The bell dings.

He eases into the booth. Jesus. Another one with a cold. Hannah greets our sniffling guest.

–– One for you?

–– That’d be great. Thanks.

She walks away. The limp happened in the first riot. Tragic day.

–– The coffee here is absolutely sublime. You’ll enjoy it.

Any opportunity to spread the brilliance of our little town. Our tragic, triumphant little town.

He exchanges the usual pleasantries. Thank you for agreeing to this. Such a tragedy what happened to this town. Yes, yes.

Hannah sets the coffee before him. He takes it with two sugars and milk. Two plops. Just can’t understand why one would besmirch perfection like that.

–– The usual, Max?

–– Just another coffee please, Hannah.

The sound of coffee being poured is so wonderful, isn’t it? Like a caffeinated waterfall.

Our guest flips through the menu.

–– You know, I’ve heard great things about the noodles in this town. I’ll take a bowl of them.

––They are quite good.

–– One bowl of noodles. Got it. You sure Max? Nothing for you?

–– Not at the moment, thank you.

He glugs his coffee and finishes with a self-satisfied capper, a smack and an ahhh. Coffee is meant to be savored, not sucked in like a penny into a vacuum.

–– This is good. Damn good. Wow.

–– Hannah’s the best.

–– Tastes like it.

He wipes his mouth. The napkin edges rough over his chapped lips. He coughs. A sniffle. Should really take care of that. Lazy boy.

–– Two Tylenol Cold every three hours will clear that right up. Awful weather for a cold.

He smirks, a small laugh comes through. A cold is a serious affliction. Spreadable. A virus. No laughing matter.

–– You mind?

–– Please, go right ahead.

He coughs. Again. The click of a button. The recorder whirrs that unmistakable sound of analog recollection.

–– Things are really going well here. I wasn’t expecting that so… soon.

–– We’ve endured a lot, but we’re a strong community.  We care for one another.

–– I can see that. You were… someone the people of this town saw something in. It was rebuilt. You were elected mayor…

–– In a landslide. Yes. It’s like the saying, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” But I’m no king. I simply gave them the strength to do it. I told them they could do it. And they believed it. They put it into action and rebuilt their lives and adapted to their new normal. I guided as best I could. It was them. Which paper are you from again? I speak with so many.

–– The Sentinel. The blindness wasn’t immediate was it?

–– For some. Yes, for some it took hold right away. The Sentinel? Haven’t I spoken to you before? You seem familiar.

–– I don’t think so. This is my first time here. You’re my first interview, actually.

They send a sniffling greenhorn to talk with me?

–– Really? An honor, I’m sure. Where was I?

–– The blindness that took over the town. It wasn’t immediate, correct?

–– Yes, yes. Correct. For some it was. For others, it was gradual. A week, maybe less. But no more. It never got to me. I don’t know why. Perhaps the grace of God? Maybe this was my calling, my true purpose.

He shifts. He’s uncomfortable. He’s landed in this town of blind small-town bumpkins clinging to their religion in times of tragedy. A biblical epidemic of blindness. Wouldn’t you cling to something? To anything? A story of survival against all odds pulled through by the grace of God. Everyone loves those stories. Especially those that would call us small-town bumpkins.

–– How did the people cope?

–– What do you mean?

–– They went through so much. Such a sudden shock. How did they deal with that?

–– Each person dealt with it — and deals with it differently.

–– Maybe I should talk to them.

–– I don’t know about that. Is this really pertinent to your story?

–– I’m sorry. I have a friend who survived a terrible accident, and I’m hoping that by talking with you and seeing this town that I can offer him some form of solace.

–– I see. What happened to your friend?

–– A car accident. Terrible, really. His wife was killed. His dog. He was broken. Blinded. He blamed himself.

–– A tragedy. You can never get over it, but you can overcome it. I see people do it every day. They thrive in the face of adversity, even without their sight.

–– Wow. Yeah. I never thought of it that way.

–– Was it his fault?

–– No. But he was never the same. He retreated from life. He hid inside himself.

–– I see. I’m terribly sorry to hear about that. I hope we can give you the empathy you need to help him overcome his affliction.

Why would you interview someone for a renowned publication and turn it into a psychiatry session for yourself? Selfish shit. Sniffling all the time. Why do reporters all have colds? They don’t take of themselves. Clearly.

–– Why do you hide your face?

Ah yes. That. They always love this.

–– Because I want the outside world to see me as they do, a voice, guiding them. I want them to understand what we survived. What we endured. My mask is a way of letting you out there never forget.

–– That’s great. Really is. Our readers will really respond to that.

Another sniffle and cough. Good God man, take care of that. There’s a napkin right in front of you. Place it to your nose. Blow. Not difficult. Don’t want another cold, especially this time of year. Summer colds are the worst.

Hannah sets the bowl on the table. The aroma of the broth is sublime. Pity he can’t smell it with all that stuck up there. You do know that smell is integral to taste, yes? He schlurps. Again.

–– You know, the noodles really are fantastic. Hasn’t changed a bit. Remember how we used to eat these as kids, Max?

Pardon?

–– Pardon?

–– Nothing, nothing. Just brought back memories. Grew up in a town just like this. Where were we?

–– Your readers will really respond to that.

The coffee’s getting cold.

–– Right, right. The mask. Did you start wearing it right after that day?

–– I had to assemble it. Piece by piece. But slowly, it came together, just as the town came together.

–– So it’s like one of those quilts?

–– Precisely. Just like one of those quilts. We have an amazing sewing group out here, you know. They meet every Thursday. Remarkable their triumph over adversity. Like nothing happened.

–– Like nothing happened.

He twists his fork into noodles, screeching against the side of the bowl.

––  This is really great stuff. Thank you. I have just one last question. Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you’d like to mention?

My favorite. Even the idiots ask that one. Then again, they all sound alike. Human interest, blah blah. Triumph, blah, blah. Coping, blah blah.

–– No, no. I think we covered everything. I just want to remind everyone that you can do anything you set your mind to. Look at us. Look at this town. Did we cower when things got rough? When the epidemic hit? No. We grew stronger, more resolute. We will survive. And we will thrive.

–– Wow. That’s perfect. That’s fantastic. Thank you.

–– Of course. It’s my pleasure.

He turns off the tape recorder. He shakes my hand. His palms are moist. Must be the coffee. They always brew it hot (almost too hot sometimes). He and Hannah whisper. She’s not happy. You can bet that the sniffler tried to stiff her (like that? Ha). Happens all the time. He sniffles again. Jesus. They think just because someone is in a position of power that they have all the cash. He’s your brother, try again, she says. Yes, we’re all brothers in this, aren’t we, Hannah? He whispers something.

Oh really? I can see more than you can, dear boy. I can see more than they can. I always have. I always will.

Hm.

The bell dings.

He eases into the booth. Jesus. Another one with a cold. Hannah greets our guest.

–– One for you?

–– Perfect. Thanks.

She walks away. The limp happened in the second riot. Tragic day.

–– The coffee here is absolutely sublime.