It was an uncharacteristically warm day in the midst of a harsh Chicago winter. The skies were clear, and the sun was beaming as brightly as it could. Though the relative comfort would certainly give way to the harsh cold of the evening, for the moment Abraham was thrilled. He hoped the warm afternoon would find Zoe in good spirits.
Abraham knew he was getting ahead of himself, but as Zoe approached him outside of Gulliver’s Pizzeria, he thought, “She could be the one.” Certainly, she was very pretty, and that was undoubtedly a factor in his wanting to pursue her. She wore a pansy-purple top coat over a simple black dress. That, along with her slender-but-curvy-in-the-right-places build and pixie cut made her almost an echo of Audrey Hepburn. More than just pretty, she was smart and had a magnetic personality. The moment she walked into his cafe, he saw her potential.
He didn’t say any of this, of course. He simply smiled, introduced himself, and opened the door for her as they entered the restaurant. For his part, Abraham was a very attractive man, perfectly fitting the mold of tall, dark, and handsome. He knew that a significant number of the customers in his cafe —men and women — were there because of him. They would smile at him, gently prod with unobtrusive questions, and ultimately leave unfulfilled. He imagined that many men in his position would have been very happy. That wasn’t what Abraham was about.
“Abraham and Zoe,” she mused while entering the restaurant’s vestibule, “We’re the beginning and end of a naming dictionary.”
Abraham smiled and fought the urge to point out that the more likely names to appear at the ends of a naming dictionary were Aaron and Zykela, because that was a thing that he did that people did not like. Instead, he just walked in behind her. Without any effort, he quickly moved to open the door to the restaurant proper for her. Zoe came to an immediate halt as she left the establishment’s vestibule.
Nearly every inch of every wall was covered in art. Paintings, sculptures, vases, and any number of other art pieces were tightly packed onto the restaurant’s walls. A plethora of chandeliers ran across the ceiling.
“Dude,” she mused. “It’s like my gramma decorated this place.”
“Everything in here is an antique,” Abraham explained. “Well, everything on the walls. I imagine most of the furniture doesn’t qualify yet.”
“And the staff,” Zoe mused. She beamed as she looked at the ceiling. “Wow. The electric bill for this place must be through the roof.”
The night’s hostess, a chubby young college student with curly brown hair, chimed in from behind, “It’s a closely guarded secret.” Startled, Zoe put a hand to her chest and took in a deep breath. The hostess cringed. “Sorry.”
“No harm done,” Zoe returned.
“Just the two of you tonight?”
“Yes,” Abraham confirmed. “Where do we get the best view?”
“Oh, it’s all good, but my favorite table is open if you want it.” The hostess grinned.
“We’ll take it,” Abraham said. He and Zoe followed her to one of the restaurant’s dining rooms, where she seated them in a wooden booth under what looked like a Tiffany lamp. An art nouveau bust of a beautiful woman rested on a small shelf and protruded a few inches over the table. The booth itself was incredibly tall and made entirely of stained wood. Abraham took Zoe’s jacket. She sat down, the back of the booth looming over her and making her seem tiny in comparison.
Abraham hung up Zoe’s jacket on a coat hook on the end of the booth, along with his. He turned to the hostess. “Is this really your favorite table, or is that just something you say to everyone?”
The hostess smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Another closely guarded secret.” She placed two menus on the table and left the couple to themselves.
Zoe flipped through the pages of her menu for a moment before asking, “Did you just want to order a pizza?”
“If you like,” Abraham said, “it’s very good here.” He shrugged. “Everything’s good here. Would you prefer something else?”
“Nah, a stuffed pizza sounds good after the day I’ve had.” She stopped short. “Sorry. I know it’s a faux paux to complain on a first date.” She looked away for a moment, searching for something to talk about that wasn’t work.
The moment was mercifully interrupted by their waiter. He was a rail-thin man in his early thirties, somehow tanned in the middle of a Chicago winter. He wore a black apron over a white dress shirt and black slacks. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Roger, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.”
“Hey, Roger,” Zoe said.
“Are you ready to order?”
“We’ll have a medium stuffed crust,” Abraham began, then paused. He looked at Zoe. “What do you like on your pizza?”
“Spinach and mushrooms,” she said.
“A medium stuffed crust with spinach and mushrooms,” Abraham said.
Roger jotted down the order on a small pad in his hand. “Excellent. Anything else? Appetizers? Drinks?”
“A Sprite,” Abraham said.
“Just water for me,” Zoe added.
Roger placed his note pad in an apron pocket, then took the menus from the table. “I’ll be back with your drinks in a moment.” With that, he left the pair alone.
“So,” Abraham began, “Rough day?”
Zoe sighed. “Yes, but it’s okay. I won’t bore you with the details.”
“Oh, please do. Bore away.” Abraham leaned back as best he could against the tall, stiff back of the booth. He looked pathetic and knew it, but it made Zoe smirk, so it was worth the discomfort.
“Well,” she began, “I’m a social worker at a school for kids with behavioral and emotional problems. We had an incident the other day where a parent hit their kid on school property, and it’s turning into a huge legal thing. My days off are now filled with writing up statements and being grilled about the event.” She sighed. “I probably shouldn’t even be talking about it. Not that I think you’d get me in trouble. Just…” She trailed off.
As if sensing the perfect moment to interrupt the discussion, Roger returned with their drinks. He placed the glasses, frosted and about to perspire, on the table, then put two straws in the middle of the table. “Pizza should be up in about half an hour,” he said. “Can I do anything for you in the meantime?”
Abraham glanced at Zoe and raised an eyebrow, turning the question to her. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “We’re good,” he said. Roger left. “So. Rough day at an already taxing job. You carry a lot of weight on your shoulders.”
“I suppose. Someone has to do it. Or, at least try to.”
“It’s still commendable. Not everyone can deal with such frustration.”
Zoe shrugged. “If it’s all the same, I’d prefer not to talk about it.”
“Sure. Got something else in mind?”
Zoe scrunched up her lips to one side and looked away. “Hmm. Did you catch the Walking Dead last week?”
Abraham’s lips twisted in a sheepish grin. “I don’t watch a lot of TV,” he admitted.
“Oh, no. Are you one of them?”
“One of who?”
Zoe paused for a moment and let Abraham stew. “Those people who don’t own TVs.” She leaned in. “A reader.”
Abraham barked out a quick laugh. “I do enjoy a good book,” he admitted, “but I own a television. I just don’t watch it much.”
“What do you watch?”
Abraham pondered this for a moment. “I suppose my favorite show is The Twilight Zone, but there hasn’t been a new episode in years. I really liked The Wire…” He trailed off.
“But nothing recent.”
“I hear Breaking Bad was good.”
“What about film?”
Abraham lit up. “Love it. I just saw Her. It was fascinating.”
“Really? I didn’t care for it.”
“Yeah. I mean, it was competent and everything. I just found the idea of people falling in love with an AI to be kind of silly.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t get it. Everyone else seems to have loved it.”
“Well, you’re certainly entitled to your own opinion.” Abraham smiled and raised an eyebrow. “As wrong as it may be.”
Zoe scoffed. “Well, what about some other recent stuff? Gravity? Catching Fire? Wolf of Wall Street?”
“Haven’t seen ‘em. I’d like to, but running the cafe keeps me pretty busy.”
“Okay. Fair enough. What’s you’re favorite part of running the cafe?”
“Oh, meeting people. Without a doubt. You never know who will walk through your doors. A doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, the future president of the United States… Pretty much everyone drinks coffee.”
“Do you ever worry about competition?”
“Not really. I make enough to keep the store afloat, and I never wanted to be super-busy. I’m not that ambitious.”
“You run a business. You’re at least more ambitious than most.”
Abraham shrugged. “I keep busy, I pay my bills, I meet cool people. That’s all I want from life. The cafe is a means to an end.”
“What about all the paperwork and legal stuff? Isn’t that a hassle?”
“I pay someone to handle that. I keep all my receipts, and log what I am told to in a bunch of spreadsheets. It’s not as much work as you’d think, once you have a system.”
Zoe raised an eyebrow. “Makes sense. It’s just you hear all these people complain about how hard it is to run a business…”
Abraham dismissed her comment with a wave of his hand. “It’s still work. People who complain about having to work are actually complaining about having to work at all. That’s my philosophy, anyway. People who actually work are too busy working to complain about it.”
“I think I follow you. But you don’t think people who are unhappy at work should complain?”
“Well, I didn’t say that. You can be unhappy with your life, especially if your job isn’t something you want. But that’s not a complaint about having to work, it’s a complaint about not doing the work you want.”
“You don’t agree?”
“I don’t know. I get what you’re saying. My career turned out to be very different from what I thought it might be.” Zoe took a straw from the table and slipped it into her water. She took a long sip. “It’s important work, I know, but lately it seems like parents just think schools are a babysitting service. No one trusts me to do my job, let alone respects what I do. At least the kids have an excuse…” She stirred the straw in her glass.
Abraham shook his head. “Everyone complains about how bad the school systems in this country have become.”
“They’re a mess. Education is essential, and we’re dropping the ball in so many ways.”
“So why don’t you do something about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. You see there’s a problem. What’s the solution?”
Zoe sulked. “How do you change the whole world? The failures come from multiple fronts.” She raised a hand and counted off on her fingers as she spoke. “Teachers get jaded. Unions keep bad teachers employed. Administration is more worried about politics than education. Parents don’t want to take responsibility for their kids, or make their kids take any responsibility for their actions. Politicians are more worried about the election cycle than anything past it. The list goes on.”
“The journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “Oh, please.”
“Sure. But this is more complicated than that.”
“The whole education system? Sure. But you can pick one problem to focus on and go from there.”
“I can’t fix it. That’s not who I am.”
“You’d be surprised what you can accomplish if you set your mind to it,” Abraham pressed. “I think you’d achieve more than you think.”
“That’s sweet of you to say, but you don’t know me that well.”
Abraham smiled. “I’m really good at sizing people up.”
Zoe sighed. “Can we drop it, please?”
The pair sat in silence for a moment. It felt like hours.
Quietly, Zoe said, “I don’t think social work was my calling.”
Abraham did his best to keep his disappointment hidden. Moment by moment, Zoe was proving she wasn’t what he was looking for. “Oh?”
“I’m kind of stuck. Whatever I do, I’d have to start over from scratch. I’d have to make less money. Still, I think about moving on. I don’t know how much longer I can take my job. It just wears you down.”
“So, you’d leave if the opportunity presented itself?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“What do you want to do instead?”
“I don’t know. Is there a job where you can sit at home all day and watch TV for the rest of your life?”
“You don’t think you’d get bored with that?”
Zoe shrugged. “Eventually, maybe.”
Roger approached the table with two plates in one hand and a pan held with a pair of tongs in the other. He placed the plates on the table, then put the pan on the table between Abraham and Zoe. “Here we are,” he began. He extracted a pie server from his apron and sliced two wedges from the deep dish pizza resting in the pan. He placed one slice on each plate, and placed them before the diners. “Anything else I can get for you?”
“Nothing for me,” Abraham replied.
“A Diet Coke,” Zoe said.
The duo silently unrolled their silverware from the napkins that sheathed them and prepared to eat. Roger returned with Zoe’s drink. “Enjoy,” he said, before leaving the two to their meal. They each took a knife and fork and cut through thick layers of tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, mozzarella, and finally a flaky crust.
After a few bites, Zoe broke the silence. “This is really good.”
Abraham smiled. “One of my favorite restaurants in the city.”
Still chewing, Zoe carefully squeezed out, “I can see why.” She swallowed the gooey conglomeration in her mouth and drank deeply from her soda. “So, Mister Let’s-save-the-world, if you could do anything, what would you do?”
Abraham rolled his hand to signal he had something to say but didn’t want to speak until he’d finished chewing. After gulping down a large bite, he took a sip of his drink. “I know it’s going to sound like I’m ass-kissing, but education would be pretty high on my list. Though I think the biggest thing humanity needs to work on is probably empathy. People are quick to destroy what they don’t understand, and that includes other humans.”
“And how would you fix it?” Zoe sliced a long strip from her pizza and then cut that strip into bite-sized portions. She brought one to her lips and waited for her date’s reply, savoring it as it melted in her mouth.
“Start small. Find a community, find a leader, bring the two together, and build from that point.”
“Pretty vague, Abe.”
“Hey, I didn’t ask you for a step-by-step. Like I said: one step at a time. Find a group of like-minded people, get them talking. Bring in a few more. Find people who disagree, figure out why, compromise to bring accord. Repeat.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“The concept is. People have worked that way for centuries. Longer.” He sliced off a piece of his pizza and raised it to his lips. Before placing it in his mouth, he said, “Ideas are easy, bringing them to fruition is difficult.”
“So, why don’t you do that? Why don’t you get together a group of like-minded people and save the world, one step at a time?” Zoe, near the end of her first slice, put down her silverware and lifted the crust to her mouth. She took a big bite.
“How do you know I’m not?”
“Wouldn’t I have heard of you if that were the case?”
“Maybe we’re just not there yet.” Abraham stuffed the remainder of his pizza into his mouth and chewed vigorously.
“You know what’s another important skill a good social worker has? A strong bullshit detector.”
Abraham attempted to hurriedly swallow the large chunk of pizza he’d bitten off, but it got caught in his through. He coughed, still holding the chewed mass in his mouth, and then carefully gulped. “You think I’m messing with you?”
“I think you believe what you’re saying. Which might be even more troubling. Everyone lies to themselves a little, but I think you might go too far with it. Some people would probably find it sweet. I just think it’s kind of sad.”
“Well, at least you’re not lying to me, I guess.”
“Why not be honest? This date didn’t go as well as either one of us hoped it might.”
“True. I guess the only thing left is to ask if you want to take the leftovers.”
“Nah. It was good, but if I have any more I’ll need to spend half the day at the gym.”
“I appreciate you being direct,” Abraham said. He saw Roger in the distance and waved to him. Roger approached them. “Check, please,” Abraham requested. “And a box for the pizza.”
Zoe stood up and put on her coat. “You’re a nice guy, Abraham. I hope you find what you’re looking for. Don’t be so hard on the next girl.” She smiled and waved goodbye to him before turning to walk away.
Abraham was flabbergasted. It was hard not to be. Usually the person across the table was trying so hard to impress him, it was a breath of fresh air to sit and talk with someone so direct. True, she was not what he was looking for. He lamented this for a moment as he waited for Roger to bring his check and pack the remainder of his meal.
After settling his bill, Abraham put on his jacket, picked up his leftovers, and walked out of the restaurant. The sun was still out. He waited at the bus stop just outside for the Pace 215, and rode it to the end of its route. From there, he caught the CTA Red Line train. He stared out of the window the entire trip, forlorn. He felt like he was so close. Zoe seemed like she was just what he was looking for. She wasn’t, obviously, but the feeling of her being right had not yet left him.
The pizza, still warm, slowly heated his lap. Had the ride been longer, he might have had to move it. He arrived at the Lawrence stop in just shy of twenty minutes. He headed to the stairs that led away from the elevated platform and down to the street below. He headed west, into the setting sun.
From behind him, a syrupy-sweet voiced young woman spoke. “You going for a record, Abraham?”
He knew her voice without having to turn and face her. Anastasia. “On your way to the meeting, Stace?”
“Of course.” Anastasia caught up with him and locked an arm in his. His shoulder being too tall for her to reach, she leaned her head against his arm. “Don’t take it so hard. The right one will come along when you least expect it.”
“I know. I’m just impatient.”
“No one else in the group has found their matches yet. Don’t worry.” She suddenly noticed the pizza in his hands and smiled. “Oooh. Food for the meeting?”
“Yeah, leftovers. We made it two slices in.”
“Geez, you really are going for a record.” She unlocked her arm and took the box from him. She lifted the lid. “What’s on it?”
“Spinach and mushrooms.”
Anastasia wrinkled her face and closed the lid. “Never mind.” She thrust the box back into Abraham’s hands. He laughed. “There’s the Abe I know,” she added, bumping him with her shoulder. “Don’t worry. Things will work out, eventually.”
The pair strolled for a few more blocks before coming to an abandoned storefront. Anastasia drew a key from her purse and opened the door for Abraham. “Age before beauty,” she said as he walked past. Abraham rolled his eyes and continued on his way.
In the empty store’s back room, a circle of thirteen chairs were arranged in a circle. On a table to one side was a coffee decanter, a samovar, and a pile of leftovers. Abraham added his pizza box to the collection. An old man with short, curly grey hair was already digging through the stack, pulling a half club sandwich from a styrofoam container. Upon glancing at Abraham’s addition, he immediately stuffed his selection back into its carton and reached for the pizza.
He smiled as he opened the box. “Deep dish, wonderful.”
“Save some for everyone else, Andy,” Abraham warned.
Androbulos looked hurt. “I am only taking one slice, Abraham.”
Abraham sighed. “I was joking.” He patted the old man on the shoulder and poured himself a cup of coffee before taking a seat. Slowly, other people entered the room, perused the table, and took their own places in the circle. When all thirteen chairs were filled, a middle-aged woman in a sun dress stood up and smiled.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” she began. “Does anyone have any good news to share?” The room remained silent. “That’s too bad, but it’s okay.” She turned to her left. “David, why don’t you begin?”
The woman took her seat, and an obsidian-skinned young man stood. “My prospect was named Corrine,” he said, “she was a police officer who helped plan neighborhood watch meetings and volunteered at a local women’s shelter. She was incredibly driven and strong-willed, but there was a lingering anger in her that would have been a liability.”
David sat down. Beside him, a woman in her mid-twenties stood. “My prospect was named Julie. She was a socialite who dedicated her time to pursuing clean water initiatives across the world. Though she was kind, she was also misguided and her sheltered upbringing made her incapable of understanding the realities of the world.” She sat down.
Each person in the circle stood and told their story in turn until they reached Abraham. When the person to his right sat down, he stood. “My prospect was named Zoe. She was a social worker for children with behavioral difficulties. She realizes the injustices of the world, but her heart has grown hard to them, and she has given up on many of her ideals.” He sat down.
Anastasia stood. “My prospect was Phillip. He was a motivational speaker who believed in everything he said. Unfortunately, he believed more in his own importance than anything else.”
To Anastasia’s left was the meeting organizer. She remained seated after Anastasia sat down. “Our goal is not a simple one. Our mission is not one to be taken lightly. And though we continue to struggle, it is only because things truly worth doing are always difficult. One day, we will all find the person we need to, and the world will be better for it.” She smiled. “I’ll see you all next week.”
Abraham stood up and headed for the door. Androbulos grabbed his arm. “Abe.”
Abraham turned around. “Yeah?”
“I can tell you really had your heart set on this one,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
Abraham forced a smile. “Thanks.”
“Maybe next time, eh? There’s always next time. For us, more than anyone else.”
Abraham signed. “The search has gone on for almost two thousand years, Andy. Sometimes I think it’s a lost cause.”
“We were too anxious last time. We acted prematurely, and it cost them dearly. This time, we must be cautious and sure. There won’t be a time after this one. We have to do it right.” Androbulos patted his shoulder. “See you next week.”
Anastasia and David stood by the exit, waiting for Abraham. “Come on, Abe,” David said. “I’ll buy you a drink. Stacy says a wonderful new band is playing at the Empty Bottle.”
Abraham shrugged. “How could I say no to that?”
“Exactly.” Anastasia shooed them out the door before turning off the lights and leaving herself.