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LAce Posted Monday, April 30th, 2007
The Narrows Cafe
Margot Miller

When customers come into The Narrows Cafe, Corrine puts away her book, washes her hands, and gets ready to fix them their food or a cup of coffee, pass the time of day. Life is slow here, but folks still come to get away from the clamoring din of Baltimore and the hot air of Washington D.C. The people who live here still operate on an internal clock that rises and falls with the tides.

The Bay Hundred is a thin place, a narrow strip of land along the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore, between the bay itself and the Choptank River. The Cafe sits on the Bay Hundred side of Knapp's Narrows, which is at the top of Tilghman Island and a place where the tide rushes between the bay and the river. "Rivers" in these parts are really only inlets of the bay and they're tidal, so they are not really rivers at all but cuts into the land made when the bay was formed. At the narrows, the current rushes eastward on the rising tide and tears back out on the drop.

A "Hundred" was the name for a place in colonial times big enough for one hundred fighting men, one militia unit. Tilghman Island is not as isolated as it once was, but it's still a long way from anywhere. Corrine grew up here, along with her brother and a boatload of cousins. She lives in the apartment above the cafe with her husband, Mike. They rent from Eddie Dilworth, who runs the bar and the marina on the other side of the cafe.

Mike is a waterman and a farmer, working in his daddy's and Corrine's daddy's fields. They got married after she took classes and got an A.A. degree up at Chesapeake College. Her daddy said that was a waste of time, but her mama was happy she did it, since she liked reading and all. With what she makes at the cafe, they're doing okay since there are so many trendy come-heres who buy espresso and lattes. Corrine's mama is deaf and she doesn't speak, except in sign language. She makes pies and croissants and muffins for the cafe. They sell a lot on the bakery side. Her mama makes the sandwiches, too, and Corrine does the coffee, the housekeeping, the books, and handles the register.

The family goes to church right here. Well, just across the bridge, in the village, and the church council meets at the cafe once a month on Monday nights. Last summer they were trying to get younger people interested in serving on the council and, since Corrine was always sort of at the meetings what with fixing them their coffee and serving them their pie, she allowed as to how she might be interested. They had a closed meeting about the election process and it was announced in church that they had picked Mike.

Corrine felt her face go red right there in church. She nudged Mike as they were walking out afterward, and in between people congratulating him, she asked, "Why didn't you tell them I was interested? You knew I'd told them. Why didn't you say I'd spoken up first?"

"They didn't ask me that." He glanced down at her. He's six-foot three.

"But you knew!" She looked at him but he was folding his program into a spiral and not looking at her at all.

"It's not my decision. They asked me." He took someone's hand and shook it. Smiled. Michael is kind of shy. He nodded his dark head of curls and took another proffered hand.

Corrine saw how proud he was in his eyes and his shoulders, with his chest filled out, but she was hurt.

"And you couldn't've said, 'I think you should ask Corrine. She's the one with the education and the interest'?"

Well, that did it. Reminding him he didn't go to college shattered a habit they had had, a tacit understanding that had carried them along. He didn't speak all during coffee hour and pushed to go home early. Corrine wasn't saying no. He sulked in front of the television, watching baseball all that afternoon, and she went for a walk. They stepped around each other like that for a few days, him acting as if it had never happened, and her working out how to let it go. It was Corrine's mama who brought her around. Well, it was watching her working in her measured way, her silent indifference to this small drama, transparent in the calm simplicity of her solitude, that made Corrine realize she'd best be getting back to whatever it was she was reading, if that's what she wanted to do, and her work and just leave it.

Corrine still serves coffee and dessert to the council on the nights they meet at the cafe and listens to what they're discussing. But last week she got a request to use the space for a yoga class on Monday nights. The cafe has a really nice hardwood floor and it was just redone in the fall. Corrine booked them from six-thirty to eight. The church council, she figured, can come in afterwards on their week, if they don't mind waiting, but they will have to put the chairs and tables back before they can sit down. That, or change to a different night.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Bonnie ZoBell on Monday, April 30th, 2007 at 10:06 AM
A narrow life, indeed. Nicely depicted, Margot. Scary. Bonnie

Posted by Nancy Corbett [ ] on Saturday, May 12th, 2007 at 8:14 AM
This story touched a nerve in me. It speaks a truth about women's place in society that I feel strongly needs to be told and worked by us women until we work our way through it.

Emily Dickenson's poem, The Soul Selects Her Own Society came to mind at the end of the story:

Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

I enjoyed the way you worked the language of the story, how you worked in the local vernacular, like here: she allowed as to how she might be interested. The language helped pull me closer to this strange, tidal world. Very nice piece all around.

Posted by Angela Nolan [ ] on Monday, May 28th, 2007 at 9:30 AM
This is fabulous, Margot. I love the end where Corrine decides to be just as indifferent to their needs/desires as they were to hers. Not revenge, just a nod that ok, she'll do it their way and though they probably won't like it too much - what difference is it to her really.

Posted by Roberta Gray [ ] on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011 at 4:03 PM
I read your archives all at once. They are all so grounded in truth that each one sounds as if it was your personal experience. I may like this best because while I know (I think I know) you weren't married to a waterman farmer, I know that you understand very clearly that no matter how suppressed we are, or how unfairly we may have been treated... or seem to be caving, or that sometimes we just seem to accept things... we each "have a way about us" that works quietly under the surface, to even things out. Corrine: quietly, not unkindly, but effectively. I've known her. I like her. Thank you!

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