At first glance they looked like an old married couple, out for an afternoon walk and coffee at McDonald’s. Both were dressed in long gray coats and black rubber boots, both moved with slow, uncertain steps.

They parted at the door and the man, out of breath and clutching a pair of glasses mended with masking tape, found a table for them a few feet away from me. He sat clumsily down in the chair, then just as clumsily he struggled back up and tried the opposite seat. He repeated the maneuver once, then repeated it again with a dim look of confusion; for a moment it seemed he couldn’t help shuffling between the two places. When the woman came with their tray, he asked her where she wanted to sit.

“Where do you think?” she snapped, plopping herself into the open seat. They sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping their coffee, but suddenly the man began to rattle and sputter, wrapping his arms around himself in a desperate hug. I thought he was having a fit or a heart attack, but it was actually a long, loud, violent cough, which must have lasted over a minute. It sounded as if an animal were being tortured inside his chest. His face grew dark and teary, his glasses jumped to the floor, and he groped for them blindly among the discarded wrappers as the cough gradually wore itself down to a murmur.

“Are you feeling better now?” the woman asked quietly.

“I think so.”

In a little while he began to grin, and she asked him what was so funny.

“I think I’ve figured out how old you are,” he told her with a big smile.

She stared at him, her face taking on a wild look, shoulders hunched up, and she began to hiss, “How? How do you know how old I am? How dare you know how old I am!”

He reached into his pocket, unfolded a red and yellow piece of paper, and flattened it out on the table.

“I used this. You said you were a Taurus monkey, and I figured it out from this.”

“I’m not a Taurus monkey! I’m a Scorpio tiger, and I hate you doing this, do you understand that?”

The paper he had placed on the table looked like a place mat from a Chinese restaurant, the kind that illustrates people’s astrological signs.

“I thought you said you were a Taurus monkey.”

“That’s not what I said! You didn’t listen to me, you didn’t pay attention to a word I said, and now you’re twisting it around. Why do you care so much about how old I am? Can’t you leave me in peace? Why do you think about that so much?”

“I don’t know why I have the thoughts I have…”

“Will you please leave me some privacy. A woman has some rights, you don’t have to know everything about me.”

“I hardly know anything about you…”

“Why should I tell you anything when you’re just trying to infiltrate me. I don’t care how old I am and neither should you. I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell me. And I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell that other woman.”


“You know who. That Jane you’ve been making eyes at.”

He began to stammer, and with trembling hands folded up the paper and put it back in his pocket. Not a word followed for several minutes.

“My bed is awful to sleep in,” he finally offered.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I’m just changing the topic.”

“You just want to talk about yourself, that’s all.”

“Let’s talk about you.”

She stared at him angrily, but just as she was about to reply, he began his heavy, painful coughing again. She covered her ears with her hands until he finished.

“Are you ready?” she asked.


“Are you going to walk to the hospital?”

“I think so.”

“Why do you think you’re coughing so much?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t have any idea?”

“I don’t know.”

She clucked her tongue and gazed at him in annoyance.

“Maybe I’m dying,” he said.

“At least you’re alive to know it,” she answered.