eastern Europe?” Jim said.
“Austria,” Wolfgang said. “I came here in the eighties.”
“Does the painting remind you of Austria?” Jim said.
“Yes,” Wolfgang said.
“Good,” Jim said, “because it is a scene from the Austrian Alps. I was there many years ago.”
“Fascinating,” Wolfgang said, “I know the place you painted. That’s why I come in here and look at it.”
“You know it!” Jim said.
“Yes,” Wolfgang said, “in fact, the house in the painting belongs to my family. Of course, it no longer stands as it does in your painting. It has been replaced by a more modern home. It remains with my family. It belongs to my brother.”
“Are you sure?” Jim said.
“Absolutely,” Wolfgang said. “And what brought you to Austria?”
“After my first year in med school, a pharmaceutical company sponsored a retreat for some med students,” Jim said. “I was chosen to go to Austria. We met with some Austrian med students.”
“The summer of ‘71?” Wolfgang’s eyes widened and he leaned forward.
Jim sipped his coffee and curiously looked closely at Wolfgang. “Yes, the summer of ‘71. This is very strange.”
“That painting is from a position on top of a rock, no?” Wolfgang said.
“Yes,” Jim said.
“It was me and you on that rock together, no?” Wolfgang said. “So brief and so long ago.”
“Ten days,” Jim said, “we became such good friends.”
“And promised to keep in touch,” Wolfgang said.
“Yes,” Jim said with a slight tone of regret.
“But life is funny,” Wolfgang said. “So long ago and we meet here. It can’t be explained.”
I’m a physician,” Jim said. “My career was full of things that can’t be explained.”
Wolfgang laughed. “And economics can be explained.”
Both eased back in their chairs. They studied each other. They saw their faces young and slowly transform and age; twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and now.
“When things happen like this, what next?” Jim said.
“We enjoy it,” Wolfgang said. “It is a gift neither of us expected and those are the best gifts.”
“I think my morning coffees have somehow become more meaningful and interesting,” Jim said.