Napkin Lady

I have been cleaning out some of my old files over the past few days, and I ran across this little character piece that I wrote some time ago.  I could think of no other use that I might have for it, and it seemed a good length for a post, so here it is, though I am not sure exactly what it is.  The events it describes, insignificant as they are, did actually occur, and I offer my apologies to the subject of the sketch in the unlikely event that she ever comes across it.

Napkin Lady

She sat at one of the small round cafe tables, her chair pulled closely under it. Her posture was fixed and upright, as if she were a concert pianist at her instrument, and she held before her, between her hands, an unfolded napkin, a plain white paper napkin with the logo of the cafe in one corner. It was the focus of all her concentration, seemed to be the subject, not only of her eyes and hands and mind, but of her whole poised and rigid body. She had grasped it firmly on each side and was pulling it taut with sharp little motions, firmly enough that the napkin made soft popping sounds with every pull, but gently enough that the paper did not tear.

After several minutes of this, in which time she had stretched the napkin perhaps a hundred times or more, she turned it once clockwise and resumed jerking it with the same controlled violence. When a similar time had passed, she turned the napkin again, repeating the process until she had been through every side at least twice.

Then, seemingly satisfied with her work, she laid the napkin gently on the tabletop, placing her feet firmly on the base of the table’s central leg so that it would not rock. With exaggerated care, she slowly smoothed the napkin with her fingers, brushing from its centre to each corner, rotating it clockwise with her other hand after every stroke. This motion she continued for several minutes, before turning the napkin over and repeating it for several more an the reverse side.

When the napkin had reached a state that seemingly satisfied her, she stopped abruptly. She lowered her face very close to the table and examined the napkin thoroughly, moving not her eyes only but her whole head methodically up and down across the white paper square in front of her.

Having completed her inspection, she returned to her previous posture, and began to fold the napkin with the exactitude of watch maker. She took the top right corner and drew it slowly toward the bottom left, matched them precisely, pinned the matched corners firmly to the table with her left thumb, then carefully pushed the doubled paper into a crease, first in its centre, then gradually out to its two corners.

She paused then, seemingly exhausted from her labour, but she retained her rigid posture still, and she examined the crease with concern, as if some crookedness might have escaped her care. She checked each of the corners particularly, ensuring that they were exact, that they had been perfectly matched, then began a second crease, bringing the two folded corners together and smoothing away from them, forming a perfectly quartered napkin.

Only once she had inspected the final crease to her satisfaction did her posture break, slumping back into the seat, as though her body was spent from its labour. Casually now, she put the plastic lid back on her paper coffee cup and inserted her stir stick into the hole in its centre. Picking the cup up with her left hand, she took her carefully folded napkin with her right, mopped with it the coffee rings and the doughnut crumbs in front of her, placed it exactly in the centre of the table, and stacked her coffee cup on top of it, before standing and leaving the cafe.

  1. That’s lovely to me. Perhaps my favourite sort of writing is trying to describe those characters who shouldn’t belong in real life, but somehow escape into it. I especially like the comparison with the concert pianist. I think this passage is the perfect beginning of a 26 volume epic work.

  2. Jordan,

    You may be right. The only proper subject for the great Canadian epic would be a lone, slightly neurotic customer at a coffee shop.

  3. That’s practically Matt Harrison right there. Maybe it was his mother you were watching.

    I feel like you have published this here before, or segments or a piece in similarity to it. Enjoyed ‘Controlled Violence’ alot.

  4. Curtis,

    I am sure that I never published that here, and I would have wagered that Dave Humphrey was the only one who saw a draft of it back in the day, but I could be wrong there.

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